Adelaide Premiere. Red Phoenix Theatre & Holden Street Theatres. Holden Street Theatres. 21 Oct 2021
Such a dense and emotionally gripping piece of theatre leaves one almost drained of superlatives.
Red Phoenix’s production of the unique documentary play about the monstrous 1998 gay-hate killing of young Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, is so powerful and immediate that, at its denouement and, indeed, intermittently throughout, audience members are streaming tears.
How can a play that is so sad and disturbing also be uplifting and enriching?
Ah, there’s the artistry of the theatre. There is the very “why” of theatre.
Within that black box at Holden Street, we were transported. There was no world other than the actors under lights and, through the consummate skill of director Brant Eustice, the piercing and poignant exposition of a town reliving the shock and shame and, in some cases ferocious ambivalence, of an act of unspeakable cruelty by some of their own.
The play, The Laramie Project, was devised by America’s Tektonic Theatre Company whose members went in person to Laramie to record one-by-one the reactions of the citizenry to what had happened in their midst. It is a brilliant dramatic construction wrought of human verite, of very conservative country folk juggling their own disapproval of homosexuality against their horror of others’ hatred for it. It reveals the quietly covert world of sexual diversity in such environments. It scrapes at the underbelly of Christian values and yet manages to bring human beauty out of gut-wrenching tragedy.
It requires a huge cast. There are about sixty voices represented from ye olde plain folk on the land to barflies and pastors, from academics to waitresses, family, friends, police, and doctors.
It takes three acts of theatre, almost three hours, to tell this massive crime story.
And yet, for the audience immersed in this brave piece of Red Phoenix dramatic expertise, time stands still. There is no other reality.
And thus one salutes Eustice, his assistant director, Tracey Walker, and the ten actors on stage.
They have elicited a copybook piece of ensemble acting. It is a production of sheer eloquence and sophistication, albeit executed on an oily rag of a budget. Kate Prescott’s set is just a series of cleverly positioned black platform boxes and a striking log fence.
The actors wear white t-shirts, jeans, and boots but, for each character they embody, they take a token garment from a clothes rack and, in the age-old tradition of the theatre, they slip into a different persona. These are the exercises and subsequent achievements of drama training and stage experience. And the cast is accomplished.
It works on delivering American accents and cultural nuances, some actors impeccably, others well, none badly.
Outstanding in the field are Sharon Malujlo, Nick Kennett, Matt Houston, Samuel Creighton, Tom Tassone, Chris Gun, and Nadia Talotta with some fine moments from Cheryl Douglas, Jasmine Leech, and Anita Zamberlan Canala. From every cast member, it is astute collaboration, snappy cues, and fluid movement, enhanced by Richard Parkill’s perceptive lighting.
From this superb work, one takes away indelible images: the totality of Matt Houston’s Wyoming-rustic with simply a facial expression and a ten-gallon hat; the transformation of Samuel Creighton as he dons a priest’s collar; the croaky cigarette-voiced credibility of Sharon Malujlo’s old mum; the vocal authority if Tom Tassone’s judge; the easy likeability of Chris Gun’s teatowel-twisting bartender; the collective chaos of the voracious American media; the incredible gentleness of Amazing Grace; and the sweet poignancy of the dying boy’s “friends”. There are so many memorable moments in such a big and finely-honed show.
When: 21 to 30 Oct
Where: Holden Street Theatres
RUMPUS Theatre Association. RUMPUS. 20 Oct 2021
RUMPUS is a grass roots collective of theatre makers founded in 2019 by Yasmin Gurreeboo, Nescha Jelk and Rebecca Mayo and now an epicentre of Bowden’s Bohemian charm. Ensconced in a converted factory, I was taken back 35 years to Bruno & Vallee Knez’s La Mama Theatre in Hindmarsh with their similar great gusto and low budget. RUMPUS is a most welcoming space with a retro feel peopled with welcoming people.
In this world premiere, playwright Michèle Saint-Yves juxtaposes her personal experience of an acquired brain injury against dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Her production intelligently utilises many supportive theatrical design elements including mood-altering lighting, screen projections (audio-visual, digital & lighting designer Mark Oakley) and singing. The creative team make extraordinary efforts to ensure that the show is a “relaxed performance” – that is, it is “adapted to be accessible to autistic audiences, as well as audience members with sensory or communication conditions or learning disabilities” (definition from: www.a-tistic.com.au). There is also a wealth of information about the show and how to enjoy it on the RUMPUS website and via QR codes in the theatre. The producers claim their attention to audience needs is unparalleled and the good feeling one gets from being present to all these efforts is worth your attendance, even if you don’t need them (“the curb effect” – look it up; another thing I learned) – co-aesthetic designers Bianka Kennedy & Katherine Cooper.
In line to enter the theatre from the lobby, everybody gets to hold a balloon to feel the vibrations of Jennifer Liston singing a song onto it, but this takes ages. The ambience in the theatre is soothing yet unusual. After a melancholic rendition of The Way We Were by Liston, actor Jo Stone’s Simone staggers and limps onto the stage space with a cane looking like death warmed over. We see a very worried and bewildered individual wondering about, and already tired of, what is happening to her. With great effort, she is assisted into an MRI scanner to find out. This was the most dramatic and successful scene of the show.
Saint-Yves is both director and writer. She doesn’t shy away from technically establishing in medical terms exactly what is a sub-arachnoid cyst, or how the cosmic webs that hold together the galaxies of the universe are metaphor for the brain webs of her cyst and Dad’s dementia. Much of the rest of the evening is taken up with Simone’s dialogue with Dad presented as a series of vignettes based presumably on Saint-Yves own experience. They are interesting but a dramatic blind alley. There is also narration voiced by Saint-Yves that is weaved with the player’s scenes (While the script is presented on two monitors continually, only the narrator is signed; watching “melanocortin 1 receptor” visualised in Auslan was marvelous). Many of Liston’s scenes with Paul Reichstein as dear Dad dealt heart-tugging scenes of helplessness handled with love and the humour of acceptance, but they are similar and unfortunately for some of us, familiar.
Saint-Ives work is part play-part poem, a catalogue of her experiences demonstrating excellent and ironic comparisons and contrasts of her and her Dad’s neurological conditions. There is much to take away from Simone’s resilience, but the good work lacks a narrative arc or dramatic devices like change in pace or conflict to raise the result from intriguing to compelling.
When: 20 to 31 Oct 2021
OzAsia Festival. Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Paramatta. Dunstan Playhouse. 20 Oct 2021
Anchuli Felicia King is a rising name on the world theatre scene and her play, White Pearl, which opened the OzAsia season this week, is a fast and furious portrayal of the views and values of young Asian women in the 2020s. She depicts them as sharp and clever, well educated, ambitious, and reaching out to the world stage but not yet quite liberated enough to own it.
White Pearl is a daring parody on the standards of the beauty culture, its eponymous title based on a new skin-whitening cream that an all-female cosmetics company has launched onto the Asian market where skin lightening long has been a beauty quest. King opens a vivid, sometimes comic, and sometimes touching insight into the cultural contrasts of Asia by making the company team a cross-national affair: one member is Singaporean, another Japanese, another Korean, Chinese, Indian and Thai-American. Cast member Kristy Best embodies most eloquently the slippery CEO, Priya Singh, who brags that her company is entirely egalitarian with none of the toxicity of the male corporate world. This assertion is to unravel. Cheryl Ho provides delicious comic relief as her non-binary Singaporean “homey”, with Mayu Iwasaki as the Japanese marketing strategist, Yin Lin as the Korean cosmeceutical chemist, and Nicole Milinkovic as the vapid glamour queen of Thai American upbringing. It is she who lures into the plot the one extremely unlikeable predatory male, a Frenchman called Maurice, bravely played by Matthew Pearce. No spoilers here, but it is all a bit gross. Indeed, playwright King does not resile from the ugly side of anything. The ghastly racist overtones of the company’s scandalous ad evoke all sorts of references to Asian racial bias and ethnocentric presumptions generally. The script veers from satire to vulgarity, taking no prisoners when it comes to shock value.
The action takes place in the company headquarters in Singapore to which end the Jeremy Allen-designed set shows a sleek corporate boardroom with a subtly mirrored back wall and, aloft, inspired by the playwright herself, an electronic counter which, accompanied by a blaze of tech sound effects, spits forth ever-growing numbers. These are indicating hits on social media as the company’s latest advertising push goes viral as a racist meme. Beneath the screen, the women scramble, bicker and bully to deal with the crisis and show that corporate crookedness and venality are not products of an exclusively male domain. Nor, as is rather graphically depicted, are women entirely liberated from male sexual shenanigans.
The play covers it all. Under the direction of Priscilla Jackman, it sings with fearlessly expletive-driven tongue-lashings and, with a ladies’ loo conveniently depicted prompt onstage, an unprecedented invasion into that purportedly private women’s world. Some of the ugliest and most beautiful of the play's scenes take place in that cleverly-wrought inner sanctum.
As the characteristics of each Asian nation emerge through the characters, so does the omnipresence of internet news and social media: the make-or-break ruling forces of today.
White Pearl is a fierce and audacious piece of theatre. It is fearlessly sardonic. It is alight with ideas and relevant on myriad very serious levels while still evoking laughter. If Anchuli Felicia King is a beacon for millennial theatre-writing, then we are in for a bright future.
When: 20 to 23 Oct
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
The Metropolitan Musical Theatre Co. of S.A. Inc. Arts Theatre. 14 Oct 2021
Nice Work If You Can Get It is the love child of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning Joe DiPietro. After a long trial-and-error period starting in 2001, this little number was itself up for Tonies in 2012 which were won by a couple of the performers (ie not DiPietro).
DiPietro employs brothers George & Ira Gershwin’s instrumental compositions and many of their best-known songs from the ‘20s & ‘30s in a narrative of the screwball romantic comedy type which emerged in the American films of the 1930s; lots of dames, sly grog, and low-life petty criminals pulling a fast one on the rich and privileged. Sounds great, but while the baseline froth and bubble is initially very attractive, it takes too long to bedazzle with comic expertise or to press the emotional buttons.
Yet over all, Selena Britz directs a ritzy, dazzling high energy affair. Choreographer Carmel Vistoli, I suppose, is perforce stuck in flapper mode, but impels the cast into fits of stage-wide activity with sometimes something different and more challenging moves. All the major female characters are rather unappealing persona and cliché, which is a barrier to connection. Unfortunately, the lack of substance is often compensated with over-expression. Melodrama is part of the art, and it’s tricky for sure to get the balance right - and it may yet come after opening night.
What does work in DiPietro’s book is the dry humour and one-liners. Plenty of enjoyable imbecilic naivety is conveyed by Joel Amos whose male lead character is rakish within an alcoholic haze. Kristel Dally’s dilettante bride-to-be soaking in the suds and toweling off with the help of nymphs – all the while pumping out Delishious; - was a sweet-smelling soap opera. I tip my hat to Barry Hill who made the most of the mischief and mirth with his Cookie McGee’s double identity device and DiPietro-given zingers. Dancer Iman Saleh draws attention with his smooth moves and exuberance. The orchestra under musical director Jesse Budell makes Gershwin fresh and lively.
The painted drop of foreboding Brooklyn-brown brick tenements under the bridge and across the road from the pizza shop in Scene 2 was a work of art (set design: Selena Britz & Leonie Osborn). The colourful and plentiful costumes could sing and dance all by themselves (costume coordination: Carmel Vistoli & Leonie Osborn). The sound levels were right after testing them out in the first scene, but unintended aural disturbances as loud as gunfire crackled the air a couple of times.
A for effort, B for better next time.
PS The aforementioned Barry Hill will be directing Hello Dolly! for The Met next year and I’m looking forward to that.
When: 14 to 23 Oct
Where: Arts Theatre
University of Adelaide Theatre Guild. Little Theatre. 9 Oct 2021
Some Americans walk the Appalachian Trail. Some do the Trans-American Trail, a 4000-mile bike epic whence a back wheel is dipped in the Pacific waters and the front in the Atlantic.
Feckless student Leo takes on this journey, ending up on the doorstep of his grandmother’s apartment in Greenwich Village. He’s extremely grubby and traumatised by the death of his riding companion en route. Grandma is in the early stages of dementia. She barely knows him but takes him in and blithely gives him play money to explore New York. It’s a tenuous relationship which Amy Herzog’s play gently develops. Oddly, none of the characters are truly likeable, including the two girls who pop into Leo’s life. Set in 2007, it could be described as neo-kitchen-sink drama. Embodying a sense of urban vérité, families and neighbours co-exist but never really get close; the people seem to listen but never hear each other.
The triste of the tale is grandmother Vera for whom the month of unexpected cohabitation fractures her solitude and gives her a taste of unlikely fellowship.
It is a play in which nothing happens and life is a series of incidents. The old girl is caught without her teeth. She doesn’t bother with her hearing aid. The lad reunites with a fellow biker girlfriend but does not connect. He brings home a rich Chinese “valley girl” called Amanda who is attracted to his mountain-man scruffiness but appalled by his politics.
The scenes with grandmother Vera deliver a lovely observation of the eternal domination of trivia over daily life and poignantly, of the vulnerabilities of aging. In this context, Julie Quick gives a superb performance, artfully assuming the posture and vocal modulations of this stoic New York senior toughing it out against the odds of her own diminishing capabilities. She is pure New York, the loneliness of the long-term tenant.
Jackson Barnard shows a very easy, naturalist acting skill as grandson Leo, and a lovely sense of humorous nuance. For, indeed, this minor work is not without its funny moments. It blooms into wild comic relief when Amanda comes onto the scene, a torrent of OMG vapidity exquisitely delivered by Naomi Gomez, a bright new actress to watch out for.
The cycling girlfriend, Bec, is played by Laura Antoniazzi who has steadily established herself as a talented and versatile ensemble player and in this production, capably directed by Eric Strauts, she builds on this reputation.
Designer, Nicole Puttins has cleverly used every inch of the Little Theatre’s performance spaces with a comfy domestic set, including an apartment door on the upper level of the auditorium and a balcony or rooftop setting on the mezzanine, which could be a little further forward to improve visibility. But, apart from somewhat slow scene changes and some oddly sketchy continuity in the script, this Guild production is strangely satisfying, and a triumph for Julie Quick.
When: 9 to 23 Oct
Where: The Little Theatre