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The Greek Project: Antigone

antigone 1It’s with some discomfort that I admit, despite reading it at uni quite some time ago, I never followed the story of Antigone. I have, I think, nodded my way through many conversations, wishing I knew what people were talking about (and I apologise, dear reader, if you’ve been the speaker and interpreted my nodding as comprehension rather than a timid shame). The truth is, apart from some vague awareness that Antigone is the centre of a great tragedy and that she epitomised the Ancient Greek ideal of womanly virtue, I never managed to follow the plot.

Until now.

Canberra Youth Theatre’s production is an engaging and moving piece of theatre that liberates the story and presents it in a manner that is accessible and clear to a twenty-first century audience. It also gives me the impression of being truly believable as a 2,500 year-old play from our antipodes. That in itself is an impressive paradox.

Kitty Malam, in the role of Antigone, is technically solid and anchors the action brilliantly. I would have appreciated, given how much the Thebans honoured her, stronger engagement with the audience. Richard Cotta’s Creon, on the other hand, was brilliantly balanced: truly arrogant and inaccessible one moment, he nonetheless elicited true moments of sympathy, having had his own pride back him into a corner. This was a theme that resonated particularly well this week in this city, as we’ve watched our prime minister severely humbled in circumstances that should have been within his control.

Between these two contenders for our sympathy, the remaining cast engage brilliantly. The decision to present as much of the story physically (eschewing the Ancients’ love of just saying many words while standing still, much like the aforementioned prime minister) was the right one: it liberates the story from the weight of words it was originally created with. Given the collaborative nature of the project, the production truly shows this to be an accomplished cast. Their performance skills do much to affirm the quality of actors coming from Canberra Youth Theatre’s brilliant program. None moreso, perhaps, than Isha Menon, who strikes just the right chord as the paternally-authoritative Tiresias.

But what is truly impressive is the depth of expression these young people have developed in presenting this story in modern Canberra. They have not merely been led by someone older and wiser to portray Sophocles’ characters, but have explored them with the curiosity and drive that most young Canberrans reserve exclusively for hunting Pokémon. Canberra Youth Theatre has done the hard yards, and no longer will I nod pretentiously: thanks to this production, my nods about Antigone will either be deeply meaningful or superficially polite, but nevermore pretentious.

 
 

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The Glass Menagerie

the glass menagerieIt’s truly inspiring when a design just breathes new life into an old script. Michael Hankin’s design for this production has as much to do with its success as the brilliant performers who embody Tennessee Williams’ dark and soulful characters.

Like Shakespeare did so many times, Williams has landed on some truly universal human themes. No matter how far removed from the American south we might be, we recognise the mother whose concern for her children and whose disappointment in her own life leads her to place unreasonable pressure on her son and fail to recognise when her daughter is overwhelmed. We recognise the futility of an existence that provides just enough comfort to persist with, but doesn’t offer enough hope to spur us to action.

Pamela Rabe’s portrayal of Amanda Wingfield, the faded southern belle, is energetic and ugly. She truly manages to balance portraying the caring mother with the desperately incompetent. This balance is in turn critical for Luke Mullins’ deeply moving portrayal of the hapless Tom.

Even at the point when Tom drags his mother to the floor and confronts her with her ugliness, it’s hard to criticise him. He bears her histrionics with patience until he no longer can, and we can only watch as their fate unfolds. All of these characters are worthy of both compassion and criticism. Victims of circumstance, their pursuit of their dreams is as valiant as it is futile.

This futility is beautifully presented by a truly exceptional cast, and demonstrated by the use of a set that isolates the action into an apartment that sits on the stage like a rigid box, then lets us inside with the use of cameras and screens, presenting images unmistakably reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. The melodrama, ironically undermined by drawing the audience’s attention to film techniques, holds a grain of truth that justifies the emotive excesses of the dialogue.

Perhaps it is simply the case that Laura’s life, spent obsessing over her long-gone father’s records and her collection of glass animals, is the most complete of them all, the interruptions of her family merely pointless intrusions on the only thing that brings her peace.

 

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The Pride

the prideContrasting the closeted lives of gay men in the twentieth century with the more open lives of gay men in the twenty-first has become something of a sport. There’s a lot to celebrate, more to change, and of course, plenty we can learn. But I think we need to be careful about the sensitivities involved. The Pride is not insensitive, but it does come a little too close to preaching for my liking. A symptom, perhaps, of biting off more than can be chewed in a single play.
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Two stories, one about a pair of gay men who have an affair in the 1950s, and the other about a gay couple who break up because of infidelity in the present day, are interwoven to present the contrast. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is at once a celebration of the liberation of sexual identities, and a polemic against the cultural relics of the closeted past.
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Though possibly a little on the static side (events are often described rather than enacted), the dialogue is thoughtful and engaging. There is enough left to subtext to give the play’s five main characters some real depth, and to let Matt Minto, Simon London and Alexi Kaye Campbell show us their considerable talents. Unfortunately, Kyle Kazmarzik isn’t given the same opportunity, as his three characters are little more than caricatures.
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Minto in particular shows marvellous sensitivity in transitioning between his discreet 1950s character Oliver, and his rather more raging queen, also called Oliver, in the present day. The use of the same name is, I think, a clever device to remind us that the way we live our lives is largely determined by our cultural millieux. Minto certainly carries this well.
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Against Simon London as Philip, his closest friend and possibly even his conscience in the present day, he is brilliantly vulnerable and empowered. The 1950s Oliver also finds Geraldine Hakewill’s Sylvia, as the wife of his lover, a surprising ally in his weakness. Her weakness in this context as a straight woman is likewise measured and exuding wisdom. It is a well-balanced nuance to give her the final voice in the play.
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Despite some brilliantly nuanced characters, in building a picture of the damage caused by centuries of community denial of gay identities, I fear The Pride has become overly negative. It lacks, to some degree, sensitivity to the positive lives that the queer community have eeked out for themselves since they were sent into the closets. It does explore with both sensitivity and cynicism the lingering cultural relics of the closeted centuries, such as cruising and cottaging, but it walks a fine line between preaching and remonstrating, which I think labours the point somewhat.
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Overall, The Pride is an engaging story, and it has enjoyed a very sensitive and thoughtful production at the hands of Shane Bosher.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 6 March 2016 in Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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Ladies Day

Matthew Backer and Lucia Mastrantone in Ladies DaySome Australians reject rural and remote Australia as irrelevant to modern life, while others seem to hold onto a nostalgic view of the country as a rough and rugged pastoral wonderland no matter how urbane the populace becomes. The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing perceptions.

It’s surprising, in this context, that a 1990s film focused on a group of drag queens bridged the gap between outback Australia and urban Australia, busting outback mythology while also humanising and endearing the queer community to the rest of the country.

By contrasting the glitz of drag with the rugged beauty of the continent’s interior, Priscilla positioned the urbane and somewhat vacuous queens of Sydbourne and Melney as quintessentially Australian. As Australian, if you like, as pubs, red sandy deserts and big red rocks.

Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day builds on Priscilla‘s success in bringing these diverse experiences of Australia together. The plot centres on the experience of Mike, who is invited to shake things up on Ladies Day at the Broome Races by gracing the catwalk in drag. And grace it he does. Wade Briggs, as Mike, is spectacular in pink, with precarious gold stilettos and a fascinator that lives up to its name. The motive behind this unusual invitation is his friend’s mission to build Broome’s economy through queer tourism by uniting businesses in a fledgling organisation called Pink Broome. Liam, complete with a broom he painted pink, is really the driving force behind the entire plot, and Matthew Backer, who plays him, is the core energy on stage. He makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and along with the rest of the cast he delivers Valentine’s impeccable dialogue with the sophistication of a seasoned performer.

It’s not only Valentine’s dialogue that positions this play well. The interspersing of acapella vocals and direct address monologues, all of which are integral to the developing narrative, weave a complex picture of Australia’s political and cultural millieux at this point in history. Valentine doesn’t shy away from presenting the horror of sexual abuse, and I found myself so deeply engaged in the story at one point that I almost found myself shouting from the auditorium. I did have my wits sufficiently about me to remember that I was in a theatre, and that these were actors and that I should stay in my seat and keep my mouth shut (though I’m not entirely sure these customs are universally appropriate in the theatre: Shakespeare would probably have felt a sense of failure if he saw how modern audiences respond (or fail to respond) to his work).

I am impressed, more than anything else, with Valentine’s positioning of her characters’ experiences. No experience has a higher value than any other. Straight characters can be as damaged by assault as queer. Melney and Sydbourne are as risky and as endearing as Broome. But what matters is how we grow, either from our experiences, or in spite of them.

While I have some reservations about plot decisions late in the play that risk confusing the core narrative, this is truly one of the most vital and engaging works I have seen on stage this century.

 

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They’ve Already Won

theyve-already-won-belvoir-harriet-gillies-pierce-wilcoxI’m not sure what I’ve just seen, but I think I like it. I suspect, and I might just be a little dazed and confused, but it seems it was probably Facebook the Musical.

It’s certainly the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Facebook on a stage: a maze of garbled messages written in sentence fragments, political diatribes interspersed with soft porn and 39 Renaissance Babies Who Can’t Even. It’s the first time someone’s actually read a BuzzFeed post to me, and I kinda liked it. I’m no closer to knowing how to even, but I’ve certainly been convinced that we are all doomed by our inability to communicate.

The show is less play and more, well, I don’t know what it is. Five acts, apparently connected, featuring every kind of performance art from beatboxing to interpretive dance. Harriet and Pierce do everything themselves, it seems. The blackouts operated from a lighting desk on stage and a remote control, and the frequent use of a laptop and projector to remind us that we’re really focused on the internet’s true bottom feeders.

And dull moments? There were quite a few. Perhaps not as many as featured on the actual internet, but the odd creaking hinge could not have more potently reminded me of those moments when I find myself scrolling through masses of absolute rubbish on Facebook until I find myself wondering why I’m looking at something with yet another title like he churns butter in a suit, but when he clenches his buttocks… unbelievable! when there are far more interesting things to do.

I’ve certainly experienced more coherent shows. And more interesting shows. But I’m not at all ready to write this one off. Harriet and Pierce have a point. I’m just not sure what the point is.

Whatever the point is, the show is sure to get you thinking, and is an entertaining way to spend an hour.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 16 February 2016 in Canberra Theatre, Gorman House, Theatre

 

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Teddy Ferrara

teddy ferraraThough somewhat confused, Teddy Ferrara is an engaging piece with some intriguing characters and an excellent cast.

Set on a university campus that sees more than it’s fair share of suicide, it explores the lives of a range of gay and not-so-gay characters and how they intersect around stigma and social activism. It’s absolutely engaging, deals with important issues that must be addressed, but it doesn’t quite manage to hold together as well as I wanted it to.

I fear it may be too politically-minded to be of any practical good. It covers, I think, too much ground, and delves into so many political issues that its narrative is mired and somewhat unclear. It wants to be at once a story while also being a missive, and in trying to be both, it succeeds at being neither. The missive’s premise, it seems, is articulated by a minor character, rather than, as should be the case on stage, demonstrated by the central plot. The very title itself obfuscates the drama by implying that the central plot is that of Teddy Ferrara, which it is not, by any means. Far prettier characters (I’m not just talking about the actors portraying them, but also these characters’ charisma) steal the show, with Teddy ending up little more than a plot device. Or perhaps that’s not true: the stories they tell are also compelling.

And this is the play’s biggest flaw. The playwright, Christopher Shinn, has developed several compelling stories, all of them worth telling:

  • Gabe’s somewhat pragmatic romance with Drew, interrupted by personal traumas and mild betrayals, would make a brilliant variation on the usual romantic play where the central characters, instead of falling madly in love, fall gently into a mixture of like and lust.
  • Jay’s interest in Gabe could be more than a mere subplot to that story.
  • Teddy Ferrara could also warrant a play that was actually about him, exploring the multiple personas of those who live online to escape the trauma of actual human interaction.
  • The ostensibly platonic relationship between Gabe and Tim would be an interesting drama.
  • The university president, with his hilarious working relationship with the provost, and their interactions with student representative groups could make a brilliant comedy.

As it stands, none of these narratives really take centre stage.

Despite the mild confusion of the competing sub-plots, Gabe, portrayed annoyingly (which is entirely appropriate) by Luke Newberry, was front and centre as a character. He is a wet handkerchief. Ostensibly altruistic and kind, but born with the benefits of good looks, and white male privilege, and displaying them in the worst possible way. His membership of the LGBTIQ minority is really the only reason he comes across with any sense of altruism at all. He is a poor choice for the university’s diversity panel, and of course endears himself to the establishment.

He is supported by the noteworthy performances of Ryan McParland, who is brilliantly awkward and absolutely endearing as the Teddy of the title, Nathan Wiley as his closeted questioning friend Tim, and Oliver Johnstone, whose irksome portrayal of the principled and very controlling boyfriend is not in any way endearing but nonetheless very recognisable and absolutely believable.

So I am left a little flat. The play was engaging and the performances brilliant. But at the risk of being as annoyingly principled as Drew, I must remind myself that although a politician may articulate, a playwright must demonstrate. It is something I always try to remember when writing, though I, too, fail.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 28 November 2015 in British Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Theatre

 

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La Soiree

la soireeGobsmacked.

Many of you know I’m not big on variety shows, acrobatics or sight gags. Circus is all well and good, but I’d rather see a film usually. Well this is not much more than a circus, but it is so much more than a circus! La Soiree line up consummate professionals to impress and engage.

Take Captain Frodo, for instance. He’s billed as the son of a famous Norse magician, and brilliantly portrays a super nerdy and uber skinny buffoon. He doesn’t rest on his ability to pass through a tennis racket and a slightly smaller tennis racket, oh no! He plays the buffoon with the utmost professionalism, getting himself tangled up in a microphone cord, tripping over a stool and falling off the stage. It is this aspect of his routine, of course, that endears him so well to the audience, bringing a great round of applause when he returns in the second half. It is also why I was so taken with this show.

It’s just not about the amazing feats of acrobatics or the spectacle, no matter how impressive they are: it’s about the way they engage.

The English Gents perform some brilliant acrobatic work, but there would be nothing terribly interesting beyond the skill involved if they weren’t puffing a pipe or reading a newspaper while doing so.

And for those of you who usually like the circus, well you’re easily impressed, so there’s no need to bother with La Soiree, but if you do decide to come, be prepared to have the bar raised!

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 26 November 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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