18 August 2017

How to Melbourne Fringe 2017

How to Fringe 2017
Melbourne Fringe
14 September – 1 October

Fringe Furniture

Last week, the 2017 Melbourne Fringe program launched with a loud declaration of "Everything is Art – for 2.5 weeks".

Fringe is our biggest celebration of independent art and remains unique as an open-access festival that encourages and celebrates new independent work. This festival is the one where you'll see the shows that go on to tour the world, and the ones that will be remembered for only existing for a few hours. You can see work by established artists trying something new alongside artists who are doing their first show or exhibiting their first work in public.

But you will not be able to get to all 440 events. You can try – many have before you – but part of festivals is missing something you wish you'd seen, and seeing something you wish you hadn't.

To help us make some choices, a new SM series called How to Fringe 2017 will start next week.

We'll hear from Fringe artists and from members of Melbourne's arts community, especially those who did their first shows at this festival. They'll talk about independent art in Melbourne and share some stories about being in or going to the Fringe.

And everyone will share the five Fringe shows/events they will not miss. Find a couple of artists that you love and you've got ten unmissable Fringe experiences to add to your list.

If you want to be featured, send me a message and I'll send you the questions.

16 August 2017

Review: The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man
Malthouse Thearte
9 August 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 27 August

Daniel Monks. The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man. Photo by Pia Johnson

My first experience of Joseph Merrick's story was in 1980 with David Lynch's film The Elephant Man, on the big screen. I may have been too young to deal emotionally with the initial fear – and eventual love – created by Lynch, but it carved the story of the young man who few could see as human into my memory. Unlike the well-known stories of Merrick that run the gauntlet of extreme emotion and see Merrick with pity, director Matt Lutton and writer Tom Wright take us into Merrick's imagined thoughts in The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man at Malthouse.

The production begins in 1880s England with the audience being welcomed behind a giant sideshow curtain to gawp for the cost of our ticket. Once we're complicit freak gawpers, Merrick’s story is told chronologically from his impoverished childhood to circus exhibit to the questioned sanctuary of a hospital. Based on what is known about his life, each scene gets closer to his imagined thoughts until we're with Merrick and looking back at ourselves.

Daniel Monks performance as Merrick finds a personal and intriguing space where he lets the audience know that he knows he’s being looked at because he is an actor with a physical disability. Performing without prosthetics, Merrick’s “cauliflower squeezing into pigskin” growths are imagined and there’s much more power in his wearing and final rejection of his “gentleman’s” suit. It’s cool to be different as long as you’re trying to be the same as everyone else.

Marg Horwell's costume design stresses the sameness of Merrick’s world and her set (with Paul Jackson’s consistently-remarkable lighting) initially feels Lynchian with a wide-screen frame that opens in black and white. But any comfortable and safe idea of a flat and distanced world is dismissed when the smoke and fog of industrialisation can’t be controlled and makes the audience part of the world.

Having all other characters performed by women (Paula Arundell, Julie Forsyth, Emma J Hawkins and Sophie Ross) parallels the question about how we tell and remember stories though different eyes. So much of Merrick’s story is known because it was told by Frederick Treves, the doctor who brought him to the hospital. Treves isn't part of this story; this time it’s Merrick’s story.

Yet for all it’s visual power and emotional punch, the production is dramatically inconsistent and at times feels like it’s caught trying to reflect on perceptions of disability rather than exploring the imagined life of the man whose skeleton is still on display and is mostly remembered because of his moniker.

06 August 2017

Review: Looking Glass

Looking Glass
New Working Group
3 August 2017
to 13 August

Peter Houghton Daniella Farinacci. Looking Glass. Photo by Pier Carthew

One of the many things I love about Louris van de Geer's writing is that she forces her audience question everything they see on the stage, and that any story chosen by the audience can be far from from what the playwright and creators intended.

He new work Looking Glass is presented by the New Working Group, a network of 11 independent Melbourne writers, directors and designers, and received development funding from the Australia Council, Creative Victoria and the Angior Family Foundation.

Marcus (Daniel O'Neill, who alternates with Thomas Taylor) is about nine; a time when you're not a child or a teenager and are testing independence and the limits of family love. One day he lies face down on the floor and won't get up. His parents (Daniela Farinacci and Peter Houghton) turn to outside help in the form of tall and mysterious Josh Price, who could be the doctor trying to save them, every person they meet or everyone they wish they met.

It can be seen as a standard family-psychology story – van de Geer is inspired by Charles Cooley's 1902  looking glass theory about how we develop our sense of self based on how we see ourselves reflected through others – but nothing about this production is that simple.

The story is grounded by director Susie Dee creating a strong familial connection with the family. There's a genuine warmth between the characters and the audience, even if they are struggling to find that warmth or connection, or the reflection of it, in their lives.

The counterpoint to this familiarity is the design by Kate Davis (set and costume) and Amelia Lever-Davidson (lighting) that never lets know where we are. A white floor is boxed in by heavy yellow plastic curtains – somewhere between sunshine and urine yellow – that define a room but don't fully conceal what's going on outside it' walls and allow anyone to enter or exit from any spot. The colours and mood change from a clinical clean whiteness, which could be hospital or prison, to underground dark black and reds that change any idea of yellow. It could a family home as easily as a dystopian future, an afterlife, a dream or anything we want, or need, to see reflected on the stage.

I chose my narrative early on and it worked for me – I thought the child was dead or had never been born – but there are many other interpretations of the story that are as logical and obvious.

Looking Glass is complex and fascinating theatre because it holds onto its answers tightly while creating the connection and emotion that begs for answers.

02 August 2017

Mini-review: You're Not Alone

You're Not Alone
In Between Time, Soho Theatre, Malthouse

2 August 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 13 August

Kim Nobel. You're Not Alone. Photo by Geraint Lewis

I went to You're Not Alone at Malthouse without any research and I'm not hitting Google yet because tonight's post-show conversations were about whether this black-comedy documentary-theatre is genuine.

Kim Noble's from the UK and has been touring this solo show for a couple of years. If it's fiction and we were taken for a complete ride, I think it's genius because he created a character that left me searching for a reason to like him, and grabbing at reasons to love him because he's a self-indulgent knob who thinks he's far more interesting than he is.

If it's authentic, it left me searching for a reason to love him and grabbing at reasons to like him because he may well be a self-indulgent knob who thinks he's far more interesting than he is. But some of the filmed moments with his sick dad let his mask drop and that was enough to question if stage Kim is the man he presents himself as.

As does the technical direction and the step-perfect audience interaction.

But I believed his pretending to work at IKEA.

What I love is that – right now – I don't know where this works sits on that spectrum between fiction and biography. I don't know where I want it to sit on that spectrum. And I don't want to know where it sits on the spectrum because it's that ignorance that's making me question what I saw.

Perhaps Kim made secret videos of his neighbours, stalked a supermarket worker and stole his undies, record other neighbours having sex, put his dead cat in the freezer, and convinced men to meet him for sex because they thought he was woman called Sarah. Or perhaps it's all theatre and his lovely girlfriend is waiting for him to come home.

Review: Merciless Gods

Merciless Gods
Little Ones Theatre and Darebin Arts Speakeasy 
28 July 2017
Northcote Town Hall
to 5 August

Jennifer Vuletic. Merciless Gods. Photo by Sarah Walker

Yesterday there were only a handful of tickets available for Little Ones Theatre's Merciless Gods at the Northcote Town Hall, so they've snuck in an extra matinee on Saturday (August 5). Book now because otherwise you will have to go to Sydney to see it at Griffin in November. Really, it's that good.

Director Stephen Nicolazzo approached Melbourne-based author Christos Tsiolkas to adapt his series of short stories, Merciless Gods (released in 2014 but is a collection of older work), he said yes, and long-time Little One's collaborator Dan Giovannini wrote the script.

So much of the strength of Little Ones Theatre's work comes from an ongoing collaboration with a core group of artists. And, as an arts writer, it's been pretty amazing to watch this group of artists find each other and develop over the years. One of the many reasons to see new work and emerging artists is that rare opportunity to see how original voices develop in on our stages.

As all good Melbourians have read at least one of Tsiolkas's books (The Slap, Dead Europe, Head On), there's an immediate familiarity with Merciless Gods – the first story onstage story about five middle class friends could be easily re-cast from the audience. The work feels like being inside one of Tsiolkas's books, but what makes this adaption so remarkable is that it's nothing like reading Tsiolkas on the page.

There's no attempt to recreate the sense of place in his books. Tsiolkas evokes and uses place so effectively in his writing. Northcote, Brighton and Moorabin in The Slap could be no other suburbs, but as a reader you don't need to know where you are to understand the attitudes that define the area. On stage, place is mentioned but it's only seen through the design by Eugyeene Teh (set and costume) and Kate Sfetkidis (lighting).

With a colbolt blue wedge that literally stabs into the audience from a red curtain that's somewhere between blood red and fuck-me lipstick-red (Teh's use of colour to create emotion is always incredible), the eight worlds/stories place the audience as those merciless gods who watch and may want the unthinkable to take place in front of their passive gaze.

Instead of being comfortable in place, ranging from suburban backyard to a gay sauna, Giovannini's script lets us into the hearts and heads of the characters. There's no sitting back and letting environment control actions and this lets these stories find a humanity in people who are often ignored or seen as defective or inhumane humans.

These stories are about characters and people who are rarely seen on our stages and in our stories, or  those who are invisible or ignored in our lives. Along with the queer and Australian immigrant stories expected from Tsiolkas, are people whose circumstances or behaviours leave them fading or invisible. There's a middle aged woman dealing with her teenage son beginning to treat her like she's nothing, an older women watching male gay porn, a man in prison for a violent crime, a man who's chosen to end his life surrounded by his family.

Each are stories that confront – it's difficult to feel for someone whose behviour makes us want to ignore or hate them – but the production doesn't try to shock. Shock lets us distance ourself from characters. By finding common emotions and thoughts – we know the pain of grief, the irrationality of wanting revenge, the blindness of love –, it's much harder to say "that would never be me or mine".

All of which could fall apart if the cast (Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Charles Purcell and the incredible Jennifer Vuletic) didn't bring themselves to their characters. Again, they don't let the abhorrent or simply annoying behaviours of their characters create distance, and all find a personal connection with character that lets the audience find their own connection.

It's this connection that Nicolozzo ensures is always on the stage and this disturbs far more than anything the characters do. It's easy to connect with lovely people; it's confronting to connect with – and easily laugh with – people who you'd never look at in the street or are happy to pretend don't exist.