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 café. 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.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: The Nose


Kovalev has lost his nose but worse than that, his nose has taken on a life of its own. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Bloomshed’s new show is a satire on capitalism, beauty and class.

Here, though, Kovalev is the head of the Disney Corporation, a maker and pursuer of dreams. His work at the head of a giant corporation is remaking the world. But as soon as he loses his nose and his sense of smell, Kovalev begins to lose control and power.

The Nose is a series of vignettes; wild and piercing insights into the modern world. We laugh at a lost nose and its sudden new life, but we’re also challenged by how easily we lose respect for the damaged or the disabled. We laud the successful without always considering how they made it or how they retain that power.

Creators and performers Elizabeth Brennan, James Jackson and Tom Molyneux have reanimated Gogol’s original in a vision of spotlights, glitter cannons and joggers whose only goal is to live up to motivational quotes.

The Nose is energetic, hilarious and uncomfortable. A headbutt to the bridge of the audience’s nose, where the pain is offset by the ridiculous squirting of blood.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Title and Deed


A man alone on stage; bright lights illuminate him and us. We see the remnants of other lives here, other plays and the man addresses us directly, a clump of people listening to his story. He breaks the fourth wall, he transgresses and tells us in detail about where he is from and his trajectory to get here. To where we are.

Will Eno’s Title and Deed is subtitled “Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man” and the man taking up that mantle for the KIN Collective at Melbourne Fringe is Keith Brockett. Brockett has been doing memorable work on Melbourne’s independent scene for years and it’s such a pleasure to see him tackle this story of the Other and crossing borders.

I’d say the story of a foreigner moving to a new country and not quite fitting in is apropos for our times, but this feels like a tale that is evergreen. We don’t need the context of Australia leaving asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island or Trump threatening to deport non-white citizens to make this play feel relevant; that context just gives the play an extra frisson.

Director Laura Maitland keeps the show moving with Brockett on his feet and pacing, his character feeling like he wants to keep us entertained. He wants to fit in, even though his life has been quite different to ours.

Brockett is an engaging performer who quickly endears himself to us, the people of his new home. Eno’s script is a subtle beast; digging into what makes us who we are and how breaking down barriers and borders is both life affirming and terrifying.


Monday, 25 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Ophelia’s Inner Monologue



Ari is an aspiring actor, looking to audition for a role in Hamlet. She’s not interested in any of the female parts, though. She is going to walk into that audition room and nail the Prince of Denmark. Or Claudius. Or, at least, the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

While she practices for her audition, Ari is interrupted by her domineering husband Ben, barking orders over the phone. He sends around an assistant, Rachel, to fetch some paperwork for an upcoming court appearance and Ari quickly decides to put her dreams on hold. Acting is frivolous, Ben tells her. But Rachel doesn’t agree.

Ophelia’s Inner Monologue is a dense show that deconstructs the character of Ophelia in a clever, insightful and theatrically inventive way. If Ari cannot yet play Hamlet, maybe Rachel can help her find the essence of his mistreated girlfriend.

Ari and Rachel decide to improvise, to let Ari get into Ophelia’s head and understand her better. Rachel chooses to play the ghost of Ophelia’s mother and Ari must deal with the grief in her past to understand her present relationships with father Polonius and her boyfriend, the mad Prince.

This show has contemporary resonances about emotional trauma and gaslighting and being “ghosted” but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Writer/director/star Aridhi Anderson plays with theatrical convention, while digging deeply into gender politics and the reverence we pay to dated classics.

The show feels a little long and it could definitely benefit from an outside eye to help refine and tighten it. Anderson is a captivating performer – and singer – who could use some help with the Shakespeare itself, but doesn’t miss a beat in deconstructing the text.

It packs a lot into its running time, maybe too much, but it’s full of the enthusiasm of young performers and theatremakers.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: The One


Marriage. It’s at the centre of public debate here in Australia. And The One is the second of Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s shows I’ve seen with a wedding at its centre, after Fag/Stag in 2015.

Where the wedding of a high school sweetheart was the catalyst to examining the friendship of a gay man and a straight man in Fag/Stag, this new play is about a man and a woman and the question of whether they should get married or not.

The man has a guitar and the woman is a vocalist but they aren’t quite accompanying each other. He’s singing songs of love and loss at her. She’s narrating their lives and while it’s poetic, it’s not quite melodic.

Georgia King and Mark Storen play the couple and are staggeringly good. He’s reserved and she’s fiery. He proposes casually and then publicly and she won’t stand for either.

At the centre of Fowler’s piece is the question of “the one” and how true that can be. She thought her last boyfriend was the one. Now she thinks her new boyfriend is the one. Is there a contradiction here? Or is this a concept that needs to be retired?

The One questions marriage as an institution, especially for these two characters, but it’s romantic in its own way. Isn’t it better we choose each other every day?




Melbourne Fringe: The Measure of a Man


Gavin Roach (And then theSnow Fell on Egypt) has some stories he wants to tell you in person. They are sex stories. They are stories of intimacy. They are stories of his life.

In a world of hook-up apps and porn, Gavin is refreshingly honest in his appraisal of his own life as a gay man. Men spend a lot of time pretending they are tougher than they really are or more macho or better at sex. Or more interested. Or bigger. More powerful. Full of confidence.

The Measure of a Man is fifty minutes of Roach being honest about how awkward he was when he was younger and how lacking confidence shook his own self-worth. His frankness about his insecurities and his impotence make the show fascinating.

Exploring sex and dating in a show can be a fraught prospect; we can all relate but sometimes hearing these stories from other people is not fun. Gavin makes the ups and downs of his life engaging. He’s a charismatic performer and his measure of a man is above average.

Melbourne Fringe: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers


Rob Lloyd is a geek, a nerd and a lover of pop culture. At Melbourne Fringe alone over the years, he’s celebrated his love of Doctor Who, Star Wars and Sherlock Holmes. Earlier this year, he and his “Innes Lloyd” partner David Innes, wrote a show dedicated to Journey to the Centre of the Earth. His love of classic genre fiction shines through.

Writer and director Peter Cox clearly has a passion for The Body Snatchers, the 1955 novel by Jack Finney, which was the basis for the famous 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This one-man play, a recreation of the story by Lloyd, is a homage and a pastiche.

Lloyd is painted in heavy theatrical make-up and the audience is treated to something resembling a black and white film on stage in front of us. There are music cues from other black and white films from the era, but it’s not quite like the celebrations Rob has done previously. If you didn’t know the Body Snatcher story before, this show re-tells it really well.

There’s theatrical trickery, lighting and some moody black and white photography to flesh out the world, but this show rests on Rob’s talents. And what a talent he is. Occasionally I saw the cheeky grin and wink of Lloyd the improviser, but mostly we get an energetic and frenetic straight re-telling of Finney’s story.

There are genuinely dramatic moments in the show, even as the tone swerves from embracing the cheesy aspects of the film to the creepiness at the centre of this alien invasion story.

Rob’s shows are often comedy supported by his charm. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a solid piece of acting from Lloyd, playing every character in this new iteration of a classic.



Note: Full disclosure, Rob was in a show of mine once. I really want to write a sequel.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Share My Blankets


Aly Loren wants to share her life, her stories and her blankets with you. She’s honest and open and young. She’s also non-binary, queer and polyamorous. And the kind of person you want to sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor for.

The band was jamming as the small audience made their way into the space. Aly is playing guitar, rocking out with her friends on drums and keyboard. Aly is a great singer and she charms everyone with the welcoming anthem “Share My Blankets” which is an adorable, comforting song that she wrote when she was eighteen.

This show is like hanging out with a mate who has a lot of fun stories and a couple of harder truths to tell, too. But mostly, Aly’s story is a hell of a good time. How can you not enjoy a show that includes Polly the polyamorous bird and a game of pass the parcel?

Share My Blankets is a colourful show about not fitting in and not giving a fuck. In some ways it feels transgressive, but then you realise it shouldn’t feel that way at all. Aly makes us feel comfortable and invites us to feel passion and to feel anger but, mostly, just to feel alive.

This show is pure joy.


Melbourne Fringe: And then the Snow Fell on Egypt



One half of a couple sits alone folding the shirt of their ex, clearly upset. We sit with them for a while, watching them deal with their break-up grief, mostly in silence. Their ex eventually appears, but the only thing that draws the two of them together are memories of better times.

Gavin Roach’s play And Then the Snow Fell on Egypt is about loss and imagination and how memory can help us through the grieving process. In the cold grey space of the No Vacancy Gallery at QV, the audience sits in traverse watching the couple spar and reminisce and imagine the best parts of their relationship. We are left to fill in the blanks; to see what we can see in our minds’ eye and what we can imagine might still be between them.

While the play is a two-hander, the conceit of this production is that each night a different combination of actors performs the show. The cast is two men and two women and across the season, different pairs of the four performers will act out this poetic meditation on breaking up. On opening night, the two men performed opposite each other.

I’m tempted to go again, to see how the story plays out with a different pair of actors. The forty-five minute play is a solid piece of writing and I’d love to see how it works with two women or a man and a woman. I don’t expect I’d be less moved by different gender combinations, but in a show like this, in an open space, under cold white lights, the performances are key. Adam Hetherington does a particularly devastating job as the man who was left, but the silent tears that ran down Elias Brown’s face were heartbreaking.


Monday, 18 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: The First Annual (Doris to Insert) Festival


Welcome to Bess County, somewhere in rural Australia. Their quirky inhabitants are getting ready to put on a Festival for the first time and, because it’s 2017, there is a reality TV show that is going to judge them. And, if they are lucky, Australia’s Got Festivals’ host Grant Denyer might pay them a visit.

Australia has a rich history of sketch comedy and that’s what The First Annual (Doris to Insert) Festival is, a series of sketches about the denizens of Bess County trying to impress the whole country with their personalities and their wares.

The show starts off on shaky ground, with a couple of skits that relied heavily on the most juvenile of sexual innuendo. The show is devised by members of the Improv Conspiracy, but this isn’t off-the-cuff, so you’d hope they could have trimmed some of these dud gags.

Thankfully, the show improves, once we get to know some of the recurring characters and the ongoing story of the missing-in-action Mayor of Bess County, who is skyping them from Rio de Janeiro. While the ladies of the town are excited by possible Denyer sightings, local radio host Gary Biskit explodes in expletives at the mention of his name.

Doris is trying to kickstart her new couture business, making jeans for snakes. And a local bloke, concerned about how beauty pageants might be perceived in this day and age, decides to parade sheep in bikinis. The ghost tour of the town was the absolute highlight, though.


There are plenty of solid laughs in the back half of this show and kudos to the team for interacting with pre-recorded video and adding in a couple of catchy tunes. With a bit more thought, some tough choices and a firmer hand, this show could be tighter and funnier; making fun of festival fever is a solid premise for a comedy. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Intoxication


Intoxication is not what it once was. It had other people in it. It was designed and scored. Now it's playwright Christopher Bryant on stage trying to find the heart of the work; trying to find the holes and connections in his own narrative. He writes. He writes a lot. But after the accident it didn't all make sense, if it ever did.

I've seen Bryant’s work before but this production of Intoxication is something altogether different. The lights stay up in the room, the intimate Son of Loft space. He uses a microphone occasionally, though the space doesn't need it. He's close to us on stage and sometimes he makes eye contact and sometimes he's in the audience with us.

This is very much the artist telling us about his life, laying himself on the line. We're listening to his work while contemplating the effort it took him to be there; after the accident there was rehab, the journey back to Australia and then more rehab. He learned to talk again. To walk again. And to write again.

With this kind of show, audience reactions will differ wildly. I watched some embrace the intimacy and others recoil from it. One woman barely looked up at the stage for the entire show; sometimes it was worth just listening to his words, without taking in everything that is happening.

Intoxication is not polished; it's not slick. It's open and honest and Bryant is struggling right now with the plebiscite as it asks the country to vote on the legitimacy of his love life.

There were moments that if the audience had been sitting in the dark, I might have teared up at the honesty about his pain. But if we'd been in the dark, we could have hidden and Bryant doesn't want that. He wants openness and honesty. And in that small room, under bright lights, that's what we got.

Bryant is charming and awkward. The show, intoxicating.

Intoxication is partying with intimacy’s corpse until Sept 22nd.

Melbourne Fringe: The Sky Is Well Designed



A rocky desert landscape. A wide blue sky. Tufts of faded yellow glass. And silence. Two scientists have braved the elements of a climate-changed world to commune with nature and talk to the earth and hear its pain.

The Sky Is Well Designed is the second show by Fabricated Rooms after Grief and the Lullaby, nominated for several Green Room Awards in 2015. Creator Patrick McCarthy has assembled an effective design team in Rob Jordan (sound and composition), Zoe Rouse (set and costume) and Kris Chainey (lighting) for this production at the Northcote Town Hall.

The silence with which the show begins is calming and as the show progresses, the use of sound ranges from comforting to unsettling. Once the scientist characters, played by Ben Pfeiffer and Emily Tomlins, begin their investigations, the various instruments they use make for a visual and aural treat.

The dialogue, however, is stilted. And the narrative, such as it is, has no shape. Theatre need not be narrative driven, but dramatically the show plateaus early on.

The performances are described in the publicity as hyperrealist, which turns out to mean one-note and dull. This isn’t the fault of the actors, who I have enjoyed elsewhere; The Sky is Well Designed is well designed, but it is not well written nor particularly engaging.

The Sky Is Well Designed contemplates climate until September 28th.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Melbourne Fringe: Too Ready Mirror (Preview)


Nell is framed, an Elizabethan portrait come to life. Ruby, an actor, responds to the disembodied voice of a man at an audition. And Lily & Alma are dressed in uniforms, locked away from the world to be kept safe.

These three overlapping narratives tackle the politics of performance and personal interaction. Nell must perform for the King. Outside of her audition, Ruby’s sex life is a negotiation with a fuck buddy who calls just because he knows she’ll answer. And Lily & Alma act for and act out on one another; wrestling their teenage hormones while the world encourages them to only be good.

These stories reflect each other; bouncing from era to era, slipping from 17th Century England to present day Melbourne and a not-too-distant future, an Atwoodian dystopia that feels not so far away. Writer Jamaica Zuanetti has built three thoroughly evocative stories of sex and states of oppression; the writing is lyrical and astute.

Jessica Tanner stands tall among the cast bringing both a softness to Nell as well as a harder edge as she struggles with the demands of performing for the King.

Though the show could benefit from some tightening, it feels a little loose in this preview, this is a beautiful production. Daniel Moulds’ set and costume design are simple but effective, especially in combination with John Collopy’s striking lighting design. Rachel Baring’s direction is fluid, helping the three stories feel like their own little worlds but also working together to build a powerful whole.


Note: the performance I saw was considered a preview by the venue and the production team. I normally wouldn’t review a preview, but there was nothing to indicate it was a preview on the Fringe Festival site.

Melbourne Fringe: Pope Head – The Secret Life of Francis Bacon


Francis Bacon, British artist, lived a wild life through much of the twentieth century. Writer and Performer Garry Roost’s Pope Head is a one-man show that brings the eccentric, complicated and “fully homosexual” artist to life in front of us.

Covering the fascinating and fabulous life of Bacon an hour, Roost embodies not only the artist but people he met throughout his life. From a couple whose homes he decorated, through the many men looking for life-affirming quickies during wartime, to the artists he met as a regular at The Colony Room in Soho.

Through quick changes, voice work and the occasional twisting of his face, Roost evokes the startling and grotesque nature of Bacon's work.

Roost is an engaging performer, illuminating the life of an artist whose work I only know a little. With a basic triptych set, evocative sound and lighting design, Pope Head is a deft and insightful portrait of one of history's great painters.


Melbourne Fringe: Too Soon, Too Now


Leila and Maya can’t say no. They’ve tried to, of course. But the guys in their life just won’t listen. To get one guy off her back, Leila tells him she’s too busy making a show for Fringe. Too Soon, Too Now is the end result – a show made because a dude wouldn’t believe Leila was not interested.

Writer and Director Fiona Spitzkowsky has crafted a sharp black comedy that really is “too now”. The conceit of a show about making a show is one thing, but making a show to keep these two women safe from over-enthusiastic men? That’s fascinating. And hilarious.

Bridget Sweeney and Sandra Chui bounce off each other both verbally and physically. We join them in the middle of enjoying a night out and we’re already on their side because of the exaggerated dance moves. Their ongoing “relationships” with Guy and Hottie (both played by Emil Freund) target hook-up culture, consent, the Male Gaze and physical reactions to intimate encounters. Sweeney and Chui are a delightful (dark) comic pair.

Too Soon, Too Now is blacker than it first appears, but is also clever, energetic and chaotically blood-soaked. In a space as small as Errol’s Upstairs, this show is intimate but never cramped; though perhaps watch where your fake blood sprays?

Monday, 11 September 2017

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks



“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return, the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago.

It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head.

Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did.

Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it.

Agent Cooper, the third part of this Trinity, remained far away for most of the story, but when he finally returned, he was already in the middle of long-made plans. And that was the problem. His plans didn’t change to suit the environment. His plans didn’t change to factor in his missing years.

*

The original series of Twin Peaks was a detective mystery set in a soap opera town with elements of the supernatural weaved in. Dale Cooper was an FBI agent who used his intuition, rock throwing and dreams to solve the case of who killed Laura Palmer. He was, as Agent Albert Rosenfield explained, “the only one of us with the coordinates for this destination”. He was perfectly equipped to answer the mysteries of a small town with big secrets.

A quarter of a century later, the world has moved on but Agent Cooper has not moved along with it. We entered The Return hoping to go back to the town we loved, but as we watched each part, viewers were continually denied the reunions we hoped a revival might bring. In an early episode, Deputy Hawk tells Lucy to bring donuts and she does, but they remain in the box; we do not get to see the spread of baked goods the original Twin Peaks had made iconic.

As the new series progressed, though, elements of the show that we remembered from 1990-91 were slowly reintroduced. Characters we hadn’t seen for twenty-five years were paraded throughout the eighteen parts; Dr Jacoby in one of the earliest scenes of Part 1 through Ed Hurley who remained off-screen until Part 13.

But after waiting so long for the series to return, the character withheld from us the longest was Special Agent Dale Cooper. The paragon of virtue. The knight errant. A character who has never really been seen on television before or since; an odd mix of worldly and naïve.

And when he did finally return in Part 16, viewers and fans rejoiced. And then the rug was pulled out from under us again.

*

It’s not that Dale Cooper was flawless. The end to his original story was a classic tragedy; his imperfect courage saw him fail. Yes, he solved the mystery he came to town to solve, but he got stuck there and got drawn into trying to answer a larger question – what was hiding in the woods?

As you might expect from a soap opera, the villain who haunted Cooper late in the series was his ex-partner, a man who went mad after Cooper slept with his wife. Windom Earle was his nemesis in the classic melodramatic style; his obsession was personal but his plan was, well, world domination. Earle wanted to harvest the evil in the woods and Cooper had to confront his shadow self to save the woman he loved.

He saved the woman but was trapped in limbo. For twenty-five years.

“What year is this?” Cooper asks, perhaps coming to grips with all he’d lost. Or perhaps realising the futility of his best-laid plans.

*

Twin Peaks: The Return was released with very little indication of what to expect. The trailers gave very little away, even if many of the images turned out to be from the final two hours. Without context, these glimpses meant nothing. In context, they weren’t much clearer.

In early weeks, with the show’s resistance to nostalgia and its insistence that fans and viewers not be pandered to, it became more and more clear that while Twin Peaks, the town, was the subject of the original series, it was the object of The Return. Viewers might have been allowed more and more time there as the week’s progressed, but this was setting up the end goal; for Mr C, for Dougie and for Agent Cooper.

The town when we first visited many years ago was “a long way from the world” and it felt out of time. The music was dreamy, the clothes and hairstyles were classic and the male and female roles were stereotypes; men were the law enforcers and women were the homemakers. The mystery uncovered the dark underbelly of small town America and expectations were continually upended.

We had no such certainty when the series was returned to the world. There was no central character; Cooper had been split into a triumvirate and it was harder than ever to grasp where the story was headed. The further in we travelled, the harder it was to get a grip on. As Agent Phillip Jeffries explains in Part 17, it’s slippery in here; he’s talking about time but he might as well have been talking about narrative.

*

The final moments of the original second season are hard to come to grips with; evil has won and the good Cooper is stuck in another world. Surely, the new episodes would give us closure and resolution. Surely.

But we have lost twenty-five years and so has our paragon of virtue. He is far away and a long way from the world. Cooper is no longer of the earth, he is an agent of the Red Room.

This is difficult to accept. The hero we waited so long for doesn’t solve the problem of his doppelganger; the destruction of Mr C and BOB are left to supporting players, both long-standing and brand new.

Cooper is there to observe; much like The Fireman helps Andy to make sure Lucy is in the right place at the right time, Dale is only at the Sheriff’s station to make sure Freddie fulfils his destiny. It feels narratively perfunctory, but tells us that Agent Cooper has bigger things to contend with. Much like Windom Earle, Cooper is now playing off the board.

And the moves he makes are difficult to parse; even though we have some idea of his two end goals – find Laura and stop Judy. Two birds with one stone.

*

Laura Palmer is The One, the Log Lady tells Hawk. But the one what? In Twin Peaks, she was the object. In the film Fire Walk With Me, she is the subject. In The Return, she is an open question and as much a destiny as the town of Twin Peaks itself.

“Now the circle is almost complete. Watch and listen to the dream of time and space. It all comes out now, flowing like a river. That which is, and is not. Hawk, Laura is the one.” Margaret Lanterman was never easy to decipher and no easier in her dying days. But she is warning about the dream of time and space; it’s slippery in here.

Early in this new series, Cooper is implored by Laura’s father, Leland, to find her. We see this moment again in Part 17; is it future or is it past? Some of The Return has played out of chronological order, so these moments that are outside of time cannot be definitively placed. But much like the icons of the series we have revisited, shot from unexpected angles, these replayed scenes are slightly different. Are these the exact same moments? Or is Cooper experiencing them again?

Is it happening again. And again?

And again.

The mystery of who killed Laura Palmer was long solved. The mystery of where she is plagues Cooper now – and the way he chooses to fix this problem brings about the final leg of this strange and troubling return.

*

Bringing back long dead film and television franchises often feels cynical, like a network or a studio wants to make money from brand recognition. It’s a fraught business because fans want the world they once knew but writers and directors want to stretch themselves creatively; the concerns of David Lynch and Mark Frost in the late 1980s are not the same concerns as they have now in 2017.

As Mark Frost explained during production, this new series or eighteen-part film, is not an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, it’s something of a criticism of nostalgia; ironic given how much the original series feels nostalgic for an era long gone.

Pie and coffee is withheld from us and from Cooper. We don’t hear any music from Angelo Badalamenti for hours and few new cues from him until late in the season. And our hero, our Special Agent, makes a mistake so fundamental that it changes the world and upsets the premise of the original show. That long-ago question of who killed Laura Palmer is rendered moot; I tell you, she has not died.

Agent Cooper does not remember the dire warnings of The Fireman. Beyond getting 430 miles (from where?), he does not remember Richard and Linda. He does not listen to the sounds. And much like Lot and Orpheus, as he tries to rescue Laura, he looks back.

And she is gone. Gone from his grip and gone from history. No longer dead nor wrapped in plastic.

*

In this current era of prestige TV, lead characters need not be heroes; they may well be villains. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper are varying shades of dark, but they gain the benefit of our doubt because they are the series’ lead character. We are appalled by their behaviour, but much of the time we are hoping they get away with things. Narrative gets us on their side.

We are on Dale Cooper’s side throughout The Return, willing him to come back to the world, to us and to Twin Peaks. Perhaps, like Dougie saves the people he meets in Las Vegas, Dale Cooper might save Twin Peaks from itself. No longer a quiet logging town, it’s infected by drugs and threatened by political fucks and franchise stores.

We are with Dale Cooper right up until…

The climactic scene in the Sheriff’s Station should have been unambiguously triumphant, but the story is almost anti-climactic with the super-powered green glove and evil reduced to a fiery ball. Unnervingly, Cooper’s face is superimposed over this moment; he’s observing these people, these objects, these pawns. His plan is running like clockwork, though it cannot reach 2:53 – the moment (and number) of completion.

“The past dictates the future,” he explains. Things will change. Beyond life and death.

Dale Cooper is no longer the hero of the story. He changes the past and alters the world. And not for the better. I’ve spent much of the past week trying to understand the plot and the details; trying to break the code and solve the show. But this has always been futile. I knew this all along.

The hardest thing to reconcile was the fact that Cooper has failed. Again.

And worse than before.

*

Agent Cooper of the Red Room is stuck in a loop. He is trying to save Laura Palmer. He is trying to give her more life. But he doesn’t understand that he cannot do that. He doesn’t understand that he cannot erase trauma. He asks Diane if she remembers everything and she tells him that she does. But this doesn’t stop him from trying to fix her by recreating the assault visited upon her by Mr C.

This doesn’t stop him from trying again and again and again to find answers and to solve the world, returning Laura and Diane to moments of deep hurt and not listening to them. Not all can be said aloud now, but when these women speak, Cooper should listen. But he doesn’t.

His plan continues. Is it future or is it past? He enters one motel and exits another; another try and another loop. He enters as Dale and exits as Richard; another try and another loop.

He swishes his hand and the curtains part; he’s learning things but not the fundamental lesson.
He cannot save Laura. He cannot give her more life. He cannot erase her trauma without victimising her further.

Dale Cooper is not Dougie. Dale Cooper is not Mr C. By the end of The Return he may be an amalgamation of all three parts, but there’s one thing he is not.

He’s not the hero.

He may be the villain.

*

Dale Cooper finds a woman named Carrie Page, but doesn’t she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer? She’s living in Odessa, a clear allusion to Odysseus and the epic of The Odyssey. We thought this was the story of Cooper returning to the world and to the town we had such sweet memories of. 

But Odessa is the feminine of Odysseus and it is Laura who is returned to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks. By force. Without thought for the woman or her story.

This is not nostalgic.

This is traumatic.

*

Twin Peaks: The Return doesn’t end with the question “What year is this?” It ends with the blood curdling scream of Laura Palmer.

And as the credits roll, Laura once again – as we saw in parts past and decades ago – whispers into Cooper’s ear. We do not hear her this time.

And if Cooper listens to her sound, he seems not to hear her, either.


And that is why he fails and why his return is so troubling.


Saturday, 19 August 2017

REVIEW: Surprise Party with Jem & Dead Max, La Mama Courthouse

Surprise Party with Jemma and Dead Max
Photo by Connor Tomas O'Brien

Recently, La Mama theatre in Carlton celebrated its 50th Anniversary of staging and producing innovative, diverse, independent theatre in Melbourne. It is supportive of all range of artists, from newcomers to old-hands and you never know what you are going to get when you visit either of its two spaces in Faraday Street or at the Courthouse.

As La Mama enters its second fifty years, there’s a surprise party happening, in a new play by Georgia Symons. The play has been assisted in its creation by a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, followed by a development as part of The Kiln at Arts Centre Melbourne.

We’ve all arrived at parties on time or a little late only to find the hosts are still setting up and that’s the case here. Jem (Anna Kennedy) needs help hanging streamers and blowing up balloons and the audience is happy to help; we’re welcomed into a festive space and pleased to have been invited.

As the title of the play suggests, the surprise party is for Jem’s close friend Max (Christian Taylor), who is dead. He would have been twenty-one-years-old today, if he’d survived the fatal head-on collision with a truck. But enough with the sadness, let’s get on with celebrating a very full life.

Jem and Max were close friends at high school; they attended parties and went on school camp and saw movies together. Jem makes a game out of reminiscing about their friendship, sending Max on a kind of treasure hunt around her house to find mementos of their time together.

The play mostly focuses on these two friends hanging out and having fun talking about old times – even if Max’s scars from the accident are clearly visible throughout. Hey, if he’s not worried about his early death, why should we be? Let’s have fun watching them having fun!

And there’s a lot of joy in seeing Kennedy and Taylor inhabit these energy-filled teenagers jumping around the stage, dancing and singing and drinking like there’s no such thing as a hangover. Only late in the play do we get much of a sense of danger, when Jem’s drink is spiked, though the play makes it clear she’s hiding something from Max throughout.

There’s a darker, more complicated surprise at the heart of Surprise Party. It’s about grief, of course, but not simply about the death of a friend, but about the death of friendship. What can we say to people who slip out of our lives? Where do we put our anger and outrage when they aren’t around to yell at any more?

There’s some strong dramatic stuff towards the end, though the overly complicated staging by director Iris Gaillard robs us of a smooth way into the story. For all the energy of the cast, there’s too much stage craft and “business”; we should be connecting more with these characters than watching them deal with dozens of props and many sets of chairs. These choices bog down the reveals in the closing minutes of the play.

Anna Kennedy’s Jem is a welcoming presence and makes us feel comfortable before pulling the rug out from under us. Her character is easier to get a grip on than the deliberately mercurial Max. Christian Taylor has the harder job, being as much Jem’s memory of Max as he is Max himself.

Symons’ script is layered and knotty and the story she’s really telling isn’t clear until the end, but it might feel better if it felt more like an inevitability than a surprise twist.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Returning to a place I've never been: My Twin Peaks Festival odyssey



As I sit here, half a world away (I have the co-ordinates, but am no longer in the zone) and a day ahead of those in North Bend and Snoqualmie (is it future or is it past), I am reminiscing about my time at the 25th Annual Twin Peaks Festival. 

I wish it wasn’t over.

I have been a fan of Twin Peaks ever since it aired in Australia in 1991. I have dreamed of visiting the area where it was filmed all this time – and have known about the Festival ever since first reading about it in “Wrapped in Plastic” magazine many, many years ago. I wonder now why it’s taken me so long to make this trip, but I would not exchange waiting and experiencing this years’ event for anything.

Even attendees who have visited the Festival multiple times (some, nearly every year for a quarter of a century) had to admit that this year was unique. We’re in the middle of watching Twin Peaks: The Return and we watched part 12 with a room full of Twin Peaks fans at the Roadhouse in North Bend, which is the exteriors for the Roadhouse (or Bang Bang Bar) in Twin Peaks itself.


I got to visit iconic locations – the Falls, the Double-R Diner, the Sheriff’s Station – while others, who had seen all these places, discovered new shooting locations for scenes that had just aired. In Part 11, which debuted the week before the Festival, we saw Becky hunt down her cheating husband at Gersten’s apartment – and fans found that location quick smart. So many stairwell shots from that building appeared over the weekend.

Next year’s Festival attendees will get to pull apart the entirety of The Return and actors will be able to answer questions in more detail. If Sherilyn Fenn returns in 2018, she’ll be able to talk about appearing in a show she’d been absent from until we saw her in the Roadhouse, though neither she nor Audrey made it there.

I don’t know that any other TV series could build an event quite like the Twin Peaks Festival. I can’t think of another series that has so many locations you can visit that still look mostly like they did twenty-five years ago or have been renovated to their former glory because of The Return.

Like Lucy, don't bother me when I'm at lunch
The original series only filmed in the Pacific Northwest for the pilot, but production returned for Fire Walk With Me and the new series has expanded the world of Twin Peaks in so many ways, including more and more locations around North Bend, Mt Si, Snoqualmie and Olallie State Park. I spent three days in the area and still didn’t see everything, which is reason enough to return some day.

Only three hundred tickets are sold to the Festival every year and they sold out in fifteen minutes this time. Three hundred people sounds like a lot but not compared to other TV and film festivals and conventions; three hundred attendees is intimate. We were all together at the Celebrity Dinner and the picnic, picking and choosing which places to see in between and when we might spend time talking to other fans and meeting the celebrities.

Can you imagine another festival/convention where you can just sit down with Sherilyn Fenn, chat for a few minutes, get a photo and not feel like a crowd is breathing down your neck?

People at the Festival love meeting the actors and the Executive Producer of their favourite TV series, but they are also excited by the fan art on display and on sale. As David Lynch says, anyone who creates is a friend of his – and there were a lot of Lynch fans/friends displaying their art, inspired by Twin Peaks and the Pacific Northwest.

with John Thorne,
co-editor of Wrapped in Plastic and Blue Rose magazines
I loved meeting Sherilyn Fenn and Kimmy Robertson and getting an epic photo with Chrysta Bell and Amy Shiels, but one of my favourite moments was meeting John Thorne, co-editor of “Wrapped in Plastic” magazine. Twin Peaks might have changed how I viewed television, but in the 90s, when I couldn’t rewatch the series, “Wrapped in Plastic” kept the fire of fandom alight. I found issue 6 in a local comic-book store and then purchased every issue through its final, number 75, many years later.

Over those years, I wrote to John and co-editor Craig Miller, many times. I had several letters and a couple of small pieces published in the magazine. In a time when I couldn’t revisit the series itself, reading theories and interviews with the cast and WIP’s detailed episode guides, reminded me issue after issue how incredible Twin Peaks was. Meeting John was a great moment. Seeing him in the Roadhouse after Part 12 and getting his immediate reaction to new Twin Peaks was very special.

Meeting fans and getting their thoughts on the new show was pretty wonderful, too. I spoke with fans from England and Japan and Germany and from all over the United States. Shout-out to Chris from Seattle, who drove my friend Amanda and I around the first day, and to Pete and his wife Kim from Virginia, who drove us around on the last day. Fans are so generous, showing off places they have already visited, willing to see them again to see the reactions of us first-timers.


After loving this show for twenty-six years, it’s hard to explain how it felt to see Snoqualmie Falls by day and by night, or to eat at Twede’s Café, or to walk through both the Twin Peaks and Deer Meadow Sheriff’s Stations. It was real and surreal. It was like stepping into the world of the show, a world that continues to open-up, its mysteries unfolding before us week-by-week.

Much like Cooper’s odyssey back to Twin Peaks in The Return, my trip to North Bend and Snoqualmie feels like it has taken twenty-five years and the wait has been worth it.

Upon leaving the Festival, I will miss the sights and sounds, the fans and the actors, but via social media, none of these people are that far away. And as we post our reminiscences and our highlights, we will continue to bond over the final parts of the 18-hour film that is David Lynch and Mark Frost’s return to Twin Peaks.

The original series was cancelled in 1991. It returned as a film and then went away for a long time. The Festival began and continued and, under the guidance of Rob & Deanne Lindley, goes from strength to strength.

In The Return, Dale Cooper is on his odyssey back to Twin Peaks. It’s a long, strange journey and one I will follow when I return to this Festival one day. Hopefully, it won’t take another twenty-five years.


with Kimmy Robertson (Lucy)

with Chrysta Bell (Agent Preston) &
Amy Shiels (Candie)

with John Pirruccello (Chad)
with James Marshall (James)
with Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wrecking Ball by Action Hero (Arts House)


“Metaphor is bullshit.”

How do you create an authentic moment? How do you invent something out of nothing? How do you find truth with your camera when all you have is a model, a white backdrop and some cocktails?

James Stenhouse’s photographer welcomes us to his studio. He wants us to relax. He offers us a beer. He doesn’t want anyone to feel any pressure, especially not his model. Gemma Paintin is his model, his subject and someone who wants him to work miracles.

From the opening minutes of this play by UK company Action Hero, currently in residence at Arts House in North Melbourne, we can feel the power imbalance. The photographer has the audience on his side. If we’re not glancing at him, finding him at his makeshift cocktail bar or at his seat in the audience, we’re only staring at her. He’s subject and she is object.

The model, who needs a memorable photograph, a transformative album cover, acts like she is only there out of obligation. This might make her a star, but it’s also a chore. He’s trying to create magic and she’s pushing back. What is she to do with this pineapple? Is she really lying on a beach? What’s with this ice cream that doesn’t drip?

She rebels and we can see why. The photographer, for all his vision, lacks perception. He is treating her like a prop in her own photoshoot. A warm body who moves to his own amusement. And slowly the power shifts. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Wrecking Ball is a carefully drawn satire on creativity and commercialism. It’s also a fascinating commentary on objectification; when we stare at a celebrity in a perfectly posed photograph, are we seeing them or a thing the photographer has created?

Much of this play centres on how much we, as an audience, are willing to suspend our disbelief. The mounting tension between the photographer and the model, as he tempts her into more and more ridiculous scenarios, is palpable. And hilarious.

We all like to take photographs to capture moments. And we’re thrilled when we get the frame right and the light. Wrecking Ball swings wildly and smashes into the pretensions of trying to create something out of nothing. Of thinking capturing objects is enough and forgetting that the subject is the key.

A remarkable, insightful play about imagery and image.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hoke’s Bluff by Action Hero (Arts House)

Hoke's Bluff at Arts House
I don’t watch sport very often, but when I do, I often think of it as a kind of theatrical event. There’s drama on the field, on the court and on the ice. There’s a crowd invested in every movement and every shot at goal. Athletes are trying to give the best performances of their career every time they appear in front of their audience and fans.

Sporting heroism is at the heart of Hoke’s Bluff by British performance group, Action Hero, currently in residence at Arts House in North Melbourne. They’ve transformed the main room of the Town Hall into a stadium with bleachers and a court that resembles a basketball court, but the sport we cheer could be anything.

There’s a mascot and a cheerleader. There’s an umpire and a coach. And sportsmen going through tough training regimes, assaulted by a torrent of clichés and inspirational quotes. Small Town USA telling its young men that they can be the greatest; their young women cheering from the sidelines.

The repetition of the script, devised by performers Gemma Paintin, James Stenhouse and Laura Dennequin, is in turns energetic and trying. The writing fixates on certain turns of phrase and then tries out a myriad of reconfigurations. Small town kids are dreaming about the future, but the rote commands of coaches and teammates and friends almost guarantee they will go nowhere.

The sheer implausibility of becoming a professional athlete never enters their mind; they strive to achieve and escape their mundane existence.

The trouble with Hoke’s Bluff is that it’s stuck in this routine and we don’t learn much about the central characters. They are stuck on the treadmill and the audience is right alongside; it’s not enough we are occasionally brought into the action by feeling like we’re part of the team or the roaring crowd, we must care about who wins and who loses.

We were encouraged to cheer, like we might at a sporting event, but not much in the show itself left me wanting to applaud these writer/actor/athletes. Not even for their awesome physicality and commitment.

Hoke’s Bluff is oncourt until Saturday night only. Action Hero is at Arts Centre this week and next with two other shows.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Wild Bore (Malthouse Theatre)

Adrienne Truscott, Ursula Martinez, Zoe Coombs Marr
sitting on their starring arses in Wild Bore

I’ve been thinking a lot about theatre criticism lately, on the back of the layoffs at Fairfax, who are threatening to scale back their arts coverage to virtually non-existent. It’s hard to find even now.

Arts criticism is important to theatre ecology. Good theatre criticism informs a readership about a work it hasn’t seen. Good theatre criticism can be helpful to the artist. Good theatre criticism can be used in a show’s publicity. Good theatre criticism is an art in itself.

If you take criticism away, you diminish the arts.

But criticism isn’t always good. Criticism, like the theatre, can be flawed. And Wild Bore’s challenge to theatre critics is to question themselves.

The dramaturgical intent of this show is clear – critics can sometimes talk out of their arse. The audience is bombarded with this imagery over and over again to hilarious result. But it would be a pity if that’s what this show is remembered for, a lot of bare arses on stage.

Adrienne Truscott, Ursula Martinez and Zoe Coombes Marr are all performance artists whose work doesn’t neatly fit categories. You might call them comedians, but you don’t get tradition stand-up at their solo shows, not even when Zoe is playing “Dave” – a male stand-up comedian.

Truscott’s previous show, One Trick Pony, was about the critical reaction to her previous show Asking for It. She wrestled with her critics there, but she also wrestled with the fact that her work defies neat summary. How do you critique a work if you’re not exactly sure if it’s stand-up, or cabaret, or performance art? And should that matter to her?

Wild Bore continues to pick apart the problems of theatre criticism, while critiquing the show we are watching as it happens. They read choice quotes from reviews of their own work, but also focus on some outrageous, almost meaningless criticism that is remembered purely for its vivid imagery.

There also seems to be a recurring criticism directed at these women’s work, though; a blanket statement that dismisses the choices they make - “for some reason”. Their critics don’t bother to interrogate why these performers might choose certain theatrical devices, they just underline the conceit and leave it at that. For some reason.

I almost wrote that Wild Bore defies criticism, but that feels like a lazy response. This is a smart, confronting, hilarious piece of meta theatre that questions its critics’ biases and then picks apart its own. Yes, even as the show worries about the dominant male critical voice, these three white women step aside for another voice to take the stage. A critique of the critics of the critics. Thank you, Krishna Istha, your voice is very much appreciated.

Wild Bore is a review of Wild Bore and a piece of subversive art comedy theatre performance that doesn’t disappear up its own arse. It just comes dangerously close. And it’s all the better for it.