Ancient appeal

The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 17 – 27

“He didn’t think much of her at first.” So, the audience is tantalised by the strong start to “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars”. The work is full of creativity, not only in Van Badham’s poetic, but not overly lyrical writing (which can make even box a sound sensuous), but in The Hive Collective’s lively and engaging presentation of the work. Indeed, Heidi Manché’s nimble direction of what is essentially a series of monologues spoken directly to the audience, only adds to the experience of this smart and spirited rom-com of sorts.

The interesting and intelligent two-hander, which is based on the Ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, is essentially two stories in one as it traces a woman’s romances with two very different men. The character tying the stories together is Marion (Sarah Ogden), an artist working initially at a museum and later teaching a septuagenarian art group at a holiday resort in Wales.

The opening line narration establishes the work’s distinctive style, which sees the performers talking about the characters in third person narrative before transforming into them, enabling an additional layer of interest. Michael (Rob Pensalfini) is a publications manager at an Oxford museum. Marion, is the new artist-in-residence in a comfortable relationship with a stone mason boyfriend. There is no immediate attraction. (He is married and she isn’t even his type). However, a dangerous attraction is soon developed from provocations at the photocopier, a blue dress and baking, leading to an urgent encounter during an at-night vigil in attempt to discover the truth behind the mysterious, monstrous bull threatening the museum’s antiquities.

As Michael and Marion unleash the beast of their lusty animal attraction, the Minotaur is manifested from the edge of the dark. And when, in the aftermath, she is left emotionally perished, we understand her flee to a new life as art tutor in the seaside resort, when she finds herself initially infuriated but later intrigued by Mark, a wayward womanising Australian sommelier we know will go on to enliven her from the painful self-loathing of her life’s wreckage … for despite its mythic proportions of sensuality and debauchery, “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” is also touching in the emotional honesty of its reflection on the role of cruelty and heartbreak in character development into a new version of self.

The risky and at times risqué story ebbs and flows in the ways of life, which is enhanced by the cresendoing of overlapping character narration towards the first story’s climax. This, and the use of third person storytelling, effectively gives us insight into the private thoughts of both characters, which ensures a good balance between its hyperbolic mythology and its essential charm, which is seen especially in the second story of Marion and Mark, largely due to Pensalfini’s performance.

Pensalfini brings an irresistible, charismatic energy to the knock-about Mark, delivering a memorable performance, intuitively responsive to the audience’s energy. We also see his range not only across the stories, but within the first story itself, in which, like Ogden, he thunders his character to larger-than-life elevation. In both stories, the two establish clear, distinct characters, (for Ogden, the before and after of Marion’s infidelity) and there is a clear chemistry throughout.

Sarah Winter’s deceptively simple set allows the performers the space to shine, unburdened by much beyond the text. The only items in the clean, white space of the curtained stage-upon-a-stage of New Benner Theatre are a versatile collection of white boxes that are moved around to easily represent different places, spaces and even people. And when the curtains are drawn back and the space opens up for the second story, it works with Christine Felmingham’s lighting to signal the illumination of Marion’s new self. The live on-stage musical score courtesy of Shenzo Gregorio similarly assists in taking us from the build of the first story’s cacophonies to the tender rediscoveries of later gentler sections.

Even if unfamiliar with detail of Greek mythology of the work’s source material, it is easy enough for the audience to follow the most obvious allusions. Mark is, as is quoted, clearly Dionysus, the godof wine, fertility, ritual madness and ecstasy. Still, some program guidance to assist in appreciation of the work’s ancient inspirations, would perhaps have been helpful. Regardless, the playful celebration of the complexities at the heart of female sexuality is still a vibrant addition to the busy February theatre season. And if the appeal of this dynamic debut outing is any indication, the future works of this exciting new collective can only be awaited with much anticipation.

Photo c/o –  Stephen Henry

Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8

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An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.

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The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).

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It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.

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In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.

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Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.

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Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.

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Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.

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“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.