Ancient mythology a-mazed

Maze (The Naughty Corner)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 29 – October 2

A good story haunts, it is mentioned late in “Maze”. It’s an appropriate summary of the mythology at the centre of the new work by The Naughty Corner, an emerging theatre collective of Griffith University alumni. The story, which has been developed through the Dead Puppet Society Academy program, is of the Minotaur part man and part bull (to use Roman poet Ovid’s description) creature of Greek mythology… the offspring of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete and a snow-white bull sent by the god Poseidon that Minos kept alive, only to have his wife fall in love with it as punishment.

Unfortunately, with the provision of only limited initial context information, it becomes difficult for audience members to all be able to follow the story’s narrative and invest in its characters and relationships. What isn’t lacking however is the work’s amazing aesthetics, which are innovative and exciting. Four handheld custom-made LED light poles are inventively used to create the labyrinth of tunnels below the island of Crete, into which the minotaur is ostracised, shrinking the space within its barriers to creating a feeling of claustrophobia and eventually morphing together to evoke an image of the beast itself. This works well with Ben Mills’ lighting design and Tom Collins’s soundscape, which easily take us into to damp maze of tunnels. Wireless lighting effects by Mark Middleton and Peter Rhoades create visually striking glow-in-the-dark costuming accents, allowing them to become part of the action themselves, along with the well-placed appearance of some puppets to support storytelling.  

The tale of the Ancient Greek monster is told primarily through movement, which is simultaneously the production’s strength and downfall. Liesel Zink’s choreography, for example, sees the performers (Claire Argente, Sho Eba, Mark McDonald, Georgia Voice and Jeremiah Wray) moving together in tight as-one formation, especially in its early attempt to outline the story to the point of Pasiphae’s birth of the cursed child.

In the show’s program, it is noted that The Naughty Corner’s work promises exploration of provocative narratives and in this regard, “Maze” certainly delivers. Its execution, however, is almost too clever, making it best suited to those with previous familiarity with the story of the cursed bastard beast of Crete. Writers Bianca Bality and Joe Wilson’s extensive use of deliberately evasive undefined pronouns in dialogue doesn’t aid audience understanding, particularly in early scenes. Indeed, while design elements contribute considerably to the production’s visual storytelling, there are still lapses in its expression of the Minotaur’s transformation into a monster. Pacing could be tighter with some shortened scenes and less lengthy pausing within them. However, under Jess Bunz’s direction, it touches on bigger themes around perception and what makes a monster, so is certainly still a show of much potential.

Photos c/o – Kate Lund

Bow wow wow!

Let’s Be Friend Furever (The Good Room)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 16 – 25

For the uninitiated, The Good Room’s productions can be difficult to define. The celebrated independent company founded by Daniel Evans and Amy Ingram creates unique theatre experiences, often from community crowd-sourced content. Continuing on from its previous Brisbane Festival successes, “Let’s be Friends Furever” follows a familiar format to craft together a celebration and commemoration of all breeds of dogs, meaning that if you ever have or ever plan on owning a dog, this is the show for you.

The work, which has been developed in partnership with fellow Queensland independent theatre makers, The Little Red Company, features faces from social media and even video appearance from Australian writer and presenter Marieke Hardy. There are also everyday stores of everyday people and their extraordinary pets, as every pet dog is extraordinary to somebody… and it is celebration of this that is at the core of the show.

From the very first in the world premiere production’s parade of pooches, you will be hooked as it’s real recollections and stories are recounted on stage. After introduction to retired special ops attack dog Guge, retired Special Forces commando Steve shares story of how he built a bond worthy of gaining Guge’s respect. And as he tells us of this most important relationship of his life with his warrior brother, it is quite moving eliciting more than one audience ‘awwww’. As Afghan show dog Ava takes the stage with owner Jan who tells us all about the unique breed, and amazingly-still-a-puppy, Great Dane Rollo rocks in with his owners Siobhan and Pete, it is quite a transformational experience taking me from pre-show statement of not really being an animal person to mid-way declaration that “I love them all!”

The heartfelt homage to our four-legged friends is about transformation too as owners discuss how their lives have changed for the better through their dog ownership, even sometimes in retrospect, as later scenes respectfully take us into the raw emotion of having to farewell a furever friend after discussion from vet Matt about the multi-faceted nature of his job.

The show’s live sections are often innocently joyous, such as when 11-year-old Henry makes his theatrical debut to deliver a song about his ‘not that bright’ (and apparently eager-to-escape) best friend Cocker Spaniel Roscoe and when we meet the tenacious tongue-out fussy Austin Terrier social media sensation Mr Peanut and his owner Sam. And then there is the high-flying Frisbee hijinks of Blitz and Zoe. As light-hearted and fun as things initially are, however, it’s certainly not all PG-13 as naughty rescue dogs ‘f**king Brett’ and his brother Steven are the first to send things a little awry on opening night.

Punctuating the live guest segments are videos (video production by Optikal Bloc) about dogs and from the company’s hundreds of hours of interviews across Australia.) The segments of love, loyalty and laughter are from dog walkers, obedience trainers and alike, as well as dog owners in discussion of things like their dog parenting styles, the origins of their pets’ names and the fortunes they have spent on spoiling their greatest loves, as well as recall of their funniest experiences. And under the direction of Daniel Evans, everything is seamlessly curated together to maintain momentum and audience engagement. Mike Willmett’s dynamic sound design beds things and the mostly omnipresent ringmaster of sorts Hugh Parker keeps segments moving, with his comic commentary and questioning interaction with and response to what is happening on stage allowing for emphasis of some common themes of resilience in discussion of what people’s dogs have taught them about themselves and their purposes in life.

The Good Room’s “Let’s Be Friends Furever” is a real treat. Its ambitious examination of people’s relationships with their faithful companions and best friends is both fascinating and affirming, and it represents the perfect work with which to introduce someone to the world of what theatre can now be. They might even also end up squealing with wowed delight at the appearance of six-week-old old puppies in its conclusion.

Photos c/o –  Atmosphere Photography

Fierce femme manifest

Demolition (Polytoxic)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 4 – 11

Polytoxic has taken over the Brisbane Powerhouse with their world premiere Brisbane Festival show “Demolition”… literally, with the Powerhouse Theatre transformed into a worksite of three story scaffolding, safety tape streamer of the stalls and even ushers dressed in high vis. There’s an energy of excitement to the anticipation enhanced by the spectacle, but also a clear signal as to its metaphoric messaging with site safety warnings about the patriarchy and a pre-show playlist of problematic ‘Blurred Lines’ type tunes, meaning that before its eight diverse, fierce femme tradies starting taking a sledgehammer to the system, we know that this explosion of cabaret, theatre and social activism is clearly not going be a show of subtleties.

After we are Welcomed to Team Demo in call and response from a megaphoned site manager Boss Bitch (Lisa Fa’alafi), it’s all hands on deck to deal with the system that a site survey has revealed is failing from its foundations. This occurs through a variety of musical numbers, poetry, dance and artistic circus type performances of daring aerials, rope acrobatics and alike. The shows of strength and skill include some impressive pole tricks from Leah Shelton, animated by her exaggerated expressions and numbers that take full advantage of the expansive Powerhouse Theatre heights. Danger Zone Mayu Muto impresses with her high rope acrobatics, Fa’alafi flies out to the audience in an aerial hoop routine and Lilikoi Kaos rises into the air while working multiple hula hoops in an extrordinary early number. And they are all cleverly curated together to not only illustrate, but empower as part of the show’s messaging.

From the outset it is clear that “Demolition” is a layered work of much craftedness. There is an initial attention to detail (down to the level of even a typical tradie ice break beverage) to create a memorable experience…. even more so for the handful of audience members seated in the danger zone of the stage’s edge, all also adorned in high vis, who become part of the act in help-out and infectious celebration of being up for the challenge in one of the show’s many clap along moments.

Looking to create a level playing field, Safety Officers and also audience favourites, the forthright Jackhammer (Ghenoa Gela) and spirited High Voltage (Lilikoi Kaos) take us through some the rules for life about not walking alone at night etc al in signpost of the instinctively vigilant lens through which so many women, femmes, non-binary, trans and marginalised people operate day-to-day and night-to-night.

Slippery When Wet (Leah Shelton) gives us dark glimpse into the reality of rape culture with sinister suggestions being pushed in a ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’ number, featuring an on-stage ute. It’s a moment that serves as a true testament to the company’s cleverness as Billie Ocean’s ‘80s pop number becomes bigger and badder than ever, and its performers all do an excellent job in capturing their male roles in the concerning scenario of attempted lyric enticement into its backseat.

While some inclusions seem a little unclear or are sometimes a little longer than they need to be, such as when we spend a big chunk of time watching Sledgehammer attempt to drag said car across the stage in mirror of the experience of systematic oppression to a tension-filled soundscape. Still, the soundtrack by Musical Director Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers is dynamic throughout with regard to its choices, often pumping us along for its high adrenaline explosiveness, but also allowing for quieter moments of respite during aerial circus numbers and an emotion-filled contemporary dance performance by Ceiling Smasher Zayah Bond.

For all of its cleverness and moments of vulnerability, there is no getting away from the grit at the core of the show’s critique of traditional Australian masculinity. The manner in which directors Fa’alafi and Shelton have crafted together this slick, multi-layered and complex work is to be commended and celebrated because “Demolition” both blows up the system and builds up the community in balance. All elements of its aesthetic are on-point. Costuming takes us from initial high vis jackets to black outfits of various design with cleverly placed touches of caution tape and then some striking leotard garments. And especially, in a late fluro number, lighting works in complement to these.

Polytoxic is in the business of shaking things up and getting shit done, so this is not a show of niceties. Its edgy parodies are over-exaggerated and its hyperreal aesthetic is purposeful. And as such, it serves an overt call to arms to everyone to do better around issues of female oppression… to step up, speak up and be accountable together to tear down the patriarchy.

While its arts-supportive audience buy-in means that we are on-board with its messaging, there are still moments of confrontation such as when a mashup of sound bite snippets already shocking into their sentiments becomes even more so with realisation that the misogynous comments are from within the mainstream media landscape. This makes a late-show slam poetry-esque manifest about the ‘isms’ serving as a barrier to a new reality, even more poignant in its plea for resilience and solidity.

Clearly, “Demolition” is at its core an expression of what we really need to get past the past, but its dynamic realisation equips it with an essential excitement and entertaining appeal way beyond that of traditional political theatre… providing you can handle its daring in-your-facedness.

Love, lifeboats and laughs

Titanic: The Movie, The Play (Act/React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Plaza

August 19 – September 19

The staggered rise again of the curtain of the arts means that the industry still needs our support as much as ever it did in the last year that wasn’t. Attendance at the return, third season of Act/React’s “Titanic: The Movie, The Play” represents the perfect opportunity with which to support a Brisbane-based company; it takes place outdoors in the Brisbane Powerhouse Plaza, includes lots of hand sanitiser moments and brings with it bundles of laughs. Indeed, the energetic and hilarious live show guarantees audiences an iconic ‘king of the world’ type experience not easily forgotten.   

While at its core, the show’s concept exists as a homage to the epic ‘90s romance movie “Titanic”, contemporary references abound, and are about more than just things going on in this new-normal time. But first we must make our way to the ship… and so things begin with a submarine safety briefing as we head down into the centre of the North Atlantic in search of the heart of the ocean necklace treasure that the first of many audience volunteers sets out to retrieve.

After an appearance from the elderly Rose DeWitt (Natalie Bochenski), our narrator of sorts, we are whisked back in time to April 1912 to be welcomed by The Captain (Scott Driscoll) and Molly Brown (Johanna Lyon) et al aboard the grandest and most unsinkable ship in history, its bow high above us. Enter a young aristocratic Rose, on the arm of an arrogant son of a steel tycoon, Billy Zane (Christopher Batkin)… because how can you cram a show with jokes about Billy Zane’s career if you know him by his character name of Cal.

Act/React specialises in pop-culture inspired performances and along with “Speed: The Move The Play”, “Titanic: The Movie, The Play” endures as one of its best, even upon a third visit, as fourth walls are dropped for immediate engagement as poor artist Jack (Daren King) and a random Mario (Tom Dunstan) excitedly embark upon what promises to be quite the exuberant and sometimes steamy journey, as those familiar with key scenes from the epic 1997 James Cameron source material movie would know to expect.

The always-energetic cast maintains the irreverent approach as a rotation of audience ‘volunteers’ become Rose (using cue cards for stage directions and dialogue) along her journey of love, lifeboats (donated by the Queensland Maritime Museum) and loss, and the performers are expert at responding to the different energies and approaches that these additions bring, with ad libs that contribute much bonus humour. Add to this a pack of puns, some deliberately low-budget special effects and a pile of potential favourite moments … from a sad mainly-audience-member band of triangle, ukulele and recorder player and an animated Mario Kart transition to a rogue (and somewhat persistent) iceberg … and you are guaranteed some cheeky comedy (#literally!)

Undertow honesty

Undertow (Shock Therapy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

June 16 – 26

Metaphors abound in Shock Therapy Productions’ “Undertow”, beginning with its title. This is clear from the show’s start, which sees a school Principal addressing an assembly, clearly in the wake of difficult circumstances for the school community. Then there is school captain Connor (Sam Foster) struggling at footy practice ahead of grand finale, due to his academic and home life pressures. He is not the only one with a lot going on of course, because life can be harsh. The adults around him we soon see are under their own pressures, such as Constable Phil (Hayden Jones) who has been assigned to the school in response to its recent increase in drug related incidents. And then there is also Jessie, struggling to belong in his own skin as much as the world around him.

Things pace along as the audience is introduced to the characters and their struggles, both obvious and less, with all roles played by the Forster and Jones in a first-rate showcase of characterisation. In one segment, for instance, we see Jones transitioning from being and inflammatory Deputy Principal to a quiet and sensitive English teacher, a gruff football coach and then a mellow adolescent in almost the blink of an eye.

The work draws on a range of film conventions and physical theatre techniques. As such, it is highly energetic in its physicality, however, its pacing also gives the audience room to breathe amongst its weighty themes, with its humour (often around school experiences) appreciated by both school groups and adult mid-week matinee audience members alike. Foster’s scene as flirty school receptionist Karen, in particular, is a real hit.

Foster and Jones do an exceptional job in maintaining momentum across the show’s 60-minute duration, especially given the multiple roles that each performer adopts. With the aid of only small costume and/or prop additions, they transfer seamlessly in and out of roles, often mid scene while a companion of the conversation has a turn-away moment, with a skill that means there is never any confusion as to the characters. And Foster, in particular, gives a detailed, nuanced performance as Jesse, using body language to convey the teen’s vulnerability more than any words could, with consistently crossed arms attempting to envelope himself in from the world, hand always anxiously gripping at his shirt hem.

Careful construction is given to all aspects of this original work. Laura Jade’s vivid lighting design, punctuated by some striking strobe-lighting scenes works with Guy Webster’s evocative sound design of often foreboding instrumentation and a deliberateness to the soundscape that sees, for example, a school bell morph into the sounds of hospital equipment. And while there is some use of familiar stereotypes, the work cleverly subverts audience expectations of plot direction and character arcs.

Under the performers’ direction, “Undertow” is a taut show that packs a punch in its honest and powerful exploration of the themes of resilience, mental health, relationships, identity and empathy, without getting too dark or straying from its clear ultimate message about the need to breath and to always be kind and sensitive to each other even while focused on our own things, because you never really know what someone else is going through, no matter how calm things may seem on their surface. Not only is it an interesting take, but it gives audiences a realistic take-away about stress not just being an affliction of the young.

Terror Australis

Horizon (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

May 19 – 29

Maxine Mellor’s “Horizon” is an intense experience… not the type of show to be enjoyed so much as provoked by. It is a sensibility that is conveyed from even before its start thanks to an ominous pre-show soundscape and the gothic shadows of a darkened stage featuring just a single white line as video backdrop to its Ford Falcon centre stage feature.

Young couple Cole (Sam Foster) and Skye (Ngoc Phan) are driving the classic Aussie car from the coast into the heart of the country to Cole’s home town to visit his ill father. What starts poetically as a classic road trip journey of mix tapes and romantic enthusiasm, however, soon devolves into a tense standoff of mindsets, with debate and discussion flaring around contemporary issues. And as we watch the pair’s relationship struggle to survive the personal secrets that emerge, we are left considering what is worth rescuing as within even this theme, the story is filled with metaphors, such is the quality and precision of Mellor’s writing.  

The multi-award winning playwright’s script touches on dark themes from with our country’s tragedies as the couple learns more than they imagine about each other, including the story behind a cassette tape as old as the car itself and the real reason behind Skye’s motivation for a holiday distraction from fighting off brainless corporate zombies as a lawyer.

A 90 minute two hander such as this can be a taxing task for its performers, however, Foster and Phan work well both in volley off each other and also in the show’s many impassioned monologues. Foster’s, early speeches, in particular, are especially entertaining, delivered with a powerful rhythm akin to a gripping slam poetry share, thanks to his vocal enthusiasm and well-used pace, pause and emphasis for effect.

It is appropriate, however, that in addition to acclamation of the performers, the car so central to the show’s action also receives applause at the play’s conclusion. Rather than alienating its audience through performing sections of the story from within its front seats, the company cleverly utilises the central piece as part of the action, inviting the audience its world through choreograph of the story’s action in, around and on top of it as it rotates on stage, without it appearing gimmicky. And it does, indeed, feature almost as another character in the drama as it transports the couple’s relationship deeper into the ramifications of brutal honesty.

Also particularly laudable is the dynamic opening scene complement of Guy Webster’s sound design, David Walters’ lighting design and Nathan Sibthorpe’s video design, in realisation of the couple’s celebration of their newfound freedom with imagined new names and outlaw identities on the run in a world gone mad. Video projections also serve to track the passage of time through show of the bush drive backdrop as day sunsets into the velvet dark of night, also contributing to its panic.

As a two-hander “Horizon” is at its core an intimate story, however, it is also one of big twists, turns and technical demands within its apparent simplicity and speak to contemporary Australia. Under Ian Lawson’s direction, it is a thrilling ride not for the faint of heart, but rather those who like their drama with a bit of terror because once you’ve seen one monster, you see them everywhere. And though Mellor may have been commissioned to pen the Playlab Theatre production pre-COVID, it still remains relevant now especially in in its touch on #metoo themes, but also in its examination of the struggles and isolation at the core of personal identity (and thus relationships), from which, like our pasts, we can maybe never really outrun.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry