Marvin’s moments

Marvin’s Room (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 1 – 24

“Oh life is bigger, it’s bigger than you,” REM’s ‘Losing My Religion’ reminds us along with the character of Hank during Scott McPherson’s 1990 comedy-drama “Marvin’s Room”. It is one of many song snippets that serve to barometer the emotions of the story in Ad Astra’s production of the bittersweet tale, in this case coming as troubled 17-year-old Hank (Jayden McGinlay) considers whether he will be undergo genetic testing to see if he is a transport match for an aunt he has only just heard of, let alone met.

We don’t see the bedridden Marvin of the play’s title or his room (just hear his agitations courtesy of Nicholas Sayers),  but his presence looms large in what is essentially the story of a family learning to love what binds them when circumstances force them back together. Whereas the free-spirited Lee (a standout Elise Lamb) struggles as a single mum living in Ohio, her now-estranged, determined sister Bessie (Fiona Kennedy) has long been in Florida, caring for their dying father Marvin and eccentric, forgetful Aunt Ruth (Phillipa Bowe) who has been crippled with back pain. With Bessie facing her own difficult diagnosis, Lee arrives in town, along with her teenage sons Hank, who is on leave from a mental institution following an arson incident, and Charlie (Kieran McGinlay).

The sisters soon fall into their old dynamic, however, as they work through their tensions, there is an authenticity to the complexity of their relationship. Indeed, one of the show’s best scenes is when the sisters are up late sitting around the kitchen table talking. Kennedy and Lamb work well together to present such an authentic recreation of the resonate connection that shared history engenders, despite the passage of time. As an audience, we become invested in their story, not just because of their performances, but the intimacy of staging, which has the emotional action occurring within a metre of the front row.

The modest domestic setting of so many of these scenes is another strength in how Director Roslyn Johnson makes the work accessible to an audience easily able to recognise the interactions between siblings, or with a parent or child. However, the show is a long one and could be more economical. Early scenes in which Bessie pays visits to wacky Doctor Wally (an energetic Tom Harwood), may add to the irreverent comedy that balances the story’s essential pathos, but ultimately slow down our entry into the essentially small family story of big human considerations.   

All members of the cast impress, however, the story’s telling rests upon the sisters at its centre. Most notably, Lamb’s nuanced performance gives Lee a vulnerability beneath her tough veneer, with her glances about and fidgety movement conveying a sense of insecurity that her words belie. Meanwhile, Kennedy makes us feel both with and for the saintly Bessie who has devoted a large portion of her life to being caregiver to Marvin and Ruth since her father’s first stroke two decades earlier…such is the realness to the shades of grey display of the reality of life’s trials and tribulations.

Although touching, things don’t necessarily end happily; in fact, there is no real ending at all, just like in real life, but there are some resolutions and a resonance with everyone who has experienced the dilemmas and associated emotions that come with aging and caring for family members, such as consideration of outsourcing their care (which comes courtesy of an assured Marita McVeigh as a local Retirement Home Director). While it may be full of quiet moments (and some quick scene changes) that slow things down, ultimately it is the contemplation that these bring that remains with audiences long after our time in “Marvin’s Room” is over.

Two-hander Traces

Brilliant Traces (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

June 16 – July 8

One of things that continues to impress about Ad Astra shows is the versatility of the company’s staging in terms of audience reorientation and overall aesthetics. In the case of Cindy Lou Johnson’s critically acclaimed “Brilliant Traces”, this is realised in the creation of the remote Alaskan hut that becomes the sole location of action in the intimate two-hander.

As if the pre-show Violin Concerto of Vivaldi’s “Winter” is not enough, stage design (Bill Haycock working with Fiona Kennedy) establishes a clear sensibility. Sparseness is punctuated by important details like fishing apparatus, a small frosted window and a lone pair of gumboots. We feel the isolation before a word is even spoken and when it is, this is further enhanced by an evocative (but not overbearing) soundscape of outside swirling winter winds (Sound Design by Theo Bourgoin). Inside, however, the blackout of the show’s first moments is warmed only by the inviting light of a pot-belly-esque wood-fired stove. It’s a cosiness that is soon contrasted, however, by the literal and metaphorical blizzard that blows in to the cabin as a distraught Rosannah DeLuce (Vanessa Moltzen) blusters through the door.

Rosannah has driven from Arizona in flee from her wedding, that is until a ‘white out’ blizzard forces everyone into isolation. Likeable oil rig worker Henry Harry (Kyle McCallion) is a sad and lonely figure. We learn this despite him not speaking until well into the 80-minute (no interval) work’s first act, which serves as a testament to McCallion’s skill. And when he does speak, after the physically and emptionally exhausted Rosannah has slept for two days, there is a trepidation that hints as to his own fragility, such is the nuance of McCallion’s performance.  

This is a play that showcases the skill of the two actors as, in the confined cabin space, they bounce back and forth in bravado and then honest vulnerability that highlights their fated commonality in seek of emotional safety. And Moltzen does well to bring humour and humanity to the demanding role of a damaged but exhausting character who tells of some selfish choices on way to her personal crisis. The hyperbole of her stream of consciousness introductory monologue, for instance, is tempered with some relatable reflections of self.

Both performers are on stage for the entire play, during which time they take us on a tumultuous emotional journey as the two lost souls try to find their way back to life in attempt to become whole again. The result of this sustainment is an intense piece, tightly directed by Fiona Kennedy to emphasise its drama, yet also infused with some humour along with symbolic call-backs and a metaphoric thematic exploration that gives us hope that even seemingly-unbearable lives can be lived. Indeed, “Brilliant Traces” is a complex and layered work, full of imagery in its multifaceted examination of the role and result of isolation in life’s journeys, and conclusions about the humanity at the core of compassion.

Symphony of selves

Toy Symphony (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

April 21 – May 14

Experience has proven that Ad Astra is not only to be commended for its interesting production choices, but its often inventive staging of these, especially given the company’s intimate performance space. Michael Gow’s critically-acclaimed “Toy Symphony” (the play was awarded Best New Australian Work at the 2008 Helpmann Awards), stands as testament to both of these truths.

Blackboarded walls featuring graffitied quotes, allow audience members the satisfaction of seeing how they are woven into the essential fabric of the story, while trunks and suitcases stack about the stage to become a range of set pieces. They provide appropriate imagery for these is a lot to unpack in the story of playwright Roland Henning (played to perfection by Gregory J Wilken), a character who appeared in Gow’s earlier play “Furious”.

The play’s central protagonist is a complex character who, like Gow himself, knows how to use language. Indeed, he is, by all intents, a representation of the playwright himself (Gow has publicly acknowledged the somewhat autobiographical nature of the work). And through his tale, the play considers not only the nature of language and theatre, but essential elements of the human experience, such as the power of formative experiences to shape our later selves.

Following a legal victory in response to accusations of plagiarism, at the encouragement of an unseen friend, Roland reluctantly begins psychoanalysis. While he assures psychiatrist Nina (Caitlin Hill) that he does not have writers block, and therefore does not need therapy, he is clearly in denial about something and their session soon leads to a self-reflective journey through his troubled past in search for the writer he once was. Within his ensuing therapy sessions, Roland recalls real and imagined characters from his childhood, including his compassionate Year 5 teacher Mrs Walkham (Bernadette Pryde), at whose urging he funnelled his fertile imagination into a play called “Toy Symphony”.

Things momentum along through a combination of real-time and flashback storytelling, thanks to the inclusion of magical realism and larger-than-life representations in illustration of Roland’s imagination of historical figures such as Alexander the Great and alike, alongside his 1960s classmates, school bully (Sam Webb), the sweet t Mrs Walkham, intimidating school principal (Greg Scurr) and his personal champion, Nick. Although details of his childhood home in the southern Sydney suburb of Como are explored in lengthy classroom scenes, overall, these sections serve well to highlight the versatility of the dynamic cast who transition seamlessly between characters. Indeed, Act One is textured with a colorful set of characters, which the ensemble cast bring to glorious life. Hill, in particular, is excellent as both capable therapist Nina and an excitable Year 5 student, while Pryde is simply wonderful in anchor of everything as the doting Mrs Walkham, always offering warmth and assurance to Roland.

Act Two takes a turn as Rowland, now a successful playwright, faces the consequences of his past along with the loss of his parents, the combination of which spirals him into the writer’s block that prompted his therapy. From being a bullied youngster, he has now become an intimidating oppressor himself and it is uncomfortable to watch his evisceration of university student and wannabe actor Daniel (Jonathan Weir), such is power of Wilken’s performance. At times intense, and others turmoiled, he evokes both psychological depth and emotional range in his realisation of all of Roland’s selves, from his schoolboy energy to the despair of a layered man who is at his rock bottom. And his one-sided phone conversation soliloquy serves as a magnificent celebration the play’s language and its show of the human of humanity.

“Toy Symphony” shows that there is more to Australian playwright and director Michael Gow that his most famed 1986 work “Away”. The stylistically-distinctive work may touch upon similar tones in its 1960s setting, but its discussion of the merit of theatre over other art forms and attempt to understand creativity. elevate it as a clever, challenging and entertaining look at the world of the imagination. It is also very funny at times, particularly through Scurr’s Act One appearances as Rowland’s Latvian childhood friend Nick, whose hyperbolic declarations of love of beautiful women are matched only by his profane exclamations of excitement.  

While it may be a neglected work, the play’s themes and inherent theatricality will hopefully ensure its longevity. Magical elements, along with Gow’s poetic writing and trademark classical allusions make “Toy Symphony” an entertaining, albeit underrated Australian play, and under Michelle Carey’s direction, Ad Astra has presented audiences with a very fine production of it.

Rabbit Hole hope

Rabbit Hole (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

March 24 – April 9

While children’s books and puzzles feature among the everyday items of the New York State home of Becca and Howie Corbett, when we drop in on their story, it is to see Becca (Janelle Bailey) packing up children’s clothes. As her sassy sister Izzy (Vanessa Moltzen) retells the story of a recent night out, we learn just as much about Becca as we do the storyteller. As the pair bounce off each in easy conveyance of their sibling dynamic, it is clear that Becca is probably the older more responsible, sensible and settled of the pair. What also is soon apparent, is that this is a family that has nearly been ripped apart due to a months-earlier tragedy.

Becca and her husband Howie (Stephen Hirst) are grieving their four-year-old son Danny, who was run over by a car outside their home while chasing after the family dog. The story follows the couple’s navigation of the initial phases of life without their son, searching for what is still possible in an everyday existence after such unimaginable pain. Both are in different places with their anger and sadness, making it difficult for them to connect. And while Becca busies herself with baking and trying not to concentrate on the recollections all around her, due to the distress the comes with the familiar, Howie finds comfort in trying to maintain the memories by watching home videos. Cracks of responsibility and recrimination soon begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of a grief therapy group and Becca reaches out to the teenage boy responsible for the tragedy (Fraser Anderson).

At almost 2.5 hours (including interval) “Rabbit Hole” is long, but it is good… very good. The study of grief written by David Lindsay-Abaire was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007. Lindsay-Abaire’s cohesive script is well-written, full of naturalistic dialogue and dramatic intensity. And Mikayla Hosking’s restrained direction builds upon this with an approach that is characterised by quiet moments to add to character introspection and emotional tension, which ultimately makes its experience more moving than depressing.  

While character accents may be initially jarring, things soon settle into realisation that there are no weak links in this production. Moltzen quickly moves Izzy on from what could have been an abrasive caricature, while Bailey and Hirst each give powerful performances, particularly when an accidental loss of memories leads to an honest discussion of their different ways of dealing with grief. And in his brief appearances, Anderson gives an equally moving performance, enlivening Becca’s read aloud of his initial apology letter with meaningful use of pace, pause and emotive emphasis, which aides in laying bare the story’s moving brutality. Given the complexity surrounding the tragic emotions being explored, there are also appreciated moments of respite, including through the humour of Becca’s mother, Nat’s (Julia Johnson) obsession with the Kennedy curse during birthday party conversation.

Staging, sound and lighting are simplistic almost to the point of being subdued, which grounds the story and compliments its realism roots. After interval, when the kitchen calendar has moved from March to May, stage dressing disappears as the couple attempts to move on. Diligent direction from Hosking shows how little details do matter, as characters eat the food that is prepared and the pages of a Becca recipe shared with her sister indeed include instruction as to how to make the lemon slice in question.

“Rabbit Hole” is compelling, well-performed drama. The play represents a powerful portrait of a family experiencing the most heartbreaking of griefs and through this, an exploration of what it is to be human, with an intensity heightened by Ad Astra’s intimate traverse staging. While some momentum is lost in Act Two, its concluding moments bring things to a satisfactory finish. Indeed, the honesty of Hirst’s final ‘where to now’ monologue leaves a lasting legacy, punctuating the play with an offer of hope.

Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Truth interrogated

Death and the Maiden (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

November 19 – December 4

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 play “Death and the Maiden” is a lot. Named after Schubert’s dramatic quartet, the moral thriller is about former political prisoner Paulina (Sandra Harman), who believes that a stranger who comes to her beach house home is the man who, under the country’s former military dictatorship, brutalised her many years prior.

The story, said to be based on events in Chile (though it could be in any South or Central American dictatorship) opens to a detailed set representing the home of Paulina and her husband Geraldo (Gary Farmer-Trickett), a human rights lawyer in a country that is in transition from dictatorship to democracy. She is waiting nervously, even pulling a gun when another car arrives after Gerardo’s vehicle has broken down and he has been offered a lift by a friendly doctor, Roberto (Tom Coyle). Though she never saw him at the time, due to being blindfolded, Paulina is convinced the voice she is now hearing is that of the state agent responsible for her rape and torture 15 years earlier. She knows it is him.

Roberto is bound and gagged at gunpoint as Paulina interrogates and demands that he confesses his crime against her or else. It is a tense setup that brings a lot of intrigue as the audience is forced to consider if he did it and if she will do it. The three act play contains dense dialogue more than action, meaning that its success rests very much with its performances. Harman captures both the mania and fragility of the deeply traumatised and angry Paulina. In particular, her monologue recall of the horrific event is riveting. The story’s dramatic development is also aided by the physical commitment of the production’s actors. Coyle spends the majority of the play struggling against being tied to a kitchen chair and when his gag is removed, he layers the character so that we both think he may be capable of perpetrating the sexual torture of woman, and also a potential victim himself. Meanwhile, Harman’s whole body physical reaction to hearing Roberto’s voice, adds to the intensity of the turning point, and Farmer-Trickett’s body language as Paulina’s husband Geraldo coveys some moments of support that gives a little depth to this least developed role.

The three-character piece contains a lot of confronting language and even some moments of amusement amongst the grim events. Ad Astra has created a considered, claustrophobic experience that appropriately metaphors the experience of characters in “Death and the Maiden”, who are all prisoned in their pasts. The daring choice also presents big themes for audience consideration. Indeed, the moral debate that arises from its ethical arguments around guilt, repentance and the value of vengeance leads to much post-show contemplation and question about who really is the victim.