What makes us who we are? Is it the sum of our
biological parts - limbs, a torso, a head, a face? Or is it something less
tangible, less corporeal?
This ...is the thematic bedrock upon which Margaret Edson's 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit is built. It pits the conceit that the body is merely a vehicle for the mind, against the unignorable truth that one cannot persist without the other.
A ferociously intelligent professor, specialising in the poetry of Donne, Vivian Bearing, has stage four ovarian cancer. There is no stage five: she is dying. As her body fails, her brilliant mind processes the experience in the careful vernacular of an arch-academic. She trades in multisyllabic, curdling, opaque eloquence that revels in its own dense exclusivity. She is not without passion, indeed Bearing's ardent admiration for Donne borders on the obsessive. But it is devoid of sentimentality – anything so mawkish is miles beneath her. And yet, as her aggressive cancer and the even more aggressive treatment attack her body, her ironclad tank of a brain is overwhelmed by the emotions this agony provokes. As Bearing remarks, she is once more a student: "I am learning to suffer."
Not unlike Donne, Edson has crafted a virtuosic and colossally cerebral text, and in the wrong hands, its remarkable insight could easily be squandered. It requires a performer with an equally virtuosic skill to communicate all its subtleties, someone who understands every microscopic variant on the full spectrum of human emotion. Fortunately, the Artisan Collective's production at Fortyfivedownstairs is blessed with a performer of this category.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Professor Bearing delivers a performance of such unrestrained commitment that even now, hours after the end of this production, I'm fighting back tears just to think of it. This role turns on a pin- head from the voice of a narrator - charming, charismatic and often quite funny - to the stark, brutal realities of losing a battle to cancer. This production doesn't sugar-coat any facet of this harrowing account. It is undignified, deeply shocking, and like Jeminah Alli Reidy's superbly realised wire-frame set, completely exposed. Montgomery Griffiths offers a masterclass in emotional authenticity, bringing a level of forensic detail to her portrayal that I have very rarely seen on stage. Quite simply, her performance is astonishing.
An incandescent lead, she is accompanied by a strong supporting cast. Jing-Xuan Chan as cancer nurse Susie Monahan is a well-judged foil for Bearing. She is a mirror opposite of the dying Professor, compassionate, uncomplicated and pragmatic. Her warm yet grounded care for Bearing, as fear and pain corrode the Professor's mental faculties, reveal some of the most touching moments in this production, but by far the most arresting scene comes between Bearing and her mentor, Professor Ashford, played by Helen Morse.
In her final days, defeated by excruciating treatments and unstoppable tumours, Bearing is visited by her old teacher. Unable to converse or intellectually spar as they once did, Ashford offers a gesture of uncharacteristic kindness, simply holding her old pupil. It is a moment that is simultaneously heartbreaking and yet profoundly affirming.
I urge you not to miss this brief Melbourne season, and not only because it is a tour de force of accomplished acting. Wit offers an incredibly important perspective on a subject that, after centuries of scrutiny, could easily be threadbare.
Review: Wit | ARTSHUB – Liza Bezfouli 4.5 STARS
Artisan collective’s production of Wit, directed by Ben Pfeiffer, is outstanding theatre informed by something approaching the visionary, and enjoys performances that will stay with you for years. Jane Montgomery Griffiths plays academic Vivian Bearing, an intimidating presence who opens the play by saying she doesn’t want to give away the plot but she thinks she dies at the end. Bearing has discovered she has ovarian cancer and agrees to undergo an experimental series of chemotherapy treatments which will test her endurance to the utmost. Bearing has dedicated her career to the work of John Donne; in her rarefied academic world, as she says, she is somebody: the best, in fact. Wit – without voyeurism and with neither sentimentality nor avoidance of the vicious business of this sort of demise – allows us to witness Bearing's physical unravelling alongside an increasing understanding that her ferocious intellect is less of an ally in death than it’s been in life.
Artisan Collective uses Donne’s Holy Sonnets sung A Capella and music (Sufi trance compositions) by Russian mystic Gurdjieff to create atmosphere, to remind us of the refined world of the mind that has been Vivian's life up till now. The set design is simple with neon lit frames suggesting the white coldness of hospital but also portals and doorways.
As her health fails Dr Bearing comes to depend more and more on her medical team led by Dr Kelekian (Rhys McConnochie who also plays Vivian’s father). Yet there is only one, nurse Susie (Jing-Xuan Chan), who understands what she needs. At the end kindness is all that matters and Dr Bearing reflects that she herself has been less kind than she should have. The character of Jason Posner (Mick Lo Monaco) is the medical equivalent of Vivian;; less interested in the person than the challenges of the case. Scenes of the insensitive treatment of Vivian in hospital are galling.
A later moment sees Bearing’s former inspiration and teacher, Professor Ashford (Helen Morse), arrive to read her a last bedtime story – a scene of emotional and psychological radiance.
This is a mighty play; Edson won the Pulitzer for it. It pops and pings – as you’d expect – with sly and with overt wit; the script is generous, intimate and unashamedly, refreshingly intellectual. The text is dryly self-aware, knows how to balance sadness and humour and its engagement with language is thrilling. What we get here are astonishing performances from some of Australia’s best, with the timing and pacing of the business on stage finely tuned to honour the dramatic momentum.
Montgomery Griffiths is superlative, her research into the effects of chemotherapy on the body shows to sometimes excoriating effect in her performance. This reviewer is struggling somewhat to express how impressive this production is. We’ve nearly all got some connection to cancer, but in any case Wit is a story for everyone. This narrative marrying literature and medicine is also one of the most downright interesting plays I've seen. Go and see it and you’ll never forget it.
Review: Wit | THE AGE – Owen Richardson
Professor Vivian Bearing is a distinguished and fearsome scholar specialising in Donne's Holy Sonnets, those astonishing dramas of the soul grappling with last things. She is also facing her own last things: she has been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer.Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize- winning play is about death the leveller, and the body revenging itself on the mind;; and how, in the end, cleverness is no substitute for authentic human connection.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths is superb in the role. Her English accent and slightly angular beauty make her a natural for the character, as perhaps does her academic background (Cambridge classics). Head shaved, dressed in only a hospital gown, exposed by harsh spotlights, Montgomery Griffiths is never off stage – and she is absolutely commanding, whether she is being crisp and sardonic or needy and frightened.
Ben Pfeiffer lets nothing gets in the way of the text and the performers. Jeminah Alli Reidy's set is both clinical and otherworldly: a white frame suggests the dimensions of a hospital room, filled only with a chair and a bed. The actors are left bare, none more than Montgomery Griffiths.
As Bearing's mentor, Helen Morse has a lovely blend of sternness and warmth – that blend Bearing herself has never attempted. As the medical staff Rhys McConnochie, Mick Lo Monaco and Jing- Xuan Chan are all solid. But it is Montgomery Griffiths' night.
Review: Requiem For Dalinka | Stage Whispers
The story, set in a fictional concentration camp in eastern Poland after the Nazi surrender, aspires to dramatise big and important questions of contemporary relevance, such as how far might we transgress in order merely to survive. What is the transformative role of music in survival? In what forms will repressed sexuality manifest itself? What happens to the individual when cruelty and brutality are just part of the job? In Dalinka camp, only four prisoners survive. They are Jewish musicians kept alive to ‘entertain’ their gaolers. The latter know they are finished: they cling to their beaten ideology, they fantasise, they despair. The show excels in cast and design. The set design by Jeminah Alli Reidy is simply brilliant and the more so for being so simple and so suggestive. An all-wooden structure provides a platform on which the Nazi guards can joke, carouse, listen to records or the music provided by the Jewish prisoners below and snatch some sex in the shadows. All that is above the cramped boxes that are the prisoners’ quarters. A steep set of steps to one side emphasises a descent into hell whenever a Nazi goes down to the prisoners. Smooth grey barrels represent the past – either the music of the past or its crimes to be hidden when the end is nigh. Benjamin Morris’ lighting design superbly complements Ms Reidy’s simplicity: the over-bright light above, the gloom of the prisoners’ quarters, the pools of searchlight at the perimeter in which hopes and dreams can be confessed. The musical excerpts used in this production are carefully chosen. There’s an amusing moment when the Colonel’s aide puts on recording of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. The Colonel rejects that – he doesn’t want that German music - and it’s replaced by The Magic Flute. When the prisoner musicians must play, we do not see them play, with instruments. We hear what they play and see the fear and stress of the player. The show holds one’s attention due to Mr Pfeiffer’s startling mise en scène. This is a show that is constantly visually exciting in its groupings, its configurations and movements. The precision of the direction and of the actors’ movements make, say, a lineup of the Jewish prisoners either threatening or chilling; it can suggest homosexuality close to the surface among drunken Nazis; or it can accentuate the vulnerability inherent in a tender moment.
Requiem For Dalinka bristles with ideas and it is absolutely gripping to look at.
Review: Requiem For Dalinka | The Melbourne Observer
This bleak and provocative work, Requiem For Dalinka, by Peter Marks, brings home to us some of the horror and enormity of the holocaust. It keeps the story on a human scale by focussing on four prisoners and four of their jailers, and their interactions at the end of WWII, as the allies are approaching. The prisoners are musicians and have been spared to entertain their captors. The irony of the juxtaposition of the beauty of the music and the depravity of the listeners is not lost on the audience. The writer opens up many issues and questions, despite our sympathies being clearly with the prisoners, the soldiers and their fear and paranoia become increasingly apparent and beg for understanding, with the finale emphasising the universality of the human condition. Director, Ben Pfeiffer, also artistic director of The Artisan Collective, enables his ensemble to bring to life the personalities and complex interplay of the characters with great skill and intensity. The Dramaturg, Deborah Rechter, stresses the writers' success in highlighting the universal themes of identity, sexuality, survival and civility. The design team are to be congratulated on a very effective set which chillingly emphasises the control of the persecutors and the helplessness of their prisoners. The haunting music used in this production adds poignancy and depth,due to Ben Pfeiffer, Nicholas Marks, Nick Culvenor and Mark Jones.
Review: THE COLLECTOR | Pesky feminist | Amy Gray | Collingwood Underground Arts Park
As a teenage night owl, I lived for late night movies. It was a time before infomercials when stations would offer their cruddy, their cult and challenging films. It was during this time I discovered ‘The Collector’. Starring Terrence Stamp, the film focused on a recently wealthy butterfly- collecting loner, Frederick, who stalks and abducts a woman, imprisoning her in the cellar of his remote home. A battle of wit against force ensues as Miranda tries to escape, realising she has become nothing more than another butterfly to add to his collection. In its grim black and white mundanity, the film was bizarrely compelling despite being shoddy filler for a growing actor. Over the years, I thrilled when Neil Gaiman referenced the film in Sandman‘s ‘The Doll House’ and devoured the book, once discovered. It’s easy to see why the director originally turned in a three hour film only to eventually acquiesce to the the studio’s demands. The book is hypnotic, directly giving Frederick and Miranda’s point of view. It was a rich insight into their motivations, their back stories and reactions. Followed by an era of gorno (torture porn), it stands apart for its use of psychology and exploration of class and privilege and has become a personal favourite. So it was a surprise to receive an invite to a theatrical adaptation of the novel, if only because I wasn’t aware anyone else knew of the work. I was asked to speak on a panel after regarding violence against women and felt immense trepidation. I despise feminism for feminism’s sake, I rail against stories needing to be perfectly balanced where no violence or sexist characters exist. It’s a conversation I have often with one friend when we debate the gender issues in Sherlock because apparently my life is one of such intellectual vigour and challenge, I must tackle the really big issues. She tells me the show is sexist, the main characters are sexist and the fact Irene Adler was cast as a dominatrix was sexist. I point out to her that Sherlock in the books rarely cared for women, discriminated on the basis no one was him rather than to discriminate on gender, that it is a character defining trait that can drive both the role and story and that there was a suggestion in the original book that Adler was a sex worker. I don’t mind there being sexist characters as long as they aren’t the only ones. But with The Collector, I feared revisionism at play and delved back into the book, desperate to arm myself and slowly dreading both the play and the panel. I’ll get bored and my temper will show, I thought huffily. As a committed recalcitrant who can spin from happiness at whim, I felt assured my night was going to be terrible.
What a complete idiot I am.
The play is staged in an actual car park deep within Collingwood near the council flats. Descending below, we sat in cold emptiness, surrounding a car. It’s dark and the play opens with the red light thrown by Frederick lighting his cigarette. As he lumbered towards the audience, as he drew on his smoke and delivered a monologue with a thin, reedy voice, we all instinctively huddled together. I felt panicked and wanted to run – it took focus to grip onto my fingers and concentrate on the play. This theatrical adaptation of the Collector quietly and expertly highlights violence against women and casts the audience as unwilling potential victims and aggressors, forcing hypervigilance. Scenes are staged where you see Miranda objectified, literally reduced to a series of body parts rather than the talented and promising student she was. The car – sole set piece – is driven around tightly a few times, placing the audience on alert (as if the flashing lights weren’t enough) they were in danger and equally vulnerable to Frederick’s menace. The performances are powerful. Tristan Meecham portrays the arrested contradictions of Frederick perfectly, smiling benignly or meekly curling into himself before yelling with the ferocity of his full power and threat. Playwright Kristina Brew plays Miranda for the conflicted and intelligent young person she was in the book – valiantly struggling with the rules society placed upon her, trying to navigate an escape against her captor while defending her vivacity, her undeniable confusion and fire so common with younger people (something reviews of this play have apparently ignored). It is their use of voice that tears the most at the audience and takes the play from the titillating torture soft porn as viewed on ‘Criminal Minds‘ and the like, taking it into new territory. Miranda and Frederick’s voices and the use of microphone ushered their rasping, their soft panic, conversational swatting and screams against the audience like weapons. We instinctively jumped when Meecham (Frederick) and Brew screamed with aggression or terror – it wasn’t because they were loud but because they were so real, making us flinch with expected attack. Does this use of terror make the play worthwhile? Definitely. By holding us to alert, by drawing the audience in to consider the true violence that is perpetrated against women. This adaptation isn’t gratuitous, it is needed and slaps us awake from cultural hypnosis to see a shade of what true violence is like, to dislodge us from our blasé acceptance of assault as a plot or character device (rape as female motivator in games, I’m looking at you).
Though the play doesn’t focus as closely on class as the original novel, it does play on gender and objectification offered by Fowles and, as confirmed with others after the play, represents the novel in a balanced way. That a play or film highlights other issues from source material isn’t new and it should be noted there are multiple references to class privilege within the play. But, as someone who was previously incredulous this theme would be downplayed and determined to not enjoy the performance, it makes complete sense when you see the rich vein of material Brew explores. She perfectly captures the objectification of women gleaned from Fowles’ pages, she throws the violence into a harsh light unshadowed from mawkish voyeurism and spares us the more florid passages. If there is any criticism to share, it is that the relationship with G.B. (a man who was in love with Miranda) isn’t referenced enough though, logistically, this would have been unreasonable to both narrative and time but would have absolutely hammered the points home about gender, objectification and potentially explained Miranda’s developing views on class and privilege (she vacillates wildly from ‘I accept everyone’ to hating the “new people” in the book). Even then, this criticism is more of a nice to have than critical deficiency.
The Collector is powerful theatre that made a definite impact on its audience. The play is wonderfully acted, the sound and space will terrify you and the result is uncompromising in its message and intent.
I was a fool to ever doubt them and you’ll be a fool if you don’t catch this play before it ends on Saturday.
Review: THE COLLECTOR | Theatre People
The Artisan Collective’s production of The Collector is literally set in a carpark. I was quite terrified from the minute I descended the ramp into the Collingwood Underground Carpark Theatre. It was dark, cold and huge. Everything echoed. There were candles scattered around, flickering on faces and illuminating just enough for me to realise I wasn’t going to become like Miranda, the kidnapped college student in the play. Based on John Fowles’ 1963 classic novel of the same name, The Collector is a two-hander between Miranda, an art student, and Frederick, her kidnapper. Frederick keeps her locked in the cellar of his house in the belief that if he keeps her captive long enough, she will fall in love with him. Having recently read the novel, it was hard to separate the two works from one another- but this production is incredibly successful as a psychological thriller and The Artisan Collective created a truly terrifying piece of theatre. The set consisted of a car, which was driven to different positions throughout the play. The actors were miked, which worked brilliantly to heighten their words, breathing, footprints and amplify sounds in the echoey carpark. The audience members had huge, dark spaces behind them, into which Frederick would disappear and from which he would emerge. The feelings of being watched, unsure, in danger and scared was palpable. Director Ben Pfeiffer, lighting designer Benjamin Morris and sound designer Russell Goldsmith are all to be congratulated. Kristina Brew and Tristan Meecham worked beautifully together as Miranda and Frederick. Their power play, connection, focus and commitment made the play thrilling and interesting. Either or both actors could have sunk into portraying stereotypes of captive and captor, but Brew and Meecham painted full, real people with whom the audience could understand and sympathise, making the play all the more confronting.
The Collector is thought-provoking and important. The Artistan Collective have staged a creative, dedicated and haunting piece of theatre.
Review: THE COLLECTOR | The Melbourne Observer
Adapting a novel for performance on the stage is a herculean task, particularly when one is handling a genre piece. The difficulty of such a challenge however reaches a truly terminal point when one is dealing with a novel largely to be considered one of, if not the first modern psychological thriller. The subject, John Fowles The Collector, was first published in 1963- a densely plotted and intricately written tale of a downtrodden loner who seeks to attain that which he most covets.
In any adaptation of a literary medium to screen or stage, one sacrifices the linguistic nitty-gritty of the original work. Words that act as a trigger to shock and induce suspense in the audience cannot be readily employed. It is thus a testament to Kristina Brew's skill as a playwright that her adaptation of Fowles's book not only possesses the thrills and suspense of the source material, but introduces an entirely new take on Fowles's book.
Directed by Ben Pfeiffer and starring Tristan Meecham as the lonely protagonist Frederick Clegg and Kristina Brew as the object of his desire Miranda Grey, this new production is imbued with both an empathy and a certain romanticism, albeit a dark one, that is not present in Fowles's work. The story of Frederick's abduction of Miranda after a chance lottery win is beautifully transmuted from an allegory of class warfare to a dark and twisted romance. Playing at Collingwood's highly contemporary Underground Arts Park, The Artisan Collective have put together a production that is thoroughly modern and immensely gripping.
Meecham and Brew present fully realised characters who are broken, morose, lustful and thus, ultimately human.
The Collector will live on in the imaginations of all who see it- niggling at the back of your mind for years to come.
Review: IF IT BLEEDS | The Australian
Two years before Peter Finch promised to blow his brains out on air in the film Network, a 29 year old anchorwoman of a morning television show on a small Florida channel did precisely that, live and in colour.
Brendan McCallum's play, IF IT BLEEDS at Melbourne's Gasworks Theatre, is a masterpiece of economy. It gives a narrow but representative slice of the timeline and a fistful of fleshy and well-realised characters: the lonely and depressed anchor Christine; her family and co-workers, including rival Andrea (Kristina Brew). Known for its flamboyance and theatrics, the youthful Artisan Collective demonstrates it can do tightly controlled 'legit' theatre every bit as well as it has done playwrights such as Harry Kondoleon and Martin Crimp. Top to bottom- the acting is impressive, especially from Lauren Urquart, as the Karen Carpenter like Christine Chubbuck and Felicity Soper in the roles of her mother and a colleague.
Ben Pfeiffer yet again proves his versatility as a director.
Review: IF IT BLEEDS | The Morning After: Chris Boyd
It’s worth trying to conjure up the scenario in your mind. A morning TV show on a local channel in a small coastal town in Florida. The show, Suncoast Digest, is devoted to local news. Not trivia exactly, but it is unashamedly parochial in focus. On a Monday morning in summer, not quite two weeks after the fourth of July in 1974, the revamped WXLT-TV show begins with a brief news bulletin from the news desk instead of the host’s usual armchair. A report doesn’t quite go to plan -- video doesn’t begin on cue -- and the camera stays on the 29 year-old “attractive dark-haired anchorwoman” -- as she was described in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the following day. According to the news report, Christine Chubbuck looked down the barrel of the lens and said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first -- an attempted suicide.”
And there, fully two years before Peter Finch threatened to blow his brains out in the film 'Network', Chubbuck shot herself in the head. Live to air. Living colour indeed.
Playwright Brendan McCallum and the estimable Artisan Collective tackle the story in McCallum’s economical and superbly crafted play which opened at Gasworks on Wednesday. My short but sweet review is in today’s Australian. (It’s not on-line, so no link.) The play takes its name from the newsroom maxim: if it bleeds, it leads.
McCallum’s play is almost Ibsen-like in its swift and efficient introduction of key characters. This particular slice of time gives us an insight into what has gone on prior to the opening scene. Even more intriguing is the fact that -- at Chubbuck’s insistence -- the suicide attempt was recorded onto 2” video tape. One has to assume that Chubbuck intended the footage to be widely seen. (Domestic VCRs were not widely available until the latter half of the 1970s in the USA.) Thanks to a successful injunction, the tape has never been aired. According to Wikipedia, the tape was eventually handed over to the Chubbuck family. If It Bleeds rates as conservative next to previous Artisan Collective productions but it is, in its way, every bit as exciting.
Pains Of Youth | Zoe Knowles | TIMEOUT MAGAZINE
Pains of Youth is the kind of show you go to see if you want to watch theatre that doesn’t spoon feed you the plot.
The Artisan Collective’s performance of this unique play profiles a group of twenty-somethings as they struggle with what it means to become an adult. The play is set in Vienna in the 1920’s, but aside from the costumes it could have been set now in any university boarding house anywhere in Australia.
Twisting through the interconnecting lives of the 7 characters, Pains Of Youth deals with issues of sexuality, suicide, adulthood, class and friendship, not shying away from the uncomfortable. The scenes can be quite explicit, and performed in the Malthouse’s tiny tower theatre you are very close to the action, sometimes too close. Seeing into the actor’s eyes as they describe their inner yearnings is confronting, and the minimalist set adds to the feeling of a private confession, whispered just to you.
Don’t take your mum to this one.
Review: Pains Of Youth | Susan Sandow | Stage Whispers
This is a curious, intriguing, engaging and well produced work that ‘showcases’ a beautiful, spirited and talented group of young actors.
In a drawing room with an atmosphere of decadence and display, combinations of young, self serving individuals work through their intimate relationships and close friendships, play with their personal power and indulge their neuroses.
Sexuality and desire are the driving forces. Extraordinary self interest and brutal manipulative ambivalence is explored. Characters, and therefore actors, are required to have the emotional capacity and skill to ‘turn on a pin’. Strangely my overall sense is that something is missing. This could merely be ethical integrity in the characters. However I found myself craving a more theatrical and stylised expression of the protagonist’s objectives and intentions – a work with more striking contrast in colour and light. I was also, at times, bemused by the controlling nature of the use of sound. Pfeiffer describes the approach he takes in his director’s notes and it makes sense and is quite obviously fully embraced by the actors. But one cannot help wondering how expressive, over the top and liberating a Martin Crimp like staging could be.
Despite my reservations about interpretation, this production is well worth seeing as an intelligent, stimulating and challenging engagement with a fascinating provocative work by very skilled and obviously ambitious practitioners who have the potential to thrive if supported.
I will be looking out for their next production with curiosity.
Pains Of Youth | Cameron Woodhead | BEHIND THE CRITICAL CURTAIN
Pains of Youth is the sharply honed point of German expressionist drama – an infected wound of a play, as vicious and torrid as anything in Strindberg or Wedekind. Bruckner’s merciless anatomy of psychological frailty delves into the destructive soul of Gertrude Stein’s ‘lost generation’, reeling after the catastrophe of WWI. Yet Martin Crimp’s brilliant free translation attains a savage timelessness. Even now, the young live in dangerous proximity to the grave. Suicide remains the leading cause of death in Australian adults under 34 – timely that this production should open during Suicide Prevention Week.
A cruel inversion of the Hippocratic Oath propels the drama. Most of the characters are medical students or freshly graduated doctors; they do each other nothing but harm.
Marie (Kristina Brew) and Desiree (Genevieve Giuffre) play compelling mind games. A nervous start settles into a toxic bond. Brew moves from placid golden child to a woman wild with rage and pain. Giuffre’s compulsive manipulator, with her Louise Brooks bob and Cheshire cat smile, cleverly masks a chasm of need. As Irene, Joanne Trentini steals the show in an urgent, clinically articulated portrayal of a smart, proud young woman tied to her own victimhood. There’s an almost religious passion in the way her every insecurity and self-deception is stripped bare.
Leila Teneke Rodgers’ Lucy captures a vacant naivety that remains pathetically unsullied by the abuse she receives.
Pfeiffer's production gets the guts of the play. The Artisan Collective is a talented and ambitious company.
Review: Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise | Alison Croggon
If you haven't heard of Harry Kondoleon, as I hadn't before seeing this play, let me fill you in on my googling. Kondoleon blazed briefly over Manhattan in the 1980s, before he died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. As a playwright, he is often compared to Christopher Durang, John Guare and Joe Orton, though he has a formalist edge that have led critics to call in Pirandello. In the decade before his death, he published a volume of poetry and wrote a few novels, produced several plays and mounted an exhibition of paintings, along the way winning a swag of awards. Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise was the first of his plays to be produced in New York City. It's a bizarre comedy of manners, kind of like Seinfeld on acid. Although what it mostly reminded me of was the melancholy menace excavated by the anonymous genius behind the website Unhappy Hipsters, with the neurotic subtext of these utopian visions of urban life brought to its full insane efflorescence. The plot, such as it is, involves a writer, Carl (Mick Lo Monaco), who declares his love for Bethany (Kristina Brew) to her husband, Alvin (Josh Price), at a dinner party. After Carl - literally - carries Bethany off, Carl's wife Adele (Marissa Bennett), who has recently attempted suicide over her husband's infidelity, arrives at Alvin's apartment. She intends to kill Carl or, at the very least, to write a roman de clef exposing him for the tool he is.
It's one of those plays that attacks the mode of naturalism it lightly adopts, puncturing its surface with hysteric extremity and poetic segues in which the various characters pursue the non sequiturs of their inner lives. I think it's mightily over-written, but it has an attractive charge and power which explains why Ben Pfeiffer and his colleagues at Artisan Collective chose to perform it. This is a very classy production of a difficult play: Pfeiffer meets the play's attack on form with a stylised energy that opens a new take on the possibility of language in the theatre. It's performed in traverse, with the minimal design suggesting an urban, contemporary domestic interior (vase of dead twigs, metallic underlit tables). The performances literalise the manic emotional twists of the script with an over-the-top physicalisation that twists this production towards movement theatre. The actors take each gesture to an extreme, so behaviour becomes an exaggerated language of Tourettian tics that emphasises the lack of communication between each character. They are all essentially solitary: their lives are sterile, self-referential and self-consuming, and the deepest drive in each of them is a fear of being alone. Carl is (as he intones several times) a Writer, and thus doomed to a life of witnessing rather than participating. He is the cliche of the literary predator who exploits the women in his life for his work, as subject matter and office dogsbodies. Alvin lives in a fog of goodness that means he has no connection with reality at all: in his city garden and his domesticity he attempts to find the fertility and plenty that is missing from his life. The two women are creatively barren, a lack which finds its outlet in their neuroticism. Adele munches Valium as she tries to escape the house that is trying to kill her, and Beth, who blames Alvin for losing her inner poetic self, thinks the earth beneath her feet is moving. Which, as Alvin points out, it is.
This goes beyond satire to some other kind of enactment: its world is so hermetic it is in danger of bearing no relation to us, either. But it makes fascinating and engrossing theatre. Like the writing, I thought the production ever-so-slightly overdressed, but it's performed and directed so well, with such accuracy, skill and commitment, that it's well worth a look. It's a brilliant exercise in style, if mostly notable for the possibilities it opens. Keep an eye out for this company.
Review: Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise | Chris Boyd | The Herald Sun
5 Stars | Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise by Harry Kondoleon.
Directed by Ben Pfeiffer. Set, sound and lighting design also by Ben Pfeiffer. The Artisan Collective. At the Guildford Lane Gallery, Melbourne, until March 13.
Playwright Harry Kondoleon had a very special contempt for long “family argument” plays where the on-stage brawling was less interesting than the fights you have in your own home. So, this play is both short (about an hour) and ‘heightened’. Unless you are dating a Berkoff-trained actor -- or some other kind of very highly strung artist -- the theatrics in Kondoleon’s play Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise should eclipse your own domestics... by about a million watts.
That said, the play might only make complete sense to highly-strung arty types. (Or those they have scorched.) Kondoleon’s idea of heightened involves putting his characters on the rack and stretching them until limbs come out of sockets. Or nailing them to a lover’s cross. Here, a writer runs off with the partner of a close friend after a dinner party. The writer’s own ex has recently tried to kill herself. It’s like a David Lynch version of Patrick Marber’s Closer. This early and rarely-staged play -- an Australian premiere according to the company producing it -- is an absolute treat for aficionados of non-soapy theatre and for practicing thesps. It calls for real bravura, exuberance and top physical and vocal skills from its cast of four.
This company of young VCA acting graduates absolutely nails it. The acting is spectacular and really quite delicious without crossing over into indulgence... a fine line! Every detail of Ben Pfeiffer’s production is thought-out, exact and cleanly delivered, from the table setting on the ceiling to the choreography to the high-key paint job and lighting.
Josh Price’s hunched, distracted, vulture-like performance as the jilted Alvin is jaw-droppingly good. He makes a gullible and utterly wacky character seem entirely authentic. "I seem to have misplaced God," he announces. Likewise Kristina Brew (as Alvin’s partner Bethany) does an extraordinary conjuring job, all sleight of hand and acting magic.
Not for everyone... but perhaps we're a very lucky few.
Review: TWO | Mechanics Institute Brunswick | Spark Online
How does one measure a life? By the nights that pass, by the drinks poured? By the memories of youth and the girls bedded, or the regrets and reflections of age? Jim Cartwright’s award-winning play Two takes the lives of fourteen very different characters and telescopes them into a single night in a convivial pub in England’s north, where the owners serve barbed asides to each other as they pass drinks over the counter, and the patrons come and go, their stories ebbing and flowing one into another. It is a delicate piece almost primed to collapse under its own cleverness, demanding great sensitivity in its staging.
This is because the central conceit of Two, and one that is ably handled by the newly founded The Artisan’s Collective, is that all fourteen of these characters are portrayed through two actors – Marissa Bennett and Ben Pfeiffer, the latter of whom is also the founder of the Collective and director of this interpretation. It would be easy to have the differing velocities of these lives spin randomly off one another; or for the players to slip on the individuality of the characters, careening into exaggeration and caricature to clearly demarcate each story – but these pitfalls are largely avoided by Pfeiffer in what stands as a playful, poetic and ultimately moving production of this challenging work.
Rear of stage, an ornate yet delicate bar dominates, crystal lights hanging overhead like a suspended avalanche, providing an almost Punch and Judy tableau for the expertly handled interplay between the married couple that run the pub and adroitly revealing the thin line between public and the private for such owner-operators. The timing demonstrated here in such scenes reveals the exquisite physical comedy these two performers are capable of, and is one highlight worth mentioning.
Of all the characters whose stories play out between its walls, however, some resonate more deeply than others. The wheel-chair bound bully, almost psychopathic in his overweening control of his girlfriend; the pants-man Moth and his forgiving Maudie; and the delightful Pops, who shares his nights in the company of his departed wife’s memory. Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Pops in particular shines as an example of moving understatement and deep connection. All these lives, different though they are, somehow coalesce to reveal a universality, that the measure of our lives is whether we can be said to have loved, or to have been loved, and in what degree?
Stage front the space opens right up save for a bench or two. Here, almost at the wings, are where the some of the most naked expressions take place. Pfeiffer has employed stage microphones, and while this has plagued many recent productions with an air of meta-theatrical gimmickry, here it becomes truly honest and highly vulnerable – the players’ accents stripped away, the core of their hearts laid bare, here the characters speak to each other in a way that they otherwise cannot to each other. It is a considered use of technique that seems often artlessly deployed, yet here is handled with due responsibility.
The true joy of Two, however, is in watching these very capable actors give each other the space and care to work without effort; playfully and freely, Bennett and Pfeiffer both illuminate the space in which they’re working and, for the most part, side-step the sentimentality that could crush the work. While at times the characters can bleed a little too much into each other and a degree of nuance is lost, these are momentary lapses in what otherwise stands as a splendid, and uncomplicated depiction of Cartwright’s notoriously challenging piece.
Two stands as an accomplished debut from the Artisan Collective, and more proof if ever any were needed, that Melbourne’s independent theatre scene is a veritable garden of delights.