The meaning of moments

Almost, Maine (Almost Outta Here)

Empire Theatre

July 31

Examination of life’s ‘almost’ moments is a fascinating, very human concept for exploration in a theatrical work. The fact that, in the instance of “Almost, Maine” this can be shared in a two-hander production, makes it a perfect choice to take place as part of theatre’s slow return from COVID-19 closures. And its simultaneous availability as a live streaming option as well as in front of its Toowoomba audience (where it appeared as part of The Empire Theatre’s Homegrown Independent Series), means that its irreverent examination of the extraordinary within ordinary life can really hit home… literally.

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The show is structured as a series of 11 vignettes of mostly independent action, focussed around all sorts of almosts, from almost declarations of love to almost reconnections and the loss of love’s long-ago initial spark. Things start strongly in its Prologue scene in which a rugged-up Pete and Ginette explore the distance between them with mind-blowing contemplations about the perception of their proximity to each other, and it is wonderful to see them revisited, with increased closeness, in the epilogue. Then there is ‘Her Heart’, in which recently-widowed Glory arrives in the fictional rural town of Almost, Mayne, hoping the mend her broken heart and see the Northern Lights (which appear in eternally beautiful backdrop at various points throughout the play) from the yard of the accidently-named but not-lobster fisherman East. Both of these scenes, in particular, reveal John Cariani’s quality writing.

Like these, the remaining sometimes bittersweet, separate stories of the nearly 20 residents and visitors in Almost are brought to life by performers Wren Condren and Ashlynn Parigi, who creditably realise the scenes that are usually less ambitiously told by a bigger cast. They ably inhabit the characters’ individual idiosyncrasies with ease, bringing crucial comedic timing to scenes such as Act One’s ‘Getting it Back’ in which a woman literally brings back all the love her partner gave her as part of a break-up.

Throughout its snapshot scenes of old, new and potential loves looking for meaning in their almosts, the show covers all sorts of sentiment and although we may be distanced from its stories in many ways, there is a relatability to their apparently whimsy. This is emphasised by its clever pacing, which sees us sometimes dropping out of stories before their conclusions, which increases audience intrigue and engagement, in sometimes fine balance with frustration. Indeed, there is a universal appeal to its presentation of commonplace human conditions like vulnerability and regret.

The addition of filmed transitions and community contributions about ill-timed love and reflection of what could have been break up the small town tales and like The Good Room works, add unique interest. With or without its submitted stories, however, “Almost, Maine” serves as a light-hearted and youthfully-energetic work that can be both taken at its small-scene face values and contemplated for the emotions of its bigger theme commentary.

First love reconceived

First Love is the Revolution (Queensland Theatre)

August 4

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Basti (Bardiya McKinnon) and Rdeca (Sarah Meacham) meet in moonlight when she sticks her head through the fence. He brings her a gift and has prepared her some food, but she has already eaten… a mouse. What makes their meeting particularly star-crossed is that Rdeca is a fox…. literally. Yet, in its reconceived tale of the youngsters’ need for each other and consequential rebellion against their families, London-based Australian playwright Rita Kalnejais’ “First Love is the Revolution” is much more than just its initially eccentric premise.

Young Rdeca is one of the wild things and it is with them that the story begins. Rdeca is undertaking her first attempt at a kill…. of Gregor the softly-spoken, sad-eyed mole (Lucas Stibbard). While her highly-protective mother (Veronica Neave) directs her to “trust the destiny in the kill”, the confrontation of conversation with her victim reveals her moral conflict. This theme continues as 14-year-old schoolboy Basi (short for Sebastian) sets a trap to kill a fox, for just as foxes prey on moles, humans are capable of a cruelty that Rdeca will never understand; “they kill what scares them and they are afraid of everything”, her mum says in warning to never venture far from home.

What tempers this bizarre story beyond being just one of absurdity are the performances of its talented cast, who bring their non-human roles to idiosyncratic life without making them caricatures devoid of any humanity, which is no easy feat, especially in an online play-reading format. Basti and Rdeca make the novel story’s unlikely protagonist pairing appear absolutely natural in their insecurities, flirtation and young lover tiffs. Neave is appropriately imposing as Rdeca’s recently widowed mother Cochineal, however, of most significant note, is Sophia Emberson-Bain, whose lively animation of Rdeca’s sister Gustina, makes for the most memorable performance.

Julian Curtis ably alternates between Rdece’s protective fox brother Thoreau and crassly aggressive dog Rovis, while Stibbard shows his versatility in swift jump from role as gentle Gregor Mole to separated dad Simon, eager to show his bullied son some moves to see him through school, making even the simplest of lines of dialogue extremely funny. And the appearance of many cast members as chickens only adds to the show’s delight.

“It’s just so complicated,” Rdece says to her prey Gregor in a line that sums up the highly-imaginative play’s themes. Basti and Rdece claim to be each other’s destiny, but know also that there is destiny in the kill. While it is full of meaning, in its examination of this idea, “First Love is the Revolution” is also a very entertaining, humorous, hopeful and touchingly tender story of friendship, family and first love. Until everyone can share in stories together properly, #qualitytimewithQT continues with its online play club readings, hopefully of similar calibre as this work, for unusual subject matter aside, this is a highly-original story full of love and hope…. in other words, exactly what we need right now.

Testament triumph

Godspell (Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre)

Hayward Street Studios

July 15 – 25

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Sometimes the simplest songs can be the most infectious; John the Baptist’s rousing call on the world to ‘Prepare ye the Way of the Lord’ in “Godspell” is one such gem as, like ‘Ease on Down the Road’ in “The Wiz” it earworms its way into your head for days after experience of the musical. The song, which appears early in Act One also sets the tone for the rest of the show which follows with a series of narrative vignettes, led by each member of the rag-tag collective cast in turn.

The 1971 concept musical, which was originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwart, is based on a series of parables mostly taken from the first book of the New Testament – the Gospel of Matthew. In the hands of the students of the Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre Performance Course 2020 the triumphant return season of the show maintains some original seventies sounds, but is as much contemporary culture as it is Age of Aquarius. The result is very entertaining as the vibrant ensemble uses a wide range of storytelling techniques and comedy stylings to share its series of parables, interspersed with music set to lyrics from traditional hymns, and, as such, their messages of kindness, tolerance and love.

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While the work may be quite a lightweight one, part of its beauty on stage is the opportunity it affords for each member of the ensemble cast to have their moment in the spotlight. A charismatic Jesus (Nathan Wheeler) shares some smooth-sounding vocals in the catchy ‘God Save the People’, however, it is Cristian Robba-Colley who shines brightest as John the Baptist. From his rock on into Act One’s baptism of the company (courtesy of a sponge and a bucket of water) to later light and shade moving musical moments, his passionate but-still restrained vocals fill the theatre. Combined with the use of sign-language, they make ‘All Good Gifts’ a captivating proclamation of thanks for all we have around us. And Claire Sutton effectively leads the company in ‘Day by Day’. The show’s biggest hit is also complimented by paired-back choreography that allows its sweet simplicity space to breathe. Indeed, Callum Mansfield’s choreography works well with the other production elements throughout the show, utilising the entire crowded Hayward Street Studios space to amplify the work’s essential message of celebration.

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An eclectic blend of songs, ranging in style from gospel to vaudeville, pop and even a patter song, is employed, allowing for beautiful vocals and harmonies to stand alongside energetic, personality-filled celebration song and dance numbers like Act Two’s high-energy emotional transition, ‘We Beseech Thee’, led by Clark Bryon-Moss in an energetic impish jester role.  The exuberant cast keeps the show’s frenzied approach fever-pitched, making Act Two’s earnest solemnity a welcome slow-down for Judas’s jealous betrayal. Even so, the rising tension between Jesus and Judas (Luca Camuglia-May) that crescendos in its second act, in this instance, feels added rather than hauntingly integral.

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Things slow with the start of the parable of the Sower of the Seeds, however, the high energy continues into an intermission of audience interaction. Pop culture nods are peppered throughout, like the props that peek out from every nook and cranny that has been created in its bohemian staging. A highlight comes when the popular parable of the Good Samaritan is performed as a Pixar, play-within-a-play. Humour is used to steady effect, which enhances the production’s accessibility; the show is very funny, partly due its ability to make fun of its self. To maintain this energy, its approach to the timeless parable tales feels a little rushed, meaning that some audience familiarity serves as an asset, so as not to have to play catch-up in recognition of its loose New Testament story arch.

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‘Come Sing About Love’ the return season advertising flyer appropriately urges, for “Godspell” is certainly a show to make audiences smile. While its whimsical hippie-style approach to Jesus and the Bible may have been considered blasphemous when it was first performed, now we can just enjoy its joyful celebration of its idea that spiritual life is of importance. Essentially, the musical is less to do with organised religion and more to do with building a community, as Jesus leads his disciples through a series of moral lessons. With such uplifting entertainment at its core, it makes for a most wonderful, full-of-fun night out, especially a time in which unity of approach has become so important.

Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Begotten beauty

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Begotten (Minola Theatre)

With live theatre on hold, companies are having to find fresh ways to connect with audiences. Play readings and radio plays are a perfect way of achieving this, as Anywhere Festival and the UQ Theatre Festival have recognised in their 2020 online festivals, which have included Minola Theatre’s “Begotten”, available for download on a pay-what-you-will basis.

The appropriately-title “Begotten” is a powerful one-woman work in which playwright Bianca Butler Reynolds explores the complex, changing role of women over time… the 100-year history of a family, told through the eyes of five women: Alice, Eileen, Clea, Hazel and Laoise. Adapted into a five-part radio drama format specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, the work, which is performed by Bianca Butler Reynolds, gives audiences glimpse into the feminine lineage and associated shattering and mending of lives and hearts alike.

We begin in 2019 with Alice on a bus, reflecting in monologue. As she considers her relationship and childhood, and takes us back to memories of her mother Eileen, it is through flippant feelings about beards, but big issues too. Then it is Eileen, reflecting on emerging troubles in her marriage, before her mother’s twin sister Clea assumes the story, then their long-suffering immigrant English wartime mother Hazel and, in turn, her Irish mother Laoise in 1919.  While the changes of perspective are not initially clear, they soon become easy to follow, especially for those familiar with the show’s blurb.

With no visual component, works such as this depend on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. In this regard, “Begotten” is a powerful auditory force. The multiple one-womaness of its monologue retelling, makes its experience like that of an audiobook, authenticated by a richly textured soundscape of sound effects and ambient noise to assist in establishing the sense of place that is at the core of its contemplation of the idea of home (post production sound design and editing by Siobhan Finniss). Voices in character mimicry as part of the narrator’s retelling of memories and the use of pause to punctuate the story also aid with this. As well as locations, time is easily established through subtle mentions in hint as to its eras, like reference to the Seekers, the Vietnam draft and Blitz air-raids, which feed the imagination of the listener.

While human beings have been sharing information orally for tens of thousands of years, the distractions of our modern experiences make mental sojourns easily require the need to refocus our attention. Thankfully, “Begotten” is well-written, with the effective description of little details to evoke an authenticity that adds to its appeal. The work does come with a content warning as to its adult themes, coarse language and references to domestic violence. Indeed, its detailed descriptions of domestic violence are quite confronting and contribute much to the sadness that settles across the piece… sadness but also a satisfaction at the ultimate, beauty tapestry that emerges as the women’s histories strand together over a century. There is a particular intimacy in listening to a character’s thoughts with only your own imagination to build upon them and with five distinct characters in its story, the work’s 85-minute duration seems to fly by in the way that all good plays should.

Rise and respond

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We Will Rise (Topology)

Aria-nominated and internationally regarded Topology, is an established leader of musical creativity in Australia, renowned for the unique collaborations that determine much of the group’s distinct style. So the release, this month, of the vibrant local quintet’s 16th album “We Will Rise” is worthy of attention on pedigree alone. The fact that the concept album features ten tracks curated by the group’s members (John Babbage – saxophone, Robert Davidson – upright bass, Bernard Hoey – viola, Therese Milanovic – piano and Christa Powell – violin) from their 23-year back catalogue and new compositions, reflecting contemporary concerns, makes it worthy of particular attention. The compilation of original music from the late 90s through to the present day has been curated to empower, inspire, and support, making it an innovative journey through a variety of moods with the common theme of working through challenging times.

The album’s theme is evident throughout, but most obviously in its titular track ‘We Will Rise’ by Topology’s Artistic Director, Robert Davidson. The number, which features the group’s instrumental accompaniment interwoven with Prime Minister James Scullin’s inspiring 1931 address to the Australian people during the Great Depression, brings with it memories of the group’s 2015 show, “Unrepresentative Swill” which was inspired by famous speeches from Australian history. Giving the speech about rising out of difficulties and depression the Topology treatment, serves as showcase not only of skilled musicianship, but how the best speeches showcase a musicality to their structure and delivery. Indeed, the number not only empathises with the text’s insistent and deliberate motivating meter, but makes the energy of the speech’s cresendoing rhythm accessible with strings finding its natural stirs and melodic cadence.

 Just like in great speeches, there is a certain poetry to “We Will Rise”, giving people a sense of order in a life of current chaos. The work is interwoven with social messages as the group continues with their connection to community, even at this time in which the industry is taking a significant beating. ‘Drought Stories – Texas, a recently premiered work composed by John Babbage is an at-first slowed-down and tender, but ultimately upbeat testimony to resilience, inspired from the share of the honest stories of Texas locals from many visits to the rural Queensland town. Meanwhile, Bernard Hoey’s optimistic ‘One Day Gavin Stomach’ is a chaotic conclusion that sees musicians simultaneous playing atop an energetic MC Hammer baseline in different meters before unifying together in hope

While strings give flight and swirl to John Babbage’s Millennium Bug’, a number inspired by the anxieties surrounding Y2K, the piano features strongly throughout the album, in the energetic solo, ‘Glare of Fire and also ‘Rush’, which sees the controlled chaos of ten hands on one piano, in symbolism of the common experience of us all at the moment. In all instances, there is an obvious clarity and separation between the instruments, that makes for a crisp listening experience.

Topology’s “We Will Rise” not only captures a moment in time, but serves as a reminder that without arts workers there is no art. The album captures the Brisbane-based ensemble’s idiosyncratic blend of classical and contemporary sounds in its expressions, illustrating how music can communicate beyond just lyrics. The collection of music in response to the need for inspiration, strength, and collective healing, is available to stream and download now.