Review: Thunder Road

Rich, dark humour lifts tragic cop story

 By Samuel Barson

To fund the making of a film with a Kickstarter campaign is no mean feat. But when that film proves to be one of the highlights of 2018 cinema, amongst a myriad of Marvel blockbusters and the like, that is one superior feat.

Jim Cummings has been loitering the world of film all of his life. He has played a number of roles in the industry: cinematographer, on set photographer, light production assistant (on a Marvel film, coincidentally) and sound editor. He has worn numerous hats and it feels as though these eclectic experiences have all built up to Thunder Road, which Cummings has directed, written and starred in.

The film begins at police officer Jim Arnaud’s (played by Cummings) mother’s funeral.  He gives a eulogy that is painful to watch due to its awkwardness (it ends with an experimental dance to a Bruce Springsteen song) and heavy grief. After his mother passes, Jim is confronted with an extensive list of difficult events in his life: a divorce, the estrangement of his daughter, the loss of his job and another death.

This is a lot of trauma to put a character through, but Cummings’ incredible nuance and strong sense of realism as an actor leaves the audience believing every emotion and every heartbreak. His use of facial expressions to express the grief, shock and anger his character goes through is astounding. He also has an incredibly strong comedic grounding with a lot of the traumatic events in the film being lifted with a rich, dark humour.

The direction is simple, yet stunning and intimate for the audience to bear witness to. In particular, the repetitive use of a long shot that slowly transforms into a mid or close up makes audiences feel like they’re in the room with the characters, especially in moments of intimate dialogue or deep insight into a character’s current state. The writing almost appears effortless, but may also be a testament to the impressive ensemble cast Cummings has collected (most of whom appear to have very limited prior acting experience).

It’s incredible what Cummings and his team achieved here. Using a $200,000 budget, they have created a film which has, in box office sales, made more than its cost. Thunder Road deserves to be seen, so much more than many other films released last year.

A must-see for fans of simple storytelling, and for those who appreciate dark humour as much as they do a deeply touching, character-driven narrative.

Thunder Road screens in Nova Cinema, Carlton until 24 April as well as in select cinemas across Australia. Tickets can be purchased online

Photograph: supplied

Advertisements

Review: Quadra and Echoes

Transformative interplay of light and sound

By Joana Simmons

As daylight saving comes to an end putting us in darkness earlier in the evening, Arts House presents an incredible program of light shows. Spectral is a one-week season with leading artists Robin Fox, Hanna Chetwin, Jannah Quill, Kusum Normoyle and Meagan Streader exploring the interplay between sound and light.

Exhibitions by Robin Fox and Meagan Streader culminate in special performances over two nights featuring works never seen before in Melbourne alongside new commissions. I had the opportunity of transforming my gloomy Saturday by moving through two of the free exhibitions.

Quadra by Robin Fox is an immersive, psychedelic experience of sound and light that makes the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City look boring. Within the first 30 seconds inside a dark room, my jaw dropped and I felt joy well up inside me as lasers cast beams of rainbow light onto a truss of mirrors placed in different angles.

Over the next 11 minutes, the pattern of the lasers combined with brilliant sounds coming from a quadraphonic sound system which meant all my senses were completely brought to life. You hear the light with your ears, see the sound with your eyes, and feel everything in your body.

At times the bright lasers beamed in patterns that made the roof appear to close in on us. I wanted to touch the light that created a Matrix-like effect and made me feel as if I was inside a giant game of pick-up-sticks.

Fox has designed an incredibly well-timed and transformative work. Once it was finished, I sat quietly with my eyes closed to let the magic sink in.

Just down the hallway was artist Meagan Streader’s light installation Echoes.

The installation is site-specific to the North Melbourne Town Hall and contrasts fluorescent lights with the heritage architecture of the building and soft lighting.

The piece dominates the empty space of a black box theatre: two large curved beams support a series of fluorescent rings, which are reflected in a pool of water on the floor like tentacles. The light here transforms the space and guides us as we navigate the room to view the installation. It’s refined and stark.

These exhibitions are tasters for what else is on in Spectral, a ticketed event featuring a curated line up of artists.

If you have space in your weekend to see what art can be created with light, go!  If you enjoy it as much as I did, you’ll be sure to come out brighter.

 

Spectral: between light and sound runs at Arts House North Melbourne 11- 18 April. See here for tickets and additional information

Photograph: Sam Whiteside 

Review: West Side Story

Slick spectacle with astonishing dance numbers

By Leeor Adar

1950s ‘Murica. Nothing quite says New York, New York, like West Side Story. It’s the kind of American dreaming particular to the imaginings of Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer of the beloved and memorable work. Instead of a Miller-esque fatal flaw, our characters operate in a world that has marginalised them, and they exist between missing the past and wanting a future. Migrants, lovers, hooligans, West Side Story is a warm embrace for musical theatre lovers everywhere.

I’m as surprised as the next person to see Opera Australia take on the collaborative work of heavyweights Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. It’s pure musical sugar, with numbers that are hyper and tantalising in a way that opera often turns away from. I am of course intrigued, as Opera Australia wades into the commercial realm to reach out to a broader audience perhaps. I want grit from West Side Story and Bernstein’s score, but instead we are treated to something lightweight, which does not do justice to the grandeur of Opera Australia, and certainly not the yearning power of this excellent and nuanced musical.

Director and choreographer Joey McKneely’s production has some astonishing dance numbers which render the music almost secondary. The central issues in the work concern its casting (and not in this instance the whitewashing that the Sydney production was accused of). The clash of an operatic coloratura soprano Maria (Sophie Salvesani) with a pure musical theatre voice for Tony (Todd Jacobsson) is hard to move beyond. Jacobsson is more a sweet romantic than former Jet, struck by the lightning bolt of infatuation. Despite this, I had chills during Jacobsson’s “Maria”, which is essentially to music theatre what La Bohème’s “Che gelida manina” is to opera. Even so, Salvesani has a rich and enveloping voice, that is ill-matched to her co-star.

The band of Jets, led by a charismatic Noah Mullins as Riff, overall look more like young awkward schoolboys than a gang of hardened street rats, and they are outmatched as they move between voluptuous and highly sexualised women. In contrast, the Sharks, led by a convincing Lyndon Watts as Bernardo, are muscular, intense and commanding on stage. Wonderfully, the Puerto Rican women are an absolute force on stage. Outshining all other characters in this production, Chloé Zuel as Anita is breathtaking in a memorable and electric performance. “America” is the pinnacle of perfection and quality I wanted out of West Side Story, and unfortunately it is one of the few moments I was nodding my head in joy. The Jets redeem themselves in a playful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, which joyfully washes over the salty reality of their poverty and troubled homes, but I was very much drawn less to the music than the physicality of the show.

Paul Gallis’ set design is in itself a character in this production, with looming grey photographs of Manhattan and a shanty-town of wooden pilings to show the decay of this part of the iconic city. The gloom of the set powerfully contrasts with the gorgeous costuming of Renate Schmitzer whose smashing array of decadent hues, which are complimented by the rich lighting design of Peter Halbsgut, set alight the already blazing dance numbers.

In contrast, one strikingly dark place this production took the audience to was the terrifying assault of Anita by the Jets, witnessed by Jets-wannabe tomboy Anybodys (Molly Bugeja). After the violence the stage is quiet and Anybodys runs away screaming, suddenly voicing another cruel reality of the streets.

West Side Story remains as topical as ever, with gun violence, sexual violence and racism rampant in our world, it remains an ode to the oppressed and cyclical entrapment of those living a life of poverty and crime. Despite this, its musical message of hope for a better future and greater opportunity remains just as strong.

I’d like to see a future production of West Side Story by Opera Australia where it will hold its own and wrestle away from the slick spectacle of commercial musical theatre and find something to contribute of its own. Even so, West Side Story makes for an entertaining night with some memorable performances and staging.

 

West Side Story will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 April before touring to Sydney, Wellington, Canberra and Adelaide. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 889 278.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

MICF: Super Amazing Giant Girl

Banana-eating comic book hero for the littlies

By Rebecca Waese 

There’s a Super Amazing Giant Girl crushing it at Melbourne’s Town Hall this International Comedy Festival and she’s larger than life. If you’ve ever felt like you don’t fit in, circus performer and comedian, Anna Lumb, has an interactive, action-packed hour of power for littlies who will learn to use their imaginations and keep on trying.

When the Super Amazing Giant Girl heads off to the Big City to find her groove, she jumps through a mind-boggling number of hoops (literally) until she befriends a Normal Person, Jez Davies, who helps her discover her confidence and share her talents even when things go seismically wrong.

My kids and I loved the gymnastics stunts, roller skating over bubble wrap, banana-eating tricks, and experiments with the slow-motion/fast forward button. The soundtrack, with A-ha, ACDC, Uptown Funk and Pump the Jam, keeps the audience rocking and there’s a lovely version of Katy Perry’s Roar as Lumb balances in a precarious position that I sure hope the kids don’t try at home. With comic-book sensibilities and polished use of sound effects, you’ll cheer for this friendly giant who gets the kids onside and participating in a real-time hail storm and some stinky undies gags.

Following a successful Australian tour and adapted for the comedy festival, Super Amazing Giant Girl is a 60-minute imaginative blast delivered by Lumb, who has toured internationally with Strange Fruit and teaches at Circus Oz. Davies adds quirky humour in his supporting role and brings rather impressive juggling talents to the mix.

It doesn’t play down or patronise; it’s refreshing, original and high octane. I’d recommend giving it a go this school holidays for kids under 10.

 

Super Amazing Giant Girl runs until 21 April at the Melbourne Town Hall as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph: Theresa Harrison

Rebecca Waese is an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University in the Department of Creative Arts and English.

MICF: Macdeth

Company 13 presents Macdeth

By Narelle Wood

It’s a weird combination, Macbeth, The Comedy Festival and a children’s show; with all the murder, blood, and deceit, it shouldn’t really work. Somehow, Company 13, director James Pratt and actors Fiona Roake, Christian Bagin and John Forman not only make it work, but have turned Macbeth from one of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies to a joyous exploration of the dark, and disgusting side of the cursed Scottish play.

It is a reworking of the original play but it hits all the key plot points, and characters are reinvented to make them easily identifiable to the younger members of the audience whilst still managing to capture their underlying natures. The witches are more like the ugly step-sisters, kind of stupid but up to no good, goading Macbeth into traitorous action. Lady Macbeth’s sinister plots become child-like tantrums in an effort to get everything she wants and King Duncan is a bumbling, farting fool who you feel sorry for not because he is too kind, but because he’s too stupid to realise the betrayal. Banquo is non-threatening, except maybe as a ghost and all Macbeth needs is a couple of compliments to appease his pride and he turns from “who me, King?” to an entitled brat who things he’s invincible.

Macdeth is by no means a simplified version of Macbeth. Yes, there are some missing soliloquies and there are parts missing for expediency to fit the play into the one-hour kid-friendly format. However, Company 13 intermingle modern language with excerpts from the play. The balance between the two is perfect: what the audience might not understand of the Shakespearean parts is made clear through the action, the interactions between the characters and the move into more informal dialogue.

The ensemble cast of Roake, Pratt, Bagin and Forman play multiple characters and at time provide the musical accompaniment as well. There are not many props, so much of the action relies on the audience’s imagination, which is just as well, because this is a retelling designed to include kids and therefore it includes all those gross things that children tend to find amusing – farts, snot and young people’s appropriate stylised murder, to which the kid sitting behind me responded “oh, that’s brilliant”.

Having seen countless interpretations of Macbeth, this by far would have to be one of my favourites. Short and not so sweet, this is a Shakespeare comedic tragedy not to be missed.

 

Macdeth plays at Coopers Malthouse as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival until 19 April. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.  

Photograph: Jeff Busby

 

MICF: Single Asian Female

Much more than brilliant comedy 

By Irene Bell

It’s not every play that will have you laughing through tears. It’s not every play that will make you want to express your eternal gratitude for your mother, your sister, your best friend – no matter your cultural background. And it’s not every play that will inspire genuine empathy for the many hardworking immigrant families we call our neighbours. Single Asian Female, written by Michelle Law and directed by Claire Christian, will inspire all this as well as entertain the hell out of you.

Single Asian Female follows the lives three women: a newly single mother and owner of the Golden Phoenix restaurant (Pearl), a twenty-something violinist figuring out work-life balance (Zoe) and a seventeen-year-old girl who just wants to be like the other kids at school (Mei). Together, these characters’ stories explore family and cultural identity and well as express what it is to be proud of your heritage. Regardless of whether you are single, Asian or not, you absolutely must go along to appreciate the writing, stagecraft and performances that will have you in fits of laughter.

Michelle Law’s writing is both entertaining and pivotal to theatre today. This production is more than comedy, it’s a snapshot of migrant life in Australia and that’s important to see. Hsiao-Ling Tang (Pearl), Jing Xuan Chan (Zoe) and Courtney Stewart (Mei) act their roles with such chemistry and ease – watching them is endlessly captivating.

Moe Assaad’s set and costumes are standout features – with the doll’s-house like restaurant and apartment straight from any little girl’s dreams – allowing us to see these women in multiple parts of the house at once.

Shout outs must be given to Emily Burton’s enthralling performance as Katie, to Burton and Tatum Mottin’s date montage (a little too realistic and horrifyingly relatable) and to Patrick Jhanur’s performance as the hunky Paul which will make you want to secretly binge on rom-coms.

Single Asian Female has been showered with praise since its 2017 Sydney debut and now Melbourne audiences no longer need to wait to see this brilliant production. There’s not much else to say except for, go and see this show!

 

Single Asian Female is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until 21 April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9281 8000.

Photograph: suplied

MICF: Stark and Dormy

Bunk Puppets get whacky in sci-fi theme-park adventure

By Lois Maskiell

You’re given a baseball cap on entering the theatre. Printed on the front of the cap is a fun park logo, a fun park where you’re about to have, or so a zoo keeper tells you “fun fun fun”.

Gee does internationally recognised Bunk Puppets’ latest production live up to its promise. In Stark and Dormy an alien invades a struggling theme park and causes serious mayhem and laughter.

Unlike many sketch shows, the segments are not randomly sewn together but situated in a clever and well-developed plot. A teenage girl miserably wanders the park trying to catch her father’s attention, though instead catches an extra-terrestrial surprise. Her father – the theme park owner – distracted by debt and his latest girlfriend clumsily deals with several employees and a hip restauranteur. This quirky bunch of characters plus more are all performed by James Pratt and Christian Bagin.

But take note: the tiny cast have mastered the craft of puppetry and comic acting to bring these characters to life. Versatile vocals, punchy one liners and deadpan humour are just some of their talents.

Whether you are a frequent puppet watcher or not, the use of shadow screens is sure to be a refreshing change from glaring squared-eyed at a digital device. Staged in a black box theatre, the sparse set exudes a sense of do-it-yourself creativity adding to the ingeniously comic flavour found in the whacky world of co-writers Pratt, Bagin and Jeff Achtem.

Jeff Achtem’s direction gives Pratt and Bagin the outside eye they need to let their comic book-esque sci-fi and social satire blend seamlessly. The hip chef sporting colourful spectacles and zany clichés – like sea urchin and armadillo specials – reminds you of your favourite farm-to-fork restaurant. The buck-toothed boy desperate for a movie date and the outspoken neighbour who can’t help but overshare all seem disturbingly familiar.

In true Melbourne International Comedy Festival style, a hint of audience engagement and fun activities are involved, though I won’t spoil you with the details. If you want to laugh like a kid in a room full of adults, this is the show for you.

 

Dark and Stormy runs at Cooper’s Malthouse until 21 April. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111. 

Photograph: Andrew Wuttke