Saturday, 20 July 2019

REVIEW: Come from Away by Irene Sankoff & David Hein

The cast of Come From Away
Photo: Jeff Busby

Where we you on September 11th, 2001? What were you doing when you heard the news? What do you remember of that day? Of the next day and the week that followed?

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon, the United States closed its airspace for the first time ever – and many planes headed for America were diverted to a small town with a large airport on the island of Newfoundland in Canada. On a normal day, the airport in Gander would welcome half a dozen planes. On September 11, 38 planes with nearly 7000 passengers landed there. Welcome to The Rock.

I had read about the town of Gander at the time – about the people of the town who pitched in to help these “come from aways” and of those people who were landed there for several days, stuck between where they boarded and where they were headed. And Gander airport itself has a fascinating history, once being a mandatory stop between North America and Europe in the days before planes could fly that distance without stopping.

The musical version of this story, Come From Away, lands in Melbourne after many years of development, as well as productions in Toronto, Dublin, on Broadway and the West End. I saw a very early reading that was streamed online from Sheridan College way back in 2012 and have eagerly anticipated seeing it ever since.

I asked what you remember of that day because for most of us it was just another day and somehow we had to cope with work and school, with the news playing in the background; back in a time when newspapers put out afternoon editions to stay cutting-edge. For the seven thousand people on those thirty-eight planes, they were in limbo. To begin with, most of them couldn’t disembark for nearly fifteen hours and even after that, most of them didn’t have access to information about what had happened. This was a time when most people didn’t have mobile phones, let alone smart phones where you can get your news instantaneously.

The show is based on interviews that writers Irene Sankoff and David Klein conducted with the people of Gander and some of the passengers who returned to the town on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Most of the characters in the show are based on real people, many of whom have seen their lives play out on stages across the world. On leaving the theatre, the accents of those real Newfoundlanders could be heard in the audience and in the foyer. This musical is a kind of documentary.

The nature of the show gives it a unique feel and flavour. After the people of Gander are introduced, going about their normal day, starting off at Tim Hortons, talking about a school bus strike, the planes start to arrive and everything is thrown into chaos. All the actors play multiple characters, from the towns and on the planes. The early songs employ recitative, a style where performers sing with the rhythms of ordinary speech – and we are robbed of comforting rhymes or choruses, bridges or climaxes. This is a town in upheaval, its population nearly doubled by visitors from one hundred different countries whose lives are put on hold. It’s hard to find your voice or tell your story, when everything is so uncertain.

The production itself is quite simple. There’s a revolve, but it’s used judicially, and the set is a frame of large trees, with wooden slats as a simple backdrop. The band is small and sits on stage as well, joining the show a couple of times when the passengers decide its time for a drink and head to the local bar.

The focus of the show is on the situation itself; the musical a true ensemble with only occasional break out moments to focus on a character or a couple. What Come From Away is doing is painting a picture and capturing a moment; yes, there’s tension and some character development, but it’s more interested in a snapshot of a town and a time rather than trying to invent stakes or create typical or expected dramatic arcs. There were moments when I wanted the show to dig further into a particular person’s tale, but that might have meant tweaking reality and this event doesn’t need an added layer of drama. The truth of it is enough.

The Original Australian Cast of Come from Away
Photo: Jeff Busby
The songs in the latter half of the show feel more like the kind of thing you’d want in a musical – and by then the people of Gander and the “come from aways” are growing closer together and a few days in, the visitors are finally finding their voices enough to tell their stories.

One of the really fascinating personal stories is that of Beverley Bass, one of the pilots on the planes diverted to Canada, who was the first female Captain for  American Airlines in the 1980s. Zoe Gertz’s performance of “Me and the Sky” is heartfelt, fun and devastating – the show in microcosm. It focuses on Beverley’s dreams and fears and the struggles she had becoming a pilot in a man’s world. And we’re getting to know her in a way we haven’t had a chance to know anyone else, understandably; but it’s her lifestyle that has been shaken to the core this day, the day two airliners were flown into the towers of the World Trade Centre.

It’s tricky to focus on individual performances in this show, since the cast is working so hard playing multiple characters, but doing it so well that you’re never confused about who they are at any given moment. Richard Piper is relishing his roles as the Mayors of Gander and other surrounding towns. Nicholas Brown is one of a couple of Kevins, but also brings poignancy to the role of Ali, a Muslim passenger that everyone becomes suspicious of. Sharriese Hamilton’s performance as Hannah, a woman from New York, whose firefighter son is missing, is deeply moving. But there’s really nothing to fault in the entire cast; the wide variety of accents is particularly impressive, including the distinct Newfoundland sound.

Set against the backdrop of an event in my lifetime that is seared onto my mind as a moment when the world changed, and in many ways not for the better, Come From Away reminds us that human beings can rally together and form communities out of nothing more than a shared experience and the beginning of a moment.

On an island, at the edge of the world, the world came together and then it moved on. The people of Newfoundland and the plane people will have a story of that day that none of them will ever forget. And with this musical, we get to share in those days, and remember that even in the worst times, people can be good.

Come From Away is the perfect mix of sad and joyous; difficult and sentimental. Stop the world and stay in Gander a while. Come on in, the door is open and the kettle’s always on.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

REVIEW: Solaris by David Greig (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem)

Solaris by David Greig
Photo: Pia Johnson

Arriving on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman) is confronted by beings who are almost human, while digging through the digital archives of Dr Gibarian (Hugo Weaving), who recently died. She must try to understand what these creatures are and what other mysteries lie on the planet below, under the roiling oceans that cover its surface.

Like the Malthouse’s other current production, Wake in Fright, David Grieg’s new play is based on a novel that has also previously been a film. In fact, Stanislaw Lem’s book has been adapted into two films, several operas and a play or two before this. It’s no surprise that it would inspire great filmmakers and playwrights to bring their own versions to life; alien entities, memory and lost loved ones are all rich elements with which to explore the themes of loneliness and otherness.

Designer Hyemi Shin creates a cool, minimalist environment that’s efficiently modular; its swiftly moving doors and sliding panels evoking a kind of futuristic haunted house. Paul Jackson’s lighting puts the characters under the harshest of fluorescent white until the station rotates through blue and red nights, as Solaris orbits two suns.

Director Matthew Lutton creates a wide-screen image, evoking his first encounter with the text – Andrei Tartovsky’s 1972 film version. But surprisingly, the only imagery on the Malthouse stage that really captures the strange allure of the original film is the interstitial appearances of Solaris’ watery expanse. Lutton’s work is usually so rich and beguiling, it’s strange to encounter a work of his that feels so prosaic.

Grieg’s script goes back to the source material, stranding us on the space station and putting us in Kris Kelvin’s shoes. Kelvin has been a man in all other versions of story; here the character is a woman, played with the right levels of inquisitiveness and slow-building horror by Walsman. Equally intriguing is Keegan Joyce, playing a recreation of Kelvin’s lover – whose slow tilt into existential horror about his own nature is compelling to watch.

This is a co-production between the Malthouse and the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh; Lutton and Grieg are these company’s respective Artistic Directors. This collaboration sees British actors Jade Ogugua and Fode Simbo playing the other human residents of the station, though the characters seem written as types more than intriguing human beings. Ogugua gets to dig a little deeper with a late monologue about monkeys and paint and human faces on paper that gets right to the heart of the mystery before them.

Science fiction on stage shouldn’t come about so rarely; characters isolated in a single space, exploring what it means to be human and the nature of existence feels deeply theatrical to me. After some slow set up, and once Kelvin starts to lose her perspective with the appearance of her lover, the show finds its orbit and speeds toward an emotional climax. There were moments late in the play where the struggle with loneliness and lost love hit me hard and it was completely unexpected when some earlier parts of the production felt so sterile and antiseptic.

Something about Solaris captured me and by the end, I didn’t want to go.


Thursday, 27 June 2019

REVIEW: Wake In Fright by Declan Greene

Zahra Newman performs Wake in Fright
Photo: Pia Johnson

Much like Malthouse’s production of Picnic at Hanging Rock, this new version of Wake in Fright feels urgent and relevant and a response to both the classic film and the novel – as well as an interrogation of our view of those texts and ourselves as Australians. Adapting the story into a one-woman performance starring Zahra Newman gives us a whole new context through which to examine the work.

“Where are you from?” is a kind of benign question on the surface. It suggests interest, but is really a kind of microaggression for non-white citizens of Australia. Zahra explains to us, before the show starts (but it has already started), that an Uber driver asked her this question recently and her response was to ask where he was from.

“Broken Hill” was his response. The name evokes the kind of town that Wake in Fright is set in – rural, mining, remote. And Zahra has her own thoughts on the place and a story of poisoned children she read about – a truth the Uber driver didn’t want to acknowledge or confront.

“If you shut down the mines in Broken Hill, half the population is out of work,” he said, without even a moment’s thought for how the mines might be poisoning the most vulnerable in its community.

It’s around here when we start hearing the story of John Grant, a teacher stuck in a remote Australian mining town, struggling to find a way out. And with him, we the audience are plunged into a sinister world that threatens his very life.

Early on in this production, the audience are already on edge; Zahra-as-actor isn’t exactly a welcoming presence, she wants us to hear about those small ways in which Australians make her feel like an outsider. “Where are you from” is a question she never answers – and it’s key to John Grant’s struggles to fight through the toxic masculinity of the Yabba without losing his sense of self.

Unfortunately, as the show progressed, I felt less and less like I was getting a new version of this story but a lacklustre imitation of it. Zahra Newman’s performance is energetic and searching, digging into the text, as if into dirt; the dust that covers her and John later is a striking visual but feels insubstantial.

Later still, animation is introduced – first as part of a two-up game and then as John struggles to survive, but this ends up muting Zahra’s performance, overwhelming the audience with visual and auditory information. The actor gets lost the same as John Grant does, but this felt unsatisfying. After having connected with Zahra as she brought us into the theatre and into this world, I was disappointed to lose her underneath theatrical trickery.

Zahra Newman is always worth seeing on stage. Declan Greene’s work is always engaging and thought-provoking. The combination of them both, along with dissecting this Australian classic, should have been a real gut-punch. But rather than feeling winded, I was deflated.

Monday, 3 June 2019

REVIEW: Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Julie Forsyth narrates the Apocalypse in
Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Three women sit in a backyard, empty tea cups on the lawn by their feet, when a fourth woman – a neighbour, but an interloper – arrives and tries to fit in. It’s a Saturday afternoon ritual for these three ladies, who have known each other for years, talking about their favourite television shows, shops on the local high street, the weather, their families and parallel universes. It’s comfortable and mundane and there’s something scratching under the surface of their suburban lives, but they aren’t ready to acknowledge it yet.

Playing at just under an hour, Caryl Churchill’s play has a lot to say in an unconventional way – though not entirely surprising, if you’ve seen other works by her. This one felt very similar to her play Far Away, both engaging in its flights of surreality and sometimes maddeningly obtuse. The text does not allow the actors an easy time of it; the backyard discussions are poetic, not realistic and they demand a specific kind of rhythm.

Director Jenny Kemp, whose magnificent production of Top Girls at MTC in 2012 is something I still talk about, keeps the four actors perched on their cane chairs, only rotating them between scenes. It suggests, simply, ongoing conversations over weeks and months, but frustrates with the image being so static. The recurring blackouts and blinding lights used to disorient the audience quickly feels monotonous.

Each character is allowed their moment to shine in a soliloquy of their own, unearthing something troubling that they might not be truly honest about to their friends. These are the moments where the poetry of Churchill’s language really shines; much of the rest of the production suffers from very mannered performances.

Julie Forsyth is the stand-out on this stage – and in front of it, as the interloper with an inarticulate rage and as the narrator of an increasingly bizarre Apocalypse. Each time she interjects or is front-and-centre, I was captivated or amused or repulsed in a way that was missing from the rest of the show.

Something is happening out in the world that these privileged women seem to be protected from, left alone to debate minutiae while the world collapses around them. Perhaps they are not ignoring the end of the world itself, but they seem to be missing the warning signs.

Escaped Alone was first performed in 2016 and even though it was before the Brexit vote happened, this feels like a potent commentary on a class of people afraid of people climbing over their fences or finding their way through. It’s not even critical so much of these women, but of a society that affords them the luxury of worrying about each other, without really worrying about anyone else.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Fringe Wives Club in “Glittergrass”

The expanded Fringe Wives Club in "Glittergrass"

The Fringe Wives Club has taken their first show “Glittery Clittery” around the world, where they fought The Patriarchy with #Glamtivism. It was a variety show where they mixed in songs and storytelling and audience participation. With such a clear vision, the three original members might have done more of the same in a new show – but to avoid the notorious “difficult second album”, they have expanded the band and their repertoire.

Tessa Waters, Rowena Hutson, Vicky Falconer-Pritchard – the original Fringe Wives – have invited Laura Frew and Sharnema Nougar on board, along with a band, to stage a bluegrass show with sequins instead of rhinestones. They may have more of a budget now, but it doesn’t quite stretch to gemstones yet.

The show starts off with a medley of pop songs you’ll recognise – feminist anthems remade in the style of country songs, as the Wives welcome you to their hoedown. It sets the mood for a concert that embraces and amplifies the multitude of talents amongst these five amazing women.

There are songs about examining their own privilege, about female bushrangers and about how they are committed to embracing intersectional feminism – patting themselves on the back, while leaving out the voice of the Vicky, the only non-white member of the Club.

As with “Glittery Clittery,” the subject matter is tricky but it’s always entertaining. The songs and arrangements are toe-tapping and knee-slapping, even as you think about your own privilege or try to live up to their rule “you can have a dick, but don’t be a dick.” But you never feel lectured to. You’re singing or clapping or laughing as much as anything.

“Glittergrass” is fresh and new. The production values are incredible; costumes, lighting and sound are impeccable. There are a few rough edges in transitions between songs and the final song didn’t feel like a finale, but this is a next bold step in the evolution of the Fringe Wives Club. Get along and party with these women – and if you love them, buy some of their glittery merch.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Garry Starr Conquers Troy

Garry Starr Conquers Troy
at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Last year, Garry Starr explored every genre of theatre in order to try to save it. Now that he’s saved theatre, he wants to make sure actors out there know how to be the best skilled actor (or, skactor) they can be. Garry has written a book called “An Actor Pretends” about the history of pretendism.

Chapter by chapter, Garry’s vast knowledge of being a triple threat is explored on stage in front of our very eyes. He explains how to audition for a director when you’re waiting on them in a restaurant. He tells us how to act when we inevitably move to Hollywood and get botox and we can’t move our face. And then there’s his unconventional method for learning lines by osmosis.

Rubber-faced actor and comedian Damien Warren-Smith is so damn charismatic that he’ll have you on his side within minutes – and have some of you up on stage as part of Team Garry, if you dare. If you don’t want to participate, don’t sit in the front row like I did; though my moment in the spotlight only consisted of staring Garry in the eye and telling him to relax.

Just as with his first show “Performs Everything,” there’s a good mix of humour throughout – slapstick, wordplay/puns (“Athena?” “Where did you thee her?”) and some delightful sitcom theme song parodies that bring ancient Greek tragedies into modern day. And hopefully you get an audience as willing as the one I saw the show with, where Garry plucked out a professional xylophonist and a woman who shouted at him “WHY DID YOU THINK YOU SHOULD BE A COMEDIAN?” It induced real acting tears.

Garry may not perform everything this time, but the stuff he does perform is delightfully ridiculous. A guaranteed laugh-a-minute hour of joy.

Monday, 25 March 2019

REVIEW: Dance Nation by Clare Barron

The cast of Dance Nation at Red Stitch
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Ashlee, Zuzu, Luke, Sofia, Maeve, Amina, Connie and Vanessa are a dance group of pre-teens on the cusp of puberty, dreaming of success as a dance competition takes them all across the United States. Dance Teacher Pat runs a tight ship, walking a fine line between being encouraging and squeezing all the enthusiasm out of his troupe. But this isn’t just a show about making your dreams come true, it’s about dealing with the pain of hormones and the physical strain of dancing, even at a young age.

We’re thrust into their world with a tap routine that even professionals would find strenuous – and it claims its first victim, with Vanessa’s leg shattered beyond repair. The visual is so striking and repulsive that it’s viscerally shocking and laugh-out-loud funny. Dance Nation is satire, yes, but at its heart it is a clear drama about growing up and becoming comfortable with your own body – as you learn its power and its weakness.

Director Maude Davey puts the ensemble through its paces, directing a freight train of a show, which hardly ever stops to catch its breath. The music is loud, the dance is frenetic and the young characters are so full of joy and the jumping beans of youth, it’s hilarious until it become awkward; and even as it slides into the pain and struggle of growing up, it becomes funny again.

The entire cast is great – a big group for the small space of Red Stitch, but it seems fitting for the piece; a dance group jammed together in a pressure cooker, their routines a kind of escape from what these kids are going through in life.

There’s some predictable stage mother stuff, but as all The Moms, Shayne Francis shows us wide variety of demanding and compassion with her various kids. Zoe Boesen’s Zuzu is the one who suffers the most, struggling with an eating disorder, even at one stage tearing at her skin with her teeth. Tariro Mavondo’s Amina is the quiet one in the back of the class, who slips onto centre stage and leaps ahead of the rest. Caroline Lee’s Ashlee has a monologue that will blow your socks off. Brett Cousins struts around the stage as Pat, at times seeming like a mentor and in moments stalking the girls like a predator.

Clare Springett’s Lighting and Peter Farnan’s Sound put you on stage with the troupe, dazzled by the lights, overwhelmed by the music. Adrienne Chisholm’s costumes understand these characters so well that there’s a layer of humour and understanding in just seeing them slouch onto stage with a backpack over the shoulder or sucking on a slurpee.

Clare Barron’s play is an hilarious and poignant look at the pain of puberty and the pain of dance; touching and affectionate, smart and completely off-the-wall. So awesome.