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.

Wicked ways cometh by candlelight

Macbeth in the Dark (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Shakespeare’s notorious Scottish play is bloody business. The vital fluid is a motif that appears often in the stage play to emphasise guilt due to the cruelty of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s crimes. So how does “Macbeth” fare without this as a visual? Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Macbeth in the Dark” radio play version of the psychological tragedy (available on a pay-what-you-can basis via the company’s website) illustrates how the legacy of the Bard’s words is, in fact, more than sufficient to fill the visual void.  

The full length production with a running time of 120 minutes is an ambitious project that brings together a cast of ten actors playing over 25 different characters, original music, and the sound engineering wizardry of Dom Guilfoyle, under the direction of Kate Wilson. The use of sound creates a rich atmosphere for one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays. Indeed, the radio drama format builds its impression of the world of medieval Scotland by manipulating sound in companion with the suggested experience of listening in the dark, or at least by candlelight or in low lighting.

A supernatural soundscape enhances key scenes, with marker to the sinister appearance of mysterious and other-worldly aspects such the foreshadowing sounds of scavenger birds and foreboding noises of night’s dark cover, however, a sound bed under Macbeth’s (Rob Pensalfini) ‘is this a dagger?’ fatal vision suggestion of the horrid deed of regicide he is about to commit, detracts somewhat from the impact of his first soliloquised words.

The greatest clarity comes from one of the most notorious women in theatre as the ruthless Lady Macbeth (Rebecca Murphy) calmly reassures her husband’s rambling concerns about having murdered sleep by killing the gracious visiting King Duncan (Tom Coyle). In the early acts, she speaks clearly with a confidence befitting her noble hostess character’s accusatory and mocking manipulation and then urge to her husband to be the serpent under the innocent flower in order to realise his vaulting ambition. Appropriately, this turns into profound torment as later in the play she is plagued by guilty realisation that what’s done cannot be undone.

The play’s titular tragic hero speaks with conviction in determination to enact the scorpions of his mind to murder his dear, valiant friend Banquo (Angus Thorburn) lest the prophecies about his lineage reveal themselves to be true, which transforms easily into paranoia as he is haunted by the vision of his ghost as a banquet guest. Pensalfini also captures Macbeth’s changing psychological states and emotions, from his curiosity, amazement and tyrannous confidence in reaction to his misinterpretation of Act IV’s apparitions which tell of his apparent future invincibility, to his poignant final soliloquy’s contemplation of life’s lack of meaning. However, there is little tenderness to be taken from even the early scenes shared by the couple, which detracts from the isolation of the separate madnesses of the characters in the second half of the play.

With the power of prophecy, the witches (Ellen Hardisty, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn and Liliana Macarone), meanwhile, speak with song-like rhythm in their rhyming couplet foresee of the future, producing a trance-like cacophony of sound the creates a haunting sense of ancient world magic. While it is disappointing not to hear the usual comic relief used in the scene with the Porter telling Macduff of the three things drink provokes, to break the tension, the company brings new depth to this classic, chilling tale of malevolence and terror. For example, the cries of Lady Macduff’s baby in the background make the climactic scene in which she and her son are murdered on Macbeth’s orders, especially shocking.

A radio play audience relies on actors’ voices and sound effects to comprehend the action; QSE does well with these conventions, which makes for an intellectual version of play in which performers not only deliver the verse with clarity and clearly understand what is being said, but appear to really feel the emotional intent of its dialogue. Unlike so many versions of this bloody tragedy, full of sound and fury, a radio play such as this allows a focus on dialogue and appreciation of the abundance of its phrases that now hold place in our vernacular. Without signposts as to changed scenes, familiarity with story and its characters is an advantage as, without any narration, it may be difficult to establish speaker identities and scene changes. While the poetic richness of Shakespeare’s language is enhanced through this solely-spoken genre, the soft-spoken nature of some of its dialogue delivery means that it is probably best experienced through headphones, in order to truly appreciate the new depths of anguish that the company bring to the tortured tale of Macbeth and his Lady.

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.

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.