Top dog theatre

A Coupla Dogs (Dog Spoon)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 25 – 29

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‘Two dogs, one kennel, five days”… the tagline of Dog Spoon’s Brisbane Festival show “A Coupla Dogs” perhaps conveys expectations of a playful night out, especially attractive in its palatable 60 minutes running time for those may be suffering from Week Three festival fatigue. The world premiere work by co-writers Director Andrew Cory and Sue Rider, is, however, so much more than just this promise as it takes its audience to some political and also poetic places all within its distinctive dog kennel setting.

It is, as it promises by its tagline, a tale two dogs, Old Dog (Ron Kelly) and Young Dog (Tom Oliver). We don’t know their names, but their personalities pretty quickly become clear. Old Dog is fighter who profanely tells it as it, in straight talk that sits alongside clever dialogue abundant with canine idioms. Immediately, he asserts his dominance over the newly-arrived ‘Christmas dog’, bursting with puppy, eagerness and naïve joy.

We meet them in simple but effective staging at ‘Beryl’s Kennels (Barb Lowing in voice over), a substandard private animal refuge where they await a fate. As they do, they discuss dog philosophy and life in general. And there-in lies the bite to its bark as all sorts of social issues are considered and alluded to, from media impartiality to treatment of our underdogs.

Despite Old Dog’s aggression and essentially pessimistic outlook, it begins quite light-heartedly as legs are humped and the dogs move from playing dead to venturing into the audience in search of tummy-rub-type affection. Then the tone shifts, aided by Jason Glenwright’s lighting design, and things become serious in analogy of the people problems being mirrored to the audience in contemplation of the way we all live and interact on this planet and how we treat our most vulnerable.

While the aesthetics signpost the show’s shift quite dramatically, Kelly and Oliver complement this also in their nuanced guidance towards the ultimately affecting ending. Kelly is memorable in his show of his softer side in contrast to early bravado, in talk of his relationship with his previous owner. And Oliver similarly shows an extensive range in his transition from bumbling puppy to determined enlightenment that every dog will have its day. Indeed, it is difficult to take your eyes off the duo, not just in impress of their obvious stamina and energy to act in entirety as dogs, but due to the engagement created by their physical performances, down to smallest touch such as holding hands as paws for the show’s duration.

There’s no bones about it; this new work is certainly unique, but it is so both in its concept and execution, which makes it interesting as well as entertaining. By using comedy to consider some of the planet’s problems, “A Coupla Dogs” not only leaves us laughing, but provokes its audience to after-show contemplation and conversation, which is exactly as it should be for a festival work.

Bold Buffalo banter

American Buffalo (Troop Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

October 25 – October 29

The excellence of Troop Productions’ take of David Mamet’s 1975 classic, “American Buffalo” is evident right from initial audience entry into the Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre. Dimly-lit, every nook and cranny of George Greenhill’s set design serves to transform the space into Don’s Resale Shop, the run-down urban junk shop setting in which the entire play takes place. With vintage colour Tupperware on its shelves and a rotary dial telephone on owner Donny’s (Ron Kelly) desk, the story’s 1970s setting is clear and confirmed by the well-chosen costumes of its three characters.

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Stuffed with everything from typewriter to steering wheel, there is an apparent “Sanford and Son” feel to the aesthetic, but it is soon apparent that this is no sitcom-ish comedy. Rather, the bold work, which arose from the playwright’s observations of streetlife in 1970s Chicago is a gritty, hard-hitting examination of small-time crooks, despite being an essential simple story of a crime that never actually occurs.

The most distinct aspect of the work is its streetwise dialogue, briskly delivered to create an innate rhythm in the characters’ back and forth banter. Although the language itself is simple, and often profane, as is Mamet’s signature style, in the mouths of the cast it dances around to make for many moments of humour as, for example, questions are answered with questions. This unfortunately also means that it is a long setup and considerably into Act One for the plot begins to take shape.

The story is of junk-shop owner Donny, who, after discovering that he sold a rare buffalo nickel to a customer for far less than its true value, conspires with his young gopher employee Bobby (Jackson McGovern) to steal it back. When Bobby’s shifty opportunist poker-buddy ‘Teach’ Cole (Derek Draper) tries to manipulate his way into the deal at Bobby’s expense, the pursuit of their twisted vision of the American dream is thwarted by their greed, and, as suspicion sets in, things begin to go awry.

While Mamet’s words make the play interesting, it is the cast, under Keiran Brice’s direction, that brings the truth to the work’s questions about the price of success with their realistic portrayals of the three Americans. Kelly is an engaging Don, conflicted between decency and betrayal, but ever the character and never one to miss opportunity for a swindle. And McGovern shows such fragility as Bobby that it easy to understand Don’s moments of genuine paternalism towards the recovering addict, promising, for example to buy him the vitamins he cannot afford.

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Even though their initial scene lacks intimacy as they speak across the stage, the play’s best moments come from Kelly and McGovern’s realisation of the relationship between Don and Bobby. The two are excellent together as they take audience from opening banter of apology to closing assurance of forgiveness. Meanwhile, Draper shifts the tone, bringing the highly-strung, fast-talking Teach to life with a committed physical performance as his swaggery bravado is increasingly overcome by distracting nervous shakes, anxious pacing and finger clicking as his moves to an ultimate eruption of violent hostility.

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Certainly the language of “American Buffalo” may not be to every theatre-goers taste and while its pace may sag at times under the weight of the text’s wordiness, this is outweighed by the heightened naturalism of its performance and the intimacy of its considered staging. And then there are its themes of friendship and business, loyalty and betrayal, and most importantly expose of the futility of the idea that striving automatically entitles success in life, which are as relevant today as when the work first featured on Broadway in 1977. Indeed, in its expose of the essential ugliness of the American Dream, this “American Buffalo” has a primal appeal that makes it well worthy of audience time.

Let’s talk about sex

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

Whereas week one of Awkward Conversation had family as an organising centre, Week Two saw the focus move to sex… well gender to be precise. And it is no more finely seen than in David Burton and Claire Christian’s work “The C Word” about the f word… feminism. Though this is a predominantly static work, it is filled with fabulous lines of wit and wisdom from the women who take the stage. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, they are feisty in their frankness as they tell of Cleopatra, Beyonce and Julia Gillard and that misogyny speech (passionately shared to the injections of audience applause). Nobody performs teenager as well as Emily Burton and her delivery of a speech about feminism to her class is a show highlight that will have you hoping for more.

Notions of gender as also central to the wicked game that is “Salome”. Salacious in its lustful provocation of red and black, satin and lace, and full frontal nudity, it is derivative of other works from director Steven Mitchell Wright so not entirely shocking. “Salome” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1871 while imprisoned for crimes of sexuality, but things have changed, we are told; we live in the suburbs now. And what a strange mixed up suburbia it is.

Suburban horror also drives Martin Crimp’s “Fewer Emergencies”. Under the direction of Lucas Stibbard, this largely talky work evokes some strange visuals, but is particularly interesting in how it begins with narrators interjecting from within the audience before making their way to the stage to take the audience through a loosely connected series of violent events, even sharing a song to shatter illusions of fatherhood.

Music features strongly in Daniel Keene’s “The River”, the story of a down-and-out dad attempting to reconnect with his son. The protagonist is essentially an unlikeable character with little backstory to engender audience empathy, however, it is a testament to Ron Kelly’s skill in inhabiting the role of wayward, drunken father. Surely the work contains many life lessons and analogies, however, the most memorable aspects are its aesthetics with live music and some sublime lighting that sees the stage bathed in blue during a journey though “The Boys Light Up.”

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Together with Week One’s offerings, “Awkward Conversation” serves up exactly that – some discomfort, some interest and a whole lot to take away and talk about. This is part of the reason why collaborations can be so exciting, for collaboration allows fission as much as fusion. The juxtaposition of ideas offers different perspectives and opportunities for a contemplative conversation.