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

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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

Review: The Miss Behave Gameshow

A fast-paced, raucous and euphoric experience

By Owen James

Adorned in sequins and seeping in sass, audacious host Miss Behave holds no punches in this fast-paced, full-throttle theatrical gameshow, where one half of the audience battles the other.

Every game is unique with the title scrawled on a cardboard sign and held up to the audience, think quickly! Some last for less than five seconds, some for five minutes – there are no rules and “cheating is rewarded”. It’s a cathartic hoot, and you’ll find yourself obsessively vying for points within minutes.

Don’t enter the Fairfax Studio at Arts Centre Melbourne expecting to sit calmly in your seat while you enjoy this extravaganza directly from Las Vegas. The Miss Behave Gameshow demands participation, and honestly, it’s nearly impossible to resist the joyful atmosphere.

Anything goes, and anything will get you points. If you think you have a competitive personality, you’ll be absolutely in your element. Miss Behave (Amy Saunders) unleashes gags and comebacks at a rapid-fire pace, feeding off the raw energy of the points-hungry crowd. Sidekick Tiffany is the perfect companion to Miss Behave, playing perfectly timed music from a mounted iPad and filling gaps in the evening by dancing with extremely flexible limbs and eyebrows.

Ensure you prepare for the game with a fully charged phone and having downloaded WhatsApp as the event page recommends – there’s free WiFi to help you win the more electronic challenges.

You’ll dance, you’ll sing, you’ll scream, you might even misbehave, and you’ll certainly see more nudity than you probably expected. While it’s not for the faint-hearted, it’s a raucous and euphoric experience unlike any other show I’ve seen or heard.

Miss Behave celebrates simple, uninhibited fun in a world where stupid men with stupid hair make stupid decisions, and it proves you don’t need anything but some cardboard and a sharpie to create an exhilarating night. It’s worth every penny, so why not take the risk?

The Miss Behave Gameshow is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne as part of Midsumma Festival until 27 January. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photo credit: Prudence Upton

 

The Illusionists: direct from Broadway

Who doesn’t love a little bit of magic?

By Leeor Adar

Prepare to be completely astonished and awed, as the glamour and trickery of The Illusionists returns to Aussie shores where all the magic began. Simon Painter and Tim Lawson’s inspired production has been tantalising audiences for almost a decade, performing in 350 cities and 35 countries. It’s an unstoppable phenomenon and is as expected, a hallmark of society’s fascination with the dark and seductive grandeur of smoke and mirrors.

The Illusionists features an array of extraordinary talent, who’ve honed their skills and showmanship to mastery. Expect to see the classics: card tricks, femme fatale’s being sawn in half, a bit of the old spook and plenty of laughs. It’s a seriously family-friendly show, and children are delighted to watch and frequently be included in some of the on-stage antics. If audience participation terrifies you, this is not for you. But if you don’t mind a bit of schadenfreude at the hapless individuals who find themselves in the cross-fire of a joke, you’ve really come to the right place.

Featuring some of the most celebrated tricksters from across the globe, one can expect a little bit of something for everyone’s personal tastes.

Paul Dabek as The Trickster is our delightfully scathing master of ceremonies. Dabek’s British flair and wit make for a perfect segue into various acts, and he certainly gets the audience laughing. Humour abounds in this show, and Dabek is joined by Chris Cox as The Mentalist, whose name really lends itself to the type of humour he indulges us in. Cox is another British boss with a stellar repertoire, and his games of guessing leave the audience shaking in both disbelief and fits of laughter as well as awe for those who were subject to his astonishing mind reading.

Mexico’s Leonardo Bruno as The Alchemist is a crowd pleaser, he melts the hearts of his audience with the dancing tissue act, and tissue snow storm for the seriously smaller members of the audience. Bruno’s charm and warmth make him a highly likeable addition to the magical family.

Australia’s own, Sam Powers as The Enigma is both tempting and terrifying as he utilises his astonishing physical endurance honed by NASA technology (actually?). Powers’ execution of the flaming trap trick while being strapped upside down in a straitjacket makes for some tense moments, and I certainly had to look away. Although, don’t be fooled, these guys know what they’re doing with all the tech in the world. Considering Houdini stalked this territory long before without modern trappings astonishes me even more. I certainly wouldn’t survive what Powers can do with elegance and ease.

All the way from France, Florian Sainvet as The Manipulator gives us his science fiction flair wielding cards in a space suit. I found myself less as enthusiastic with this piece, but was later delighted by his street card trick antics and audience interaction – an area he really shines in.

At the crux of the show, Jinger Leigh as The Conjuress and her Showman husband performed by Mark Kalin, love to excite and stir the audience with their large-scale Houdini style illusions. Leigh’s saucy quality lends perfectly to her glowing ball illusion, adding an enchanting quality to the show. For myself and my partner, the most memorable moment of the night came with Leigh and Kalin’s ring trick, which has to be seen to be believed. Taking three rings from audience members, Leigh somehow managed to merge them all to our absolute disbelief. As promised, I’d never look at rings the same way again.

If anything, The Illusionists could close its show on a more grandiose scale than was provided. We were both thrilled with The Illusionists, and vowed to make a beeline for Vegas to catch more shows like this. The larger-than-life tricks, humour and pure showmanship make for an exciting few hours with these amazing performers. I highly recommend to absolutely everyone I know, whether aged 5 or 95.

The Illusionists runs for one week only at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets are available online for Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 January or by calling the box office on 136 100. 

*Robyn Sharpe “The Warrior” was not featured in the 22 January show.

Photograph: Laura Osborne (AKA Digital) 

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