All about Eve

Eve (Force of Circumstance and Nest Ensemble)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 29 – July 16

Eve

“Eve” draws from the extraordinary real life of a woman before her time… Australian author Eve Langley who published just two books before dying alone in 1974. Believing she was the literary genius Oscar Wilde, she dressed and behaved in a manner that was far from keeping with the societal norms of the 1900s, which the show illustrates through confliction of her personal and artistic responsibilities.

In thoughtful thematic examination of eccentricity as opposed to madness, Brisbane theatre maker Margi Brown Ash embodies the schizophrenic experience of the author’s rebellion against embrace of domesticity and refusal to live on tiptoe (like Emily Dickinson), but rather to write for herself, by herself. This is enhanced by the intertwining of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story “The Selfish Giant” throughout the narrative as highlight of Langley’s struggles. Literary references abound, often in revisit of the fable’s motifs. Indeed, the play is evocatively poetic in its language, always in focus on its big-picture concerns about belonging in the world.

“Eve” is the perfect vehicle for an actress as versatile as Margi Brown Ash. Working alongside her son Travis Ash (as storyteller/musician), she is delightful in her infectious energy and quirky charm, engaging the audience through the stream of consciousness narrative’s sometimes rapid transitions. Staging is similarly interesting in its bush cabin nook and cranny details, while warm lighting invites the audience into the action.

Like “He Dreamed a Train”, with which “Eve” is paired in double bill, this is a heartbreaking story of art and identity. Equal parts memoir of an author of fantastical stories and homage to artistic sacrifice, it is story of a quirky, but determined woman beautifully brought to life by a quickly and determined performer.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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Ringside in the Roundhouse

Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 5 – 26

Perhaps never has there been a show more suitable for La Boite’s unique theatre in the round staging than “Prizefighter”, a new Australian work which sees the Roundhouse Theatre transformed into authentic boxing ring, complete with Vegas razzle dazzle spectacle of ushers acting as ring card girls, holding over-heard oversized cards bearing the seating bank numbers, an assortment of training routines happening before the audience’s eyes and a pumping pre-show soundtrack to set the scene and invigorate the crowd.

Far from the MGM Grand, however, the setting is the mythical Luke’s Gym in West End. After four years of training at the gym, rising star and refugee Isa, a talented young Congolese boxer is preparing for the most important fight of his life. Undefeated with 15 fights and 12 knockouts, he has fists of iron but haunting demons, explored through between-round flashbacks to the violence of his early life in The Democratic Republic of Congo where he was orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier.

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While not linear in chronology, the story is not a challenge to follow as it transcends time and location, thanks to its cleverly crafted script (and debut work) by former Congolese refugee Future D. Fidel, with arcs and revisits to notions of killing and victory tempered by the universal humour of uneasy flirtation and brotherly banter. Indeed, despite its weighty themes, this is an accessible production thanks to its use of boxing (authentically choreographed down to the finest of details thanks to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) as a metaphor for Isla’s journey through trauma.

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The story is brought to provocative life by a versatile all-Brisbane cast who portray all range of character role with nuanced commitment. As Isa, Pacharo Mzembe brings sensitivity to the text, always remaining on the right side of the empathy/sympathy tightrope. While the ever-feisty Margi Brown-Ash is a little like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill in the “Rocky” movies (the extent of my boxing knowledge), intense in demeanour and faith in Isa as she urges him to get his head right and focus on his dream.

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This is a show that pack a lot of punch (#punintended) into its hour long running time. As characters become casualties of the brutality of the volatile Congolese war, it is, at times, a highly charged emotional experience, with many emerging from the theatre wrenched by the extremities that only human tragedy can invoke. Music and David Walters’ lighting choices are central in establishing the mood and the pace of the journey, taking the audience through ebbs and flows of a narrative that requires both vibrant sounds capes and silences to speak volumes. And optikal bloc’s exciting projected imagery is essential in the audience immersement into the hype of a prize fight event.

As recent events have shown, it is far easier to condemn groups of people when they are given no human face. And while only inspired by the playwright’s own story of fleeing the war torn country, “Prize Fighter” presents Australian audiences with a confronting story that is clearly grounded in a experience that is achingly true for so many. As such, “Prize Fighter” is an important piece of theatre, worthy of inclusion as one of the headliners of the Brisbane Festival as part of its Congo Connection series. To bring stories such as this from the margins into the mainstream is one of theatre’s great privileges and while it may not exactly be a show to ‘enjoy’ as much as appreciate, its profoundness means it is definitely one to be seen.

Home is where the heart is

Home (Queensland Theatre Company and Force of Circumstance)

The Greenhouse, Diane Cilento Studio

July 14 – 25

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The saying goes that where there is a cup of tea, there is a story, so it is comforting to enter the foyer of QTC’s Greenhouse to see a tea station of china mugs and tables covered in vased flowers and doily-like decoration. It is a sense expanded upon as the audience enters the newly-named Diane Cilento Studio, which is lush in delightful detail. Its aesthetic is immediately warm and welcoming, thanks to the scattered chair cushions and the sounds of Travis Ash playing piano. And then there is the backdrop. What begins as a collage of photographic moments in time, as the show progresses, becomes canvas for a tapestry of memories and art, and some wonderful use of shadows. With Perspex panels with inset doors and windows, covered in key quotes, it is almost more of an installation and its changing shape is well-orchestrated through movement and multi-use of its mismatch of chairs and boxes.

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‘The map of memory has its own continuity’, states one of the quotes that appear scattered around the stage and it is this notion that proves integral to the show’s premise and structure as, like memories, its narrative meanders about while, from deep in her soul, Margi Brown Ash shares stories from her actor-self, wife-self and mother-self lives. These occur in Egypt, New York, Sydney and Brisbane and like life itself the result is sometimes as much tearful as full of humour, strength and wisdom. The effect is provoking as well as pleasing in examination of lessons of life, loss and laughter. The show also weaves its way through return to the story of “Osiris and Queen Isis” which Ash shares in its opening as her favourite Egyptian myth in its story of love, grief and re-storying tragedy so new meanings emerge. The way in which ordinary joys and tragedies are blended with extraordinary stories of family and love is exquisite, balanced as they are by Travis’ delivery of social and political monologues as counter balance to the domestic stories.

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This is very much Margi Brown Ash’s show and she proves herself to be a thoroughly generous performer, both on stage and pre-show in her greeting of the audience guests with whom she will be sharing her story (for her story is our story). Indeed, “Home” proves why she is an asset to any production; her dynamic energy and ease on stage are a delight to watch.

“Home” is a friendly show. Not only are audience members comforted by connection with content, but many are invited on stage to participate in the drama and assume roles of various people from Ash’s life. This is never confronting but rather entirely supported and in keeping with generosity of spirit that surrounds the production, and these moments add much gentle humour and appeal to the experience of the show.

There’s is an energy that some theatrical works have that is immediately engaging and “Home” has it in abundance. It is difficult not to be unmoved or untouched by its heart. It is life and it is art in the form of a charming, deeply-moving experience that will continue with you in contemplation of the extraordinariness of ordinary life laid bare, long after you leave. If you were not lucky enough to experience its sincerity in its earlier incantations at Metro Arts and La Boite Theatre, do not miss the opportunity to share in its stories c/o the Queensland Theatre Company.

Dreams, memories and more

He Dreamed a Train (Force of Circumstance)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

October 15 – 26

As a concept, Margi Brown-Ash’s “He Dreamed a Train” is a simple story: a sister is in a room, telling a tale of family in bitter-sweet lament of the loss of her beloved brother and, in doing so, sharing a way of looking at the world. It is a simplicity that is emphasised by the show’s initial silences as we watch her move around the room completing ritualistic tasks. Even when the words eventually come forth, full of wisdom and big-picture ponderment about the notion of pre-mapping as a means to locate oneself (borrowing from her two previous works “Eve” and “Home”), the personal subject matter is immediately resonate; the show is named after brother David Brown’s book by the same name.

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Despite its short running time, “He Dreamed a Train” is packed full of poignant moments for audience contemplation thanks to poetic language which is evocative in creating an eloquent examination of the rituals of memory and grief. However, ultimately, this is a hymn to the spirit of family. And while at times, the narrative may be a little confusing, such as with the appearance of a young man (Travis Ash) as the brother’s younger self, it is a show that is infused with grace thanks to the performance of its creator. So often a vivacious character actor, this time she appears calmly contemplative in her reflection, whether her delivery be a conversation with self, audience or her brother, which adds a quiet esteem to the experience.

The real star of the show, however, is staging. The realism of the country house setting is evident down to the smallest of details, such as a creaking door. There is never question as to the authenticity of the old family farmhouse in which her brother chooses to live in suffering from of a degenerative disease. And thanks to a rich lighting pallet and bushland-soundscape, it is brought to life before our eyes. Even the painted landscape adorning the wall is generic in its ordinariness. But all is not as its seems and thanks to a spectacular technology show from Nathan Sibthorpe and Freddy Komp, the picture is soon brought to impressive life, transforming into a dripping palette in reflection of the story’s fragmented dreaminess, much like the nature of memory itself, for as the saying goes, while young, it’s all dreams; when old, all memories.

“He Dreamed a Train” is a personal show, not just in its origin, but in its impression; how you respond to the show will perhaps depend on your family specifics. Some sections feel unnecessarily indulgent, such as Travis Ash’s dramatisation of The Myth of Er, as part of recollection of childhood adventures and the sibling game of acting out ancient Greek myths. And the lack of a clear, discernable narrative may make it an acquired taste. It is layered and intense; it may leave you drained, it may leave you nostalgic and it will probably take you a while to digest, resonating as only good theatre experiences can.

 

Judy would probably have loved it

The Wizard of Oz (La Boite Theatre, The Danger Ensemble)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 – 28

The Danger Ensemble’s “The Wizard of Oz” is an ambitious, confident show that is nothing short of a sensory overload.  From the outset, Maxine Mellor’s subversion of the story is made boldly clear. Indeed, this is an Oz that is far from over the rainbow, with its boozy Judy beckoning a tornado to take her to the Emerald City.

From here, the story sets about examining the darkness beyond the fantastical veneer. This is an interesting concept, but one that is diminished by gimmicky directorial choices (vomiting and a sex doll, for example), which offer little in support of an already saccharine soaked aesthetic.

Margi Brown Ash seizes the spotlight, both as boozy diva Judy and her transformation as Toto, thanks to her impeccable timing and compelling characterisation. In contrast, the energetic performances from the Mardi Gras munchkinesque Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, provide cartoon-like colour, however, quickly turn to tedium thanks to their hyper, shrieking portrayals.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a vividly avant-garde romp and, as such, is the type of production destined to divide opinion. Judy would probably have loved its camp techno-color nausea, however, ultimately this unrelenting, ostentatious emphasis is at the expense of substance.

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