To Dad With Love

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Tag: Tom Pitts

Theatre review: Ad Nauseam

Dear Dad

“Watch us appear, then disappear, emerge, then vanish. Watch us.” We do, as trying as it may be, in Attic Erratic’s latest production of Tom Pitts’ play, whose title conjures, in this case, self-indulgence to a nauseating degree. A glow affords a quick glimpse of the actors, before blackness swallows them up. Another tantalising flicker, and again, they are gone. We begin to feel the weight of the oppressive darkness, on our eyes, then our breasts. But just when we long to scream from asphyxiation, we blink, the lights rise, releasing us from the disconcerting delirium that is the epitome of this memorable performance.

In an arresting monologue, a man waxes lyrical about his looks, about his disgust of the commuting office class, his disdain of admiring womenfolk. As if thrusting his hand into his chest, he pulls out the deepest consciousness of humankind, and boldly challenges anyone who thinks they’re not like him. Hardening himself against a knowing sadness he sees on his girlfriend’s “brow”, the man leaves her behind, plunging into an enticing night of hedonism, of heady promise.

Written in lush poetic style, Pitts’ script is muscular and visceral, and there is a raw physicality about his engagement with the emotional life that energises his lines. Intricately woven with similes and metaphors, his poetry only makes one wish for more time and space in which to savour and chew. But that is surely the point. This is a world where emotions are fervid and the adrenaline rush intense, tilted so we feel it in the character’s perspective.

This is a powerful and dramatically effective evening, made all the more potent by Sarah Walker’s familiar nightclub set that is littered with wine glasses and empty pints. And, of course, her extraordinary lighting design, which can be as stark — in pitch or in light — as it can be nuanced, creating transient puddles of light in a capricious night.

Nick Bendall gives a riveting performance as the central cast. Inhabiting the role as if himself, he is obnoxious yet sensuous, honest yet vile. He is good at taking Pitts’ emotional expressions and wringing the most out of them. If his later contrition does little to win sympathy, it is probably because we know we ourselves hardly deserve it. No mention of Grace Travaglia can be made without observations about her eyes: downcast and melancholic, they draw us into the girlfriend’s depths of wordless solitude. Kate Laverack, too, is remarkable. Her sheer presence as the bewitching other gives the stage a fierce and fiery edge.

Still, it is Pitts’ exquisite soundscape, the veritable fourth character, that completes the tapestry. Interweaving thumping rock with lyrical waltz, his original composition is as adept at manipulating our sensibilities — we feel empathy when we should be repugnant; horror when we should be in solidarity — as solid darkness is, at rattling us.


Review: Spring Awakening – A New Musical

Dear Dad

I stepped from the wet foyer into Monash University’s Alexander Theatre on attendance night. Melbourne may be into the second month of spring but temperatures have remained stubbornly wintry and rains have been heavy and wild.

Frank Wedekind’s 19th century German play, upon which the broadway musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik is based, explores issues around teenage sexuality and adolescent pains — themes that cross borders and transcend time.

And this production jointly presented by Monash University Student Theatre and Monash University Academy of Performing Arts captures the battle between a developed body and a pre-developed mind in spectacular fashion. Its deft articulation of the satire on institutional farce and parental oppression also leaves one speculating about the real motivation behind the play’s century-old ban.

Wendla is a pubescent girl frustrated by her ignorance about human conception and her mother’s reluctance to educate her. Her childhood friend Melchior, who is more knowledgeable about the subject of sex, meanwhile, agrees to document his understanding of the matter for his best friend, Moritz, whose involuntary carnal obsessions have left him tormented and languishing in his classroom grades.

Director Yvonne Virsik’s sleek choreography sweeps the audience into the young characters’ personal space and raging minds. In a rhythmic rush, we burst into Georg’s erotic fantasies about his voluptuous piano teacher and peek into Hanschen’s private chambers of masturbation. However varying their levels of maturity, as the rendition of “Touch Me” duly informs, the pre-adults are nothing if not united in their yearnings for physical affection.

Indeed, it is the musical direction of Tom Pitts that firmly snatches one from one’s seat into the characters’ most visceral whorls. With exquisite sensitivity, his eight-piece band carries Martha’s “The Dark I Know Well” — sung with heartfelt veracity by the talented Stephanie Speirs — to become one of the production’s most riveting soliloquy in song.

The whole ensemble of 20 fine actors responds to this demanding work with superlative performances. Jem Nicholas’ Wendla lets us see how her naive curiosity begs for the affliction of bodily pain in the same way that it leads her to succumb to Melchior’s sexual moves. Her desperate cries for her mother not to abandon her to the abortionist send chills that reverberate across the misty air. Still, it is Joel Horwood’s Melchior who epitomises the mismatch in development between body and mind. Not able to fully grasp the consequences of his own actions, he demonstrates how easy it is to be carried away in a triumph of body over mind.

With deceptive ease, several actors shift seamlessly back and forth between two or more challenging roles. Jacob Thomas rumbles imperiously as the schoolmaster who unfairly fails Moritz to uphold the institution’s lofty standards and as Moritz’s over-bearing father whose concern for his own social status drives his son to commit suicide. Similar feats in multiple roles have also been carried out with energy and verve by Haley Toth, Jack Angwin and Lauren O’Dwyer.

While Wedekind may have been audacious in his open exploration of homosexuality, he was arguably derisory in his depiction of gays. Tom Halls delivers handsomely in his portrayal of the sly and hedonistic Hanschen — the self-professed “pussy cat” who “skims off the milk”.

There are also excellent accomplishments by James Cerche as Moritz and Lucy Hotchin as Ilsa; they both represent the casualties in a society suffering from amnesia of growing pains.

Jason Lehane’s innovative set allows for the clever juxtaposition of scenes that tells the sprawling narrative in a crisp and economical manner while Brendan Jellie’s lighting design is the subtle focus muscle that takes you on that breathtaking ride.

At the end of what was a stunning evening, I stepped out of Alexander Theatre back into the campus foyer. The winds had dropped and the rains were no more. And like “The Song of Purple Summer”, I knew tomorrow shall bring new hope and new life with the promises of Spring Awakening — A New Musical.

Theatre review: Tell them that it rained too hard

Dear Dad

That promiscuity is fashionable and inspiring is as much a myth as the title of the play is a lie. Tell them that it rained too hard is a daring and honest examination of our society’s attitudes towards carnal indiscrimination and sexual modesty. Despite offering up a platform for both ideals to be heard and empathised — if not more partial to the former than the latter — the production ends with a patently salutary message.

In a brisk outline, Tell them that it rained too hard resembles one of those Sex and the City serials that openly discusses issues around sexual liberation and social ideals — those that seem somewhat jaded and pedestrian now. But Tom Pitts, the thoughtful playwright and exquisite composer known for his talent in combining music and drama to devastatingly sublime effect, brings the play alive with utterly recognisable characters and haunting tunes.

Directed with becoming delicacy by Celeste Cody, one of the theatre company’s artistic directors, who last year collaborated with Pitts in Christina: A Story With Music and Ad Absurdum to critical acclaim, the play also benefits immeasurably from performance of limpid truth by a highly talented cast.

Kaitlyn Clare plays a sensuous young woman, Helen, who revels in the frisson of new sexual encounters. She believes every man possesses a mystical magic that dissipates the moment fornication is done and excitement exploited. She recoils from the idea of monogamy for no one “really wants to travel on the same road again and again”.

So, when Elizabeth, her best friend, played by Vivienne Garnett, prepares to settle down, Helen is privately ambivalent, deeply convinced that Elizabeth will come to rue her choice. Seeing herself as a rousing influence, leading with chutzpah to live out people’s most visceral desires, Helen recollects Elizabeth’s eyes brimming with gratitude for taking her where she would never have ventured.

The play’s abstruse title refers to a phrase used by Helen’s mother in narrating a story surrounding the father Helen never knew. “Tell them that it rained too hard,” was what he said to her mother, exhorting her to call the authorities, before being swept away by the country floods — Helen is repeatedly told. Until now, she has never thought to question the veracity of the tale.

The production is delightfully peppered with delicious metaphors. Mother’s artful stacking, then un-stacking, of inverted milk crates into one straight line on the ground suggests that her own past paves the way back to none other than the main street, from where she urges Helen to avoid. When Elizabeth’s fiance, Mark, attributes their tardiness to the “flashing amber lights” that really want to turn to green but cannot, he is unwittingly spelling out Elizabeth’s restrained desires for a former flame.

The most profound metaphor, perhaps, comes right at the outset in Helen’s soliloquy about the colourful harlot parade. It is not hard to imagine what Michael, Elizabeth’s brother — femme fatale’s latest victim– whispered into Helen’s ear when he finally coaxed her into bed again, under the unforgiving gaze of judging voyeurs.

While Pitts’ writing is brutal — flirting perilously close with misogyny — Cody and Stephanie Spiers’ stylish and tasteful direction (and stunning costumes) combines with Ian Tsaoussi’s eloquent lighting and Pitts’ own atmospheric music to create a mood that plies the murky hinterland between eroticism and elegance, between the sordid and the sensible.

Nevertheless, the production is affecting mostly because the cast does not push to make it so. Clare’s protagonist Helen is absolutely compelling, transitioning from defiance and seductiveness to morning-after disgust, disappointment then dejection — at times astounding with a simultaneous melange.

Garnett’s Elizabeth is just as fine: her outstanding depiction of a woman’s susceptibility to temptation is an embarrassing reality many fervently deny but secretly acknowledge. Her turn-around on watching her brother suffer at the receiving end of such decadence is entirely convincing.

Special mention must be made of Maree Cody who plays Mother. Her effortless portrayal of a parent desperately hoping against history repeating itself while somewhat resigned in the knowledge of its inexorable prospect speaks to her consummate skill as a reliable stage veteran.

Enormous talent is also displayed by Sam Lund as fiance Mark, Nick Bendall as brother Michael, James Deeth as old-flame Alan and Christian Connolly as Man — his nonchalance as beguiling to the audience as it is to the protagonist.

The acts of heart-quickening flirtation, hilarious parody and lewd antics played out by the three pairs of voyeurs and drunks, too, are remarkable. One cannot help but be captivated by Grace Travaglia’s low-cast eyes that are totally inebriated in the moment as she feels Alex Roe’s fingers creeping up her arm.

Perhaps, as the play’s ending alludes, the only way to sustain someone still clinging to the rejected and fading notion of promiscuity is an enduring promise of the ever-tantalising, the never knowing and never possessing — never mind that it comes with a promise their future will be as much a disgrace as the lie: “Tell them that it rained too hard.”

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