Who’s the boss?

Hold Me Closer Tony Danza (The Farm)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

January 24 – 28

Previously acclaimed works from Dance theatre company The Farm means that expectations are high for their new subversive piece “Hold Me Closer Tony Danza”, which has been created by Kate Harman, Michael Smith, Gavin Webber and Anna Whitaker. The immersive event is occurring in Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre, but not as we may know it, with the space opened up and requiring audience members to move about the action, standing, sitting on the ground and maybe even participating in the provocation themselves.

Immediately, we are divided to a chosen side to observe the back and forth interaction of performers committed to their either correct or otherwise share of the chorus of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’. Like watching a coin being continuously flipped, see them alternate sides to establish the boss as the aesthetic around them slowly adjusts towards proposition about how we form meaning and the flaws that this might expose.

Meaning can be drawn at many levels thanks to the Inception-like layering of the show’s satire and sometimes metatheatrical address to (and direction of) the audience, marshalling the crowd into their dance positions as required. There are clearly multiple levels, with the work evoking, as the creators have summarised, the head, heart and guts of passion.Its focus on misunderstandings that come from contradictions means that the show is filled with binary oppositions across its ever facet, not just the obvious Tiny Dancer / Tony Danza or Star Wars / Star Trek sort, but aesthetically in the silver or gold wrapping of participants and descent of warm golden lighting into murky green blackness (lighting design by Govin Ruben) to transition from the long initial sequence.

Extremes are seen too when the frenzied movements that emphasise a pumping soundtrack, are dialled down to a serene stillness in which we dare not breath too loudly. As frantic as things may seem at times as energy escalates, at its core it is all quite crafted and controlled, even when we are picking our side in a Jetts vs Sharks type dance battle of sorts from growing audience-turned-recruited-performer groups, ably fronted by all-attitude leaders Kate Harman and Michael Smith.

This is a physical and physically demanding, well-choreographed show, and dance artists Harman and Smith push themselves to extremes to create meaning through their bodies, when controlled in close proximity to not collide, but then united in unison when floor work sees them move fluidly as one. The result is unique entertainment in encouragement of consideration if art is life or life is art, through a lens in which the rules of traditional theatre or even dance no longer apply. And while its titular framing device appears less as an integral thread and more as a top-and-tail function, it does lead to joyous ultimate shared celebration (and sing along) to the misquoted line from Elton John’s song, during whichTony may just make an en masse appearance.

As a bold, brash and non-conforming piece, “Hold Me Closer Tony Danza” serves to challenge theatre norms and showcase some fine dancing skills. Indeed, with an ambiguous start and false finish, it will keep you guessing throughout and on-your-toes in wonder about what has just happened, what is currently unfolding before you and where things may be going, as much as appreciation of the obvious dance skills on display.

Un-Santa-mental celebrations

Babushka Regifted (Little Match Productions)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 14 – 17

While its set is adorned with festive baubles, an elf on the shelf and a giant advent calendar, the ‘ding, dong, here comes the bells’ arrival of the three wise women of Babushka (Judy Hainsworth, Laura Coutts and Alicia Cush) signposts that “Babushka Regifted” is very much an anti-Christmas Christmas show. Soon thereafter, ‘Wake Me Up When September December Ends’ cements the show’s sentiment as an 18+ celebration of everything we love to hate about the holly jolly season.

The trio of performers is joined in their irreverence by accomplished jazz trio Jake Bristow (Musical Director along with Alicia Cush) and the Baby Cheeses band and, after the show’s initial numbers, things settle into a comfortable banter that moves us between segments. As with previous Babushka shows, there is plenty of audience participation, this time through Grinchy games organised around the share of Festivus airing of Christmas grievances and about the worst ever received presents, which works well in the intimate venue of Metro Art’s New Benner Theatre.

Variety ensures that “Babushka Regifted” is a fun-filled ride for everyone. The eclectic mix of musical genres includes features of some classic seasonal standards from The Pogues and Spinal Tap, however, a Madonna mashup also sits comfortably alongside Nick Cave’s classic ‘Red Right Hand’, reappropriated as a warning about Santa lap sitting. In all instances, the musical arrangements from Cush and Bristow serve as perfect vehicles for the slick vocals, quirky comedy and unapologetic sass that have come to characterise the Matilda Award winning cabaret trio’s work.

This is not a santa-mental show in any way. There’s not a Mariah song to be heard. And the familiar numbers that do make appearance are not as we usually would know them. The  problematic ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is amusingly shifted in focus to tell the tale of Hainsworth’s obviousness to her prowling of Bristow, yet it still allows us opportunity to appreciate her consummate vocals. And the three songstresses harmonise together beautifully in a ‘We Three Kings Queens’ accompaniment to the story of travel to the real Christmas charcuterie Mecca. And in their serene share ‘Walking in the Air’ from UK Christmas Day staple, the enduring animated classic “The Snowman”, their voices blend beautifully (with lovely accompaniment especially from Bristol) as the trio of singers literally bounce off each other in full snowman regalia.  

A sleigh-the-patriarchy theme adds another layer to things as they sing from a hymn him her book with holy PowerPoint accompaniment. Clever lyrics give carols like ‘Deck the Halls’ and alike a rework, and then there is ‘Good King Queen Wenceslas”, because who is Stephen exactly and more importantly, who is cooking his feast!

With all that is has to offer, “Babushka Regifted” may well be your new favourite festive tradition. Unlike the silly season, however, these Babushka shenanigans will be over in a flash so you will need to don your dodgy Xmas jumpers and get along quickly to experience what is a rollicking adults-only romp laden with tinsel and tunes, especially if you want to find out why Laura’s fruit cake brings all the boys to the yard.

Photo – c/o Penny Challen

Alarming artwork

Bunker (Lisa Wilson and Nathan Sibthorpe)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

October 19 – 22

Metro Arts’ underground black box New Benner Theatre is certainly an appropriate location for the world premiere of “Bunker”, given the scenario at the core of its premise and instruction to seek immediate shelter. As overlay to the tension of its opening moments, we are offered reassurance by an initial voiceover telling us to remain calm while the building’s alarm systems are tested. It’s all a drill we are assured, until we are asked to consider if maybe it wasn’t. The scenario is explained via teletext information across the back of the space; it’s January 2018 when as a resident of Hawaii, we receive a text message alert of an inbound ballistic missile due to hit in 20 minutes. What would we do?

The bold new intermedial dance work from Lisa Wilson and Nathan Sibthorpe begins with an incredible and incredibly gripping opening scene. Black-clad performers Asher Bowen-Saunders, Jayden Grogan, Hsin-Ju Ely and Alex Warren release together in shuttering frenzy in unison with the work’s cresendoing soundscape (original score by Guy Webster) and vigorous lighting (Lighting Designer Christine Felmingham) in keeping with the show’s promised heart-pounding visually-stunning exploration of how we respond to the unexpected and unimaginable. As the costuming begins to morph into all white, movments slow into a more lyrical duets and alike as characters connect to take is into another technical impress as created character shadows separate from their owners to operate independently (video design by Nathan Sibthorpe and Jeremy Gordon).

The work seeks to find the beauty between scenarios of chaos and the quieter moments of fragility, and Lisa Wilson’s choreography certainly ensures that there is light and shade to its realisation, but also space for contemplation, plus appreciation of the physical and technical skills being showcased in the cross-disciplinary collaboration. The integration of dance, an original score and dynamic video projection is also well balanced. Technology features not just as another character in the tapestry of its storytelling, but the primary one, evident in a variety of guises that build upon each other, such as when Hsin-Ju Ely moves in sync with a projected shadow outline, impressively given the precise definition of each perfectly timed and controlled movement.

Rozina Suliman’s design is deceptive simple, given its initially unimagined versatility. Large picture frames that hang above the stage, for example, feature in various guises throughout the show. Jayden Grogan hangs from one only to then envelope his body into the confines of its border and Hsin-Ju Ely moves one onto the ground to frame a projected puddle in which she sits in huddled hug of self, in assumed attempt to self-protect or soothe from the physical threat of virtual alarm 

The work’s exploration of digital fear remains integral throughout. Mobile phones handheld by performers are used to film live scenes projected on screen in real time, but not always realistic imagery, such as when a late segment shows us in thermal imagery like colour, water tracking down a dancer’s body, which adds some additional shades to things.

The intersection of digital technologies with contemporary dance that is central to the show’s premise and realisation, means that “Bunker” is a work for both fans of dynamic dance and theatrical invention alike. Its complexity is evidence through a layered approach that see all aesthetic aspects working in unison, definition and blurred lines alongside each other in compatibility rather than juxtaposition. Its sometimes askew rather than centered projections of movements happening on stage, for example add a unique interest.

“Bunker” is not only technical impressive, but also a physical show demanding stamina of its performers and it seems well-timed at an hour long without interval, even if there is a pre-emptive moment when outcome is revealed and audience members assume an ending with deserving applause. Whether premature of not, however, this thrilling new artwork from two of Australia’s most accomplished artists is certainly deserving of the acclaim.

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