Rhino randomness

Rhinoceros (heartbeast Theatre)

Spring Hill Reservoirs

October 13 – 28

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Two men, Jean (Patrick Farrelly) and Bérenger (Brian Bolton) are sitting together talking when a rhinoceros charges past. Soon they find that their friends and colleagues are also transforming into rhinos. With this as its overview, it is quickly apparent that the French avant-garde playwright Eugène Ionesco’s play, “Rhinoceros”, is of the Theatre of the Absurd genre. But even this categorisation is deceptive as the work has substance too, behind its ridiculous foundation, making it easy to appreciate its status as a popular, if not iconic work of the type. And in the hands of heartbeast Theatre, “Rhinoceros” becomes more than just its alleged parable about French collaboration with the Nazis.

The story centres on Bérenger, a man initially criticised for his drinking, lack of punctuality and laissez-faire approach to life. When a herd of rhinoceroses take over the town he is one of many involved in argument over the beasts’ number of horns. A logician is consulted but opinion remains divided… initially at least.

In accordance with its genre, there is a lot happening on stage to initially engage and then maintain audience interest. The first half of the play is filled with great comic moments. Characters travel in a huddle and movement is sometimes random and rapid fire. But everything is purposeful in juxtaposition to the on-stage realism audiences are probably use to seeing. Action is of the slapstick sort and creative costuming of oversized suits and fake facial hair create a cartoonish feel, especially when the action is periodically interrupted by the thunderous sounds of rampaging rhinos as cast members interact in the audience space with grunting, snorting sounds. The result is energetic performances of often riddled dialogue.

Often the language lacks any real meaning, but yet dialogue says so much as the ultimately intellectual satire is a play about being and existence. As so, it has much to say about dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and in examination of these themes, Bolton makes for an excellent everyman Bérenger, the last man struggling against the chaos. Also of particular note is Roy Ogden, as the logician determined to expound the logic of syllogisms at every opportunity, leading to some humourous discussion about what makes a cat, a cat, for example. Although Bérenge’s final monologue ponder of the concepts of conformity as opposed to individuality, drags a little, there is much earlier, valuable existential pondering in characteristic absurdist reaction against Christian ideology. And a wonderful sequence emerges in Act Two when a stylised fight is set to an instrumental ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in clever reminder of the fine line between real life and fantasy.

It takes a brave company to tackle a play of such extremes as “Rhinoceros”. heartbeast Theatre both embraces its deliberate break of the norms of conventional theatre and layers it in evolution of the work to contemporary times. Particularly as an introduction to Theatre of Absurd, this is a work well worth seeing. Not only is it easier to unpack than more-dense Beckett, but there is even a raucous rhino song to fill its Spring Hill Reservoirs setting.

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Revolutionary revelations

One the Bear (La Boite, Campbelltown Arts Centre and Black Honey Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 10 – 21

In true international award-winning Black Honey Company style, “One the Bear” bursts upon the audience in an apocalyptic aesthetic avalanche as its stars, the story’s titular One (Candy Bowers) and her best friend Ursula (Nancy Denis), emerge from a rubbish skip. One and Ursula are bears attempting to escape a hunter, such is the reality of their untold herstories, which form the basis of this enigmatic work.

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The abiding hyper-reality aesthetic comes courtesy of Video Designer Optikal Bloc and the accompanying explosion of fluorescent colour details down to not just performer glasses but even the eyelashes behind them. As always, music is at the heart of the Black Honey production with composition and sound designer Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers’ creation crafting a hip-hop stadium concert within the Roundhouse Theatre space that, unfortunately, initially competes with performer delivery of song lyrics.

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Things soon settle beyond performance art into a story as One starts talking about her mother’s legacy and the narrative reveals the story of the two bear friends finding their relationship in disarray as One gains celebrity status. Reduced and seduced into the all-white commoditised, exploitative and materialistic world, she struggles to stay true to intention to finish what her mother began and her determination to never to become a pet.

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As a fairy tale for the hip hop generation written by Candy Bowers, “One the Bear” represents allegorical storytelling at its most engaging in its representation of inter-generational colonisation and assimilation, with a modern twist. The work, which has grown out of the lived experience of its Black Honey feminist dreamer creators, has been devised with an ideal teenage audience in mind and those in the opening night crowd within this demographic certainly seemed to be engaged and empowered by its prompt to reflect critically on the impact of media saturation, culture consumption and colonisation.

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The hour long show flies by in a cyclone of colour, movement and energy. This requires physical performances from Bowers and Denis as they shake their little tails all around the stage. Bowers conveys both strength and vulnerability as the titular One and Denis’ versatility impresses without detracting from Bowers’ essential presence. Indeed, Denis is hugely entertaining, not just as best friend Ursula, but as the bear enthusiast journalist who discovers One as a star whilst undercover “21 Jump Street” style.

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Memorably, the story is told in rhyme. The enticing rhythm this creates, moves things along, but not at the expense of pace and pause, which is used to control not only the narrative but audience response to it. And the rhymes become entertainment in themselves, working even when (or maybe because) they don’t entirely work, with interactions like “this cereal tastes like latex …. what do you think is going to happen next?” adding an additional layer to the show’s humour and a script that is full of funny lines.

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“One the Bear” is an innovative work that takes its audience on a loud, proud and powerful journey in its smash of traditional notions of political theatre and show of how all theatre spaces should be for everyone. If you like to be challenged by what you see on stage, you won’t regret giving your time to this brave, different and daring work and will not only enjoy its paw-up revolution, but be empowered to growl along and share its message about sisters never being defined by misters.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Talented truths

The Last Five Years (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

October 7 – 17

strings.jpgWhen the opening music of “The Last Five Years” mourns with string sounds it suggests that Jason Robert Brown’s acclaimed 2001 musical is far from a happy story. This may ultimately be accurate, but in its tell of the doomed romance between lovers Jaime, a writer whose career is on the rise and struggling actress Cathy, it is certainly an honest and engaging one and not just in its inspiration from Brown’s failed marriage. And in Wax Lyrical Productions’ hands the musical two-hander is certainly heartbreaking as it traces their relationship from opposite ends.

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Initially it takes some effort to follow what is happening, without knowing of its complicated chronological twist, that sees Jamie’s (Kurt Phelan) story moving forward in time, while Cathy’s (Lizzie Moore) is portrayed in reverse. Once comfortable in the format, however, the show’s 90 minute duration flies by, through love at first sight to marriage breakdown and all that goes in between and it is easy to become absorbed in the musical storytelling, which provides an intimate look at the rise and fall of a relationship from infatuation to disillusionment.

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There’s not much of a plot, with only its melodically rich soundtrack and no dialogue. The sensational score requires performers with endurance, emotional range and soaring vocals. And in this regard, Phelan and Moore are spot-on, bringing clarity to the narrative and engagement to its storytelling.

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As aspiring actress Cathy, the multi-talented Moore moves from lament of the end of her marriage in ‘Still Hurting’ to the show’s most memorable number, the witty and upbeat ‘A Summer in Ohio’ parody of showbiz life and the exquisite torture of waiting for Jaime to visit.

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As Jaime, Phelan is charming, charismatic and vocally compelling from his first appearance onstage to share song of his excitement at encountering the ‘shiksa goddess’ of his dreams, moving through time towards the unhappiness of his unravelled marriage. His versatility is engaging, particularly in characterisation within ‘The Schumel Song’, where, as they celebrate their second Christmas, he tells Cathy of a new story he has written about an old tailor, in which he shows his gift for comedy. Indeed, whether the song is comic, gentle or agonised, Phelan creates an unforgettable experience through his outstanding performance, meaning that while you may see the show for the music, you will tell others to go to see him knock it out of the park.

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Live on-stage music (courtesy of Shanon Whitelock, Joel Woods, Ruth Donovan, Wayne Jennings, Ruby Hunter and Conall O’Neill) draws upon a number of musical genres to provide emotional resonance, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design transports audience members from moments of triumph to turmoil and tenderness, including when at a single point in the middle Jaime and Cathy’s stories converge and we see them happy and singing together in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ after Jamie has proposed. Countless (necessary) costume changes also contribute to the sensibility of each relationship phase. Indeed, under Zoë Tuffin’s direction the production is packed with nuanced nods and subtle suggestions as to the passage of time, which is appreciated in contribution to audience understanding.

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With humour, heart and a triumphant combination of cast and creative talent, Wax Lyrical Productions’ “The Last Five Years” certainly does not disappoint. In fact, it will probably stay with audiences long after the actors have left the space, in contemplation of whether we are more Jaime or Cathy or a little bit of both, such is the universal appeal of its thematic truths.

Photo c/o – Joel Devereux

Celtic cravings

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The popular, patriotic and heart-felt song ‘Scotland the Brave’ is an unofficial Scottish national anthem that not only stirs the soul of Scots worldwide, but evokes transport to the world of its Edinburgh Military Tattoo where it features as a program highlight. It is more than appropriate therefore that it should also serve as the title of the celebration of the best of traditional Scottish music, song and dance, coming to QPAC’s Concert Hall for one night only on Saturday 21st October.

The production features not just brave rousing anthems, but hymns too, such as the melodic ‘Highland Cathedral’, the redemptive ‘Amazing Grace’ and, of course, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the Scots poem written by Robert Burns, now known more for its bid of farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight… so it promises something for everyone with a Celtic craving. Indeed, with a production featuring singers, dancers, and musicians, performing popular works, it sure to be spectacular, especially given its line-up of soloists includes the internationally acclaimed soprano Mirusia and popular tenor Gregory Moore.

There will be tartan, kilts, bagpipes and highland dancers … all wonderful icons of Scotland’s sprightly heritage, to set the heart a-dreaming, combining for a ceilidh-like experience of transformation to a world of all things Scottish in either memory of, or as motivation to attend Edinburgh Festival’s Military Tattoo.

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Tickets are available now.

Broadway business

The Producers (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

September 23 – October 7

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Sometimes the business of Broadway is that you do can do everything right but still go wrong. Sometimes, the opposite can occur too…. Such is the story behind Mel Brooks’ movie and subsequent musical, “The Producers”. Failed Producer Max Bialystock used to be the king of old Broadway, with the biggest hits. Now, he has lost his touch so makes his money by seduction of elderly women as investors. ….until he stumbles upon a seemingly failsafe scheme to profit from a flop. He partners with timid accountant Leo Bloom to produce what they hope will be the biggest failure in the history of commercial theatre (whose shares they can oversell), the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” gay romp about Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden, aka the worst musical ever written, helmed by the worst director in New York City and with the worst actors occupying all of its roles.

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And so the chaos begins and in Savoyard Musical Comedy Society’s production of what Mel Brooks himself describes as ‘an evening of insanity and pleasure’, the chaos is quite delicious. The show starts strongly with the two leads, Gary Rose as the very Jewish and over-the-top Bialystock and Joshua Thia as the anxious and unsure-of-himself Bloom, sharing an immediate on-stage chemistry. The production has everything a good old fashioned musical needs, particularly its tried and tested, sometimes politically incorrect, humour. Indeed, it is irreverently self-aware in its offer of something for everyone comedy-wise; there is bawdy, one-liner humour that completely works alongside wittier, more intellectual allusions and puns.

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Musical numbers are quite magnificent in both their eclecticism and their production values. ‘I Want to Be a Producer’ serves as an Act One highlight, as Bloom sings of his secret desire to leave the drudgery of accounting to have his heart set afire by seeing his name in lights, complete with a chorus of supporting showgirls and an entertaining tap dance sequence. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ is another, later, example of the show’s unified choreography, staging, costumes and impressive live music soundtrack under Mark Beilby’s direction.

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To be a genuine success, however, the show needs to nail it with the two leads and in this regard, Savoyards’ production excels. Rose is a perfectly devious but twinkle-eyed Bialystock, while triple threat, Thia is outstanding, from the anxious and awkward Bloom of Act One through to his increasingly excitable sensibility in later sections. His embrace of every opportunity within the role’s physicality, with hilarious facial expressions and exciting physical comedy, make him enormously fun to watch.

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Walter Lago is a riot as Franz Liebkind, the ex-Nazi writer of the musical within a musical, at times conveying a John-Cleese-like sensibility in his normalised absurdity. Grace Glarke is appropriately faux-Swedish as Ulla, the jiggly dancer/receptionist at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, David Morris brings immense energy and interest to the role of Director Roger Debris when stepped into the musical’s lead role and Scott Edwards is a scene-stealing Carmen Ghia, his flamboyant common law assistant.

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“The Producers” was a smash hit on Broadway, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, so any intended production is going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially for an independent theatre company. This is musical theatre on the grandest of scales with a long running time and cast of over two dozen. Under Gabriella Flowers’ Artistic Direction, Savoyards have produced a polished and professional show. Hannah Crowther’s tight choreography and Sherrly-Lee Secomb’s clever set design work well to establish and quickly transition between scenes while maintaining the show’s essential energy and feel-good factor. Unfortunately, this could not distract from the ongoing sound issues on Opening Night.

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“The Producers” puts the comedy back in musical comedy, with Mel Brooks evident in its every aspect. The show went on to become one of the biggest hits in modern Broadway memory and this production loses none of what made the original such an enormous success. Savoyards’ highly entertaining and thoroughly recommended share of the classic Broadway story is appropriately full of colour and movement, frivolity and funny, funny moments… including a pigeon named Adolf who almost steals the show. As a musically and visually stunning reminder that there is no business like show business, this is one of the best amateur productions around and, as such, should be seen by all who, like Ulla, think if you got it, flaunt it!

Photos c/o –  Christopher Thomas

Fun and circus games

Fun House (Strut & Fret Production House)

South Bank Piazza

September 7 – 24

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“Fun House” is Strut & Fret Production House’s brand new interactive show, making its debut at the Brisbane Festival, so those familiar with the Brisfest faves’ other works will know what to expect…. kinda, sorta. The show is an aptly named combo of circus trickery, full of froth, bubble and frivolity and much less saucier than their “Blanc de Blanc” and “Limbo” works.

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Bawdy humour and innuendo still appear, giving “Fun House” a spiegeltent feel, despite its appearance in the South Bank Piazza. There isn’t as much intimacy, but the bigger space provides lots of room to play as the show’s co-ringmaster and always crowd favourite Spencer Novich prances in as a unicorn to be joined by Trygve Wakenshaw as a white rabbit. Nice in their naughtiness and delightful as ever, together the two lead a band of madcap characters through a fast-paced 70-minutes of non-stop showmanship to a soundtrack featuring the music of viral YouTube sensation, DJ Pogo (the show’s absolute highlight).

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Although acts include swinging trapeze artists, tightrope walkers and alike feats of balance and aerial amazement, traditional acrobatic and stunt circus acts are relatively few and far between. Instead the “Fun House” experience is more like a fun and games variety show of silly song and dance numbers, motorbikes and even a ukulele number…  the kind of hyper-real experience that mind befall Alice in Wonderland, on acid. This gives the work a broad appeal beyond just the spectacle of its more adults-only shows and while it does drag a little, it also stands as testament to the company’s appreciation of all the different ways that you can choose to put contemporary circus together. The result is enjoyment on an immense scale, especially when acts are accompanied by nostalgic childhood show vision on screens behind the action, like a “Sesame Street” number that whimsically accompanies an early ‘umbrellas of love’ juggling duet. And you don’t get more fun than when jumping castles are in the house.

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Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8

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An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.

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The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).

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It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.

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In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.

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Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.

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Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.

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Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.

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“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.