More Mockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 5 – 15

Shake & Stir’s award-winning play “Tequila Mockingbird” transports its literary classic namesake tale of racial prejudice and the law to small town, rural Australia and the result is both poignant and palpable… for while the Stanton of “Tequila Mockingbird” may be nowhere specific, it is apparent before long that its story is one that is sadly familiar in our modern experience.

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The story begins when a young Indian doctor Sameer Chavan (Shannon Haegler) relocates to the tiny town to work in the medical centre. While the its born-and-bred residents drown their unemployment sorrows in schooners at Sue’s hotel, their attitudes are more archaic than nostalgic in their throwback to times of old and the racial intolerance he experiences soon crescendos into him being wrongly accused of assaulting a young woman (Nelle Lee), who is instead the victim of abuse by her vicious boyfriend Joel (Ross Balbuziente). When the whole town turns against Sameer, lawyer Richard (Bryan Proberts) not only defends him, but attempts to protect him from the simmering social tension.

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It is a taut story whose engagement is enhanced through its delineation from chronological narrative presentation, showing the audience the true events of the night in question only in flashback as part of Sameer’s trial. And even though the violence is not enacted on stage, its effect is no less shocking.

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The aspect that engenders audience attention the most, however, is the show’s stellar performances. Reuniting under the direction of Michael Futcher, each member of the original cast is totally convincing. Nellie Lee brings depth to the role of Rachel, a woman as trapped emotionally in her relationship as she is physically in the town and Ross Balbuziente gives a powerful, intimidating performance as the abusive Joel, passively racist until under the influence of alcohol. Barbara Lowing, however, is outstanding as she brings to vivid life three diverse characters: well-meaning publican Sue (trying to increase revenue with international nights featuring food and cocktails like ‘Tequila Mockingbird’), pretentious but well-meaning busy-body Karen and, most memorably as Joel’s drunken bigot mother Trish, utterly unlikeable but also very real in her xenophobia.

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Solid as ever, like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Bryan Proberts’ Richard represents morality, reason and what we all want to be, never having to rethink his position. His stern but fair attitude also characterises his solo-parenting style and there is a natural rhythm to his scenes with his mischievous son Charlie (Nick Skubij). Likewise, Shannon Haegler brings a gentle humility to the role of Sameer.

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Simple but versatile staging and impressive lighting supports the story’s different phases. While Richard’s story is softened by subdued beiges, the hyper-reality of pub politics is illuminated by vibrant neon shades. And spotlighting serves to make the court scene all the more harrowing.

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While the story remains the same, as well should be the case with an award-winning work, the 2016 show is enhanced by some nice touches of update, particularly within the earlier scenes that serve as juxtaposition to the horror that follows. Both Skubij and Balbuziente contribute much to the frivolity when, in one of their respective multiple roles, they make their own fun as teenagers trapped in a town without entertainment. There is of course, a moment when things transition from the laughter of adolescent hijinks to increasingly less-thinly-veiled racist taunts and observation of altered audience reactions is as interesting as the comments that cause it.

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“Tequila Mockingbird” is critically-acclaimed for good reason and given the current political atmosphere in Australia, its turbulent, tension-filled story is sadly now more than ever more authentic than stereotypical. Not only does it provide insight into how our nation is regarded in overseas perception, but it clearly illustrates what can happen when fear and ignorance combine unchecked. The saddest thing of all, however, is not that tragedy that the narrative outlines but how it afterwards fades into history as its rural townsfolk move on to their more usual worries of weather forecasts and rising beef prices. Hopefully, artistic works such as this will assist in ensuring that such outcomes are rendered far from reality.

A delicious dose of Dahl

Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

January 10 – 23

When it comes to shows for younger audiences, shake & stir seem to have the touch of Midas. The Queensland company, now in its tenth year, has the pedigree of previously acclaimed, sold-out productions such as last year’s national tour of “Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes & Dirty Beasts” and their latest adaptation, “Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine” forms further evidence of their success, in delivery of a show that celebrates the mayhem of Dahl in the company’s own inimitable style.

The story is of titular George Kranky (Nick Skubij) and his annoying Grandma (Leon Cain). On a good day, George can’t stand his Grandma. She complains all the time, she’s mean and she smells funny. Wanting to teach her a lesson, he concocts a special medicine….that actually works … with remarkable results – just not in the way he thinks it will. It’s a story filled with the fantastical subject matter that has made the legendary Dahl one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time.

There is always a certain comfort to children’s stories and “Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine” emulates this from its outset in its cosy staging of the Kranky family farm and the very English, accented narration from George himself. And from the moment George introduces himself as a bored eight year old, audiences are engaged. Indeed, Skubij perfectly captures the boyish enthusiasm of the likeable hero, in absolute versatile contrast to his performance as the brooding, sinister title character of last year’s “Dracula”.

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Leon Cain is very funny as the cantankerous grandma, appropriately milking every physical humour opportunity for a laugh from the little folk. And as George’s parents, Nelle Lee and Bryan Probets are appropriately panto-like. Larger-than-life as they might be, however, the performers act as perfect complement to each other. There is a furious energy as the consequences of George’s mischief unfold, with Johnny Balbuziente, in a memorable mainstage debut after years of touring with the company, running riot as a giant chicken, to hilarious effect.  As antics unfold on stage, the kid-friendly laughs of bodily functions, surrealism and exaggeration are peppered with adult humour and modern references, proving the truth of the show’s tagline of being for ages 6 – 106.

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Josh McIntosh’s design is an absolute joy, thanks to an inventive and visually impressive, yet functional set full of details to be hidden and revealed, and meticulous costumes to give the characters a colourful comic-book look. Guy Webster and Jason Glenwright are again epic in their sound and lighting achievements, transitioning the story from its fairytalesque opening to wizard-like magical potionery through a mass of lighting cues and a catchy soundtrack to move the action along.

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In the hands of Director Ross Balbuziente, this dose of Dahl is pure and delicious escapism… innovative, engaging and full of family fun, regardless of familiarity with the original text. Its mischief, magic and many laughs are right to be embraced by both the young and the young at heart who can appreciate the irony of Grandma’s observation that growing (up) is a nasty habit. One dose of Dahl’s medicine will have to be enough however; the already-extended season has only limited ticket availability.

Another bloody (good) classic

Dracula (shake & stir theatre co & QPAC)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

August 13 – September 4

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‘Another bloody classic’ is how shake & stir’s “Dracula” has been aptly marketed. And certainly there is a lot of blood in the company’s retelling of Bram Stoker’s now legendary 1897 novel. But there is also much more as the multi-award winning company brings a finesse to the fright.

“Dracula” represents shake & stir’s most technical show, a fact that that is easily appreciated upon view of the stage. However, this is a view not granted upon entry into the theatre whose stage remains shrouded in misty darkness until the show begins with the boom of the vampire’s menacing prologue. Indeed, this is a “Dracula” full of atmosphere thanks to its bold staging and Guy Webster’s electrifying, eerie sound design. Lighting represents some of Jason Glenwright’s best work. As white light pours through windows and doors to puncture the darkness, a sense of space is created that belies that Cremorne theatre’s small stage. Of most significance, however, is the versatility afforded by use of a large revolving stage, complete with tall stairwell to assist in creating a range of settings, including some for conversations high above the audience. Leigh Buchanan’s costumes, heavy in ornamentation and layers, also contribute considerably to the authentic aesthetic. And Dracula’s coat is simply majestic and sure to be the envy of everyone with a Gothic sensibility.

No member of the cast disappoints. As Jack Seward, Ross Balbuziente delivers the appropriately formal dialogue with aplomb and when attacked by Dracula, Lucy (Ashlee Lollback) and Mina (Nellie Lee) respond with reactions that represent fusion of fear and desire, in keeping with the reading of the text’s portrayal of vampirism as a metaphor for sexuality in the repressive Victoria era in which the novel was written. However, ultimately this is Nick Skubij’s show, despite being barely present in the second half of the play. The portrayal of one of the most famous characters in popular culture, could easily tip into the territory of parody, however, this is far from the case. His performance as a brooding, sinister title character and primary antagonist is entirely riveting, adding a fearful chill to the show’s highly-charged atmosphere as he creeps around the darkened corners of the stage, sometimes appearing in the glimmer of half-light as if from nowhere to startle the audience and characters alike.

The story is of young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Tim Dashwood) who visits Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains. Alone and trapped within the castle walls, he discovers that his host Dracula wants more than just his presence at the dinner table. Leaving Jonathan and his castle behind, Dracula travels to London on a quest for seduction, true love and above all blood. And while remaining true to its origins, this “Dracula” is a mastery of theatrical momentum, emphasising intense emotion as the source of aesthetic experience as it brings to life the moments so vividly described in the novel. The suspense, although prevailing, is tempered by some superbly choreographed action, including a fantastic fight scene, and there are even some surprise comic comments courtesy of David Whitney’s deadpan delivery of Van Helsing’s observations.

Although Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire, he defined its modern form, to the risk of audience members being potentially de-sensitised to the story’s original horror. However, this is a risk without realisation in this version, which is, rather, a fitting, gripping tribute to this classic Gothic text. The production is uncompromising and uncomfortable (#inagoodway). The design is stylish, yet also conveys an overwhelming horror to creep into your bones, sure to satisfy audience members wishing to sink their teeth into this flirtation with the dark side. And it is easy to see why the season has already been extended, including for a unique midnight show experience (#ifyoudare).

Brooding Bronte

Wuthering Heights (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 1 – 18

It may seem an ambitious notion to bring Emily Brontë’s classic text “Wuthering Heights” to life on stage, yet in shake & stir’s realisation, this challenge is not only met, but results in a compelling piece of theatre.

This show is enthralling. It is emotional and wrenching and although it is long (running for two and a half hours), it is never dull or lifeless as it faithfully (but not obligingly) retells the sweeping English saga. As a story, it is a dark and passionate tale of regret as experienced by rebellious spirits Catherine (Melanie Zanetti) and Heathcliff (Ross Balbuziente) who, despite being constant companions and powerfully in love, are kept apart by class. The orphaned Heathcliff never recovers from the loss of a love who declares him as ‘more myself than I am’ and, unable to forgive Cathy for choosing the wealthy Edgar Linton (Julian Curtin) as husband, he becomes increasingly bitter before spitefully marrying Linton’s sister Isabella (Nelle Lee).

Like any good show “Wuthering Heights” draws the audience in entirely, to forget about any external markers of time and space as it transforms the Cremorne Theatre into a lucid world. Indeed, from the moment a crack of thunder is heard, and bleak and bitter windy gusts swirl the wild and ghostly Yorkshire Moors to life at the start of Act One, there is evidence of careful and clever staging to ensure that story’s harsh gothic themes are brought to glorious life. As metaphor for Cathy and Heathcliff’s stormy relationship, this is an essential aspect and Guy Webster’s sound design provides a constant sense of the world beyond the stage. The stormy soundscape is enhanced by optikal bloc’s massive projections and Jason Glenwright’s lighting, which juxtaposes the weather-worn moors with the warmth of Linton’s opulent abode.

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The balance of power between two strong-willed people is always solid subject matter for playwrights, and you don’t get more strong-willed than the Cathy/Heathcliff pairing. There is a deep love between the two characters, which goes far beyond the normal, romantic love. And it is pleasing to see that this is not a romanticised Hollywoodised retelling of doomed soul mates, but rather, a retelling that is as rough as a saw edge, like its original source.

As tormented, black-tempered and vengeful vagabond Heathcliff, Balbuziente is roguish but far from charismatic, as should well be the case. Balbuziente is one of those actors who works very hard at making what he does seem effortless: revealing nuances in the script and bringing a passive energy to Bronte’s brooding character. He is at times vicious and violent in its savagery, yet also simultaneously smouldering in his sullenness and anguished gushes of grief. And as his giddily counterpart, Zanetti captures the tempestuous nature of Catherine’s character. Her Cathy is spirited, impulsive and thoughtlessly selfish in her increasingly haughty ways and manipulation.

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The choice of Gerry Connolly to play the opinionated yet ultimately obedient narrator Nellie Dean, is a strange one, especially given the wealth of talented actresses in this city. Connolly’s frequent dialogue stumbles, attemptedly veiled as character traits, are annoying rather than endearing. Granted, this is a role that requires significant dialogue, often, unfortunately, at the expense of having characters bring their own stories to life.

As with all adaptations, there are important content choices to made in condensing an epic, cross-generational story into a palatable piece of theatre. In this version, the audience is accelerated through Act One, however, once Heathcliff returns from exile, where he has been transformed into civility, only to discover that Cathy has married the more gentlemanly Linton, the show really succeeds, showing the power and passion of the couple’s relationship.

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As a tragic tale of desire, jealousy, spite and revenge, the story of “Wuthering Heights” is not an uplifting one. More than romance, it’s an intense deconstruction of social hierarchies and the choices that people are forced to make. It is a credit to adapter/Director Nick Skubij that this bold version is simultaneously able to explore these themes and aesthetically capture the mood of not only the novel, but the words so superbly expressed in Kate Bush’s titular song.

Out On the wiley, windy moors
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too

This is “Wuthering Heights” in a nutshell – a story you love of people you know you should hate. And shake & stir have captured the predicament perfectly.

Stirring up a classic

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Shake & stir theatre company is back at the Cremorne doing what they do best – braving the classics – this time embarking on a turbulent, tension-filled re-imagining of Harper Lee’s classic tale “To Kill A Mockingbird”.

Like its namesake, “Tequila Mockingbird” tells its sensitive story through the eyes of a young narrator and lawyer’s child, who is, in this case, living in small town Australia. The story is an uncomfortable one, as it records the racist attitudes of an insular community in the wake of an attack on a young woman. As blame for the crime is directed towards a recently arrived Indian doctor, the story examines the universal themes of prejudice and discrimination in a way that has more political currency than shake & stir’s previous adaptations.

With such complex themes at its core, “Tequila Mockingbird” is very much an actor-driven piece; the seriousness of the narrative requires strong performances and they are delivered by all actors. The cast features all three of shake & stir’s artistic directors, Ross Balbuziente, Nick Skubij and Nelle Lee, however, it is Barbara Lowing, who gives a standout performance as a character who is so hateable, but sadly so real.

Boldly re-imagining a story as beloved as “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a brave choice, but it is a risk quickly realised in the sobering message that lingers after the experience. Indeed, the dark story of racism and xenophobia is confronting in its modern relevance, however, it is tempered by comic character moments, which is where the company shines.

Shake & stir is an energetic, enthusiastic and talented company of ensemble performers who are particularly committed to charming youth audiences with classic texts (as seen in their Schools Productions).  In the case of “Tequila Mockingbird”, this translates into a challenging, engaging and entertaining piece of contemporary political theatre created specifically for Australian audiences.