No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Month: February, 2013

Fringe Review: Tommy Bradson’s Sweet Sixteen or the Birthday Party Massacre


How best to write about a show in which you were pulled up on stage for? Of course, it radically changes the way you perceive the show: vast chunks of it get sieved through thoughts preoccupied with “what is my face doing” and “will I be asked to strip naked.” Even when these sections are over, and you’re back down in the relative safety of your seat, the rest of the show becomes somewhat blurrier.

It’s not quite a feeling of adrenalin. Or, maybe it is, an uncomfortable adrenalin you don’t know how to place. “Did I really just do that?” you think, when, of course, you didn’t really just do anything at all, but stand on stage and over-think every action you could possibly do with your body and try desperately not to laugh – from nerves, more than anything else – while a young man in white stage makeup and panda eyes of blue eye shadow stares into your face, and speaks of that time you striped naked in front of him, diving into the clear pool water under the moonlit sky and he found himself in love with you, and then he sings.

In Tommy Bradson’s Sweet Sixteen or the Birthday Party Massacre we’ve been gathered for Lula Whitlam’s surprise sixteenth birthday party. In the Campanile Tent at the Garden of Unearthly Delights, the audience starts the night looking upon the birthday table at the foot of the stage. By the end of the night, more than half the audience surrounds the table  – Bradson brought us up in a collection of uncles, cousins, and friends. The lolly bananas, party hats, and party poppers are shared freely, as several of us crack open a beer.

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AdlFringe Review: Book of Loco

Tandanya’s theatre has been transformed. Out has gone the seating bank and in is – quite literally – thousands of cardboard boxes. Big ones, little ones, square ones, rectangular ones, all stacked on top of each other forming four walls reaching sky-high.

We take our seats, talking about the Fringe’s events so far, our days, our plans for the evenings. Then, we notice someone walking around the seats. Sitting down in empty chairs, looking around to take stock of who is in the audience, is a man in a black suit – hardly your typical Fringe attire.

This man is Alirio Zavarce, here to introduce us to his thoughts and his life, which he has titled The Book of Loco. Everyone is a little bit crazy, he hypothesizes. What we consider to be normal and what we consider to be loco is, maybe, just a result of the reality presented to us.

But how best to tell us this story?

The lights go down, and Zavarce stands in a spot light. He opens the story in an airport. He has just flown back to Australia with a re-enforced prop suitcase from a performance. The customs officials are suspicious of the suitcase and —-

Wait. Lights snap on. Maybe that’s not the best way to tell it. Does he need to give us some back-story? Do we know who he is? Do we care yet? What if he hasn’t explained the constructs of the world and our relationships with sanity? Perhaps he just needs to comb his hair, and then he can jump back into the show ….

Part biographical journey, Book of Loco traces its own creation, compounding factors of both the world and Zavarce’s world changing over the past decade or so – the World Trade Centre attacks, break-ups, deaths, moving to Adelaide – in which Zavarce found himself questioning, losing, and refinding versions of sanity. Going a bit loco. Something he hypothesizes we all go through.

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AdlFringe Review: The Candy Butchers

The Candy Butchers photo Jeff Busby

When we walk into the big top, our fingers slightly sticky, we’re already there with the world of the circus. Big Top, hanging trapeze, red curtains, sugar overload: we know the circus. We know what we’re going to expect.

The trouble, though, is The Candy Butchers professes to be a dark circus, something off the beaten track, not your ordinary circus show. It plays so easily into traditional circus, though, attempts to be something different are never truly realised.

The non-narrative work takes four loosely drawn characters for four performers and gives us traditional circus acts: there is the clowning, the trapeze, the hula-hoops, and the tests of strength through handstand. Perhaps most crucially, the work fails in truly being a dark production by how much the performers are joyous in their roles, and how much the social construct of applauding for physical feats and trickery still stands in the show.

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AdlFringe Review: Insomnia Cat Came to Stay

Insomnia Cat Came to Stay

Eyes still open. Brain still spinning. Body still awake.
Every night, sleep eludes this woman. Her bed doesn’t afford her the comfort it should. Instead, it is just the place she struggles, night after night, to find sleep.
Sleepless, life becomes a suspended animation. During the day she never feels as awake as she does at night, when the world has stopped and yet her brain still moves on. And on. And on.

Insomnia Cat Came to Stay is playwright Fleur Kilpatrick’s exploration of insomnia. It is her trying to make sense out of something that is so little spoken about, so little understood. The work carries us through nights and days, a never-ending cycle of wakeful restlessness, of swirling thoughts on sleep, and where it has left this woman.

Through the performance Joanne Sutton attempts to woo sleep; to trick it into coming; she fights for it, and fights against the impact of a never-ending sleeplessness. In a delightful performance, her energies rise and fall with the manipulation of time and being constantly awake.

Sarah Walker’s design traps the woman within the white sheets of her bed. Even as sleep avoids her, she must lie there, trapped, trying to make sense of it all. Hoping, just once, that the sleep will come and find her. Sutton, standing in the same position through the work has only her arms and face to communicate and reach out to her audience with.

Though this primary design set-up is simple, on top of this is built a beautifully complex dance between Kilpatrick’s text, animation by Thomas Russell, and music by Roderick Cairns. These three layers play into and on top of each other, and the animation and music highlight the deep structuring which exists in Kilpatrick’s text. As it is spoken, you can almost feel the way it would sit on the page, and underneath everything, you can truly feel the impetus for Kilpatrick to have written this work. An often ferocious energy to the text suggests the insomnia she suffered caused these words to bubble up and spill out of her with urgency.

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AdlFringe Review: I Am My Own Wife

Charles Mayer in I AM MY OWN WIFE. Photo courtesy of 3rd Culture Theatre

On a trip to Berlin-Mahlsdorf in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, American playwright Doug Wright found the Gründerzeit Museum, a museum of furniture, gramophones, and records: everyday items which can seem insignificant, but truly capture history.

Wright was taken by the collection, but in particular the woman who ran it. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, began living as a woman post the fall of the Third Reich, and her museum became known as a safe space in East Berlin’s gay circles. By the time Wright met her, she had lead an almost unbelievable life.

From recorded conversations with Mahlsdorf, news reports, and official files, Wright built up a verbatim theatre piece, with one actor playing all of the roles. Most of the show is filtered through Wright or Mahlsdorf, but through Mahlsdorf’s memories the play brings to life her family, friends, members of the SS and later the Stasi, to build up a portrait of this woman, her time as a transgender person through such turbulent times in Germany, and her museum.

In this production, actor Charles Mayer takes to the stage, directed by Craig Behenna. The small stage (framed by what is truly a remarkably and distractingly bad paint job where the black framing the stage reaches the off-white surrounding the seating bank) is sparsely but carefully adorned: a few pieces of furniture that would fit at home amongst Mahlsdorf’s collection, and strings of light bulbs bring a warmth to the space.

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AdlFringe Review: The Unstoppable, Unsung Song of Shaky M


It’s an interesting question, I think, how much our knowledge of a work impacts our reactions to it and how we, as writers, have to measure these up in our responses. I’d seen One for the Ugly Girls in its original production, and while they didn’t make the review, many of my thoughts after the Adelaide Fringe production were concerning the differences that the casting, in particular, made to the presentation of the work.

I’d read Like a Fishbone several months before the Fringe season was announced, and had been familiar with the work even before that through reviews of the Sydney season.

Seeing …him for the second time I wasn’t quite as taken. While I still loved it, perhaps knowing its progression mean I couldn’t be taken on the same journey. I cried the first time: was that the work, or my slight homesickness?

The Unstoppable, Unsung Story of Shaky M was on in the Melbourne Fringe when I was there, and came recommended, but I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. I then saw Rowena Hutson speak on a panel [podcast dated 12/10/12] with several other fringe artists, where she spoke a bit about the show and her background. So I think it’s fair to say I knew quite a bit about the show going in.

And so after I penned down this review, I went to see what Jake Orr wrote about the work. He walked into the show largely blind, and we came out with very different responses. Perhaps, of course, our perspectives would have been exactly the same had our roles been reversed. Who knows? I do know this is why we need multiple voices writing about art. And I do know I’ll greatly miss having Jake in Adelaide to talk about such things.

But then, here I go, my thoughts. How much they’ll mould yours before or after meeting Shaky M, I don’t know.

The Unstoppable, Unsung Story of Shaky M is a small, gently humorous clowning piece about a young woman, Shaky M (Rowena Hutson). As the audience files in and takes their seats, she sits on stage, idly tracing her finger across the ground. Her right foot shakes. A constant jiggle in her ankle. It doesn’t stop shaking for the next hour, as Shaky M tells us her unsung story.

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AdlFringe Review: Like A Fishbone

Tonight, the architect (Shannon Mackowski) has a very important presentation. The monument – sorry, the memorial – plans are being presented. A small, religious town a train ride – or was that bus? – away from the city has been shaken by a school shooting. The architect, with advice from the committee, who are representing the stakeholders, has come up with a building – a work of art, perhaps, even – to memorialize the event.

The mother (Amy Victoria Brooks) arrived from that town on the train – or was that bus? – through the rain and the wet, sent by her daughter to see what the architect has planned. A memorial they don’t want. How could anyone, anything, make sense of this? Raise the children up to God in the heavens, she thinks. Don’t tie them to the ground.

Anthony Weigh’s Like A Fishbone attempts to explore the didactic relationships between opposing views, highlighted by a school shooting. One woman is an atheist, the other deeply religious. One from the city, one the county. One a feminist, one believes man and woman have different roles. One a career woman first, one a mother always. But Weigh plays so much in these antithetical positions his characters so rarely find a middle ground: through-out the seventy minute long production, there is disappointingly little space for them to develop and change.

In this production director Charles Sanders, too, struggles in finding ebb and a flow to the work. He starts the play with the actors hitting a tension level of nine: there is nowhere for the work to go.

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AdlFringe Review: The Blue Room

David Hare’s The Blue Room is typically produced as a star vehicle. Over ninety minutes we follow two actors portray five women and five men through ten relationships. Each scene takes a character from the scene before, and then passes the new character onto the scene after – a Chinese Whispers of sex. Here, instead of the big name stars, 5pound theatre have given these roles to young Melbourne actors Kaitlyn Clare and Zak Zavod.

For their Adelaide season, director Jason Cavanagh has staged the work in clothing store Urban Spaceman Vintage, and for the most part this works greatly to the advantage of the play. Costume changes hang on the clothing racks alongside the clothes for sale; posters, chairs, a keyboard, brandy glasses all seem at home in the space, and at a glance it’s largely impossible to tease out what exists organically and what has been placed their for the production. In three scenes, the audience is asked to stand and move to a different part of the space – which can lead to some awkward wrangling and sightlines, but brings out the versatility of this found space.

The unfortunate side effect of being in this space, however, is how much it ages Hare’s text. I was genuinely surprised to realise the play was written in 1998 when I sat down to reference it for this review: from this production I would have dated it in the 80s. When I had this assumption, placing the play in this space gave the text more sense: our lives are filled with the objects of generations gone past. I arrived at the show in my 60s sundress on my 70s bicycle*, and to tease life into the clothing and bric-a-brac in vintage shops by placing a work of theatre in their added so much to both the production and to the location. But this was when I was watching thinking I was being told a story from 30 years ago, not 15, and now I don’t quite know how to reconcile those emotions towards the work.

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AdlFringe Review: One for the Ugly Girls

This review contains significant spoilers. 

Playwright Tahli Corin is one on a long list of Adelaide playwrights moved interstate. It is all too rare to see plays by these writers in Adelaide: second-hand reports come in from Sydney, a few will travel to see it and come back, but the reasons they leave are certainly evident. No less than three ex-South Australian playwrights have works debuting at Griffin Theatre in Sydney this year, including Corin, and it is wonderful to see ONFG giving One for the Ugly Girls its Adelaide premiere, directed here by Adriana Bonaccurso.

Alistair (Syd Brisbane) is an artist whose work hangs in the National Gallery. Suffering from a block in his work resulting from his wife’s death, he hires life model Jade (Lori Bell) for inspiration. When Jade arrives, though, she doesn’t match the picture of what he had in his head – or of the image that was posted on the website. After an initial conflict, the two settle into an antagonistic relationship: each pushing each other’s comfort and buttons, until Jade manages to show Alistair a way back into his art.

The audience soon learn that this Jade isn’t the model from the website at all, and eventually with the appearance of the real Jade (Hannah Norris), the first woman is revealed to be Claire, her step-sister. Out with the old and in with the new, as Alistair replaces the raw and contentious Claire with the shiny veneer of Jade.

There is a slight clumsiness to this turning point in the production which neither Corin nor Bonaccurso have managed to resolve. As an audience, we have been given no hints as to how much Alistair himself knew about the manipulation, nor why he was so happy to go along with it for so long. Was it a simple case of loneliness, of the simple energy that is generated their fights? But then why is he so fickle as to replace one with the other so quickly?

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Art in a space/of a space, and AdlFringe Review: Cultural Isolation

I’ve long been arguing around Adelaide – although perhaps not on this blog – that the two types of art works that this city feels to be best at making as a response to the place itself are documentary films and street art.

Peter Drew, now based in Glasgow, created Adelaide’s Forgotten Outlaws street art pieces: paste-ups around the city of mug shots of 1920s Adelaide criminals. The project not only paired a current Adelaide against its past, but it also took residents to look more keenly at city walls and ally ways – looking out for another poster, comparing favourites.

2011 feature film Six on the Street [full film at link] was a remarkably assured debut from director Kieran Eliis-Jones and a collective of music lovers and filmmakers. At 100 minutes it runs quite long, but the insight the team give to Adelaide makes that length forgivable. It takes both a celebratory eye to the bands and the musicians, and a critical eye to the city and the current frameworks they have to exist in.

Six on the Street was produced by Sam Wright, who went on to produce the Moving Music tour, another work that throws a beautiful light upon this city. When I interviewed Wright about the work, he described wanting Moving Music to throw new light on the city. On the recent tour, we travelled from the bright afternoon sun on Rundle Street to the Torrens, up to North Adelaide, before ending up on night time Peel Street. Wright and design collective Fascination Street, working with local visual artists and musicians, built installations that existed only as long as the festival itself – had you wondered by the next day, they would have been gone. But what really made Moving Music was when it was able to integrate itself alongside the city: the vocals of Hurricanes’ Tara Lynch accompanied by birdsong in the Cross of Sacrifice Memorial Gardens; Naomi Keyte’s music augmented by the thumpthump of cars overhead and the tickticktickticktick of bikes being wheeled behind under City Bridge by the Torrens.

These pieces by Drew, Ellis-Jones, and Wright all work so well not only because they exist physically in the city, but because they are products of and responses to the places they find themselves in. Ellis-Jones records this world on film to be seen anywhere, Drew and Wright demand a presence to be most fully appreciated, but they all share a specificity to Adelaide at their core.

Arts SA and the City Council are trying to support more artistic works that occur specifically in the city, away from theatrical stages and gallery walls, through Unexpected City and Splash Adelaide, respectively, the latter of which supported Moving Music. For these projects to work to their fullest potential, both schemes must seek to support work that exists of this city, and not merely in it.

Unfortunately, this is where the Splash Adelaide supported Cultural Isolation falls down. The dance piece in this year’s Fringe directed and choreographed by Fiona Gardner sees its audience walking down North Terrace, stopping at various locations for short dance works, yet never truly integrates itself into the city spaces. We are left with a work that exists in exception to the city, rather than in response to it.

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