Category: Events

Review: Batmania

Sold out for a reason

By Owen James

One world, two shows. The Very Good Looking Initiative have created the dark, satirical world of Batmania, and given audiences two immersive experiences to choose from to discover this whacky, inane place. Expo ’19 takes place in one static place at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and the Bus Tour departs from around the corner and brings you back to Theatre Works 90 minutes later, just in time for the final goodbye at Expo ‘19. Both versions of Batmania have now completely sold out.

I went along on the Bus Tour, which was undoubtedly one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve had in a while, but especially at this year’s Fringe (so far). As the bus visits different places in St Kilda (sorry, “Batmania”), our overly cordial, happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care tour guides (Guide Raymond and Guide Vidya) are cheery almost to the point of painful – until events take a turn for the worst. This ingenious shift in tone comes as a surprise, creating a highly engaging, alluring atmosphere. It’s a delightfully enjoyable ride, and presents many moments of black comedy at its finest. But be warned: audience members not prepared for high levels of interaction will find this the stuff of nightmares.

Both Raymond Martini and Vidya Rajan deliver delightfully energetic, hilarious, and sometimes terrifying performances. Their descent from unpredictable ecstatic mania to rabid, cacophonic-but-catatonic beasts is carried out extremely well, and secured a vast range of responses from assorted passengers (sometimes just as fun to observe as the guides). Thankfully, despite the pandemonium and public territory, we always feel safe in the hands of these skilled performers.

Our blokey, arrogant bus driver (Elliott Gee) plays an important part in the madness too, always happy to perturb and provoke Raymond and Vidya as recent arrivals to his lifetime hometown Batmania. His quirky quips and rough demeanour provide many of the biggest laughs on the bus.

As we first boarded the bus, clearly no-one was quite sure what to expect. And as we alighted at the end of the trip, the feeling hadn’t really shifted. Though Batmania’s premise has a lot of promise, the experience overall seems not fully realised or cohesive. A lot of tension is built – very successfully, which then dissipates and has no real conclusion or payoff. While this may be intended to mirror contemporary Australia, as a theatrical experience, it is underwhelming. There is a lot of fun to be had on the journey though, and I would love to see the concept executed in a future iteration on a grand scale – it could run for a very long time.

I applaud The Very Good Looking Initiative for launching such a high-concept, out-of-the-box, very special production. Batmania embraces the awkward and rejects expectation, poking fun at Australiana and our culture with a very large stick, and dashes of parodic political humour. If a return season is mounted, grab your ticket fast.

Tickets (there are none): https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/batmania-the-bus-tour/

 

Review: Since Ali Died

Theatre making and storytelling at its simple best

By Owen James

Using nothing but words, an empty stage and some very simple lighting, wordsmith Omar Musa has concocted a beautiful and chaotic cacophony of language that inspires, amuses, and shocks with Since Ali Died. Musa is a master conductor of words, and this symphony reflects his passion for these art-forms – poetry and rap.

Using “the death of his hero Muhammad Ali as a lyrical springboard”, Musa launches into story after story, tackling love, loss, and divinity – and we are enthralled for the entire duration. There were many moments throughout the hour-long performance you could hear a pin drop. Musa is scathingly honest as he presents reflections on his life as a “brown man growing up on black land”, enduring episodes at primary school where he was told his “skin is the colour of shit”, and recounting encounters with racist politicians (inspiring the rap piece ‘Un-Australia’), tumultuous past loves, and perhaps his worst enemy, personal demons. There are insightful personal descriptions as he defines (and defies) wrestling with identity, and the expectations that stem from heritage and masculinity.

As this compelling performer rhymes and riffs, any notions of poetry being a boring and antiquated requirement confined to the high school classroom are demolished – every word is riveting and current, the atmosphere in the audience alive with anticipation. But it’s more than his gritty eloquence as a poet that makes the work so engaging; Musa is a storyteller who is charming and relaxed no matter the topic, always comfortable presenting his work mostly alone onstage, with the exception of guest performer Sarah Corry alongside for two pieces.

Fully deserving of the standing ovation he received at the end of the performance, Since Ali Died is a cutting and contemporary lyrical refraction of Musa’s powerful perspective on Australia and humanity. It’s a reminder of how powerful language can be, and a wake-up call to habitual Australian ignorance.

Don’t miss this intimate and intelligent work, playing a very short season at Arts Centre Melbourne until August 17th, as part of the third year of their ‘Big World, Up Close’ series. Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/festivals-and-series/big-world-up-close/since-ali-died

Photography by Robert Catto

 

Review: A Midnight Visit

An immersive, choose-your-own-adventure, gothic experience

By Narelle Wood

 A Midnight Visit is an immersive, choose-your-own-adventure experience inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, famous for his dark and morose themes, both captures and plays with the human psyche, and it is this intent that Broad Encounters attempts to capture in their gothic house of madness.

The audience are free to move in and out of rooms at their discretion, literally choosing the way they experience the performance. Characters also move about, blending the boundaries between audience participation and voyeuristic experiences. Just as the characters and audiences move from room to room, so do the performances. But with the exception of Poe’s work there is seemingly little to no thread to connect the different vignettes together, the only indication that a performance is taking place is the sound of a monologue or singing floating down the long black corridors.

The performances I stumbled upon – John Marc Desengano’s Detective Dupin, Sarochinee Sawakghim’s the Black Cat and Bri Emrich’s Madeline Usher – were amazing, and I would have been happy to sit for the hour and take in their interpretations of the different gothic tales. While I’m sure I missed significant parts of the various performances on offer, Danielle Harvey (Production Director) and Kirsten Siddle’s (Production Creative Producer) attention to detail throughout this production is astonishing. The rooms, thanks also to Loren Bell (Design Manager) and her team, are performance pieces in and of themselves. Close attention reveals minute details, such as tealeaves in the shape of a raven at the bottom of a teacup, adding to the authenticity of this gothic fantasy world that Harvey and Siddle have produced. Layer on top of the visual aesthetic a haunting soundtrack of beating hearts with other atmospheric music and sounds, as well as detailed costumes and make-up, it is obvious that A Midnight Visit has been realised through the collaborative efforts of some extremely talented people.

I did leave disappointed though. I was frustrated that I had missed bits of the performances and confused about how it all came together; I admit though I do prefer theatre with a clear narrative thread. My main gripe wasn’t to do with the show, but the pre-show theatrics. We were asked to sign a waiver before entering, but any indication of this is buried deep in the last line of the Frequently Asked Questions on the website. This seemed like information that needed to be more upfront. We were also asked to wear facemasks and while I understand the aesthetic behind this, it was presented as a fait accompli despite some people’s discomfort. It was clear that the pre-show is designed to heighten the sense of anticipation, and that may have been at the root of my disappointment; I left wanting more.

If your idea of a night at the theatre revolves around voyeuristic comfort and a clear storyline, this is not for you. But the premise of A Midnight Visit is so different and interesting that I think it would be an absolute delight for anyone who desires to be immersed in the gothic brain of Edgar Allen Poe or for theatregoers who revel in a show specifically designed to push some boundaries.

Venue: House of Usher – Funeral Services, Melbourne

Season: Until 15th September

Tickets: From $62

Bookings: https://amidnightvisit.com/#tickets

Photography by Graham Denholm

 

Tetsuya Umeda’s SPECTACLE OF EXTRAORDINARY OBJECTS

Experiencing the the experiment

By Lois Maskiell

Attending Tetsuya Umeda’s performance at The Substation, Newport was akin to being held captive in a particularly entertaining science experiment. This one-hour piece featured the artist manipulating a range of objects, sound and light. These objects included portable gas stoves, loudspeakers, beakers, lamps and even bags of rice that he began to cook. Umeda’s artistry lies in turning these ordinary items into an extraordinary spectacle for the senses.

Umeda pic.jpg

The first feat of intrigue included Umeda swivelling a metal rod into a lump of dry ice. This rod, which had been heated in the flame of a gas stove made a bizarre screeching noise. Soon, on the opposite side of the room, a loudspeaker was lowered from the staggeringly high ceiling over the balcony. With this loudspeaker dangling from a long string mid-air, the site-specific nature of Umeda’s work was revealed. The relationship between object and space lurched before your eyes.

Umeda meandered carefully around his constructed environment, tweaking items and causing reactions, of many kinds. As objects flew into the air, audience members gasped instantaneously. These knee-jerk reactions brought the audience together in a shared, visceral experience.

The most memorable assemblage was an enormous glass bowl with a flickering light bulb placed inside it. Umeda filled the bowl with water and left his audience to marvel at both the danger and beauty of electricity in water. Umeda continued by crumbling dry ice into the water, creating a hypnotising layer of white smoke that emerged like a snake from the bowl.

For audiences unaccustomed to performance art, this piece could either be an exciting and novel experience or an introduction to a genre of art that often demands significant commitment on the audience’s behalf to stay engaged. Chasing the next cluster of objects to implode/explode was part of the game. Umeda’s performance emitted an overarching sentiment of intrigue and alertness, though the final question remains: did he eat the rice?

Presented by The Substation and Liquid Architecture in association with Performance Space and Room40, Tetsuya Umeda’s work was at The Substation, Newport October 30 – November 04, 2017.

Taylor Mac’s 24 DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC IN AMERICA

A transcendent performance experience

By Bradley Storer

‘Everything you’re feeling is appropriate….

…This is going to go on a lot longer than you’re gonna want it to.’

These were some of the guiding words from American cabaret titan and performance artist Taylor Mac (who uses the gender pronoun ‘judy’) as we embarked on a colossal undertaking for both the performer and us, the audience. 24 hours in total of performance, divided into four six-hour chapters, with each hour dedicated to a decade of American history and the music that was popular during the time, leading all the way from the late 1800’s to the present day. Mac was aided by the mammoth musical talent of musical director Matt Ray (who arranged all 246 songs in the show), 24 separate costumes by mind-bogglingly creative designer Machine Dazzle, a crew of ‘Dandy Minions’ composed of local performers from all genres, as well as a 24-piece ensemble of musicians and backing vocalists who were reduced by one every hour until finally Mac was left alone onstage. This ‘radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice’, as Mac described it, had already been performed piecemeal over the past five years and finally as a complete 24 hour cycle last year in New York, and now came Melbourne’s chance to sample this incredible piece for the 2017 Melbourne Festival.

Taylor Mac.jpg

The ‘sacrifice’ aspect of the ritual was the audience itself: sacrificing our time, our sense of self and inhibitions as our boundaries slowly broke down. Describing the disparate parts of the show seems maddeningly insufficient – not only the content but the simple act of being there and experiencing it in the moment, the collective build-up over the course of the four performances, was an essential part of the overall effect of the work. The continuing theme in each decade was of a community or group breaking apart and coming together during a state of crisis, and Mac informed us that a formative experience for both judy and the show was judy’s first encounter with the LGBTIQA+ community – a San Francisco AIDS walk at the height of the epidemic, where the affected members of the community were united and celebrating despite the disease tearing them all apart. In the combined 24 hours the audience spent with Mac, we began to form our own makeshift community amongst ourselves and with the performers.

The epic journey upon reflection feels like a collection of kaleidoscopic images blurring together at the edges. We witnessed the birth of America in a re-enacted dandy’s (as in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’) revenge, the beginning of the women’s movement with a surprise guest appearance from Australian cabaret goddess Meow Meow, the influx of alcohol and the subsequent battle between the temperance movement and American drinking culture (here represented by Mac as the chaotic jester/drunken best friend ‘Crazy Jane’). The travel and settlement of Irish immigrants and the displacement of the Native Americans told through a ‘hetero-normative jukebox musical’, the audience blindfolded for the best part of an hour to evoke a parallel to the suffering of the people on the Trail of Tears, before the form and the chapter itself was ripped apart by a Native American child breaking free of white colonialist narratives and (in a meta-twist) from Mac as well.

The American civil war became a free-for-all ping pong ball barrage between the audience members, leading to an awkward dinner party with Mac as the presiding matriarch trying to keep peace in the rebuilding of the nation – to distract us, Mac and the entire company enacted an off-the-wall version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado stripped of its Orientalism and colonialist undercurrents by setting the action on Mars. Sections of the audience were brought up onstage to imitate the overcrowding of the boroughs of New York during the rise of immigration from Europe, before World War I tore the men (and male-identifying people) from the rest of the audience as they were conscripted and sent off to battle. The Golden Age of post-World War I jazz, represented here in a star turn that nearly stole the show by Melbourne cabaret icon and community activist Mama Alto, was shattered by the Depression but spirits were kept afloat by an audience-wide visit to a (metaphorical) soup kitchen, with actual (and delicious!) soup. After World War II, the white audience members were displaced from their seats and asked to stand at the sides of the theatre to simulate white flight to the suburbs, while people of colour were encouraged to move to the front and make themselves comfortable as a symbolic reparation for centuries of oppression world wide. We all clambered onto the freedom train as we rode the bus to the Bayard Rustin March, with strains of Bob Dylan and the Supremes accompanying the trip. The Cold War morphed into a battle between two giant inflatable phalluses decorated with the American and Soviet flags, followed by a rapturous orgy of joy in a 70’s backroom sex party heralded by Mac’s glorious version of ‘Purple Rain’, before we were birthed onto the bleak shore of the modern age in the harsh searching eye of a spotlight during a hushed and soul-piercing ‘O Super Man’. Nearly the entire cast swept away in the horrific torrent of the AIDS crisis, three skulls over Mac’s head weeping glittery tears for the lives lost to the disease. Mac inviting all the lesbians in the audience onstage for a radical lesbian party to celebrate an under-appreciated section of the queer community and as recognition for their tireless work to hold the community together and care for the sick. Mac finally left alone onstage, draped in a gigantic glittery vulva dress, accompanying themselves on the ukulele and piano in judy’s own compositions.

The sheer scope of 24 Decade is gargantuan, and watching the show was like entering an alternative universe – guided by Mac’s penetrating and rigorous intellect, the six-hour segments of the show passed by with surprising quickness. Mac continually told us that judy’s role was not a teacher or mentor but a ‘reminder’ of things that had been forgotten or buried by ourselves or others before us. In this vein, judy reminded us that this was not a ‘safe space’ because no such place exists in reality; we were never allowed to grow comfortable in our seats, called upon constantly to engage either physically or mentally with what was occurring before us. The audience, at first reluctant, began to engage with more and more enthusiasm as the hours passed, and it seems at one time or another that every section of the audience, from youngest to oldest, was represented onstage in some way.

Mac was unflappable across the entire span of the 24-hour show, never forgetting a single lyric and judy’s powerful voice never failing for even an instant. Dazzle’s intricate and endlessly creative outfits were a true spectacle that fascinated with their level of detail. The rotating cast of musicians and singers who supported Mac were uniformly excellent, with special mention to singer Steffanie Christi’an Mosley whose incredible soulful voice made even singing the alphabet a spiritual experience, and guitarist Viva DeConcini who blistered the audience with solos throughout, but absolutely claimed the stage during the famous solo in ‘Purple Rain’.

Every description of the event feels absolutely inadequate. As Mac explained at the very beginning of the show, the subject of worship in this ritual was not the noun, but the verb – the act of creation itself as both the subject of our worship and our form of worshipping, hence even trying to describe what a 24 Decade History managed to achieve feels impossible. In the current bleak political climate world-wide, this felt like a hopeful, joy-filled vision of a potential world in which the outsider was celebrated, the disenfranchised empowered, and queer reigned supreme.

The audience was left alone in darkness, many weeping, clinging together and pleading for this world not to end, singing the words of Mac’s final refrain:

‘You can lie down, or get up and play’.

A challenge to take the world we had just envisioned, and bring it to life.

Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America was performed Wednesday 11th / Friday 13th / Wednesday 18th / Friday 20th October 2017 at The Forum Theatre, 154 Flinders St, Melbourne.

Melbourne Festival 2017: THE INAUGURATION with Taylor Mac

Making history

By Bradley Storer

Skewering convention from the very outset, American cabaret maverick and performance artist extraordinaire Taylor Mac (who uses the pronoun ‘judy’) entered the stage to give a pre-emptive monologue about curtain speeches before introducing the assistant festival director Jonathon Holloway (in a magnificent rainbow peacock headdress) who delivered an opening address for the festival the show began.

The Inauguration.jpg

Described as a taster and preparation for Mac’s full 24 Decade History of Popular Music, playing at the festival from next week, judy kicked off proceedings with the classic folk tune ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ rebooted into a barn-burning big-band number, the first of the stunning arrangements by musical director Matt Ray. The over-arching theme of Mac’s ‘radical faerie ritual sacrifice’ is of communities torn apart and at the same time bonded together by pain, and even in this truncated version the audience was required to be active participants. For a thrilling version of Tori Amos’ raging ‘Precious Things’, judy bought up a random audience member onstage to provide backing effects before reaching out to the entire audience to follow suit. The oldest and the youngest members of the audience danced onstage with Mac in a roof-shaking blues song, while two blond members were offered up as sacrifices to Nazi idealism in a campy carriage ride courtesy of Rogers and Hammerstein – it wasn’t entirely clear how this number was intended to ridicule Nazi ideology, but perhaps this would be clearly in the context of the full show. By the end of the evening the audience was so enthralled they were eagerly jumping to their feet to obey Mac’s instructions.

Mac is a masterful and intensely charismatic performer, able to make campy pratfalls sit easily alongside penetrating intellectual ruminations on sexual repression and political conservatism, and judy’s powerful and piercing voice is capable of encompassing rock, blues and jazz in equal measure. While there might be some who’d question the relevance to an Australian audience of an exploration of American political and social history through music, Mac made incredibly pertinent links from the lives of Jewish-American immigrants in the early 20th century to Australia’s current treatment of refugees. The re-fashioning of a homophobic Ted Nugent song explicitly about ‘fag-bashing’ into a soft, romantic slow dance under a disco ball (as well as the entire audience asked to dance with someone of the same gender) was a heavenly conclusion to the evening and made all the poignant by the current climate of homophobia being unleashed in this country.

With such an energetic, anarchic and transcendent opening we can expect a wonderful season for the Melbourne Festival this year, and can only wait in delighted anticipation for Mac’s show in its entirety next week!

Venue: Hamer Hall, St Kilda Rd.

Date: 6th October 2017

Time: 7:30pm

https://www.festival.melbourne/2017/

Dance Massive Presents DEEP SEA DANCES

Eclectic exploration

By Joana Simmons

For ten days in March, Dance Massive brings us a program of all things dance, from the athletic to the obscure. Presented by Arts House, Dancehouse and Malthouse Theatre in association with Ausdance Victoria, the curated and commissioned program features local and international artists who have created works to engage and connect with. Through the international medium that is movement to music, across this program we are given a chance to rediscover our belief in the joyous and the extraordinary privilege of feeling alive. Rebecca Jensen’s Deep Sea Dances takes us to the depths of the sea, exploring the ecosystems that unfold as a dead whale sinks to the depths. Set to a live soundtrack and silence, the large cast come together to prioritize transition and transformation.

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Beginning with a work that recreated the rolling waves set to the breath of the ensemble, we the audience found ourselves sitting at the edges of the warehouse dive deep. The use of cannon and release of the head gave the real water lapping at your ankles’ feeling. From there, however, I was lost. I’m unsure whether, excuse the pun, I was out of my depth, but for the next 45 minutes the same movements were repeated over and over again to minimal music.  It felt like a self-indulgent and exhaustive way to prove a point. I appreciated how the performers mixed up their placement onstage, and the timing; but the movement itself was so loosely executed and frequently repeated I was unsure whether I was at a professional or student production. The costume was unflattering and sneakers were worn by all which cut off leg lines and led to some quite clunky movement. When the pace picked up, there were some good moments, however as a whole the use of repetition, lack of any extension or definitive lines or any facial expression made me, and the woman opposite me who had nodded off, feel completely excluded.

Still, credit must be given to the production in some regards as some bold choices have been made. Rebecca Jensen and Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design is a big feature with some of the music being played live on a synth machine and keyboard by Jensen herself. It is also very exciting the way the roller door of the warehouse is bought up and the light from the street spills into the space as the dancers emerge, this time wet and clad in some slick-like fabric. They walked with pace and direction from one side to the other; which was engaging at first, but again went on for an exaggerated amount of time. Matthew Adey’s production design was simple and effective. The yellow tarquet made plenty of squeaks and music to the dancers’ sneakers, and the use of the industrial fan at the end was memorable….maybe because it was the end.

We live in a world where there is an oversaturation of media, art, film, video and theatre. Apparently we are time-poor and “connected” but also disconnected. I found this performance difficult to connect with at all based on how there was no eye contact with the audience or facial expression, and while I could understand the movement, I couldn’t understand the way it was going on for so long. If this was an experimental first performance for students, then those things are excusable. If this is trying to prove a point by challenging us to understand something deeper than what is being delivered, then great; I’m sure there are people who are out there who love having the splash of cold water on the face that is confronting theatre. However, considering the tickets are above $30, I would at least like to be able to trust that my time and money would be well-spent with attending a performance that left me feeling something other than confused and frustrated. Nevertheless, movers and shakers have to move and shake around all sorts of mediums to spark change. This is a show that has plenty of moving and shaking and, judging from the fact the performance I saw was sold out, there is a market of people who are going to appreciate it.

Deep Sea Dances was performed as part of Dance Massive in March 2017.

Image by Eliza Dyball