Family law and delightful disorder

Single Asian Female (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 16 – March 9

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‘Single Asian Female’… it’s a clever play-on-movie-title precis for dating profile purposes. Zoe (Michelle Law), however, is so much more than just this descriptor… classical musician, sister and daughter. Like many, her fractured family oscillates between being a constant of disorder and an annoying inconvenience… and this is even without her knowledge of her mother’s secret. This is a simple overview of Michelle Law’s debut play “Single Asian Female”, which ran at La Boite in 2017 before enjoying a sold out season at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre the following year. And now it is back where it all began for a return Brisbane season and show of how witty writing and on-point performances can contribute to contemporary conversations around the diversity of our country’s communities.

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The premise of the work remains the same, the story follows a family of Asian women as they navigate the intricacies of race associated with life in everytown Nambour. It begins with now single-mother Pearl (Hsiao-Liang Tang), owner/manager of the The Golden Phoenix Chinese Restaurant, rejoicing in the finalisation of her divorce with delivery of a table-top karaoke ‘I Will Survive’. Pearl is clearly a strong woman, as are her daughters Zoe and Mei (Courtney Stewart), but also clear is the crossroads of life at which they all now individually find themselves. As an audience, we follow as their futures are thrust upon them, with a lot of heart and humour along the way.

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While each woman is on her own journey, there are a lot of holistic themes to the tale that only add to its appeal. Indeed, the play explores generational and cultural gaps in such a relatable way that its heart cannot be denied. Much of the play’s success comes from its ability to find both the honesty and humour in all types of relationships. Even the most exaggerated of characters reveal a truthfulness at the core of their representations, whether the friendships be driven by judgement and passive-aggression, outward hostility and arrogance or say-it-as-it-is support.

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Like the supporting players in their lives, the Wong family women have their own idiosyncrasies and insecurities. Instead of being a caricature, as could so easily have been the case, Pearl is portrayed as a proud and loving mother (albeit without a filter), strong, self-sacrificing and generously resilient. And Hsiao-Ling Tang again gives the character strength on show to her family, but also a natural vulnerability in acceptance of the misfortune of her fate.

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Although the sisters are more than a decade apart in age, their interplay is engaging in its authenticity, especially when an argument escalates to a no-bold-barred spill of secrets to their mother. Not only is she entertaining in sibling interaction, but Michelle Law plays Zoe’s scene as a nervous blind-dater to awkward comic perfection. And Courtney Steward is consistently strong as younger sibling Mei, a stubborn teenager full of melodramatic angst in response to confused feelings around identity that see her attempting to anglicise herself out of embarrassment about her Chinese family. Patrick Jhanur is solid as a potential nice-guy partner for Zoe and once again Emily Burton creates some of the night’s biggest audience responses through her perfect tone and comic timing as Mei’s quirky, supportive best friend Katie.

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As in its debut run, this “Single Asian Female” celebrates its cultural experience with music and laugher along with its heart… a winning combination that features at the core of many of the family stories that resonate the most. And the work is clearly evolving; not only does this run feature some different actors, but more edits and new jokes. And given that its Marie Kondo nod gets one of the night’s biggest laughs, the result is a show that is as delightful and dynamic as ever, tighter than its original incantation, if not quite as freshly vibrant.

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“Single Asian Female” not only represents a cultural landmark, but is a vital reminder of how and why we need to see all stories on stage. There is so much nuanced detail, heart and humour to Michelle Law’s script and Claire Christian’s direction that the characters and scenarios are relatable not only to second generation Australians, but to anyone who has grown up in this country. While there are touches of the political within its dialogue, this is not an overtly politicised, but rather, a very human, family story, full of affection for its characters. The result is an immensely watchable show that seems to fly by in the quickest of times, despite the notorious discomfort of the La Boite seating. This is a theatre experience at its easiest, ideal for audience members who may not be regular theatre goers, but will likely fall in love with the characters, their stories and hopefully the event of live theatre in general.

Fem-fierce fires

Lysa and the Freeborn Dames

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 21 – August 11

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Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy “Lysistrata” is a comic account of a woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sexual privileges from their men as a means of forcing negotiation of peace. As an early exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society, it is an apt source for “Lysa and the Freeborn Dames”, a new work by Claire Christian, which waves the feminist flag through a story of self-discovery, albeit with some stereotypes.

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Bold and defiant first year university student nineteen-year-old Lysa King (Tania Vukicevic) resents the traditions of her regional home town, most notably its annual rugby match known as the war weekend. Bolstered by viewing the 2017 women’s marches, during a trip home to the typical church/Chinese restaurant/CWA town, after awkward reunion with once girlfriend Peta (Clementine Anderson), she stages a protest to disrupt the event, as mouthpiece of the #metoo movement, angering most of the town, including her friends and her father (Hugh Parker) who is being awarded Man of the Year in one of the weekend’s rituals.

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Rather than rallying the women of the town in solidarity with their international sisters, Lysa alienates almost everyone though her fired-up hostility and wide range of demands for equality as she locks local footy star Grant (Jackson Bannister) hostage in the club’s locker room after he catches her alofting a ‘Pussy Power’ flag over the hallowed footy field. As the show revolves around this decision and its consequences over one night, in one place, staging occurs within the one room of the local footy club, represented simply by a sunken set complete with daggy club-type carpet. And music is likewise used to effect, especially in cementing a concluding sentiment through Cold Chisel’s ‘Flame Trees’.

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Its recognisable everyplace type of townsomewhere in regional Queensland’, setting increases its accessibility, however, clearly the show’s intent is to engage a younger demographic through showcase of impulsive protest as a privilege of youth, which may alienate traditional mainstage audience members. At times, it verges on caricature, overwhelming potentially poignant moments with over-the-top character portrayals which can make it a frustrating experience, especially when any warning about the potential dangers of single-minded activism seems to be breezed over in its somewhat all’s well ending.

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It is difficult to empathise with Lysa. Even though she has right on her side, her raging militancy is off-putting, especially as we witness her refusal to accept other viewpoints or ‘I don’t care’ perspectives which almost cost her close friendships. And although there are three male characters within the story, their responses to Lysa’s assertions appear as mere mentions, dismissed as being ‘part of the problem’ rather than allowed space for consideration.

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Obviously whether audience members will see passionate defiance or stubborn belligerence in Lysa will depend on their personal experiences and life’s journey stage. Thankfully, there is a Greek chorus of freeborn dames (the all-wonderful Barbara Lowing, Roxanne McDonald, Hsiao-Ling Tang) to mix things up. The trio doesn’t just setup the action, serving as Lysa’s persona oracle, but allows for a reprieve from her lack of relent, providing a powerful presence in their punctuating reminder the feminism is not just for the young. In particular, Lowing’s monologue about legacy and post-middle-age liberation from the repression of service to others conveys a moving honesty that makes the audience applaud mid-show.

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And the trio’s sardonic commentary also offers much dry humour. Indeed, like its Ancient source material, “Lysa and the Freeborn Dames” is very funny, thanks largely to its vibrant supporting cast – prim and proper(ish) fourth generation Miss Weekender (with sash to prove it), Esme (Tatum Mottin) and brash tell-it-as-it-is gutter-mouth Myra (Samantha Lush), who bring an engaging energy to the at-times physical show, especially in its spirited ‘Wild Ones’ dance scene. Also of note are Morgan Francis as the town’s well-intentioned, plucky young caught-in-the-middle policeman and Hugh Parker’s as Lysa’s everyman, good-bloke father who by his own admission, just doesn’t understand.

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With provocation at its core, this is far from polite theatre. The show begins with a punch of profanities which continues in some way for most of its duration. The words do become wittier as the show ebbs and flows along, but its message sometimes lacks discernment; in touch on big themes like gender, sexuality, politics and sexual politics, there is a lot going on and while sometimes it works, sometimes not so much.

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Turning the international lens inward to feminism in rural Australia makes for an interesting theatrical premise, but working toward social change that takes everyone into consideration is complicated and it is probably for this reason that the show seems to lack a single thesis. From this tangle, there arises much opportunity for discussion though, especially for its target school group audiences, which is the show’s real value, for as Lysa tells her father when he questions her changed appearance and claim not to care what people think, “how is anything going to change if people can’t even have a conversation.” One way or another, “Lysa and the Freeborn Dames” will evoke a response, whether it be in the form of feelings of frustration or fulfilment, and will, as enticed by its “fury fuelled dramedy” descriptor, generate contemplation and conversation.

Let’s talk about sex

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

Whereas week one of Awkward Conversation had family as an organising centre, Week Two saw the focus move to sex… well gender to be precise. And it is no more finely seen than in David Burton and Claire Christian’s work “The C Word” about the f word… feminism. Though this is a predominantly static work, it is filled with fabulous lines of wit and wisdom from the women who take the stage. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, they are feisty in their frankness as they tell of Cleopatra, Beyonce and Julia Gillard and that misogyny speech (passionately shared to the injections of audience applause). Nobody performs teenager as well as Emily Burton and her delivery of a speech about feminism to her class is a show highlight that will have you hoping for more.

Notions of gender as also central to the wicked game that is “Salome”. Salacious in its lustful provocation of red and black, satin and lace, and full frontal nudity, it is derivative of other works from director Steven Mitchell Wright so not entirely shocking. “Salome” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1871 while imprisoned for crimes of sexuality, but things have changed, we are told; we live in the suburbs now. And what a strange mixed up suburbia it is.

Suburban horror also drives Martin Crimp’s “Fewer Emergencies”. Under the direction of Lucas Stibbard, this largely talky work evokes some strange visuals, but is particularly interesting in how it begins with narrators interjecting from within the audience before making their way to the stage to take the audience through a loosely connected series of violent events, even sharing a song to shatter illusions of fatherhood.

Music features strongly in Daniel Keene’s “The River”, the story of a down-and-out dad attempting to reconnect with his son. The protagonist is essentially an unlikeable character with little backstory to engender audience empathy, however, it is a testament to Ron Kelly’s skill in inhabiting the role of wayward, drunken father. Surely the work contains many life lessons and analogies, however, the most memorable aspects are its aesthetics with live music and some sublime lighting that sees the stage bathed in blue during a journey though “The Boys Light Up.”

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Together with Week One’s offerings, “Awkward Conversation” serves up exactly that – some discomfort, some interest and a whole lot to take away and talk about. This is part of the reason why collaborations can be so exciting, for collaboration allows fission as much as fusion. The juxtaposition of ideas offers different perspectives and opportunities for a contemplative conversation.

Boys will be boys

Hedonism’s Second Album (La Boite Indie, David Burton & Claire Christian)

The Loft

August 13 – 30

Having found fame and fortune, Brisbane-based band, Hedonism is now faced with the anticipation of second album syndrome. After a decade together rocking the pub circuit, the band has become family, but as they meet in a suburban recording studio, it is soon clear that it is a family that is falling apart, with things culminating in a hedonistic weekend bender of booze, bikies, girls and an Australia Zoo wombat. With a media scandal ensuing, it is up to hot—shot, feisty-female producer Phil to get the album (and thus the band) back on track.

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As much as the boys’ behaviour lives up to the Rock n Roll lifestyle cliché, “Hedonism’s Second Album” is about so much more than just this. Rather, it is the story of a group of mates trying to steer their collective course through some testing times, struggling with their own demons. The vocab used by the boys is frequently crude and offensive (second only to “A Clockwork Orange” as a sweary stage experience for me), however, probably accurately reflects a younger person’s vernacular and the changing nature of linguistic acceptability. And there is more to David Burton and Claire Christian’s script than just this. Much of the show’s rapid-delivery dialogue relies on sardonic humour, yet is also contains a number of well-scripted conversations and even some touching monologues to bring out the nuances of character.

And there are certainly some characters within the group – from gay bass player Michael (Patrick Dwyer) to party-hard drummer Sumo (Nicholas Gell). In terms of performances, the standout comes not from Thomas Hutchins as newly-clean front-man Gareth, but Gell as Sumo, a man who is abrasive and loud, but also lost in the ruin of himself and his experiences of always being dismissed by the others. If a playwright’s job is to pierce the clouds that obscure human behaviour, then Burton and Christian have done their job well.

One of the most appealing elements of Burton and Christian’s writing is that it deals with people with whom we can probably all identify and that their stories are set within an equally easily identifiable local setting. Like their “Brisbane(A Doing Word)”, “Hedonism’s Second Album” includes a number of geographic references, from explanation of the origins of Boundary Road, to a sly dig at skinny-jean-wearing Melbournians.

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Far from traditional theatre, as a tale of men struggling in search of their identity, “Hedonism’s Second Album” is a welcome addition to Brisbane’s cruisy arts scene. Apart from some distracting pseudo-fighting mis-hits, it is an enjoyable, lively show; the writing is witting and the performances are all assured.