Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hir, Belvoir

The recent death of Sam Shepherd reminded us that he was an incomparable poet of a certain type of American experience - chronicling and mourning the death of the American Midwest Working Class in plays like "Buried Child", "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Lie of the Mind", and illustrating masculinity in crisis as it finds itself increasingly marginalised and forgotten. "Hir" brings that to mind but also asks the question, what were the values behind that culture, and how much should they really be mourned? It tells the story of downtrodden American family who have never quite gotten out of their low-cost "starter home" - Brother Isaac has been away in the middle east collecting body parts, and now returns to what should be normality. But Father Arnold has had a stroke, and mother Paige has taken advantage of her new found freedom to explore a whole new identity and to abandon anything that kept her trapped in the old one (including housework). While sister Maxine has discovered her trans identity and is living as Max, on gender-shifting hormones. It's a play that's compassionate, smart and yet, in the final calculation, merciless as it brings contemporary gender theory right back into the midwest loungeroom where a lot of journeys start.

Taylor Mac is a trans writer/performer who did in fact grow up in a poor town, and this play simultaneously is about triumphing over your origin and what's left behind when you do. It's clear that characters like Paige and Max come from the bones, but Isaac and Arnold are recognisable figures too - the conventional values that are simultaneously crushing and yet so prevalent. Anthea Williams' production captures everything, from Paige's chaotic joy to Max's teen growing pains, a mix of embracing the new and being embarrassed by Mom's over-enthusiasm. Helen Thomson's a virtuoso as Paige, gleeful and funny and strongly resistant to any backsliding out of her new-found freedom. Similarly, Kurt Pimblett as Max is a great Belvoir debut, with a truly sympathetic naivete that's balanced by an awareness that this teenagehood will be transcended shortly. Michael Whalley as the straight-man (in every sense) has a role that largely consists of bewilderment and belligerence, but he manages to keep us believing that Paige and Max would continue to engage with him rather than ignore him. Greg Stone as the impaired Arnold is a performance that asks no sympathy and therefore, when the inner ugliness emerges, ensures he lands effecively. Special mention to the stage crew under Isabella Kerdijk, which has a whole lot of work to do during intermission and does it efficiently.

Michael Handkin's set and costume designs capture with not-quite-realism, making it just that right side of larger than life.

In short, this is modern,relevant, heartbreaking and wildly funny. One of the highlights of the year.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Neighborhood Watch, Canberra Rep

"Neighborhood Watch" is a fine addition to the list of plays about an older mentor and a younger student, most recently seen in shows like "Old Wicked Songs" and "Tuesdays with Morrie". The main difference is that for most shows, mentor and student tend to both be male - here, both are female. As always, there's a gentle humour, life lessons are there to be learned, and there is a poignant ending as the torch is passed on.

I did see the original production back in 2011 at Belvoir Street, starring the actress it was written for, Robyn Nevin. So I was a little worried that comparisons would set in unfairly. And yet, this doesn't entirely lose in the comparison. Nevin was a powerhouse, no question, but she tended to overpower the rest of the play - and with a slightly more balanced cast, other elements have a chance to come through. In particular, Alex McPherson's Catherine gets a chance to stand somewhat more as an equal to Liz DeToth's Ana - Catherine's not just a young empty vessel waiting to be filled, she's a feisty young woman who's perfectly capable of standing up to Ana when she oversteps the mark. The strength of the play is the relationship between the two of them, and the two actresses chart a real journey from wariness to warmth, through estrangements and exasperations to an ultimate peace. While there is a certain sentimentality to this arc, Katz's script and the performances largely avoid the maudlin, giving Ana's brittleness full reign and letting her be as frustrating as she is enlightening.

The supporting cast is, in this case, particularly supporting. Craig Battams has possibly the biggest single role beyond the main pairing, but is pretty much there for Catherine to have someone to talk to, and he presents a good listening ear, a mixture of sympathetic and slightly-judgmental. As for the rest, Judi Crane commits a little bit of scene-stealing as Jovanka, basically a show-long running gag but an amusing and slightly heart-rending one at the end, Tim Sekuless is in fine voice as a Hungarian folk singer, Nikki-Lyn Hunter gives a brief glimpse of another set of struggles elsewhere in the cul-de-sac, Loren Kalis has enthusiastic persistence as a neighborhood watch co-ordinator, Peter Holland pops up in various roles either sympathetic or sinister and Damon Baudin has a pleasant nerdyness as the local pharmacist and quiet sincerity as another presence from Catherine's life.

Director Kate Blackhurst uses the wide open space of Rep's stage with care - letting the characters establish themselves in isolation before they start to mix and blend across the stage. Andrew Kay's set design is deliberately somewhat minimalist, capturing just enough of a suburban cul-de-sac to give us a sense of suburbia, and letting the journeys beyond take flight mostly in the mind. Joel Endmondson's lighting design and Jesse Armistead's sound design help give a little extra sense of place.

This is a quiet pleasure - it's not necessarily a barn-burster drama poking you in the chest for your attention, but it sneaks up on you until you are drawn into affection for a pair who discover a few things about one another along the course of an evening.