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.

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

Terror Australis

Horizon (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

May 19 – 29

Maxine Mellor’s “Horizon” is an intense experience… not the type of show to be enjoyed so much as provoked by. It is a sensibility that is conveyed from even before its start thanks to an ominous pre-show soundscape and the gothic shadows of a darkened stage featuring just a single white line as video backdrop to its Ford Falcon centre stage feature.

Young couple Cole (Sam Foster) and Skye (Ngoc Phan) are driving the classic Aussie car from the coast into the heart of the country to Cole’s home town to visit his ill father. What starts poetically as a classic road trip journey of mix tapes and romantic enthusiasm, however, soon devolves into a tense standoff of mindsets, with debate and discussion flaring around contemporary issues. And as we watch the pair’s relationship struggle to survive the personal secrets that emerge, we are left considering what is worth rescuing as within even this theme, the story is filled with metaphors, such is the quality and precision of Mellor’s writing.  

The multi-award winning playwright’s script touches on dark themes from with our country’s tragedies as the couple learns more than they imagine about each other, including the story behind a cassette tape as old as the car itself and the real reason behind Skye’s motivation for a holiday distraction from fighting off brainless corporate zombies as a lawyer.

A 90 minute two hander such as this can be a taxing task for its performers, however, Foster and Phan work well both in volley off each other and also in the show’s many impassioned monologues. Foster’s, early speeches, in particular, are especially entertaining, delivered with a powerful rhythm akin to a gripping slam poetry share, thanks to his vocal enthusiasm and well-used pace, pause and emphasis for effect.

It is appropriate, however, that in addition to acclamation of the performers, the car so central to the show’s action also receives applause at the play’s conclusion. Rather than alienating its audience through performing sections of the story from within its front seats, the company cleverly utilises the central piece as part of the action, inviting the audience its world through choreograph of the story’s action in, around and on top of it as it rotates on stage, without it appearing gimmicky. And it does, indeed, feature almost as another character in the drama as it transports the couple’s relationship deeper into the ramifications of brutal honesty.

Also particularly laudable is the dynamic opening scene complement of Guy Webster’s sound design, David Walters’ lighting design and Nathan Sibthorpe’s video design, in realisation of the couple’s celebration of their newfound freedom with imagined new names and outlaw identities on the run in a world gone mad. Video projections also serve to track the passage of time through show of the bush drive backdrop as day sunsets into the velvet dark of night, also contributing to its panic.

As a two-hander “Horizon” is at its core an intimate story, however, it is also one of big twists, turns and technical demands within its apparent simplicity and speak to contemporary Australia. Under Ian Lawson’s direction, it is a thrilling ride not for the faint of heart, but rather those who like their drama with a bit of terror because once you’ve seen one monster, you see them everywhere. And though Mellor may have been commissioned to pen the Playlab Theatre production pre-COVID, it still remains relevant now especially in in its touch on #metoo themes, but also in its examination of the struggles and isolation at the core of personal identity (and thus relationships), from which, like our pasts, we can maybe never really outrun.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Five alive

Rising (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 3 – 13

The looming of an environmental crisis has featured frequently on stage of-late in works like “Kill Climate Deniers”, Queensland Theatre’s Play Club online play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” and now Playlab Theatre’s “Rising”. Though not of the others’ satirical comedy sort, the production of “Rising”, presented in association with Metro Arts is just as meritorious, even if it is a little heavy-handed in its moralising messages about the many great tragedies of a broken country and ruined word in its push for its audience to connect current environmental concerns with what is being presented on stage. 

The story by Hannah Belanszky, Madeleine Border, Emily Burton, Lauren Sherritt and Sarah Wilson takes place on a fictional remote island country faced with imminent collapse. Despite the assurance of its Foreign Minister there are issues with water source contamination and dogs haven’t been seen in years. When a bomb explodes killing civilians and UN peacekeepers, the pressure mounts for definitive action to solve the growing ecological and humanitarian crisis, but the competing ideas as to the nation’s future create a conflict beyond possible compromise. And so it is from this chaos of rising sea levels and conflict between Government and Rebel forces, that five simultaneous, interspersed stories of life, integrity, idealism, justice, compassion and hope emerge.

It is clear from entry into the New Benner Theatre that detailed care has been taken in the creation of the catastrophic apocalyptic future of the story’s setting, enabling the audience to immerse into the urgency of the environmental crises through set and costume designer Ella Lincoln’s presentation of the debris of daily life cluttered atop a glossily dark reflective front floor. Small details in costuming establish different characters, allowing for often cleverly-swift, sometimes choreographically-stylised transitions. And Anna Whittaker’s sound, in particular, assists in both booming us through the chaos and ominously signally the transition of scenes.

Talented performers Chenoa Deemal, Ling Cooper Tang, Steven Rooke easily transition between a number of roles as the five separate stories unfold. Through them, we see, amongst others, the diverse perspectives of an enthusiastic young journalist, a doctor left to assist a local woman in childbirth after the hospital system’s collapse following the bombing and a civilian caught amongst the movement for change.

Deemal is captivating in each of her varied roles, but particularly as a passionate scientist attempting to get vital coral samples to the laboratory, self-confident in the worth of her work. While Rooke’s characters are less contrasting which makes it more difficult to appreciate his habitation of each one, Cooper Tang is a standout from start to finish, especially as the Foreign Minister of the island state, about to inaugurate a building called the Institute of Economic Achievements. With precise sound-bite propaganda rhetoric punctuated by emphatic perfectly-positioned gestured emphasis, she provides some welcomed comic relief in her animated interactions with unseen press conference reporters.

Though momentum drags a little through the show’s later parts, the first half swifts by in testament to its potential as an important work, for as its tagline urgently asks, ‘who is listening?’ Hopefully, we will see this contemporary work on stage again soon, especially given its scary closeness to reality. For while its conversation about colonisaliation and its effect on the environment may be confronting, its reminder about the connectivity of all our climates and call for a collective act of compassion to protect those who are less privileged and more vulnerable, is still clear.

Photos c/o – Justine Walpole

Magpie masterclass

Magpie (A Playlab, Metro Arts and E.G Production presented in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 29 – Jun 8

According to American novelist Flannery O’Connor, “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses. This underpinning of human perception is at the core of playwright Elise Greig’s world premiere work “Magpie”; its all-encompassing description offers theatre-goers immersion into the experience of a Brisbane summer, where thunder storms threaten for longer than they onslaught and nothing is as cooling as a lemonade ice-block.

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This is all part of the long-ago identity of the story’s feisty central character, recently fallen from critical favour novelist Mordecai (Barb Lowing). Returning home following her father’s death, she discovers more than just the architectural monstrosities that have now taken over the Poinsettias. Her resulting memories are made more vivid by discovery of a long-forgotten brown-paper covered notebook and through this the story is drawn back to 1961 and her attempted investigation, along with neighbourhood friend Splinter (Michael Mandalios) into her parent’s apparent unhappiness.

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Through the resulting flashbacks we are served glimpses of her fractured and allegedly cursed dysfunctional family and the perpetual arguments of her Romani parents Aggy and Meshack (Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis) that caused the teenage Mordecai’s departure. Though its cleverly crafted script, we also discover why she was considered an outsider and nicknamed Magpie, in parallel to the city’s identity search on the cusp of becoming the Brisbane that we now know thanks to the realised promises of Clem Jones as Lord Mayor.

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David Walters’ stylish lighting design works well not only to convey the overwhelm of the city’s oppressive heat but to showcase the contrast of past and present within the same scene. While this is a Brisbane story of Australia’s multi-cultural heritage, however, it is also so much more in its expose of nostalgia and the power of going home to a place that no longer is, to which audience members can apply their own experiences.

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Lowing is a talented actor that you wouldn’t mind seeing in anything and “Magpie” represents a wonderful vehicle for her gifts. She is barely of stage for the show’s duration and presents a powerful performance, not just as the cynical and outwardly robust protagonist, and her seamless jumps between her three-times-married, almost-grandmother and teenage self are seamless. There are no weak links in this cast and together its actors present an effective masterclass in character work. Mandalios’ energy as the tell-it-as-it-is Splinter is infectious; he inhabits the character’s essence entirely, down even to his excited run faster than his body.

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Curtis presents Abby as a proud and passionate rather than just an easy-to anger man and Marquet provides a quiet balance as Mordecai’s mother, burdened with much more than we initially realise. The writing of their migrant observations in particular is quite witty, epitomised in a very funny scene in which Mordecai bring Splinter home to a family dinner, which provides a nice break to the slow-burn dramatic tension of the play’s otherwise dense thematic temperament.

Developed through Playlab’s programs, “Magpie” is a complex work with integral twists and turns to engage the audience for the entirety of its 90-minute duration. More than just a belated coming of age story, it is a moving experience with a poignancy that sneaks up on you as so often happens in reality when dealing with issues of grief. As many great works do, it has much to say about many things, including the power and generational legacy of long-dormant secrets. Indeed, the depth of its themes and craftedness of its script and will surely ensure its longevity.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Tasmanian truths

The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek (Playlab)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 10 – March 3

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured Emily Weir. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

Kathryn Marquet’s “The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek” begins in darkness. When the stage is lit, it reveals a ramshackle ranger’s station shack somewhere in the wilds of south-western Tasmania. Centre-stage is Dr George Templeton (Emily Weir), cradling an infant devil in her arms. The environmental scientist is determined, passionate and intelligent enough to know that hydrochloric acid alone won’t work to clear away mess created after she encountered Irishman Mickey O’Toole (John Bachelor) poaching the endangered Tasmanian devils.

When fellow ranger, New Zealander, Harris Robb (Julian Curtis), returns, what follows is a fast and furious rant about controversial issues as the zoologist attempts to justify her actions. There are further twists and turns as another unexpected visitor stumbles in to the cramped cabin in the form of high schooler Destinee Lee (Kimie Tsukakoshi) who has her own tirade to impart.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R John Batchelor, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

As characters engage in some interesting intellectual discussion around corporate greed, climate change politics and, later, the corporate torture of chicken nuggets, the audience is offered many challenging contemplations. Testament to Marquet’s sharp writing style, the real-time story is uniquely uncomfortable and uproariously funny in its unrelenting dialogue and disturbing ending. Confronting simulated violence and frequent coarse language are powerful and unsettling as its Tarantino-in-Tasmania tones are played out.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R Emily Weir, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

Aesthetically, the staging provides a perfect accompaniment to the story’s ultimate brutality. Vilma Mattila’s open hut design is almost cosily simple, with lighting, sound and costume design also adding to the predominantly earthy environmental feel. What really brings the story to shocking life, however, are the powerful and provocative performances. The actors are universally excellent in revealing their characters’ shades of good and evil, and their realisations of their idiosyncrasies are consistently layered, and not just because of their on-point accents. Weir is energetic in her sanctimony in lead of the charge for environmental change and Batchelor commands the stage as the violent O’Toole, despite being tied to a chair for much of the time, creating some of the most hilarious moments in his pithy one-liners. Curtis and Tsukakoshi similarly bring much comedy to the work’s complex contradictions.

La Boite & Playlab. The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek. Pictured L-R Kimie Tsukakoshi, Julian Curtis. Image by Dylan Evans_preview.jpeg

“The Dead Devils of Cockle Creek” is intense theatre at its very best. In director Ian Lawson’s hands, it is in-your-face and remorseless in its raise of important issues, but also reflective in its speak to the truth of confusion and concern of the world at the moment. Indeed, there is no happy ending here, but certainly much humour along the way, making for a memorable theatrical experience.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans