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

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.

Fauna funniness

Naturally Confused (Maybe Mad Theatre Co)

Cudo

May 9 – 26

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It is perhaps rare in the arts to have a show premise with anything even resembling a unique concept, yet amongst all of its silliness, the basis of Maybe Mad Theatre Co’s “Naturally Confused” offers exactly this as animal expert host Boris (George Harris) desperately attempts to unload his infinite knowledge of flora, and more significantly fauna, on his audience and fans, only sans animals!! Cue the chaos promised by the Anywhere Festival show’s blurb and its wackiness which comes largely from assistant Blain’s (Bridget Ward) faux pars and tomfoolery.

The show stays true to its title too; there is much deliberate confusion in the initial frenzied dialogue between the presenters, full of malapropisms and repetition that does drag a little. Anywhere Festival shows, by means of the festival’s premise of presenting performances anywhere but a theatre, typically have minimal staging, so must rely heavily on their performances. Thankfully, in this regard, “Naturally Confused” is immediately engaging. Ward, in particular, is a very funny performer, making for a hysterical walrus, tusks and all (amongst other animals). She can make even standing alone on stage doing nothing hilarious, thanks to just the slightest of sidelooks and most well-timed of pauses.

The show paces along nicely as the duo banter between themselves while presenting different animals and their associated facts to the audience, however, the momentum slams into a seemingly abrupt ending. Still, this is an Anywhere Festival show that is well worth a look. It’s light-hearted and funny from start to finish in that madcap kind of way. There is song and dance, and even a ukulele number… plus some random facts about nature… like a David Attenborough documentary, but not really.

Reworking woe

Romeo & Juliet & Friends (Pastiche Theatre Collective)

Daily Planet Café

May 12 – 20

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Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The tragic tale of their untimely deaths reconciling the two households of their feuding fair-Verona families is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays. Its woe has been reworked countless times, on this occasion in Wickham Street’s Daily Planet Cafe courtesy of Pastiche Theatre Collective. Rather than reimagining the classic as so many of its reworks do, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” gets straight to the core of its acclaim, condensing the two hours’ traffic, balancing its poetic language with contemporary vernacular and adding a musical soundtrack. There are also pauses throughout to make mention of earlier source material of Arthur Brooke et al, in show of how Shakespeare’s work is itself an adaptation. There is even metatheatre consideration of the question of adaptation which turns into an inset affirmative vs negative school debate.

Modern twists appear from the outset of the boisterous take through reappropriation of the prologue as a rap and later as the Nurse banters in text message with her mistress’ bae. Simple additions also establish characters beyond just the white frill collars of each of the four performers. Props serve their purpose too; milk crates are stacked to represent loving Juliet’s iconic balcony and foam swords become makeshift guitars one moment and in the next, Act Three fiddlesticks in the swordfight that sees the witty Mercutio stabbed. The venue itself is of good size for an intimate show of this sort with enough space for not only a decent stage area, but for actors to head into and around the audience to unfold some scenes.

The abridgment obviously means that many scenes are lost. The fairies midwife Queen Mab, for example, barely gets a mention, but the work does not suffer because of it. Wise content choices keep the integrity of the original text while adding interest and momentum. Having the scene of the Friar telling Romeo to flee to Mantua play out physically alongside the Nurse reporting to a heartbroken Juliet about his banishment, works wonderfully, for example.

Appropriately, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” starts out as a lively comedy before taking a sharp turn into drama. The performers assume multiple roles with ease and there is no confusion around their switches thanks to simple costumes and characterisation. And they are very funny, especially in gender blind casting which sees Daniel Simpson have a great time with his lines as Juliet’s chatty and excitable Nurse and Georgia Nielsen relishing in the comedy of the overly-invested Friar Laurence. Sam Valentine transitions easily a raging Lord Capulet determined to have his daughter married to a charming, lovestruck Romeo, and is excellent in both guises. Similarly, Samantha Sherrin is both the bold, quick-tempered ‘Prince of Cats’ Tybalt and a headstrong Juliet. Both Valentine and Sherrin are at their best in their protagonist roles after Romeo is banished; Sherrin excels, for example, in her emotional monologues.

Like its melodramatic source material, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” has a lot going on and, as such, a lot to offer. While answer as to the ‘to adapt or not to adapt’ question is answered by the work itself, there is enough of both perspectives within it to keep proponents of either side of argument satisfied. As this accessible examination of the cannon classic shows, clearly, there’s life in the old play yet.

Seaing comedy afresh

Kiss of the Vampire Squid (Act/React)

Queensland Maritime Museum

May 10 – 20

The ocean is a scary place. The parody novel “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” tells us this. It is this notion that sits at the centre of Act/React’s latest work “Kiss of the Vampire Squid”, an improvised presentation which tells the tale of one of the evil things that lurk in the ocean’s depths. Exactly what that thing is, however, depends upon audience suggestions.

On opening night, based on audience offerings, the nautically-themed myth is of an unusual (6 limbed) lying, deceitful starfish known as Emma. Her story begins not on the sea floor, but rather aboard a ship, The Widow’s Delight, aka HMAS Diamantina, a 1944 Royal Australian Navy frigate, dry docked at the Queensland Maritime museum at Southbank. The Anywhere Theatre Festival work sees the unusual theatre location reappropriated to become a science vessel in uncharted seas. Upon the historic vessel’s quarterdeck, young deckhand Jack is looking forward to a future of adventure beyond book learning. The other able seaman and science officers aboard are more concerned with science (of the putting pins in things sort) because you can do anything in the name of science, as an ongoing show theme and some musical numbers tell us.

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From the moment audience members are welcomed aboard as ‘fresh meat’, there is a relaxed and enjoyable feel to the experience. Unlike their former smash, sell-out hits “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play”, there is not active audience participation aside from involvement in a water pistol attack. Rather it is just audience member’s random suggestions that are taken on board (#seewhatIdidthere). The cast (or should I say crew) are full or enthusiastic energy as they guide the audience through what is essentially a quite flimsy storyline. Comparative to their earlier works, it suffers a little from this lack of direction and there are moments when transitions aren’t always fluent, with performers sometimes taking some time to respond to or catchup with each other’s direction, as is a peril of an improvised work. While this may leave audiences a little out to sea (#andagain), this was the first show of its season and I imagine this will only improve.

As is so often the case with Anywhere Theatre Festival shows, “Kiss of the Vampire Squid” takes audiences to some very unusual, different places, both physically and in its show’s direction. Having the action play out on board the ship is ingenious, especially in its contrast against the show’s deliberately dodgy props, which are as hilarious as they are inventive. It is definitely still worth a look, if only to sea comedy afresh (#couldnthelpmyself). Rug up though; the promise that cooler nights are coming means that an evening on board with the sea creatures has potential to leave audience members with timbers well and truly shivered (#heeheehee).

Bard style and stuff

‘All the world’s a stage’ we are told by a melancholy Jaques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. In the coming weeks this is especially true as the Anywhere Theatre Festival offers opportunity for Brisbane audiences to be immersed in theatre anywhere. This is not a normal theatre festival with shows instead taking stage in carparks, heritage homes, bookstores and backyards, amongst other obscure locations…. anywhere but on a traditional theatre stage.

Jaques’ iconic monologue opener is especially apt for this year’s festival, which features a number of Shakespeare works…. of sort. Shakespeare Plugged In’s “Much Ado” is a collaboration in the form of an immersive rock event featuring original tracks adapted from Shakespeare and written by local musicians. Indeed, the epic immersive creation promises killer music as it attempts to fit its witty Shakespearean comedy namesake with original songs, into 90 minute story of competing musicians on and off stage on the night of a home venue gig, performed in and around legendary Brisbane bar and venue, The Zoo.

Amongst other Shakespeares there is also Pastiche Theatre Collective’s “Romeo and Juliet and Friends” at Fortitude Valley’s Daily Planet Café which, rather than serving as an adaption, sets out to explore why we feel the need to keep changing the original tale of woe. And not really using a text at all is “A Midsummer Night’s Whatever” from Edge Improv at Annerley’s Junction Hotel, which every night sees its three actors devise and perform a band new Shakespearean play, based on audience suggestions.

One problem with getting people to see Shakespeare is that it’s often quite long, so these productions, which are of more manageable duration make for excellent either alternatives or toe-dippers to traditional takes. Coming fresh from opening night last week of Queensland Theatre’s “Twelfth Night” I am eager to keep the Shakespeare ball rolling by seeing 400+ year old texts being given new life by practitioners experimenting with dressing them up, stripped them down and turning them inside out.

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While online dialogue of late may be around consideration of it there might be too much Shakespeare, productions continue to show how, even when modernised and recontextualised, his works remain universal in their themes of passion, love, lust, loyalty and vengeance, which, as human emotions are not dependent upon time, place or culture. Certainly there is power in forcing an audience to consider a new take on what they thought they knew. To have the experience unfold in an unusual setting only adds to the curiosity, making the suggestion of shows like those on offer at this year’s Anywhere Festival entirely irrestable to a Bard girl like myself.

This is my fifth (I think) year as a Festival reviewer and, with this repertoire in mind, I know that anything Act/React is also sure to be great. Having brought Brisbane smash, sell-out hits such as “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play” and last year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival fun “Let Them Eat Cake”, the improve troupe are back again with “Kiss of the Vampire Squid”, a tribute to nautical myths and legends, and ghost stories of the sea, on-board the HMAS Diamantina at the Queensland Maritime Museum at South Bank. With promise of a live piano accordion soundtrack some marvellous ocean-inspired creature creations in complement to its audience-inspired comedy, it is sure to be heaps of fun when it kicks off on opening night of the Festival on Thursday 10th May for its sixth show run.

This of course, is but a mere snapshot of what this year’s bigger and better Anywhere Theatre Festival has on show. There is so much ado around in Brisbane during May; you just need to look around and, in the case of the Anywhere Theatre Festival, get immersed for unique theatre experiences and Shakespeare like you haven’t seen before.

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.