Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sex With Strangers

Sex With Strangers runs from September 24 - November 24 2012 at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company. By Laura Eason, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse.

I might have got there relatively late in the season, but there was no way I was not going to see Sex With Strangers. A rom-com? With books in? Genre fiction on the stage? The only way it could have been clearer that this was my sort of play was if the actors had actually had “this play is for Jodi” tattooed on their faces.

(Fair warning – because this play is in my academic strikezone area of speciality, I’m going to nerdle a lot about it. Be prepared.)

Maybe the fact that it was such a Jodi-play makes me predisposed to be highly critical and nitpicky. I don’t know. But Sex With Strangers bothered me a lot, largely because it left me cold. If there is one thing romance should not do, it is leave you cold. You should be saying “awww” a lot. Even in pieces that don’t have the guaranteed happy ending of the romance genre proper, you should want things to turn out for the best. This means that you should like the characters – at least a little bit. And this, I think, was my big problem with Sex With Strangers.

Let’s start with the less egregious of the two offenders here, the character of Olivia (Jacqueline McKenzie). Her level of neuroticism was absolutely suffocating. She was practically hysterical with it, especially in the first act – I almost wanted to slap her and tell her to snap out of it. I understand writers being precious about their work and being unwilling to let unfriendly eyes see their work: I’ve felt that myself (what writer hasn’t?). But the fact that three reviews – three, which weren’t even especially negative – managed to cripple her for such a long period of time? Really? A writer who wants to cut their reader out of their work altogether isn’t really a writer at all. If a book is written and nobody reads it, has it really been written? And if she is so unwilling to show her work to anyone, how has she managed to get so “fucking brilliant”, as Ethan says? It is pretty much impossible to improve without a) practice, and b) feedback. I found her total insecurity not only incredibly frustrating, but far beyond the suspension of disbelief.

I think her insecurity was intended to undermine her position as “self-assured older woman”, and in that sense, although it was clumsy, it worked. It turned her into a damsel in distress, all ready for Ethan (Ryan Corr) to swoop in to save. And swoop in he did: except he is not exactly a knight in shining armour. This is not to say that all romance heroes should be perfect, courtly men with no flaws ever who fix all their lady’s problems. Far from it. Anyone who has read a romance novel ever will know that heroes are frequently far more damaged than their heroines. Heroes have also done some pretty godawful things, but at the end of the day, you should at least believe that they are good, that on some level, they deserve the heroine (even if the heroine is totally irritating). I couldn’t believe that about Ethan. Not for a second.

Let’s start with his book, Sex With Strangers. A guy that’s made his millions by basically exploiting women and writing about it? (I know he’s all like, “it was consensual! they were willing!” but let’s face it, what’s he was doing is essentially pick up artistry.) The fact that he continually admitted he was an arsehole didn’t make him charming. It just made him self-aware. And why on earth was Olivia supposed to believe him when he was all like, “I was a dick to every other girl I’ve ever slept with ever, but I’ll be cool and awesome with you”? Just because he helped her put her book online, even though she specifically asked him several times not to? Ethan has a thousand arsehole red flags, and this, I think, was the biggest one. When Olivia said no to him – no, she didn’t want to put her book online; no, she wanted to go through traditional publishing; no, she didn’t want him to read her book – he either bullied her into submission or just went ahead and did what he wanted anyway. The guy that does not respect a single one of your boundaries? Yeah, that’s romantic. And when he was all like, “you owe me!” in the second act? I’m amazed Olivia didn’t yell, “fuck you!” back at him. I nearly did.

I don’t think Ryan Corr’s performance helped Ethan’s case any. Jacqueline McKenzie did a good job of making the Olivia that existed beyond her neurosis visible (what little there was), but Corr’s performance foregrounded Ethan’s douchebaggery. He was shouting all the time, which I think was supposed to read as “gen Y jackass”, but also frequently read as “intimidating bully”. If there really was supposed to be a clear division between Ethan Kane and his evil alter ego Ethan Strange, it wasn’t terribly visible – probably the only moment where it was was the moment when he took a phone call from a Vegas club promoter, and turned into such an OTT parody of himself I’m surprised Olivia didn’t throw him out her window. The play is not especially subtle with its portrayal of Gen Y in particular, and Corr didn’t help. He was the Gen Y representative that people from all the other generations bitch about: rude, abrasive, and addicted to technology.

I also had a few problems with the structure of the play – sex scenes were basically used as scene changes, when they should have probably advanced the plot at least a little – but I don’t think I would have noticed half so much if the characters were more likeable. On one level, I understood the fantasy – a rich, attractive young guy who thinks your writing is amazing? sign me up! – but these characters were a little too close to the archetypes that gave us Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey for comfort: neurotic woman, man who has no concept of “boundaries”.

Maybe I’m too used to analysing things as romances, but Sex With Strangers just did not work for me. I wanted funny, romantic fun with books in. I wanted to say “awwww”. I wanted to want things to turn out well. What I got was a play about two unlikeable people who fuck each other a lot and fuck each other up.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Knowledge

The Knowledge (pantsguys Productions in assoication with The Spare Room) runs at the New Theatre in Newtown from 10 October - 3 November 2012. By John Donnelly, directed by Rebecca Martin.

I found The Knowledge  a difficult play. It is hard to work out what it is about. On the surface, it seems simple: it is about education, about teachers, about students, about a new teacher with difficult students who makes a colossal mistake. Director Rebecca Martin writes that it is play not just about school but about people, with real characters who are not ciphers for a message. I agree with her here – the characters are certainly not ciphers – but it is hard to work out exactly what the play is trying to say. It is a small story in the guise of a large one, and I think I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious than it was.

Zoe (Silvina d’Alessandro) is a newly graduated teacher who has fled a difficult breakup and finds herself teaching a group of impossible students citizenship (a subject in which she is certainly not an expert). These students are incorrigible troublemaker Mickey (Benjamin Ross), unsure, defensive Sal (Isaro Kayitesi), brazen, aggressive Karris (Karli-Rae Grogan), and sensitive poet Daniel (John Benda). Zoe is desperate to establish a rapport with them and to prove herself worthy to well-meaning but ultimately patronising headmaster Harry (Barry French) and her learning mentor Maz (Brett  Rogers), but makes a terrible mistake one night and is unsure what to do next.

The notion of whether or not someone is a good person is one that percolates throughout the play, and is ultimately asked of all the characters. However, I felt like the answers should have been (and were probably intended to be) more ambiguous than they were. Any sympathy I felt for Zoe was well and truly eradicated in the second act, when she becomes Machiavellian and conniving, as well as cruel, petty, and unable to own up to her own mistakes. Maz, with his lewd talk about his students, is also unlikeable, and hard to take seriously when he attempts to take the moral high ground (though it must be noted here that Brett Rogers did a fine job in making his character as sympathetic as possible). Harry is a laughingstock: he is the font of most of the humour in the play, but one feels like you are laughing at him, not with him. If the play is meant to be a savage indictment on the education system, it succeeds, but if so, it is ultimately very depressing: there is no alternative offered, no hope for the future. If Zoe “can teach”, is a good teacher, then one shudders to think what a bad one looks like.

Some of the characters felt two dimensional. Some of the responsibility for this lies with the writing (the character of Sal, for example, is given very little room for development, despite the best efforts of actor Kayitesi), but some lay at the doors of the actors. Some of the performances were quite one-note, particularly the performance of Grogan as Karris, and others were very believable in parts and yet almost wooden in others – d’Alessandro’s performance as Zoe suffered from this. Several of the actors really struggled with their English accents, and I felt the show as a whole suffered from it: it made their performances seem very laboured. I must commend, however, Benjamin Ross for his performance as Mickey, which was nuanced and layered. He exposed just enough of the bully’s vulnerable underbelly to make the character seem like a real person.

The Knowledge is an engaging show. At two and a half hours, it’s probably a little long, but I was never bored. However, I feel like it needed better definition, better clarification. I understand that it was ultimately about people and not education as a whole, and was certainly not intended to be didactic, but I felt like it needed to be clearer about what it was trying to say.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Tamarama Rock Surfers' production of Fallout. You can read what I thought about it here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A View From Moving Windows

A View From Moving Windows runs at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from October 19-27. A multi-playwright project, directed by Augusta Supple.

I write this sitting on the upper deck of a Parramatta to Central train. There are not many people around me. Most are sleeping. One is listening to music, bopping his head along with the beat. Below me, I can hear people talking: two men, talking about a girl. There are M&Ms scattered all over the floor: blue, red, green, some trodden on, some not, some crushed, some whole. As we come into Central, I see into the building that houses the transits: row upon row of high vis vests, neatly stacked beside work boots. Under Central are the bones of a building that used to be a facility for juvenile convicts: has much changed, I wonder? Around me, there are stories, an infinite amount of stories – stories I may never know, stories that may never be told, but stories that exist nonetheless.

A View From Moving Windows is a deeply evocative piece of work. I spend a lot of time on the train (Wollongong-Sydney and back again is a long commute!) and so much of it was deeply recognisable: the viscera of train travel, the interruptions, the annoyances, and most of all, that feeling of total solitude in an enclosed space with total strangers, a space feels violated the second in which someone dares to say hello. It is not necessarily an even piece of theatre: some pieces are more compelling than others. But then some trains journeys are more compelling than others. I have many journeys which have given me a great Cityrail moment. I have many more that didn’t.

There were a few pieces that really stood out for me. Heart in a Box (written by Jessica Bellamy, performed by Damian Sommerlad and Shauntelle Benjamin) was my favourite of the night. This may just be because I am a sucker for romance, but this piece was achingly lovely, particularly the song (music by Jesscia Chapnik Kahn). I also really enjoyed In The Key Of ‘E’ by Alison Rooke, where three totally independent passengers interacted (a little) and soliloquised (a lot). It really summed up the frustration and the agony of being on a train, equating this one little journey with the larger journeys of life: you know where you’re going, but you’re not there yet. Vanessa Bates’s This Train – Monkeys brought a tear to my eye. Its followup piece This Train was not quite as effective, but I doubt I am alone in hoping Bates takes these pieces and creates a full length play.

Augusta Supple has curated and directed an exciting, innovative production here. Her impressive cast of actors deal beautifully with a variety of different and difficult material (I must particularly commend Helen O’Leary, Ildiko Susany, and Craig Meneaud, who were totally engaging – I could not take my eyes off them). It is an ambitious project, with a large cast and what would seem an unwieldly number of writers. Supple, however, has turned what might be chaotic and entropic into a journey, clackety-clacking along the tracks. It is sometimes uneven, but so are train journeys – full of unexpected stoppages and sometimes, unexpected delights. If you’ve ever been on a train, there is something in this show for you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The School For Wives

Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Bell Shakespeare's The School for Wives. This one is big fun and is touring to Sydney as of next week - make sure you go see it! Here's what I thought.

Miss Julie

I reviewed Miss Julie, the final production from Darlinghurst Theatre Company to be performed in their current space, over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Trains, Theatre, & Why I Love Starlight Express

I wrote a piece for the A View For Moving Windows blog about how trains have influenced my love of theatre and why I will get very sad if you insult Andrew Lloyd Webber in front of me. You can check it out here.

You can also read a review of A View For Moving Windows later this week!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Between Two Waves

I went along to Between Two Waves at Griffin Theatre and reviewed it over at Australian Stage - you can read my thoughts here. Catch this one before the world ends.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This is Baby Doll

This is Baby Doll (Factotum Theatre) runs at the Tap Gallery in Darlinghurst from October 4-13 2012. Stolen from Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams, adapted and directed by Liz Arday.

This is Baby Doll is a claustrophobic portrait piece. The upstairs theatre at the Tap Gallery is absolutely the right place for it: I don’t know if it’s by design or not, but the temperature in that place climbs and climbs until you’re sweating right along with Baby Doll, and she can almost fool you into believing that you really are on some destitute cotton farm in the deep south, sweating, naive, and nervous. Unfortunately, the show is let down by one very important thing: it doesn’t have an ending. It just... stops.

This is normally where I’d launch into a brief plot recap, but that’s hard to do here, because not much happens in this show. The very last moments of This is Baby Doll are action, but it is the only action we see (on stage, anyway). I’m all for character-driven theatre, but this show is character and not much else. Baby Doll (Emily Sheehan) is married to Archie Lee (Paul Armstrong), who has promised that their marriage will not be consummated until her twentieth birthday, which is in two days. They live with her Aunt Rose (Angie Elphick), and one day, they receive a visit from their neighbour Silva (Ben Dalton), who suspects Archie Lee of burning down his cotton gin and who is determined to get some sort of revenge. All the set up for some great storytelling is here: if all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, here, you have a girl and a strong desire for revenge, which is not dissimilar. But yet no story is told. There are two key actions involved here in this story: Archie Lee burning down Silva’s cotton gin, and Silva using Baby Doll to make Archie Lee pay. The first happens offstage (understandably –  a massive fire would be terribly difficult to represent on stage!) and the second only at the very end of the show. If you think of the basic form of storytelling as orientation/complication/resolution, the show finishes just as it gets complicated. This is Baby Doll ends, effectively, right where it gets interesting.

I confess I’m not terribly familiar with the source material Liz Arday has used to adapt this show for the stage (Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll and Tennessee Williams’ short play 27 Wagons of Cotton), so I’m not sure if this narrative problem is something that’s common to those two pieces or not. In any case, I found it unsatisfying. There were so many plot twists left unresolved – would Baby Doll escape from Archie Lee before he demanded the consummation of their marriage? did Archie Lee really burn down the cotton gin? how would Archie Lee react when he found out what Silva did to his wife? how would Baby Doll react? This is a very melodramatic way of putting it, but it was almost like a betrayal: right when you’re becoming really involved in the characters (Baby Doll especially), the show just stops. I can’t think of any reason why it should do this. Sometimes, ambiguity is a good way of pulling the rug out from under an audience, forcing them to consider new and different perspectives. In this case, it felt like an interval, not like an ending.

If it had been an interval, it would have been a cracker of a first act. There are some really nice performances on show here, particularly from Emily Sheehan as Baby Doll. She (like all the actors) got a bit tangled up in the accent at the beginning, but she found her way back pretty swiftly and turned in a wonderfully nuanced performance. It would have been easy to play Baby Doll as a cardboard cutout confused virgin, but Sheehan did not fall into this trap. I found myself really involved with her plight (a big part of the reason why I felt so betrayed when the play ended so suddenly). I really hope to see Sheehan on stage again soon.

The simple set was also very evocative: minimalist, with just Baby Doll’s crib on stage, but effective. I’m sure there are some people who would have found the lighting a little too sparse and dark, but I liked it (except for Silva’s entrance, where he stood in almost total darkness for quite some time in a position where it would be hard for anyone in the theatre to see). It’s to writer/director Liz Arday’s credit that the fifty minutes of the show is as interesting as it is: while there are some bits that are certainly extraneous (like the character of Aunt Rose, who, despite a decent performance from Angie Elphick, adds nothing to the show), on the whole, it’s quite absorbing. Unfortunately, the whole thing ends right where it ought to be kicking into overdrive. It’s a portrait, not a story, and I felt a bit let down by that.