100 stories in one

Mistero Buffo (Rhum and Clay)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 14 – 17

Award-winning UK theatre company, Rhum and Clay’s “Mistero Buffo” is very much a festival type of show, though perhaps Edinburgh more than Brisbane. The one-man romp is a lot, and a lot of it unexpected, even for those who familiar with its descriptor blurb of “an extraordinary, virtuosic romp through a hundred characters and locations by one incredible performer”. For what our 21st century travelling storyteller, a Deliveroo driver at the centre of the gig economy delivers is a subversive, rallying cry for the disillusioned and disenfranchised.

Julian Spooner starts things off by rushing onto Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre scruffily breathless, with a Deliveroo pack on his back, direct from his last job of the day. What follows soon thereafter, however, is nothing to do with reflection of his Covid gig, but consideration of the hypocrisy of powerful institutions from a much larger narrative perspective in what is essentially a one-man political play about the life of Jesus Christ as a celebrity cult leader more than heaven-sent Son of God, through its retelling of a selection of New Testament tales focussed on Jesus’ miracles.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo’s 1969 play, it turns out, comes with a long history and many previous incantations. What sets this one apart is the incredible physicality at the core of its realisation as Spooner realises all of the 100 characters that make appearance in its stories, whether in monologue, conversation or crowd scenes alike. His incredible talent and versatility are showcased in the skill he shows to not only make each character distinct, but slip in and out of inhabit of them so swiftly and chameleon-like, without the aid of props, but rather just the smallest nuances of gesture, stance or facial expression and changed accent or vocal cadence. There is an exactness, also, to his timing along with sound and lighting, although these elements are limited, allowing focus to rightly be on the precision of his performance. And in terms of this, it is easy to appreciate the award winning show’s rave UK reviews.

As a manifesto and a reclamation of the true intent of bible stories for those they should serve, the show’s content is dense… almost unrelentingly so. Reprieve comes, however, in the biblical story of the Resurrection of Lazarus, which provides abundant humour as the Jongleur charges entrance fees to the event and attempts to sell chairs to the gathering crowd of voyeurs negotiating entrance fees in eager determination to be in the front row for the action of the big name appearance.

The slick energy that Spooner maintains for the 90-minute duration of “Mistero Buffo” is impressive. This means, however, that while the work brings with it some messaging around religious rule and championing the oppressed, it’s a theme that is sometimes drowned in the detail of its mile-a-minute narrative retelling. It’s also quite blasphemous, particularly in its portrayal of Jesus being nailed to the cross while guards gable for his possessions, meaning that while the Monty Python silliness of its exaggeration is often very funny, it’s unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes.

STD positivi-tea!

Sunny Tribe District (Robert The Cat)

Metro Arts

July 22 – 30

With distinctively decorated tents perimetering the New Benner Theatre, it is clear from the outset that Robert the Cat’s “Sunny Tribe District” is going to be a show full of fun. And this is before we even meet the over-enthusiastic American camp counsellors of Sunny Tribe District (Rebecca Day, Darcy Jones, Tiahnee Solien-Bowles, Peter Wood). As they emerge, dressed in their uniforms of green polo shirts, yellow waist packs and neckerchiefs, to offer us their salutations, the camp sensibility is clear (and yes there is a double meaning in that). More than just a summer camp, Sunny Tribe District (STD) is an idea, of love, laughter and happiness, much needed by the anxious and guilty sadlings of the world.

Summer camp at STD is a lake-side adventure that lasts a lifetime, its advertising suggests. We see Nick (Jedd Zachery) considering this in response to his addict mum’s worry that his brother (and founder of STD), Ken, has been out of contact for weeks following release of an article exposing the organisation’s apparent brainwashed manipulation and raising question as to it continued operation. And thus, with five days until its opening for the season, Nick’s research and search for answers leads him to responding to a new camp counsellor ad.

With Nick covertly seeking information about his missing brother and the others working to prove to the committee of camp certifiers that STD is worthy of remaining open, there are multiple plot lines operating within the 90-minute story. And there are the interpersonal relationships within the group of quirky camp counsellors. Beyond their collective friendship circles, each of the counsellors has their own method for guiding sadlings to overcome negative emotions and while they may be questionable, they are all very funny. Kelly Celly (Rebecca Day) likes to let the music heal, Kumbaya style, thanks to her ukulele, Mr U. Kaye (Tiahnee Solien-Bowles) lets her swim instructor alter ego take charge to share the cleansing power of a water ritual and Kurt (Peter Wood) raps about finding a solution from deep within yourself.

As a collective, Robert the Cat aims to provide a showcase for performance students at TAFE Queensland, and this regard “Sunny Tribe District” definitely succeeds, especially in relation to their comic skills. Darcy Jones’ Kris, aka Daddy Nature, gives us a wonderful patter song in his explanation of how to spot and respond to sadlings having a moment. However, it is Day who is given the most with which to work as the bombastic but shady Kelly Celly, as full of older southern woman accent and casual racism, as she is useless information about insects…. even if all is not quite as it seems. And her soulful song redos, in three bears type attempt to take us to church just right according to others’ suggestions, are one of the show’s highlights, with help (or not as humour dictates) from the show’s lighting.

“Sunny Tribe District” is high energy comedy throughout which makes its experience fly by. While exaggerated characterisation brings much of its humour, however, the show is more than just this. There are many different types of humour mashed together in the rich tapestry that supports its laughs, including pop culture references and metatheatre mentions. There is a detailed approach evidenced across the board with changed word orders, malapropisms and no opportunity ever missed for inclusion of an especially sexually-laden pun (though some are cleverer than others and the repetition of a couple of gags go on well past what is necessary). Choreography is particularly impressive in contribution to the comedy through its perfectly timed near misses and alike. And even when movement is limited the humour is still there through the sideways glances and reactions (Wood is perfection in this regard). It is this consideration behind the chaos that makes Writer/Director Patrick Mu’a’s efforts worthy of particular praise as he maintains pace throughout, without waning audience engagement.

The only out-of-place moment seems to be a performer’s Olivia Rodrigo sing-a-long, given that original number backing tracks don’t appear in other musical snippets. Still this does not detract from thhe show’s overall humour or track towards somewhere in terms of themes and its exploration of the true meaning of happiness and the role of acceptance in healing.

Seaing simplicity

Sea Wall (That Production Company)

Metro Arts

June 22 – 25

There is an essential simplicity to That Production Company’s multi-award nominated, critically acclaimed production of “Sea Wall”, beyond just it being a one-man show. Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre staging is appropriately the most unassuming it has ever been, for a beautiful and brutal show that is all about its words and a disarmingly powerful performance from Steven Rooke as a character whose life has similarly been stripped bare.

There is an endearing everyman-ness to photographer Alex as he tells us about ex British infantry solider Arthur, who we discover is his wife Helen’s father and therefore grandpop to now-eight-year-old Lucy, as well as being a key player in the tragic events that beset Alex’s most recent annual family visit to Arthur’s home in a French seaside village.

Near to the village is the terrifying sea wall of the show’s title, running under the ocean, deceptively near the shore, which also serves as a symbol for how Alex’s life has been shattered. We learn more slowly as the story progresses in monologue form, craftedly transitioning from anecdotal frivolity to tension filled trauma, largely due to the accomplishment of its script, penned by award-winning writer Simon Stephens (Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time) for Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag).

Effective writing, it is said, comes from showing not telling through the smallest of details and “Sea Wall” is a masterclass in this, using potent imagery and evocative language to precise effect, whether in exploration of domestic dilemmas of market vs supermarket merits or in recall of the routines of relationships, as much as its bigger picture contemplations courtesy of recalled conversations about god and the need for reason. Early in the show, Alex explains the importance of capturing the humanness of portrait subjects through light. It is just one line, yet it perfectly captures the essence of what is a provocative piece of theatre in its expose of the despair that runs deep after a tragic life-changing event.

Directed with assurance by Timothy Wynn, “Sea Wall” is a tight show of less than hour running time, but that’s all Rooke needs to captivate audience members to moved, emotional responses. Pace and pause are used compellingly, including to allow us to sit in the deliberate discomfort of its confronting descriptions of events one day in France, as much as the poignancy of its protagonist’s pain. Alex’s conversational style is enhanced by all range of natural gestures, movement about the stage space and rhetorical questions delivered by Rooke like they are aimed directly at you. It’s a sophisticated performance enhanced by Sound Designer Brady Watkins’ subtle soundscape

“Sea Wall” is a stunning show whose return, Brisbane season is set to be over all too soon. This is a moving, intimate piece of theatre that illustrates how one actor can hold an audience spellbound. Indeed, its power derives from the strength of its solo performance, making it a must-see for those yet to have the privilege.

Photo c/o – Tom Antonio

Intertextual idealism

Brutal Utopias (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

May 18 – 28

“Brutal Utopias” is a bold and interesting new work by Brisbane’s own Stephen Carleton. The latest production in Playlab Theatre’s 2022 program, presented in partnership with Metro Arts, is an epic story about legacy and impact, that gives its audience members much to contemplate about having the courage of their convictions in response to life’s ethical dilemmas.

We begin with talented Australian Geo-Engineer Natalia Hoskings meeting new colleagues in Planning and Development at New York’s, Jackson and Saxon, having come from saving the third word in the central Pacific Ocean. Before long, however, we are swept back to Cold War Yugoslavia where Branislav and Valentina Radovic are being visited by an interpreter representing the President of Indonesia looking to commission design of a theme park hotel expression of the nation’s spirit, rather than in the era’s typically brutalist design…. modern and original, but also unpretentious in their bold and unapologetic aesthetic.

As conversation turns to combining the modern and traditional, there is humour in analogy explanations, but also the first tease of the play’s weighty subject matter. What follows is a provocative consideration of pragmatism vs idealism, patriotism and cultural responsibility, that characterises the Patrick White Award-Winning playwright’s intellectual script. Indeed, it’s a dense 90 minutes as audience members are jumped between Yugoslavia, New York and even Coolum.

As story returns to the modern-day home of global capitalism, talk is of a superstorm surge that sees lower Manhattan in need to a sea wall (of sorts) mitigation project to keep Wall Street high and dry from rising sea levels. Changing the habits of the city’s inhabitants is more difficult, meaning that Natalia’s suggestions for costal resilience fall on deaf ears, even to her mother, who is visiting as an escape from the reality of her life in Australia. Determined to attack the problem at its source, Natalia is steadfast in her determination not to dismiss the interrelationships that have and will continue to lead to catastrophe.

Clearly passionate, Natalia also has a penchant for dramatisation, including of the circumstances around her parents flee to Australia as refugees from Eastern Europe, as the story opens out into its wider themes. Amongst the big-picture considerations of compromise for the greater good, are many smaller moments of humour and alike. Many laughs come from Natalia’s Australian-in-America moments, often exacerbated by Anthony Standish’s pitch-perfect performance as Natalia’s very American gum-chewing, vaping boss, who manages by sports analogy.

There are no weak links within the show’s powerhouse cast of Ashlee Lollback, Michael Mandalios, Nikhil Singh, Anthony Standish and Kate Wilson. The ability of performers to switch characters, and accents, through swift scenes changes is a testament to their talent and means that even with only minimal costumes changes, characters are always distinct. And from when first see their characters meet at the Algonquin Hotel of Dorothy Parker fame, Lollback and Wilson, project a believable mother-daughter dynamic, authentic down to the smallest details of physical interaction and verbal inflections within their conversations.

A sophisticated aesthetic enhances Matt Scholten’s tight direction. Designer Bill Haycock’s striking set easily guides us through the story’s dual timelines, with the use sometimes of mirrors and alike to allow for added depth, while the subtleties of Guy Webster’s sound design plant us firmly in a New York City soundscape of background noise.

“Brutal Utopias” is a rich, multi-themed work, built upon a scaffold of architecture, but about so much more. Beneath its examination of the intersection between lofty ideals and realpolitik, there are a lot of intertextual and contemporary references throughout the play that contribute much to making it such an engaging theatrical experience, rewarding in realisation of its intersections of story and character. Crafted down to its finest details, it gives its audience much to consider with regards to idealism and compromise, making it both of its time and of all times, as all great pieces of theatre are.

Tense truths

Face to Face (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 16 – 26

“Face to Face” is a political, but also personal story. The two-hander takes a little while to get there, but when it does, it is incredibly powerful in its messaging. It starts at 11pm when a stressed-out Leila (Hannah Belanszky) arrives home to her Brisbane flat. With no milk in her fridge and pizza boxes piled by the door, it is clear that her work is her priority. Just as she is devoted to her dream of representing her community and being an inspiration to the other girls back home just like her, she is meticulous in her approach, with a whiteboard schedule that includes allocation of time for meditation. And things are only going to become more stressful with the unannounced doorstep arrival of self-proclaimed favourite niece Maddie (Lorinda Merrypor), six years after last seeing each other.

The new work from Kamilaroi playwright Emily Wells tells a touching story about two women navigating the complex effects of disconnecting from Country, and criticism from community, family and self. Clearly there’s tension and as the duo dance around the reason for Leila’s and also now Maddy’s departure from home, it takes a while for details to be forthcoming. The last thing Leila thinks she needs is to be reminded of home, as she sets about salvaging a meeting to move towards achievement of a reconciliation plan. And as she explains about its precedent, it is clear that the stubbornly ambitious hard worker walks a fine line between being an institutionalised change seeker and a sell-out in the eye of her remote country town community.  

The intimate drama is most obviously realised through its performances. Belanszky is a steadying force as the voice-of-reason Leila and Merrypor shines as the feisty Maddie, trying to figure it all out. Her dynamic performance captures her character’s crucible of conflicts between 18-year-old idealism, TikTok confidence and reconciliation of how the world works. As the pair banter back and forth about unimportant things after Maddie’s arrival and impeding departure again, there is always the loom of Leila’s work and what is still to be done from a bigger picture perspectie, which we see represented symbolically atop a series of boxes to the side of an otherwise naturalistic set.

Once the catalyst for Maddie’s disillusioned flee from her far-away home appears to become clear, things take a turn for the serious with ensuring debate about government funding and responsibility for community, heightened into one of reconciliation. This is where Wells’ script really excels, especially in its trip from politics to pathos. The dialogue is intellectual, but punctuated with the affecting honesty of simple sentiments like, “I miss her.” Particularly powerful moments come from Merrypor’s two monologues which co-directors Roxanne McDonald and Nadine McDonald-Dowd allow us to sit in, raw emotions and all, at the recalled memory of trauma and the years of paperwork against her. And when her heartbreaking reflection turns to the truths of family, the audience tears are flowing freely.

Attention to detail abounds in Leila’s unit setting, down even to her laptop stickers and stationary. And Wil Hughes’ sound design creates and evocative soundscape of accompanying wee-hour city noises. As the night wears on, it is revealed that both women have things to process. But by birds begin to signal the start of a new day, we are left with a hopeful ending for these brave, resilient, strong and proud women, and reminder also of the importance of family as the most precious type of community.

Odd couple contemplations

String: An Odd Evening with Tyrone and Lesley

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 12

With cabaret tables in addition to the usual stall seating, Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre is like a red-door, knock-twice underworld paradise speakeasy for “String”… if speakeasy entertainment was to come from an odd couple like Tyrone (David Megarrity) and Lesley (Samuel Vincent) wearing fez and bowler hats, sharing peculiar songs about bodily functions, peppercorns and the length of a piece of piece of string.

Strung together from original tunes of their past albums, as well as premiering new songs from the forthcoming album ‘String’, the show is presented in accompaniment of vintage slide images of a 1950s day trip around Brisbane (visuals assembled by Nathan Sibthorpe). The flea-market found slides, which come courtesy of a mystery photographer, give us gorgeous images of gardens, roads, the city and suburbia, and work wonderfully as a framing device. It’s like a cross between a concert and slide night. And as if the award-winning duo’s ukulele and double bass big-and-little pairing accompaniment is not interesting enough, there is also the clever irreverence of many of the song’s lyrics and rhymes … think of the “it was ciao bella; now I’m a capella” lament in ‘Unaccompanied’.

It’s all quite cheeky, however, there is also a lovely sentiment to do with moving on around life’s corners and not dwelling in matters of perhaps, which fits with the pairing’s promise of ‘light music for dark times’. Indeed, there is an appealing optimism woven into things, to subtly pull on audience heart strings in stop-and-breathe contemplation of how we spend our time between each day’s sunrise and sunset, supported by accomplished musicality and entertaining stagemanship.

Megarrity and Vincent are absolutely in sync with complementary physical movements, with an intricacy befitting a 20-year collaboration. The celebrated local musicians create some splendid sounds, such as in the instrumental number ‘Roads’. Like a song from an earlier time, ‘Old Fashioned’ starts with a whistle and includes an impressive double bass showcase solo from Vincent. And the hints of other melodies that whisper through numbers like the eponymous hit single ‘Bear With Me’, give a sense of comfort to listeners.

A craftedness of light and shade within the setlist’s curation means that sentimental moments are complemented by a healthy dose of humour. Megarrity has an easy-listening voice (Penn and Teller style we don’t hear from Vincent as Lesley). And even then, he is a man of few words as he throws out concepts to the audience with only the scantest of contextuslisation. The numbers speak for themselves however, (even when with kazoo accompaniment), and, appropriately, it is all about them.

More whimsical than eccentric, the deceptively-simple “String: An Odd Evening with Tyrone and Lesley” is charming avant-garde entertainment, which makes it an entirely fitting inclusion in the 2022 Queensland Cabaret Festival’s celebration of creativity, music and storytelling that breathes new life into the cabaret canon. The gentlemen songsters may appear as if they are from a different era, but their messaging is very aptly of the now. If only their show’s journey and its short and sharp song snippets were just a little longer.