Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dying For It

Dying For It runs at the New Theatre from 21 November – 21 December 2013. By Moira Buffini, adapted from The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, directed by Peter Talmacs.

Semoyan Semyonovich Podsekalnikov has nothing to live for. He is broke and unemployed and entirely without a purpose, living with his wife and mother in law in a rundown set of rooms. So Semoyan decides to die. What Semoyan doesn’t realise, however, is just how many people are keenly interested in his death and what that death could mean. The personal becomes the extremely political as Semoyan slowly discovers that while he has nothing to live for, he has a plethora of things he could choose to die for…

Dying For It is a really great piece of writing. Black comedy is extremely difficult, because it treads such a fine line. The greatest comedy often arises from the greatest tragedy, but it’s very easy to tip the balance too far one way or the other. In this adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 satire The Suicide, Moira Buffini has created something rather brilliant. It is darkly funny in the best possible way: at moments laugh-out-loud hilarious, but never unconscious of the blackness of its subject matter.

New Theatre’s production of this play is largely a good one. In places, it is over-acted – perhaps director Peter Talmacs should have instructed some of his actors to rein in their performances a little, as several lacked subtlety and felt a bit one-note. But overall, it is deft and clever, not pushing Buffini’s excellent script too far into the realms of the ridiculous or wallowing in the dark political underbelly the show exposes. Farce is incredibly difficult to do well, but this production manages it nicely. I’d especially like to commend Johann Walraven’s performance as Semoyan, which is measured and terribly, horribly funny. Joel Spreadborough as Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin and Christopher Sellers as Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik are also highlights. The scene where Sellers’ character tells Semoyan that he needs to die for the intelligentsia of Russia is probably the best of the play – I nearly cried from laughing. In the second act, Jeannie Gee as Serafima Ilyinichna, Semoyan’s mother-in-law, also shines. Her prosaic concern over the financial benefit that she and her daughter can gain from Semoyan’s death is pitch-perfect.

The play maintains the Soviet setting of Erdman’s original script (which was written in Stalinist Russia and banned before it could be performed). The Communist context is important – for example, one character, Yegor Timofeivich (Peter Adams), is continually boasting about the People’s Award he achieved for diligence and efficiency in his job as a postman – but I don’t think the audience needs a solid grounding in Marxist theory to understand it. Any political regime could be substituted in its place, really, because the point the show makes is that for people who have no purpose and no hope of one, the greater political context is irrelevant. Not every decision is necessarily political. The individual does not have to be a microcosm of the society – something which is in itself deeply subversive. No wonder it was banned!

If this sounds too heavy to be funny for you, bear in mind that there’s also a tuba. And it brings the funny. Trust me.

While some of the performances could have been more nuanced, I really enjoyed Dying For It. It’s a farce with some serious meat behind it. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, and then you’ll laugh some more. And it’s almost worth seeing for the set alone – the work Tom Bannerman has done here is genuinely excellent. Dying For It is a great way for the New Theatre to wrap up their 2013 season, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they have to offer in 2014.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Cake Man

I reviewed The Cake Man (Belvoir/Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company) over at Australian Stage. Check out my thoughts here.

Carrie The Musical

I reviewed Squabbalogic's production of Carrie The Musical over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here. (A little more She's All That than Carrie, sadly.) 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Friend Ship + Blue Wizard

The Tiny Stadiums Festival runs in and around Erskineville from November 13 – 23 2013. Friend Ship and Blue Wizard run at PACT.

For the next two weeks, the Tiny Stadiums festival will be taking over Erskineville. Having gone through the program, it looks like awesome fun – there are workshops, panels, site-specific art and all kinds of cool things happening which you should totally check out if you are in the area. Festival organisers Groundwork look like they’ve done an awesome job!

The festival kicked off on Thursday 14 November, and I was lucky enough to be invited along to the launch, which included two performances devised by Club Cab Sav performers Kenzie Larsen and Nick Coyle. These performances will be running a bunch of times throughout the festival. If you go along, you are in for a treat. Trust me. I had an absolutely fabulous night.

Kenzie Larsen’s Friend Ship is not, it turns out, about a bunch of friends on a ship (a misapprehension Larsen says she laboured under for an embarrassingly long time). Rather, Larsen leads us through a workshop on how to make and keep friends, something which she is qualified to do on account of being a self-taught internet scientist, having spent eighteen months living with seals, being able to read minds, and being extremely popular herself. (You guys. She is so popular.) She wants to cure your loneliness and make your life better, and if that means you have to practice your friendship skills on a pet rock, so be it.

Larsen’s show is deft, quirky, and very, very funny – and you leave with gifts! My theatre date and I now proudly sport matching friendship bracelets, which I’m sure means we passed the workshop. Larsen uses multimedia very cleverly and seamlessly (I was kind of terrified that it would screw up in the way that technology always does, but thankfully, it didn’t). It’s a very culturally specific show – there are some references in there that you might not get unless you’re a twentysomething who grew up watching New South Wales ads, but because I am both of those things, I found said references hilarious. There’s probably some room to heighten and hone a little more, but this is such a great little show. Catch it if you can. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Kenzie Larsen’s work in the future.

…and if you get the opportunity to stay to watch Nick Coyle play an intergalactic space wizard, you should definitely do that, because his show is awesome. Blue Wizard tells the story of (surprise) the blue wizard, who comes from “a crystal planet where everyone’s gay” (something he tells us through song in his “dance of erotic greeting”) and who has travelled to earth to give the egg of friendship to the pharaoh. But he cannot find the pharaoh, and finds himself wandering in a junkyard, drinking Windex, and wondering what to do with the hatchling, which starts out as a grub-like creature he breastfeeds and calls Grubby, and which transforms into a creepy doll which he names after his boyfriend, John Quark John.

Blue Wizard is very, very weird. It’s humour in the manner of The Mighty Boosh (down to the fabulous hair). While the section before Grubby transforms into baby John Quark John drags a little and could probably use a little work, the show is otherwise very tight. What is most impressive, though, is not only how funny the show is – which it is, so much – but also how emotionally involved you get in the blue wizard’s story. He’s a totally ridiculous character who, hearing an ancient recording of Britney Spears’ Perfume, bursts into tears, but when Grubby turns into the creepy doll (want a culturally specific I-grew-up-in-the-nineties reference? baby John Quark John is a dead ringer for EC from Lift Off), you are genuinely afraid for the blue wizard’s life. And the ending! Which comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense! I won’t spoil it for you, but seriously, if you think that there is no way you could deeply care about what happens to a gay space wizard whose only friend is a doll, you are wrong.

Coyle is a very impressive performer. This show requires him to sing and dance and operate puppets (as well as dress up as a wizard from a planet where the couture is somewhere between Legolas and He-Man), and he carries it all off. He is wonderfully charismatic on the stage. I hope he creates a sequel to this play, because I so want to know what happens to the blue wizard next. And whether he ever does get John Quark John to smell his perfume.

If the opening night is anything to go by, the Tiny Stadiums festival is going to be awesome. Go and see Friend Ship, go and see The Blue Wizard, and immerse yourself in the culture of Erskineville. I’m pretty sure it will be well worth your while.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cristina in the Cupboard

Cristina in the Cupboard (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from November 6 – 17 2013. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.

I found Cristina in the Cupboard both deeply fascinating and profoundly troubling. For the eighty five minutes of the show, I found myself mesmerised (although I should point out that this was not the experience of my theatre date, who told me afterwards she found some parts of the show very dull). However, it wasn’t mesmerising in an immersive sense. The show raised questions for me, structural and societal questions, which I don’t think it ever resolved. It made me think, and think deeply, and in the case of this particular show, I think this is potentially both good and bad.

I should point out that while Cristina in the Cupboard belongs to a kind of epic genre – it is in many ways a quest narrative, a journey to and through the underworld – it is also a small story. It is the story of one single protagonist, Cristina (Sylvia Keays), who has locked herself away in a cupboard (or is it?). Her family and friends implore her to come out, both as themselves and as characters in her own mind, but Cristina will not or cannot emerge, not until she has found the answers that she seeks.

But saying this – noting that this is a small story – there was a lot I found troubling about Cristina in the Cupboard on a political level. If the show had addressed these issues, it might have been fascinating, but to me, it didn’t seem to recognise they existed.

The political problems I had with this show revolve around gender (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I am a feminist academic). Cristina, isolating herself from the world, both compares herself and is compared to world-renouncing sages, sannyasin figures: Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, etc. This is fine, and I don’t have a problem with it at all, but when we’re considering questions of women and confined spaces, there is another dominant literary archetype that we cannot escape, even if we want to: the mad woman in the attic. Of course, this mad woman is confined by someone else, and Cristina has confined herself, but this is still an important reference point. Even if we think of women who renounced the world in the manner of the sannyasin, an example that immediately comes to mind is the figure of the nun bricked up in a wall, a practice constructed as a kind of divine religious madness. When thinking of women and confined spaces, we must consider that removal from society happens because women have been acting in a socially inappropriate, often anarchic way, even when they are removing themselves from society. There is a profound politics around the relationship between women and enclosed spaces.

Cristina does not think of herself as crazy, although many other characters do: her father in particular uses the word as a weapon against her, and several characters suggest bringing in a mental health professional. Cristina sees herself as a sannyasin, but no one else is prepared to see her in this way. Instead, she is a crazy woman to be dealt with (which brings us back to the mad woman in the attic). This gives us an interesting insight into gendered modes of isolation, particularly when we consider why Cristina has shut herself away from the world and why she comes out. (I won’t spoil it, but it’s quite a personal emotional reason.) Women are not given social permission to go into the desert for forty days and forty nights. They may not sit under the bodhi tree and seek enlightenment. Instead, women are conditioned to deal with their problems not through isolation, but through communication and socialisation. They are not permitted these emotionally inspired vision quests: they must feel together, as a group, and they must support other members of the group who are feeling too, whether male or female.

“Would Cristina have been treated in the same way if she were a man?” my theatre date and I discussed afterwards. While it’s hard to come up with a conclusive answer, it’s hard to believe that she would have. Men are allowed these moments of solitude in their small dark spaces, their man-caves. It is an acceptable masculine mode of feeling. I felt like a lot of the show put on Cristina in this show to emerge from the cupboard was deeply gendered, and this is never, ever addressed. The ending affirms the normative modes of feminine feeling. This in and of itself is not necessarily problematic, but it made me feel like that although Cristina might have achieved some kind of enlightenment in the cupboard, she wasn’t allowed to be a figure like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, who considered renouncing the world, was convinced not to by Krishna, and had a new and more virtuous way of living revealed to him. Instead, it was kind of like she went to Oz: while she went on a journey and learned some important things, she worked out that home was where she wanted to be all along. There was potential for some really interesting political commentary here, and I feel like these undertones were ignored almost totally: like the show didn’t even realise its own implications.

I also had a big problem with the way female friendship was portrayed in the show as innately bitchy and competitive. If we consider that “feeling together” is the accepted mode of feminine feeling, I wasn’t surprised Cristina retreated into the cupboard if her friends were so terrible. It’s hard to tell how much of this was her perspective and how much was reflective of the friends’ actual relationship, but either way, I found it quite problematic and a very shallow look at the complexities of female friendship.

All this said, there is a lot to like in Cristina in the Cupboard. Like I said earlier, I could not look away. There are parts which are lyrically exquisite and parts which are wonderfully moving, and I’m positive I am reading way too much into it and expecting way too much from it. But at the same time, there is no escaping the political in a show like this, and I feel that on the whole, the thing I will remember most about this show is the missed opportunities.