Thursday, 4 July 2019

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

Solaris by David Greig
Photo: Pia Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 27 June 2019

REVIEW: Wake In Fright by Declan Greene

Zahra Newman performs Wake in Fright
Photo: Pia Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 June 2019

REVIEW: Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Fringe Wives Club in “Glittergrass”

The expanded Fringe Wives Club in "Glittergrass"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Garry Starr Conquers Troy

Garry Starr Conquers Troy
at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 March 2019

REVIEW: Dance Nation by Clare Barron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 March 2019

REVIEW: Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical by P.J. Hogan, Music & Lyrics by Kate-Miller Heidke & Keir Nuttall

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo by Jeff Busby

Muriel Heslop’s life in the Queensland town of Porpoise Spit is one humiliation after another. She didn’t finish high school, she didn’t come out of secretarial school with any marketable skills and the friends she has don’t treat her very well. In the age of social media, nothing she does gets any likes.

To escape from her friends and family, she disappears into her bedroom and listens to ABBA songs and dreams of the perfect white wedding, proof – in her mind – that she has achieved greatness.

Based on the 1994 film by P.J. Hogan, the stage musical version, which premiered in Sydney in 2017, has been reworked a little since its premiere season and has just opened in Melbourne.

I have fond memories of the original film starring Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths in their break-out roles of Muriel and Rhonda. Underneath the joyous ABBA songs and the upbeat ending, though, Muriel’s Wedding is quite a sad film; Muriel may suffer from some kind of depression and her mother, Betty, has been drained of all life by a family who takes her for granted.

Stage musicals of films are a regular occurrence these days, but having a story and structure in place doesn’t necessarily mean the transition to stage is made easier – especially when the music the audience is primed to hear is classic pop tunes by ABBA. All the other songs in show are going to be compared to songs we already know.

Duo Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall bring nearly twenty years of songwriting expertise to this project and prove themselves up to the task. The ABBA songs are in the prime positions we expect from the film, with a couple of additions – including a poignant rendition of SOS – but the songs written for the show all shine.

“Sunshine State of Mind” is a fun introduction to the heteronormative Porpoise Spit, where men are men and women are working toward getting married and procreating. The transition into the story of Tania & Chook’s wedding, with Muriel catching the bouquet, is smooth – candy-coloured sets sliding in and out, large revolves moving the cast around the stage. “The Bouquet” gets us right into Muriel’s head; Natalie Abbott makes her mark right away – she has an amazing vocal range, and I didn’t think of Toni Colette once.

Next we roll through songs from Bill Heslop (“Progress”) and Muriel’s mean-girl friends “Can’t Hang” – the latter a showstopping number led by Christie Whelan-Browne as Tania Delgado. We’re firmly entrenched in a world of social media and hashtags and selfies, which turns out to be a shorthand for selfishness and shallowness. This is the biggest change from the world of the film, giving it a contemporary edge – and later expanding Muriel’s dreams of proving to the world how great she really is.

Overall, the first act is very strong. It covers a lot of real estate from the film, without feeling too jam-packed. Director Simon Phillips has a lot of experience bringing new musicals to the stage and his guiding hand is strong and well-judged.

After borrowing her mother’s credit card, Muriel goes on a cruise where she meets her new best friend, Rhonda – played by Stefanie Jones, who brings a real charm and sparkle to the character’s foul-mouthed bluntness. Muriel and Rhonda’s musical moment in the film is singing ABBA’s “Waterloo”, which is in the show, but highlight for this pair on stage is their duet “Amazing” – played against a starry night; a beautiful piece about misfits knowing they don’t have to fit in.

When Muriel follows Rhonda to Sydney, the emerald city gets its own song, “Sydney” – a city filled with misfits. Soon Muriel meets Brice Nobes, a parking inspector, the lowest form of life in the city, according to the song. Brice falls for Muriel, of course, but she’s not sure – and is quickly distracted by other “Strangely Perfect Strangers” passing by the iconic harbour bridge.

The end of act one “Any Ordinary Night” is a strong finish, changing Rhonda and Muriel’s lives dramatically.

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Act two is a bit messier, even if somewhat streamlined from its first season. It still has a lot more story to pack in – Muriel meeting the “groom of her dreams” in the body of Alexander Shkuratov, a Russian swimmer who needs to marry to be able to stay in Australia. Stephen Madsen is, uh, built for the role, but also brings some delicious comic timing thoughout the show.

Awkward Brice gets a song of his own “Never Stick Your Neck Out” about how all hopes will be smashed, so no point in dreaming big. It’s a good parallel to Muriel’s story – and allows Jarrod Griffiths to shine, even though the song feels a bit redundant overall.

The ABBA songs are used in surprising ways, often more inventive than in Mamma Mia, the ABBA jukebox musical. The four members of ABBA – Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, Anna-Frid – appear as part of Muriel’s fantasies when she listens to their songs. These characters swing from terrible jokes about Sweden to a kind of dread as they tempt Muriel to disappear into her fantasies.

Muriel’s mother, Betty, is a spectre over the whole show – floating silently along as the family use her for their own needs and never care what she really wants. Her husband, Bill, is having an affair – and even Muriel who could easily become her mother, doesn’t recognise the signs. Betty is played by Pippa Grandison on stage; Grandison was one of the mean-girls in the original film. Her solo moment on stage during “SOS” is the saddest part of the show and an outstanding achievement on all fronts.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design – set, costume & digital projections - are remarkable, bringing a coherent look and feel to the whole show – from the fluorescent colours of Porpoise Spit to the darker shades of Sydney and its nightclubs and alleyways. Even the Harbour Bridge looms over Muriel and doesn’t feel as inviting as it really is.

Andrew Halsworth’s choreography is impressive; his work bringing a real energy to the story and the show – we learn a lot about Muriel’s world from how the large background cast is used. It’s great to see an Australian musical with such a large ensemble that is used so well.

The relationship between Muriel and Rhonda is the emotional centre of the show, throughout its melodramatic ups-and-downs and, like their characters, Natalie Abbott and Stefanie Jones are fucking amazing. Christie Whelan Browne is an excellent villain in Tania Delgado and Pippa Grandison is heartbreaking as Betty.

My, my, Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is an incredible achievement. It’s currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne and will open in Sydney in July.


Christie Whelan Browne leads the mean girls in "Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked"
in Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Monday, 11 March 2019

REVIEW: 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman

Andrea Katz (at piano), Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn & Lisa McCune
in 33 Variations. Photo: Lachlan Woods

In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, sent a waltz of his creation to all the important composers of the time, including Ludwig van Beethoven. He wanted to publish the collection of variations and Beethoven at first refused to be involved – and then he ended up writing thirty-three variations on Diabelli’s waltz.

In the present, musicologist Katharine Brandt is obsessed with trying to understand why Beethoven chose to write such a feat of musical composition. But as she gets ready to travel to Bonn in Germany to continue her research, she is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – and her daughter Clara wonders if her mother should even be going.

As Katharine’s body begins to deteriorate, we see her suffering paralleled with Beethoven’s frustration with the Diabelli Variations – and his struggles with losing his hearing. The deeper Katharine studies the great man’s work, the harder it becomes for her to understand his motivations.

Producer Cameron Lukey has assembled an all-star cast for this production in Melbourne, led by Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Ellen Burstyn in the role of Katharine Brandt. It’s unusual for such a high-profile overseas actor to be cast in a local production, rather than visiting with an international touring show; the opening-night audience showed their appreciation with entrance applause – something I’ve only ever seen happen at Broadway shows.

Burstyn is joined by Lisa McCune, playing Katharine’s daughter, Clara. They are a strong match on stage, sparring throughout even as Katharine’s health deteriorates and the pair can’t agree on her end-of-life plan. Toby Truslove plays Katharine’s nurse who later becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and he’s predictably goofy, throwing in some welcome physical comedy in amongst the heavy drama.

William McInnes is commanding in the role of Beethoven, veering between arrogant and tortured genius and finding his way to composer who is suffering – a transformation that is surprisingly affecting. He gets to argue with Francis Greenslade as Diabelli and Andre de Vanny as Schindler, his assistant. As the play progresses, Beethoven becomes less of an enigma and more of a man that Katharine can understand and relate to.

Moises Kaufman’s script is strong, really digging into Katharine and Clara’s relationship – one that is difficult to watch at times, as Katharine confesses that she’s scared that Clara will only ever be mediocre. And the role of Katharine is such a gift for a female actor who is now in her eighties.

Dann Barber’s set is striking on first entering the theatre; two levels, lots of classic arches and metallic railing that looks like a musical stave. Slowly, over the course of the play, it reveals further depths and the use of digital screens and cameras was effective, especially during the sequence when Katharine is undergoing scans at the hospital.

Pianist Andrea Katz is on stage the whole time, playing the different variations exquisitely, though she’s also used effectively during dramatic moments when Beethoven loses his temper or Katharine is lost in the music.

There were a few dialogue stumbles on opening night and the doors on the set sometimes didn’t quite close as they were supposed to. But director Gary Abrahams’ vision for the play is as clear and precise as the notes in Beethoven’s sketch books; a grand, perfect façade can belie an inability to communicate – which is the greatest tragedy of all. For an artist and for a parent and child.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

REVIEW: Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice

The cast of Jersey Boys
Photo: Jeff Busby

Jersey Boys is a documentary-style musical about the lives of the original four members of the 1960s Rock & Roll band, The Four Seasons, and its lead vocalist Frankie Valli. It charts the band member’s early days in New Jersey through its rocky early years, where they borrowed money from mobsters to record their first singles, through to national and international fame. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005, beating The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer.

I’ve seen most of the Tony Award winners for Best Musical from the last twenty years and this one might well be the laziest in terms of script and production, but the songs of The Four Seasons are so iconic, seeing some of the band’s original magic recreated on stage was a lot of fun.

The show opens with a cover version of their 1976 hit “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by a French rap artist, Yannick. It’s a fun way to acknowledge that the band’s songs are remembered and reinterpreted – but it’s the only such example in the whole show. And it isn’t a song from the period of time this show is focused on, which is mostly set in the early 1960s. I guess the song title makes it more relevant to the time, if not the version of The Four Seasons the show depicts.

The show is divided into four parts, predictably titled for the four seasons, narrated by a different original member of the band. There’s so much narration in this show, it’s hard to really get to know these men as people – and the notion that different perspectives might create drama or alternate recollections isn’t really explored.

Cameron McDonald’s performance as Tommy Devito is the stand-out, with his convincing Jersey accent bringing to life the shadier side of the band’s history. He’s the first narrator of the evening and he sets a strong tone that’s unmatched later in the show.

The key relationship is the friendship and loyalty between Franki Valli (Ryan Gonzalez) and Bob Gaudio (Thomas McGuane). The two men formed the legal entity The Four Seasons Partnership in 1960 which continues to this day. Gonzalez and McGuane do a great job of transforming from young kids out of their depth into strong friends who continue on together long after the band loses Devito and Nick Massi (Glaston Toff) and evolves into Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.

Gonzalez is also able to find Valli's falsetto, bringing an authenticity to his role as the lead singer.

The set is uninspiring – metallic staircases, chain link fences and a big digital screen that contains Lichtenstein-esque illustrations of moments that are happening on stage with the live performers. None of the theatrical wizardry really adds anything to the show, outside of the kind of lighting queues you would expect to complement a band performing its most famous songs.

The second half of the show is stronger overall, because its hit ratio is larger and it feels more and more like a concert. The narration doesn’t go away, but it fades into the background until the finale where each of the lead characters takes a moment to update us on their lives since the 1960s.

The female characters are poorly drawn and badly used. Effectively the show has Frank Valli’s wife, a series of “conquests” for the men, a girl group that is referred to as “infinite possibilities” for the four boys – and later we meet Valli’s daughter, whose purpose in the narrative is to die and give Valli something to be sad about. For a “documentary”, this musical doesn’t care much for interesting portraits of people at all, but especially not women.

Jersey Boys might be of interest if you remember the period or you really want to see the songs of The Four Seasons performed live – I cannot fault the musical performances. Or if you want to add it to a list of shows that have won Tony Awards for Best Musical that you have seen.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

REVIEW: Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn

The ensemble cast of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play play
a company of actors re-telling The Simpson's "Cape Feare"
Photo: Sarah Walker
How well do remember the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob gets out of jail and tries to murder Bart? If you needed to tell the story, could you? Do you remember any of the jokes or set-pieces? How about the film references contained within?


In the first act of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a group of survivors in a post-Apocalyptic America gather together around a fire, trying to remember the details of “Cape Feare”, the second episode of the fifth season of The Simpsons, which first aired in 1993 and has been replayed thousands of times since.

The grid is offline, nuclear power-plants have melted down, and in the weeks and months after this world-wide disaster, people are telling stories to pass the time and to connect with each other. This is and isn’t people telling ghost stories around a fire; the details are important, and this TV show is haunting them.

Telling stories and passing them on is a recurring trope in fiction about the end of the world. Beyond survival, people want to remember the world that has come before and recount the stories they remember from childhood. But in the early twenty-first century, we aren’t trying to piece together The Odyssey or a childhood tale like The Faraway Tree, we are putting pop culture back together and resurrecting the seminal work of Matt Groening.

“Cape Feare” is itself a parody of the 1991 film Cape Fear, which is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name – based on the novel The Executioners by John D. Macdonald. And this episode doesn’t just reference this lineage, it sketches in nods to another film starring Robert Mitchum (lead actor in the original and a cameo in the 1991 film), Night of the Hunter.

The survivors are trying to piece together an episode of television that is already pieces of other broken narratives. The world has ended and nothing quite fits together anymore. And even as they have established a routine and precautions, these people are on edge – who knows the loyalties of other survivors when they approach their camp. As fun as references to The Simpsons are, there is a palpable dread by the firelight.

Lightning Jar Theatre have a reputation for solid productions of recent plays that might not find their way onto Melbourne’s main stages. After Stupid Fucking Bird and Venus in Furs, they have turned their focus to a meta-theatrical wonder that is about storytelling and inheritance; about culture and cultural capital. It’s a gem of a play by Anne Washburn.

Act one meets your expectations; this is a kind of story-telling comfort food. Washburn picks a show many of us know and an episode that is considered a classic. As Matt (Dylan Watson) tries his best to re-enact something most of us are vaguely familiar with, we’re with these characters around a campfire – a classic storytelling setting – but it’s a fire in a barrel, which is a touchstone image for the end-of-the-world.

As you might expect from The Stand or The Walking Dead, an approaching stranger is the key narrative driver in this first scene. Does he bring salvation or death? Does he bring news of the rest of the world or the Sideshow Bob punchline that Matt has been looking for?

Act two is seven years later and stories are things to trade and sell. The survivors are now a theatre company. Yes, The Simpsons episodes are the headline act, but there’s also a kick-arse montage of music-video moves – and ads trying to sell the hope that you might find a can of Diet Coke out there somewhere.

Here Emma Choy’s Colleen is in charge as the director of the ensemble. She’s struggling with how to build frivolous entertainment in a world where everything has portent and meaning. Years after the fall of civilisation, is it time for people to start wanting things again? Petty jealousies are starting to spring up and this feels much like the world getting back on its feet, but darkness still lurks at the fringes.

Act three is much further into the future and the theatre is transformed into something otherworldly. As the survivors become more and more disconnected from the earth that was, the snippets of story and memory, dream and music video are mashed-up to a point where characters take on the mantle of the iconic and the sacred.

In this post-electric world, the central form of dramatic art becomes theatre again. With film and television gone, people are telling stories in the only ways they can; each act adding more and more theatrical devices to the mix.

Under the superb direction of John Kachoyan, Mr Burns is a celebration of theatre itself – and watching the evolution of that throughout the production is quite stunning. There’s an assured focus in act one, warmly and effectively lit by Richard Vabre. Dylan Watson’s Matt is strong as the central figure here, the other survivors supporting him as he tells a story they’ve seen and heard before.

Act two’s rolling sets by Sophie Woodward bring us into the world of repertory theatre, her costumes alluding to The Simpsons but faded because of memory and twisted due to post-Apocalyptic budget restraints. Julie Grenda’s choreography takes centre stage late in the piece, showcasing dance moves that will outlive us all.

Lightning Jar’s ensemble of actors impresses in a section that is more animated and comical than the first. Victory Ndukwe’s quiet restraint in act one gives way to moments of hilarity here. Mark Yeates brings the kind of cackling joy you expect from Sideshow Bob. But Emma Choy is the standout here – giving us a real sense of trying to keep things together, even as she doesn’t understand how these plays fit into the world anymore.

While the cast is strong overall, though some of their American accents are shaky, especially early on. Perhaps they relaxed into it, maybe my ears did, but it was a pity this was such a problem. I often think that eschewing accents is better than bad ones, but for this particular play it might have presented other problems if we’d heard these lines in ‘Strayan.

I felt the length of the play a couple of times; the long transition into act two made it feel like the show was starting again once the lights were back up. And while the third act is striking visually, and the threads do draw together neatly, it doesn’t reach the apotheosis the script is aiming for. The play evolves into a musical, but the production doesn’t quite nail all the required elements – though Woodward’s costumes are stunning.

Andrew Patterson’s musical direction is wonderful, but some of the actors struggle with the songs. I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics – which is not a problem I had with dialogue earlier in the show.

There are a lot of great ideas in Washburn’s play and it’s a striking story about telling stories. Lightning Jar Theatre’s production might be a little rough around the edges, but when it works, it works – I just wish I had engaged with it more after interval. I’d heard a lot of great things about this play from when it was produced in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney. I guess sometimes hearing tales of how great something is over and over might set expectations too high.

But sometimes you have to see that story told for yourself, because hearing about it is not enough.


Sunday, 10 February 2019

REVIEW: Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow

Marcus McKenzie & Olivia Monticciolo in Sweet Phoebe
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Frazer and Helen are a middle-class married couple with A-type personalities who do everything a thousand percent. They are in complete control of their burgeoning design careers and their marriage is solid. They check in with each other, they are supportive and attentive. And they set aside time for sex. Everything in their life is moving like clockwork.

When their friends, who are off to a retreat for a week for couples counselling, ask Frazer and Helen to look after their dog, Phoebe, Helen says yes, to Frazer’s annoyance. But soon enough, Frazer and Helen have bonded over how great their marriage is, how sad they are for their friends – and Phoebe becomes another goal, another routine to tick off their list of daily accomplishments.

Everything is going well until Phoebe gets out and runs away.

Michael Gow’s play is twenty-five years old and is definitely a period piece, which Red Stitch’s new production embraces. Not that it’s embarrassing early 90s clothing, but it does drop the characters into a minimalist set of black marble with a bright red feature arch. The cluster of neon on the corner feels like a leftover piece of the 80s, but that’s what the early 90s was.

Previous productions I have seen have tried to make Frazer and Helen likeable at the start, before Phoebe goes missing – and it’s after that you are left to figure out how long to feel sorry for them. Director Mark Wilson’s take on the text is far darker; he has no sympathy for these people, whose all-consuming passion for work is what makes them unable to look after a dog or each other.

Laura Jean Hawkins’ set is a black void, with cuts of red and sharp edges. This home is cold, austere, uncomfortable. When Frazer brings Helen a vintage “Bless This House” sign, it’s a literal sign of warmth that is only there to be destroyed. Laura Mibus’ lighting design is intuitive and particular; a spot finds Helen’s classic moment of triumph, but colder boxes of light isolate Frazer during his loss of control late in the play.

The performances by Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo are so full-on that it’s hard to find any sympathy for them as life spirals out of control. But the further into the story we plow, the more fascinating these portrayals were. And once their trust in each other begins to crack, McKenzie and Monticciolo are stunning. Wilson’s vision for this piece is remarkably clear once all hope seems lost and Frazer & Helen self-destruct.

Overall, the play started to drag late in the piece; starting with such heightened emotion, pushing further and further and further into this suburban heart of darkness became overwhelming. It was exhausting. But for a twenty-five-year-old play that could easily be done as a bland middle-class “missing dog” story, I appreciated Mark Wilson’s insistence in pushing everything to the edge and well over it.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

REVIEW: Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine

Ursula Yovich, writer and star of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

 “I am angry. That’s what rock is supposed to be. Full of pain.”

Barbara and her sister René front a band called The Camp Dogs when Barb can book gigs, which is sometimes just busking. Meanwhile, René loves an audience so much, she does a Singing Sheilas cover show at the casino. They’d love to have steady work together, but they know what the music industry is like. That’s where the anger comes in.

The Malthouse audience (“they’ll touch anything”) enters the Merlyn theatre to find it’s been turned into a low-rent music venue, complete with sticky carpet, a chalk board to announce the band and the happy hour specials, and some terrible furniture to seat some lucky audience members. We’re here for the gig and the stories in between the songs, but there’s more to Barbara and the Camp Dogs than listening to rock’n’roll in a space that feels like a hipster pub.

When René talks about anger early on, it’s a laugh line. She’s rolling her eyes at her head-strong sister yelling at the venue managers that pay them and people in the industry that might be able to help them. René doesn’t want to rock the boat – at least not until they get a gig on a yacht, which Barb might have only booked because the owners thought they were Indian.

Barbara knows, though, that as good as she and her sister are, the music industry isn’t looking for new Aboriginal talent to play bigger venues. “They pretend it’s all about merit when it’s really all about what they think they can sell to suburban Sally and her dick-shaped hairbrush.”

The show we’re watching isn’t just the drama and comedy of these two sisters’ lives though; some of it is a pure rock show, with driving songs of love, passion and outrage. Songs borne of everything these two have been through – sharpened by Barbara’s anger.

Writers Ursula Yovich (who also plays Barbara) and Alana Valentine have joined with musician Adm Ventoura to craft the songs which rock out in the venue – sometimes to rhythmic clapping and stomping of feet and sometimes to quiet reflection. The concert part of the show is worth the price of admission alone, but the behind-the-scenes moments elevate this to something truly special.

Elaine Crombie (René) and Ursula Yovich (Barbara) are charming, hilarious and devastating in their portrayal of two sisters, whose family life has been rough and who can’t quite make a living at what they love. Their powerful singing gives way to equally striking dramatic performances as they travel to Darwin for a gig (which the poor Camp Dogs have to pay to get to) and then hit the road to visit their dying mother.

Anger is the driving force behind Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Barbara knows that being the best singer/songwriter in a country that has systematically oppressed its Aboriginal population means that she’ll always struggle. She and her sister sing of standing in the sun and not giving an inch, but as their journey progresses, we can see that their country continues to stand in their way.

It’s often said that comedy is used as a trojan horse to get audiences to hear uncomfortable truths. There are plenty of laughs in Barbara and the Camp Dogs but the real trojan horse here is the rock music. The audience is whooping and cheering the singing and the on-stage band, but slowly, surely and expertly – under the superb direction of Leticia Cáceres – we are let in on a story of pain and anger. Another wake-up call for an audience and a population and a country that should have heard this and done something about it a long ago.

Anger. It’s what rock is supposed to be. It’s what makes this show come alive. An outstanding achievement.



The set of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

Thursday, 7 February 2019

REVIEW: Merciless Gods by Dan Giovannoni

Paul Blenheim and Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Red curtains adorn the back of the stage. A slice of blue cuts through the black. The playing space is intimate, at first crowded by a group of friends at a dinner party, telling stories of revenge. It’s petty to begin with and then it becomes a game of one-upmanship. And even though these middle-class people are safe, the stories of a travel-writer mate become stomach-churning.

This is the introductory tale in Christos Tsiolkas’ short-story collection “Merciless Gods” and it’s the opening piece in the stage adaptation by playwright Dan Giovannoni and Little Ones theatre company.

Tsiolkas is merciless with his characters, always. He paints stunning portraits of the cultural spread of Australians, men and women, gay and straight. The lives they lead might be bleak, but they are always suffused with truthfulness and occasional – very occasional – moments of tenderness.

Giovannoni has transformed several of the “Merciless Gods” short stories into short plays. Groups of friends. A family with a dying father. A mother coming to terms with the loss of her son through watching porn. A married couple dealing with an overbearing matriarch. A junkie suffering withdrawal and moments of clarity. Not all of these people are at the fringes of society, but they are often at the end of their rope.

Little Ones have a reputation for beautifully-wrought queer texts (or queered texts). The decadence of their Dangerous Liaisons. The simple beauty of their Nightingale and the Rose. Their camped-up Abigail’s Party. And a silent, lustful Dracula.

In comparison, Merciless Gods is almost austere. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, but piercing. Set and Costume Designer Eugyeene Teh reminds us we are watching theatre with that bold red curtain, but costumes the actors in the everyday. Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis’ work is brilliantly subtle, as always – a creeping shadow or a shaft of light; characters cocooned in shadow or inching toward daylight.

This production has previously played at the Northcote Town Hall, but was designed for the stage at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney. Griffin is a very intimate space. That slice of blue at the Fairfax Studio is the entire stage at Griffin.

Some of the stories in the first half felt a little overwhelmed by this new space; the choice of having actors face away from the audience is barely a problem at Griffin, but from further back at the Fairfax, parts of the dialogue were muffled or lost. This was less of a problem in the second half – where at least a couple of the pieces, like the final two monologues, felt perfectly suited to the void of darkness before we are overwhelmed by light.

The ensemble of actors are regulars in Little Ones’ productions, with the exception of Stefan Bramble, who is new to this season of the show. Jennifer Vuletic is given several chances in a variety of roles to command the stage. Paul Blenheim is heartbreaking as the junkie, remembering the man he loved. Sapidah Kian is remarkable throughout the night and pulls everything into focus in the last piece.

As tough and rough as the characters are, director Stephen Nicolazzo has created polished theatrical jewels from their lives. Out there against the blood red backdrop, he and the Little Ones team have brought Tsiolkas’ words to queer, passionate, troubling, affecting life. Merciless Gods is remarkable.



Sapidah Kian in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Monday, 4 February 2019

REVIEW: Cock by Mike Bartlett

Matthew Connell (John) and Marissa O'Reilly in Cock

John has been with his boyfriend for seven years, so it’s a surprise to them both when John meets and falls in love with a woman. But is it love or is it infatuation? Or maybe it’s just the allure of something different or a kind of normalcy that society has convinced him he really wants?

Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a brutal play about society’s expectations – the kind that is bred into us – and a man who cannot make a decision. This production, directed by Beng Oh, is fast-paced and never lets up long enough for the audience to catch its breath. One minute, John and his boyfriend’s relationship is breaking down. The next they are reconciling because the woman John has fallen in love with is following him, stalking him.

Or is that the lie that John tells his boyfriend to make everything seem better? Like when John tells him that the woman is “manly” – as if that might soften the blow, as if you can ever soften the truth that you’ve cheated on someone.

I first saw Cock at the Melbourne Theatre Company five years ago, where I had a lot of sympathy for John. I identified with the character because he was torn between what society expected of him and what he thought he really wanted.

There’s a moment late in the play where John’s boyfriend’s father says John must choose what he is – as if he must be gay or straight, one or the other. Even for an older man being enlightened enough to accept his son and his boyfriend, he can only see the binary – gay or straight. John knows enough to know that he might not be one or the other – he might be a stew.

This production, first staged at the Meat Market in 2018, embraces the battle at the heart of the play. It’s not one cock fight, though. It’s a series of increasingly tough clashes between John and his boyfriend, John and his girlfriend – and a battle royale at the end with everyone head-to-head.

Matthew Connell’s John is the epitome of indecision; not that the performance is unclear. This John is suffering, not because of the choice everyone expects him to make, but because he’s clearly in an abusive relationship. John is a tough character to like, but Connell embodies a man who has lived so long with a man who treats him badly, that you understand why he cannot make up his mind.

John’s boyfriend (Shaun Goss) and girlfriend (Marissa O’Reilly) are both more complicated than they first seem – and absolutely flawed, too. The rapid-fire dialogue sometimes makes it hard to engage with anyone emotionally, but there’s something very watchable about Goss’ on-edge boyfriend and O’Reilly’s stuck-in-her-head girlfriend.

Scott Gooding as the father is a breath of calm fresh air in the middle of the battle, but he’s also stuck in his ways and hampered by how society has raised him.

It struck me on this viewing of the play that this very clearly isn’t a play about bisexuality – it’s about the how false the choice that John faces is: the idea that he has to choose between a man or a woman. Never once does he consider choosing himself by choosing to be single.

And none of the others consider this either. Society has trained us to think we must be in relationships, even bad ones – and we’ll fight to the death not to be alone, even if it makes us unhappy.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

REVIEW: The Butch Monologues by Laura Bridgeman

The Butch Monologues

Representation matters.

In the discourse surrounding representation on stage and screen, whether we are talking about gender, race or disability, the argument always seems to be that the path to equality will be difficult or impossible. That years of cis white male supremacy will be difficult to overcome. And that’s probably true, but I look at something like The Butch Monologues, as a kind of grass roots campaign for representation that isn’t difficult or impossible. It exists and it is brilliant.

Playwright Laura Bridgeman has spent years talking with butches, transmen and gender rebels across the UK, the United States and the Caribbean – and now she has collected those stories into a series of monologues that explore gender and sexuality for self-described “butches”.

The monologues are all brief, allowing for dozens of them to paint a portrait of the butch experience across the world. Performed at Theatre Works as part of Midsumma, five readers tackle the wry, amusing, shocking, and sometimes very simple tales of people who society can be suspicious of because they do not fit into an expected gender norm.

There are stories about being ashamed to wear the kind of boots that might out someone as butch or queer, stories of sex and domination and submission, stories of leaving small towns to find their place in the big city – where they felt more comfortable, finding a community that would embrace them. Many of the stories touch on a universal queer experience of feeling like an outsider, but also bring along a more complicated kind of gender baggage that cis femme queer women don’t experience. And that feels so radical.

The extraordinary kaleidoscope of experience on stage, presented by readers who aren’t necessarily performers, made the whole show feel warm, inviting and without artifice or pretence. These people weren’t telling their own stories explicitly, but they were presenting their experience to the world in bodies and gender types we are not used to seeing on stage.

Representation matters because people who do not have these experiences should hear them, but it also matters for an audience who has never seen themselves on stage. More than one of the monologues touched on an obsession with musical theatre, which is so often the identifier of a femme gay man. I know that musical fandom knows no boundaries, not really, but I also know that particular genre almost never has a space on stage for butch women.

The Butch Monologues was a place for butches and transmen and gender rebels to see themselves on stage – and given the make-up of the audience at Theatre Works last night, this particular audience turned out in droves. This is a very special show that has traveled the world and I am so thrilled that Midsumma and Theatre Works helped to bring it to Melbourne.

Making theatre is never easy. Making this show must have been hard at times. The research is expansive, impressive. But it’s also five people on stage, under a comforting light, telling small intimate stories. Theatre does not need to be big and complicated to be important and to have impact. More of these kinds of nights, please. Tell me stories of people I do not know or have never heard from.

REVIEW: Truly Madly Britney by Alberto Di Troia

Adam (Nick Clark), Steve (Adam Garner) and Chad (Alex Thew)
in Truly Madly Britney at Theatre Works
Photo: Lachlan Woods

Adam and Steve, a gay couple from Australia, have maxed-out two credit cards to travel to the Mecca of hyper-consumerism, Las Vegas, to see Britney Spears with a meet-and-greet after. Their relationship is under some pressure from the money they’ve spent on the trip so far, though Steve (Adam Garner) assures Adam (Nick Clark) that the whole experience is bringing them closer together.

They are staying in suburban Vegas with Chad Hardcastle, a hyper-masculine, good ol’ Christian, definitely heterosexual, Britney stan, whose obsession with the pop-star rivals Steve’s – except Chad thinks he and Britney are going to get married.

After Britney sprains her ankle and the concert Adam and Steve were supposed to attend gets cancelled, Steve’s mania about meeting the megastar goes into hyper-drive. Upon meeting Judy and her son Kevin, who is getting to meet Britney through the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, Steve starts to concoct a plan to attain his goal – and will let nothing get in his way.

Alberto Di Troia’s play is an anarchic satire on consumerism and pop-culture obsession. It is a beautifully crafted script that also tackles America’s gun culture and toxic masculinity. It’s such a pleasure to see a new work that has been so well developed before its first production.

Under the excellent direction of Hannah Fallowfield, Truly Madly Britney is wild but also finds time to dig into real truths – about the pressure of relationships, friendship and family. An uncomfortably awkward sex scene between Adam and Steve tells us as much about their history as their shouted arguments about forgotten dreams and the push-and-pull over how far they will go to meet Ms Spears.

Kudos to Bethany J Fellows, whose remarkably simple set & costumes choices really does elevate the text. Everything is on wheels for quick set changes – and costume changes are done right there in front of us, too. To stage manager, Lowana Ellis, and assistant stage manager, Max Woods, you have my highest respect for the expert scene transitions and for the execution and clean-up of the vomit.

Adam Garner’s Steve is volatile – always on the edge of saying or doing something completely outrageous. Garner plays him like a over-shaken bottle of Coke, ready to explode at any moment. And somehow in his performance, he never makes the character grating or repetitive. Even in his worst moments, there’s a fascination to watching Steve mutate and grow further out of control.

Nick Clark’s Adam is more reserved, and very much on-edge. He may collapse at any moment from exhaustion; Clark finds a real human truth in the stresses of Adam and Steve’s relationship. Amongst the glitz and the high-volume energy of the play, Adam has a couple of quiet moments that Clark nails – reminding us of the people they were before this adventure.

Alex Thew’s Chad is just delightful in his focus and obliviousness to everything else going on around him. Louisa Wall’s Judy commands the stage whenever she is on it; the already tall actor is in heels for most of the show, so she towers over everyone – a performance you cannot take your eyes off.

The content of the show pushes the boundaries of good taste, absolutely. It’s difficult to see how a satire on these particular aspects of our culture could be done with anything that approaches subtlety anyway. These are colourful characters to begin with – but push them into situations that have spun out of their control in a landscape that is driven by glitz, glamour and obsession by design, no wonder we’re confronted with an ending that’s both a release of sexual energy and horrific violence.

Alberto Di Troia and Hannah Fallowfield should be enormously proud of their achievement here. Truly Madly Britney is smart, sharp, hilarious and profane. The road to Britney is paved with good intentions, but also cancer, vomit, awkward sex, guns, declarations of love and a shaved head. All in homage to the pop diva – and as a warning that we all might go too far in our obsessions.

REVIEW: Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell & Scott R. Sheppard

Jennifer Kidwell & Scott R. Sheppard play the Underground Railway Game
Photo by Ben Arons Photography

As the American Civil War rages on, a black slave woman hides in a barn. Not knowing where to go next, she takes a moment to savour an apple, when a man bursts in. She is terrified as he grabs her, struggling to get away. He tries to calm her down, explains that he is a Quaker – and he’s going to help her get across the Mason-Dixon line, to a life of freedom.

This is the opening scene of a worthy play about race in America; a history lesson that hits the notes you would expect in such a story. But this is not the play you are really watching. This is a literal history lesson, with two teachers re-enacting this moment for a modern history class.

The facts of history can be dry, though. How does the education system effectively engage the student body with stories of the American Civil War? In this classroom, it’s by playing a game.

The class/audience is divided into the Union Army and the Confederate Army – and already there’s a tension in the room. Who wants to be the ones cheering for the Confederate flag? Who of us, even as part of a theatrical experience, wants to be on the wrong side of history?

This was the first moment I thought of how differently this show would play in New York, where it originated. Performers and creators Jennifer Kidwell & Scott R. Sheppard first presented Underground Railroad Game at Ars Nova in 2017. I imagine the reaction in those audiences would have been more palpable, more visceral. But here in Melbourne, we didn’t get away from feeling confronted.

A classroom game about rescuing slaves is the bookend to this complicated play about race and power and gender politics, though. This concept is almost a misdirection, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Yes, it’s easier to digest the politics of war and slavery as part of a game. But what about when the game premise slides away or falls apart completely?

Outside the school, the teacher characters are on a date. Race relations takes on a whole new level of meaning, especially as the white man treats dating an African American woman as a kind of accomplishment, an achievement to be recognised. It’s the awkwardness of dating dialled up to eleven or twelve; it’s the social power dynamic of men and women further differentiated and complicated by race.

This is the kind of show about race relations that I have never seen in Australia, because we don’t want to confront our history. This is bold, frank and transgressive satire that was deeply uncomfortable in many moments. Recreating a slave auction, even with the races reversed, is deeply confronting – especially as a kind of sexual humiliation creeps into the relationship.

Underground Railroad Game is deceptively simple in its presentation but brutally honest in its treatment of a cruel American history that stains its present, even down to the classroom and the relationship between teachers there.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

REVIEW: Madame Nightshade’s Poison Garden by Anna Thomson

Anna Thomson as Madame Nightshade with a deadly eggplant
Photo: Theresa Harrison

Chaos, anarchy and death. There’s nothing comforting or tranquil in Madame Nightshade’s garden. But what is the cause of all this trouble? How and why has nature turned against us?

Beatrice welcomes us to the garden, a comforting, neighbourly invite to begin with. A vine of leaves curls across the back of the stage, across the wall, along the floor. There’s a bin for compost and a rake to one side.

A stack of crates looms like an altar. It’s adorned with vegetables. Two large bunches of celery. Some cucumbers and a pair of carrots; yellow squash and a long red chili. A set-up for a market or something altogether deadlier?

Beatrice has an alter ego she transforms into. Marie Antoinette with a shocking pink beehive hairdo; this is Madame Nightshade – and she’s here to kill.

Soon we understand that the tranquility we’ve observed so far is a mask hiding some terrible truths. Nature has its own defense mechanisms already, but with over-consumption gripping the world and climate change wreaking havoc, she is ready to fight back and Nightshade is the leader of this campaign.

While the audience watches, performer Anna Thomson creates a classically grotesque figure through clowning and even as those vegetables become weapons and chaos ensues, we can see there is method to this madness. Nightshade collects cans from various corners of her domain, slowly building a monument to a world that shows less and less concern for nature.

Director Sarah Ward and co-director Maude Davey focus Anna’s ideas, bringing a clarity to the seeming chaos. Even as the Twisties and the Mars Bars flew – nature twisted into processed snacks, the message comes through loud and clear: the planet is not happy with us and we shouldn’t be happy with us, either.

Madame Nightshade had me laughing or left my mouth hanging open. Anna’s physicality is striking, captivating. This is a performer fully in control of her clowning and her character. The audience interaction is generous and adds to the layers of our complicity; we laugh, even as Nightshade is pelted by waste. A waste we have tried to ignore or bury.

This is a smart show; hilarious and thought-provoking. Moments of truly sublime physical theatre, twirling in front of our eyes, as the world falls apart around the Madame and around us. A queer, clowning, feminist triumph.