Top and tail treats

Rather than jinx things again with a post about the shows I am most looking forward to seeing in the year to come (at least we got Emerald City and Be More Chill), I take this time of year as an opportunity to reflect on the theatre year that mostly wasn’t. From its top and tail months, these have been my highlights of the 40 rather than usual 140(ish) shows seen:

Best dramatic performance

  • Richard Lund’s layered, contained performance as recent art school graduate Ken, assistant to abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko in the two-hander Red from Ad Astra.
  • Jayden Popik’s bold and powerful Queensland Theatre debut, as Declan in Mouthpiece, the company’s must-see return to the QPAC stage.

Best Staging

  • Set Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the Ad Astra’s small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, in John Logan’s Red.
  • Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together for QUT’s early-in-March presentation of Anton Chekhov’s seminal Three Sisters.

Best Video Design

  • Nathan Sibthorpe’s stunning video projections, creating a sense of immersion into Queensland Theatre’s world premiere production of David Megarrity’s The Holidays.

Best Musical

  • Phoenix Ensemble’s dynamic September strut out of the super-fun 2012 musical Kinky Boots.

Top moment

  • When the rollicking Pirates of Penzance in Lynch & Paterson’s In Concert production sneak up on the Major-General’s house with Catlike Tread while singing at their top of their Tarantara lungs in the eponymous parodic Gilbert and Sullivan song.

Sarsaparilla style

The Season at Sarsaparilla

Gardens Theatre

August 8 – 13

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There is a sense of “Cloudstreet” to “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, not just in its descriptor as ‘the great Australian dream realised in sweltering suburbia’ but in the way that, under Jason Klarwein’s direction, the realisation of Patrick White’s 1962 play is staged. The Australian classic, which concerns three households, the Pogsons, the Boyles, and the Knotts, in the fictional suburb of Sarsaparilla, is eloquent and textured in its exploration of the limitations of family and upbringing. The examination of the ordinary lives of the three families within Mildred Street is packed full of rich theatrical fodder; even though its themes befit the now sentimental satire on Australian suburban life, there is also an authenticity to its illustration of the effect of monotonous loneliness and the power of ambition to find contentment and purpose in life.

As our restless-soul, sensitive narrator of sorts, Roy Child (Grady Ferricks-Rosevear) reflects late in Act Two, “you can’t shed your own skin, no matter how it itches.” Indeed, universal themes transcend the play’s era of lino, lamb’s fry, hire purchase and new Mixmaster pride; these are everyday Australians who have worked hard for the post-war suburban dream, even if it comes with entrapment by the mores of the time. But ‘what are you going to do?’ especially as a woman, whose daily activity is restricted to passive aggressive commentary of what is going on in the neighbourhood.

A clear sense of containment is suggested in the sentiment of character dialogue and Roy’s commentary, which is emphasised by Anthony Spinaze’s dynamic set design of three bungalow box houses. The stylised production engenders a sense of voyeurism, although having the majority of the action set back on the stage distances the audience from the intimacy of some of its human stories. Digital projections of diorama recreations of the street’s dwellings add interest and work well to show the passage of time as day drags into night, with Glenn Hughes’ dynamic lighting dramatically signalling thematic moods.

The overlapping lives of the street’s residents present as a series of related sub-plots, however, there is one that drives the action more than others, thanks to some superb performances. Amongst occasional overdone ocker accents and exaggerated enunciation, Nicole Hoskins is a standout as the childless Nola who, despite being married to the good-natured Ernie (a likeable Jack Bannister) is tempted towards an adulterous affair with his larrikin mate Rowley (an appropriately beguiling and swaggersome Will Carseldine), with whom her husband fought in World War Two.

As a cultural artefact, “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, serves as tribute to a time deceptively regarded as simple, but as the QUT BFA (Acting) final-year students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical Production) students, show us, it is also a metaphor for so much more. Like the prolonged vowel-accented drawl of a broad ocker accent of old, the show is a long one and sometimes it feels that way, taking a while to establish households and relationships before getting into the action of the story’s conflict ahead of interval. Still, within this expanse there are many opportunities realised by cast members and creatives alike.

Dark Room disturbance

The Dark Room

QUT, The Loft

June 4 – 8

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Prior to attendance, we were, thankfully, warned of the challenge of Angela Betzien’s dramatic thriller, “The Dark Room”; the powerful play about vulnerable characters without a lot of power is certainly heavy in its subject matter, confronting and shocking in its brutality and abrasive language. The setting is a soulless hotel just outside of Darwin. There is an obvious lived-in texture to the aesthetic of the room in which we are eventually introduced to six characters, only at different points in time as, with a suffocating threat of violence, the tense production tells three interconnecting stories.

With its shared spaces and time changes, “The Dark Room” is a complex undertaking for QUT Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) final-year students and under Matt Scholten’s direction they create a suspenseful experience to stay with audiences even in recollection, for this dark room offers little escape for any of its occupants. It starts in silence before its sinister sensibility shows through appearance of troubled teenage Grace (Georgia Tucker) wearing a dirty hangman’s hood. The aggressive, unstable, psychologically damaged and potentially violent girl is at the hotel with social worker Anni (Sarah Edwards), due to a lack of emergency housing.

We sit in this core story for a long time before their interaction intersects with the others. Married couple Stephen (Wil Carseldine) and Emma (Bronte Price) have also inhabited the room. Their conflict stems from police-officer Stephen’s attempt to kick on from an already big night with his work mates, without his pregnant wife. Stephen’s superior, Craig (Alex Kann), another guest of the motel, meanwhile, aims to intimidate his subordinates into lying for him. His secret, we learn, is intertwined with the tragic fate of Joseph (Thomas Weatherall). It is the distressing ghost of Joseph who is in the room in all the scenes.

There is not a lot of reprieve from the shouty, sweary, angry assault of the stories of “The Dark Room”, yet still some moments of tension could be sat in for longer. Edwards, in particular, does an excellent job in playing Anni with a well-tuned balance of strength and compassion. Tucker takes Grace to some disturbing places as a teen emboldened by the power of her shock-value statements in crave for the attention of reaction and while her overplayed accent and uncouth language comes and goes in initial scenes, this soon settles. And both do particularly well in holding their focus in interaction with each other and within their individual space while other character conversations and storyline action is occurring around them.

One of the strengths of “The Dark Room” is the craftedenss of its script, even if this takes a while to be realised; while the characters from each story are oblivious to the others, despite their occurrence around them, at points they echo the same lines, such is its layered meaning. Lighting (Christopher Conway) adds interest to key moments, through shadowing interaction across the stage, and works with sound (Kelly Hau) to enhance its horror. While there are some humorous moments, “The Dark Room” is really all about the drama of its alarming words and fearsome action. Indeed, experience of the eerie Australian drama is an intense one of shock and essential sadness, that may leave you with more questions than answers.

Reworked woe

Romeo and Juliet (La Boite and QUT Creative Industries)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 25 – June 15

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The pre-show soundtrack of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ type songs seems to be an apt choice ahead of La Boite Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” reminding its audience of the youth at the core of this story of vulnerable teenagers infatuated in spite of their familial-tie expectations. We see it on stage also in the show’s performances and presentation of Juliet (Darcy Gooda) as a particularly precocious, shouty teenager in contrast to her Romeo (Jack Bannister), in disservice to the poetic rhythm and imagery of the language of arguably the Bard’s best known work, regarded by some as one of the greatest love stories of all time.

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This is “Romeo and Juliet” reworked for the 21st century, seen in the details embedded throughout what is still an essentially traditional take from La Boite Theatre in collaboration with QUT Creative Industries (final year acting students appear in the cast alongside some of Brisbane’s best actors). There is no prologue or epilogue to bookend the tale of woe, not that we need them, nor a happy dagger Juliet declaration of intent to join Romeo in death in the Capulet family tomb, but there is an obvious contemporary energy to the violent delights of the stage’s traffic in this 21st century re-imagining of Shakespeare’s iconic love story.

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Even with this as a lens, there appears to be a potpuri approach to its execution, with some only-early CGI and just one lone later live musical number. There are, however, the start of some interesting staging ideas within and upon its deceptively simple looking stage and through modern costumes, including pops of red motif featured throughout (Set and Costume Designer Anthony Spinaze). There is no Verona balcony or Luhrmann-like fish tank, though these scenes are still instantly recognisable. And a sublime lighting moment in Romeo’s approach to Juliet’s ‘balcony’ is over all too soon. The Capulet party at which the star-crossed lovers first meet is an aesthetic explosion, however, the dialogue shared ahead of the doomed couple’s first kiss is lost under its soundscape.

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It is the fight scene that facilitates the show’s most memorable moments. The high-energy highlight serves as the story’s turning point due to its sudden, fatal violence and also because of fortune’s fool Romeo’s resulting banishment for killing Tybalt (Wei Lan Zhong), his new wife’s cousin, in revenge for Tybalt killing his close friend Mercutio (Grady Ferricks-Rosevear). In this exciting realisation, this is enhanced by stylised but realistic sword play (Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) and a thrilling soundscape (Sound Designer Anna Whitaker), making Tybalt more “Kill Bill” Black Mamba Bride than Prince of Cats, measured, deliberate and even classy in her artful consideration before every sword clash before her death.

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Regardless of its contemporisation, this “Romeo and Juliet” is all about making meaning for its audience and it is wonderful to see people reacting to the humour of the text. Perhaps as Shakespeare intended, the show’s bawdiness gets the biggest laughs, mostly from the brilliant Bridget Boyle as Juliet’s Nurse (also in double duty as the Prince of Verona).

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The supporting cast is very strong. As the saucy merchant Mercurio Ferricks-Rosevear bounces about that stage with Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Nicole Hoskins), making Queen Mab attempt to calm melancholy Romeo’s fears on-route to their surreptitious attendance at the enemy Capulet family party in the hopes of encountering the unseen character Rosaline, for whom Romeo feels deep feelings of love. His physical, energetic performance carries the show’s early weight, and when his bawdy witticisms give way to his dying words, the mood is of sorrow rather than vengeance, which wisely makes its foreshadowing subtler than is the norm.

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The Friar (Eugene Gildfedder), too, is given a more sympathetic imagining, showcasing the cleric’s guilt for his involvement in the situation, and although his scenes are necessary for foreshadowing purposes, they do drag a little at times. Jack Bannister makes for an excellent Romeo, bringing the script’s language to life with an eloquence that heightens the shrillness of the childish Juliet.

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Despite its staging and script changes, this “Romeo and Juliet” still feels quite traditional. After a word-heavy second half, its ending is compelling in its sorrow but also cathartic as the show’s 105-minute (no interval) running time feels like hard going. For those who know little of the tragic story of two households and the rest, this “Romeo and Juliet” represents a rewarding way into the unfamiliar. Those who think it is unmatched in the dramatic cannon, will likely revel in its experience, however, if you are already just ‘meh’ about what you consider to be a satire about fickle youth, then it might not be the production for you.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Powerplay

The Ladies

QUT, The Loft

March 5 – 9

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“A text about girls and their fierce little fantasies” a projection tells the audience before the start of QUT’s “The Ladies”, featuring QUT Acting (BFA) final-year students. Accompanied by an audio discussion about constructions of power through presence, it conveys a very clear message as to the play’s themes. There are not unexpected, however, to those who have read the show’s description as being about infamous first ladies, Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos, Eva Peron and Jiang Qing (‘Madame Mao’) meeting over gin and coffee to emerge into a play about women and power as told through gossip, torch songs, historical analysis, spectacle and transcription. Even so, once things start, it takes a little while to adjust to the show’s unique premise, which is not as expected.

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QUT student shows frequently offer dynamic experiences, often of interesting text choices, such as this year’s a season of Contemporary American plays, “The Ladies” by Anne Washburn and “Sons of the Prophet” by Stephen Karam. As student theatre should do, they often set about presenting new models of working, however, enduring works or theatre, no matter how unconventional in structure do acknowledge the need for a story, and this is where “The Ladies” seems most lacking due to its play development within a play concept. Indeed, the play is presented as a work in progress. Scenes from the lives of the four main characters are intercut with scenes of playwright Anne Washburn (Bronte Price) and director Anne Kauffman (Darcy Gooda) shaping the material through animated conversations as the four main characters move in and out of the action and rehearsals in all sorts of locations.

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Sometimes the dialogue is delivered directly to the audience and others to the characters on stage, which confuses matters a little and though there is a distinct New York dialect to the playwright and director’s dialogue, this is almost authentic to the detriment of character engagement due to the jarring idiosyncratically-neurotic Woody-Allen style of pseudo intellectual half-formed sentence fragment ideas and hollow affirmations of agreement before things are said.

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Despite some strong performances in detailed build of their characters, the 90-minute show does sometime drag a little, like in its early droning story of Eva Braun and how she died. Scene changes are signposted by descriptive projections which not only orient us, but add some quirky narration, however, the audience isn’t always invited to savour the moments.

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While there are some touches upon the biographical details of this historical figures’ lives, the show seems more concerned with communicating the essence of their personalities and the four actresses (Wei Lan Zhong, Sarah Edwards, Georgia Tucker and Nicole Hoskins) not only do this with aplomb, but move in and out of characters and worlds with ease. Each has their own impressive moments and Sarah Edwards shines in every of her wide variety of roles.

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As indicated in the pre-show conversation, this is a work about power and herein lies its greatest interest, for although the ladies are in apparent positions of great power, in reality this wasn’t always the case. References to “A Doll’s House” and “Anna Karenina” are appreciated but unfortunate reminders of how other powerful female characters’ stories have also not ended happily. Indeed, a late-show re-enactment of sorts of Nora’s grand walkout on Torvald to make her own way in the world, is one of the show’s most memorable scenes.

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Rather than serving as reminder of the age-old proverb that “behind every great man there is a great woman”, “The Ladies”, serves to show how it is acceptable also to strive towards not being cast in another’s shadow. Even so, with its unique structure (inset also with the occasional torch song number) and non-linear narrative, it still seems to be a work of acquired taste more than popular appeal.

By George! ambition

Pygmalion

Gardens Theatre

August 11 – 17

Years before it became “My Fair Lady”, “Pygmalion” proved to be George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, but not sentimentally so. Rather, the playwright used the 1913 story of transformation as a social commentary, to expose (rather than glorify) misogyny. And in their ambitious interpretation, QUT Bachelor of Fine Art Acting and Technical Production students certainly do this intent justice.

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Things open on a rainy night in London’s Covent Garden market. A varied group gathers together under a bus shelter, satirically postered with a Narcissist perfume advertisement. Among them are a couple of colourful flower sellers… literally, given their vibrant costumes. And so the show’s dynamic aesthetic is established, not just visually but through multi-media, music, dance and even a later mid-scene rap.

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The story begins as the lurking Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins (Harley Wilson) emerges to converse with common flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Meg Fraser). She is deliciously low in the eyes of the celebrated Higgins (who is himself far from the charmer of the musical film adaptation), but she has a quick ear that allows him to later accept a bet from his sensitive sidekick Colonel Pickering (Daniel Gabriel) that he can turn her into someone who speaks English like a duchess.

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Before long a couple of months of lessons have passed and Eliza is taken to meet Higgens’ mother (Maeve Hook) and the visiting Eynsford-Hills (Olivia Bird, Maddy Exarhos and Michael Vandersande). Although she now speaks in beautifully modulated tones, it is still sometimes in delivery of her usual turns of phrase. And in make-up for no ‘rain in Spain’ there is still hilarity in Eliza’s new small talk with updated shock factor. But this is just the beginning of her troubles.

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The modernised, but not entirely contemporary take, works well, with microphones and video cameras facilitating Higgins’ science of speech studies, meaning that even dialogue talk of pounds and pence is not jarring. In particular, full backdrop screen projections add another layer to aspects like Eliza’s linguistic lessons. An exciting soundtrack also enhances interest, particularly in its use of Panic at the Disco’s high energy ‘Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time’, including ‘Rock Lobster’ sample, during which live video footage takes the audience backstage along with actors to party with the crew around the props table et al.

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Even if they sometimes appear a little extraneous to the story, aesthetically rich and rewarding moments such as this, capture the appeal of the show, both old and new. And while its characteristically witty writing remains, in for example Higgins’ self-important comments about women and how they upset everything, reactions from the audience to the sexism of his statements illustrate the play’s vintage.

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Although accents are not always sustained, in their final public performance while training at QUT, the third-year actors, all do an excellent job. By George, Harley Wilson captures the more multi-layered character of this Henry Higgins, barely bridled in his enthusiasm for his recreation experiment and ill-manneredly unconcerned about the problem of the afterwards. Indeed, his initial mockery of Eliza and physical comedy bring many laughs, along with Meg Graser’s physical nuance of little movements and gestures, even when in the background of the action. She gives an extremely assured performance as Eliza, not only in her transformed rebellion, but in her early groaning, moaning and boo-hooing about being a respectable girl who means no harm but wants to speak more gentle to work in a flower shop. And they ably supported by the others on-stage, especially by Molly Burnett as Higgins’ matter-of-fact housekeeper Miss Pearce, who serves as a voice of reason, foreshadowing revolt in her wonder as to what is to become of Eliza after Higgins has finished his teaching. Michael Vandersande is a similar standout as the put-upon Freddy, enchanted by Eliza upon first meeting her. His high-pitched enthusiasm amplifies his socially awkward persona, but in an endearing way.

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Clearly, “Pygmalion” has stood the test of time, because it is a comedy, but also so much more, based as it is on the classical myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with the statue of a woman he has made. Its reworking now, more true to is dark comedy than exploration of romantic clichés, highlights Shaw’s feminist views which provides a more of a modern resonance than ever. And, along with its talented acting and David Bell’s visionary direction, this is what makes this production such a success.