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.

Motherhood madness

Whatever Gets You Through The Night (Chrysalis Productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 24 – 26

“Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right,” John Lennon says in his 1974 hit. Differently contextualised, and almost five decades later, it’s a sentiment that stands at the core of the messaging of Nicky Peelgrane’s comedy about the madness of the first year of motherhood.

“Whatever Gets You Through The Night” tells the story of Chris (Kimberley Chapman), Fern (Belinda Raisin) and Kate (Crystal Arons) and their similar but different experiences of motherhood. With aspirations to be the perfect mother, they each think they know how their journey through its first year will look, with the story then painting a vivid picture of the gaps between their expectations and the realities. It’s not particularly glamourous, in fact it is not glamourous at all as they fold washing forever and meet for mothers-group-style catchups to discuss their dilemmas and dramas, big and small.

It’s all ‘fun and games’ in the early days, as signalled by the balloon arrangement that dominates an otherwise domesticated staging. In time, however, career-driven Chris is increasingly conflicted about her intended return to work, as she discovers the depth of connection with her new son. Earth-mother Fern reveals her struggle with the pressure to meet societal expectations around what being a ‘good’ mother means, while tell-it-as-it-is and typically chilled-out Kate faces the difficulty of balancing schedules with her partner (Matt Filkins, who effectively plays the show’s multiple husband roles).

There is a bit of everything on stage, even song (composer/musician Anne Stanley) and many genuinely funny moments as the women emerge from the cocoon of the initial months of motherhood. And while things do darken a little as we are taken into interval from the levity of Act One, this allows for exploration of more substantive subject matter and an ultimate, affirming celebration of resilience.

The story about women and mothers has an integral authenticity; Chrysalis Productions, founded by Nicky Peelgrane and Belinda Raisin, is a supportive female-led team of collaborators, and in some regard it needs to be considered from the lens through which it is told, of frazzled mothers just wanting to get through the night. With storytelling being shared through movement and music as much its script, there is no need for overworked moments to be so laboured (no pun intended).

With gs and f bombs dropping with abandon, Arons’s Kate is dramatically loud and boorish, but strong and determined, and we love her for all of these attributes, however, the deliberateness of some of her colloquial speech is sometimes distracting in its juxtaposition to more articulate moments. Raisin gives Fern an essential restraint that elevates her realisation into a thoughtfully drawn characterisation. Having read all the books to know what to expect while expecting and beyond, she is more frustrated than frazzled when faced with the realities of things not going to her plan and in Raisin’s hands, we really feel the sad weariness with which she wears this self-determined defeat. Meanwhile Chapman, anchors things as the more in control, but still conflicted, Chris. Together, and with the support of Filkins, they not only serve to keep the 2-hour (with interval) show’s tone light but meaningful, but give us characters in whose journeys we feel a little invested.

By its subject matter alone, the show has a huge audience appeal for anyone who is considering or has been through motherhood. Even those who fall into neither of this categories can delight in consideration of which of the archetypes (who appear to have nothing in common apart from being new mothers) they would probably be. There is also a beautiful heart at the story’s core and its ultimately toast to whatever gets you through the night.

Singapore scars re-exposed

Blue Bones (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

February 2 – 12

The award winning “Blue Bones” begins with its performer Merlynn Tong crouched on the ground centre stage encircled by light, and so it is clear from the outset that this story of a woman’s turbulent journey through domestic violence is set to be an intimate one. Her first love Tom, she tells us, is etched into her bones. We see this ourselves through backdrop x-ray video projection of her skeleton. Clearly, her experience of schoolgirl relationship with him in Singapore still resonates strongly at the core of her identity. The exact nature of the legacy unfolds as she proceeds to unpack the true story behind being the school’s perfect couple, with view to discovery of just how he got himself under her skin.

As experience widens out to become the textured world in which the recalled story is placed, Tong shares its details through narration and assumption of all of its characters in anecdotal recall. This is where the biggest strength of the show’s engagement lies. Tong is an accomplished performer whose distinct characterisations are totally on-point, not only in and of themselves, but in her swift and seamless transitions back and forth between so many diverse personas.

From the excited hyperbole of the protagonist’s teenage gush about her boyfriend’s dreamy appearance and her friend Cindy’s gossipy insistence upon details of the romance, to gangster brother Atlantis’ bravado, she convincingly transforms into different characters. Of early comic note is her mimicry of the idiosyncrasies of her subject teachers and then arcade-gamer-in-action Tom. In each instance her facial expressions and body language ensure easy inhabit of characters of diverse physicalities and vocal nuances.

The script, written by Tong, is also clever in its construction with subtle foreshadowing even within its descriptive detail. And a through-line of dance also helps to tread the audience from its humourous beginnings through to climatic wallop of public domestic violence that signposts the work’s tonal shift. Dynamic, interactive projections and lighting (AV design by Nathan Sibthorpe and Lighting Design by David Walters), elevated in realism from its previous season, enliven things too, almost giving the city of Singapore itself co-character status, with lighting, for example, shading us into its tropical showers.

A 90 minute (no interval), one-hander is an ambitious undertaking, yet “Blue Bones” does not miss a beat in its ultimate journey towards celebration of resilience. Audience engagement never wanes thanks to the honesty with which it takes us from light-hearted laughter to the bruised shades of ultimate empowerment and realisation that experiences of violence are not a natural part of having an adult relationship.

Photos c/o – Justine Walpole

Lycra love

Boyle and Waters in Leotard (debase productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 9 – 18

Anybody who has persevered through sweaty struggle to pull on a leotard will be immediately in awe of the premise at the core of debase productions’ “Boyle and Waters in Leotard” which sees performer/creators Bridget Boyle and Neridah Waters sharing the stories behind a rainbow of vintage leotards of all shapes and sizes. From their entry to the stage, clad in their theatre nudes, the talented duo proceeds to put on a range of sequinned, bedazzled, feathered and often very ‘80s garments, and the result is simply sensational.

The homage to the humble leotard, presented in an encore season by Metro Arts serves not only as a tribute to the skin-tight one-piece garment, but the truth that lies underneath its sometimes absurd layers of over-the-top adornment. And it’s a truth that is apparent in the range of different women presented as part of the ensuing vignettes, from early appearance of Brighton-esque dance mums, Anna and Jo, increasingly hyper-aspirational in the rhythmic banter back and forth in defence of their daughters’ honours. An assortment of stories is seen from there, cresendoing with a duo, presenting their contrasting talents at a Regional New South Wales competition, which gives audience members the glorious juxtaposition between suggestive dance routine to Warrant’s risqué ‘Cherry Pie’ and an amateur recorder performance to perhaps transport us back to our own screechy school experiences.

Punctuating such scenes are interviews with women of all ages sharing stories of what leotards have meant to them, giving insight into the insecurities as much as the joys that that the garment can bring, which works in nice balance to the frivolity of colour and movement otherwise on stage.

This is a highly physical show with, under Lucas Stibbard’s direction, an energy that never wanes. The manner with which both performers change their body language, movement and voice ensures that their characterisation is distinct as they jump between roles. Indeed, both performers show incredible versatility through their often quite nuanced depictions, such as Waters’ straight-faced restraint as a daughter in musical accompaniment to her mother’s overtly flirtatious birthday party performance of Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’. Waters, in particular, is a pocket-rocket of energy from her early body-shaking patter-song share of the realities of life as a cruise ship entertainer to her time as Tracey, giving us a hilariously hyperbolic blow-by-blow recount of how she single-handedly saved every aspect of her dance school’s performance.

The often over-the-top ridiculousness is also platformed in the show’s diverse amalgamation of theatrical styles; from slapstick and exaggerated illustration of commedia dell’arte to undertake of theatre exercises to help with listening and focus, there is a whole lot of metatheatre to layer the funny and, along with its often euphemistic word play, emphasise the cleverness of its script.

With nostalgic mentions like the performances at Expo 88 et al, there is are many moments in which to lovingly rejoice in this joyous razzle dazzle celebration of performance, body positivity and glitter. And while the stories that accompany the leotards bring with them an undeniable hilarity, there is also an essential honesty and an ultimately uplifting message that elevates experience of the show to something truly special, interpretive dance routines and all.

Photos c/o – Jade Ellis