Magpie masterclass

Magpie (A Playlab, Metro Arts and E.G Production presented in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 29 – Jun 8

According to American novelist Flannery O’Connor, “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses. This underpinning of human perception is at the core of playwright Elise Greig’s world premiere work “Magpie”; its all-encompassing description offers theatre-goers immersion into the experience of a Brisbane summer, where thunder storms threaten for longer than they onslaught and nothing is as cooling as a lemonade ice-block.

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This is all part of the long-ago identity of the story’s feisty central character, recently fallen from critical favour novelist Mordecai (Barb Lowing). Returning home following her father’s death, she discovers more than just the architectural monstrosities that have now taken over the Poinsettias. Her resulting memories are made more vivid by discovery of a long-forgotten brown-paper covered notebook and through this the story is drawn back to 1961 and her attempted investigation, along with neighbourhood friend Splinter (Michael Mandalios) into her parent’s apparent unhappiness.

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Through the resulting flashbacks we are served glimpses of her fractured and allegedly cursed dysfunctional family and the perpetual arguments of her Romani parents Aggy and Meshack (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) that caused the teenage Mordecai’s departure. Though its cleverly crafted script, we also discover why she was considered an outsider and nicknamed Magpie, in parallel to the city’s identity search on the cusp of becoming the Brisbane that we now know thanks to the realised promises of Clem Jones as Lord Mayor.

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David Walters’ stylish lighting design works well not only to convey the overwhelm of the city’s oppressive heat but to showcase the contrast of past and present within the same scene. While this is a Brisbane story of Australia’s multi-cultural heritage, however, it is also so much more in its expose of nostalgia and the power of going home to a place that no longer is, to which audience members can apply their own experiences.

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Lowing is a talented actor that you wouldn’t mind seeing in anything and “Magpie” represents a wonderful vehicle for her gifts. She is barely of stage for the show’s duration and presents a powerful performance, not just as the cynical and outwardly robust protagonist, and her seamless jumps between her three-times-married, almost-grandmother and teenage self are seamless. There are no weak links in this cast and together its actors present an effective masterclass in character work. Mandalios’ energy as the tell-it-as-it-is Splinter is infectious; he inhabits the character’s essence entirely, down even to his excited run faster than his body.

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Curtis presents Abby as a proud and passionate rather than just an easy-to anger man and Marquet provides a quiet balance as Mordecai’s mother, burdened with much more than we initially realise. The writing of their migrant observations in particular is quite witty, epitomised in a very funny scene in which Mordecai bring Splinter home to a family dinner, which provides a nice break to the slow-burn dramatic tension of the play’s otherwise dense thematic temperament.

Developed through Playlab’s programs, “Magpie” is a complex work with integral twists and turns to engage the audience for the entirety of its 90-minute duration. More than just a belated coming of age story, it is a moving experience with a poignancy that sneaks up on you as so often happens in reality when dealing with issues of grief. As many great works do, it has much to say about many things, including the power and generational legacy of long-dormant secrets. Indeed, the depth of its themes and craftedness of its script and will surely ensure its longevity.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Brotherly brilliance

True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box)

Brisbane Powerhouse

August 17 – 28

Often I judge a show’s engagement by how long it is into its duration before I am tempted to check the time. By this criteria (and in fact by any gauge), “True West” is brilliant, so searing as to only warrant a watch look in hope that it might not be over quite so soon.

It begins with Ivy-league educated Austin (Julian Curtis), a respectable professional working as a Hollywood screenwriter on a movie project and minding his mother’s house in California during her trip to Alaska. His intentions are soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his anti-social brother, Lee (Thomas Larkin), a petty-thief fresh from three months living the desert. As the contrasting civilised and savage men, the two represent opposite sides of the American Dream, but share in desperation to escape the story of their unseen, alcoholic father.

Seedy drifter Lee burgles houses for a living, living rough out of necessity. Grubby in attire, he either cannot interpret or is ambivalent towards social cues and expectations, showing his short temper through eruptions of violence that shock the audience on more than one occasion. When he mocks the material comfort of neat houses and manicured lawns, however, it is clear that this normality is what he desires. In fact, the brothers each crave the other’s life, however, when it seems like this may be happening as Lee seals a deal to sell a cliché-clad movie premise of his own to Producer Saul (Charles Allen), the reality is different from the desire. And when the tables are turned (literally) the result is the controlled chaos of a mesmerisingly messy, physical show as the good boy and outlaw face off in the story of whose story it’s going to be.

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Playwright Sam Shepherd is known for his creation of complex and real characters and this is certainly seen in this production. You can feel the tension between the two leads from the strained interaction of the introductory minutes as the disparity of the opportunities afford to them growing up becomes clear. The on-stage exploration of the consequential emotions makes for a searing study that is both gritty and often very funny, moving smoothly from humour to pathos in an instance. The writing is superb, and, in Director Marcel Dorney’s hands its dialogue is allowed to tumble naturally over itself in contribution to its vigorous pace, while still maintaining the strain of the brothers’ estranged relationship. The juxtaposition is simply spellbinding to watch.

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This is a play of epic roles and Curtis and Larkin exploit them for all that they are worth. Larkin is excellent as he inhabits the arrogance of the deliberately-guarded but brutal Lee, from his slouched-shouldered stance to his aggressive walk and intimidating demeanour. His performance is layered beyond just the character’s physicality too, enabling the audience hint at a suspected secret respect for his comparatively successful brother. Particularly in Act One his presence is a force that can only be appreciated through experience in person, shrinking the audience to eye-contact avoidance as he speaks.

While much of Act One sees Austin seething silently in reaction to his brother’s emerging opportunist success, his Act Two drunkenness is riotously funny, especially when he returns with the spoils of Lee’s dare that he could not steal as successfully as him. There are many possibilities for physical humour within this section of the show and Curtis doesn’t miss any of them. Solid in support is Allen as lounge-suited smick Hollywood producer Saul and Christen O’Leary as the boys’ out of touch mother, returning home to their hostilities in the final scene.

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There is nothing to fault in this production. Even the music accompanying scene transitions is in keeping with the Western motif. Designer Genevieve Ganner’s staging sets the scene of a naturalistic but dated living room setting, complete with ‘70s laminex, which is basked in an overall, warm lighting glow. Lighting (c/o designer Jason Glenwright) also creates intimacy in enveloping a rare tender sibling interaction as Austin shares the story of how their father lost his false teeth in a Mexican bar.

“True West” is an absolutely engaging exploration of life and family. But there is much more to its themes that its sibling narrative. And as the brothers smash about, it is the destruction of their dreams that resonates more beautifully than their mess onstage. At once funny and deeply unsettling, it is an experience sure to stay with audiences long after leaving in knowledge that they have witnessed what is sure to be one of the best works to hit the Brisbane stage this year.