Category: Performances

Tangled Web Theatre Presents BETRAYAL

Pinter’s work at its finest

By Ross Larkin

Harold Pinter is a somewhat acquired taste. The Nobel Prize-winning British playwright’s work was distinctive in its knack for simplicity and complexity all at once. Betrayal is possibly Pinter’s most interesting example of his preoccupation with the fragility and emotional inconsistency of the human condition and the relationships implicated by it.

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Betrayal examines a chronologically reversed seven-year period in the affair-laden lives of married couple Emma and Robert and their close friend (and Emma’s lover), Jerry. Deception and infidelity are second nature and compulsive to the trio to the extent where the characters themselves lose track and create their own undoing.

Tangled Web Theatre’s production, directed by Bruce Cochrane, succeeds in capturing the mood of the piece: one of subtle tension, heavy pauses and intricate exchanges. Presented sparsely and deliberately, the atmosphere and direction would have made Pinter himself proud.

However, it’s the performers who really shine here. Supported by Michael Fenemore’s solid portrayal in the difficult role of Robert, Eleni Miller, who plays the unapologetic and somewhat sociopathic Emma, is suave yet guarded with a calculated and emotional repression that is natural, absorbing and devastating. Her understated performance is hypnotic and exactly the right measure of Pinteresque.

Tim Constantine as the deceptive Jerry is exceptional, capturing the charm and truthfulness of the character without ever succumbing to any obvious or intentional malice or trickery, but rather, allowing the text to allure and reveal while maintaining Jerry’s authenticity and self-perceived ingenuousness.

The pair are mesmerising from the get-go with a believable and palpable dynamic, rich in nuance and wonder, managing to woo the audience to care and empathise, despite their deceitful, self-absorbed ways.

Betrayal in all its uncomfortable loitering and tension may not be for every taste, but for those who like their theatre raw, brooding and close to the bone, it’s just the ticket. Playing now at the Northcote Town Hall until November 19th nightly at 8pm with 2pm weekend matinees. Booking at www.northcotetownhall.com.au or (03) 9481-9500.

 

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Robyn Archer in QUE RESTE T’IL (WHAT REMAINS?)

A chanteuse’s love song to la musique

By Leeor Adar

Australian luminary and chanteuse Robyn Archer takes her Melbourne audience through a journey of harsh cityscapes and loving sentiments in Que reste t’il (What Remains?). I suspect the ‘What Remains?’ of her performance is an ode to the love affair we have with French music and how ingrained it has become within our popular culture.

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What is so enthralling about Archer’s performance is her engagement with her audience. When an awkward twenty-something seated beside her relatively conservative mother can both burst into song along with the crowd, you know that the conductor of such an experience is of the gifted kind. The crowd is filled with those who have supported Archer for decades, and she certainly knows how to command them with her voice and wit.

Accompanied by Michael Morley on piano, and Paul Butrumlis on accordion, Archer’s music sails through the turbulent times of Paris from the late nineteenth century and as far as the 1970s – even stopping to deliver an outsider’s perspective of the city of lights in Cole Porter’s You Don’t Know Paree. Archer interspersed her songs with stories of the era – a charming education on the history of live performance, with decadent and tragic stories ranged from lesser-known artists to the crowded halls of the Dadaist movement. It is apparent in ‘What Remains?’ that Parisian cabaret was not afraid to regurgitate the city’s own horrors and grime, juxtaposed with the songs concerning quaint longings of love that perch in a higher place above the cityscape.

I found Archer’s ability to weave history through French songs a marvellous form of escapism. My eyes even misted over during a rendition of Marie-Louise Damien’s Pluie: Damien, as Archer explains, was a chanteuse of the Parisian cabaret lesser known than Édith Piaf, but her music was exquisite, as Archer showcases. From Jacques Brel (who’s music dominates the night), Archer takes on some comic short rides with Aristide Bruant’s It Takes Cash, the kitsch delight The Singing Nun’s Dominique and the steamy Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot’s Je t’aime. ‘What Remains?’ is such a tasty and eclectic mix of tragi-ballads and humour, where nothing musical of the French variety is left unturned.

The night came to a roaring close with two comic renditions – Alouette where everyone chimed in, and a bastardisation of Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien. Archer and her team exited the stage with thundering applause behind them – we really wanted more than an encore.

Francophiles found themselves in a comforting terrain in ‘What Remains?’, and for those remaining, find themselves delightfully haunted by the songs that have pervaded their lives through various mediums over the years.

‘Que reste t’il (What Remains?)’ was performed at Melbourne’s Arts Centre, 10-12 November 2017. Follow Archer’s latest here: http://robynarcher.com/

Image by Claudio Raschella

Melbourne Festival 2017: THE WRAP WITH TAYLOR MAC

A glorious festival finale

By Bradley Storer

After finishing the rapturously received 24 Decades of Popular Music in America for this year’s Melbourne Festival, Taylor Mac returned to preside over the closing of the festival. From the very start, as Mac entered from the rear of the Forum Theatre and crowd-surfed over the people gathered at the front of the stage, an uninhibited party atmosphere prevailed. Mac (who uses the gender pronoun ‘judy’) was casually charismatic and commanding, describing the event as a collection of the queerest moments from the full 24 Decade show and with the aid of musical director Matt Ray and a small collection of musicians from the show judy certainly delivered!

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The hyper masculinity of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ was used as the back drop to a clandestine gay romance, the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ (aided by the magnificent vocals of guest singers Steffanie Christi’an Mosley and Thornetta Davis) soundtracked the bus ride towards the Bayard Rustin march. Mac enlisted the audience to help re-enact the funeral procession of Judy Garland to the tune of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ before the explosion of the Stonewall Riots in the Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’. The climax of the evening came in a spontaneous rendition of Prince’s make-out classic ‘Purple Rain’ where the division between audience and performers was broken down by what felt like sheer Dionysian joy, with tears and singing along in equal measure – as well as an incredible guitar solo from guitarist extraordinaire Viva DeConcini. The audience was then asked to dance with someone of the same gender (or for non-binary people, anyone of their choice) as Mac and Ray transformed a homophobic Ted Nugent song into a gorgeous slow dance at a gay junior prom, a beautiful and poignant ending to the high-octane evening.

The best was saved for last, with a song not from Mac’s 24 Decade show, as judy encored with a camptastic cover of Olivia Newton John’s ‘Xanadu’ as a tribute to the Australian audience, complete with mirror ball and costume designer Machine Dazzle back up dancing dressed as a disco butterfly. The crowd roared and begged for more, and the feeling of sad acceptance as Mac exited the stage was palpable: the sensation of waking from a wonderful dream and having to return to the real world.

A delicious and satisfying ending to a triumphant season at the Melbourne Festival, and we can only wait in anticipation for what the festival will bring next year!

Date: 22nd October, 2017

Time: 7pm

Venue: Forum Theatre, Flinders St & Russel St, Melbourne VIC 3000

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.

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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.

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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: WE LOVE ARABS

Political tensions, conflicts in art, relentless satire – and dance

By Myron My

In exploring identity politics and prejudice, We Love Arabs has a Jew and an Arab creating a new piece of contemporary dance piece to serve as a bridge between Middle-Eastern feuds. This satirical social commentary cleverly explores stereotypes and the powers that are at play when discussing race and cultures and to what extent art can create change in the world. 

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Hillel Kogan plays the role of a Jewish choreographer (as he is in real life) who initially explains to us the importance of this work, and how it will cross boundaries, and the deep thought he has put into its construction, and what he wants to do with it, and what he wants to accomplish with it. Before we even see any of this performance on stage therefore, we can already deduce that this work is not going to do or be anything that Kogan’s character envisions it will, and it’s not because he is a bad person, but because the Kogan on stage has essentially revealed how unaware and uninformed he is to be creating this type of work.

Kogan’s first obstacle is finding an Arab dancer, and from out of nowhere Adi Boutrous appears. As when he was alone on stage however, Kogan continues to verbally dominate the work, leaving Boutrous to passively stand and listen. The newcomer is barely given an opportunity to speak or contribute towards the creation of the performance, despite it being about him just as much as it is about Kogan. He is there to do as he is told, and Kogan’s lack of collaboration exposes his ignorant condescension towards Boutrous and his people.

The clever, self-conscious script exposes constant satirical tensions between artistic intent and cultural understanding: for example, while this piece was professedly intended to connect the two men, Kogan’s character spends much of the time focusing on their differences. He draws a Star of David on himself and an Islamic crescent moon on Boutrous’ forehead so the audience will be able to distinguish who’s who. However Boutrous reveals the multitude of problems in such labeling when seconds later he meekly announces that he is Christian. At another point, Kogan spends a considerable amount of time trying to pronounce his dancer’s surname and wishing that he’d had a more ‘traditional’ Arabic name like Mohammed.

The work is thus more performance art than traditional dance with the choreography balanced upon graceful and controlled movements that are filled with tension and frustration, especially when Kogan barks orders to the silent Boutrous about how and when to move his body. In this way, Kogan the actual creator uses the choreography to highlight the differences that his ignorant on-stage persona fails to understand or acknowledge. When Boutrous seems to have any form of control or power through his movement, you see how this autonomy does not accord with what Kogan’s character wants to create and how he perceives things, highlighting the issues that arise when creating work about other cultures, races, ethnicities, or minority groups, but refusing to actively collaborate with them.

We Love Arabs explores the sweeping generalisations and lack of insight that people who have the best intentions at heart can act upon, resulting in more harm than good being accomplished. At the same time, the show is also a satirical and self-deprecating look at political art and whether it can make a change in the world. Whichever way you choose to approach it however, We Love Arabs is an engaging and entertaining piece of inspired performance art that actually says something worth listening to.

We Love Arabs played at Malthouse Theatre between 18 – 22 October 2017.

La Mama Presents THE CHAIRS

Intelligent and effective production of Ionesco’s classic play

By Leeor Adar

Eugène Ionesco was a notable writer in the French avant-garde and absurdist theatre, and a theatre-maker that found art in considering the futility of man. Like many of his contemporaries, Ionesco was the product of a world of wars and ideas. The Chairs is one of Ionesco’s earliest major works, and perhaps the play that depicts humanity’s futility and absurdity at its finest.

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The premise follows an old man and woman, currently isolated from the rest of society, preparing to entertain a hoard of guests for the old man’s message to the world. The sea surrounds the bored pair as they plod through their lives, reliving the excitement of stories already told and vistas already explored. The old woman serves as the vessel from which the man relays his moments of glory (or the moments of glory he could have had), while the old man unsteadily looks upon the world from his ladder, eyeing the boats that pass them in the distance – a promise of life elsewhere. The claustrophobia in Ionesco’s language is palpable – the pauses that linger and the poignant sense that these two characters live within one another and no where else.

Award-winning writer and artistic director Jenny Kemp directs this La Mama production, bringing to secluded life the void of the old man (Robert Meldrum) and the old woman (Jillian Murray). The performance space of the La Mama theatre enhances the stifling intimacy of the writing and characters, and the adroit lighting design (Rachel Burke) and sound design (Russell Goldsmith) heighten this intense experience further.

The quality of the acting is excellent here: Meldrum and Murray inject so much energy into this production, and we utterly believe their characters’ profound desperation and manic highs and lows. The language of Ionesco is handled with real care and attention to detail; Kemp’s vision is clear and we as an audience feel crowded in by the invisible audience the play brings onto stage, culminating in the greatest chair pile-up I expect La Mama has ever seen.

This production is quite exhausting for the audience, but this was necessary given the content of the play. What starts as hopeful energy becomes devoured by the exasperation of the characters trying to bring their message to life and be seen and valued in their world. The arrival of the Emperor – another invisible force – brings the turning point upon which lives of the old couple have reached completion. There are comic moments in this journey, and there are universal truths about our existence worth contemplating during the course of the play.

Kemp’s The Chairs is impressively successful in mastering what it wants on stage, but whether every audience can patiently journey with the characters of Ionesco’s play is another proverbial ladder to climb altogether.

The Chairs played at La Mama Theatre from 5-15 October, 2017. Visit http://lamama.com.au/ for information about upcoming productions.

Image by Jeff Busby