Tortured treats

Tortured Remixes (Topology)

Vulcana Women’s Circus

May 11 – 12

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Contemporary classical act Topology is cool and clever; in fact, it was clever from before it cool to be so. The quintet has been on the Brisbane scene for 20 years now (with only one member change) and they are celebrating the journey towards the anniversary with their 14th full-length album, Tortured Remixes, launched through this year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival. 

The ‘mixtape’ album is not one of traditional cover songs but ‘tortured’ takes from the creative minds of Topology’s composers, John Babbage, Robert Davidson and Bernard Hoey, who bend, stretch and scramble popular melodies into adventurous songs anew. And the result is as enigmatic as ever thanks to its mostly anagrammed song titles.

Some arrangements such as ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ are instantly familiar, while others take longer to appreciate, such as in the spirited, stylistic ‘Satisfaction’ mashup ‘Fantastic Note Coatings’, which comes complete with the same sense of frustration as its The Rolling Stones original inspiration. From The Beatles to Beyoncé, “Tortured Remixes” offers audiences a trip across continents and decades. Certainly with such a range, there is something for everyone, whether they be fan of Dizzy Gillespie’s modern jazz be-bop or the pioneering Australian punk rock sound of The Saint’s 1976 iconic single, ‘I’m Stranded’ (which serves as a particular show highlight).

Slowed down as many of the arrangements are, also allows for unique appreciation of the nuances of melody, such as in numbers like ‘Whinging Tweet’ which serves as tribute to Cold Chisel’s ‘Cheap Wine’ tell of sitting of the beach drinkin’ rocket fuels. Similarly, the ‘Black to Grey’ two song mashup of Deep Purple’s hard rock number ‘Black Night’ with Visage’s decade-later, new-wave, electronic hit ‘Fade to Grey’, allows for some lovely stripped-back string sounds in evocation of chorus memories. Every piece comes with a clear passion in its delivery. Indeed, right from the opening number’s take of Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ (‘Two-Punk Fight’), there is an infectious energy to proceedings that permeates the light and shade of individual numbers and Robert Davidson is particularly blistering on the double bass.

Anyone who has ever seen a Topology show knows to expect a treat because everything the group does is good and “Tortured Remixes” is no exception to this expectation. As they continue to go from strength to strength, touring nationally and internationally, Brisbane should not only be proud of them as a home-grown success story, but embrace any opportunity they can to see their sometimes-warped but always wonderful work.

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Troubled travel tales

Europe Won’t Fix You (The General Public Theatre Company)

Metro Arts

May 11 – 13

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With milk-crate furniture and clothes strewn about, the initial impression of “Europe Won’t Fix You” is very much of a story associated with a student demographic. Indeed, with the lone character beginning proceedings wearing Doc Martins and overalls, and a copy of Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl” on the coffee ‘table’ alongside a travel guide, it seems to be a show of stereotypes. And it is, beginning with her indulgent opening solo dance number to the explicit-ridden ‘I Fink U Freeky’, before moving into a clever realisation of packing for a big rite-of-passage trip to Europe.

What follows is a series of vignettes taking audiences along on the arduous to-Europe plane trip to a Berlin rave and Parisian love affair. There is no real narrative thread apart from a revisited character’s poo log, which brings with it much humour. Indeed, in many ways, it is crass at times, because that that seems to make art edgy in an undergraduate type way, and, accordingly perhaps, it is easy to appreciate its festival success, having experienced sell-out seasons at the 2016 Sydney Fringe Festival and at this year’s Adelaide Fringe. Certainly many aspects ring true as audiences watch condoms being packed in anticipation of the adventures presumably awaiting along with experience of a white winter, before the later disillusionment of the Christmas in cold-arse countries and the yearn for some green vegetable goodness as opposed to meat and potatoes … again.

Cast members work well together, particularly in relation to the physical comedy aspects, but its troublesome structure means that there is little opportunity to connect with the characters represented. Tasha O’Brien has great comic timing and gives an engaging performance, especially in presentation of some of the show’s in-your-face content. And Caity Booth is very funny to watch, especially in fleeting role as an inflexible German encountered on one character’s European travels.

Those who themselves have ever quit their job and headed over to Europe, only to return broke and broken-spirited to their parents’ couch sometimes later, will probably find much to identify with in its subject matter. While those who have toured in other ways, may look knowingly upon the twenty-something’s ambitions from the comfort of their own recollections, for this is travel, warts and all (and maybe even some other intimate diseases). Indeed, “Europe Won’t Fix You” is a cheeky take of a travel tale you won’t find on Instagram… just an account that could be told better.

Muddled misfortune

The Flood

Queen Alexander House

May 11 – 21

Coorparoo’s Queen Alexandra House is a beautiful heritage building that certainly befits the Anywhere Theatre Festival aim to bring performances from a traditional theatre space into some of the city’s perhaps previously undiscovered nooks and crannies. And in the case of “The Flood”, it suits the play’s setting too, so that, thanks to some inventive staging, it is easy to image the space as a Yeronga Queenslander, filled with brown river sludge.

It is January 2011 and the weather in Brisbane ‘is about to skitz’, but not everyone knows of the misfortune that is on the way. When Sandra (Briellen Juracic) and her boyfriend Damo (Bernard Mina) return from an overseas trip to the remnants of their housemates’ holiday-season antics,  Sandra is more focussed on unleashing her over-the-top temper on fellow twenty-somethings Glenn (Cliff Ellis) and Karl (Jack T Murphy) than reflecting on why all the businesses in the area may be closed. There are obviously strains in the group dynamic, but for now, Sandra (and more reluctantly) Damo must persevere with the situation as the price of seeing themselves get in to the market with the purchase of the property due to suburb’s growth potential.

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The narrative soon shifts from this tension when the next morning they awake to once in a hundred year flood event in their riverside residence’s living room. Yet, reactions are not as may be as expected as they remain in their flood surrounds without much think or escape or discussion of insurance. Indeed, nothing is consistent in this work of wasted opportunities. As a comedy it has some witty lines, but they are all but lost amongst an overwritten script that tells rather than shows, and although the nature of the narrative brings much dramatic potential, this is left unrealised by a weak ending.

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There is a lot going on in “The Flood”, too much in fact, meaning that there is a holistic lack of identity. At times, it seems more like a tour through a tick-a-box list of theatrical techniques, with physical humour sitting uncomfortably aside introspective monologues, meta-theatre mentions, fleeting indigenous themes and the occasional, unnecessary inclusion of a voice-over share of context and stage direction detail.

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Amongst some self-conscious acting, Ellis is excellent as the shallow corporate lawyer Glenn, searching for his place in life. And Murphy makes Carl’s reaction to the salt water crocodile that assumes residence on their kitchen bench, a memorable comic moment (and props to whichever crew member it is that gets to don the onesie croc suit).

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The show’s confused muddle of realism and exaggerated absurdity may be interesting in intent, but unfortunately is not entirely successful in execution. With more judicious editing and a more singular focus, it could be a more rewarding audience experience as either a quality Brisbane story (minus the lapses in logic) or as a light-hearted take of shared house dynamics, but not both.

Photos c/o – Geoff Lawrence of Creative Futures Photography

Inter-dimensional immersion

The Farce Awakens (Folly Games)

The Museum of Brisbane

May 12 – 20

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After six years of growing at the Woodford Folk Festival, The Game World of Folly Games is branching out to defeat dullness in the Museum of Brisbane. And it is here where participants gather for a preshow briefing from The Director as to the unique nature of the immersive theatre experience, which sees the museum reimagined as a smaller-on-the-inside inter-dimensional spaceship, piloted by a group of hyper-intelligent cyborgs on a quest to study the mysterious threat of a terrifying, contagious disease known as the dull.

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With assigned character cards, we are then let loose to seek out our respective character and explore the world by going from room to room in which events and stories are unfolding. What you see is up to you, as is your level of involvement; you may end up putting your life on the line; it’s no big deal if you die, you just surrender your life card and seek out the large black bird of Death (Nick Wiggins) for resurrection for price of a joke or dance).

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My character is actress Marilyn Minuit (Claire McFadyen) who, along with fellow shady character Moby Rick (Josh Nixon), is always on the lookout for a good business opportunity as part of the Big Hat Rail Company. However, I soon find myself instead following the royal rules of the Elizabogans, Queen Champers (Gabbi Davis) and her King Keiff (Tyler Willian Morrisson), complete with right royal thongs, in their quest to respond to the Magician’s (Callum Pulsford) newspaper claims that the King’s reign is illegitimate.

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Once initial confusion passes, it is easy to follow and fall into the rhythm of the intermingled stories and it is wonderful both to see the response of children in the audience to the energy of the characters and the increasingly involvement of bigger kids as they become more comfortable. Unfortunately, my attempts were met with execution from the King for badly written poetry to assist in moving their regal love higher on the loveometer.

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Over the course of the 90 minute(ish) show, there is much to look at, listen to and appreciate, full as it is with pop culture references from “Julius Caesar” to “Star Wars”. In this instance, as the story unfolds (from its multiple possible endings), the Magician takes over from the Game Master as absolute ruler, until challenged by frog Frogo (Josh Bell-Mcnee), with key events bringing all the characters, stories and audience members back to a central location at intervals, ensuring that a clear narrative messages is shared.

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All of the show’s performers are completely committed in their characterisations throughout interactions with audience members as much as each other. However, as the King, Morrison is a most memorable stand-out, always witty in his in-character comebacks and keep of Keiff’s ocker vocal style.

“The Farce Awakens” is unlike anything else, making for a never-dull evening ‘at’ the theatre. Even those unfamiliar with or initially reluctant towards engaging in its immersive nature, will find its spirit infectious. Indeed, its audience interaction should not be shied away from but rather embraced with an open attitude and join in the fun of the parody, pop-culture and puzzle at play.

Courtly comedy and cake

Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React)

Golden Pig Cooking School

May 11 – 13

madame.jpgUpon leaving “The Play That Goes Wrong” opening night last week, I didn’t think I could even laugh quite so hard at a show… then along came “Let Them Eat Cake”, a slice of silly improvised shenanigans presented as part of the 2017 Anywhere Theatre Festival. The work comes from the creative minds of those at Act/React, the improv troupe responsible for the smash, sell-out hits “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play” at the Brisbane Powerhouse and it is just as funny as its predecessor works, making it a clear Festival highlight. It is not a movie re-imagining this time though, but rather a farce which sees all sorts of French court characters revealed in all sorts of scandalous and hysterical situations.

Versailles can be a tough place, especially for a mime, we learn as the show begins with lone mime, Pierre (Dan Beeston) on stage. And though the front row of the audience may occupy his predominant interest, there really is no hiding anywhere as audience belongings are reappropriate to become the show’s religious relic props. It is soon apparent that he is not an ordinary mime.

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Pretty Pierre has the pottiest of mouths (despite never speaking) and he may have done pornography. He is servant to the ambitious widow Madame Celeste (Natalie Bochenski, with a wig as large as her dress’ bussle) and so, spends initial scenes penning a dictated letter to her niece. Madame Celeste has money problems so quests to wed a wealthy, but boring, aristocrat Hugo (Wade Robinson), who may be after a top level wife but settles for Celeste, despite her having a little bit of the plague.

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Gossipy court news travels fast and a Cardinal is soon also on the scene to stake his claim and confess his from-afar love for Celeste. It’s far from a France of polite parlour games with trickery, theft and bribery unfolding as audience suggestions contribute to the spontaneity of the largely ad-libbed show, ensuring that it travels in directions so random as to leave the actors themselves sometimes struggling to maintain composure. The deliberate overacting only adds to the exaggerated, improbable and farcical situations. But the absurdity is all part of the fun, especially when mention is made of chicken grenades.

Relent from the riotous laughter comes with interval, when, courtesy of the host venue, the audience is treated to rose water cupcakes, in honour of Queen Marie Antoinette’s supposed quote upon learning that the French peasants had no bread. The Golden Pig Cooking School is a wonderful venue for the experience too, full of atmosphere, enhanced by the show’s ongoing musical accompaniment from Richard Grantham on viola. Still, nothing is as memorable as the unfolding hilarity, thanks to the comic skill and timing of its players, vocally overemphasising where necessary as signpost to the weird and wacky directions of the plot and bouncing good-naturedly off each other and the audience. And in Dan Beeston’s hands, this mime needs no words to make many of the show’s funniest jokes.

“Let Them Eat Cake” is clever comedy all around. With its revisits to previous mentions and provision of associated puns, it shows that sometimes spontaneous can be best.  This is funny in its purest form as the dialogue, action, story and even aspects of the characters are created by the players and audience in collaboration and it is not only its abrupt ending that will leave its audiences wanting more. Hopefully Brisbane will see more of the show soon because as comedies go, this interactive farce really takes the cake.

Maid for murder

The Maids (Mad Women on the Shore)

Woolloongabba Art Gallery

May 9 – 13

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“The Maids” is a show of the sort that everyone should see at least once, but maybe only just once. The 1947 French play about domestic servitude is hard work at times, but offers some intermittent reward with some funny scenes.

It beings with the incessant screeching of one of the titular characters, Claire (Amy Hauser) as she stomps about in what are clearly someone else’s too-big heels. By contrast, her sister Solange is understated in her acceptance of the scolding, with Re’anne Duffy conveying as much with just one look of nuanced facial expression than any amount of dialogue. But all is not as it at first seems and as Solange begins to shape into rebellion from faithful servitude, it becomes apparent that the interaction is just part of a ritual role-play in which Claire adopts the role of the their wealthy young mistress, known only as Madame, while Solange pretends to be Claire.

On this occasion, the well-rehearsed ritual is disrupted by news that Madame’s criminal lover, whom Claire has secretly reported to the police, has been released on bail. So Claire and Solange have finally decided to exact their ambition to kill the Mistress whom they simultaneously (and obsessively) both love and hate. Their resulting, sometimes-ambiguous, bickering power-play is repetitious and verbose, making for a lengthy precursor to when Madame proper (Caitlin Hill) makes an entrance. And what an entrance it is! Swathed in a black and white David Jones print ensemble, she appears with almost Cruella de Vil cartoonishness, which she relishes in her every movement and glance down her nose at servants she loves like she does her furniture. As Hill turns comments into insults with passive-aggressive insincerity and insensitivity, she is magnetically melodramatic, which not only makes her scenes an absolute highlight, but causes others to drag by comparison.

As one of the great works of the Theatre of the Absurd, “The Maids” is an energetic and physical show. Yet despite only ever having a maximum of three actors onstage, it’s an intimate play that is well suited to the Woolloongabba Art Gallery space, which allows audience members from all sides to voyeuristically observe as dialogue volleys back and forth between characters sometimes at other ends of the room. Indeed, it makes excellence use of the space to create the window, wardrobe and even costumes to which the dialogue refers. And the paintings along the gallery walls work well to take the place of the room clutterings and flowers mentioned in the text.

Against this intimate space, the actors give big performances. Duffy’s climatic unleash of oppression is of martyrdom-like magnitude and while Hauser is most dominant in her mockery her Mistress’ narcissistic distain, she is at her best when of smaller presence, literally shaking in her shoes in response to Madame’s intimidating presence.

As a work of heightened reality and theatricality, “The Maids” is certainly not for everyone. Though it may have been 70 years since it first caused a scandal, there is still a wicked lure to its sadomasochistic games, especially considering its horrific inspiration in the real-life 1933 gruesome murders of two French provincial bourgeoisies by their maids. And for those who like to see theatre pushing the boundaries and are ‘willing to play the game’, it is sure to be a rewarding investment of time to ensure acquaintance with the modern classic.

Top tram talk

2 Across

Brisbane Tramway Museum

May 9 – 12

Sometimes the best theatre stories are told through intimate interaction in real time, set in one location. And as locations go, you don’t get more intimate than sharing space on a tram. In the case of “2 Across”, it is an authenticity that only adds to the experience of this certainly Anywhere Theatre Festival show. And you even get to go for a ride!

It is early morning on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train from San Francisco’s International Airport when the both-married presumptuous, womanising Tom (really Josh) and straight-laced Rita (really Janet) find themselves as the only two riding in one of the cars. Polite conversation begins over share of their common pastime. But their attempts at completing the New York Times’ ‘sadistic Saturday’ crossword seem to be where their commonality ends. As a clear beginner (using a pencil gives it away), Josh doesn’t consider crosswords as life and death and could easily leave a puzzle incomplete given the equal appeal of the paper’s sports page. To Janet, however, exactness is everything. And given that she doesn’t suffer fools easily, it seems that their interaction might not progress much further. But maybe his loosey-goosey approach to life as a between-jobs advertising executive is just what she needs.

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Each has their idiosyncrasies; he has his favourite seat and she is one of those people who says bingo when not playing bingo, which are revealed as the audience voyeurs the unfold of their journey. It’s a journey not just of implied physical distance but of character changes, as the usually very proper psychologist Janet even breaks the rules enough to eat on the train. Indeed, as she attempts to make Josh more sure of himself in preparation for an upcoming job interview, she goes from gruff to giggly and it is clear that there is more at play that just a polite conversation about puzzle guidelines as talk turns to poetry and the intellectual affair that their potentially preordained meeting may have prompted.

With only really its dialogue to rely upon, the writing of a work like this needs to be something special. And it most certainly is, with many quotable observations such as how crosswords can serve as a metaphor for life. There is much wit too and cleverness in its frequent circles back to previous conversation mentions and it is easy to appreciate playwright Jerry Mayer’s seasoned television writer credits (including episodes of “M.A.S.H’ and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) in its pacing.

The dialogue-heavy work also means that there is nowhere to hide for its two performers and in this regard they both rise to the occasion. As the organised and sensible Janet, Candice Dittmann is a formidable performer. While Nathan Schulz is wonderful as the free-spirited Josh; even the occasional missed line can be forgiven, given how it becomes absorbed into the natural rhythm of their interaction. Indeed, the snappy delivery of dialogue and believable back and forth between the players makes for an engaging experience that seems to fly by. And Director Schulz does a top job in keeping the essentially static show (two people on a train along with the audience), visually interesting.

“2 Across” serves not only as unique theatre experience, very much in keeping with the Anywhere Theatre Festival focus on performance anywhere outside of a traditional theatre, but also evidence of how sometimes the smallest of stories can be the best. Although its two protagonist commuters may seem as mere ordinary folk, appearance often belies reality and as their conversation reveals the serious life problems and common vulnerability with which each is dealing, we cannot but appreciate the value of that their interaction brings, as well as wonder what might have been had he not just made it time through the closing doors at the train’s origin stop.

You can find all of my Anywhere Festival reviews on the festival website.