Review: Home – Nest Ensemble and La Boite Indie at Roundhouse Theatre

Just to the left of centre, but endearingly universal, sits Home, the new production from the Nest Ensemble, and the latest addition to the La Boite Indie season. There are many astonishing parts to the production, not least of which is that Home is the second outing for the Nest Ensemble in the last six months. It was only in May that they premiered Eve as part of Metro Arts Independents. For those that see both, it represents an interesting discussion about the difference between the two venues and their indie programs.

Home premiered last year with Metro Arts. I didn’t catch it then, but I’m grateful to see it now. The premise is simple. Margi Brown Ash tells us stories from her life as an actor, wife and mother. She travels to Egypt, New York, Sydney and Brisbane. At the heart of every tale are questions of belonging. These are stories you want to hear. Continue reading “Review: Home – Nest Ensemble and La Boite Indie at Roundhouse Theatre”

Review: Beauty Is Difficult – Heartbeast Vicious Theatre Ensemble at Trinity Church Hall

It’s always difficult writing a review for a show you don’t particularly connect with; one always wonders whether someone else would have been moved by the piece or inspired to critique it differently – of course they would. However, let’s begin at the beginning.

To use their own words: Heartbeast is

a not-for-profit theatre organisation that offers artists the opportunity to investigate and explore their performance philosophy and skills of artistry through an aesthetic prism that meshes heightened theatricality with the organic performance of archetypal, contemporary, local and world stories.

It’s a mouthful, but I think Heartbeast’s performance of Beauty Is Difficult at the Trinity Church Hall was true to this manifesto.

Trinity Church Hall in the Valley is a beautiful, cavernous and engaging performance space, and punters were received with enthusiasm. A program thrust in hand, we were asked to “back a winner” by placing our name under the character that we thought was destined to die at the finish. I was interested; this sounded interactive. Fun! So I bought a delicious hot chocolate and settled in for a good one.

Earning my gold star as a theatre-goer, I’d investigated the premise of the show and was excited to meet its remarkable line-up of characters; Hedda Gabler (Sherri Smith), Emma Bovary (Karen Dinsdale), Anna Karenina (Anna O’Hara), Phedre (Adrienne Costello) and Danni (Judith Turnbull), based on the character of Mrs Danvers from Rebecca (1938). C’est formidable, I thought!

These women led a cast of eight actors that meet in a ballroom, somewhere in the after-life. Controlled by a puppet master, they use their beauty and feminine wiles to survive the strange experience (I did wonder how someone could die if they were already dead, but I let it go).

Michael Beh, artistic director of Heartbeast and director/creator/costume designer of Beauty is Difficult writes in his notes that his show does, “not tell the story of each of the original texts but dips into them like a stone skipping across the water, allowing the audience to barrack for their favourite femme fatale.”

Mr Beh sets out to achieve a great deal in his 75 minute work (no interval) and on reflection, I think this is the problem. Continue reading “Review: Beauty Is Difficult – Heartbeast Vicious Theatre Ensemble at Trinity Church Hall”

Review: A Headful of Love – Queensland Theatre Company at Cremorne Theatre QPAC

A few months after I was married I happened to be on tour for Queensland Theatre Company in one of their far-ranging theatre in education teams. This is the mid-1970s, by the way. Out little three-person troupe was playing far northern and central Australia in a play about a white boy who had run away into the bush. I remember he faced his demons and a very large (puppet head) crocodile (pre-Dundee days) during his adventures and, by play’s end, returned back home ready presumably to face whatever life threw at him. I remember the kids in the mission stations around Cape York screaming in delighted terror when I would emerge as the crocodile.

So it was at QTC’s latest offering Alana Valentine‘s truly wonder-filled play A Headful of Love directed by Wesley Enoch that I found myself witnessing another Australian play that follows a now-familiar track – the going ‘away’ from the known into the unknown (city to desert heart) to escape something. Typically, protagonists are either destroyed or resurrected in some way. It’s a theme that post-colonial Australia’s still obsessively examining in its navel-gazing, self-identification quest. I remember our primary school social studies courses being jam-packed with stories of doomed and dying explorers who had ventured into the centre of the vast continent without a clue. They were presented to us as heroes, and it was the kind of mad, boys’ own adventure, the sort that had infatuated imperial Britain.

Australian drama across the years has been quite keen on this trope which is, of course, drawn from a far earlier literary theme that examined the differences between city and country and ‘civilised’ v ‘uncivilised’ behaviour. Women and children in the landscape find their way into Australian art and literature in the 19th century. In dramatic terms it’s a set up that just works; the juxtaposition of fragile things against a rugged, harsh, and unforgiving landscape – the ‘feminine’ and ‘domestic’ entering the ‘masculine’ world of colonial pioneering. Putting an outsider into unfamiliar territory can make for tragic or comic material. In the case of Ms Valentine’s play – a little of both. Continue reading “Review: A Headful of Love – Queensland Theatre Company at Cremorne Theatre QPAC”

Review: Escape From the Breakup Forest – The Mixtape Collective at Empire Theatre Studio

Watching the latest offering from the Empire Theatre’s Homegrown Season I was struck by the many similarities in subject matter, style and tone between it and boy girl wall, the escapists’ smash currently touring nationally. As the blurb for Steve Pirie‘s Escape from the Breakup Forest has it: ‘Boy meets girl. Girl leaves boy. Boy meets puppet.’ boy girl wall is also a comedy about a young man suffering the pangs of love while coping with an awful, problem-filled life. And then there are the puppets.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see a gallery of memorable bit-player characters, grotesques who serve as comic butts. There’s an unmissable satirical thread too, and both are filled with smartly-turned comic dialogue accompanied by jokey asides and witty pop culture references. As to playing style, the episodic nature of the play results in non-stop action and an energetic, physical performance from everyone on stage. The spotlight is firmly on the actors and their performance skills.

The plots are nothing alike, of course. This from the program notes for Escape from the Breakup Forest:

Josh has been with his first love for almost five years. On the eve of their anniversary Emma has decided that she wants to leave. She won’t say why. She won’t say whose fault it is. She just says goodbye.

All of a sudden Josh’s world becomes a whole lot smaller. Dinnertime becomes eating cereal on the floor. Work becomes a daily challenge to not punch people in the face. And the hollow feeling in his chest that was Emma’s parting gift just won’t go away.

One morning, Josh awakes in the Breakup Forest – a magical, mysterious place where the terminally dumped are sent until they can piece together the past and move on. Emerging from the forest is his hand puppet spirit guide, Curly. Together, the two must undertake an epic journey through the darkness of the forest to confront Josh’s demons, insecurities and fears.

Will they uncover the reason Emma left? Can Josh get over it? And more importantly, can he get over himself?

Despite any influences or surface similarities to boy girl wall, Escape … quickly establishes itself as a refreshing addition in its own right to the slew of new work being produced in Queensland’s very healthy independent theatre scene. It also marks the arrival of a new ensemble of performers: Steve Pirie, Ell Sachs, and Dan Stewart. Under the direction of Claire Christian and Ari Palani, they are in excellent form for the 90 minutes of  laughs, surprises and theatrical delights that is Escape From the Breakup Forest.

We follow our charming hero Josh (Steve Pirie) through school days, first love  (Ell Sachs) and the joys of the coupled life to break-up and break-down in a life that contains pop music to suit every occasion. The mood gets a little more serious on Josh’s testing ground – the forest where he awakes, and it’s here that the play moves from domesticity into fantasy.

Deep in the forest our hero must face and slay his inner demons in order to be healed and move on. Cue the entrance of some of the characters from his past and the start of the ‘buddy relationship’ with a delightful red puppet Curly (Dan Stewart). Curly, a former Olympian now turned spirit guide bonds with Josh on his quest for enlightenment. Sound improbable? Well, it is a hero quest in a magic forest, after all. Charlie Brown meets Dr Seuss with a pop music soundtrack.

Escape … is splendidly performed by the trio. Ms Sachs in particular is a delight with her gallery of marvellously observed caricatures. The Mixtape Collective have a palpable hit on their hands with this one.

The trio of actors along with co-directors Claire Christian and Ari Palani have a hit on their hands with this one.

It looks great – the monochromatic black and white set, props and costume designs are rendered in cartoon style with beautifully drawn stick figures, while projected slides of text and sketches complement the live action. The production’s minimalist design is not only visually charming but also wonderfully effective in enabling slick scene changes using various configurations of white cubes, efficient prop handling and quick costume changes. The three actors don’t miss a crisp beat in their transformation from action to direct audience address. They move, sing, dance and generally appear to be having as much fun as we are.

The script could tighten up a bit – I thought the ‘Chapter’ treating Josh’s schooldays was a bit long. In fact, about 20 minutes in I wondered whether the show was aimed at a younger demographic – another play about self-esteem for the high-school, perhaps? It moves on into grown-up land once  Josh leaves school, gets into a relationship, goes to work, breaks up etc., etc. If, at times, the script feels somewhat unsophisticated – jocks and sluts do make for obvious laughs after all – and if the epilogue gets a were bit sentimental for my taste, the production more than makes up for it.

At heart, Escape From the Breakup Forest is sweet and funny, and provides terrific opportunities for its actors to work their magic, and work it they do with gusto.

Despite its child-like appearance and emphasis on play, the work is sophisticated in theme, direction, and execution

Any deficiencies in the script are more than made up in this excellent production. I hope this show gets a chance to sprinkle some more joy around in a remount production.

This production is another in the 2012 Homegrown Series from the Empire Theatre Projects Company. With these new works, the emphasis is on the local, giving artists and creatives in the region a chance to develop their work. So far, the series has produced some real winners. If you are in Toowoomba on Friday or Saturday, do get along to the Empire for a 7pm start.

By the way, as wonderful as they are, I wonder whether it’s time for a moratorium on hand puppets. Just putting it out there …

You can follow the Empire Theatre and keep up with the latest on their Facebook Page.

Towards Diversity: La Boite Unlocked – 2

Along with David Berthold (Artistic Director La Boite Theatre) and Jo Pratt (BEMAC) I was part of the provocateur triumvirate at last night’s La Boite Unlocked series. After the Q&A at the end of what was a very relaxed, thoughtful hour and a half, someone asked if our talks would be made available. Here, with a few tweaks, is what I had to say. I followed David’s talk which you can find on his blog Carving in Snow. There were, of course, a few ad-libs and diversions along the way which inevitably happens as one speaks. This is the gist of it, though.

Image: Greenroom

Towards Diversity

The title of tonight’s session is telling – towards diversity. The towards part. I’m going to have to use a much overworked metaphor – the idea of a journey towards something – or maybe journeys because, if we’re talking about diversity, then there isn’t just one road. For women, the journey is part of a process that started about 2000 years ago, and it’s one that meanders off the beaten track from time to time, and starts and stops intermittently.

To put things into some kind of perspective, it was really only about 150 years ago that the first blips on western culture’s historical timeline marked the coming to legislation of various women’s rights issues. They’d been a long time coming – are still coming – and the journey to equality for women as part of the wider civil rights movement (as David mentioned) has been one of the great political challenges and civic engagements of the 20th century. As to fits and starts in a field closer to home – the theatre – a comment in the recent Australia Council Report on Women in Theatre (WIT) notes that about every 10 years or so someone asks ‘Where are the women?’ There is usually an explosion of outrage followed by a flurry of discussion and a gradual settling down into silence and inaction. Gains are lost in the one step forward, two steps back routine. Maybe creeping or stumbling towards diversity would be a better descriptor for the journeys we’re on. Continue reading “Towards Diversity: La Boite Unlocked – 2”