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.


Saturday, 20 May 2017

Happy Days at War by Leah Milburn-Clark (Northcote Town Hall)

Leah Milburn-Clark, writer, director, star of Happy Days at War
In the midst of World War II, a German’s couple’s relationship is tested when the husband lands a job with the Fuhrer and must question if he has a future with his blind wife.

Written, starring and co-directed by Leah Milburn-Clark, Happy Days at War tackles big ideas in an intimate setting. Studio 1 at the Northcote Town Hall has never felt so cosy, with the audience lined up along the edge of a trestle table, cradling props that are waiting for us on our seats.

Nicola Stratman’s set design evokes a period kitchen, with a working stove allowing the scent of dinner to waft through the space. We are in that room, sometimes inches from the actors as they eat, drink, knead dough and play with a new pet.

Leah has written a part for herself that is challenging; her character is blind and interacts with the audience (those holding props), as if she is trying to find them, even when the character knows where she's left them. This woman is about routine and Leah makes these simple gestures fascinating to watch.

Jay Peardon as the husband has the tougher role, though. He must appear sympathetic at first, believable as a doting, affectionate husband and then watch him transform as he is affected by Nazi propaganda. It’s a big ask for the audience to track that change in a seventy-minute two-hander, but Jay's performance is striking in its shifts throughout.

The two performers are engaging and the production is lovely to look at, with all its theatrical nods to “realism”. The play is compelling, as we watch the routine of two lives turned upside-down by government policy they have no control over.

The character of the husband goes through a much more interesting journey than the wife, who simply reacts to her husband’s changing moods.  As the tone of the play changes, the whole production should feel a little more dangerous than it does; the collapse of this couple is a metaphor for the collapse of the country they love.

Leah Milburn-Clark is a recent graduate of WAAPA and she should be commended for getting a strong team of emerging artists together and taking this show on the road. I couldn’t help but think that an outside-eye, a director who was not writer and performer, might have helped to raise the stakes and interrogate things in the text that the writer might have missed.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

SPENCER by Katy Warner (Chapel Off Chapel)


Scott is an AFL football player who is waiting at his family home to meet the son he never knew he had. Brother Ben is more interested in Scott’s career than the result of Scott’s one-night-stand. Mother Marilyn is excited to meet her first grandchild, while criticising daughter Jules for not becoming a mother herself.

Spencer, a new play by Katy Warner (A Prudent Man), is a rapid-fire comedy about expectations amongst family. While Marilyn’s focused much of her energy on Scott’s AFL career, she’s given up hope on her other two children. And, to be fair, they’ve given up too; on dreams both big and small.

There are a lot of stories about parents having high expectations for their children, but Katy’s new play also digs into children’s expectations of their parents. In some ways, Ben and Jules’ stories of losing faith in Marilyn are more compelling than their mother losing faith in them. And when their estranged biological father arrives, tensions are higher and the uncomfortable, sometimes brutal laughs come thick and fast.

Director Sharon Davis keeps the pace up for most of the play’s running time, only allowing the audience and the characters a moment to catch their breaths during the occasional fade to black. In some ways, Spencer plays like a domestic drama punctured by cutting remarks; if you played this story straight, it could be unbearable. But sometimes, with family, you gotta laugh.

There’s a lot of high energy work on the stage in this production, none more so than Lyall Brooks in the role of Ben. He’s the biggest disappointment of the family; divorced, living with his mother, coaching Auskick and a complete slob. Lyall bounces around on stage, lunging, stretching and eating M&Ms off his chest. His speech about coco-pops is both gross and hilarious and some late play business with a piñata is stellar physical comedy.

Jane Clifton’s Marilyn brightens up the stage in her colourful costumes even as she darkens her children’s days. She’s unhappy with Ben and Jules’ life, but she’s also struggling to understand why her successful son might not be enjoying the career she sacrificed so much for. It’s a truly remarkable performance; a mother you can’t stand but come to understand.

Rob Sowinski’s set feels like outer-eastern-suburbs chic from the 1970s that Marilyn and family have never updated. This family is stuck in the past in many ways, retelling jokes they’ve told all their lives and being unable to grow up.

Spencer is the child and grandchild the family is waiting for to arrive. They are already pouring their dreams into him, a child of two-years-old. Spencer captures a day in the life of a family who once had high expectations for each other and, now that they have failed, are excited to have a new family member that might make up for wasted opportunities.

And it’s bloody hilarious.




Monday, 8 May 2017

The World Spins: Watching Twin Peaks for the last time


I recently finished re-watching Twin Peaks for the last time. One day, I’ll watch it again, but I’ll never be able to watch the original series the same way again.

The more you access a memory, the more it changes. Your recollection of events from your life remain more like reality if you leave them behind you and access them only rarely. The more you replay a moment in your life, the less reliable your memory of that moment gets. Memory is a fickle thing. We introduce new colours and new experiences and, of course, you can never re-live a memory. And you can never remember exactly how it was.

In the twenty-six years since Twin Peaks first aired on Australian television (it premiered here on February 24th, 1991 – the day Laura Palmer died and the day before my 16th birthday), I have watched the series through a number of times. On VHS, recorded from TV. On a released set of VHS tapes. On DVD (both the Artisan & Gold Box releases). And on BluRay.

It’s hard to remember exactly how I reacted to the series when I first watched it. I knew it was unlike anything I had ever seen, but I was sixteen at the time. What did I know?

I clearly remember discussing the pilot at school and there was a question of whether Sarah Palmer’s vision at the end meant the series was headed in a supernatural direction. Little did we know. I remember talking about Dale Cooper’s very strange dream in the red room with the little man. I remember a discussion about whether grief-stricken Leland falling on Laura’s casket was a clue.

And I remember thinking that this was a deep, dark secret held by the TV creators – even though the reveal of “Who Killed Laura Palmer” had actually aired in the US the previous November. The world, and spoilers, moved slowly in 1991.

I only had the last six or seven episodes on tape for years and I watched those episodes a lot, especially the final four episodes, which aired as two two-hour specials around Sept/Oct 1991. I’ve watched the final hour countless times, trying to figure out what really happened to Dale Cooper and how the multiple cliffhangers might resolve themselves.

I remember the excitement of being able to hire the show from a local video store; to re-watch for the first time, and introduce several friends to the series. It was strange to finally revisit Twin Peaks, which had influenced a lot of my writing in late high school and when I went on to study playwriting and screenwriting. It was a major turning point in my understanding of what television and art could be. And I wasn’t alone.

For twenty-six years, I’ve watched the series and read essays about the show and behind-the-scenes books and watched documentaries. I wrote a follow-up script to the series, just to try to deal with those many cliffhangers and I ran a roleplaying game for my friends to resolve Dale Cooper’s ultimate fate.

Each and every time I revisit the series, I see it differently. I catch things new things I’ve always missed. Or I appreciate different things about the writing or the production or the acting. Hard to not reflect on having co-created my own supernatural drama series (Sonnigsburg) in the years since David Lynch and Mark Frost announced they were returning to their own mystery town in the Pacific Northwest.

Every time you revisit a memory it changes. Every time you revisit a place, it’s different. Every time you watch Twin Peaks, something has changed. We see things differently. We appreciate different aspects of the whole.

In two weeks’ time, Twin Peaks: The Return begins. Whatever story it chooses to tell, however many of the original mysteries Lynch/Frost decide to answer, I will never be able to watch the first two seasons the same way again. Oh, sure, over time you can put terrible sequels and prequels behind you and enjoy the originals again. But never in quite the same way.

I recently finished re-watching Twin Peaks for the last time. I’m looking forward to seeing it again for the first time one day.


But soon, The Return.