Talkin’ about a revolution et al

The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

March 2 – 26

In a rare occurrence, the cast of The Curator’s Australian premiere production of “The Revolutionists” receives audience applause before any members have even spoken a word. It comes, appropriately, in recognition of the show’s bold beginning, which sees its four characters bursting down a fashion runway. While our eyes follow them strutting their way to the end, another appears in waiting, wisely allowing us time to appreciate the vivid aesthetic being exhibited.

It is here where we meet the story’s four fierce females. Three are real life figures: forgotten playwright and feminist advocate Olympe de Gouges (Lisa Hickey) who was executed for seditious behaviour based on the contents of her unfinished play about the former Queen of France Marie Antoinette, idealistic assassin Charlotte Corday (Lauren Roche) and the infamous embattled queen Marie Antoinette herself (Amanda McErlean). The fourth, a freedom fighter called Marianne Angelle (Asabi Goodman) on ‘political reconnaissance’ from the island nation of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), is the creation of playwright Lauren Gunderson.

Although the traverse staging with the audience seated on both sides is something Brisbane audiences have previously experienced in Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon”, Milton’s Christ Church creates a unique intimacy that allows us to become immersed in recognition of the stunning, rich visuals that are created by make-up and costumes (Costume Designer and Director Michael Beh). Lush pins and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveys a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

The work, which was first produced in 2015, is really a play about a playwright writing a play, the playwright being Olympe de Gouges. And it is at Olympe’s Parisian office where we observe the women’s salons about their philosophies and ambitions. It begins with a visit from her abolitionist friend Marianne, who wants Olympe to write pamphlets to assist in the fight against colonial oppression. As the two talk about their revolutionary belief that a better world is possible in which women have agency over their own lives, they are joined by Charlotte, who is in search of a writer to help craft her final words for the scaffold, anticipated as part of her plan to murder the awful fundamentalist Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the Reign of Terror.

Sparks fly when Marie enters, leading to some quick bickersome banter between the four who are all obviously self-aware of their own varied struggles. Though sometimes a little laboured (meaning that Act One is retrospectively a little long comparative to its taut Act Two), there is a clear celebration of words, writing and the theatre, along with reminder of women’s importance in history. As the characters converse about themselves and how they desire to be remembered, the script gifts us many quote-worthy catch phrases and meta-theatre mentions, especially in Olympe’s rebuked determination to write a witty and wise satiric ‘voice of the revolution’ play rather than a hyperbolic musical about the French Revolution, ‘because nobody wants that’. Subtle and not-so theatre and historical references add to the show’s huge humour. And though things darken with Act Two short, sharp shocks of violence as the women face their fates with varying degrees of defiance, laughs are still afforded in some small moments.

Attention to detail adds to the dynamism of the experience. French revolutionary motifs such as aristocratic wigs are adorned by the production’s tech crew and ushers. Framed posters line the walls with the women’s essential quotes and the pre-show soundtrack empowers with ‘I’m Every Woman’ type sentiments. Within the production too, reappropriated modern songs give each woman a musical motif, most notably in Marie’s ‘Feeling Good’ reassurance and Charlotte’s ‘So What’ declaration of rock star status.

The strong and empowering characters are all distinct and are exemplified to their full passionate potential by a talented cast of women who easily moderate the show’s movements towards melodrama and farce. And it is clear that they are loving what they are doing. Hickey gives her all to anchor things as Olympe. McErlean brings an unanticipated real-person compassion to crazy-ass but sometimes profound ribbon-loving queen-no-longer Marie Antoinette whose dialogue comes complete with its own stage directions. This is especially evident in her one-on-one conversations with sassy Marianne, which come across more like a Real Housewives sort of tea spill about husbands and children.In contrast to Marie’s charming entitlement, is Marianne’s angry championing, which Goodman delivers with delicious passion before settling in to contrasting talk about how much she misses her catch of a husband, a fellow revolutionary still fighting back at home. Roche, meanwhile, invigorates the angry Charlotte Corday with an intense youthful energy.

‘It’s the intimate not the grand dramas that touch people the most,’ Marianne observes in instruction for Olympe’s to find ‘the heart not the art’. The apt words are some of many within the play that sum up its experience, for although its story is drama filled, it is also ultimately hopeful about the power of legacy. Indeed, while its reminder of women’s importance in history is particularly resonate around the time of International Women’s Day, its important ultimate messages about the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation, and the essence of stories to humanity are enduring. In The Curator’s highly-capable hands “The Revolutionists” is a wonderful work of humour and heart that only really leaves its audience wondering why the satire is not being more widely staged. It’s passionate, powerful, political and all the rest when it comes to descriptors than moniker the type of theatre that you want to tell everyone to go and see ASAP.

River deep

Vincent River (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

October 13 – 31

Vincent River is not a location; it is the name of the character at the centre of Philip Ridley’s powerful 2000 one act play of the same name that addresses homophobic-based violence, which can really be extended to include violence against any form of difference. However, even with this knowledge, Vincent’s character remains elusive as, despite dominating discussions, we never see him on stage. Instead, we begin with 53-year-old London East-Ender Anita (Amanda McErlean) being visited by 17-year-old Davey (Patrick Shearer), a stranger who has been following her.

It has only been months since Anita lost her son Vincent in a brutal hate crime and although she is clearly a strong woman, she is emotionally desperate for every, even gruesome, detail from the stranger who found the corpse of her murdered son and now wants to know more details about his life. As information is guarded and then shared, the duo drink and banter through their searches for an end their pains, for Davey has also suffered loss on a scale greater than we at first realise. All is revealed as their shared story navigates its way through accusations and insults, revelations, yearning for love and a reprieving resolution of sorts.

On paper, a 90-minute two-hander of this nature can seem like an arduous undertaking, however, incredible performances mean that experience of the engrossing tale flies by despite its narrative smoulder. Indeed, Michael Beh’s evocative direction allows McErlean and Shearer to give their all as performers meaning that the story is told magnetically, in reaction to each other as much as through their own dialogue delivery. Never off-stage, McErlean takes Anita through the full gamut of emotions during the play, convincingly conveying the grief, disorientation and guilt of a mother who has lost her only son in the most unthinkably violent of circumstances, leaving her with only contemplation of lost opportunities. Then with his slick jacket removal, things switch to Davey’s complexities and the real reason for his visit. The remainder of the show seems almost like an extended monologue from him and, in Shearer’s hands, we hang on his every moment of bravado and ultimate vulnerability. There is a natural cadence to his dialogue delivery that makes him a captivating storyteller despite the disturbance of his recall of the critical incident.

Ridley’s clever writing also serves to elevate the work. While the script of “Vincent River” is dense, it is full of natural dialogue and well-placed moments of silence. It is a tense and turbulent drama in its portrayal of its deep and confronting themes of hate crime, homophobia and grief, but this is considerately tempered by some tender moments and flashes of humour to ease the strain. Craftedness is seen in its revisited motifs that are not overdone in their inclusion. Similarly, too, this production’s dynamic soundscape, including of well-placed song snippets, is not overdone. Bethany Scott’s evocative lighting design and shadows are used to effect for emphasis, though transitions are occasionally abrupt. And the contrast of Michael Beh’s set design of a dingy apartment against a vibrant backdrop, is impressive, especially in such an intimate venue as Milton’s Christ Church.

“Vincent River” is gripping theatre. Its execution is almost claustrophobically taut, meaning that its experience is harrowingly emotional, in the way that good stories often are. The fact that it comes with important messages around marginalisation makes it another perfect choice for The Curators and an absolute treat for theatre-starved audiences.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Henrik homage

Ghosts (The Curators)

The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre

July 19 – August 4

The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial “Ghosts” is innovative from even the initial moments of its experience. Smoke haze meets the audience upon entrance into the Vintage Pop-Up Theatre in Red Hill’s St Barnabas Hall. In opening, characters emerge to move forward towards us from behind a makeshift plastic scrim screen. A menacing soundtrack signals the carpenter Engstrand’s (Warwick Comber) pressure of his daughter, Regina (Lauren Roche) to become a prostitute. Their resulting course language in brash interaction appears to be as jarring within the 1881 play, however, ultimately it does detract anything from the work as a whole, which is excellent in every regard.

Regina is maid to the widowed Helene Alving (Lisa Hickey) who is horrified to overhear Regina flirting with her beloved bohemian artist son Oswald (Patrick Shearer) who has recently returned from years of exile in Paris, where his mother sent him to avoid him being corrupted by his father. The layered story from there is of Helene who is in the final stages of opening an orphanage with her charitable partner, and the story’s moral compass, Pastor Manders (Tom Coyle) in memory of her husband Captain Alving. Regretful of staying with the debauched Captain out of social obligation, she thinks that opening the facility in his name will put to rest rumours, but also guarantee that none of his money will go to their son, whom Helene wants to inherit from her alone. It is a slow build to almost Oedipus territory as Helene determines to liberate her son from the ghosts of their past until things take a sudden turn in a tumultuous Act Two as the extent of Oswald’s suffering from the syphilis he ‘inherited’ from his father is fully revealed.

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The tragic story of Helene and her son Osworld is a mythic one, especially as the two descend into the darkness of Act Two. As great works so often are, the play is full of contemplative themes and quotable dialogue about each of us being the ghosts of our past, and in The Curator’s hands this realisation stands strong as not just a tribute to Ibsen but to being human, through its highlight of the themes of duty, reputation and deception. The playwright’s advocacy and sympathy for women through inclusion of strong female characters is not diminished either.

The heavy material of “Ghosts” demands much from its actors and all members of the cast deliver in this regard. Act Two is swift but packs a big punch as hinted-at devastating revelations are unravelled, making the agonising ending quite affecting thanks in particular to Shearer’s powerful and precise performance in the show’s climatic scene. He is an expressive performer down to every possible nuance, especially when in wide-eyed defence of his hyperbolical La Boheme lifestyle. Indeed, his textured performance as the petulant painter is as polished as any I have seen in professional productions of Isben’s works. Also of particular note is Hickey who displays a commanding stage presence as the desperate secret-keeper Helene, possessed in the defence of her own child.

Dynamic make-up and detailed costumes serve as similar stand-out aspects of the polished production; the authentically-ostentatious but constrictive costuming is immediately noteworthy. And Bethany Scott’s lighting design serves as a frame for each of the show’s acts. Director Michael Beh’s set design is such that we see the play rip through the plastic wrapping of society not just metaphorically but literally, thanks to the initial plastic-wrap of furniture items which are repositioned in ‘reboot’ during blackout scene changes which provkes further interest.

Like many of Ibsen’s plays, “Ghosts” is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia, it is an ambitious theatrical undertaking, especially from an independent theatre company, which makes The Curator’s production particularly outstanding. The show is not only exciting, but difficult to fault. The company brings the classic to life in a creative way, but does so in a manner that fosters refreshed audience interest in its playwright. While it may not be a mainstream manifestation of a work of realism and, therefore, is perhaps an acquired taste, its design elements are impressive and its performances are captivating, meaning that we can only await with anticipation what the company tackles for its next production.