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

Tasmanian truths

The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek (Playlab)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 10 – March 3

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured Emily Weir. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

Kathryn Marquet’s “The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek” begins in darkness. When the stage is lit, it reveals a ramshackle ranger’s station shack somewhere in the wilds of south-western Tasmania. Centre-stage is Dr George Templeton (Emily Weir), cradling an infant devil in her arms. The environmental scientist is determined, passionate and intelligent enough to know that hydrochloric acid alone won’t work to clear away mess created after she encountered Irishman Mickey O’Toole (John Bachelor) poaching the endangered Tasmanian devils.

When fellow ranger, New Zealander, Harris Robb (Julian Curtis), returns, what follows is a fast and furious rant about controversial issues as the zoologist attempts to justify her actions. There are further twists and turns as another unexpected visitor stumbles in to the cramped cabin in the form of high schooler Destinee Lee (Kimie Tsukakoshi) who has her own tirade to impart.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R John Batchelor, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

As characters engage in some interesting intellectual discussion around corporate greed, climate change politics and, later, the corporate torture of chicken nuggets, the audience is offered many challenging contemplations. Testament to Marquet’s sharp writing style, the real-time story is uniquely uncomfortable and uproariously funny in its unrelenting dialogue and disturbing ending. Confronting simulated violence and frequent coarse language are powerful and unsettling as its Tarantino-in-Tasmania tones are played out.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R Emily Weir, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

Aesthetically, the staging provides a perfect accompaniment to the story’s ultimate brutality. Vilma Mattila’s open hut design is almost cosily simple, with lighting, sound and costume design also adding to the predominantly earthy environmental feel. What really brings the story to shocking life, however, are the powerful and provocative performances. The actors are universally excellent in revealing their characters’ shades of good and evil, and their realisations of their idiosyncrasies are consistently layered, and not just because of their on-point accents. Weir is energetic in her sanctimony in lead of the charge for environmental change and Batchelor commands the stage as the violent O’Toole, despite being tied to a chair for much of the time, creating some of the most hilarious moments in his pithy one-liners. Curtis and Tsukakoshi similarly bring much comedy to the work’s complex contradictions.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R Kimie Tsukakoshi, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

“The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek” is intense theatre at its very best. In director Ian Lawson’s hands, it is in-your-face and remorseless in its raise of important issues, but also reflective in its speak to the truth of confusion and concern of the world at the moment. Indeed, there is no happy ending here, but certainly much humour along the way, making for a memorable theatrical experience.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Connecting the Pale Blue Dots

Pale Blue Dot (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 19 – August 9

There are a number of tell-tale symptoms that you may experience if you have been abducted by aliens, many of which are most notable after a night of drinking, the “Pale Blue Dot” pre-show announcement tells the audience. This is exactly why you should purchase anti-abduction insurance, especially if you live in Toowoomba. As the show reveals, the Darling Downs region is a significant destination for our space brothers and experiences an unusually high number of disappearances due to the large amount of granite in the area, which the crafts use for navigation.

16 year old ‘alien freak’ school girl Storm (Ashlee Lollback) knows this all too well. The science nerd loner claims to have been taken from her formal party and transported to Roma. Her domineering German immigrant mother Greta (Caroline Kennison) is determined to claim upon her policy; she knows what she is talking about given that her husband was also ‘taken’ three years ago.

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So what happened to Storm? And how did she wake up in an empty field 200km from home? Enter skeptical insurance fraud investigator Joel Pinkerton (Hugh Parker) who is juggling his case involvement with frustrations closer to home from his wife Holly (Lucy Goleby) and their newborn baby girl.

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Although “Pale Blue Dot” includes a gallery of characters, each wrestling with their own psychological alienations and fear-motivated desire for escape, their realisation (and much of the show’s humour) includes reliance of a number of comfortable stereotypes. Parker gives an understated and engaging performance as Joel, very Colin Firth like in his manner and mannerisms. And Kennison demands audience attention as the fierce and determined Greta, fearful of losing her soon-to-be-adult daughter, both literally and metaphorically. This is a show about relationships, between mother and daughter, husband and wife. However, while there is realism to each coupling’s arguments, the chemistry of affection is sometimes lacking.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a new play by Brisbane actor and playwright Kathryn Marquet, the result of La Boite Theatre’s playwright-in-residence program. More than anything, however, it serves to showcase the work of optikal bloc, whose projections combine with the staging and soundscape to produce a hyper-reality highlight. The minimalist stage is beautifully bathed in the blue hues of Jason Glenwright’s cutting edge lighting design, while the stage itself is dominated by concentric circles of varying depth. Atlhough this design is striking and versatile, the creaking sounds of characters moving about on its levels are initially a little distracting.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a show of both personal dramas and big themes, which is perhaps to its detriment. The jumps back and forth from intergalactic intrigue and conspiracy theories to humans struggling with their insecurities and insignificance confuse its identity and the end result of trying to connect the dots (pun intended) is baffling and unsatisfying.

The play’s title comes from the title of a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe, from a record distance of six billion kilometres from earth. It shows the Earth as a fraction of a pixel against the vastness of space, emphasising its insignificance in the vast cosmic arena. It is an apt title for a play that has at its core consideration of Arthur C Clarke’s statement that “Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Regardless of your thoughts on Ufology, however, you don’t have to be a rocket man to get the best view in the universe; as “Pale Blue Dot” concludes, all you have to do is look up at the stars that every person who has ever lived has also looked upon.

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A Glass Menagerie of fantasy and melodrama

The Glass Menagerie (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

August 3 – 31

Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical “The Glass Menagerie” has place as one of the twentieth century’s greatest plays, which makes it an ambitious choice for any company to stage, particularly when aiming to challenge contextual preconceptions. And in the case of La Boite Theatre’s interpretation, it is an aim only partially attained.

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Straying away from a traditional rendering, Director David Berthold frames the action as a radio play. This allows for an important introductory narrator revelation, that, as a ‘memory play’, it is sentimental and romantic, not realistic. This lack of realism is distractingly evident from the smallest of details, such as characters reading from a blank newspaper, to the holistically confused style, in juxtaposition to the timidness of the tale. The design is a clash of kitsch 1970s bold red and aqua shades, and 1930s film noire, complete with giant Dick Traceyeque portrait suspended in backdrop and speech bubble quotations to punctuate key reactions and emotions.

As Tom Wingfield, Jason Klarwein gives a measured performance of Stanley Kowalskiesque anger, tempered with want. Therein lies the show’s sadness, as audience members are offered glimmers of hope that must fail. Indeed, the defeat of dashed dreams is a relatable theme; this is what makes “The Glass Menagerie” such a seminal work. Each member of the Wingfield family has difficulty accepting reality so withdraws into a private, comforting world of illusion. “The Glass Menagerie” is also a play of language and it is wonderful to hear Williams’ words eloquently delivered with such passion. This is especially so from Helen Howard, whose portrayal of faded, abandoned Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, is a convincing yearn for the comforts of her youth.

“The Glass Menagerie” is a dense play that appears longer that it is. While the first Act drags a little, however, things improve after interval as a result of the scene where Jim shatters Laura’s illusions. Julian Curtis is charming and charismatic as gentleman caller Jim, and this where Kathryn Marquet’s portrayal of fragile, vulnerable but ultimately loveable Laura is truly realised.  Not only do their performances impress, but I was transfixed by the ethereal aesthetic, enhanced by Gordon Hamilton’s superb score. The lighting, too, impressively becomes a vivid colour embodiment of the molassy lyrical words of Tennessee’s text.

Like those of Fitzgerald and Miller, Tennessee Williams’ works have proven the ability to stand the test of time, due to their examination of the consequences of living in a world of fantasy. While in this instance the design is luscious, it is, at times, to the extreme of being almost disrespectful to the play’s simple beauty. Although the languish of longing is realised, it is through performances more than production.