Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Seminal sisterly sorrow

Three Sisters

QUT, The Loft

March 10 – 14

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a seminal text, which probably explains the number of school groups in attendance at the recent production featuring QUT BFA (Acting) Third Year Students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical) Production students. The presence of so many secondary students within the audience also serves to illustrate the challenge that presentation of the classic text poses, given its 2.5 hour+ length. With this particular share of such a fresh new version, however, its experience was engaging from start to finish.

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Interest is immediately established in the show’s staging, which sees audience members seated around a stage of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together, affording the feel of immersive theatre without need for audience involvement. Everything is fragmented with incomplete door frames (courtesy of Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design) et al. The scattering of books, opulent flowers and chandeliers hint to the esteem of the family. Amongst the subdued palette, however, are design element hints as to character’s Act One relationships; while the sisters drink Moët while tottering about in heels and jewels, their servant Anfisa’s (Sidney Shorten) outfit is completed by sandshoes and their brother Andrei (Ben Jackson) stands out in striking red jacket as the head of the Prozorov household, despite his life as put-upon partner to the awkward Natasha (Jeanda St James).

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The hopeful but bored titular sisters, matriarchal Olga (Lucy Heathcote), quick-tempered Masha (Isobel Grummels) and idealistic Irina (Imogen Trevillion) are trapped by circumstances in the small town of an unidentified Russian province where their late father was stationed far from Moscow in 1901. Olga fears losing herself as a teacher in the local high school, Masha is trapped in an unhappy marriage to fussy teacher Kulygin (Egan Sun-Bin) and the optimistic Irina yearns for opulence. For now, though, it is a time of celebration in honour of easily-enchanted middle sister Irina’s ‘name day’ (also the first anniversary of their father’s death), which means visit from soldiers, led by the gallant Vershinin (Tate Hinchy), bringing with them a sense of noble idealism. With army officers visiting often, the sisters have company, however, it soon becomes apparent that this is insufficient. What follows from there is a study over time of unrequited hope amongst Russian’s pre-revolutionary privileged class as each character tries desperately to eke some happiness out of their drab day-to-day existences and unrequited longing to return to Moscow.

In the QUT students’ hands “Three Sisters” is very much a play of two distinct halves. While audience members leave the theatre, interval transforms Act Two’s staging to a stark contrast to its former self, bare but for a few pieces of furniture and scattering of withered leaves in metaphoric emphasis of its change of season. Now, years later, Andrei and Natasha are married. His red jacket is gone but Natasha is garishly bejewelled and gleefully despotic as she enters Olga and Irina’s shared room (in sign that she has taken over the household). Sound (Jack Alcock) and lighting design (Jason Glenwright) convey a panicked aesthetic that is dominated by a fire in the town. In terms of the narrative, however, things are a slow burn. While its character studies are engrossing and of their own merit, however, moments of humour are welcomed as attempts at love are frustrated at every turn.

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Successfully translating the narrative of “Three Sisters” to the stage needs to bring the drama of its human motivations to the surface. This is achieved through both Daniel Evans’ tight direction and the impressive work of all ensemble members. Heathcoate anchors things with a solid performance as the brave-faced and dutiful Olga, while Trevillion brings a radiant energy Irina’s deflation from optimism to disillusionment.

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Jackson, meanwhile, is well cast as Andrei. While he is not often on stage, the subtlety of his performance as he gambles away the family’s future security is still noteworthy. And, St James shows incredibility versatility in her presentation of Natasha, credibly taking her from timid, dishevelled speaker of the most sense in Act One call-out of the others’ frivolous lifestyles to tables-turned wielder of obnoxious power. Also of note, as the drunken Doctor Chebutykina, Rachel Nutchey brings a consistent energy, and much comic relief through her well-timed word play and innuendo, cresendoing to an alcohol-fuelled existential crisis.

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“You talk and talk the whole day long,” Masha complains to her brother Andrei late in the play. This is, indeed, a play full of people willing to talk, but who are rarely willing to listen. While it may be a long journey, in the hands of these creatives, it is more than just a study of boredom. While the motif of Chekhov’s gun appears in Act Two after an earlier firearm mention, for example, so too does a soundtrack of songs like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ as an appropriate take into interval. While the stage is sometimes frenzied with three sections being used simultaneously and a dozen characters appearing at once, this is tempered by some lovely stylised moments of slow-motion movement and alike.

Whilst on one hand, “Three Sisters” is an ominous study of sisterly sorrow and the consequences of captivity, it is also an examination of the affecting distance between dreams and reality. This production celebrates the play’s status as a cerebral work of conversations and contemplations, but does so in such a dynamic way as to make the work as accessible as ever.

Celebrating shes

That’s What She Said (The Good Room)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

February 11 – 15

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Metro Arts’ Sue Benner Theatre showcases a striking aesthetic upon audience entry to The Good Room’s “That’s What She Said”. The awash of pink hues brings with it the hint of an early Valentine’s day vibe, but, in fact, it is signpost of something far more urgent. And so the show begins with an assault of sound bites that would be shocking if we hadn’t unfortunately already heard their vitriolic misogyny as part of modern media norms. However, the rhetoric soon gives way to more inspiring examples of empowerment and reminder that there is no better place for this show than this theatre, a place that has always been one of storytelling.

Like previous The Good Room shows, this Metro Arts commissioned work is based on the general public’s responses to, in this case, 100 provocations about women, many of which appear as projections to thematically shape the show’s progress through passionate words of wisdom, ambition, regret and the complicated reality of life in all of its ages. There is a real craftedness to the show as a whole as ideas deliberately loop around in its progress and a touching musical motif is revisited. The deceptively simple space is used to utmost effect as props emerge from hidden away nooks and crannies only to also later make reappropriated appearance later in the production. Attention to detail is everywhere, including in a pop of pink bow here, a pink belt there and Margi Brown Ash’s fabulous pink tumble of tulle skirt, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design both buoys us in celebrations and helps to take us along into the shadows of some sorrowful stories.

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Even if only in snippets, the show’s stories are fascinating and it easy to become enthralled in them, given the engaging skill of the female storytellers (Margi Brown Ash, Stella Charrington, Andrea Moor, Keira Peirce, Ngoc Phan, Naioni Price, Leah Shelton and Emily Tomlins, with a rotation of guest performers each night). The primary performers each have significant monologues that are all powerfully delivered. Within the space of only a few minutes, for example, Emily Tomlins takes us from the frustration of the oxymoronic expectations of being a woman to reminder of our capacity for achievement. And her witty delivery of many of the dryly humourous one liners that pepper the show is a real treat. Margi Brown Ash also shares a memorable monologue, uplifting and inspiring in its statements about the potential for change. Like Naomi Price, she appears as a noticeably generous performer who is thoroughly engaged in what others on stage are sharing, particularly the show’s younger performers.

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“That’s What She Said’ stands as testament to the mantra of truth being more entertaining than fiction. Its experience will illicit laughter and maybe even some tears but also engender a smile on your face, regardless of your gender. This is a dynamic show about broads, matriarchs and mentors, bosses, divas and dames, of all ages, from all sorts of places … women who disappoint, change lives and have a thing or two to say. But more than just this, it stands as a homage to being human. While it is at its core a celebration of the shes we love, it is ultimately a show for everyone, especially those interested in discovery of how sex is like swimming.

The Good Room always does good stuff and under Daniel Evans’ direction “That’s What She Said” is no exception. It is not just a show that the world needs now but one it will hopefully see in a return season subsequent to this Sue Benner Theatre send-off.

Photos – c/o Darren Thomas

‘Ella anew

Cinderella (Myths Made Here)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 26 – May 5

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Myths Made Here’s “Cinderella” is not about princes, princesses or even a step-sibling, but it does feature a lost shoe as result of our protagonist single, late 30s woman Ashleigh’s (Amy Ingram) startle at seeing the approach of an internet date. Ashleigh is certainly not your typical fairy tale heroine; she’s a bit of a klutz, though not in a neurotic Bridget Jones type way, but she has a unique charm. She’s a little insecure, sure, but also organised with band-aids in her purse and tissues up her sleeve… a real-world representation of one guise of a modern woman.

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From its initial disaster, the evening of her intended date unfolds, after a stranger (Thomas Larkin) chases her to reunite her with her abandoned footwear. And so, as audience members, we voyeur their night together from first encounter through dinner and afterwards until the couple retreat back to her place for a romantic entanglement. Initially this makes for an unhurried narrative as the ultimately likeable characters navigate the awkward banter of favourite movies and dreaded dream recollections. Through the little looks and slight movements of their hesitations, we laugh both with and at them. Indeed, in this regard, things are not overplayed, but rather realised to their full, uncomfortable potential; while Larkin plays smitten moments to coy perfection, Ingram uses every aspect of physicality to show the anxious insecurity of her character’s second guess of herself and her potential new beau’s motivations.

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Playwright Matthew Whittet gives us a very funny but real one act first date in all of its affectionate awkwardness, but also poignancy too as the inevitable midnight comes around. Certainly by showing rather than telling so much of its story, it presents as a story that is intimate and individual, but also universally relevant in its contemporary considerations, for this is Cinderella anew complete with themes of love, loneliness, loss and social anxiety.

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The 70-minute romantic comedy is dynamic from start to finish, as is so often the case in Daniel Evans directed works, making clever employment of a revisit soundtrack of pop classics, vibrant lighting and smart use of its boxed stage space. While, as a two-hander, “Cinderella” may be more intimate than Evans’ other works, it is still entertaining and enjoyable, in a quirkily quaint way, with its talented two performers keeping the audience engaged for the duration of their evening’s emotional journey.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Youth truths

I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 26 – 29

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What do you get when you combine over 3000 responses, 18 young performers and a whole lot of confetti? It sounds like the start of a riddle, but the answer, “I’ve Meaning to Ask You’ is far from a punchline or non-committal response. The latest innovative work from experimental theatre collective The Good Room ensembles an eclectic group of young performers to pit their wonders against the explanations of the older generation. As such, it is a unique intergenerational show for adults that is full of questions asked by young people and answered by adults.

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Questions are more than just the perennial “but why?” of early infantry, rather ranging from the frivolous to the provocative. We start with ask as to favourite songs and drinks and then there are embarrassing moments and pop-up illustrations of go-to dance moves. From these emerge adult’s own reflections of youth with questions about at-school bullying and the real-world value of maths and then more global concerns about gender, power the environment and the future, which do not always come with easy answers.

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Age interacts though omnipresent experience in the revealing one-hour tell-all, as the group of eager early-teens are given agency to speak their truths. And they are more than up for the task, bringing big personalities that enliven and entertain in their energy. Indeed, all the young actors are impressive in the timing and perfect tone of their performances.

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It starts with them in line across the stage behind microphone stands. They aren’t still for long though as this is far from a static show; it is wonderfully dynamic, full of fun, colour, movement and pure joy. Its soundtrack is lively too, packed with sing and clap along moments to lots of fabulous retro songs of the Roxette, Bon Jovi and B52s sort.

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And still the surprises keep coming, starting with shift in tone courtesy of some lyrical choreography, Jason Glenwright’s intricate lighting and unexpectantly at-once striking and moving video design from optikal bloc’s Craig Wilkinson, which adds an entirely new dimension to the already extraordinary work, as audiences are guided towards some genuine compelling and poignant adult confessionals of insecurity and regret.

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The combination of notable performer stage presence and a stellar creative team led by Director Daniel Evans, means that the youth truths are dropped in the most wonderful of ways, including with entertaining little inset re-enactments and even additional audience involvement beyond just the initial contributions. And the result is perhaps the best The Good Room project realisation yet.

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In keeping with the popular formula that has served them so well with past productions, “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You” has been created using audience and anonymous stories and the consequence is genuine audience engagement in ponder not only of its targeted central questions about, for example, what day you would like to go back and change, but the value of communication between generations that typically don’t interact with such honesty and consideration, and the benefit of wisdom and advice in our world. Indeed, after experience the night prior of the similarly world premiere production of Dog Spoon’s “A Coupla Dogs”, it seems that at this year’s Brisfest the Theatre Republic is the place for to be for Week Three think pieces.

Chekhov contrasts

Ivanov

QUT, The Loft

May 1 – 5

“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”, seminal Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once stated, giving birth to the concept of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ about the power of details to create meaning and expectation in theatre. It is a quote that appears, amongst others, projected as an opening backdrop during the QUT Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) second-year students’ production of the master storyteller’s early four act work. It is a particular appropriate initial choice too, not just due to the appearance of recurring Chekhov motifs (like a gun) in the play, but as foreshadow of a work that amplifies any expectations in its enlivened realisation of the essentially pessimistic tale of 19th century Russian aristocrats.

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The story centres on the pointlessly miserable Nikolai Ivanov (Jack Bannister). Once full of energy for his life, he neglects his estate, writings and wife, the terminally-ill tubercular Anna (Nicole Hoskins) who renounced her Judaism (and lost her family) to marry him. With his tragic circumstances putting him further into debt, he attempts to escape the spiral in a love affair with his much younger neighbour Sasha (Sarah Edwards).

“Ivanov” may lack the subtlety and nuance of Chekhov’s later works, where the real tragedy is that daily life has to be endured, but it does show the seeds of the playwright’s subsequent masterpieces. Indeed, it is widely believed that “Ivanov”, written when Chekhov was 27, is a comic Russian “Hamlet” and this is certainly evident in this production. We may not be emotionally engaged by Ivanov’s character, but Daniel Evans’ direction allows the comedy and the tragedy of the story to blend beautifully.

There are no weak links in across the cast and creatives. Bannister does a decent job as the self-aware titular anti-hero, especially as he monologues at-length laments after having been accused by his wife’s rigidly-moral doctor (a consistent, controlled Georgia Tucker) of being a heartless fortune-hunter. Grady Ferricks-Rosevear is an energetic Misha Borkin, making the manager of Ivanov’s estate a likeable jester in his money-making proposals and Wei Lan Zhong is absolutely hilarious in her animation of widowed estate owner, Marfa Babakina. But the greatest laughs come courtesy of William Carseldine whose manic eccentricity enhances the buffoonery of Ivanov’s uncle Matvei Shabelsky.

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Performances are enhanced by a rich and cohesive aesthetic. Act One begins in sepia-toned seriousness, with a scant stage scattered with brown leaves affronting a jumble of rundown furniture pieces amidst which fairy lights tumble. This is then ostentatiously contrasted by a farcical Act Two which shouts in vibrant reds. The attention continues with the detailed set of Nicolai’s study before a year-later Act Four ends things with a bang.

Song and dance numbers also enliven the transition between acts, perfectly capturing their respective sensibilities. (A catchy ‘Call Me Maybe’, led by Carseldine is a particular standout.) Although there is a lot happening on stage, every element has been considered for its stylistic possibilities and the result is a highly-polished piece of theatre. Slick scene changes are choreographed within dance numbers and lighting dims to soften reflective, emotional monologues.

Everything about this production of “Ivanov” is first-rate. Just as he did with La Boite Theatre Company’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”, Director Daniel Evans has not only paid homage to a classic of the theatrical cannon but found the humour and fun within a morally ambiguous play. Eamon Flack’s adaptation of the original text is nuanced already, however, in Evans’ hands it bursts with life, making it both excellent and entertaining theatre.