Category: Theatre

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

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Review: The Legend of Queen Kong

Punk, bawdy and a tad confusing

By Bradley Storer

Midsumma Festival 2019 launched this week, and what more appropriate way to blast off than with a story set in the deepest reaches of space?

The Legend of Queen Kong – Episode Two: Queen Kong in Outer Space is the latest endeavour from Sarah Ward, the performer behind the infamous Australian cabaret cage-rattler Yana Alana. Ward introduces us to the mythological and immortal being Queen Kong – half ape, half living rock – in the midst of an epic trilogy, a space journey commencing after a daring escape from Planet Earth. Backed by a queer and gender diverse punk band the HOMOsapiens (Bec Matthews, Gen Bernstein, Jo Franklin and Cerise Howard), Kong vaults from experience to experience in an intergalactic quest of sensation. Complementing the group is the omnipresent Motherboard creatively portrayed and signed by deaf performer Asphyxia via projection with a voice over by singer Ilana Charnelle, whose gorgeous music ranges from rock ballad to operatic aria. Accessibility is paramount in this production, with AUSLAN interpreter Kirri Dangerfield providing live signing (as well as doubling as performer) in addition to surtitles.

Ward commands the stage from beginning to end, wielding her gigantic and miraculously versatile voice with finesse along with her bawdy and fearless physicality. The HOMOsapiens, under the musical direction of Matthews, tear the house down in their rock numbers and play with delicate fragility in the softer musical interludes. Asphyxia, even in projection form, is so charismatic and engaging that they almost overshadow Kong herself!

The show seems deliberately designed to frustrate linear narrative convention, appropriate for a story that involves a black hole reducing time and matter to a singularity where beginning, middle and end merge. Kong reminds the audience at several points that it’s perfectly fine to have no idea what is happening as we loop from event to event, backwards and sideways in time, resisting hetero-patriarchal structures of storytelling.

While there is a wealth of riches in Queen Kong in terms of production, performers and form – as well as definite moments of deep beauty and emotion – it feels as though these elements never quite coalesce into a cohesive whole. Despite the clear themes of patriarchy, religion and resistance that emerge, we’re only left with the message Ward and the creatives of Queen Kong are trying to communicate through Joni Mitchell’s classic refrain: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. Nevertheless, the show’s sheer creative vitality and passion is more than enough reason to hope for more accessible-queer-feminist-punk art such as this!

The Legend of Queen Kong is being performed until 20 January at Arts Centre Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Peter Leslie

 

Review: Macbeth

The Australian Shakespeare Company present Macbeth

By Samuel Barson

Shakespeare in the park and under the stars. It seems like an idyllic way to watch the work of such a beloved playwright. Unfortunately, in the case of Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth, not even the magic elements of a balmy Melbourne night could save it from several elements of mediocrity.

Macbeth depicts the damaging physical and psychological effects that seeking power for power’s sake can have on an individual. The famous tale of power, greed and war was led this time around by Nathanial Dean in the titular role of Macbeth and powerhouse Alison Whyte as Lady Macbeth. In their driving roles, Dean and Whyte both excelled in the bigger moments of the play. The bigger moments being the play’s famous monologues. They tackled their respective monologues with ferocity and intensity, clearly understanding and appreciating the prose they were speaking. The smaller moments however, in which emotions and the stakes perhaps weren’t so high, drifted by and regrettably were overshadowed. Their decision to only put their energy into big soliloquies meant their characters were not as fleshed out as they could have been.

Among the supporting cast standout performances can be credited to Annabelle Tudor, Madeleine Mason and Syd Brisbane as the three witches – their energy and approach to the language was marvellous and exciting. Brisbane also brought what was perhaps the highlight of the night with a particularly hilarious portrayal of the much loved Porter role. The remaining characters were disappointing for the most part. It seemed there was a lack of clarity and understanding in both the scenes and dialogue. The rhythm of their speech rarely varied, meaning that moments went by unnoticed and engagement was lost.  

The design of the production was delightful, especially when the sun had fully set and the splendid lighting bounced off the surrounding trees and gardens, creating a unique theatrical atmosphere to be a part of. Glenn Elston and Peter Amesbur’s lighting design was undoubtedly the highlight of the production. Andrew Nielsen’s sound design also provided some quality moments which brooded and seethed, especially in the scenes where Macbeth and his wife found themselves haunted by their actions.

Although the performances were not as strong or memorable as they could have been, the design brought an undeniably magical quality to this production that makes for a fun and unique night out at the theatre. Director Glenn Elston and the team have created a theatrical world well worth a visit during this festive summer season.

Make sure to bring bug spray! Mosquitoes love Shakespeare and they’re definitely out to play.

Macbeth is being performed until 23 February at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8676 7511. 

Photograph: Nicole Cleary

Review: Bottomless

Engrossing and heartbreaking depiction of addiction and sobriety

By Owen James

Beneath an unsettling thunderstorm brewing overhead, the lives of seven people teeter on an alcoholic precipice of temptation both inside and outside the gates of the Broome Sober Up Centre. Will the ambitious Will find a way to become their angelic saviour of sobriety before the heavens above open up to quench the land’s thirst?

The personal connection for writer Dan Lee resonates deep inside every word of his text. It’s brutal and painfully accurate in every description, argument and metaphor, and the unbreakable romantic connection depicted between the drinkers and their drink is heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe this is Lee’s first play with text as expertly crafted as this.

Director Iain Sinclair has given Lee’s partially autobiographical play a world on the verge of collapse – which drought will break first? There is an undercurrent of resolved certainty here in Broome – things here may always be as they are now. Sinclair smartly mines Lee’s metaphorical text for every piece of clarity and objectivity that the audience crave to tighten our understanding of events, and also ensures we can connect with every character’s intrinsic longing for change.

There are no weak links in this very strong cast, each member provides terrifyingly realistic portrayals of unassailable alcoholics and their affected familiars – there are years of damage and desperation behind these weary eyes. Mark Wilson is one of my favourite actors in Australia and once again he delivers a powerful performance as determined Will. Margaret Harvey must keep all the plates spinning as Claudia, attacking her role with exhausted grit – we can see Claudia’s fatigue for her day-to-day struggle at every turn.

Mark Coles Smith is startlingly energetic, combining his clear talent for physical performance with his emotionally driven and manipulative dialogue he terrifies us as the alcoholic but clever Jason. Jack Charles as Pat embraces his powerful gravitas with every step before he even opens his mouth. Charles’ jaded but accepting delivery of grief-stricken Pat locks our eyes deeply into his.

Jim Daly, Julie Forsyth and Alex Menglet play six characters between them so well that you’d be forgiven for thinking there were six separate actors on the stage. From frenzied addicts to bewildered tourists, each distinct character is detailed and often battles their own demons. There are other stories hiding within them waiting to be told.

Atmospheric light and sound design by Andy Turner and Russell Goldsmith respectively builds tension and extends the production design elements by Romanie Harper into the invisible distance. As the piece builds to a sudden climax, the remaining rubble of these crumbled minds reminds us of the inescapable and circular nature of addiction.

Bottomless explores consequences and guilt inside the mental pressure cooker that unhealthy dependence creates, and it’s a truly engrossing world to watch deteriorate. Addiction and sobriety are fascinating topics that create utterly engrossing characters, and I would happily have sat through a second hour of Bottomless. Congratulations to the whole team and especially to artistic director Mary Lou Jelbart for backing this new Australian piece over a number of years to finally reach this fully-fledged production.

 

Bottomless is being performed at fortyfivedownstairs until 14 December. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966. 

Review: Lamb

A family drama that sinks deep into your skin

By Samuel Barson

A farming family, across two generations, experiences loss, grief, love and guilt whilst working the harsh and lonely land of the Australian outback. In her new Australian work Lamb, Jane Bodie has created the most heartbreaking and fascinating of family portraits, providing audiences with a night of theatre that sinks deep into your skin and remains well after you leave your seat.

Annie (Brigid Gallacher) has been living in the city, making her place as a successful musician. When she returns home to the country for the funeral of her mother, she reunites with brother Patrick (Simon Maiden) and sister Kathleen (Emily Goddard). This reunion brings back years of pain and family secrets that propels the three siblings towards an uncertain future.

Maiden is a driving force in this play. His stage presence is astounding, and is undoubtedly the anchor of every scene that he is in.  His ability to present such a complex and tormented character, whilst still maintaining a considerable air of charisma, made him a clear stand out in this production.

Rounding out the rest of the cast was Brigid Gallacher and Emily Goddard as sisters Annie and Kathleen, respectively. Gallacher is charming, but unfortunately the presentation of her dialogue becomes slightly repetitive at times. Goddard serves as a much needed comic relief, and equally impresses in her darker and heartbreaking scenes.

Greg Clarke’s set and costume design is beautifully effective, inviting audiences into a familiar Australian landscape. The slight modifications made to the set and costumes during a flashback in time at the beginning of the second act were particularly impressive.

Justin Gardam’s sound design is invading and effecting, beautifully complementing the tense and jarring family dynamic that is taking place on stage. Similarly, Efterpi Soropos’ lighting design perfectly represents the lightness and darkness of this family.

The absolute highlights of this show are the songs performed by the cast, creating some of the play’s most poignant moments. Beautifully and cleverly written by Mark Seymour, the inclusion of music brings this show to a new level of class and emotion. Not to mention, Maiden and Gallacher both impress with their singing chops.

Director Julian Meyrick deserves to be applauded for turning an already brilliant piece of writing into one of the most moving and fascinating pieces of theatre that has played on a Melbourne stage this year. His attention to detail and understanding of the play’s complex themes is clear.

Thanks to some incredibly fine acting, direction and design, Lamb is the perfect conclusion to what has been an already successful year at Melbourne’s beloved Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. A huge congratulation to all involved.

Lamb is being performed until 13 December at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling 03 9533 8083. 

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

 

Review: 80 Minutes No Interval

Provoking, strange and comic

By Samuel Barson 

Never have I seen a show like 80 Minutes No Interval. Despite it’s slow and uncertain start, the play develops a frenetic pace, unhinged sense of humour and obscure narrative that is unparalleled – even for a unique theatre maker like Travis Cotton.

The play tells the story of Louis (played by writer/director Cotton), a failing novelist turned theatre reviewer whose history of bad luck has not only prevented him from reaching his dreams but continues to leave a trail of destruction behind him.

Cotton is the perfect tragic hero. He navigates Louis’ misfortune with a grit and commitment that leaves the audience wincing each time the character inevitably fails. Typically when individuals decide to write, direct and act, they are unable to do all three to an equally good degree, but in this case Cotton excels in all areas. His work on this show is only another confirmation that he is one of Melbourne’s most valued and well respected theatre makers.

Rounding out the rest of the cast in a variety of supporting roles is Martelle Hammer, Robin Goldsworthy, Tom O’Sulivan and Tamzen Hayes. All give Cotton great support in their respective roles, but the cast member that leaves the greatest impact is Goldsworthy. His performance as publisher Dan Kurtz was the finest comedic performance I have ever seen on stage. Goldsworthy’s sense of timing, physicality and projection was nothing but perfect. He is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Brynna Lowen and Sarah Hall’s design was simple and served the play’s more absurd moments. Hamish Michael and John Collopy’s respective sound and lighting design excelled in illustrating the dreamlike (and more often than not nightmarish) sequences that Louis finds himself trapped in. The costume design complemented the play’s world and the flower display in the final scene was particularly effective and engaging.

I doubt that I will ever see a play like this again, and in a way I hope I never do. It’s very rare that a piece of art is able to be so uniquely captured and presented. A play of this intellect, strangeness and calibre deserves to live on in its own individual legacy. A must see for those who are seeking a refreshing and escapist experience in the theatre.

80 Minutes No Interval is being performed until 2 December at Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 03 9534 3388.

Photograph: James Terry

Review: Broken

Chance, pain and connection in a desert landscape

By Lois Maskiell

Horrific vehicle rollovers are not uncommon in the Northern Territory where sudden turns on long stretches of road can, in seconds, result in fatal injuries. In Mary Anne Butler’s Broken, a young woman’s car is overturned on a desert highway and as a result three lives entwine. Emerging from this brutal beginning is a story that unites both exquisite writing and dramatic form to offer a passage through pain and connection in a barren, outback landscape.

This great Australian play which won the $100 000 Victorian Prize for Literature in 2016 is produced by independent company, Lab Kelpie. Under the direction of Susie Dee (SHIT, This is Eden, Caravan), Broken brings together leading talent and demonstrates the company’s unique commitment to presenting new writing.

All unravels when a car is overturned and driver Ash (Naomi Rukavina), an environmental biologist, is trapped inside. Ham (Lyall Brooks), an engineer returning home from a long stint of work, discovers Ash barely breathing and rushes to her aid. Meanwhile, Mia (Sophie Ross) Ham’s partner is experiencing the traumatic miscarriage of their first child. Utterly unaware of his partner’s suffering, Ham is consumed by their disintegrating relationship and finds within Ash an intimacy he has long lived without.

Hoisted on this equal yet tripartite division of character, the plot is a fortress of strength. Though the real seductive power is found in Butler’s breathtaking use of words and expert manipulation of chronological events. Three singular voices harmonise and conflict with each other, venturing into independent monologues, before coming together in shared moments. In one instance, Ham and Mia reminisce about their first meeting and despite occupying different locations, their performances marry with such raw emotion, it is simply astounding.

Susie Dee directs a physically charged production that employs spatial relationships for maximum effect. Guiding the audience and actors through a tangled universe of thoughts and incidents, Dee allows the script to take precedence. Andy Turner’s lighting and Marg Horwell’s set feature a cracked wooden wall through which shards of light burst. It is a beautiful metaphor, for so much in this story is broken that the brief presence of light is all the more striking.

With a script that defies time and staging without props, much of the action is verbally presented as characters offer their own narration. This is a double-edged sword, for on the one hand it characterises the work and its superb writing, while on the other it tips, at times, into telling rather than showing which slows the momentum.

Maven playwright, Mary Anne Butler reveals her brilliance in this exemplary piece of postdramatic theatre by traversing time and space with all but three skilful actors and the power of language. Dancing around chance and an impending sense of fate brought on by the wild landscape, Broken is a spectacular piece of Australian theatre.

Broken is being performed at fortyfivedownstairs 15 – 25 November. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson