Bluebird obscurity

The Bluebird Mechanicals (Too Close to the Sun)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 17 – 21

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“The Bluebird Mechanicals” weaves together seemingly disparate elements – Kostya’s ghost in the aftermath of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, the final fiery flight of the Hindenburg, and the omniscience of birds. The obscure collection of concepts is quite cleverly linked, although initially, at least, it is not clearly evident how. We start with “The Seagull” and while there is a quick recap of the classic Russian play, some audience knowledge of its characters is beneficial to the show’s accessibility. From that, there is an ornithological sidestep to explanation of unique bird sounds, some of the many animals that appear on stage, in a variety of puppet et al guises, including a spectacularly impressive bluebird costume.

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Essentially the visionary solo show appears to be a series of vignettes with a linkage that emerges over time, delivered with conviction by Writer, Performer, Visual Concept, Set and Object Designer Talya Rubin. Despite its interdisciplinary nature, at 80 minutes’ duration though, “The Bluebird Mechanicals” is hard work, enjoyed more in reflection perhaps than in the reality of its languid experience. There are a lot of indulgent, contemplative pause silences through which the audience patients. There is, however, a lot to look at in the production’s detailed staging, which represents a nooks-and-crannies mix of natural history museum cabinetry and dioramas.

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“The Bluebird Mechanicals” is a dense contemporary work delivered with a restraint that makes it an acquired taste type of show. Its delicate presentation of big ideas means that though a lot seems to happen, it feels like the opposite. Rather than an onslaught of ideas, the work offers opportunities for contemplation of its analogy of how the earth is like the Hindenburg destined for disaster while the sun hurtles towards us. (When we are not watching Chekov’s Nina being haunted and abandoned in a forest, we are being taken on a journey as passengers aboard the Hindenburg.)

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A play suggesting that the human race is like soon to be extinct animals is not particularly joyful, but “The Bluebird Mechanicals” is, at times, quite beautiful, despite its suggestion of impending climate change disaster … to be appreciated perhaps more than enjoyed in its moments. Still, it is easy to understand its previous acclaim; this is a fascinating, unique experience of an alternative sort of storytelling, for those who like their theatre full of strange and surprise.

 

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And then Eurydice

Eurydice (The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledegook Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 17 – 21

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‘It is a tradition for this style of storytelling to be told from a book that is special and personal’, audiences are told at the outset of “Eurydice”. We see this subsequently enacted in the prop accompaniment that Louise WIlliams has in-hand for the duration of her delivery of what, at times, seems like a dynamic Ted talk #inagoodway, full of energy and engaging eye-contact, but with an appealing informality of sorts.

This is “Eurydice”, the two-handed other side of the “Orpheus” coin, a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth, full of big themes decanted into the little details of human experience. And its message is integral to our stories too through its commentary about the stories of self that we don’t always let go of as readily as we should.

We begin with a precocious five-year-old Leni, formerly Eurydice, a rough cut young girl who is soon 16 and falling for a boy, Aristaeus, and his three chord musical wooing. What follows for them is a hard and fast trajectory of the “Romeo and Juliet” sort, complete with teenage wedding and genuine belief that their choice to love each other will be forever. And so we then traverse the topography of their relationship through to intersection with Orpheus.

Like its companion work “Orpheus”, “Eurydice” is a spoken word piece with music, rather than a drama of the traditional play sort. Unfortunately, however, its live electronica beat initially overwhelms Yoshika Colwell’s guitar sounds. Indeed, while the performers’ voices harmonise together beautifully, there is a less organic feel to the show’s soundtrack comparative to “Orpheus”. Like in the earlier work though, Hades is presented as a dark, closely-guarded place where spirits and souls reside and when our story gets there, its lighting design obliges.

“Eurydice” is clearly a crafted work with thematic threads and motifs woven together within the work itself and with “Orpheus” too. Alexander Wright’s writing is eloquently poetic as if the precision of every word is being celebrated as integral to realisation of the show’s rhythm. While you don’t need to see both productions to appreciate this, back-to-back viewing does provide opportunity for a satisfying pay-off when things descend into the underworld and the traditional myth takes centre stage.

It might not be as polished as its more established “Orpheus” predecessor, and could be tightened in cohesion towards the point in which the stories intersect, however, “Eurydice” is still a worthwhile enough work in its own right.

Way into the way down

Orpheus (The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledegook Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 17 – 21

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Despite its title, “Orpheus” is not a scholarly show. The internationally award-winning retell of its titular ancient myth is about single and just-turned-30 Dave and is realised thorough spoken word and original soul music (but also some familiar songs we all know and can therefore join in singalong inclusion).

The two-hander starts with a spoiler as we are told of the tragic outcome from show’s outset; this is a story, after all, of how love can survive even death. To begin, we are taken back to see it unfold from the first meeting that begins Orpheus and Eurydice’s remarkable and precious time together, when Dave (our Orpheus) is out with the lads and a little bit pissed having a beer and a laugh. From there the story takes us through superheros, Springsteen and some pretty atrocious karaoke to him meeting Eurydice. That is until, after a whirlwind romance, he is left inconsolably lonely and alone again in a colourless world.

Like Eurydice does with Orpheus, Alexander Wright and Phil Grainger’s 2016 work fills our world with colour. This is a spoken word piece (shared from a special notebook) with music, rather than drama of the traditional play sort … and there are a lot of words within it, all of them perfectly placed. The imagery created through the script’s figurative language is moving in its beauty as much as it’s precision. Its style is mostly lyrical but there is also an appealing John Cooper Clarke-ish characteristic to its language and performance style. The Northern English rhythm to the delivery makes for some powerful slam-poetry-esque moments that are then tempered by a delicacy of ideas. Having raked audience seating facing off against each other on either side of the intimate La Boite Studio stage is not an issue, especially comparative to the impact of the obtrusive bright lights of the show’s early scenes, though this softens as action is taken way down to Hadestown.

With infectious big energy, Tom Figgins and Phil Grainger serve as the audience guides through this mesmerising story. While Figgins tells the tale of death-defying love in spoken word, Grainger’s acoustic guitar accompaniment skilfully warms the story while his rough-around-edges vocal sounds (#inagoodway) add authenticity to the adaptation’s sensibility.

“Orpheus” is an appealing show from its opening enthusiastic explanation of how expectation for a two week run has become 200+ performances later. This epic tale of gods re-imagined in modern day Britain is a truly genuine, memorable theatrical experience. Indeed, the ancient story of adventure, love and loss is told with such respect and affection that ‘I could watch again right now’, as my +1 remarked upon its conclusion.

Trilogy triumph

Revelations (Tangram Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 13 – 14

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James Rowland is quite the storyteller. The first two shows of his Songs of Friendship trilogy are testament to this and in “Revelations” this tradition continues, with Rowland making expert use of alliteration and evocative language to paint the perfect picture with words so as audience members we can easily fill in any gaps with our own imaginations. The story this time is of what happens when James’s friends Sarah and Emma ask the essential man-child for his sperm to start a family.

While Rowland’s storytelling trilogy to an extent shares the same cast of characters and an element of autobiography, there’s a deliberately blurry line between fact and fiction as we are taken through the opening words of “Team Viking” “I’m going to tell you a story and all of it is true” to “A Hundred Different Words for Love”, which starts with assurance that “none of it is true”.

Wonder around authenticity aside, “Revelations” is a crafted piece of theatre, like the others in the revelatory storytelling cycle about love, life, friendship and death. Through-lines are threaded together not just throughout this work but those that have gone before it (though this does not serve as a barrier to stand-alone viewing), from little touches of apparent throw-always statements to the epic impact of its big themes of the search for faith sort. Indeed, it is a real treat to see how Rowland interweaves seemingly such unrelated strands as snow days, foxes, friendship and Christian youth camp recollections, with a sprinkling of nuanced pop culture references for added humorous effect.

Audience interaction is utilised in this show more than its predecessors, beginning with audience record of a song for Rowland’s niece’s birthday and continuing as ‘volunteers’ pray in tongues and catch him when falling as hint at the approaching apocalyptic-esque crescendo ending, like that prophesised in its biblical namesake. Its conclusion represents a burst of release of emotion as Rowland becomes preacher of his own sermon. Again, this shows how he is a master controller of ebb and flow and the power of evocative pause in the show’s combination of story, comedy and song – each accompanied by his own music live on stage. And he is clearly committed to the performance, even if it involves disrobing all of his clothes.

With a direction that is far from predictable, “Revelations” represents an engaging and energising theatrical experience of its own merit, but also serves as a triumphant and cathartic end to a humorous but heartfelt trilogy that we are lucky to have hosted as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

Rowland’s words words words

A Hundred Different Words for Love (Tangram Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 12 – 14

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“A Hundred Different Words for Love” is a show about love, but it’s maybe more about words, words, words …. including consideration of it they still matter if not true. Thankfully, James Rowland is a master of words; he is a gifted storyteller who is adept at using beautiful language to make even the mundane interesting, evoking the figurative language of the script in a nuanced physical performance. Indeed, the show also demonstrates Rowland’s conviction as a performer through the things he will do for the affirmation of audience laughter. Gimmicky antics, however, are not necessary as the story is full of genuine humour, as the audience is led through an exploration of love and why one word is just not enough.

At its core, “A Hundred Different Words for Love” is about the pitfalls of being unable to express one’s feelings as we see Rowland recount meeting, wooing and falling for a girl to whom he ultimately cannot bring himself to say that big little word. At his retelling, including assumption of any necessary additional roles, we are taken through the usual romantic comedy milestones of first date, weekends away, a break-up and possible make-up, without cliché. As they appropriately are in his other of Rowland’s Songs of Friendship trilogy works, James’s friends feature throughout the story, which allows opportunity for him to jump out of the main tale to pepper it with memories and anecdotes of their bonds, without disruption to the cohesion of the show. And while there is less plot than in the initial work of the trilogy, “Team Viking”, the story is still well crafted in its call-backs to earlier not-so-random mentions.

Rowland is a vibrant and commanding, yet humble performer; it is difficult to deliberately deliver casualness but his mastery of this is what creates so much of the show’s engagement. While not the triumph of “Team Viking”, his ode to a lost friend, this is a charming show that will endear itself into audience affections. In an intimate venue such as his La Boite Studio Brisfest home, this connection is only amplified and shows that the best storytellers do not need all the extras of staging and props to enliven audience imaginations. (The only real addition to its spoken word performance is Rowland’s live keyboard playing, looped and overlapped with story-telling). “A Hundred Different Words for Love” is observational comedy in its richest form that, in the hands of this skilled performer, easily takes its audiences from humour to hope.

FANGIRLS fineness

FANGIRLS (Belvoir and Brisbane Festival co-production)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 7 – October 5

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“FANGIRLS” begins with a couple of criminals on the run. The scene is one of 14-year-old smart, scholarship-girl Edna’s (Yve Blake, who is also responsible for the world premiere musical comedy’s book, musical and lyrics) imagining; she is the Beyoncé of fan fiction according to her online friend Saltypringl (James Majoos), specifically that written in tribute to Harry (Aydan), lead singer of the world’s biggest boyband True Connection. Edna knows she is destined to be with Harry and will do anything to achieve this. So when the band announces a tour stop in her home city, she sees this as her chance to meet Harry and convince him of their destined life together. But just how far is she prepared to go in the name of love?

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Clearly, nobody understands extent of Edna’s devotion and commitment to do anything – ANYTHING – in the name of true love, especially her single mother (Sharon Millerchip) who just wants to talk about priorities. Luckily Edna has a shared world of escape in the safe online space of fandom for the UK boy band, formed after its members individually auditioned for a reality tv show…. sound like a familiar direction? (#punindended) She also has her friendship with schoolmates Briana (Kimberley Hodgson) and Jules (Chika Ikogwe), which allows for inclusion of the usual teen focus of not being the last in the grade to get a boyfriend and having parents literally ruining their lives, in addition to its exploration of the power of young female passion. Even so, the celebration and vindication of misunderstood fangirls takes us to some dark places in Act Two.

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The show’s success also comes courtesy of its vibrant performers, all in debut at Queensland Theatre. Blake is triumphant as the determined Edna, whose facial expressions and reactions add nuance to her various scenes, and, as her friends, Hodgson, Ikogwe and Majoos are absolutely hilarious. This is a hardworking cast; when not playing primary parts they are mostly still on stage in other roles thanks to some slick costume changes. And they also play characters on the Internet in online interactions within the Harrysphere.

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“FANGIRLS” is a Trojan horse of a show; while it may on the surface appear to be making fun of its subject matter, specifically fangirls of boybands, it is cleverly crafted so as to sneak them into your heart. Indeed, those without regular experience of youth may not realise how true-to-life it representations are (the work is based on real interviews with teenage fangirls) through its revelations of the experiences of adolescent insecurity in navigation of the difficult distinction between being hot and thirsty, as well as the pain of feeling friendships drifting apart.

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The dialogue is literally authentic, like literally! And it certainly captures hyperbolic nature of teen obsession. The hyper-real experience of its aesthetic complements this. There is a freshness to its high-energy realisation, not just through the humour of its script and songs, but its multi-screen show of the disparate connectiveness of even modern fandom communities.

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The show’s soundtrack is dynamic, packed full of clever, cohesive songs (a program songlist would be been appreciated) that are realised like pop concert music, with striking harmonies. ‘Nobody’ is a catchy early number in which Edna tells Harry of her inability to eat and sleep because ‘nobody loves you like me’, while‘Tonight’s Gonna Be (The Best Night of My Life)’ is an infectious take to interval in culmination of the girls’ months of anticipation and outfit planning for the concert. When we return for Act Two, it is to an authentic True Connection concert experience, with help from David Muratore’s musical production, Justin Harrison’s AV design and Emma Valente’s lighting design, especially for those in the front rows.

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“FANGIRLS” is a fine example of a quality new work, experience of which generally flies by in what seems like the shortest of time, like a young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with confetti cannon. And while the story may be of Edna’s journey towards attempted realisation of an imagined relationship, we can still apply its characteristics to our own experiences in revisit of the exhilaration of the expression of youthful obsession, even if it is now distanced from the show’s digital lense (fan fiction might not have always been a thing, but fangirls have always had way of sharing love.) The result is a funny, witty and relatable guilty pleasure of sorts, complete with important messages about gender-based hypocrisy and the way the world looks at young female enthusiasm, to hopefully inspire rethink of gendered definitions of what is reasonable. Its legacy of the power of community and finding your tribe, is an uplifting one, which should have audience members leaving the theatre empowered to love what they love without apology or fear.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

The Darkness divide

From Darkness (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 -28

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Just as all families are unique, it is probably a safe bet to say that all have their own individual issues and, accordingly, suburban family life has long been the fodder for the focus of theatrical works. In the case of “From Darkness” Steven Oliver’s take comes with humour but so much more; the darkly funny drama is, at its core, about bigger issues than just inter-generational disconnect as it explores a spiritual force and a family’s need to connect with it.

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The story begins on the anniversary of Vinnie’s death. His brother, 17-year old Preston (Benjin Maza) is being visited by spirits— seemingly tormenting him while he sleeps. His sister, Akira (Ebony McGuire) buries her pain in her phone. Their father, Eric (Colin Smith), is in denial and their mother, Abigail, is numbing her pain with ‘Jim, Jack and that Southern mob’ companionship.  Under Isaac Drandic’s direction, things pace along meaning that once force-of-nature Nan (Roxanne McDonald) arrives on the scene the family’s disconnect unravels swiftly in banter that becomes less playful and more accusatory, filled with explicit language, included not for shock value’s sake but to give authenticity to its dialogue.

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There is power in the momentum as its storyline paces along, meaning that the show’s 70-minute duration seems to fly by from dinner preparations to sitting down to share the family meal. While we are only provided with a snapshot of the family member’s lives, without full resolution there are enough steps towards solution to see us satisfied as audience members in reminder of how the first step to changing minds is healing hearts.

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The production’s Indigenous cast is each stellar in their portrayal of characters with inner turmoil manifesting itself in interpersonal conflicts and a family divided. Of particular note, Roxanne McDonald is a joy as the family’s dynamic Nanna matriarch; perfectly timed in her sassy, whip-smart observations, she has the audience repeatedly in hysterics of laugher, which serves as an obvious juxtaposition to the pathos of Colin Smith’s Eric, trying his best to keep the peace between his wife and mother, while remaining stoic in his paternal grief.

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From the show’s initial scenes, it is clear that there is a spiritual force present in the house. Alongside an understated set, beautiful visual, sound and lighting design (Keith Deverell, Guy Webster and Ben Hughes) combine to paint a wonderfully evocative imagining of the something otherworldly that Preston is experiencing, making experience of the show quite moving.

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More than just providing a contemporary view of an Aboriginal Australian family, “From Darkness” offers exploration of the individualistic nature of grief and the ripple effect of tragedy which gives audiences much to contemplate. Its theme of connection too, is one that easily resonates, beneath any initial reaction to its sharp humour. Indeed, its ability to insert so many laugh-out-loud moments into such an otherwise dark storyline, is a testament to Steven Oliver’s script. And its focus on Aboriginal spirituality rather than politicisation evokes a wider consideration of modern Aboriginal Australian life.

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“From Darkness” is a quality new and important Australian work of a story that could be anybody’s. The world premiere of the La Boite and Brisbane Festival co-production brings a breadth of theatricality and engaging performances to provide audience members with a thoughtful and entertaining experience.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry