Sunday, 31 January 2016

On The Face Of Things - Fringe World 2016 (30 January 2016)

Who is more exposed? The actor who stands onstage looking out at a sea of expectant faces all scrutinising and judging every word, every movement, and every expression? Or the playwright who reveals fragments of their true self in the dialogue, themes, and subtext they labour so assiduously to craft? How does the relationship between actor and writer affect the creative process and overall end result? What does this all have to do with coffee?  

These are only a few of the questions posed by an intriguing play presented by a 12 person ensemble cast from the Western Australian Youth Theatre Company. Unfortunately there was no program so I apologise for not knowing any of their names other than the two alumni from WAYTCo’s excellent Punk Rock (2014), Claire Thomas and Chelsea Gibson.

The production it must be said is somewhat discombobulating at first. A young actor walks on stage and announces himself to be 51 year old playwright Thomas Douglas Finn. He will be our Narrator having written this his first play. The cast are introduced by Mister Finn and instructed to make eye contact with the audience. Then comes the coffee. Well, it would if the characters, the primary ones distinguished only by a letter of the alphabet, could decide who is going to get the coffee, what coffee to get, and how to distribute the coffee without anyone knowing who ordered what. Coffee it seems is a big deal.

Writer and cast interact insomuch as the writer instructs the actors on what to say and how to say it. Occasionally actors will protest or seek to give input. An announcer calls out scene numbers. The writer narrates to the audience. It’s all very meta and self-aware and, at times, perhaps a little too clever for its own good. What we’re seeing though is the creative process through the eyes of the writer (much to the consternation and confusion of the actors). There’s even a Robert McKee reference thrown in. McKee, of course, is considered by some to be the doyen of screenwriting theory.

This brings me to the film Adaptation which contains a very funny scene featuring McKee as played by Brian Cox. In that film the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt a novel about tulips to the big screen. Instead his script morphs into a meditation on the creative process. He even invents a fictional twin brother. It struck me about halfway through that On The Face of Things, in conception, is its theatrical equivalent.

This is when our erstwhile writer Mister Finn turns out to be someone else entirely… who turns out to be someone else entirely. Yes, the writer has concealed themselves in their own construct afraid to reveal their true motivations, doubts, and fears. That biggest fear is that the play has no ending. Why? We surmise that it’s because during the writing of it the writer fell in love. The riffs on coffee I expect are extrapolations of real life conversations between the writer and their new love. 

There is a tender scene towards the end where two of the characters share an intimate moment with all the artifices and devices stripped away. Then it’s time to end the play with a reprise of the actors gazing out at the audience and told to gauge the reaction to what has just been rendered.

It’s a showy piece that calls for some over-exaggerated acting, magic realism, and some chorus work of deliberately stunted enthusiasm. The performers all do well with the actor playing A and Thomas given greatest prominence as are the trio who represent the writer. The entire cast work well as an ensemble. 

It’s in the quieter more honest moments, however, that the play excels when we come to realise this is about being true to who you really are. There is no need for all the masks (or, in this case, plastic cylindrical cones) and deception. Love can distract us from all the tasks and deadlines of our lives like finishing a play but it also has a way of revealing our essence, doubts and all. 

On the Face of Things is written by Thomas Douglas Finn or was it Susan Catchmore? No, actually it was Alicia Osyka; directed by Dominic Mercer, and starring the WAYTCo Ensemble. It is on at Parrot House in Maylands on 31 January, 12-14 February

Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Naked Truth - Fringe World 2016 (29 January 2016)

Most shows you’ll see during Fringe World are quite frenetic. Rapid fire comedy; manic movement; full tilt singing, choreography, acrobatics; whatever it takes to attract your attention in a 700 strong programme. 

An aspect of The Naked Truth that I enjoyed and appreciated is that the show is like an oasis amongst all the madness. 

Almost conversational in tone it is an engaging portrait of a talented artist in an unusual setting. That artist is WAAPA trained Taryn Ryan and the circumstance is the exploration of her ‘career’ as a life drawing model.

The audience was encouraged to bring art material and there were sketch books and pencils available at the venue as well. We won’t detail my woeful attempts at drawing here; however, there were drawing exercises throughout and some relatively skilled practitioners sitting around me.

Ryan was accompanied by Emma Vanderwal on cello while she played the ukele. Songs were all originally written and beautifully delivered by Ryan with wit and style. The acoustics at the venue were good so the musical components were crystal clear and Ryan has a warm and powerful voice as befits her musical theatre training.

The show really is about how she came to be a life drawing model and to answer all the questions that usually follow. It’s an interactive experience with a couple of audience members asked to come up to pose to demonstrate how difficult it is to stay still for even relatively short periods.

We were also prompted to ask questions both called out and written down anonymously. The answers were amusing, insightful and shone a light on a subject I certainly had little knowledge of. 

The songs did likewise and the inclusion of a cellist added a touch of class to proceedings. Ryan has that knack for making you feel like she’s talking only to you. It fosters a real connection between performer and audience.

It’s the finale though that puts a quiet punctuation point on the show as Ryan not only talks the talk but unrobes to pose for a full five minutes.

The Naked Truth is on at the Flaming Locomotive until 6 February.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Impromptunes: The Completely Improvised Musical - Fringe World 2016 (28 January 2016)

Spoiler Alerts ahead!

Wait, what?!

One of the beauties of Impromptunes is that no two shows will ever be alike. It’s the genius of the premise that sees a completely self contained one hour musical performed every night. Not even the cast know what’s going to happen or even what the topic is going to be. That’s left to the audience who call out suggestions for the title of a “never before seen musical’. On the night I attended a gentleman shouted with great assurance... Death of a Vegan!

And so it was that Vegans were killed in the service of art to hilarious and unpredictable effect. 

The show kicked off with our host, the vivacious Louisa Fitzhardinge, explaining the ‘rules’ such as they were. In the cacophony of suggestions that greeted her request for titles the word ‘vegan’ floated above the din like a fountain of kale caught in a gentle breeze. Yes, vegans were in for a rough time which was made even more amusing when Fitzhardinge informed us that one of the cast was indeed, gasp, a vegan! I found out which one after the show but I have chosen to keep that identity a secret to protect their safety in a world of redneck, meat eating savages. Yes, redneck, meat eating savages were lampooned mercilessly as well.

Death of a Vegan was the tale of Bryce (Morgan Phillips) who runs away to join the convent where he is renamed Brother Lychee after reciting the three rules of this Nutrition Revolution to Elder Beetroot (Emmet Nichols). Bryce’s parents Amberly Cull (the mother) and Fitzhardinge (father) are concerned for their missing boy. This concern is magnified into homicidal rage when the Scot, Father Cherry (Greg Lavell), comes a knocking after Brother Lychee disappears in the forest after chopping down the Spirit of the Woods (Hollie James) or some such thing. Lychee and Beetroot find true love while on the run though it’s not sure if that was with each other or bacon, perhaps both. Everyone is reunited in the end with a rousing finale of We All Need A Little Balance.

Sure, the plot is bat shit crazy as you’d expect from something completely improvised. The joy is in the antics of how they get there and it’s nothing less than impressive. Before I continue, there is a significant seventh member of the troupe and that is accompanist Robert Woods on keyboards. He supplies mood, pace and musical cues for the cast to bounce off and vice versa.

Everything is improvised from the plot to lyrics, music, and the characters chosen. The reason this works is twofold: all seven clearly were well versed in the musical theatre form. They intuitively know when to bring in a duet (I’d Go Anywhere With You), or to reprise a song; when to harmonise or change things up with an upbeat number such as Lickety Splits on the night; to close with a crowd pleasing ‘message song’ or to overlap two songs to accentuate opposing themes.

Secondly, there is a real camaraderie and sense of trust here. Phillips was gleefully put through the wringer by especially Nichols which was mined for maximum laughs. Watching them all operate there were plenty of quick nods to identify pairings; focussed eye contact to work out where a beat or scene was going; and ultimately a sense of play. The result feels purely organic, pun intended.

I’m sure each member has a show where they are the focal point but for me Nichols and Cull were the standouts on the night but everyone was fabulous in a very funny production that was a delight to watch. The line of the night - Fitzhardinge's explanation that they called their son Bryce because beef is good with rice. Obviously! 

Highly recommended but be quick as the show, on at the Noodle Palace, finishes on 30 January

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Talk Dirty To Me - Fringe World 2016 (27 January 2016)

Twenty years ago the internet was in its infancy. The ability to communicate with other people online was pretty much restricted to ICQ, Yahoo Messenger and, if my memory doesn’t fail me, rudimentary chat rooms such as the ones ninemsn hosted. These would seem quaint and antiquated to the youth of today. Of course, back then there was no such thing as smart phones, tablets or any number of different devices that make cyberspace so portable now. Then you were anchored to a PC that probably had less computing power than your average iPhone.

What’s fascinating about this play, however, is that despite the technological advances the issues are identical for a new generation - connection, instant gratification (sexual or otherwise), loneliness, addiction, the blurring of fantasy and reality, the anonymity of hiding behind an avatar or user name, role-playing. It’s a world I am intimately familiar with having experienced it and even written a feature film script about (The Tangled Web) that was optioned a couple of times but ultimately never made it to the big screen.  

Unlike my generation where such things were really a novelty, today’s youth expects such inter-connectivity and ease of use with untold applications in the palm of their hand. Apps like Tinder, Snapchat, Skype, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Grindr, you name it. Today’s social currency is likes and retweets; reblogs and swipes; how many followers you have. The complete immersion in this world magnifies all the pros and cons of online forms of communication which is what Talk Dirty To Me explores.

Ash (Owen Lane) chats with Sam (Reilly O’Byrne-Inglis) who proudly exclaims that she likes to flirt. The conversations are overtly sexual in nature though occasionally intimate in their way. Meanwhile, Teig Sadhana plays a character who seeks acceptance and recognition through a proliferation of applications. His mood is dictated by how successful or not he is in this quest. Eventually Ash demands to meet Sam feeling a connection even though they have never had physical contact.  The meeting expectedly doesn’t go as expected.

Anyone with even a passing understanding of the internet will soon figure out the trajectory of the story. It is well trodden ground over the last decade. While somewhat predictable it is well acted and presented. Lane plays Ash with adolescent exuberance while O’Byrne-Inglis is indeed flirtatious and amusingly dismissive when required. Sadhana gives an at times wide-eyed enthusiasm to his role then crashing despondency. All have a smart phone constantly in hand or nearby. It is after all the fashion accessory de rigueur.

There are two aspects that piqued my interest – a fourth, wordless character played by Rian Howlett whose presence I initially took to be corporeal but who turns out to be far more symbolic. He engages at different points of the play in stylised dance with each of the other three characters in turn. Given the seductive then violent nature of their movements I took this to literally be the love-hate relationship with the internet that can sometimes afflict us all. Howlett was a most charismatic figure in these moments.  

Then there is the blink and you’ll miss it coda right at the very end. This was an intriguing button on a play that runs only a little over 30 minutes. If this was to be expanded to a full one act play then exploring the ramifications of Ash’s last uttered words and actions would form the backbone of the second half.

Talk Dirty To Me is a newer generation’s take on a burgeoning social problem that started twenty years ago – does too much connection leave us more isolated than ever? A The Cutting Room Floor production directed by Casey Elder from a concept by Elder and Chris Brain, it is on at The Stables until 31 January.

Monday, 25 January 2016

La Soiree - Fringe World 2016 (24 January 2016)

The human body.

Perfect. Beautiful. Powerful. Strong. Supple. Lithe. Flexible. Sexy. Erotic. Mesmerising.

In a show of jaw dropping brilliance there was one unmistakeable conclusion – not only is this troupe comprised of superb entertainers but they also count among their number world class athletes.

From the strength and control of the English Gents Denis Lock and Hamish McCann to the lithesome dexterity of hula hoop artiste extraordinaire Satya;

From the smouldering acrobatics of Yammel Rodriguez (I’m coming to you Mooky... just hold on a sec) to the graceful precision of Bret Pfister on a suspended hoop;

Even to what some may consider the imperfection of the double-jointed, easily dislocated limbs of contortionist Captain Frodo;

The human form is featured in a celebration of untold, unimaginable hours of training, discipline, commitment, and exceptional skill.

The results are awe inspiring and breathtaking.

Not to be outdone, the troupe mixes up feats of supreme athleticism and grace with the soaring vocals of Miss Frisky; the showmanship of Clarke McFarlane’s Freddy Mercury worshipping Mario; and – wait for it – the acting ability of possibly the greatest living thespian ever to grace a Spiegeltent, Mooky Cornish.   

Wrangled together by Creative Producer and Host Brett Haylock this two hour extravaganza moves from one unforgettable act to another with such energy, pizazz and good humour that you can’t help but be simply enthralled.

I felt like a young boy again sitting in wide-eyed wonder as my brain tried to comprehend what my eyes were seeing. Thankfully my hands retained the ability to clap non-stop while the vocal chords hollered on their own accord. My grey matter lurched at the sheer improbability of feats I couldn’t even dream were humanly possible.

I have to tell you, there were also moments that were as sexy as all get out. Yammel’s act on a single strap while casually smoking a cigar with attitude to burn was incandescent. Hamish McCann’s pole-dancing routine was equally as hypnotic.

I boisterously sang along to Queen hits and even a classic from West Side Story. I grimaced as Captain Frodo somehow managed to fit his entire body through not one but two tennis rackets (I’ll never be able to watch the Australian Open or Wimbledon the same way ever again). I roared with laughter at Mario's and Mooky’s haphazard antics.

I listened in awe to Frisky’s haunting vocals. I gazed upwards as acts gyrated and cavorted above me. I squirmed as audience members were invited onstage terrified I might be one of them.

If theatre is a shared experience where we are moved, entertained, surprised and astounded then La Soiree is right up there among the very best on offer anywhere. I was so jazzed after the show I simply couldn’t sleep for hours.

Lastly, there was a new act that had been incorporated – one that reminded me of the scene from American Beauty with the plastic bag that dances in the wind - bubble blowing. An act performed by Denis Lock with understated English wit and delicacy whereas earlier he had been a rippling tower of phenomenal strength. The shapes he created and infused with smoke from his pipe were as ephemeral as they were astonishingly beautiful.

La Soiree indeed reminds us that there is so much beauty in the world.   

The two hour show is on at the Spiegeltent in the Museum Gardens until 6 March. Beg, borrow, steal to get a ticket.

Oleanna - Fringe World 2016 (24 January 2016)

One of the interesting aspects of the burgeoning Fringe World Festival is the number of unusual venues pressed into service to accommodate 700 shows. This one aptly titled The Hidden Bar was nestled in a Tapas restaurant on Aberdeen Street. 

A temporary stage constructed of four blocks had been erected at one end of the bar. Narrow rows of seats extended along the bar back towards the entrance. The relatively small stage space was perfect for this two-hander written by the celebrated playwright David Mamet. The setting was a professor’s office as John (Andrew O’Connell) meets with one of his students Carol (Rosalba Verrucci) who is struggling to comprehend his class. 

Normally Carol is portrayed as a young woman and this heightens the sexual tension between older professor and female student. In an intriguing reversal, here Carol is the older of the two which changes that dynamic. The play has three razor sharp defined acts in what amounts to a struggle for control between two characters of seemingly mismatched standing. Status and power become a contested battleground in the context of a bastion of higher education and gender politics.

The first act sees John in the ascendancy; the second rocks that assumption as everything we saw is turned on its head as Carol makes accusations regarding his behaviour; while the third puts Carol in the driver’s seat with a brutal punctuation point of a conclusion. The stakes are ratcheted up as John wants to secure tenure at the University which will bring status, monetary reward and the ability to buy a new house with his wife. All of these trappings of privilege come under direct threat as his attempts to control the situation only make matters worse.

The drama is heightened because you could argue that both characters are right and both are wrong in their entrenched positions. How you perceive the validity or ‘justice’ of what transpires may depend entirely on your own perceptions and moral framework. That makes for deliciously compelling drama and, no doubt, the potential for animated debate long after the show ends.

The acting is very strong here in trying circumstances. The 3pm show was conducted in sweltering conditions – kudos to both actors for literally keeping their cool. This is a Mamet play so not only does it feature huge swathes of tricky dialogue, it demands that the actors overlap lines as they verbally joust. This can be very awkward when there are pauses and hesitation but O’Connell and Verrucci riff off each other very well. I also enjoyed the subtle changes in body language as John’s superiority is diminished and Carol becomes more assertive. The play ends on a surprisingly brutal note that is extremely well executed.

As I was watching the first act unfold it felt like an intellectual exercise that was flirting with overstaying its welcome. But when the shift comes it does so with economical brevity that propels this into compelling territory indeed. The strength of the writing and delivery is that I could empathise with both ‘sides’ so was torn as this played out. No small feat in what were trying conditions for the audience as well as the actors. This is a fascinating and deftly constructed battle between two opposing and combustible viewpoints that is well acted and staged with the climax actually rocking the stage such was its force. 

Oleanna is written by David Mamet, directed by Robert Jeffreys, and stars Rosalba Verrucci and Andrew O’Connell. It is on at The Hidden Bar in Northbridge until 21 February.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Crossing - Fringe World 2016 (23 January 2016)

Tales of corporate greed and malfeasance have always been a staple of storytelling in one form or another as people react to the inequities of capitalism and big business. But those stories appear to have taken on a greater malevolence since the Global Financial Crisis as countless lives have been ruined as a direct result of institutional incompetence. One of the biggest targets, of course, is the banking industry and it’s here that The Crossing sets its tale.

Stella (Taryn Ryan) is ‘corporate fixer’. She cleans up any mess the staff makes and ensures that damage control is effectively and rapidly put in place. But there’s been a leak to the media – a very damaging leak - that threatens the bank and highly placed executives. She is tasked to find out who the source is and to shut down the story… at any cost.

In this she is assisted by her colleague and mentor (Erin Hutchinson) and the barman counsel of Nick Maclaine who is attracted to the young and ambitious banking employee. As she interviews staff (a variety of roles played by Maclaine) Stella discovers an unsavoury truth that threatens her own future and spirals the situation out of control.

Billed as a ‘noir cabaret’ The Crossing also incorporates songs and a distinctive score composed by Elliott Hughes and played to great effect by Jackson Vickery on the Vibraphone. Great effort has been made to create atmosphere through the score, sound effects, and the lighting design. It is certainly a stylish looking and sounding production in the PICA performing arts space. I particularly liked the ever changing messages on the light box as if they were chapter headings of a noir novel.

The quality of the performances is also very good. Maclaine is a likeable presence as the barman dispensing whisky infused wisdom while struggling to keep his business afloat. He also gives his various employee characters enough distinctive characteristics to delineate them clearly. Hutchinson gets to vamp it up a little as a boozy lounge singer; a stern senior executive; but most critically as the mentor who is a key player in Stella’s descent into the corporate rabbit hole of deceit and greed.

Then there’s Ryan who graduated from WAAPA last November. She certainly looks the part of a go-getting executive, all sleek and driven, with hair tightly pulled back, heels and corporate attire. She exudes confidence and competence particularly in a long ‘interrogation’ sequence which is complicated by largely being sung-talk.

So all the elements are in place but the show didn’t work for me for several reasons more to do with the writing and conception.

The leak itself felt like a complete McGuffin. I didn’t know what it was, why it was so devastating that it prompted death threats, and basically what the stakes really were. That meant I didn’t understand what would drive Stella to committing actions that end up being quite excessive in the context of the corporate world. There needed to be something more than maybe she didn’t end up with a bigger office. She needed to be in direct personal danger but that was never explored. This felt like a cross between Michael Clayton and Up In The Air but the stakes of the former weren’t there nor the emotional heft of the latter.

Also, the key relationship was never established. A lot of time was spent between Stella and the Barman and that was perfectly fine as a subplot but the heartbeat of the piece is between Stella and her mentor. I never saw that bond in action to therefore understand subsequent developments which form the emotional pulse of the story.
    
Finally, I was confused by the overall tone. There were moments of comedy and shtick that felt jarring within the drama and noir of the world created. I didn’t understand what the boozy lounge singer represented other than Hutchinson gets to sing the more melodic songs which she does well. The senior executive with over exaggerated shoulder pads and demeanour felt like straight parody. Even the musical component didn’t quite gel with the tension of the interrogation scene undercut by song. There seemed so many disparate parts – comedy, drama, noir, parody, musical, cabaret – that I was never quite sure what ultimately this was.

Stylish to look at with an intriguing score and good performances this didn’t quite click for me with abrupt tonal changes that undercut the drama and noir sensibility.

Written by Finn O’Branagain, Directed by Kathryn Osborne, with music composed by Elliott Hughes, Musical Direction by Johannes Lubbers and performed by Jackson Vickery, The Crossing is a The Last Great Hunt production and stars Erin Hutchinson, Nick Maclaine, and Taryn Ryan and is on at PICA until 30 January.

Darren the Explorer - Fringe World 2016 (23 January 2016)

This show is to Play School what Avenue Q is to Sesame Street. That is to say it’s a modified children’s concept where political correctness was not only barred from entering the venue but was told to fuck off downstairs and wait in the car for an hour. It is lewd, crude, breathtakingly non-PC, and a hilarious pisstake of early morning children’s shows.

The story is simple – Darren (Luke Bolland) wants nothing more on his fourth birthday than for his parents to get back together and for his father to say he’s proud of him. To do this all he has to do is go on an adventure to find the magic lamp of Northbridge and make a wish. In this quest he is assisted by a couple of sidekicks – Shoes the talking monkey (Jez Watts) and Pam the Map (Dylan Dorotich). Shoes hates Pam with a passion so their non-stop bickering is in direct counterpoint to the cheesy sort of camaraderie you would usually find in a “kids show”.

Obstacles are put in their way mainly in the form of Stealy the Dingo (Sarah J Christiner) who covets the lamp (and pretty much anything else he can get his puppet hands on) and a set of challenges. These involve visiting a strip club, surviving a knife fight in Northbridge and finding a homeless man (Glenn Grimwood).    

The humour is not for the faint hearted with some very blue jokes on a range of contemporary subjects. Bill Cosby and Taylor Swift are among the more notable targets. There are plenty of sight gags – one involving a ping pong ball that was laugh out loud tasteless – and in the show I saw a ‘prop malfunction’ that had Watts struggling to stay in character at the absurdity of it all. There is also pungent commentary on the overly bogan aspects of Australian culture and a riff on the city of Adelaide that is relentless. There are questionable jabs at abortion as Shoes deals with the unexpected pregnancy of Shirts the stripper; while in the best Avenue Q tradition racism is given a subverted treatment.

The show swings for the fences and is unapologetic in its brand of humour which is offensively funny. But that is the beauty of the premise – couching such barbs in the cloak of a childhood format makes the content so incongruous that you can’t help but laugh while also potentially questioning why you are doing so. It’s one of those gloriously squirm inducing experiences as an audience member.

Bolland plays Darren with straight forward earnestness that provides the foundation for all the craziness that swirls around him. He’s at his best when asking the audience what they think of certain situations or to answer questions in mock educational style. The dead pan style works a treat. By comparison, Watts gets to riff with an energy and malicious glee that is infectious. Dorotich is the good natured target of derision that acts as a counterweight to Watt’s malevolence.

Christiner plays a less than useful barman (to their quest) with some truly crude jokes but it’s her work as Stealy that reverberates in the bigger scheme of the story. She also has a bizarre knife fight with Grimwood who provides the glimpse of a moral compass before being seduced by thoughts of an irresistibly exotic locale.  

Director Levon Polinelli keeps this all moving along briskly while incorporating some backing video animation and the inclusion of music by Courtney Murphy. The songs are again a subversion of typical children’s sing-a-long fare with satire (We’re Singing a Song that Rhymes) and vitriol (You’re the Worst).

If you like your comedy barbed, very dark, and flirting with being truly offensive then this show is going to be right up your alley. Don’t be surprised though if that alley is a vomit filled laneway in Northbridge full of disreputable characters who will steal everything you own to pay for a trip to Adelaide.

Written by Luke Bolland, Directed by Levon Polinelli, with Music by Courtney Murphy, Darren the Explorer is on at the Noodle Palace until 6 February.

Jeff Hewitt: Rad Dad Redemption - Fringe World 2016 (23 January 2016)

It’s a little known fact that Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the pre-eminent manual for how to succeed at stand-up comedy. It pretty much lays out the road map for those brave enough to accept the call, survive the ordeal, and seize the sword of fame and comedic glory. Of course, a Hollywood arsehole called George Lucas completely misappropriated this potent tome to create some nonsense about space knights and indestructible space stations that were destroyed with Sisyphean regularity.

Okay, it’s entirely possible that the above statement is, ahem, not strictly speaking correct. But commentating as a screenwriter who has sat through many a workshop (and indeed read Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey based on Campbell’s work), the fact that Jeff Hewitt overtly uses this storytelling model is as surprising as it is amusing.

And when I mean overt I mean as in a presentation slide on screen stepping us through a truncated 9 step model! It gives structure to what turns out to be a very funny and engaging tale of personal redemption. Which just happens to fit Campbell’s model perfectly as Hewitt is indeed the hero of his own story.

But to earn redemption one first has to plummet to the depths and this is what makes Rad Dad Redemption really interesting. Hewitt isn’t afraid to tell his story warts and all even daring us not to like him. The show opens with a video montage of him circa 2011 when he was an irresponsible party animal and deeply dissatisfied lawyer. Once onstage he quickly apprises us of the reasons for his behaviour and angst mapped to Campbell’s steps. Drugs, infidelity, soulless boss, remorseless banks, and the tragic end to a neighbour are just some of the causes.

Hewitt’s delivery is brutal, often times crass but ultimately funny because there is a truthfulness here that is compelling. And despite his attempts to play the villain he does come across as very likeable in the intimate venue. This is aided by a casual interaction with the audience that is spontaneous and warm even when mock abuse is blurted out with glee.

Things change for Hewitt when he meets his ‘Goddess’ who will become the mother of his child which drives the redemption arc in the latter half of the show. Fatherhood certainly has changed Hewitt and his joy at this unexpected outcome is palpable. The show ends with a video montage circa 2015 that shows how far he has come from his anus horribilis. The final moments demonstrate to us all that you have to learn to crawl before you can walk and it is a touching endpoint to an authentic and funny tale.   

And not even one Death Star was blown up along the way!

Jeff Hewitt: Rad Dad Redemption, directed by Levon Polinelli, is on at the Noodle Palace in the Central Institute of Technology in Northbridge until 30 January.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Backseat Diamond - Fringe World 2016 (22 January 2016)

Fringe World 2016 burst into life Friday night and with 700 shows on offer everyone is looking for that diamond in the rough. Well, look no further. Powered by 2015 WAAPA graduate Megan Kozak and ably supported by current third years Jason Arrow and Rory O’Keeffe this hour long show sparkles in the intimate Casa Mondo situated in The Pleasure Garden (Russell Square).

The storyline is simple – Mary (Kozak) has been a backing vocalist for ten years and quite frankly she believes greater things beckon. An unfortunate ‘mishap’ to her fellow Diamonds allows Mary to take centre stage with the help of Jason (Arrow) on keyboards. She launches into various Motown classics before Chris the security guard (O’Keeffe) intervenes having discovered the lengths to which Mary will go to seize her big moment. Not to be deterred – after all the audience has paid for tickets – she co-opts Chris by appealing to his inner rock star. What follows is a clutch of Aussie classics before the curtain comes down on Mary’s brief reign as budding superstar.

There is no doubt that Kozak is a powerhouse vocalist. Early on I was a little worried about the sound of the air-conditioning unit in the relatively small space. But when she cuts loose on songs like Aretha Franklin’s immortal Respect or gets her Whitney on such fears quickly melt away. The first half of the show is a roster of classic songs including Son of a Preacher Man, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and I Heard It Through The Grapevine before an hysterical change of pace to the much lambasted I’ve Never Been To Me which Kozak delivers with such over the top earnestness that the audience was in stitches.

It’s here that Kozak really impresses above and beyond her vocal ability – the stagecraft on display is exceptional. Looking stunning in a blue sequin dress she assumes the persona of Mary, American accent and all, with impeccable comic timing and exaggerated facial and physical movement. The audience is hooked early as Mary tells her backstory and interacts with individuals directly. (Well done to Peter for supplying ‘backing vocals’ to Respect!) The fine line between delusion and unquenched ambition is crossed with abandon to amusing effect.

O’Keeffe, stepping in for the original Chris (Chris Wilcox), is a handsome comic foil playing the straight man that Kozak riffs off. Her attempted seduction of Chris to stop (watch for the running gag) turning Mary in to the police is another highlight. He has his own musical moments as Motown gives way to Johnny Farnham and other true blue working class anthems. Their duet of Endless Love, however, was lovingly mocked with exuberance.

Jason Arrow provided the main musical accompaniment on keyboards while supplying increasingly exasperated asides to Mary’s antics. O’Keeffe featured on guitar while Kozak was relegated to kazoo… due to budgetary constraints!

This is funny, well performed, and exceptionally sung. My only quibble would be that the ‘Chris threatening to dob in Mary’ card is played a few too many times but it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise entertaining and thoroughly engaging show that is perfect for Fringe.

Backseat Diamond is on at the Caso Mondo, The Pleasure Gardens, 8pm every night until 27 January.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Tonsils + Tweezers - Black Swan State Theatre Company (15 January 2016)

In the second half of the Loaded double bill playwright Will O’Mahony tackles a question that many must wonder when they see the never ending horror of mass shootings most notably and tragically in the US – what could possibly make someone do such a heinous thing? That he does so while giving us a treatise on friendship and an unexpected ending that is emotionally sublime is quite astounding. Throw in a little Macbeth for good measure, a dash of his own The Mars Project, rapid fire dialogue that would make Aaron Sorkin blush, and even a pinch of Wham and you have a potent and darkly humorous play that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.

It is anchored by an incredibly likable performance by Lincoln Vickery as Tonsils. Vickery, dressed only in boxer shorts, has total command of the rat-a-tat dialogue that is delivered at breakneck speed. His banter, on stage direction of other characters, and address to the audience in asides is so well pitched that it’s a delight to experience. Tellingly, it’s when Vickery slows down that the emotion of the piece blossoms as we come to understand the true nature of his friendship with Tweezers played by Hoa Xuande.

Xuande is excellent as the friend who brings a gun to the table. His Tweezers is everything Tonsils is not – struggling with momentous events from his youth that reverberate ten years later as their high school reunion approaches. He is diffident, angry, confused… and wants to kill someone. Xuande handles the unravelling of the character very well as the play comes to an emotional climax.

Throw into the mix Max (Adam Sollis) who bullied Tweezers at school and we slowly come to understand why Tweezers could actually contemplate doing the unthinkable as the past is teased out. It’s a much welcome return for Sollis, a 2014 WAAPA graduate, who was outstanding in his third year productions and is in cracking form here. He gives the now property developer Max who is about to tread the boards for the first time (as Macbeth no less!) a knockabout quality that is totally engaging. There’s also a bit with a toothbrush that is hilarious.

Then there’s Megan Wilding. I can’t think of a local actor who does more with less than Wilding. With one line she can have an audience in stitches or awestruck silence. She has a command of the stage that is simply compelling. Here Wilding plays a school teacher; the actress who will be Lady Macbeth; and adds asides with such gusto that she threatens to steal proceedings whenever she is on stage if however briefly. Again though, it’s in her quietest moments during a description of what could happen if Tweezers carries out his plans that is devastating.
Hoa Xuande (L) & Lincoln Vickery (R) - Image by Daniel James Grant
The play starts with what initially felt like a continuation of themes from The Mars Project as Tonsils tells us about binary stars and elliptical orbits as analogies for friendships. I’m discovering that a signature item of O’Mahony’s writing is the repeated use of a key phrase or concept that has thematic heft. This time it's that 'things together want to be apart and that things apart want to be together', referred to multiple times throughout. O’Mahony’s dialogue is exceptional and he clearly has a love for language, words and wordplay. It all races towards a surprising conclusion that is cathartic for both the eponymous duo and, dare I say it, the audience.

This is a very funny but no less confronting play. It has an excellent script and wonderful performances across the board. Written and directed by Will O’Mahony and starring Adam Sollis, Lincoln Vickery, Megan Wilding, and Hoa Xuande, Tonsils + Tweezers is on at the State Theatre Centre in the Studio Underground along with Girl Shut Your Mouth until 7 February. 

Girl Shut Your Mouth - Black Swan State Theatre Company (15 January 2016)

This was the first of a double bill of new plays at the Studio Underground under the moniker Loaded, the other being Tonsils + Tweezers. Both were written by outstanding local playwrights; featured WAAPA graduates making their professional theatre debuts; and focussed on the all too real contemporary issue of gun violence.

In Girl Shut Your Mouth, playwright Gita Bezard creates a world of indeterminate location where four teenage girls live in fear of their life. One, Darcy, has been the victim of an acid attack; another, Katie, has survived a shooting with the bullet still lodged in her spine. This fact seemingly gives her the ability to leave this horrid place and go somewhere else where she will be welcomed and able to do whatever she likes free of fear. Except that Darcy believes instead Katie will be ostracised and treated poorly. That doesn’t stop Grace and Mia wanting to get their ‘own bullet’ so they too can leave.

Firstly, the acting here is excellent. Shalom Brune-Franklin (Grace), Brittany Morel (Darcy), Stephanie Panozzo (Mia), and Jessica Paterson (Katie) all graduated from the same WAAPA class in November last year. The three years they spent together shows in the natural chemistry of their interactions, whether it be playful, taunting, or full on drama. Each has a moment to shine though Paterson is the presumptive lead as the more dominant Katie. The power dynamics within the group are fascinating with Morel’s Darcy the seemingly meek outsider; Brune-Franklin’s Grace the capable ‘lieutenant’ of sorts; and Panozzo’s Mia the one that tilts that whole hierarchy on its head with a decision that escalates matters into truly dangerous territory. That escalation sees Paterson’s Katie react in telling fashion as the fa├žade of bluster and nonchalance is ripped away.

Those dynamics are enhanced by the set – in effect a big ‘playpen’ is created for these 16 year old characters to cavort in. The raised sides allow positions of dominance while the floor of the pen is used to put characters in a position of submissiveness. There is outstanding use of lighting to elevate dramatic moments through use of silhouette and to delineate flashback sequences to Katie’s shooting. The sound design aids in these distinct sequences as well.

Image by Daniel James Grant
It certainly is a confronting play with occasional beats of very black humour but it didn’t quite work for me even though there were some outstanding moments. To name three – Brune-Franklin’s ‘fear’ monologue where she wishes the most fearful moment of going to school was whether a cute boy would have the courage to say he liked her versus the ugly reality of shootings and rapes and more; the ‘Walter sequence’ where Mia follows through on a pivotal decision is truly creepy and disturbing as the reality of this world for young girls is made brutally clear; and the climax itself which takes that decision to its logical conclusion to shattering effect. The acting, staging, writing, and execution in all three of these moments makes for riveting theatre.  

However, while I understood the analogies – I took the here and now to be somewhere such as Syria; the other place free of fear to be Australia; and the shed with the blankets the dog gave birth on that Darcy thinks will be Katie’s true destination, to be a detention centre – the act of ‘getting your bullet’ seemed so extreme even in the logic of the world that was created as to be somewhat distancing. The high risk stakes of planning to get shot but not die only to prove your ‘credentials’ to enter the ‘other place’ I guess could be analogous to undertaking the dangerous passage by sea to a new world free of persecution.

I suspect the issue was that we never saw that other world in the context of the play to understand its magnetic lure; nor did we really see the horror of their present world. Both of those things were mainly only talked about and not experienced. Even the flashbacks to Katie’s shooting were more an exercise is exaggeration or shrugged off which diluted their impact.

Having said that, it is a provocative premise and one that will sponsor debate given the extreme nature of what these teenagers propose to escape the horror of their daily lives. Very well acted and staged, Girl Shut Your Mouth is on at the State Theatre Centre in the Studio Underground along with Tonsils + Tweezers until 7 February. It is written by Gita Bezard, directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and stars Shalom Brune-Franklin, Brittany Morel, Stephanie Panozzo, and Jessica Paterson.