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.

Cultural confrontation

Flat Out Like a Lizard (Robert the Cat)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 2 – 12

“Just a story about the dark”, Norman Price’s “Flat Out Like a Lizard” is billed as…. “You there in the dark, me here in the dark”. This is indeed true, however, there are many more motifs and through-lines operating than just that of darkness, and untangling and making sustained sense of them all asks a lot of its audience, especially given the show’s indulgent 90-minute duration. Indeed, while there is a clever use of clues in its connection of perspectives, this confronting piece of post-modernist theatre is not for the conventional theatre goer … but perfectly positioned for the provocation typical of many Metro Arts shows.

The Australian playwright, director, actor and theatre scholar’s work is not one but many stories… Australian stories that span a century. Through the eyes of a rotating Lazarus White, mysterious and dangerous, characters emerge from within some moments of dark humour. But is there a market for them? And what is a writer to do when a committee of experts remains unconvinced of their marketability. It is through this that the work asks its most enduring questions about the value of the arts and storytelling, which are particularly poignant right now given the manner with which the pandemic has disrupted the industry.

As White presents each story snippet to the committee of gatekeepers funding a production, we are tantalised with just enough for connection before being shocked out of their allure by harsh lighting and critical committee member bombasts of “we have set criteria to address”, “there’s no market for this” and “nobody wants this” et al. The stories themselves make an unequivocal impact, not only through their sometimes strong language and disturbing content. They are told by performers Katy Cotter, Amy Hauser, Darcy Jones, Peter Keavy and Thea Milburn, who each take turn to play the central character of Lazarus White (symbolised by a stylised jacket transfer) and assume other support roles at other times, which allows each actor distinct opportunities to shine in sometimes menacing vignettes. Darcy Jones, in particular, gives a chilling description of a shocking theatre experience of a little man that will leave you reconsidering how you sit in the stalls from now on.

Heightening the impact of many the highly-stylised stories, Geoff Squire’s lighting design paints the New Benner Theatre with a range of hues, including some less often typically seen on stage, which adds interest. Most memorably, our metatheatre opening introduction to Lazarus White’s navigation of the performance space as a metaphor his journey, illustrates how he affects and is affected by the performance space through its use of shadow and gaps in the space between light and dark.

Norman Price’s work is clearly divisive. “Flat Out Like a Lizard” may have moments that resonate, but it is not a work with mainstream appeal. It is darkly gothic and dangerous, but also both emotional and intellectual in its encouragement of audience engagement through hard work. It makes its point and it labours it hard, making the endurance of its experience more one of performance art than traditional theatre. Still, its take-away commentaries about the value and legitimacy of cultural artefacts, the roles of stories in our society and the crucial importance of cultural gatekeepers are valuable in their provocation.