15 August 2019

Review: Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park With George
Watch This
10 August 2019
Whitehourse Centre
to 10 August 2019
Geelong: 15–17 August
Melbourne: 21–24 August

Nick Simpson-Deeks, Vidya Makin. "Sunday in the Psrk with George".. Photo by Jodi Hutchinson

"White. A blank page or canvas."

The cliche of an artist opening a work of art by contemplating a space of nothing should feel as condescending as it is – but it doesn't. Bloody Sondheim; even his most indulgent work feels real.

Sunday in the Park with George is Stephen Sondheim's 1985 personal plea for theatre-goers to understand the process and importance of art. It's the sixth show Melbourne-based independent Sondheim-only company Watch This have brought us and one that looks at the work with their own perspective.

The original production starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, with the book by James Lapine. It won Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is especially well known because it was filmed and released on home video (it's easy to find in YouTube; it's awesome). It was the show that Sondheim was never going to make because he declared he was quitting theatre following the heartbreak-cum-disaster of his Merrily We Roll Along, which closed after 16 Broadway performances in 1981. (If you haven't seen the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, it's on Netflix; it's also awesome.)

Sunday is an imagination of artist George Seurat in the two years he was painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) in Paris, and his great grandchild George's reimagining of the work 100 years later with the super-cool computerised art of the 1980s.

It's a work that can feel difficult to sink into. In act one, the stories and characters have limited connections; there are discussions about pointillism, colour and art theory; and the protagonist is difficult to like as he connects more with a dog in the park than with his mother or his pregnant lover and model, Dot.

But even the best-worst name pun ever – his painting is a series of dots – is overcome as the act ends with an ensemble number that's as affecting as anything Sondheim has written. It brings all the disparate elements together musically and dramatically with a demonstration of "order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony" that can't explain why it pokes emotions that you may not have known were there.

With a orchestra of four – four! –, Ned Wright-Smith's musical direction and Dominic Woodhead's orchestration focus on the transcending dissonance to harmony and supporting the singers to find the emotion inherent in every note.

Watch This don't have the resources to create the sort of design that productions of Sunday are known for, but Sarah Tulloch's design (with Rob Sowinski's lighting) looks at sections of the painting as it develops and has lots of fun with the 1980's version. And Rhiannon Irving's costumes let the characters feel like they really did come off the painting as the fabric is also coloured with dots.

Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares ensure that character leads everything on the stage and that the performers let the characters feel personal. This production isn't a deconstruction of a man able to spend his days making art that he thinks will change the world. It's not about the finished piece. It's about what he leaves out of the canvas (score/book/review), what he changes, and what he distorts to fit his idea of perfection.

Representation is far more than being peeved because your image is out of proportion.

The gaze of an artist rarely reflects reality.

As George's model, Dot is as much inspiration to him as she is irrelevant. He might love her but is far more passionate about her standing still or letting him finish that darn hat. Vidya Makan shows how easy it was for George to choose her, but she is confident enough to know that she can't get lost in her love for George. She doesn't resort to spite and knows that she's making the best choices for her, even if they hurt.

However, a production of this musical rests with George and George, who are played by the same person. The Georges aren't easy men to like unless you love them. Nick Simpson-Deek's George is personal. He holds George 1's emotions so close that George barely knows they are there and George 2 is tightly wound and determined but open to being so much more. As he holds back the emotions, his performance shines as he lets the music and song show everything that George 1 would never say and what George 2 learns to express.

We sing what we can't say; that's how great musicals work. When George and Dot sing, we see who they really are; we see the flecks of light and dark. And parasols.

Watch This don't make us stand in the middle of the gallery and look at the work of a "genuis". This Sunday in the Park with George moves us to the corners and behind the crowds where the view isn't as clear and perfect. It's a production for us and for now.

They open tonight in Geelong and this weekend might be your only chance to see it because their Melbourne season is all but sold out because Sondheim fans know not to miss it.

09 August 2019

Review: My Dearworthy Darling

My Dearworthy Darling
Malthouse and The Rabble
7 August 2019
Beckett Theatre
to 18 August

Jennifer Vuletic. "Me Dearworthy Darling". Photo by David Paterson

I didn't realise how often I don't see reflections of myself on our stages, until I did.

Near the opening of The Rabble's My Dearworthy Darling, Jennifer Vuletic lies on a rock/couch/bed  talking about not being looked at with disgust. Middle aged? Of a certain age? "Never ask a lady her age" bullshit. Women who no longer have the physical benefits of oestrogen and the appeal of fertility can disappear from our stories as we're not virgins, 30-somethings or crones. Not in this story.

Trying to find meaning in a production by The Rabble can work against experiencing their work. On a very superficial level, this is a story about domestic and family gaslighting overcome by the voice and choir of a mystic from the middle ages; which doesn't come near to what's really going on.

The Rabble's theatre can feel confusing and unclear, but their work is visceral and meaning seeps into you without you knowing. It could be in how the lighting changes the colour of the air or how hearing the sound though a bank of speakers forces you to change how you listen to the people on stage. It might be the words or the performances. Or the carpeted floor and the vacuum, silver draped ceiling and LED sign. Or the choir of hooded monks.

But it is likely that your understanding is something that no one else felt.

The text by Alison Croggon began with the 14th century writings of Margery Kemp. Croggon's prolific writing includes criticism, journalism, poetry, libretti, plays and fiction (young adult, fantasy and historical). This text feels like it incorporates them all – there's even a critic joke – but feels more personal than other works of hers that I've read.

The personal is also in the performances from Vuletic, Natalie Gamsu (her sister) and Ben Grant (her partner). In a world that looks and feels so unlike the domestic, they find a naturalism that almost tips the text's poetry and they create characters so recognisable that it's easy to know, understand or judge them.

Natalie Gamsu. "My Dearworthy Darling". Photo by David Paterson

As it was always written to be a collaboration with directors-designers-Rabble-founders Emma Valente and Kate Davis, it's not an option to look at the text away from the production and performance. Davis and Valente develop their theatre from a rehearsal room where no one's voice is excluded and even though only a fraction of the development ends up on the stage, the contributions of all are so blurred that it seems like one voice.

My Dearworthy Darling surprises with its shifts from the familiar to the unknown and from the mundane to the spiritual. Its symbolism is as obvious as it is obscure but its many contradictions feel surprising natural. It's not easy theatre and is as much about theatre as it is about the deeply personal and hidden. But it left me feeling like it was theatre for me.

24 July 2019

Review: Come From Away

Come From Away
multiple producers
19 July 2019 - preview performance
Comedy Theatre

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

A musical about planes and 11 September 2001 is as unlikely as a musical about feeding animals, making sandwiches and donating toilet paper. But Come From Away is all of this and everything; it's just everything.

This Australian production is the tenth to open since its first season in 2015 at La Jolla in LA. It opened on Broadway in 2017. Director Christopher Ashley won a Tony, but Dear Evan Hanson won Best Musical

"Come from aways" are what Newfoundlanders call anyone who visits. Known locally as The Rock, Newfoundland is an island off the west coast of Canada. The small city of Gander – about 9000 people lived there in 2001 – has a large airport because it used to be a re-fuelling stop. When USA airspace was closed, for the first time ever, on 11 September 2001, 38 flights were diverted to Gander. As some locals realised, it was as much for the airport as for them being a smaller target than the large Canadian cities with their fully-equipped international airports and hotels.

There were 6579 people on the planes and they spent five days in Gander and surrounding towns.

Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music and lyrics for Come From Away. They were in New York on September 11 2001. Ten years later they were in Newfoundland for commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the arrival of the "plane people" at Gander Airport. They spent a month at The Rock interviewing people and left feeling like locals.

They 16,000 collected stories and structured them through composite characters to focus on the passengers and pilot –  the amazing Beverly Bass – of an American Airlines flight and their relationships with the people of Gander. The composites take nothing away from the individual stories they are based on and it is a masterclass in creating a story line that embraces many stories.

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

The stage feels like a log cabin in the woods and the opening song, "Welcome to the Rock", introduces local characters, Gander and the Newfoundland-style of Celtic-fusion music with its button accordion and fiddle. When three people turn on their radios; everyone who remembers that day in 2001 is with them and it becomes a story that reaches to all the "aways" where we come from.

The cast of 12 play multiple roles and move seamlessly from Newfoundlanders to plane people to a chorus who are moving the mis-matched chairs to become classrooms, planes and cliff-top views, and making costume changes seem instant. It's easy to forget that there are only 12 people and a band on stage as the cast make it feel like they are telling their own stories.

As Gander prepares for visitors, the people on planes can't disembark. Fear and rumours are spreading and even little bottles of booze can't take away the hell of repeat watchings of ShrekDr Doolittle and Titanic. Some passengers spent 28 hours in their planes, many didn't speak English, and when they were finally loaded into buses, they were driven into the dark not knowing that sandwiches and clean clothes were waiting for them.

And when they finally see those moments that were played non-stop on televisions, we we are with the plane people, too

The next five days in Gander includes stories of donated clothes, getting drunk, kissing fish, falling in love, having showers in the houses of Walmart staff, looking after pets who can't leave cargo, not sleeping, making fish and cheese, and not being able to contact family in New York.

When the plane people struggle with the inadequacy of "thank you", "You'd do the same" becomes the Gander response. The need to do SOMETHING in the face of seemingly insurmountable horror often leads to doing nothing. But the tiniest somethings add up. The people of Gander were able to help. And they did. If anyone thinks donating a roll of toilet paper is nothing, I hope you're never in a situation when you'd give up anything for a roll.

"You'd do the same" is wonderful for the "Make a Wish" kids who didn't get to Disneyland. Of course, we'd do the same. But it also addresses that people who looked like they were from the Middle East were treated with suspicion and strip searched. "You'd do the same."

There are many reasons why Come From Away audiences are often in tears.

Leaving the show on the adrenalin of a standing ovation, it's inevitable to share your story of when you accepted help or where you were on 11 September 2001. It can feel a day that marks the time when hate and fear took hold our lives and haven't let go, but we still make sandwiches for strangers.

Come From Away is positive and sentimental without being melodramatic, patriotic without being alienating, and honest without a hint of cynicism. It celebrates the people of Gander, but it opens up the opportunity to share so many of our own stories.

I'll be going again.

"Come From Away" Australian cast. Photo by Jeff Busby

*I was in Canberra working as director of an arts festival. I'd been to a production of As You Like It and when I came home I put a video on. I almost ALWAYS put the TV on, but this time I didn't. Driving to work, I noticed that the traffic was quieter than normal, but thought nothing of it. It's always quiet in the mornings and when a staff member rang to tell me she'd be late because she'd been up all night watching TV, the conversation went:
"Have you been watching Buffy all night?"
"You don't know, do you?"
 I found someone who had CNN on their computer and watched it on repeat on a tiny screen.

09 July 2019

Review: THE CABIN!

Darebin Arts Speakeasy
5 July 2019
Northcote Town Hall
to 13 July

THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

THE CABIN! is horror show written by kids for adults. Over 200 school-age students contributed to through workshops and residency programs in the UK and Australia. Most were children from areas that don't have easy access to arts experiences.

Their work and ideas were brought together by lead artist JOF (Joseph O'Farrell), co-devisor Emily Tomlins and director Sarah Austin. It's performed by JOF and Emily with the support of group of local students and teenage guitarist Mariela Barajas Anderson.

Jof and monsters. THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

Since his early days in Melbourne with The Suitcase Royale – who remain one of my all-time favourite groups –, JOF has created, co-created and curated theatre and events (jofmakesart.com) that break down the artifice of theatre and find new ways to connect with audiences. He says that the question he always asks is"Who's not here?". It's not just who's not in the audience, but who's not having the experience of making the art. JOF is especially awesome at helping and letting children make art.

This work was created by children for adults; it isn't for under 10s. The script, story, designs and staging ideas all came from the children; the older people just put them together.

It begins with JOF in a purple suit as one of those ridiculous adults who think they can make theatre for kids but who just want to be a star themselves and Emily as the person in charge of the safety of the venue: two of the most-hated people in all of theatre. But one of them has a secret. And don't forget that this is a horror show.

There's a delight in being scared in a safe place; it's why we watch scary movies and go on roller coasters. THE CABIN! has all the delight while still looking at how genuine fear is so often dismissed. If a child is scared, take notice.

And, like some of the best horror, it's very funny – especially when the kids totally nail the adults.

Mariela Barajas Anderson. THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

There's also band called Bumsnogger, some super-wanky theatre jokes – people next to me had no idea why I thought sitting in a bench and singing numbers for Frankenstein on the Beach was so hilarious –, monster heads made from cereal boxes, blood, unseen hoards of zombies, hands in the dark, and a magnificent post-apocalyptic-style finale.

More of this kind of work, please. Lots more.

THE CABIN! Photo by Bryony Jackson

16 May 2019

Review: The Temple

The Temple
Malthouse Theatre and Pan Pan
8 May 2019
Beckett Theatre
to 26 May

The Temple. Photo by Pia Johnson

I went into The Temple knowing as little as I could about it. I left not knowing much more.

But I know a theatre reviewer having a week when they couldn't write would fit in very well on that stage.

The Malthouse co-production with Ireland's Pan Pan theatre ( Playing The Dane, 2011) was developed in rehearsals by director Gavin Quinn and the cast – Aljin Abella, Ash Flanders, Mish Grigor, Marcus McKenzie and Genevieve Giuffre. Guiffre replaced Nicola Gunn who worked on the development.

There's a line where process and on-stage look-at-me indulgence smash together and create art. The Temple does this, but it's far more successful when it fails and collapses into almost incomprehensible chaos.

The Temple is whatever it needs to be. With yellow walls, cheap chairs and a table filled with too-bright cordials to drink (designer Aedín Cosgrove), it could be a church, an addiction meeting, a reality game show or a residential therapy centre. Or whatever you want it to be.

It's every work training session I've been forced to go to, every conference, every bloody yoga retreat I chose to go to, every hope that maybe some intense time with strangers will be fun or enlightening or bearable. They're not. Strangers are the worst. Strangers who know they can be whatever and whoever they want to be without consequences are more the worst.

Each character is a version of the actor. Maybe turned up a lot. Maybe nudged down a smidge. Maybe just without their off switch. Their stories are as likely to be true as they are fiction created by someone else. Their behaviour is at best frustrating, which is often harder to deal with than when they are mean.

It's selfish behaviours without the fear of being cruel. Imagine being able to do what you want and say exactly what you think without the fear of consequence or repercussion? Maybe a reviewer doesn't fit in on that stage.

Drink The Temple Kool-Aid. Even if you don't know the reference. Even if you don't like it or have any idea what it's all about.

15 May 2019

Review: Cloudstreet

Malthouse Theatre

11 May 2019
Merlyn Theatre
19 June

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

The 1991 novel Cloudstreet won WA writer Tim Winton his second of four Miles Franklin Awards. It's a book that's easy to find in op shops as it's studied at high school, has been a telly mini-series and is one of those books that needs to be seen in bookcases.

The 1988 Black Swan and Company B Belvoir stage adaption by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo brought a new generation to the story as it toured Australia and went to London.

Matt Lutton directs the new Malthouse production. He's from Perth and says how reading the book helped him "understand what it meant to be growing up on Perth". Now, he lives in Melbourne and this Cloudstreet is more about its far-reaching themes than a reflection on living in the most isolated capital city in the world.

In the early 1940s, circumstance, luck or God bring the Pickles and the Lamb families to share a sprawling house in suburban Perth: 1 Cloud Street. Each family have challenges, successes and tragedies – and the threat of a serial killer – over the 20 years it takes for their stories to become one. It can be seen all on one night or split into two.

The stage adaption naturally cuts and condenses the novel. The pig doesn’t make the cut, but the third person narration does and is given directly to the characters. Talking about themselves in the third person creates intimacy as the audience become confessor and are allowed to know more than we see. But Lutton's new production brings the story even further into now. The most powerful changes are the introduction of Noongar language – the house is on Noongar land – and the "Black Man" character has become a male and a female storyteller. This helps to honour the story of the women who once lived, and now haunt, the house and, supported by a racially diverse, makes the story less about the people who lived there in the mid-20th century.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

This is supported by having a small cast playing multiple roles. The bigger picture is evident, but it doesn't help make the story clear. There are times when it's confusing as to who are Pickles, Lambs, storytellers or new characters. Even something as simple as a cast list and synopsis in the program would help.

The actors with one character are much stronger. Natasha Herbert and Bert LaBonte are Dolly and Sam Pickles. Alison Whyte and Greg Stone are Oriel and Lester Lamb. Each bring a compelling understanding of the characters and the added complexity of seeing them with an empathy that can be missed in the book. Herbert lets Dolly be loved far more than she ever allows her herself to be loved; Whyte shows how Oriel hides her broken soul; and LaBonte and Stone each find a different kind of acceptance, determination and lovability in Sam and Lester.

As the story moves into the latter years, it becomes that of Rose Pickles (Brenna Harding), Quick Lamb (Guy Simon) and ultimately Fish Lamb (Benjamin Oakes), the favourite child who nearly drowns and suffers brain damage. Harding also brings a complexity to Rose and lets her make decisions rather than face consequences; Simon captures Quicks constant guilt; and Oakes lets Fish always react with a mix of wonder and patient acceptance that one day he will go back to the water.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

At first view, Zoe Atkison's design looks like it's embodied the themes and motifs of the story with dark waves and hints of ghosts on its three sides. The stage floor of old thick floorboards and hidden walls that slide in and out, like the lift doors on Star Trek, hint at the old house and its many rooms. But as the rooms are indistinguishable, the design doesn't capture the house as the titular character that wants the families gone as much as it wants them to stay.

While there are some mighty powerful moments with complete black outs and a flooding stage, the story often feels too literal. Its magical realism of rowing through fields, swimming through stars, and Quick Lamb glowing is told far more than is seen. This ultimately makes it feel like a family-saga-cum-soap-opera, which seems to flow against the bigger Dreaming story that’s also being told.

This Cloudstreet isn’t the same as the book, the mini-series or of the first famous production. Its version is very much one seen through a contemporary point of view. This is its strength and part of the reason it doesn’t resonate as strongly as it could. None of which should will stop Cloudstreet lovers from seeing and loving it.

And if you don’t know what the fuss is about, grab a copy from an op shop for a couple of gold coins. For what it's worth, I like the book.

08 May 2019

Review: Matriarch

Jinda Productions
7 May 2019
The Butterfly Club
to 11 May

Sandy Greenwood

Sandy Greenwood wrote her honours thesis about the intergenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations. She understood it, but it didn't help her own trauma.

Greenwood tells her story in Matriarch. It's a story that is inseparable from those of her mother, grandmother (Nan) and great grandmother on her father's side (Gran).

She's a Gumbaynggirr woman from Bowraville on the mid-north-coast of NSW. It's a town that had an Aboriginal Christian mission, where Greenwood was brought up in the 1980s. It's also a town that once had a white pub and black pub, segregated its cinema, was a stop on the 1965 Freedom Ride and is remembered for the unsolved murder of two Aboriginal children in the 1990s.

But Greenwood's matriarchal story doesn't begin or end with the past and the ongoing disrespect and trauma facing the Indigenous people who live there. Her story is one of family and love. It's one of teenagers going on dates, of getting your mum and gran to help heal a bird's broken wing, of bath time for 14 children, of kids growing up and playing in the bush. It's about knowing that mums and nans are always there even if you don't know why they behave in the ways that they do. And it's one about learning that there's love and healing in clan and country even if you've got your dad's skin-colour gene.

Greenwood knew at a young age that having white skin gave her an unearned advantage. Matriarch is her story about understanding the women who created her and a way for those women to talk to us today and let their story become ours.

I've never been to Bowraville, but seeing their stories in an alternative cabaret venue in the middle of the city I live in makes it a story that belongs to everyone who sees it. It's so far from my story, but it's a story about women and family and the history of the country I was born in.

Greenwood tells her story and her mum's story and channels those of her grandmother and great mother. Stories are how we begin to understand experiences that aren't our own. Matriarch is a story about healing trauma.

Greenwood's Nan had 14 children. When her husband left her, she left the city and went back to her country where Gran (who was also a traditional midwife) helped her look after the children. They were all loved, fed, clothed and went to school. They were all taken away.

07 May 2019

Review & photos: Whale

2 May 2019
Northcote Town Hall
to 11 May

Sonya Suares. Photo by Theresa Harrison

With two works opening within a week of each other in two of Melbourne's significant independent theatre venues, playwright Fleur Kilpatrick might be a bit overwhelmed. Hopefully in a good way. A remount of her remarkable adaption of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (which she also directed) has just finished at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and Whale – which won the 2018 Max Afford Playwright's Award and was supported by crowd funding – is part of Darebin's Speakeasy program at Northcote.

Whale is participatory theatre.

That's all that a lot of people need to know as they book tickets without a moment's hesitation; the rest are shuddering and deciding to watch TV instead.

But there's no need for fear. Really.

Ok, there's a real need for fear as this work is about climate change, but not about the participatory nature of this night.

Whale is as much about theatre as it is theatre. In Kilpatrick's theatre stories, the audience are, to different degrees, characters and participants as much as observers. Theatre isn't just what happens on the stage, it's how we feel watching it, it's what we talk about afterwards, it's whether we go home and forget it or are still thinking about it days and weeks later. It's what we do.

Whale is all about what we do.

It opens with host Sonya Suares, in a Ted-Talk-suitable vest and matching pants, welcoming everyone as if we know the purpose of our meeting. Meanwhile Sarah Walker takes photos so that this important event is documented. It doesn't take long before we know we've gathered to make a group decision that will end climate change. Pretty good, huh? But there are consequences, and when there's choice, there's disagreement.

But none of this matters if participatory independent theatre saves our world, right? May as well give it a go, because anger and despair aren't working. And we've given up on politics.

Theatre is not a void. And even when knowing  Suares, Walker and Chanella Macri are performing,  the audience are fully engaged and committed to the result.

Director Katrina Cornwell and the design team (composer and sound: Raya Slavin, set and costume: Emily Collett, lighting: Lisa Mibus, AV: Sarah Walker) create a world that is far more than the one envisioned in Kilpatrick's writing. Whale is written to allow other creatives to make a work that belongs to everyone. In the same way that the audiences are trusted to be so vital to the result that everyone puts on their party hats without hesitation.

There are party hats. And chips and drinks. And penguins, projections, rocks, bad congratulations certificates, flooding and a discussion about if a play called "Whale" has to include a whale. It's unexpected theatre that's easy to get lost in and be a part of. And it might even make you do something new when you leave.

Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Review: Cosi

Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company 
4 May 2019
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 8 June

Cosi. Photo by Jeff Busby

My review is in Time Out.