Category: Theatre

Review: Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Half rock musical half gig slices straight to the heart

By Bradley Storer 

As the audience shuffled into the Merlyn Theatre for opening night of Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine’s stunning musical play Barbara and the Camp Dogs, they were greeted with bar stools, faded couches and blackboards advertising happy-hour specials and upcoming bands. The well-worn atmosphere of a typical Aussie pub was contained entirely within the space.

Director Lecticia Cáceres uses the setting to represent both the fictitious band’s regular venues and a microcosm of Australian culture. The classic Aussie pub is the perfect liminal space to explore this story that crosses the landscape of the entire country and confronts the mythos embedded in our very culture.

Barbara (Yovich) and Rene (Elaine Crombie) are two Indigenous siblings who eke out their living in Sydney by playing live shows and singing with their back-up band, the Camp Dogs. What starts out as a charming comedy with Yovich and Crombie careening from one incident to the next while letting loose their explosively powerful vocals, becomes a gut-wrenching examination of the bonds of family and the devastating consequences of colonisation and its impact on current and future generations of Indigenous Australians. Rock music (a style we must remember was first appropriated by mainstream white culture from people of colour) feels like the ideal medium to convey the pain, tragedy and resilience of these characters.

Yovich as the eponymous Barbara delivers a performance of titanic scale: commandingly charismatic, ferociously funny and yet undeniably wounded. As Barbara travels from Sydney to Darwin and further on to the rural town of Katherine, we journey deeper and deeper into her character’s complex psyche and the roots of her traumas. Yovich is so thoroughly and authentically immersed in the character that it is, at times, almost unbearable to watch. When Yovich unleashes her searing and soulful voice in song (co-composed by both Yovich and Valentine), she slices straight to the heart.

Rene, as the calmer sister, is fantastic foil to the belligerent Barbara. Though Rene is no wallflower, with Crombie playing her with a personality and presence just as big as Barbara despite having a cooler head to balance things out. When the pair lift their voices together, they threaten to tear the roof off the theatre with their sheer passion and power. Troy Jungaji Brady expertly provides backing vocals, sound balancing and discreet mic transfers throughout the show and is granted an extra special opportunity which I won’t spoil here. When Brady’s voice is allowed to fly free it is possibly the most powerful of the entire cast as it reverberates in every corner of the space, and his gentle presence rounds out the trio perfectly.

The Camp Dogs, the backing band for Barbara’s pub-gig career and for the show in general, are an excellent trio of female-identifying musicians who bring brilliant light and shade to both the heavier rock numbers as well as the lighter, emotional sections. Sorcha Albuquerque seductively shreds on lead guitar, drawing the audience in during her massive solo. Michelle Vincent ably handles drums, with Jessica Dunn pulling double duty as both bass player and musical director. Karen Norris’ lighting design invaluably navigates the multitude of spaces Barbara and Renee encounter in their journey.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs performs throughout February, not long after Australia Day reminding us how we still grapple with the effects of colonisation. The show confronts, on a deeply personal and individual level, the dark and uncomfortable truth that lies at the heart of Australia: the continual structural oppression of our indigenous people which feels not only inescapable, but an inherent part of our cultural identity.

The tension to reconcile this reality with the move towards healing is the central struggle of this piece and the reason why this show is not only a must-see for theatre goers, but for any Australian.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs runs 7 February – 3 March at Malthouse Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photograph by Brett Boardman featuring Elaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich.

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Review: As You Like It

Endearing, romantic and droll

By Irene Bell 

Seemingly every character who is in any way interesting is banished from the duchy and flees to the Forest of Arden in the first act of Shakespeare’s revered comedy, As You Like It. This is just as well for the audience, as we get to enjoy all the silliness that ensues: there are disguises, musical numbers, cases of mistaken identity and an odd off-stage punch-on with a lion.

In the Park Productions’ As You Like It is a whimsical play with the action on stage never producing a dull moment, and the fitting outdoor location creates a lovely family-friendly atmosphere. Creator, Meg Deyell has crafted a production that gets to the very heart of the play.

The main premise is cute and romantic: The courtship of two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, is cut very short as Rosalind is banished from the kingdom and Orlando flees for his own safety. Both find themselves in the forest though Rosalind is now in the guise of a man, Ganymede. The two meet and proceed to strike a deal in which Orlando and the disguised Rosalind play out a pretend romance, allowing Orlando to practice his moves.

Dana McMillan is powerful as Rosalind, she fully embodies both the wit and tenderness of her character. McMillan’s diction is a joy to hear and her physical comedy is incredibly engaging. Shae Kelly’s Orlando is wonderfully post-emo in both manner and dress, and while Kelly took a couple of scenes to find a rhythm, once there he performed great comedy.

Besides these performances, there is a wonderful array of characters who are all as funny and unwittingly wise as each other. For a production with such a limited cast and space, the actors build a sense of a friendly, odd-ball community incredibly well. On stage, there is a strong sense of chemistry particularly from David Harris – who plays both Touchstone and Adam – and anyone with whom he shares a scene.

I found the stripped down, steampunk-esque aesthetic clashed with the more by-the-book costumes of secondary characters like Corin the shepherd and Phoebe. Though it was the small details that made this production feel fully-realised – a personal favourite was Corin’s name written on his lunch bag, very endearing!

As You Like It is a fun and goofy way to spend an evening with friends and family. What could be better than enjoying a classic comedy while having a picnic?

As You Like It plays in Alistair Knox Park Eltham 8 – 10 February and Watkins St Reserve Diamond Creek 14 – 16 February. Tickets can be purchases online or by calling the box office on 1300 302 448.  

Review: Merciless Gods

Gods and monsters rendered achingly human 

By Bradley Storer

Queer performance collective Little Ones Theatre returns to the stage with the critically acclaimed production Merciless Gods for Midsumma Festival. In this production playwright Dan Giovannoni adapts Christos Tsiolkas’ collection of short stories to present a series of vignettes which encompass lives across the social and economic strata of Australian society. It’s a thrilling reminder of the burning necessity for Australian stories on our stages.

What remains most striking in the memory is director Stephen Nicolazzo’s powerful use of imagery as he channels the divine forces that give the play their name and inspiration. We see a heroin addict bathed in the heavenly halo of a Christian saint, we see a murderer locked in the gracefully muscular pose of a Grecian statue and we see a bedraggled and defiantly grotesque old woman sipping from a cask of cheap wine. This magnificent imagery is only made possible through the transporting simplicity of Eugyeene Teh’s set design, the glorious lighting of Katie Sfetkidis and the seductively mysterious sound design of Daniel Nixon.

The ensemble are excellent across the board, never more so than in the opening scene where they bounce off each other effortlessly in a seemingly normal suburban story that morphs into an unsettling and disturbing account of human brutality.

Each actor is given their moment to shine. Brigid Gallacher plays the voluptuous mother disgusted by the baseness of her own offspring. Paul Blenheim plays a drug addict enraptured by the twin figures of his straight best friend and the Lord Jesus Christ. Stefan Bramble stars as an imprisoned murderer both terrifying and tender in equal measure. Charles Purcell embodies a grieving gay son of a dying man. And Sapidah Kian, in the final glorious sequence, stars as the domestic Delphic Oracle relaying a vision of ecstasy.

The only negative, since there was seemingly no vocal amplification used, was the loss of textual and vocal clarity whenever the actors would play upstage away from the audience – an unfortunate side effect from a space as acoustically unforgiving as the Fairfax.

If forced to pick a standout performance it would have to be Jennifer Vuletic’s. Whether she is prowling the stage proudly nude as a pretentiously provocative German novelist, curling and contorting in spasms of pain as an aged Australian patriarch or bowed over in operatic fits of grief as an Italian mother mourning the loss of her son, Vuletic is a charismatic chameleon.

This unapologetically queer production, centred on the outsiders and outcasts of society even at their most reprehensible, is so luscious and commandingly seductive in its urgency and power that it’s impossible to resist. The cast and creatives of Merciless Gods have crafted a piece overflowing with horror and love, and is a must see this Midsumma season!

Merciless Gods plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 February as part of Midsumma Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Pier Carthew 

 

Review: Sweet Phoebe

Dog sitting takes a disastrous turn in punchy performance


By Owen James

Sweet Phoebe is beloved Australian playwright Michael Gow’s intimate saga of resilience and obsession. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it tackles one young couple’s swelling fixation on finding lost dog Phoebe and the search’s dire consequences on their marriage and wellbeing.

Far more isolated than Gow’s most famous play Away, Sweet Phoebe takes place entirely in one room: the living room of ambitious, hard-working couple Helen and Frazer. Director Mark Wilson utilises the confined setting to its full advantage, staging a production that held my attention every step of the way. With nothing but one stagnant room, two actors, and Gow’s strong script, Wilson has concocted great theatre.

Outside these lightning-lined walls (a simple but incredibly effective set by Laura Jean Hawkins), the rising tide of industrial modernity and its career-driven pressures laps at the door and seeps in through the cracks. Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo as Frazer and Helen bring this pressure and its debilitating effects into their house.

As their search for Phoebe increases in desperation and aggression, McKenzie and Monticciolo fiercely control the stage, doing their best to overcome Gow’s monologue-heavy tail end of the play with rich and compelling characters. Their heightened intensity from the very beginning of the play leaves them little room to climb, but Monticciolo and McKenzie successfully take us beneath the layers of Helen and Frazer to a warped reality down Gow’s rabbit hole.

Sound by Daniel Nixon amplifies the frantic characters’ inner torment and is timed to perfection with every scene change. The set and sound are complemented by precise and intricate lighting by Lisa Mibus, all three elements blend seamlessly to create a palate of evocative and measured unified design.

Sweet Phoebe combines clever writing, effective design and powerhouse performances into a punchy, intriguing 80 minutes that matches Red Stitch’s usual exceptional standard. Full credit to every creative in this team for staging this devolving, distorted mirage with fiery tenacity.

 

Sweet Phoebe is being performed at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre until 3 March. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9533 8083.

Photograph: Teresa Noble

Review: Become the One

Smart, moving and challenging examination of sexuality in sport

By Samuel Barson

The results of a 2015 study into homophobia in sport documented that 87 per cent of Australian sportspeople felt compelled to hide their sexuality in some way.

Adam Fawcett’s smart and challenging new play, Become the One, tells the fictional story of Tom, a celebrated AFL player who belongs to that 87 per cent. When Tom meets the openly gay Noah, sparks immediately fly, and as their relationship grows so do questions around identity, sexuality and a devotion to a toxic masculinity that sport can bring.

Fawcett’s exquisite writing is undoubtedly the highlight of this production. His clever combination of romance, comedy and drama has given director Lyall Brooks and actors Chris Asimos and Henry Strand the room to explore and create a piece of theatre that is exceedingly important for audiences to witness. Asimos is charismatic and brooding as Tom, the perfect counterweight to Strand’s precocious, yet sweetly gentle Noah. The two bounce off each other beautifully and present a dynamic and chemistry that surpass the stereotypes their respective characters could have easily risked slipping into.

The set design was simple and stationary yet exceedingly effective: the relationship never leaving Tom’s apartment just as Tom wanted it, behind closed doors and away from the public eye. It’s amusing to note the decision to design the set with synthetic grass (footy oval!), and the use of a single red pillow (footy!) that made its way around it. As an equal lover of footy and theatre this imagery pleased me greatly. Tom Backhaus’ and Benjamin Morris’ respective sound and lighting design complimented the rest of the production well, providing various atmospheres of swelling emotions as Tom and Noah journeyed through the highs and lows of their relationships.

It cannot be stressed enough how important a story like this is. Classy, sharp and deeply moving, Become the One makes for a special experience. A huge congratulations to all involved.

Become the One is currently playing at Gasworks Theatre until 9 February as part of Midsumma Festival. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 8606 4200.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

 

 

15 Minutes from Anywhere presents Cock

Cock is hot, Cock is great

By Leeor Adar

 

From the get-go, Beng Oh’s direction of Mike Bartlett’s witty work is sharp and arresting. We are thrust into the ring of a domestic dispute between John (Matthew Connell) and his long-term boyfriend, M (Shaun Goss). The dialogue is the kind of whip-crack smart that makes you laugh and consider for a moment the tortured inertia that lingers between the pair and coupledom at large.

Cock plays out like a fight between M and W (Marissa O’Reilly) for the affections of John, but it rapidly reveals itself to be the fighting rounds in John’s own mind that drive the plot, oscillating between the feminine ideal and the comfort of his accepted sexuality.

Shining the light on bisexuality it would seem, John crushes his poignant observation that love is reserved for the individual and not the gender while he still remains wholly inept at choosing his person. I find myself torn between the belief that Cock is a genuine attempt for Bartlett to unpack bisexuality in a world that seeks to rigidly define desire, or a plot that clenches its fists at the insecurity of indecision whilst moonlighting as an intellectual take on sexuality. Despite these feelings, I am raptured in the glory of the performances and dialogue that truly carry this play.

Emily Collett’s costume and staging is minimalist, allowing for the characters to shine, whilst gussying up W and throwing a stern jacket on the judgemental father figure, F (Scott Gooding), to solid effect.

Goss is pure energy, unrelenting in his performance throughout, countering with his grand movements the wilting indecision of Connell’s almost boy wonder. Connell perfectly captures the differing relationships his character has with M and W. With M, he is the lost boy needing direction in discovered territory, and with W he seeks direction like a voracious and able explorer. One is almost rooting for his passage to W, and not for ultra-conservative reasons, but for the new pathway he forges to a would-be maturity.

Having now witnessed O’Reilly’s performance a second time as W in Cock, she takes the character to a more insecure and jaded place. This incarnation of W frets a great deal more, leaking her truth of the wreckage of a past relationship, throwing her hopes and dreams upon John with the intent that his virgin heterosexuality will invoke a new life for her too.

The entrance of Gooding as F late into the play is a great shift in the dynamic of the piece, carting out now generally accepted archaic belief systems to pick apart the revelations of John’s newfound feelings and desires. F’s focus to define and box the individuals before him largely fails, and he enters and exits Cock’s world like an awkward flashback.

It’s all a bit overwhelming, and in the last gasp of the play, the great question hangs above us all. Quoting critic Michael Billington’s earlier observation, Cock is truly in Schopenhauer’s words, a “tyranny of the weak” – and a spectacular display of it.

 

Cock is being performed as part of Midsumma Festival at Fortyfivedownstairs until 10 February. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Photograph: supplied

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Eclectic mix of theatre and music depicts love across borders

By Samuel Barson 

Through the growing anti-Semitism of the early 20th century, millions of Jews began to flee their homes for the West. Although the United States received the overwhelming majority of these immigrants, Canada was also a regular destination of choice for those Jewish communities seeking a safer, better life for their families.

In Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, this devastating fragment of Jewish history is told through the voices of Chaya (played admirably by Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim (played with undeniable warmth by Dani Oore). The two arrive in Halifax, each escaping their own respective horrors in Romania. With the help of the wonderful Ben Caplan in his narrator role of the Wanderer, audiences are given a heartbreaking yet rewarding insight into what this period of history meant for Jewish people then, and more importantly what it means for people today.

Director Christian Barry must be hugely congratulated. The way Barry curates the humour, the romance, the devastation and everything in between brings Moscovitch’s already exceptional script to new heights. And the fact he was also wearing the lighting and set design hats in this production is additionally admirable – these design elements unequivocally enhanced the cultural and historical contexts the playwright was attempting to display.

It must also be said that Barry was blessed with three incredible actors to bring his ideas and Moscovitch’s words to life. Coady and Oore bounced wonderfully off each other, as well as personally finding the perfect moments to present their characters’ lightness and darkness. Ben Caplan’s role as the Wanderer is one of the greatest, tour-de-force performances I have ever seen on a Melbourne stage. With superb comedic timing and the singing chops to match, this show is worth going to even just to see him.

Special mentions must also be made to Graham Scott and Jamie Kronick who helped elevate the performance with their various musical contributions.

A cleverly eclectic mix of monologue, vocals, instrumental pieces and dialogue, Old Stock has truly set the bar for Melbourne theatre in 2019.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne until 2 February. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Fadi Acra