Lightened-up laughs

Lighten Up (Queensland Theatre)

September 17

One of the limitations of engagement with a play reading is the need for imagination to fill its gaps of costumes, props and staging. From early into Queensland Theatre’s Play Club presentation of Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool’s debut play “Lighten Up”, it is evident that is especially true, given the story’s fast past and frequent scenes changes. In Queensland Theatre’s hands, however, this ultimately proves to be little barrier to audience engagement, thanks to its clever writing and on-point performances.

The story, which serves as a satire on race and racism in the Australian entertainment industry is based on the lived experience of its co-writer Nicholas Brown and realisation that sometimes in-between black and white there is a grey area. It is here where the play’s protagonist John Green (Nikhil Singh) lives. When we meet him, the struggling Anglo-Indian-Australian actor is jovially planning an Australia Day party; networking amongst the dramatic society is important as he needs to meet the right people to help with his career.

Just as he isn’t interested in his own heritage, John is apathetic in response to losing his job as a cockney convict tour guide regurgitating the European version of history around Sydney Cove. He just wants to be on Australia’s longest running soap “Bondi Parade”. His girlfriend Janelle (Tatum Mottin), however, is pressing for a formal commitment, urged on by John’s mother Bronwyn’s (Sonya Suares) want of a grandchild… cue a conflict between obligation and acting, complicated by the beautiful and smart aboriginal woman Sandy (Chenoa Deemal), who spices up John’s life in all sorts of welcomed ways, opening his eyes to even more of the complex realities of race in this country.

With so many characters to its story, some ultimately fall on the wrong side of caricature and in these instances, particularly the supporting performers embrace this with gusto. Mottin, for one, gives a vibrant performance as John’s ocker girlfriend Janelle (one of a number of her smaller roles). Straight-faced in her deliberately rough and uncultivated delivery, she is very funny with speech patterns that make her “John, listen to me,” draw on suburban tropes and caricature of the “Kath and Kim” sort.

“Words are important,” John notes at one stage of the play. And cultural identity themes of pride and political correctness are core concepts as characters are told to be proud of themselves and not let others dilute their identity. Beyond the specifics of character displacements, there is an all-encompassing and appealing message to be proud of who you are, where you are from and what is in your heart.

The script’s use of sneaky puns, euphemisms and tongue twister dialogue means that, although its themes are evident they are not overtly heavied in sacrifice of entertainment. Indeed, humour resonates in exploration of its earnest themes. And in this regard, the work doesn’t hold back. It’s comedy ‘goes there’ with controversial in-your-face phrases to force audience consideration while lightening its themes, and although the snappiness of comic exchanges is compromised by the inability for conversation dialogue to overlap on Zoom, the inclusion of physical comedy as much as possible, compensates for this.

“Lighten Up” is a play with great potential. While some supporting storylines struggle for clarity amongst its determination for comprehensive narrative depiction of colonialism culture, there is enough in its intentions for audiences to engage with and enjoy.

Sweet ’80s sounds

The Sweetest Taboo (Katie Noonan)

The Tivoli

September 19 – 20

Like our first kiss or heartbreak, we all remember the first albums we bought with our own money. Maybe they were something reflectively cringy or perhaps, like Katie Noonan, they were purchased from somewhere cool like Rocking Horse Records in Adelaide Street. Returning to her beloved genre of jazz, Noonan presents this as the organising centre of her show “The Sweetest Taboo”, in which reinterpretations of classic ‘80s songs that shaped her life are presented with her band (Zac Hurren on saxophone, Aaron Jansz on drums and brothers OJ and Steve Newcome on double bass and piano respectively) in a manner that carefully curates the show’s numbers to new life.

From A-ha clip astonishment to hairbrush Queen Cyndi Lauper singalongs, there is much with which audiences of a certain vintage can identify as Noonan anecdotes about the music that has accompanied her journey from opera to jazz, even if it sometimes takes a few moments for gasps of recognition to ripple through the appreciative crowd. And even though some of her early musical heroes are a little unexpected with a set list that includes numbers from, for example, Crowded House, Vince Jones and U2, they somehow all smooth together in the sweetest of ways.

For those unfamiliar, the show takes the audience through the track listing of a new album of old songs, Noonan’s 20th studio album of the same name, which offers interpretation of pop favourites from the Aria Award winning performers formative years. Stripped back readings allow her astonishing voice the centre stage it demands. From the opening strands of a serene and sensitive ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, the extraordinary beauty of her vocal instrument is undeniable and the time she takes to allow every note to linger, leaves us in no question as to the rarity of her talent. And while numbers like Terrence Trent D’Arby’s soulful gem ‘Sign Your Name’ are stirring in their sultriness, upbeat ones like Icehouse’s ‘Electric Blue’, reimagined with a laid-back Latin flavour and the infectious melodic fun of Eurythmics’ ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ add much to the show’s texture. ‘

Noonan is a generous performer and audience experience is enhanced by her share of the stage with the other musicians. Every artist is given their moment to shine. Most notably, Steve Newcomb makes Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ an especially relevant emotional piano ballad of heartbreaking longing to break free from loneliness and isolation, while Zac Hurren’s saxophone beautifully completes Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’, because what is an ‘80s show without a good slap of wailing saxophone solo?

What Katie Noonan has created in “The Sweetest Taboo” is a wonderful place where loving daggy ‘80s love songs and Man of Colours Iva Davies double leather no longer have to be a guilty secret. Stunning vocals and musical rearrangements make for moving reconnection with songs of an era whose music deserves celebration, appropriately now in a grown-up jazz way. More so though, the stripped back ‘80s pop hits have an emotional honesty to their lyrics that might otherwise be missed, so experience allows not only reconnection to our past selves but reconsideration of our own musical tapestries.

Mama Earth mashups

Hot Mess Mama (Emma Dean/Katherine Lyall-Watson)

The Tivoli

September 17 – 18

Mama Earth was once a legend, worshipped by groups like the Aztecs and Druids, back in precented time when people could gather together. Now she’s playing in a converted old bakery in Brisbane as part of the Tivoli’s Brisbane Festival line-up. The world premiere of the cabaret show of the same name from Emma Dean and Katherine Lyall-Watson sees Mama Earth (multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Emma Dean) showing us what a hot mess diva she has become, dishevelled in the pollution of a trashy plastic bag ball gown.

With consideration of where our rubbish goes cued, we are guided into ‘Girl on Fire’ inset with ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and then ‘Firework’, because musically, “Hot Mess Mama” is very clever its balanced combination of an original score with songs that have been mashed up with well-known pop hits courtesy of lyrical linkage. And the stylistic combinations are quite marvellous, embracing their possibilities to full extent, especially when Dean transitions into Alanis Morissette’s jagged, angsty anthem ‘You Oughta Know’, vocally and on guitar. It’s no wonder Mama Earth drinks like a party girl. And there is certainly a revelry to the show’s early segments, as before she hits reset, she determines to party like it’s 1999 (alas without any Prince song salute), with humanity as a backing band (Mark Angel on guitar, Lucas Clarke on violin and mandolin, Tony Dean on drums, Terry Dixon on bass guitar and Tnee Dyer on keys).

While the show conveys a clearly defined view, articulated from the intersection of music and theatre, it feels underdone by a couple of songs and there are clear spaces into which it can be filled with further improvement. Still, it is carefully curated to examine the serious issue of climate change in a fun way that also leaves us feeling hopeful that the world can recover and strengthen and that we can do it if we work together, like in the show’s call and response number. Like so many of Emma Dean’s recordings, the human spirit remains at the thematic centre of everything, which is the show’s greatest joy.

Dean is a passionate performer with a powerful set of pipes. And the harmonies heard in some of the show’s numbers are simply exquisite. It’s not the serious stuff that might be expected of a show about the environment either, thanks to the quirk of its original concept, energy of its leading lady and the little touch of one-liner humourous interjections from keyboardist extraordinaire Tnee Dyer.

Dean is clearly also a very versatile performer. Her pre-interval set as herself before Mama Earth graces us with her presence (accompanied by Lucas Clarke and Tony Dean), allows Dean to showcase this as she takes the audience from the glitter kittenesque ‘I Am A F*%king Unicorn’ and euphoria of Florence and the Machine’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ to the beauty of the melodic contemplation ‘Healed by You’ and touching ballad ‘Orange Red’, complete with stirring string accompaniment. Regardless of its base genre, however, every song showcases her astonishing vocals, which mean that audience members are in for a treat.

Very much a festival show, “Hot Mess Mama” is a dynamic, left-of-centre cabaret reminder of the possibility of change. Its unique fusion of styles and sensibilities finds the theatre in music and makes it an infectious experience (#inagoodway), especially for a supportive audience of theatre-goers happy to be able to gather together again in spirit-lifting celebration of all things Brisfest.

Photos c/o – Atmosphere Photography

Smart art authenticity

Red (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 17 – 26

What is red? The answer is multifaceted, audience members discover as the characters of John Logan’s play of the same name debate through a list of the colour’s binary opposition associations – from lipstick to lava and Santa to Satan. The conversation is typical of those between the two-hander’s characters, abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko (Francis McMahon), the last artist left of his peers, and his young assistant, recent art school graduate Ken (Richard Lund).

You don’t need to know about Rothko to recognise his type almost immediately as he bombasts his new assistant as to the nature of his daily duties, helping to stretch the canvases, mix the paints, clean the brushes and apply the ground colour…. not painting. Cantankerous and prone to titanic self-absorption, the brash artist projects a paranoid and dogmatic indifference to the world and lack of awareness of others, including Ken, (who he never actually addresses by name), as he monologues about the patient process of art-making and the temporal nature of his painting compared to traditional representational artworks.

While John Logan’s Tony Award winning play is taut in its pacing, it is very much a ‘talky’ work, full of scholarly dialogue and ideas for the audience to wade through. It doesn’t shy away from its intelligence in contemplation about what art is and how it is made, including references to Nietzsche, Sophocles, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Byron, Matisse and Van Gogh, just to name a few.

Just as Rothko’s paintings are about the tension between their blocks of colour, so the play itself is about contrasting artistic viewpoints. Drama builds as Ken boldly questions his employer’s theories of colour and, by association, his integrity in accepting a lucrative commission to paint a coordinated series of paintings for the interior of the upmarket Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

The setting is the pre-eminent painter’s late 1950s New York studio and while the era is never made too apparent, beyond use of a black rotary telephones, Set/Costume Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, is impressive. And lighting (consultant David Walters), works well to create nooks and crannies within the set. Indeed, attention to detail is evident throughout and immediately apparent from introduction of characters attired in paint speckled clothing and shoes.

The relationship between the two characters is what endures at the core of the work’s drama. To Rothko, artistry is a job more than a calling; from his perspective Ken is never more than an employee and Jackson Pollock was but a tragic bohemian. Still, under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the duo works well together, which we best see in an exhilarating sequence in which prime a blank canvas with a base layer, enthusiastically splashing on the colour to the sounds of a cresendoing classic music score.

Not a lot happens in “Red”; its drama is not plot-drive but rather comes from its character studies, so it is appropriate that the McMahon and Lund give such powerful performances. As the bullish Rothko, McMahon presents a convincing, unrelenting portrait of the tormented visionary artist, commanding attention with grandiose movements and exclamation. Lund, meanwhile, engages the audience in sincere articulation of Ken’s nuanced later less-enigmatic arguments, for example, of the conflicts of previous art movements. His layered but still-contained performance elevates the character of Ken to being more than just Rothko’s foil when he shares a gripping revelation of the details of an event from his past.

The art of quality theatre does not come easy, which makes the experience of Ad Asta’s “Red” all the more rewarding. While the play is often intense, there are some lighter comic moments to ease the dramatic tension, such as when the moody American painter explains why he doesn’t ever paint outdoors.

This is excellent theatre presented with an authenticity that makes it feel like a voyeuristic glimpse into Rothko’s life at a point in time that sees him fearing that one day ‘the black will swallow the red’ in foreshadow of the circumstances of his death just over a decade later. And just as tension of the expressive blocks of colour contrasts of Rothko’s trademark large, floating rectangles seem to engulf the spectator, so too are audience members easily absorbed into his “Red” story through its enduring intimations on mortality and the philosophical truths of human drama.

Love’s language

How to Spell Love (Anisa Nandula)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 17 – 20

‘Words are currency and definitions hold all the power’, writer/performer Anisa Nandaula tells the audience at the beginning of “How to Spell Love”, a compelling spoken word exploration of identity being presented as part Brisbane Festival’s 2020 program. It is an appropriate opening statement as the observation is central to the work’s examination of the collision of ideas and complexity of life’s simple moments.

At its core, the performance’s poetry is very well written, filled with literary devices and precise descriptive language to evoke our imaginations in its descriptions. However, the show is about more than just its linguistics. Performance poetry is about style as much as its words or message. And Nandaula’s verbal cadence and intonation exaggerates and compacts to bring light and shade to the history to be heard. Her signature critical style is bold and dynamic, shining an unapologetic light on the experience of an individual caught in the middle of the social and political intersections of modern life. As she takes us along on a confessional personal and political journey, she smoothly transitions through the show’s connective tissues, from talking about her own vulnerabilities, to reflecting on the larger conversations of the world and challenging audience members as individuals.   

Nandaula is a commanding performer. The passion of her personal storytelling of the experiences of being a young woman of colour growing up in Brisbane is as infectiously energetic in this work, as it was La Boite Theatre’s “The Neighbourhood”. Her distinctive examination of love, relationships and life as a migrant woman in contemporary Australia, is more than just performance poetry, however, combining as it does, powerful poetry with the free jazz of drummer/ percussionist Benjamin Shannon and the contemporary dance of Pru Wilson.

Allowing the audience to see, rather than just hear the performance in this way does much to enhance its effect, layering Nandaula’s words with visceral meaning. The work’s critical social and political commentary is enriched, for example, by Wilson’s abstract angular movements in accompaniment of Nandaula’s description of consumption and the duo’s animation in physicalising supermarket purchase imagery in a segment focussing on the commodification of the female body.

More powerful than poignant, “How to Spell Love” is considered and controlled in its construction, tapestried together to form a moving and accessible work of art when it could easily have been clichéd or self-indulgently alienating to its audience. Rather than pushing its agendas upon attendees, it allows audience members to draw out the key emotions of its spoken word through the addition of music and dance. Shannon’s percussion works well in accompaniment, even if earlier obscurely-curated sound effects sometimes seem more obtrusive than integral. Indeed, percussion helps in the creation of some powerful moments, and then, by its absence, the contemplative silences in which the work’s key messages are allowed to sit. The peaks and troughs that this creates add much to the show’s rhythm and repetition, moving the audience seamlessly through the revisited moods of its thematic arcs.

The appearance of a multimedia crossword of key ideas on the floor of the stage is a masterful device which provides the thematic borders of the show, between which the performance sits in consideration of the ideas of belonging. Despite the political tone of some of the projections, however, the personal perspective is what resonates most memorably, in sections like, ‘My Number is Still the Same’ in which Nandaula describes an abandoned heart consumed by love. Beyond her heartbreak, honesty and humour, love is what we are comfortingly left with on stage in final thought provocation, which is the show’s ultimate beauty.  

Photos – c/o Creative Futures Photography

Leviathan layers

Leviathan (Circa/QUT Dance Performance/Circa Zoo)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 3 – 12

Decreased capacities in QPAC theatres in compliance with COVID-19 physical distancing requirements means that the audience for Circa’s “Leviathan” is positioned in checkboard staggered seating format. It’s a motif seen reflected on stage too, on its ground level and above in a custom-designed aerial grid that facilitates its thematic explorations.

Before the action takes to the air, however, things begin enigmatically; as audience members take their seats, two performer feet poke out from beneath the curtain, moving occasionally, intriguingly. As the curtain to the Queensland premiere of the show (which had its world premiere at this year’s Perth Festival) rises, the character to which they belong is revealed at a costumed party scene….  a crowd of chairs amongst the kaleidoscopic colour of streamers and a masse of performers dressed in contemporary streetwear. As the dinosaur mask, helmet and crown of some come off, the party is quickly replaced by feats of balance beyond our grasp as performance stand on top of each other before falling, stunningly across the stage.

The ambitious work is also staggering in its scale, in part because of the size of its 36-person cast as Circa’s internationally-renowned ensemble joins with Circa Zoo’s ensemble of young performers and QUT dancers. And it is wonderful to see each member profiled in real time video projection as part of a series of individual straight-to-camera curtain calls interjecting a contorting performer on centre stage. It’s appropriate, too, in our current times, that the show, which is operating as Brisbane Festival’s biggest in-theatre event has, at its core, a theme of communal human spirit’s power to overcome adversity.

In its exploration of the ordinary, extraordinary mass of humanity, early scenes see ensemble members swarm and creak across the aerial grid as if in a giant game of The Floor is Lava.  Community is clearly at the core of director Yaron Lifschitz’s vision, derived from the work of 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in his book “Leviathan” about the idea of a ‘social contract’ between leaders and communities. Accordingly, the work certainly both explores the tensions between individual freedom and responsibility, and celebrates the power of togetherness. We see extraordinary individual feats of determined strength morphing into instances of mass persistence, emphasised, at one point by on-loop crowd footage.

On stage, performers balance and tumble together with seamless transitions between each set. As well as the company’s trademark acrobatics, however, it features extraordinary physical feats of strength and agility, with standouts including a performer hanging by his hands from the edge of the grid suspended in the air as many others descend down him as if he is their rope and anchor in one.  

“Leviathan” takes its time, but not in an indulgent way, allowing the audience to sit in the work’s intense moments of contrast for full effect. While interconnectivity is a clear consideration from its outset, it is half way in to the show before the company’s trademark human pyramids impress, with performers towering atop each other in twos, then in balance of four and five, such is the remarkable strength and agility of its performers. Audience members are often mesmerised, as is so often the case at a Circa show. The awed silence of the Playhouse Theatre audience is so stunned at times that only the hum of the scaffolding’s machinery moving it into place can be heard.

The precision of the show’s choreographic choices is reflected especially in its checkerboard motif and in particular a scene that sees the ensemble gathering in the blink of an eye into their respective board squares. On a small scale too, we see individual freedom limited by location as grid squares of various sizes box performers, including, in one instance, becoming steadily more confined. The work’s innovation, however, is most obviously seen through its creative use of multi-media to present the action from different perspectives, including looking down upon performers from above as they clump together in attempt to stay within their confines.

“Leviathan” is a mighty monster of a production of the calibre fit for a festival in its dramatic aesthetics and stunning physicality. As all great art does, its meaning is layered in its offer of hopeful considerations of the concepts of freedom and responsibility in society, along with entertaining celebration of the richness of humanity and what we can achieve when we work together. As the ultimate balancing act between intellectual engagement and satisfying entertainment, it represents all the reasons why Circa stands strong as one Brisbane’s best artistic exports.

Photos c/o – Johannes Reinhardt