Call to climate arms

Kill Climate Deniers (That Production Company)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 15 – 22

If you haven’t heard of “Kill Climate Deniers” you probably should have. The hyperbolically titled play’s controversial take on the contentious climate change debate in Australia saw it hit the headlines in 2014 when its playwright David Finnigan received $19 000 from Arts ACT to write a play exploring climate change and Australian politics. The resulting script was nominated for the 2014 Max Afford National Playwrights Award, but its initial staging was postponed due to a backlash by conservative columnists. It’s initial and subsequent drafts compositing the scandal into the work, are discussed amongst the show’s many meta-theatre mentions, mostly by Finig (a pseudonym for playwright David Finnigan), played by Caitlin Hill.

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It does not take too long to move into the show’s narrative call to climate arms of sorts; embattled Environment Minister Gwen Malkin (Jessica Veurman) is being interviewed on talkback radio about her intricate $75 billion climate scenario option plan to blot out the sun by using helium balloons that spray light-blocking gasses into the atmosphere. The interviews continue that evening when she arrives at Parliament House with her social-media savvy press advisor Bekken (Charleen Marsters) for a classic rock band’s concert. As everyone settles in for the evening’s entertainment a militant cell of radical eco-activists, led by passionate spokeswoman Catch (Julie Cotterell) takes the audience hostage with demand that Australia immediately cease all carbon emissions and coal exports. Malkin and Bekken, however, have gone to the bathroom so are oblivious to what’s happening… until they start running into terrorists in the halls and the action really begins (Fight Choreographer Jason McKell).

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So many aspects combine to ensure the inventive satire’s on-stage success. Its boldness beyond just its political themes is reflected in its perfectly-pitched performances. The duo of Veurman and Marsters as Malkin and Bekken make for a wonderful comic team of the “Absolutely Fabulous” sort. Together, they craft some hilarious scenes. Veurman is captivating in conveyance of her character’s nervous energy, and Marsters injects energetic humour into every movement, gesture and facial expression of hapless personal assistant (more than just press advisor) Bekken. Caitlin Hill is brilliant as the narrator/author Fing, presenting an explanation of the work that paces along despite its scientific dabbles and balances this beautifully with the absurdity of her play of ‘Fleetwood Mac’ if Fleetwood Mac was a character in and of itself. Of particular note, too is Clementine Anderson who presents a perfectly pitched performance in over-the-top media personality caricature.

“Kill Climate Deniers” is dynamic in both form and execution. Its clever staging sees characters even performing a scene from with the stalls, projected to the alongside audience. Video projections (Projection Designer Justin Harrison) feature throughout as a key component of the show’s vibrant realisation. Words and images are projected on a curved back-of-stage wall, both to progress the narrative and provide additional statistics, quotes and visual jokes, often accompanied by a soundscape of either deliberate doom or satirical merriment (Composer & Sound Designer Wil Hughes). A scene in which an overhead projector is used to illustrate our envisaged personal potential futures 30 years from now, however, represents the show’s only unsatisfying section, when its presenter’s shadow blocks out most of the images, overwhelming its message. Colourful and camp in costuming, staging and music, “Kill Climate Deniers” is also, surprisingly irreverent, which makes its two hour experience fly by in what seems like the shortest of time. This is helped too by its fast and furious soundtrack of classic techno dance tunes of the C+C Music Factory and Black Box sort.

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“Kill Climate Deniers” may not be good politics, as some have claimed of its previous productions, but good art is not necessarily good politics and “Kill Climate Deniers” is very good art. The complex, multi-layered thought-provoking political comedy showcases clever writing (not clichéd as so easily could have been the case), artfully infused with pop culture call-backs and even a Fleetwood Mac concert segment of sorts.

This is must see theatre, not just because of its Queensland premiere status. Director Timothy Wynn has delivered first-rate, full throttle independent theatre of the sort rarely seen executed to this level of expertise. It is an exhilaratingly playful experience to take from and discuss what you will and it not only represents the best that Ipswich’s That Production Company has offered up thus far, but my most-loved show of the year yet, and favourite even experienced at Metro Arts.

Photos c/o – Adam Finch

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About one night

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

May 17 – June 1

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“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” begins with pre-show songs of the Sinatra sort, appropriate for the era into which audiences will soon be thrown…. A time when self-deprecation and anxiety weren’t the done thing and dinner parties were marathon events with lots of hard liquor in regularly-refreshed drinks. This is the gin-soaked, foul-mouthed adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”, a classic of modern theatre (and film), epic in its three act, two intermissions and just over three-hour experience.

For those who don’t know, there is no Virginia Wolfe character in the show. Rather, the title is a pun on the song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ from Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs”, with substitution of the celebrated author’s name. Instead there is Martha (Fiona Kennedy), shrill, over-the-top, childish, indulged, middle-aged Martha who refers to her New England College President as daddy and enjoys humiliating her younger associate history professor husband George (Gene Banward). Indeed, from the moment Act One’s fun and games begin, their volatile relationship’s dysfunction is clear; even in front of guests, Martha taunts George insultingly, and he retaliates with a passive aggressive approach.

The display comes about late one night when the pair is joined by an unwitting couple, newly-appointed young academic Nick (Pierce Gordon) and his put-together, to be later pulled-apart, faithful wife Honey (Caitlyn Leo) for late-night drinks after a university faculty party. Things simmer as early conversations circle around small talk about children or lack thereof, but what follows is a long night of drunken recriminations and revelations as Martha and George drag their guests into the bitterness and frustration that comprises their marriage.

More is revealed in Act Two in terms of backstory as the characters interact in one-on-one scenes and Martha and George’s bickering descends into toxicity. Grandstandingly, they play on each other’s weaknesses, vehemently correcting each other for the sake of conflict; Martha belittles her husband by laughing in his face, while George mocks her in verbose commentary of all that she does. It’s all quite unpleasant and clearly a front for coping with some kind of shared trauma. It’s an all-out war and like when coming across a car crash in real life, we can’t help but look away, for this is a show that not only immediately grabs you, but never lets you go.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” is a long play of many words, which makes its cast’s achievements even more impressive. There are no weak links from a performance perspective. Kennedy is superb as the passionate Martha and is well-matched by Banyard as the enigmatic George, at once pretentious and sanctimonious, but also occasionally compassionate in comfort of his wife.

Leo and Gordon work well as the group’s fresh couple. Gordon, in particular, delivers a nuanced performance, especially in reaction to what is unfolding around him in Act One before he becomes ensnared in his host’s web of declared psychological games like ‘Get the Guest’ and then Martha’s Mrs Robinson-esque seductive advances towards him in George’s presence. There is some comedy amongst the drama, however, which seves as a welcome reprieve, especially evident in the complacency of George’s matter-of-fact observations and taunts.

Every scene is well choreographed to allow the characters to stalk each other around the small living-room set space in all range of physical scenarios. Some dialogue lapses are detected on opening night, but do nothing to divert from audience absorption into the uncomfortable world on stage. Some lighting misfires, however, especially during serious monologues are a little more distracting.

Beneath the bitter, self-destructive relationship at the centre of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe’ are some big themes about reality and illusion, easily transferred from its early 1960s setting to the sensibilities of modern marriages maybe also being sustained by some degree of role-play. Watching its characters batter each other through a three-hour verbal battle of increasingly hostile, appalling behaviour may be exhausting, but it is also an enthralling theatrical experience thanks to its compelling performances.

Musical mettle

Mettle, Moxie & Melody (Etch Events)

Cudo

May 15 – 19

Presenting a new musical as part of the annual Anywhere Festival is always going to be brace undertaking, especially in the case of a work like “Mettle, Moxie & Melody”, which from its start is pretty much sung straight through in full musical style for its first 20 minutes or so. Although the varying vocal skill of its performers means that some songs are in competition with the backing soundtrack, this initial section does serve to showcase the work’s potential as much as Merilee E’s standout vocals.

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Merilee E is Stella, an overqualified, underemployed phone sales worker who loves to write music. Along with young mother Renae (Courtney Farrar), realising that she can’t rely on her video-game addicted husband and Evie (a dramatically-strong Xoe Lee-Archer), whose budding romance results in family tension, she represents a modern day damsel-in-distress.

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Through the show’s opening song, ‘Something More’ we are introduced to each of them, before hearing more of their situations in turn. Fearless Evie is hoping for a ‘New Beginning’, determined that there is something more waiting for her, away from having to reveal her sexuality to her conservative mother. Renae is dealing with a sick baby as well as a distant husband. And Stella is living a half-life of KPIs and competencies in work towards realising the dream of a house on the hill with her husband. There are more complications to follow from their initially-established conflicts, but not until the outset of Act Two, rather than as enticement into interval. However, essentially this show is just their stories, exaggerated as the true experiences are, presented with the help of supporting characters from Clarise Ooi, Taylor Jean Day, Juanita Van Wyk, Anina-Marie Warrrener and Lawson Schafer in double husband duty.

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The music and lyrics (and also book), by local Brisbane composer Anina-Marie Warrener, feature a range of styles, from the moving ‘Lullaby’, beautifully delivered by Courtney Farrar to a random song and dance number, ‘Sales Zest’ about Stella’s need to suck up the humdrumness of day-to-day work and show some sales fizz. However, songs often stall around repeat of just one emotional idea, rather than progressing things along narratively, which, cumulatively, feels somewhat repetitive.

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“Mettle, Moxie & Melody” advertises itself as being about three strong young women discovering their inner dragons in a musical traversing marriage, sexuality and careers, and its clear female empowerment message is certainly appealing both in premise and realisation, even if we have to wait until the final number, ‘Once Upon a Time’ for revelation of the meaning of its cumbersome title.

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One of the great things about the Anywhere Festival is discovery of different venue locations around the city’s nooks and crannies. For shows like “Mettle, Moxie & Melody” there is also the benefit of its excellent value for money for a show of substantial length. It’s just unfortunate that its over advertised time run meant that on Thursday, at least, the last three scenes and songs were delivered in competition with the on-time show occurring in the next-door theatre space.

 Photos – c/o Gemma Lancaster

The mix of mirrors and hearts

The House of Mirrors and Hearts (Kleva Hive)

Metro Arts, Lumen Room

May 15 – 18

Appropriately, the Australian premiere season of the chamber musical “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” features a set of mirrors centre stage. Also immediately clear is the heart of the narrative, mother Anna (Fiona Buchanan), who is clearly the vibrant centre of the family whose story the show explores… that is until tragedy strikes. Fast forward seven years and the mirrors no longer gleam she tells us in the ‘The Passing of Seven Years’; the family is now operating on the bitter brink of destruction, driven by secrets and lies. The arrival of a lodger, Nathan (Christoher Batkin) forces confrontation of the emotions that Anna and her daughters Laura (Bonnie Fawcett) and Lily (Abigail Peace) have been suppressing since the accident that changed their lives.

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Traumatised by what has happened in their history the three women are living a dysfunctional disaster of their own design, spiralling towards self-destruction. It is all quite sad really and it is a credit that the production doesn’t ever judge its characters, even if we do. Alcoholic Anna is now far from the caring mother established pre-incident, relying on ‘Something for the Pain’ to keep her sane. It’s a meaty role that Buchanan sinks her teeth into, however, the show’s standout performances come courtesy of her daughters, Fawcett as the quiet and introspective Laura and especially Peace as the brazen Lily, looking to dull her pain with meaningless sexual encounters and alcohol.

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There is a lot of drama to “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” and the on-point expression and movement of all cast members, not only conveys much feeling, but allows us to be taken, if only for short interludes, out its small stage space. Indeed, the cast of seasoned local performers, is excellent. The confines of the intimate Lumen Room space, does do a disservice to the show’s material though. While having a stage packed with props does work towards conveyance of the confusion that is at core of the family’s now-existence, having characters emerging and retreating to the side of stalls area, is somewhat of a distraction, especially early on when the passage of time is signposted by change of actors from Tyallah Bullock as Young Laura and Isabel Davies as Young Lily, to their contemporary selves.

The musical, which first opened to critical acclaim off West End in 2015, has a real “Blood Brothers” type of feel to its sensibility, infused with some humour. It is a challenge however, to go from solemnity to comedy and take audience members along with you and musically, the cumbersome rhyme of ‘Something for the Pain’ is not enough to make such a seamless transition. Perhaps it is because of the space restrictions, that the bawdy possibilities of this early Act One number are not fully exploited. Still, it is a memorable experience all the same.

Despite its dark themes, the live music, which comes courtesy of Pianist Kather Gavranich, Flautist Greta Hunter and Cellist Anna Brookfield, squashed together at back of stage, is beautiful and very different from your standard musical fare. But the score comes without any real standouts apart from ‘Something for the Pain’ which serves as a lonely reprieve from an otherwise apparently repetitive and bleak score. There are vocal highlights, including Fawcett’s Act Two soaring reflection on the beauty of breaking of things and when the ensemble harmonises in the song’s progress, however, varying vocal levels in both dialogue and songs sees some Act One lines lost even to those audience members in the initial rows.

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The biggest concern of the mixed-bag of a show, however, comes through no fault of this production. The plot is quite confusing with twist and turns not entirely straightened out. “There are truths told in the shadows” we are told in reappropriated reprise of Chris Kellet’s ‘Little Bird’ song. Indeed, the secrets of which the characters sing hang over every conversation meaning that the intrigue that veils over Act One takes too long to move from tension to problematic attempt at an unrealistic resolution.

Regardless of any issues in the show’s writing, “The House of Mirrors and Hearts” represents a wonderful undertaking. Kleva Hive’ musical theatre incubator program has provided a welcomed opportunity to bring a new musical work to Brisbane and we can only await their August show, “Salt”, a localised adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play “The Lady from The Sea”, complete with original Australian compositions.

Feasting for influence

The Dinner Party (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 10 – 18

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Premiering to rave reviews in 2015, “The Dinner Party” (former title “The Host”) is a gripping contemporary dance work from Queensland’s award-winning Expressions Dance Company. And in its 2019 reincarnation, the work, which is choreographed by internationally renowned choreographer and former Artistic Director Natalie Weir, has audience members once again absorbed, from the very first frame of its visual aesthetic.

There is an art deco-ish feel to its immediate appeal, with a group of elegantly-dressed guests seated around a table against a sparkling backdrop… like a scene from “The Great Gatsby”, besides the bare feet. It’s just the kind of formality expected for the start of a sophisticated dinner party. Things soon relax as the night progresses, however, even though the power play between the guests is just starting.

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Influential young host (Jake McLarnon) is the proceeding’s initial puppet-master, evident from his initial pose upon the table to control seated guests with little but an authoritative click of his fingers. They, however, are having none of it, each set upon enacting their own agendas. And there are agendas aplenty thanks to a younger woman, The Lover (Isabella Hood), having an affair with the host, a socially ambitious but insecure Party Girl (Josephine Weise), The Wannabe (Jag Popham) trying it on with the ladies, the ambitious but charming Rival (Bernhard Knauer) for The Host’s position and the seductive but solitudinous Hostess (Lizzie Vilmanis).

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From amidst this complicated relationship web, the reoccurring motifs of jealousy, ambition and attempted control continue through manipulation of movement, including within the Host’s relationship with the Hostess, with the pair joining together as a couple in breaks but at other times conveying the fractured nature of their relationship. And there is some satisfaction to seeing how things transform between then over the show’s hour long experience.

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As The Host, Jake McLarnon performs in duet with each of the party’s guests, and is excellent in every instance, despite their different nuances and tones. Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis is captivating as The Hostess, her ballet-based, old-world deportment deflating as her brave-face fades, while, in contrast The Party Girl becomes empowered by her manipulation. It is Jag Popham, however, as The Wannabe, who provides audiences with the show’s most memorable moments when, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, he is folded and flung sharply about the stage in the ultimate act of manipulated manoeuvring, resulting in spontaneous end-of-scene applause.

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“The Dinner Party” is contemporary dance at its most dramatic, often hypnotic in the excellence of its execution of its lifts and leaps, whether in solo, duet or otherwise examination of individual character personalities and interlaced relationships. Embedded with some recognisable canonical classic call-backs, its score of recorded music by Southern Cross Soloists also contributes significantly to the spectacle, taking the mood from exuberance to playfulness and through romanticism, defeat and hollow victory.

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Musical motifs assist in characterisation too, staccatoed detachment for the confident and calculating host and regal pomp for the well-to-do Hostess, working with Ben Hughes’ evocative lighting design to underscore tonal changes. And acclaimed Australian fashion designer Gail Sorranda’s costumes are pretty much perfect in their conveyance of character and their changing inter-personal intertwinings. Staging is also simple yet effective; the table that begins centre-stage is moved about the place and into various positions, even facilitating a duet with dancers hanging off its up-ended side.

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While Natalie Weir may have moved on from her role as the dance company’s Artistic Director, it is fitting that her legacy be paid tribute in this first mainstage season of 2019 and the artistic feast that is “The Dinner Party”. While it may not have the narrative clarity of last year’s profoundly moving “Everyday Requiem”, this ambiguity and its catalyst for post-show conversations about the illusion of control is all just part of its appeal.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Playing with premise

Playing Pretend (The Big Crew)

Woolloongabba Substation

May 10 – 12

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“A group of young, hungry artists, bare it all in this hilarious, tell-all expose on the trials and triumphs of life as a struggling artist in the Brisbane Indie Theatre scene.” This is how “Playing Pretend” is blurbed in the Anywhere Festival program. And when it sticks to this as a narrative premise The Big Crew production works very well as Veda, Korey, Trent and James consider the cost and value of a university arts degree and the reality of networking and auditioning for roles. Less successful to its overall cohesion are scenes that stray from this, such as a sensational reflection of the burdensome experience of everyday life and work, and undergraduate overthinking of everything.

The foursome are young, newly-trained, ambitious actors for which fate has other plans. Caught in an after-graduation creative vacuum, they find themselves forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew about themselves, with one big question looming large– Where do they go from here? In exploration of this, there is discussion of the questions, judgements and stereotypes that are associated with a life in the arts and therein lies the show’s truth.

Featuring (mostly) true stories, “Playing Pretend” is an ultimately heartfelt take on the highs and lows of life as a young artist, however, this honesty takes a while to emerge, and doesn’t appear to be fully realised until its stay-with-you, emotional ending. Regardless of its promised premise, this is a play about being yourself and the spirit of youthful purpose. Its setting is appropriately minimal, allowing for focus on the real-life stories on show… chairs on stage affront a row of requisite (empty) wine bottles which the characters later drink, however, a changing light show as backdrop to initial character introductions is not only unnecessary, but serves as a distraction for the dialogue being delivered.

A show about being an artist in Brisbane is an interesting premise. “Playing Pretend” is, however, more about artist experiences in general and it could perhaps benefit from some specificity to enhance its uniqueness and add to audience appeal. Still, despite its slips, there is something here worth exploring, even for those not in the arts. Indeed, if you have ever overpaid for an unnecessary university textbook, misquoted some Shakespeare or believed yourself to be suffering an early-life existential crisis, there is perhaps something in “Playing Pretend” for you.

Barbara’s big belonging

Barbara and the Camp Dogs (A Belvoir Production in association with Vicki Gordon Music Productions)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

May 1 – 25

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A pre-show soundtrack of Oz-rock classics adds an air of excitement to the experience of audience members awaiting the Brisbane season of Belvoir Theatre’s “Barbara and the Camp Dogs” by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine. It’s an effective emphasis of the pub rock atmosphere for anyone who hasn’t gathered the feel of Set Designer Stephen Curtis’ bold aesthetic vision, detailed even down to the corner-stage’s backdrop blackboard advertising happy-hour specials and the gawdily-patterned pub carpet beneath barstools and well-worn couches.  With the audience banked around three sides of the pub stage and surrounds (where some audience members are also seated), a band takes the stage and the scene is set for 100 minutes of raw rock and powerful dramatic performances.

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Barbara (Shakira Clanton rather than Ursula Yovich for this mid-week performance) and Rene (Elaine Crombie) are two Indigenous siblings and Sydney performers with their back-up band, the Camp Dogs. When a family crisis calls them back to Darwin and then on to their home town, the complexity of their relationship and, in particular, Barbara’s ferocity, unfolds. And from the time the duo take to the road to trip down to Katherine, when things pick up pace-wise, it is thanks to the pair’s humorous interactions, full of the sarcasm, mockery and the outright insults that are so common in sibling back-and-forth banter.

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True siblings or not, these two woman sure can sing and songs feature predominantly throughout the production. There are many musical numbers, particularly in early scenes, making it difficult to recall individual highlights, without a song list in the program to assist. The soundtrack starts with loud and energetic rock numbers that vibrate with energy, however, the highlights come when songs slow to more emotional numbers in reveal of Barbara’s drives and disappointments and resulting conflict of belonging. Rather than dominating, music in the show’s second half is used to subtly signal a change in its tone, of the kind not realised until after its occurrence. And its final number, ‘Let in the Love’ with Troy Jungaji Brady serves as an acute reminder of the thematic message at its core.

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Elaine Crombie is genuinely entertaining as ever as the personality-plus Rene, however, as is suggested by the title, this really is Barbara’s story. As understudy stepping into Ursula Yovich’s shoes, Clanton gives a sensational performance in the eponymous role, evidenced not only in her angsty attitude but in her harrowing show of grief’s real rawness and confronting monologue about the theft of country, community and culture. It’s a powerful political message moment, of the Get Krack!n finale essential viewing sort.

“Barbara and the Camp Dogs” is a show of big themes explored in intimate ways. Its balance of humour and drama is entertaining, thought-provoking and ultimately moving in that sneak-up-on-you kind of way. Add in its easy-to-follow narrative, absorbing performances and sensational vocal displays and it is easy to appreciate its previous seasons’ successes.

Photos of Ursula Yovich as Barbara