THEATRE REVIEW: Caligula

The Danger Ensemble likes to live up to the name — testing the boundaries of experimental theatre, confounding expectations of narrative and taste, and generally taking a lot of risks. Like the ensemble’s previous fare, Caligula serves a challenge to its audience, asking how far we are willing to follow them and threatening to leave the meek behind.

My enduring image of Matthew Barney’s art project The Cremaster Cycle remains a painted, white-suited satyr, dragging himself laboriously through a Vaseline-filled duct. It’s grotesque: overtly sexual but lacking clear meaning. (I always assumed it was an allegory for the journey through the vas deferens, but to each their own.) It was this image that sprang to mind during Caligula. Director Steven Mitchell Wright has omitted enormous quantities of petroleum jelly from his production — perhaps even the wonderfully adventurous Judith Wright Centre has its limits — but the set is creative, nonetheless. The stage is a raised trapezoidal platform; the centre is filled with clear plastic cups. The cups give the impression of water or gems, albeit far louder when stepped on. The performers will spend most of their time cavorting on the raised edges, though they journey periodically into their crackling pool to wade or writhe about. The strongest aspect of Caligula is the visual design — from the costumes to the props and the characters’ physicality, the imagery is the most memorable part of this show.

Caligula: Chris Beckey

Perhaps the most striking image of the entire performance is the opening tableau: five busts wreathed in fog, immersed in a bassy, ambient soundscape. As the lights go down the characters behind them peel away from the dusty stone artifacts to come to noisy, lascivious life.

Initially we are treated to a brief history lesson, delivered in a bratty, synchronised monologue by performers Gabriel Comerford and Stephen Quinn. Wearing spectacles and cardigans, their scarcely restrained genitals bouncing in g-strings, the two introduce us to Caligula, who scandalised the Roman Empire during his brief reign as emperor between 37 and 41 CE. We will be taken on a tour of incest and general debauchery.

It’s around this point that shit starts to get weird. We meet sexy siblings Caligula (Chris Beckey) and Drusilla (Lucinda Shaw). Beckey manages to conjure the entire character of Caligula through voice alone, commanding and licentious, entirely sure of himself in his depravity and probable insanity. Unfortunately this does nothing to dispel the jarring tackiness of Drusilla launching into a mournful rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”. Shaw has a distinctive and powerful voice, best showcased on some of the later numbers. That’s not the problem here: the song is simply incongruous, and not in a way the aids the ensemble’s agenda.

Incongruity is an intentional part of Caligula; the show is not a linear narrative – it is not, in any real sense, a narrative at all. Instead it is a chain of impressions, images and ideas, including borrowed texts and scraps of pop culture. We are spectators to a carnival of highly sexualised folly. There is a sense that Wright and his creatives would like to link the story of Caligula and his hungers to our modern selves, a magnificent temporal fantasy of exhibitionism and desire. Unfortunately, it seems like the ensemble may be expecting too much from their audience on this front. Stripped of narrative, there isn’t enough material to conceptualise these links, and the end result is baffling and unsatisfying.

Caligula: Nerida Matthaei

Caligula relies heavily on shock value to give it weight, and in this aspect it feels as though they’re not giving their audience enough credit. At one point the performers engage in a kind of call-and-response interlude resembling a chat-room conversation or series of personal ads for fetish encounters. The content is intended to be shocking but the result is banal — there’s a glibness to their delivery that suggests that the performers aren’t quite committed to the conceit.  Nerida Matthaei is a superb physical performer, and her dance and movement throughout Caligula are no exception, but I can’t make myself believe she really wants the filthy things she’s asking for. Which is a pity — earnestness might go a long way here.

Despite the assertion towards the show’s end that the 21st century is home to an apathetic generation (why is that a thing in theatre at the moment?) I believe that what audiences crave is sincerity — no matter the subject matter. Performances that push the boundaries, like Caligula, are precious in the world of theatre, especially in Brisbane. Your audience is there because they want to leap into the void with you — if you let them.

CALIGULA plays at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts until 12 July. Tickets $20–35, restricted to viewers 18+.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

THEATRE REVIEW: Mary Stuart

Words: Tahnee Robinson

[At the OffStreet Arts blog, we’re launching this cool new idea: late reviews! It’s gonna take off! Belatedly! No, actually, apologies to QSE; this one got lost in the email vaults. Better late than never! — Ed.]

Under the direction of Christina Koch, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble has tried something new with their production of Mary Stuart. The parameters of the project are simple, but daunting; they are designed to push the ensemble to their limits and explore the possibilities of pulling a production together very quickly. The actors — with their lines already down — have had one week together to rehearse.

The choice of venue, the University of Queensland’s Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio, and the limited budget initially give the feeling of a high school or university production executed by consummate professionals. Angel Kosch’s costumes are creative and effective, but up close it’s evident that they have been restricted by financial concerns — Johancée Theron’s Queen Elizabeth is, I’m sure, wearing someone’s formal gown from the late 1990s. However, the professionalism of the company quickly overshadows this effect. Belinda Ward’s set is quite basic, too: a set of steps and a throne, and a lot of space for the actors to occupy, making maximum use of the Studio’s multiple stage entrances. The choice to include live music is very wise: the violin, cello and vocals by Imogen Eve and Wayne Jennings adds a level of polish that would be lacking if they had elected to use only prerecorded sounds.

Friedrich Schiller is, perhaps, a strange choice for such a project. Peter Oswald’s Tony-nominated version of the German original is lengthy and complex. However, for a Shakespeare ensemble there is a definite logic to the choice. The play is delivered largely in iambic pentameter, and the scheming political plot contains turns within turns, and layers of betrayal. It feels somewhat like a Shakespearean farce turned terribly serious.

The commitment of the cast, as a whole, is evident; there are a couple of fumbled lines but these are handled so as not to interrupt the flow. Some of the members are veteran Thespians, and it shows: Rob Pensalfini as the Earl of Leicester is the centrepoint of all this political scheming, and he executes each turn with a baffling conviction that is key to the moral ambiguity of the play. We are never quite sure that we understand what Leicester actually wants (other than to survive the narrative with his head attached) and it remains unclear whether he really knows, either. Flloyd Kennedy as Hanna, Mary’s loyal handmaid, is another standout. A guest to the ensemble, Kennedy’s part could be mistaken as decorative; however, she is flawlessly believable, drawing your attention while remaining unobtrusive. Nick James, an apprentice to the company last year and now a member of the core ensemble, plays a commanding Mortimer, who, on Schiller’s spectrum of reason to romanticism, is perhaps the character most driven by passion. James has just come from playing Lysander opposite Rebecca Murphy (Mary, Queen of Scots) for QSE’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the post-performance Q&A session the actors openly speculate as to the effect this may have had on their rapport together for Mary Stuart.

The Q&A, held after every performance, is an intriguing exercise for the audience; it adds a layer to the experience of seeing the production that, under other circumstances, might be unwelcome. Instead you feel like you have become part of an intriguing theatrical experiment. The company is quite open about the potential pros and cons of doing a production this way. For a play as complex as Mary Stuart there are, undoubtedly, both. This method allows a certain rawness that might otherwise be polished off with weeks of rehearsing and workshops, as the actors come to expect the ways in which their counterparts will deliver and move. The downside is the slight suspicion that the actors are, occasionally, unsure about their characters’ motivations. While Schiller and Oswald have built a deliberate level of ambiguity into the play, if the actors are indecisive it can reveal a lack of conviction that’s not always part of the character.

MARY STUART ran at the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio at the University of Queensland from 2 to 5 October, 2013.

REVIEW: Aurelian

Words: Tahnee Robinson

The stage at Metro Arts feels like a house in storage: draped with muslin and shadows, the shapes suggest but don’t confirm. It’s a fitting scene for what is to come — Aurelian explores the nature of memory and grief, and the way we construct our lives around loss.

Aurelian is the work of Genevieve Trace and a small creative team. Trace describes herself as a multidisciplinary performer, and Aurelian certainly samples from a variety of creative forms. The performance uses film, audio samples, physical theatre, live recording and a collection of narratives to form a pastiche of recollection and identity. Opening with a monologue that verges on prose-poetry, we are awakened to the anxiety of grief; performer Erica Fields repeats, with increasing desperation, a mantra of sorts: “But I have to work these things in order.” This is the panic of the bereaved, sorting through memories distorted with obsessive recollection.

The performance takes us through a series of stories, interview-style. Fields, shadowed by co-performer Trace, nods and smiles and pauses, responding to a series of prompts and questions that are unspoken. She has captured the glossy, overwrought joy of the bereaved perfectly. We are sometimes not sure who she is — widow, grandchild, neighbour — but all of these characters speak with the earnest ardor of people trying to do their lost loved ones justice in the retelling. And these stories are real, sourced from people in Trace’s hometown of Ayr in northern Queensland. Amongst them seems to be Trace herself, or her character, trying to understand her own grief.

Aurelian

Around the halfway mark, the narratives speed up and begin to fragment. Mike Willmett’s sound design follows the theme: the soundscape squeaks and glitches with the failing of the characters’ recollections. The climax, an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, is a wall of noise and flashing lights. Whitney Eglington’s lighting design makes clever use of the abstract set. Images are projected onto unlikely surfaces and lights appear behind screens to cast unexpected shadows and figures. The set is mostly made up of a series of trapezoidal constructions in various sizes. These function as seats, benches, projector screens and, at one point, a washing basket. They’re unobtrusive, and Trace and Field can move them about the stage with minimal interference.

All of this combined is Aurelian’s weak point. In evoking the overwhelming incomprehensibility of grief the show has overreached a little. There’s just too much here, for 60 minutes worth of performance. I can help but wonder if the whole thing would have felt more effective if a couple of the elements had been removed. The concept of the supernatural, hinted at during the opening, is explored more directly here. This is perhaps a natural inclusion in a discussion of death and loss, but it feels out of place amongst so much musing on identity and memory. The concept, executed with lights and a semi-transparent backdrop, and clever use of the two performers, is visually effective. But feels like a bridge too far — one thing too many to think about in a performance that is already quite intense.

Aurelian doesn’t really conclude — there isn’t even a curtain call. And that’s thematically consistent. There’s no answer to grief, no cure or method for dealing with it and no way to manage the wrinkling and slippage of our memories.

AURELIAN played at Metro Arts from 7 to 15 September as part of Brisbane Festival.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: Medea: The River Runs Backwards

Words: Tahnee Robinson

The Old Museum is a beautiful venue for an interpretation of the myth of Medea. The supports that run floor-to-ceiling transform readily into a Grecian ruin, and the chorus leads us through the doors and past the relics to be seated. Christine Urquhart’s set is simultaneously complex and minimal — there is a lot of space, and the production will use all of it, but with the pillars and a chorus occupying the stage there is surprisingly little room for props. A swathe of white fabric flowing from the ceiling, slashed into three sections, functions as a wall, a window and a veil; at one point a distraught Medea (Lauren Jackson) stands before it while the beautiful Glauce (Mollie Yang) taunts her between the gaps.

Julian Napier’s costumes are lovely and the chorus, in their flowing, glossy gowns, feel almost like a natural extension of the set.  Medea’s gown is well-suited to the choreography of the part: she is beautiful but uncontrolled.

Lauren Jackson in "Medea"

Zen Zen Zo are renowned for their physical theatre, but this production relies heavily on the acting chops of the cast. Eric Berryman is utterly magnetic as Jason; his presence steals the show. Lauren Jackson, who plays the rapidly deteriorating Medea, is a dancer by profession, and she shines during the more choreographed sections of the show: her dance with Eros (Brennan Campbell) is beautifully executed and both performers are clearly in their element.

The whole performance feels carried by the dedication of the chorus; the seven members function alternatively as Medea’s handmaids and the more traditional collective voice of the story. Their singing, dancing and narration walk us through the tale. The commitment of the individual members is evident — without it there would be something flimsy about the whole play, but they provide a certain sincerity that glues the production together.

Medea’s children are central to the story, but there are no children in the company. Their presence is signified only by their cries. It’s a difficult effect to achieve and it doesn’t quite work, from a sound-design perspective, though the choral arrangements and other effects are successful. The soundtrack also utilises some contemporary classic music — Etta James and Nick Cave both make an appearance.

Medea the character is already pretty crazy at the start of the story – this version skips over her initial love affair with Jason and starts after his betrayal — and she swiftly gets crazier. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on this arc, to see the intensity of Medea’s love transformed into the kind of madness that might drive someone to murder her own children.

MEDEA runs at The Old Museum from 19 Aug to 7 Sep, 2013.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: Tequila Mockingbird

Words: Tahnee Robinson
Photos: Dylan Evans

In Tequila Mockingbird, shake & stir theatre company reinterpret Harper Lee’s classic in a distinctly Australian context — an idea very much in keeping with their mission statement: to “motivate, educate and relate to youth.” Thus, Tequila Mockingbird takes us to the township of Stanton, barely a dot on the map — where it hasn’t rained for a long, long time.  The town, like much of the play, functions as a symbol of country Australia: there’s a Food Store that closes at five, a newsagent, a pub and a cast of salt-of-the-earth folks just trying to get by.

All of these places are created on a single set that is simple, but clever. Back-lit walls change colour to indicate different locations, and to differentiate between outside and inside. Three metal cages are moved around to form fences, couches and the bar at the pub as required.

Photo credit: Dylan Evans

Charlie (Nick Skubij) has been dragged to this particular end of the Earth from Sydney after his parents’ separation, and he’s not impressed. He’s not the only newcomer to Stanton; there’s also an Indian doctor named Sameer, played by Shannon Haegler. References both to the source text and some of Australia’s present cultural issues are made clear; the play evokes the Cronulla riots, violence against Indian students, the phrase “fuck off, we’re full” and various other blights that have nixed attempts to declare Australia a post-racial society. Sameer himself references these indirectly, repeating throughout the play that his father had not wanted him to come to Australia. He even cracks a Jayant Patel joke. The scene is played for laughs, but it also serves an important function: to remind us that as a minority you are always in danger of your actions becoming representative of an entire ethnic or social group.

There is a lot of humour in Tequila Mockingbird, and it’s well received by the audience.  As a child of rural Australia these scenes made me smile in weary recognition more often than laugh out loud. Barbara Lowing shines in this department, switching between Sue the publican, Trish the alcoholic and Karen the concerned neighbor. A cast of six plays 11 characters and the whole team is adept at the rapid transitions; there’s no danger of confusion. Lowing in particular seems to function as a sort of country matriarch composite. Always loud and a little bit nosey, all three characters are stereotypes, but they’re supposed to be: I’ve been cackled at by the shrill alcoholic in the liquor store, and cornered by the concerned neighbour. The audience giggles and gasps in horror as Trish tells Sameer that all rice tastes the same with curry on it, and I wonder at the difficulty of tackling racism without accidentally falling prey to classism. shake & stir have taken on a big task with this production; they’re trying to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time frame.

Photo credit: Dylan Evans

There’s a lot of time dedicated to build, and the key event — the assault on a young woman, Rachel (Nelle Lee) — takes place past the halfway point. From here, the pace speeds up. In addition to racism, the play also deals with the social symptoms of small-town death, and the cycles of hardship that feed them (alcoholism, unemployment and youth boredom come to mind). One of these is domestic violence. To defend Sameer, Richard (Bryan Probets) has to put Rachel on the stand to testify in court.  The scene is uncomfortable, and in the defense of the innocent the actual victim of the crime is cast as a villain. This isn’t acknowledged in the play, and after this point Rachel has no voice at all. The audience isn’t reminded that Rachel is lying under threat of further violence, and there is no sense of resolution to her situation.

One of the criticisms levelled at Lee’s original novel is that it’s a white-saviour story. It would have been nice to see this issue addressed more thoroughly in the interpretation. We hear from Sameer, but it feels a little shallow; his unfailingly polite acceptance and determination seem like an idealised version of a person.

Tequila Mockingbird deliberately avoids resolution in another area, too. In the original tale the stalwart Atticus Finch finds his faith shaken. Likewise, Richard is badly rattled by the course of events; angry and shocked he tells Charlie that “you can’t teach people like them.”  It’s a much more thought-provoking conclusion than a tight, comfortable resolution, and it better serves the play’s purpose: to leave the audience thinking.

TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD is on at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until September 7. Tickets $30 – $52.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: Confessions of a Control Freak

Words by Tahnee Robinson

Confessions of a Control Freak finds Belinda Raisin — actor, singer and former ballerina — exploring the pitfalls and foibles of her alter-ego Frances, a self-confessed control freak. But is she, really? Frances herself seems unsure. Certainly she likes a good list — Raisin makes a good start early on with an aria to her lists: lists that appear on post-its and clipboards, laminated on the toilet wall and unravelling for metres out of a filing cabinet. It sets the scene well, and the gangly faux-sexy dance as she twines the enormous list around herself and between her legs is a good indicator of what’s to come — Raisin plays the sexy dork well, and she makes Frances simultaneously a harried neurotic and a bit of an everywoman. And that’s what Confessions is really all about: can women (or this woman, at least) really have it all? It’s an old theme, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one, and Raisin tackles it endearingly, expanding on habits and tics that have the audience chuckling in recognition.

Confessions of a Control Freak opens with Jamie Teh at the piano. Teh, blind since birth, shares the stage with Raisin for the duration of the show, providing musical accompaniment and sound effects with unobtrusive dignity — even whilst holding up a sign that says, “She has I.B.S.”. He and Jennifer Teh are responsible for the musical compositions, and the soundscape ranges from 70s electro-pop to Disney. The music comes as a surprise, and audiences might have expected more original work, but the use of iconic hits works to the show’s advantage. Raisin’s voice is quite good — it’s arguably the weakest element of the show, but that doesn’t really matter. The point of sampling Adele’s “Someone Like You” with regard to one of Frances’s (many, many) deceased pets is not to showcase Raisin’s pipes, and it doesn’t need to be.  Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” (confession: Frances LOVES cleaning) is, in this instance, a very large glass of wine. And that vodka taking up door space in the fridge.

ConfessionsOfAControlFreak3_3FatesMedia

The Poppins-themed cleaning montage sees Raisin, having unearthed a trove of useless treasures, zooming around the Judith Wright Centre in rollerblades, handing out glasses of wine to audience members. It’s one of the better “feed the audience” inclusions I’ve come across, and watching a woman fly around a cluttered space on wheels, brandishing brimming glasses of alcohol, evokes precisely the amused-horror you might feel watching a friend having a manic moment. Needless to say, the job does not get done.

It’s a short performance, clocking in at around 60 minutes, but sometimes the material feels a little thin. Perhaps that’s because it’s a cabaret about the everyday — there’s no velvet here, nor feathers — but the pacing feels occasionally sluggish at moments.  Frances turns serious toward the end — an abrupt segue from the dead pets montage, which has the audience highly entertained — meditating on children, and whether having babies is something she really wants, or whether it’s just the next item on the list. This is a question that’s probably been considered by every couple of child-rearing age for the last few decades; it’s no doubt relevant. But something about it feels a little disappointing, like there’s nothing revelatory to be had here. I was happier when Frances’s “bundle of joy” was set to be a puppy (pity about what happened to that bunny, though).

As a whole the show is very warm, and Raisin’s slightly gawky physical humour goes down well with the crowd. The Judy is an excellent venue choice for the show, fostering the intimacy it replies on and allowing the audience to become part of the antics. It’s worth a visit for the slightly-scattered list-maker in all of us. After all, we’re all just trying to keep a job, find love, stay fit, see our friends and develop some hobbies, right?

CONFESSIONS OF A CONTROL FREAK is on at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts until 17 August. Tickets $19–24.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: Blak

Bangarra Dance Theatre: BLAK

Words by Tahnee Robinson

It’s not often that each element of a performance — choreography, lighting, set design, smell — is beautifully executed in its own right. But Bangarra’s latest offering, BLAK, goes beyond that to create a performance both stunning in its attention to detail and deeply confronting as a whole.

Blak is slick and sharp, tightly controlled dance theatre that, despite telling its story through movement and metaphor, completely eschews artifice. There is nothing self-conscious here — and absolutely no apologies as the dancers use their bodies to tell stories of crime, violence, assault and grief.  The stage is often dark, but when the dancers look out they’re bold: they’ll look you in the eyes.

The performance is divided into three sections. Choreographed by Daniel Riley McKinley and the male dancers themselves, “Scar introduces us to gang of young men dressed in street gear.  Clad in dark, hooded clothing, their movements evoke a sense of sublimated violence, stalking the stage with fear and aggression as they navigate the difficulties of being young, male and indigenous in urban Australia. The men fall in and pull back from fighting and self-harm in a series of movements that fall somewhere between breakdancing and ballet. These sequences incorporate traditional elements that eloquently convey the opposing forces of modernity and tradition, and the difficult spaces available for young Aboriginal men to occupy and grow into.  Different pools of spotlight flicker between dark scenes of conflict. At one point the grinding, synthy soundtrack whoops into the unmistakable cry of police sirens and the group cease fighting, unified instead to flee.

Bangarra: Blak

Part two, “Yearning”, is choreographed in collaboration with the female dancers. It’s a change of pace — the movements are less violent, more sinuous — but the atmosphere is no less fraught, largely due to the music. David Page and Paul Mac have outdone themselves; they create a dark, electronic soundscape that incorporates traditional singing, vocal samples and instruments, with elements of trip hop and trap music.  A woman answers a call, illuminated by the sodium-lamp glow of a telephone box in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night. The music throbs and jitters; tension escalates in an eerie way that is reminiscent of some of Cliff Martinez’s recent film scores.

Jacob Nash’s set design is poignant in its minimalism. Single props are perfectly chosen to evoke a sense of place: a row of blue plastic chairs, a swinging spot lamp and a corrugated iron roof, glowing green in the dark. Beneath the eerie glow women sit atop milk crates and learn of a granddaughter’s suicide; a smoking tin can on stage wreathes their grief with incense. Their loss smells sweet and spicy and mournful; it lingers.

This beautiful simplicity continues as a small television — the old kind, a CRT with rabbit-ears — appears on stage.  Three women writhe on the ground. From the dark, a figure appears carrying a green spotlight; he’s filming them. As they dance in distress, they appear on the TV. We’re watching the film and reality in real-time, but we cannot focus on the domineering figure behind his lamp. The result is simultaneously deeply affecting and extraordinarily hard to articulate — a powerful, confusing motif.

The performance culminates in part three, “Keepers”, which features the full ensemble. The set is breathtaking: blackness lightens to reveal the gloss of wet rocks and light refracts off a stream of fog to create a waterfall. The dancers come together, with nature, to embrace both tradition and the future. This beautiful piece of work gives the performers room to show us the full range of movement, emotion and eroticism in their repertoire. It’s a tribute to love and community that ends a confronting performance on a note of optimism and possibility.

BLAK runs at the QPAC Playhouse until 27 July, 2013.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.