Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Christie Whelan in SHOW PEOPLE! One night only at Chapel Off Chapel

Christie, in what was supposed to be Pure Blonde,
which then became Show People

There’s no people like show people
They smile when they are low...

I’ve seen Christie Whelan-Browne on stage numerous times – in many Production Company shows (like The Boy Friend, Sugar, The Producers), at the Melbourne Theatre Company (in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Importance of Being Earnest), in big musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Xanadu), small musicals (Once We Lived Here) and cabaret (Britney Spears: The Cabaret).

She’s the kind of performer whose name will make me want to see a show more, if I’m ever uncertain. Each and every time I see her, I still wish I saw her on stage more often – because she can sing and dance and always creates rich and complex characters, when the show requires it. She’s been in three shows with Geoffrey Rush and has pretty much stolen the show from him each and every time.

If this feels like I’m getting carried away, it’s true. But this is the kind of roll I get on when I talk about her work. This is the kind of excitement I get when I hear she’s in something else.

I’m also a big fan of writer/director Dean Bryant’s small scale musical projects – Prodigal, Once We Lived Here and Britney Spears: The Cabaret. The Britney show, a one woman show written for Christie, accomplished something I didn’t think was possible – a narrative where I cared about Britney Spears. I mean, it’s not like media attention lavished on the pop starlet has been kind, so it was a bit of a revelation that Christie and Dean were able to make a show filled with nuance and sadness and pop music madness.

After hearing they were collaborating again on a show called Pure Blonde, I was excited. When I read reviews from Adelaide, the show had morphed into Show People – a collection of six characters, mostly monologues, for Christie to show off her amazing range.

You know how much I gushed in the opening two paragraphs? You know how much I already enjoyed her work? Show People raises that several more levels. Each character clearly defined. Each character a progression through the life of an actor: from WAAPA grad tearing tickets at Chapel Off Chapel, through regularly working  but “just” the Elphaba stand-by, and then “straight acting, bad acting” gay chorus boy, to a well-known “name” actor who sexually harasses his co-stars, to an ageing actress who got her start on Young Talent Time but whose star is fading, to end with a man who has seen it all on the Australian stage over his seventy year career.

It’s the progression from hopeful youth to wistful nostalgia that makes this more than just a showcase for Christie – the writing is superb, the direction is tight and to the point – and she elevates Show People into a tour de force. When the show was developed as Pure Blonde, it was supposed to undermine the “dumb blonde” cliche. With Show People, its focus is much wider – show business itself, from its glitz out front to the awful stuff that can happen back stage.

It’s not that the show marches from the hope of the graduate to the bitterness of the actor at the end of his working life, it’s that there’s something in the struggle that has always been there and always will. As the first character says “When you study to become a doctor, you become a doctor. When you study to be an actor, you are rarely employed as an actor. And Christie didn’t even go to drama school!”

There’s a bit of self-reflexive wit in the show, about Christie, about Dean Bryant and his collaborator Matthew Frank, but about the industry as a whole, that they know so very well. We are given a rousing musical medley at the start, because that’s what you expect from a Christie and Dean show. And then something darker and more troubling weaves its way in.

And somehow, even on a stage all by herself (with Matt on piano), Christie – with each passing character – manages to steal the show from herself. Over and over again.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

I AM A MIRACLE: Challenging abuses of power (Or, How to change history)

Adam Goodes. Sandra Bland. Cecil the Lion. Bronwyn Bishop.

Four vastly different stories that have filtered through news and social media over the last few weeks, that have basically nothing in common – except they are all about systemic abuses of power. Goodes and Bishop are intensely local stories that have vied for our attention in Australia. Sandra and Cecil are both stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – and this week, we argued about which should outrage us more.

All of them important. None more important than any other. Bishop may have resigned today, but the system she was using to her own advantage continues. Goodes may not have played football this weekend, and the tide of support has turned toward him – but those who booed him last week probably still wish they could boo him this week. And some, hopefully, have woken up to themselves.

I Am A Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson

I Am A Miracle by Declan Greene and directed by Matthew Lutton, currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre, was inspired by a miscarriage of justice – a severely mentally-handicapped man executed in Texas in 2012. In some ways, the play is about that miscarriage of justice – but the full scope of the work touches on the divine and the structural problems of society that lead to his impoverished upbringing and his death.

It’s a response to Marvin Lee Wilson’s execution, but actually tells three entirely different stories: a soldier in an 18th Century Slave Colony in Surinam; a man – suffering from Alzheimers - and his wife in modern day Australia; and the story of an Angel, watching over Marvin Lee Wilson, trying to change the course of history.

Comparing Goodes to Bishop or Sandra to Cecil, the media – both traditional and social – reduces the importance of all of them, except in the way questions have been raised. The status quo has been questioned. The public won’t just accept “that’s the way it is” anymore.

We don’t think an Indigenous football player should be abused for being proud of his heritage. We don’t think a politician should get a free ride. We cannot accept the narrative of a healthy, happy black woman dying while incarcerated. We don’t believe a dentist should be able to hunt and kill lions for sport.

But what will change exactly? What can be changed? How can we affect change?

That is the question at the heart of I Am A Miracle. This is society as it has been built by history. These are the problems that history has caused. What can we do about people who are marginalised? What can we do about these systems of power that create the spaces for people to be marginalised.

The solider in Surinam (played with such power by Melita Jurisic) is part of a society that keeps slaves, but he has empathy for them. Can he change the world he lives in?

The man with Alzheimers (Bert Labonte in another outstanding performance, after his multiple characters in Birdland) loses his memory before our eyes. How can we change the outcome of his story?

And the Angel (vocalised by Hana Lee Crisp, in a stunning operatic performance) can do nothing so much than try to change all of history – create a miracle – to save Marvin Lee Wilson’s life.

Is the only thing that can change the outcomes of all these stories the titular miracle? Or can we be inspired by this piece of work to challenge our assumptions and find the miraculous in the every day?

In an interview with Radio National, director Matthew Lutton – recently appointed the Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre – was asked whether it was the Malthouse theatre’s responsibility to always tell new Australian stories.

Lutton said:
“It’s certainly not going to be a company where every story we see on stage is explicitly about Melbourne right here now in tangible ways but it will always be connected to the contemporary thought, the contemporary moment. But Malthouse needs to think broadly... we need to be re-evaluating ourselves in history, re-evaluating ourselves politically and personally.”

I Am A Miracle were the last words of a man executed in 2012 in Texas. This play, written for him, is about him, about a soldier, about a man and his wife and the pressures of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s set now and at the beginning of time itself.

It’s not about Adam Goodes or Sandra Bland or Cecil the Lion or Bronwyn Bishop or asylum seekers locked up outside the arms of our laws or enemy combatants still in Guantanamo Bay or Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt for doing their job.

But, by some small miracle of theatre, it is.