Saturday, 23 February 2019

REVIEW: Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn

The ensemble cast of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play play
a company of actors re-telling The Simpson's "Cape Feare"
Photo: Sarah Walker
How well do remember the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob gets out of jail and tries to murder Bart? If you needed to tell the story, could you? Do you remember any of the jokes or set-pieces? How about the film references contained within?


In the first act of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a group of survivors in a post-Apocalyptic America gather together around a fire, trying to remember the details of “Cape Feare”, the second episode of the fifth season of The Simpsons, which first aired in 1993 and has been replayed thousands of times since.

The grid is offline, nuclear power-plants have melted down, and in the weeks and months after this world-wide disaster, people are telling stories to pass the time and to connect with each other. This is and isn’t people telling ghost stories around a fire; the details are important, and this TV show is haunting them.

Telling stories and passing them on is a recurring trope in fiction about the end of the world. Beyond survival, people want to remember the world that has come before and recount the stories they remember from childhood. But in the early twenty-first century, we aren’t trying to piece together The Odyssey or a childhood tale like The Faraway Tree, we are putting pop culture back together and resurrecting the seminal work of Matt Groening.

“Cape Feare” is itself a parody of the 1991 film Cape Fear, which is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name – based on the novel The Executioners by John D. Macdonald. And this episode doesn’t just reference this lineage, it sketches in nods to another film starring Robert Mitchum (lead actor in the original and a cameo in the 1991 film), Night of the Hunter.

The survivors are trying to piece together an episode of television that is already pieces of other broken narratives. The world has ended and nothing quite fits together anymore. And even as they have established a routine and precautions, these people are on edge – who knows the loyalties of other survivors when they approach their camp. As fun as references to The Simpsons are, there is a palpable dread by the firelight.

Lightning Jar Theatre have a reputation for solid productions of recent plays that might not find their way onto Melbourne’s main stages. After Stupid Fucking Bird and Venus in Furs, they have turned their focus to a meta-theatrical wonder that is about storytelling and inheritance; about culture and cultural capital. It’s a gem of a play by Anne Washburn.

Act one meets your expectations; this is a kind of story-telling comfort food. Washburn picks a show many of us know and an episode that is considered a classic. As Matt (Dylan Watson) tries his best to re-enact something most of us are vaguely familiar with, we’re with these characters around a campfire – a classic storytelling setting – but it’s a fire in a barrel, which is a touchstone image for the end-of-the-world.

As you might expect from The Stand or The Walking Dead, an approaching stranger is the key narrative driver in this first scene. Does he bring salvation or death? Does he bring news of the rest of the world or the Sideshow Bob punchline that Matt has been looking for?

Act two is seven years later and stories are things to trade and sell. The survivors are now a theatre company. Yes, The Simpsons episodes are the headline act, but there’s also a kick-arse montage of music-video moves – and ads trying to sell the hope that you might find a can of Diet Coke out there somewhere.

Here Emma Choy’s Colleen is in charge as the director of the ensemble. She’s struggling with how to build frivolous entertainment in a world where everything has portent and meaning. Years after the fall of civilisation, is it time for people to start wanting things again? Petty jealousies are starting to spring up and this feels much like the world getting back on its feet, but darkness still lurks at the fringes.

Act three is much further into the future and the theatre is transformed into something otherworldly. As the survivors become more and more disconnected from the earth that was, the snippets of story and memory, dream and music video are mashed-up to a point where characters take on the mantle of the iconic and the sacred.

In this post-electric world, the central form of dramatic art becomes theatre again. With film and television gone, people are telling stories in the only ways they can; each act adding more and more theatrical devices to the mix.

Under the superb direction of John Kachoyan, Mr Burns is a celebration of theatre itself – and watching the evolution of that throughout the production is quite stunning. There’s an assured focus in act one, warmly and effectively lit by Richard Vabre. Dylan Watson’s Matt is strong as the central figure here, the other survivors supporting him as he tells a story they’ve seen and heard before.

Act two’s rolling sets by Sophie Woodward bring us into the world of repertory theatre, her costumes alluding to The Simpsons but faded because of memory and twisted due to post-Apocalyptic budget restraints. Julie Grenda’s choreography takes centre stage late in the piece, showcasing dance moves that will outlive us all.

Lightning Jar’s ensemble of actors impresses in a section that is more animated and comical than the first. Victory Ndukwe’s quiet restraint in act one gives way to moments of hilarity here. Mark Yeates brings the kind of cackling joy you expect from Sideshow Bob. But Emma Choy is the standout here – giving us a real sense of trying to keep things together, even as she doesn’t understand how these plays fit into the world anymore.

While the cast is strong overall, though some of their American accents are shaky, especially early on. Perhaps they relaxed into it, maybe my ears did, but it was a pity this was such a problem. I often think that eschewing accents is better than bad ones, but for this particular play it might have presented other problems if we’d heard these lines in ‘Strayan.

I felt the length of the play a couple of times; the long transition into act two made it feel like the show was starting again once the lights were back up. And while the third act is striking visually, and the threads do draw together neatly, it doesn’t reach the apotheosis the script is aiming for. The play evolves into a musical, but the production doesn’t quite nail all the required elements – though Woodward’s costumes are stunning.

Andrew Patterson’s musical direction is wonderful, but some of the actors struggle with the songs. I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics – which is not a problem I had with dialogue earlier in the show.

There are a lot of great ideas in Washburn’s play and it’s a striking story about telling stories. Lightning Jar Theatre’s production might be a little rough around the edges, but when it works, it works – I just wish I had engaged with it more after interval. I’d heard a lot of great things about this play from when it was produced in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney. I guess sometimes hearing tales of how great something is over and over might set expectations too high.

But sometimes you have to see that story told for yourself, because hearing about it is not enough.


Sunday, 10 February 2019

REVIEW: Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow

Marcus McKenzie & Olivia Monticciolo in Sweet Phoebe
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Frazer and Helen are a middle-class married couple with A-type personalities who do everything a thousand percent. They are in complete control of their burgeoning design careers and their marriage is solid. They check in with each other, they are supportive and attentive. And they set aside time for sex. Everything in their life is moving like clockwork.

When their friends, who are off to a retreat for a week for couples counselling, ask Frazer and Helen to look after their dog, Phoebe, Helen says yes, to Frazer’s annoyance. But soon enough, Frazer and Helen have bonded over how great their marriage is, how sad they are for their friends – and Phoebe becomes another goal, another routine to tick off their list of daily accomplishments.

Everything is going well until Phoebe gets out and runs away.

Michael Gow’s play is twenty-five years old and is definitely a period piece, which Red Stitch’s new production embraces. Not that it’s embarrassing early 90s clothing, but it does drop the characters into a minimalist set of black marble with a bright red feature arch. The cluster of neon on the corner feels like a leftover piece of the 80s, but that’s what the early 90s was.

Previous productions I have seen have tried to make Frazer and Helen likeable at the start, before Phoebe goes missing – and it’s after that you are left to figure out how long to feel sorry for them. Director Mark Wilson’s take on the text is far darker; he has no sympathy for these people, whose all-consuming passion for work is what makes them unable to look after a dog or each other.

Laura Jean Hawkins’ set is a black void, with cuts of red and sharp edges. This home is cold, austere, uncomfortable. When Frazer brings Helen a vintage “Bless This House” sign, it’s a literal sign of warmth that is only there to be destroyed. Laura Mibus’ lighting design is intuitive and particular; a spot finds Helen’s classic moment of triumph, but colder boxes of light isolate Frazer during his loss of control late in the play.

The performances by Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo are so full-on that it’s hard to find any sympathy for them as life spirals out of control. But the further into the story we plow, the more fascinating these portrayals were. And once their trust in each other begins to crack, McKenzie and Monticciolo are stunning. Wilson’s vision for this piece is remarkably clear once all hope seems lost and Frazer & Helen self-destruct.

Overall, the play started to drag late in the piece; starting with such heightened emotion, pushing further and further and further into this suburban heart of darkness became overwhelming. It was exhausting. But for a twenty-five-year-old play that could easily be done as a bland middle-class “missing dog” story, I appreciated Mark Wilson’s insistence in pushing everything to the edge and well over it.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

REVIEW: Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine

Ursula Yovich, writer and star of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

 “I am angry. That’s what rock is supposed to be. Full of pain.”

Barbara and her sister René front a band called The Camp Dogs when Barb can book gigs, which is sometimes just busking. Meanwhile, René loves an audience so much, she does a Singing Sheilas cover show at the casino. They’d love to have steady work together, but they know what the music industry is like. That’s where the anger comes in.

The Malthouse audience (“they’ll touch anything”) enters the Merlyn theatre to find it’s been turned into a low-rent music venue, complete with sticky carpet, a chalk board to announce the band and the happy hour specials, and some terrible furniture to seat some lucky audience members. We’re here for the gig and the stories in between the songs, but there’s more to Barbara and the Camp Dogs than listening to rock’n’roll in a space that feels like a hipster pub.

When René talks about anger early on, it’s a laugh line. She’s rolling her eyes at her head-strong sister yelling at the venue managers that pay them and people in the industry that might be able to help them. René doesn’t want to rock the boat – at least not until they get a gig on a yacht, which Barb might have only booked because the owners thought they were Indian.

Barbara knows, though, that as good as she and her sister are, the music industry isn’t looking for new Aboriginal talent to play bigger venues. “They pretend it’s all about merit when it’s really all about what they think they can sell to suburban Sally and her dick-shaped hairbrush.”

The show we’re watching isn’t just the drama and comedy of these two sisters’ lives though; some of it is a pure rock show, with driving songs of love, passion and outrage. Songs borne of everything these two have been through – sharpened by Barbara’s anger.

Writers Ursula Yovich (who also plays Barbara) and Alana Valentine have joined with musician Adm Ventoura to craft the songs which rock out in the venue – sometimes to rhythmic clapping and stomping of feet and sometimes to quiet reflection. The concert part of the show is worth the price of admission alone, but the behind-the-scenes moments elevate this to something truly special.

Elaine Crombie (René) and Ursula Yovich (Barbara) are charming, hilarious and devastating in their portrayal of two sisters, whose family life has been rough and who can’t quite make a living at what they love. Their powerful singing gives way to equally striking dramatic performances as they travel to Darwin for a gig (which the poor Camp Dogs have to pay to get to) and then hit the road to visit their dying mother.

Anger is the driving force behind Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Barbara knows that being the best singer/songwriter in a country that has systematically oppressed its Aboriginal population means that she’ll always struggle. She and her sister sing of standing in the sun and not giving an inch, but as their journey progresses, we can see that their country continues to stand in their way.

It’s often said that comedy is used as a trojan horse to get audiences to hear uncomfortable truths. There are plenty of laughs in Barbara and the Camp Dogs but the real trojan horse here is the rock music. The audience is whooping and cheering the singing and the on-stage band, but slowly, surely and expertly – under the superb direction of Leticia Cáceres – we are let in on a story of pain and anger. Another wake-up call for an audience and a population and a country that should have heard this and done something about it a long ago.

Anger. It’s what rock is supposed to be. It’s what makes this show come alive. An outstanding achievement.



The set of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

Thursday, 7 February 2019

REVIEW: Merciless Gods by Dan Giovannoni

Paul Blenheim and Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Red curtains adorn the back of the stage. A slice of blue cuts through the black. The playing space is intimate, at first crowded by a group of friends at a dinner party, telling stories of revenge. It’s petty to begin with and then it becomes a game of one-upmanship. And even though these middle-class people are safe, the stories of a travel-writer mate become stomach-churning.

This is the introductory tale in Christos Tsiolkas’ short-story collection “Merciless Gods” and it’s the opening piece in the stage adaptation by playwright Dan Giovannoni and Little Ones theatre company.

Tsiolkas is merciless with his characters, always. He paints stunning portraits of the cultural spread of Australians, men and women, gay and straight. The lives they lead might be bleak, but they are always suffused with truthfulness and occasional – very occasional – moments of tenderness.

Giovannoni has transformed several of the “Merciless Gods” short stories into short plays. Groups of friends. A family with a dying father. A mother coming to terms with the loss of her son through watching porn. A married couple dealing with an overbearing matriarch. A junkie suffering withdrawal and moments of clarity. Not all of these people are at the fringes of society, but they are often at the end of their rope.

Little Ones have a reputation for beautifully-wrought queer texts (or queered texts). The decadence of their Dangerous Liaisons. The simple beauty of their Nightingale and the Rose. Their camped-up Abigail’s Party. And a silent, lustful Dracula.

In comparison, Merciless Gods is almost austere. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, but piercing. Set and Costume Designer Eugyeene Teh reminds us we are watching theatre with that bold red curtain, but costumes the actors in the everyday. Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis’ work is brilliantly subtle, as always – a creeping shadow or a shaft of light; characters cocooned in shadow or inching toward daylight.

This production has previously played at the Northcote Town Hall, but was designed for the stage at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney. Griffin is a very intimate space. That slice of blue at the Fairfax Studio is the entire stage at Griffin.

Some of the stories in the first half felt a little overwhelmed by this new space; the choice of having actors face away from the audience is barely a problem at Griffin, but from further back at the Fairfax, parts of the dialogue were muffled or lost. This was less of a problem in the second half – where at least a couple of the pieces, like the final two monologues, felt perfectly suited to the void of darkness before we are overwhelmed by light.

The ensemble of actors are regulars in Little Ones’ productions, with the exception of Stefan Bramble, who is new to this season of the show. Jennifer Vuletic is given several chances in a variety of roles to command the stage. Paul Blenheim is heartbreaking as the junkie, remembering the man he loved. Sapidah Kian is remarkable throughout the night and pulls everything into focus in the last piece.

As tough and rough as the characters are, director Stephen Nicolazzo has created polished theatrical jewels from their lives. Out there against the blood red backdrop, he and the Little Ones team have brought Tsiolkas’ words to queer, passionate, troubling, affecting life. Merciless Gods is remarkable.



Sapidah Kian in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Monday, 4 February 2019

REVIEW: Cock by Mike Bartlett

Matthew Connell (John) and Marissa O'Reilly in Cock

John has been with his boyfriend for seven years, so it’s a surprise to them both when John meets and falls in love with a woman. But is it love or is it infatuation? Or maybe it’s just the allure of something different or a kind of normalcy that society has convinced him he really wants?

Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a brutal play about society’s expectations – the kind that is bred into us – and a man who cannot make a decision. This production, directed by Beng Oh, is fast-paced and never lets up long enough for the audience to catch its breath. One minute, John and his boyfriend’s relationship is breaking down. The next they are reconciling because the woman John has fallen in love with is following him, stalking him.

Or is that the lie that John tells his boyfriend to make everything seem better? Like when John tells him that the woman is “manly” – as if that might soften the blow, as if you can ever soften the truth that you’ve cheated on someone.

I first saw Cock at the Melbourne Theatre Company five years ago, where I had a lot of sympathy for John. I identified with the character because he was torn between what society expected of him and what he thought he really wanted.

There’s a moment late in the play where John’s boyfriend’s father says John must choose what he is – as if he must be gay or straight, one or the other. Even for an older man being enlightened enough to accept his son and his boyfriend, he can only see the binary – gay or straight. John knows enough to know that he might not be one or the other – he might be a stew.

This production, first staged at the Meat Market in 2018, embraces the battle at the heart of the play. It’s not one cock fight, though. It’s a series of increasingly tough clashes between John and his boyfriend, John and his girlfriend – and a battle royale at the end with everyone head-to-head.

Matthew Connell’s John is the epitome of indecision; not that the performance is unclear. This John is suffering, not because of the choice everyone expects him to make, but because he’s clearly in an abusive relationship. John is a tough character to like, but Connell embodies a man who has lived so long with a man who treats him badly, that you understand why he cannot make up his mind.

John’s boyfriend (Shaun Goss) and girlfriend (Marissa O’Reilly) are both more complicated than they first seem – and absolutely flawed, too. The rapid-fire dialogue sometimes makes it hard to engage with anyone emotionally, but there’s something very watchable about Goss’ on-edge boyfriend and O’Reilly’s stuck-in-her-head girlfriend.

Scott Gooding as the father is a breath of calm fresh air in the middle of the battle, but he’s also stuck in his ways and hampered by how society has raised him.

It struck me on this viewing of the play that this very clearly isn’t a play about bisexuality – it’s about the how false the choice that John faces is: the idea that he has to choose between a man or a woman. Never once does he consider choosing himself by choosing to be single.

And none of the others consider this either. Society has trained us to think we must be in relationships, even bad ones – and we’ll fight to the death not to be alone, even if it makes us unhappy.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

REVIEW: The Butch Monologues by Laura Bridgeman

The Butch Monologues

Representation matters.

In the discourse surrounding representation on stage and screen, whether we are talking about gender, race or disability, the argument always seems to be that the path to equality will be difficult or impossible. That years of cis white male supremacy will be difficult to overcome. And that’s probably true, but I look at something like The Butch Monologues, as a kind of grass roots campaign for representation that isn’t difficult or impossible. It exists and it is brilliant.

Playwright Laura Bridgeman has spent years talking with butches, transmen and gender rebels across the UK, the United States and the Caribbean – and now she has collected those stories into a series of monologues that explore gender and sexuality for self-described “butches”.

The monologues are all brief, allowing for dozens of them to paint a portrait of the butch experience across the world. Performed at Theatre Works as part of Midsumma, five readers tackle the wry, amusing, shocking, and sometimes very simple tales of people who society can be suspicious of because they do not fit into an expected gender norm.

There are stories about being ashamed to wear the kind of boots that might out someone as butch or queer, stories of sex and domination and submission, stories of leaving small towns to find their place in the big city – where they felt more comfortable, finding a community that would embrace them. Many of the stories touch on a universal queer experience of feeling like an outsider, but also bring along a more complicated kind of gender baggage that cis femme queer women don’t experience. And that feels so radical.

The extraordinary kaleidoscope of experience on stage, presented by readers who aren’t necessarily performers, made the whole show feel warm, inviting and without artifice or pretence. These people weren’t telling their own stories explicitly, but they were presenting their experience to the world in bodies and gender types we are not used to seeing on stage.

Representation matters because people who do not have these experiences should hear them, but it also matters for an audience who has never seen themselves on stage. More than one of the monologues touched on an obsession with musical theatre, which is so often the identifier of a femme gay man. I know that musical fandom knows no boundaries, not really, but I also know that particular genre almost never has a space on stage for butch women.

The Butch Monologues was a place for butches and transmen and gender rebels to see themselves on stage – and given the make-up of the audience at Theatre Works last night, this particular audience turned out in droves. This is a very special show that has traveled the world and I am so thrilled that Midsumma and Theatre Works helped to bring it to Melbourne.

Making theatre is never easy. Making this show must have been hard at times. The research is expansive, impressive. But it’s also five people on stage, under a comforting light, telling small intimate stories. Theatre does not need to be big and complicated to be important and to have impact. More of these kinds of nights, please. Tell me stories of people I do not know or have never heard from.

REVIEW: Truly Madly Britney by Alberto Di Troia

Adam (Nick Clark), Steve (Adam Garner) and Chad (Alex Thew)
in Truly Madly Britney at Theatre Works
Photo: Lachlan Woods

Adam and Steve, a gay couple from Australia, have maxed-out two credit cards to travel to the Mecca of hyper-consumerism, Las Vegas, to see Britney Spears with a meet-and-greet after. Their relationship is under some pressure from the money they’ve spent on the trip so far, though Steve (Adam Garner) assures Adam (Nick Clark) that the whole experience is bringing them closer together.

They are staying in suburban Vegas with Chad Hardcastle, a hyper-masculine, good ol’ Christian, definitely heterosexual, Britney stan, whose obsession with the pop-star rivals Steve’s – except Chad thinks he and Britney are going to get married.

After Britney sprains her ankle and the concert Adam and Steve were supposed to attend gets cancelled, Steve’s mania about meeting the megastar goes into hyper-drive. Upon meeting Judy and her son Kevin, who is getting to meet Britney through the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, Steve starts to concoct a plan to attain his goal – and will let nothing get in his way.

Alberto Di Troia’s play is an anarchic satire on consumerism and pop-culture obsession. It is a beautifully crafted script that also tackles America’s gun culture and toxic masculinity. It’s such a pleasure to see a new work that has been so well developed before its first production.

Under the excellent direction of Hannah Fallowfield, Truly Madly Britney is wild but also finds time to dig into real truths – about the pressure of relationships, friendship and family. An uncomfortably awkward sex scene between Adam and Steve tells us as much about their history as their shouted arguments about forgotten dreams and the push-and-pull over how far they will go to meet Ms Spears.

Kudos to Bethany J Fellows, whose remarkably simple set & costumes choices really does elevate the text. Everything is on wheels for quick set changes – and costume changes are done right there in front of us, too. To stage manager, Lowana Ellis, and assistant stage manager, Max Woods, you have my highest respect for the expert scene transitions and for the execution and clean-up of the vomit.

Adam Garner’s Steve is volatile – always on the edge of saying or doing something completely outrageous. Garner plays him like a over-shaken bottle of Coke, ready to explode at any moment. And somehow in his performance, he never makes the character grating or repetitive. Even in his worst moments, there’s a fascination to watching Steve mutate and grow further out of control.

Nick Clark’s Adam is more reserved, and very much on-edge. He may collapse at any moment from exhaustion; Clark finds a real human truth in the stresses of Adam and Steve’s relationship. Amongst the glitz and the high-volume energy of the play, Adam has a couple of quiet moments that Clark nails – reminding us of the people they were before this adventure.

Alex Thew’s Chad is just delightful in his focus and obliviousness to everything else going on around him. Louisa Wall’s Judy commands the stage whenever she is on it; the already tall actor is in heels for most of the show, so she towers over everyone – a performance you cannot take your eyes off.

The content of the show pushes the boundaries of good taste, absolutely. It’s difficult to see how a satire on these particular aspects of our culture could be done with anything that approaches subtlety anyway. These are colourful characters to begin with – but push them into situations that have spun out of their control in a landscape that is driven by glitz, glamour and obsession by design, no wonder we’re confronted with an ending that’s both a release of sexual energy and horrific violence.

Alberto Di Troia and Hannah Fallowfield should be enormously proud of their achievement here. Truly Madly Britney is smart, sharp, hilarious and profane. The road to Britney is paved with good intentions, but also cancer, vomit, awkward sex, guns, declarations of love and a shaved head. All in homage to the pop diva – and as a warning that we all might go too far in our obsessions.