The Darkness divide

From Darkness (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 -28

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Just as all families are unique, it is probably a safe bet to say that all have their own individual issues and, accordingly, suburban family life has long been the fodder for the focus of theatrical works. In the case of “From Darkness” Steven Oliver’s take comes with humour but so much more; the darkly funny drama is, at its core, about bigger issues than just inter-generational disconnect as it explores a spiritual force and a family’s need to connect with it.

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The story begins on the anniversary of Vinnie’s death. His brother, 17-year old Preston (Benjin Maza) is being visited by spirits— seemingly tormenting him while he sleeps. His sister, Akira (Ebony McGuire) buries her pain in her phone. Their father, Eric (Colin Smith), is in denial and their mother, Abigail, is numbing her pain with ‘Jim, Jack and that Southern mob’ companionship.  Under Isaac Drandic’s direction, things pace along meaning that once force-of-nature Nan (Roxanne McDonald) arrives on the scene the family’s disconnect unravels swiftly in banter that becomes less playful and more accusatory, filled with explicit language, included not for shock value’s sake but to give authenticity to its dialogue.

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There is power in the momentum as its storyline paces along, meaning that the show’s 70-minute duration seems to fly by from dinner preparations to sitting down to share the family meal. While we are only provided with a snapshot of the family member’s lives, without full resolution there are enough steps towards solution to see us satisfied as audience members in reminder of how the first step to changing minds is healing hearts.

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The production’s Indigenous cast is each stellar in their portrayal of characters with inner turmoil manifesting itself in interpersonal conflicts and a family divided. Of particular note, Roxanne McDonald is a joy as the family’s dynamic Nanna matriarch; perfectly timed in her sassy, whip-smart observations, she has the audience repeatedly in hysterics of laugher, which serves as an obvious juxtaposition to the pathos of Colin Smith’s Eric, trying his best to keep the peace between his wife and mother, while remaining stoic in his paternal grief.

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From the show’s initial scenes, it is clear that there is a spiritual force present in the house. Alongside an understated set, beautiful visual, sound and lighting design (Keith Deverell, Guy Webster and Ben Hughes) combine to paint a wonderfully evocative imagining of the something otherworldly that Preston is experiencing, making experience of the show quite moving.

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More than just providing a contemporary view of an Aboriginal Australian family, “From Darkness” offers exploration of the individualistic nature of grief and the ripple effect of tragedy which gives audiences much to contemplate. Its theme of connection too, is one that easily resonates, beneath any initial reaction to its sharp humour. Indeed, its ability to insert so many laugh-out-loud moments into such an otherwise dark storyline, is a testament to Steven Oliver’s script. And its focus on Aboriginal spirituality rather than politicisation evokes a wider consideration of modern Aboriginal Australian life.

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“From Darkness” is a quality new and important Australian work of a story that could be anybody’s. The world premiere of the La Boite and Brisbane Festival co-production brings a breadth of theatricality and engaging performances to provide audience members with a thoughtful and entertaining experience.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8

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An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.

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The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).

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It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.

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In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.

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Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.

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Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.

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Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.

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“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.

Streetcar satisfaction

A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 15 – November 12

Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an epic work. With the addition of musical accompaniment and interludes, La Boite’s version of the classic pushes out to almost three hours, which becomes a big ask as Act One languishes towards its 90 minute conclusion. Although it competes with opening scene dialogue, the music (featuring vocals by Crystal West) adds to the sultry atmosphere of Louisiana featuring as it does original songs composed by Guy Webster, mixed with more well-known numbers, such as (like in the 2014 London revival) a perfectly placed ‘Wicked Game’…. But it seems like an unnecessary addition to a work that already sizzles with laden dialogue and a tension-filled Act Two in which its performances ultimately prevail in ensuring audience absorption.

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The Pultizer Prize winning story begins with the unannounced arrival of faded and damaged but well-put-together southern belle Blanche Du Boise (Bridie Carter) from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) in their claustrophobic two bedroom New Orleans flat. Uncomfortable in the surrounds of her sister’s low-rent address, delicately-mannered English teacher Blanche talks feverishly, self-obsessively and insensitively about Stella’s circumstance. ‘I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it!’ she says, along with explanation that she has left her employment mid-term, at the suggestion of her school superintendent, due to exhaustion induced by her nerves. From the outset, however, Stanley suspects that there is more to Blanche’s story and sets upon a quest to cruelly expose her genteel façade.

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The sense of a stifling New Orleans abounds. The raked stage is canvas to the rhythmic shadow of a languidly rotating ceiling fan and Guy Webster’s sound design regularly sends streetcars clattering past, even during intermission, which is a nice touch. Ben Hughes’ lighting design adds an initial warm to the two basic rooms of the Kowalski home, but also later lyricism to Blanche’s dreamy-blue, attempted seduction of an uncomfortable young man who comes to the door to collect money for the paper, turning the text’s evocative stage directions into a distinct experience.

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All of this play’s iconic characters have their flaws and the diverse, talented cast brings them all to well-formed life, even down to their distinctly Southern accents, thanks to accent and dialect coach Melissa Agnew. La Boite newcomer Phan is excellent as a Stella torn between her diametrically opposed husband and sister, but ultimately in love an loyal to Stanley and his coarse behaviour. And her anguish in the final scenes is heartbreaking.

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Self-delusional and highly-strung Blanche is one of the great tragic figures of the modern stage and Carter certainly does her justice in a portrayal that captures both her breezy pretension and desperate loneliness and hurt. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, this increasingly unkept Blanche is both fragile creature and feisty fighter, and Carter conveys each layer perfectly, especially in her doomed monologue to sensitive suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) about her desperate desire for magic.

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McMahon brings a rough primitivism to the (by his own admission) unrefined, simple and straightforward Stanley, both in his rowdy poker game participation and by bellowing ‘Stella’ into the night after striking his wife and causing her to flee upstairs to apartment building owner Eunice (Parmis Rose). Although initially more bogan than brutish, he brings personality and clarity to the text to illustrate Stanley’s contrast to Blanche’s demure demeanour, making some early lines feel as fresh as if they are being said for the first time.

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And from his first brief line in Scene One, Smith is simply lovely as the gentlemanly Mitch, more sensitive than Stanley’s other poker friends, obliging to Blanche’s every vain whim, despite never having gotten more than a goodnight kiss in return.

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“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a tough play of complex relationships and almost 70 years after it was first written, it still leaves audiences with much to consider in assessment of whether it is Stanley or Blanche herself who is more to blame for Blanche’s ultimate ruin. In addition, the relevance of its themes of domestic violence and mental health issues, so problematic in our modern society, makes it resonate strongly. By adding a little humour to its ultimate despair, this production makes it an accessible, albeit lengthy show, sure to leave audiences satisfied.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

A fine five farce

One Was Nude and One Wore Tails

Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation

May 5 – 14

A garbage man, a flower seller and a policeman, meet on the street. It’s not start of a joke, but it still has a very funny outcome, along with its comment on the pretensions of social class, identity and status. This is the beginnings of the premise of Dario Fo’s one-act farce, brought to life by independent theatre company, Room to Play. Throw in a naked ambassador who has taken refuge in a rubbish bin and you have the ingredients of a very funny show.

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It begins with two council workers, played by Matthew Filkins and Colin Smith, passing the time with an in-depth discussion about divinity. While one is being charmed by a woman (Elise Grieg), the other discovers a naked man (Jack Henry) hidden inside his rubbish bin, forced as the stowaway has been to take refuge during rapid escape from the scene of a love affair. All sorts of silliness ensues when an oblivious policeman comes upon the scene in the form of Ben Warren, complete with pig snout and snorts to punctuate his dialogue.

Each of the five cast members is impressive in performance, particularly as things progress to all sorts of crazy chaos, never missing a beat in their banter. Colin Smith anchors the show as the most everyman of the over-the-top characters, playing particularly well against Ben Warren, who is, himself, notably impressive in his physicality and necessitated over-the-top characterisation.

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Although it starts with philosophical ponderings about how being a nothing, makes one the beginning of everything, and thus divine, don’t be fooled that “One Was Nude and One Wore Tails” is not going to provide anything but mayhem in its tightly-woven 50ish minutes running time (a palatable length even for non-farce-fans). From its opening ocker moments of song to cement it within its Australian context, this show is out outlandishly out of control (#inagoodway) and while consideration of its themes about the role of clothing in definition of our treatment within society can result, this focus in not necessary for its appreciation and enjoyment. Indeed, with its clowning, slapstick and vaudeville sensibility, the show has much to offer all range of audience members and, as such, serves as an Anywhere Festival highlight.

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