Sunday, 17 December 2017

My Favourite Theatre of 2017

Joan by The Rabble

I saw theatre in Melbourne, Sydney, Seattle and San Francisco this year. There was a superb line-up of work at the Malthouse Theatre and Theatre Works this year, as well as some tough comedy at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

Here’s my list of highlights, not ranked except the first.

Michael Luwoye as Hamilton in Hamilton

1. HAMILTON by Lin-Manuel Miranda (San Francisco, North American Tour)

I didn’t write a review of this show after I saw it in San Francisco in August because I wasn’t sure what else needed to be said about this astonishing musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers. I knew the songs backward; I had even seen a bootleg video recording. Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed in that theatre. The direction is superb; the choreography enhances the lyrics and the story in surprising and moving ways.

The first North American tour cast was refreshingly different than the original cast, whose voices I knew so well from the cast recording. I am so used to seeing replica productions where the actors are cast so close to the original actors that it can only invite comparisons. I didn’t once think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance as Hamilton as I watched Michael Luwoye’s complicated, layered take on the character. I will never forget his flood of tears during “It’s Quiet Uptown”.


THE REST OF THE TOP TEN (alphabetical order)


ATLANTIS by Lally Katz (Belvoir)

A follow up to Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, Katz is played to superb effect by Amber McMahon. Rosemary Myer’s production was a wild ride through Vegas, New York, Miami and Katz’s mind. Hilarious and heartbreaking.

AWAKENING by Daniel Lammin (45 Downstairs)

Taking the classic Spring Awakening and giving more agency to the female characters and putting a modern context on the second half, Lammin’s writing and directing blew me away.

Caravan

CARAVAN by Angus Cerini, Patricia Cornelius, Wayne Mcauley & Melissa Reeves (Melbourne Festival/Malthouse)

Susie Dee and Nicci Wilkes inhabit their caravan-residing mother/daughter duo in this biting satire that exposed a Melbourne Festival audience to characters we so frequently see on our stages.

CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood (Sydney Theatre Company)

A big, bold production of Kirkwood’s exploration of history and personal responsibility and how a picture may contain a thousand words, but none of them may be right.

THE ENCOUNTER by Complicite (Malthouse)

An immersive audio experience that, like Chimerica, questioned a foreigner’s responsibility when entering other countries to report on the world.

GLITTERY CLITTERY by the Fringe Wives Club (Melbourne Comedy Festival)

Songs, game shows, audience participation and a strong feminist message. I could have seen this show again and again.

JOAN by The Rabble (Theatre Works)

Another remarkable work by The Rabble, contemplating the real and fictional history of Joan of Arc. The visual moments of this production are seared on my mind but the glorious text late in the piece as Joan finds her voice was equally stunning.

NANETTE by Hannah Gadsby (Melbourne Comedy Festival)

A farewell to her stand-up career, I saw this relatively early in the year and then Gadsby performed it across the globe and across the country dozens more times. Jokes without punchlines. Punch lines without jokes. Devastating. A virtuosic performance.

WILD BORE by Adrienne Truscott, Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez (Malthouse)

A show criticising criticism. A takedown of lazy critics and a challenge to even the best ones. Made me think harder about every work I reviewed after I saw this one.

THE NEXT TEN


AMERICAN SONG by Joanna Murray Smith (Red Stitch)

A play about gun violence in America that hit me so hard, I sobbed through the second half of this incredible production.

Angels in America

ANGELS IN AMERICA by Tony Kushner (45 Downstairs)

Gary Abraham’s superb production of Kushner’s classic was deceptively minimalist, but this show is so much about the words and the performances, you don’t need to overdo it with stage magic. But the magic was there anyway.

AWAY by Michael Gow (Malthouse)

The classic Australian play is burned into my mind from high school and from revisiting it on the page every few years. Matthew Lutton’s production opened it up in ways that were refreshing and new and heartbreaking. And I am so jealous of the school kids who were studying it this year and saw this show.

BOOK OF EXODUS, PART I by Fraught Outfit (Theatre Works)

Another incredible work from Adena Jacobs collaborating with children.

MERCILESS GODS by Dan Giovanni (Griffin Theatre)

Little Ones’ stage adaptation of Christopher Tsiolkas’ short stories is the mostly explicitly gay show and conversely their least camp/queer work. Still remarkable in it simplicity and the strength of performances.

MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO by Richard Gadd (Melbourne Comedy Festival)

This was a tough comedy show about sexuality and depression. Unforgettable.

NICHE by Elbow Room (Northcote Town Hall)

Selling pop stardom along with feminism and the complications when you are desperate for her brand to go viral. I need this show back and for it to travel. Emily Tomlins and Erynn-Jean Norvill were, as always, incredible.

Niche

THE REAL AND IMAGINED HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN by Tom Wright (Malthouse)

This was a tough show to watch, though a Wright/Lutton collaboration is always elegant in its way. John Merrick’s life is both known and unknown and this show tries to reconcile both sides.

A STRATEGIC PLAN by Ross Mueller (Griffin Theatre)

Art and commerce; it’s a tough balance to maintain. This is a show about music venues closing down but it’s also about trying to make art without compromise.

SPENCER by Katy Warner (Lab Kelpie, Chapel Off Chapel)

An hilarious family comedy about having high expectations and never really meeting them. Great script, perfect cast.

OTHER MEMORABLE SHOWS


THE BASEMENT TAPES by Chapel Perilous (Melbourne Fringe Festival)

CUCKOO by Jane Miller (15 Minutes from Anywhere)

DESERT, 6:29PM by Morgan Rose (Red Stitch)

FULLY SIK by Tessa Waters (Melbourne Comedy Festival)

FUN HOME by Lisa Kron & Jeanine Tesori (North American Tour, Seattle)

MURIEL’S WEDDING: THE MUSICAL by PJ Hogan, Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall (Sydney Theatre Company)

THE NOSE by The Bloomshed (Melbourne Fringe Festival)

THE ONE by Jeffrey Jay Fowler (Melbourne Fringe Festival)

TOO READY MIRROR by Jamaica Zuanetti (Melbourne Fringe Festival)


Desert, 6:29pm


PAST YEARS


Thursday, 7 December 2017

WE ARE LIGHTNING! - Arts House, North Melbourne

WE ARE LIGHTNING!
Photo by Bryony Jackson

Welcome to the final night of the Town Hall, a live-music venue that’s about to be replaced by an apartment building or a hotel or some kind of progress that feels more like the loss of art and soul.

WE ARE LIGHTNING! was standing-room only at Arts House last night; the opening night of this new work by Joseph O’Farrell and Sam Halmarack. It’s a communal experience for the audience, as well as the many, many performers who help to celebrate the end of an era through a night of singing and dancing.

It’s a sad phenomenon that has infected many cities across the world; live music venues closed to accommodate burgeoning populations and to appease noise complaints. The show itself is a celebration of how live experience builds a community and the loss they feel when a pub, a club or a space closes down.

JOF and Sam welcome us to the final night, the bouncers scan us and stamp us as we’re ushered in and we stake out a place to watch a series of performers play and sing and rock out and protest the loss of this space we’re in. There’s a three-piece band, a choir, a brass band and a teenage emo band who are getting to play their first gig in one of the few places that will let them step up.

This show takes a scatter-gun approach to embracing and scorning nostalgia. And the cacophony of sounds here is both exhilarating and enervating. I have watched spaces close and disappear, robbed of their artistic merit and intent. This show is both a celebration and a commemoration; it made me happy and it made me sad.


But at its heart, WE ARE LIGHTNING wants you to rock out one last time. And that’s reason enough to get along.


WE ARE LIGHTNING! community choirs
Photo: Bryony Jackson

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Sydney: Theatre & Exhibitions

Muriel's Wedding - Sydney Theatre Company
Photo:Lisa Tomasetti

I was in Sydney last weekend for a few days to see theatre, catch up with friends, have a meeting and visit a couple of galleries.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Medium – Art Gallery of NSW

“Don’t miss the XYZ room,” said the woman at the ticket box. “It’s near the flowers.”
“The XYZ room is near the flowers,” said the woman checking the tickets at the entrance.

In a world where we are given lots of warnings for films and theatre and exhibitions, as cautions to avoid things, it was refreshing to be encouraged to look at Mapplethorpe’s most challenging works. 

On the other hand, isn’t that what people visiting a Mapplethorpe exhibition are looking for? Do people go for his work with flowers?

Some of Mapplethorpe’s imagery is iconic, most of it is beautiful and very little of this exhibition was confronting; but the XYZ room was still kept off to the side, housing works from three compendiums of Mapplethorpe’s interests – erotica, flowers and black men.

There was also a selection of his work with Patti Smith, along with portraits of famous people like Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Isabella Rossellini. A strong overview of his career.

Three Sisters – Sydney Theatre Company

A Kip Williams production of an Andrew Upton adaptation of Chekhov with this cast, including Alison Bell, Eryn Jean Norvill, Mark Leonard Winter, Nikki Shiels, Chris Ryan… the list goes on. This should have been amazing. I am only ever a fan of Chekhov when it’s non-traditional: Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard or Eamon Flack’s Ivanov. This seemed to be another production in that same vein. And for much of the first half, it was engaging and funny and with that bleak undercurrent, because it is Chekhov.

The second half loses the fun of the first and dives headlong into Chekhovian nihilism. I am not a fan of Chekhov in general, but I have enjoyed work based on his work before. With this team, I had very high expectations. They were only rarely met and never in the second half.

Three Sisters, Sydney Theatre Company
Photo: Brett Boardman

Pipilotti Rist: Sip My Ocean
– Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

I love visiting the MCA in Circular Quay because it’s central and because the shows there are so often surprising and delightful. Their own collection and what they have on display normally turns over between my visits is always strong, and their feature exhibitions open up new worlds to me.

Rist is a Swiss artist and her work is a combination of video installations and sculpture. Though her work was previously unknown to me, I can see how her pioneering work has inspired others; notably how Ever Is Over All (1996) was clearly an inspiration for Beyonce’s Hold Up music video.
My favourite work of hers in this exhibition was Pixelwald motherboard – a room full of strings of glowing lights that was meant to evoke the vision of an exploding television. Astonishing.

Merciless Gods – Little Ones/Griffin Theatre

It’s not the first time I’ve travelled to Sydney and ended up seeing work that I’ve missed in Melbourne. I was very lucky to get a ticket to a previously sold-out performance of Little Ones’ Merciless Gods which was performed at Northcote Town Hall earlier this year.

Based on a collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas, Dan Giovanni has selected eight of these stories to put on stage – a compendium of pieces told from the fringes of society. This isn’t the high camp I normally associate with Little Ones but I loved the boldness of the story choices and the ensemble is superb. I’m glad I caught up with this and I hope Sydney gets to see more of the Little Ones in the future.

Muriel’s Wedding – Sydney Theatre Company

Reinventing the classic Aussie film to be a stage musical seemed fraught; how do you find someone, anyone to write songs that won’t fade into the background next to the selection of ABBA songs that Muriel escapes into? And how do you use those ABBA songs without them feeling like a distraction?

Thankfully, Kate Miller-Heidke and partner Keir Nuttall have created fully-theatrical songs that capture the wild swings of emotion in Muriel’s life. They fit neatly alongside PJ Hogan’s book, based on his original film. There’s been some updates; the social media aspect is both a blessing and a curse to the show.

The first act is solid; director Simon Phillips keeps the show moving using a grab bag of his classic theatrical trickery. It is a strong musical and not just a play with songs; and it’s a long way from the jukebox musicals of Priscilla Queen of the Desert or Mamma Mia.

The second act is a bit messier. The script veers wildly around. Strong emotional moments are drawn out too long. There’s some attempt to give the love interests some depth, but that distracts from Muriel’s story – and in the end, does the show gain anything much from fleshing out the token men?

Overall, though, this is a strong show that deserves a long life touring the world.

Atlantis – Belvoir Theatre Company

Hi, I’m Keith Gow, playwright and theatre blogger. I have seen lots of Lally Katz shows and even aside from the show where she starred and talked about her life, most of her plays contain her in some way, shape or form. Not just in the way that some writers write what they know, but Lally is often a character in her own plays. In Atlantis, Lally is played by Amber McMahon. Amber is always amazing and she makes the perfect Lally, if you can’t have Lally telling these stories herself in person.

I love the honesty of Lally’s work and while the idea of a writer putting themselves into their own work could feel self-indulgent (and perhaps some of Lally’s early work might be described that way), somehow Atlantis doesn’t feel like that at all. Lally has gained enough perspective of her life over the last few years to tell a riotous, outrageous, touching story about writing and relationships; about motherhood and birthing new worlds on stage.

Rosemary Meyers has found her way into Lally’s head and sitting front row at Belvoir, I felt like I was immersed in this bizarre dimension that was a little bit Vegas, a little bit Miami and a whole lot of Lally Katz. And if I might have missed the Apocalypse Bear and the Hope Dolphin, I still got to see Lally’s imaginary Panther friend… and the funniest, most athletic sex scene I’ve ever seen on stage.

Atlantis, Belvoir
Photo: Daniel Boud

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Appropriate Kissing for All Occasions


Reaction Theatre have coupled a great pair of short plays by David Finnigan and Isab Martinez about the intimacy of kissing.

The first play, to heat you up and cool you down, is set at rush hour in a cheap cafĂ©. Two waitresses are run off their feet, their minds anywhere but on the routine of their work. One character’s thoughts appear as projected text on the back of the set and sometimes as voiceover; the other character’s thoughts are manifest physically, played by another actor.

It’s a tricky text to perform, intercutting the different kinds of media slows the momentum in moments; we don’t always feel the characters are having these thoughts but merely reacting. Occasionally all the elements fall into place, particularly in the moment where the two waitresses kiss for the first time, complicated by one character’s confusion over how own sexuality.

The second play, which gives us the overall title of the night – Appropriate Kissing for All Occasions – is a monologue, a lecture about kissing by an expert in personal relationships. Actor Christina McLachlan is striking in her red dress and heels, ready to tell us about kissing and to give demonstrations on the different kinds.

There’s tension throughout this piece as McLachlan finds audience targets and her lecturer character begins to unravel, reminded of her own recent relationship and how a kiss isn’t always just a kiss. It’s a fun, accomplished performance.

This is a solid pair of plays but the first one (the order of the plays was switched late in the run) about the waitresses wasn’t nearly as smooth as it could have been. The second one was much more straight forward and the audience interaction made it fascinating and fun.

Melbourne Fringe: The Vagina Monologues


Eve Ensler’s 1996 play, The Vagina Monologues, has been described as one of the most important pieces of political theatre ever devised. It has been produced thousands of times around the world and led to the creation of a non-profit movement that has raised millions to end violence against women.

Two decades later, it continues to be a vital theatrical work, given the stories of body image, self-worth, violence, genital mutilation, sex work and birth resonate in whichever community the show is produced.

Deafferent Theatre create theatre by and for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Their production of Ensler’s play includes sign language, projected text, voice over to bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing audience but plays most directly for the deaf community.

In spite of this play being widely produced, I’ve never seen a full production, though I have seen excerpts and read the published version of the play. (Ensler continues to write monologues; different productions will include different combinations.)

Four women sit around a table and trade stories about sex, sexuality, menstruation, puberty, violence and learning to love their bodies. A monologue that catalogues different slang names for vagina is left for the hearing audience to decipher, as the performers sign and mime. A monologue about the messiness of childbirth which is visceral when read aloud, becomes slightly comical when those anatomical moments are recounted in AUSLAN.

As a hearing person, I didn’t engage with some sections of this production, but I was thrilled to see Deafferent create a work for a community that isn’t well represented on stage or for an audience that isn’t always catered for.


The Vagina Monologues is an important work for any number of communities and exposing it to deaf and hard-of-hearing both on and off-stage reminds us all how relevant these stories remain.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: The Basement Tapes


A young woman is alone, cleaning out her late grandmother’s basement. Immersed in the flotsam and jetsam of furniture, nick nacks and tapes she left behind, the woman hears a recording that exposes a family secret.

The Basement Tapes is the work of New Zealand theatre makers, Chapel Perilous. Together they have developed a piece that swerves between moving and terrifying; this is the sadness and horror of grief.

It’s so rare for theatre to trade in dread or to effectively deploy jump scares. The Basement Tapes has both, trepidation seeping through every moment the main character seems trapped by the past.

There’s some beautiful humour weaved in through the script and in Stella Reid’s full-bodied performance. Reid is physical – we see her dance in defiance several times – and moving – frantic to get her mother on the phone or desperately trying to get the pizza guy to stay.

Director Jane Yonge has found a shape to this personal mystery that is both thrilling and sad. Lighting and sound design is effectively deployed as the show sometimes gives way to the haunting voice of the grandmother; the audience alone in the dark, listening to a tale as evocative as the one the granddaughter inhabits.

The Basement Tapes will leave you with a knot in your stomach, from fear and from loss; two threads in the same cloth.


Melbourne Fringe: Traps – A Romantic Comedy for the Modern Sociopath


Three characters struggle to tell their own stories, while the narrator laments the fact he has no character at all. Stephanie works for and is in love with vet, Joe. Joe still lives with his mother and she’s never happy. Julia has accidentally shot her dog and when she walks into the surgery, the soapy melodrama hits overdrive but remains underwhelming.

Traps is a queer, camp comedy on Valium. For all the outrageous situations involving mother and the forty-foot croc and the narrator desperately trying to insert himself into the narrative, the show isn’t particularly funny and outstays its welcome. Most of the gags are hit several times and the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

The show plays with gender roles and tackles male privilege and there's some satisfaction in the character of Stephanie not letting the narrator dictate her story, but enticing subtext is not enough.

There is a lot of talent on stage and behind-the-scenes in this show. Traps has been nominated as one of the best of the Fringe Festival in the Performance category. The judges must have seen it on a night when the audience was engaged and laughed more; last night’s audience was not on this show’s side. And I don’t blame them.