News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Why a caged bird sings

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Cracked ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 11 May ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Cracked is a play about a mother’s struggle for freedom. It opens and closes in song.

In mournful yet hauntingly beautiful song. And by the end of it, we know why a caged bird sings.

Frances (an outstanding portrayal by Bobbi Henry) is an Aboriginal woman, 15 months into a prison term. She misses her children, who’ve been put into foster care, and she sings in the prison choir. Her plight reminded me of the bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem, Sympathy. The poem describes the awful experience of a bird trapped in a cage. The bird flaps its wings and sings, not because it is happy but because it is desperate and sad. Dunbar used the bird to represent the oppression of his fellow African-Americans in the late nineteenth century.

Like that bird, Frances wants to be out with her flock. She wants to nest; she wants to fly. But her life has steered off course. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, insecure housing, lack of education and employment, domestic violence and methamphetamine use; these factors and more have led to Frances into crime and prison, and now threaten her prospects for parole and a new chapter with her kids. Frances speaks for Aboriginal Australians in similar circumstances.

Motifs of birds and flight are woven throughout the production, directed by Eva Grace Mullaley. They feature in the script, by Barbara Hostalek, and in the evocative soundscape by Mei Swan Lim and multimedia projections, by Mia Holton.

Bobbi Henry as Frances with (L-R) Luke Hewitt (John Rogers), Rayma Morrison (Aunty Pat) and Bruce Denny (Dwayne).

Despite help from her Aunty Pat (played to perfection by Rayma Morrison) and well-meaning community corrections officer Edwina (Holly Jones), Frances becomes frustrated and overwhelmed. At least behind bars she is assured of “three square meals a day, a roof over your head and no risk of getting smashed up.” So much for The Lucky Country.

The scenes charting Frances’s tentative freedom are gut-wrenching but skilfully executed. Sara Chirichilli’s clever set features a cell on a circular, revolving platform – as the plot nears the resolution, its symbolic value becomes apparent.

Holly Jones as Edwina and Matthew Cooper as Joel.

Hostalek’s characters are beautifully drawn, defying stereotypes and injecting energy and humour into what could otherwise have been a bleak play. Luke Hewitt is superb as an affable prison officer and Matthew Cooper is beautiful to watch as Edwina’s jaded colleague, Joel.

This is a memorable play with an important message. Perhaps Edwina best sums up that message, in her conversation with Joel about her clients: “They’re broken beyond all repair but I don’t want to give up on them.”

Cracked plays until May 18.

Pictured top is Bobbi Henry, as Frances, with (L-R) Bruce Denny (Dwayne), Luke Hewitt (John Rogers) and Holly Jones (Edwina).

All photo: Dana Weeks.

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Lady standing with arms opened out
Calendar, May 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Cracked

7 – 18 May @ Subiaco Arts Centre ·
Presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company ·

Frankie is in jail for serious offences of assault and drug possession. She’s bitter, disenfranchised and just wants to live life on her terms. But jail is a temporary escape for her – free from financial hardship, homelessness, and hunger. Cracked is the story of Frankie as she rages her way through the criminal justice system with the hope of being reunited with her kids. Weaving several narratives,  Cracked shows the complexity and disconnectedness of people that fall into a life of crime, and the trials faced by prisoners and others who are determined to help them find a better life. Written by Barbara Hostalek, whose first play Banned sold out two seasons at The Blue Room Theatre in 2018, Cracked is a powerful and thought-provoking look inside our criminal justice system from an exciting new voice.

More info
W: www.yirrayaakin.com.au/production/cracked/
E:  reception@yirrayaakin.com.au

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A man and a woman with a microphone
Features, News, Performing arts, Visual arts

Cream of the crop, 2018

What were Seesaw writers’ favourite shows this year? What were the highlights and lowlights for the arts in WA? And which artists will our contributors be looking out for in 2019?

As 2018 draws to a close, Seesaw writers reflect on the year that was and the year that will be.

Xan Ashbury
Top shows
Cloud Nine, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler for West Australian Youth Theatre Company in July.
Gutenberg the Musical, starring Jacob Jones and Andrew Baker. The musical was directed by Erin Hutchinson for Western Sky Theatre in June.
Huff by Cree playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, staged at the Subiaco Arts Centre in March by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.

cloud nine
Lexie Sleet,‘Ana Ika & Phil Lynch in ‘Cloud Nine’. Photo: Daniel Grant.

Looking forward to…
Our Town at Perth Festival. Black Swan State Theatre Company present Thornton Wilder’s classic play. Clare Watson directs a cast of professional actors and everyday citizens.
Le Nor at Perth Festival. Perth theatre-makers The Last Great Hunt tell interwoven stories of love in a world that’s falling apart, as they perform a faux foreign film live.
Re-member Me at Perth Festival. Lip synching maestro Dickie Beau channels audio recordings of great historical performances of Hamlet. Billed as “humorous and haunting”.


Sandra Bowdler
Top shows
Tristan und Isolde (Wagner), WASO, Perth Concert Hall – a world class performance
Nicola Benedetti (violin), Musica Viva, Perth Concert Hall  – riveting performer
Van Diemen’s Band, Callaway Auditorium, UWA – great Baroque music

WASO’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ impressed a number of Seesaw’s writers. Pictured is Gun-Brit Barkmin, as Isolde. Photo: Andy Tyndall.

Looking forward to…
WASO evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin Perth Concert Hall – the star of WASO’s Tristan (August)
St Matthew Passion, St George’s Cathedral Consort, Perth Concert Hall (April)


Jan Hallam
Top Shows
Tristan und Isolde, WASO
Joan, Lucy J Skilbeck at Fringe World
Remembrance Day ConcertPerth Symphonic Chorus

Arts highlight
Iain Grandage’s appointment as Perth Festival Director

Looking forward to…
Komische Oper Berlin Mozart’s The Magic Flute


Belinda Hermawan
Top shows
Various artists, “Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes”, at PS Arts Space
Amy Perejuan-Capone, “This Is How We Walk on the Moon”, at Customs House

Fran Rhodes, ‘Fraught Territory’, 2018, Oil on board, exhibited in ‘Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes’.

Arts highlight
State government-funded writing and mentorship projects for WA emerging writers

Arts lowlight
Another year without the WA Premier’s Literary Awards

Looking forward to…
Fringe World Festival
PICA’s 2019 program


Miranda Johnson
Top Shows
“No Second Thoughts: Artemis Women’s Project” @ LWAG – a stunning inquiry into the continuing history of feminist art in WA.
The Second Woman @ PICA – If I could turn back time I would have made the effort to try to attend the whole 24 hours of this endurance piece! However, the four hours I spent watching Nat Randall and assorted men replay the same scene over and over was life-changing.
Can I say the entire Unhallowed Arts program? It was so amazing to have a festival (a monstrosity!) that encompassed institutions, ARIs (artist run initiatives), performance, experimental and visual art, and cutting-edge science and humanities research.

Second Woman
Life-changing: ‘The Second Woman’

Arts highlight
Nationally, the (slowly…) increasing number of ARIs that are now able to offer artist fees to exhibiting artists. I hope that a Perth ARI is soon able to access funding that will allow them to pay artists on a regular basis too!

Locally, it would be hugely biased of me* to say the opening of a new ARI in Perth’s CBD… but seeing a few more spaces opening up as exhibition venues has been heartening. I’m thinking of venues such as Old Customs House and the Lobby as well as Cool Change Contemporary here!

* Miranda is a co-director of Cool Change Contemporary.

Arts lowlight
The renaming of the Fringe World Pleasure Gardens to include a certain company’s name has been a recent reminder for me of the huge amounts of money that oil and gas companies give to the arts, and how they use the arts to appear “progressive” whilst contributing hugely towards climate change, making no effort to reduce emissions and paying very little tax. Of course it’s not news that this happens and that all our arts institutions rely on this source of funding in lieu of adequate governmental funding, but it’s been increasingly on my mind, and something that I think will require a reckoning amongst us artists and arts professionals – we are all implicated.

Looking forward to…
“Cassils” @ PICA, as part of Perth Festival
“Love, Displaced” @ Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, as part of Perth Festival
The Violent Years @ The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights, as part of Fringe World


Leon Levy
Another year of frequent absences from Perth has meant missing some significant productions and performances. Some of these – had I seen and heard them – would most certainly have jostled for inclusion in a “top 3” which was, in any case, challenging enough to achieve.

Glitter and Be Gay
Emma Matthews in ‘Glitter and be Gay’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography
.

 

Top shows
Tristan und Isolde – WASO c. Asher Fisch
Glitter and be Gay – Emma Matthews with WAAPA’s Faith Court Orchestra, c. Peter Moore
“Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage”, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Arts highlight
“Don’t Stop the Music” (ABC TV), for the moving depiction of the transformative impact of the introduction of music teaching at primary school level, and for the possibility that it will prove to be a catalyst for widespread adoption of music in the school curriculum. Such a development would also be an apt tribute and memorial to Richard Gill whose untimely demise was a grievous blow to music-education and to the nation… the “arts lowlight” of the year, if this loss can be thus characterised.

Looking forward to…
Mozart’s Magic Flute, Komische Oper Berlin (Perth Festival)
An evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin, WASO, c.  Asher Fisch
Bach’s St Matthew Passion, WASO, St George’s Cathedral Consort, c. Joseph Nolan

Since I’m only allowed to nominate three events, I’ll have to keep as a secret the fact that I’m also looking forward to Wot? No Fish!!, with Danny Braverman (Perth Festival), and can barely contain my excited anticipation of the glorious Elgar Violin Concerto, to be played by Nikolaj Znaider with WASO under Asher Fisch.


smiling Nina!

Nina Levy
Top shows
Really difficult to choose this year! So many great shows.

Attractor by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, Dancenorth and Senyawa’s , presented as part of Perth Festival. Oh the Dancenorth dancers. Sigh.
Huff by Cliff Cardinal, presented by Yirra Yaakin and Cliff Cardinal. Utterly compelling.
You Do Ewe by Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia as part of “The WA Dance Makers Project”. Ok, I didn’t actually see this work in the theatre because I was interstate for the season, but the studio show won me over with its highly relatable humour.

‘Attractor’. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti.

Arts highlight
As I said at the time, the realisation, earlier this year, that we only have one more festival under Wendy Martin sent me into a period of premature mourning. At the risk of sounding unoriginal (because I’ve edited this piece and know how many other people have said the same), the appointment of Iain Graindage as the next Perth Festival director made my heart lift.

And seeing Strut Dance’s Sunset headline the 2019 Perth Festival launch was pretty special – a huge achievement for local independent dance.

Arts lowlight
The passing of the wonderful Richard Gill at age 76, conductor and music educator extraordinaire – such a loss to our community.

At a more personal level, I am also deeply saddened by the recent passing of my friend and mentor Lesley Goodman, a visual arts educator, who worked at the Art Gallery of WA for many years. For a short time I had the privilege of working with Lesley at AGWA, as her education assistant, and learned so much from her about how to talk to young people about visual arts.

Looking forward to…
Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Perth Festival
STRUT Dance’s Sunset at Perth Festival
Thirty Five Square’s A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars, part of The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights at Fringeworld


Photo: Justin Spiers for Pet Photo Booth

Jonathan W. Marshall
Top shows
2018 was an especially good year for dance, beginning with Vessel in the Perth Festival: a piece in which the dancers hunched forward so as to become faceless, moving sculptures.
Marrugeku’s trilogy of solos Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) was also superb, featuring Eric Avery’s tremendous “burlesque” (or disrespectful re-enacting) of colonial tropes, performed while dressed in an animal hide tail coat, and using a violin and a microphone stand in ways which would feature well in a punk band.
Although there were strong musical showings from both Greywing Ensemble and Decibel (notably the latter’s wonderful Revolution), for sheer digital joy, Robin Fox’s lesson in live avant-techno was hard to go past.

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s ‘Hir’ was a standout. Pictured is Jack Palit. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

Arts highlight
2018 saw the first program at Black Swan Theatre actually devised by still relatively new artistic director Clare Watson (who had until now overseen much of the work programmed by her predecessor). While Xenides and Skylab were disappointing, it was still a bold selection of works, and the bleak queer/trans drama Hir was a stand-out.

Arts lowlights
Robert Lepage’s approach of taking significant cultural events, conflicts and exchanges and turning them into feel-good theatre about families continues to be massively over-rated (Far Side of the Moon, Perth Festival), while Fringe seem to be digging in their heels in their misguided belief that the more massive and completely uncurated the Fringe festival is, the better — even though this means that artists end up competing with each other for audiences and the program booklet is completely impossible to navigate. At least the Blue Room are curating their Fringe program; always worth looking out for!

Looking forward to…
WA’s gift to new music, the organisation Tura, turns 32 next year, kicking things off with Cat Hope’s bass and extended-vocal-technique opera Speechless (Perth Festival 2019), while our fabulously inventive MoveMe dance festival is almost certain to be back next year.

Meanwhile PICA continues to bring us some of the most exciting interdisciplinary performance, with new works from Aphids (who’s fabulously rag tag Howl featured at PICA in 2018) and Last Great Hunt already programmed.

Also worth looking out for is a new adaptation of Medea from Black Swan Theatre, who are also hosting Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is the New White, which made waves in Sydney in 2017.


Claire Trolio
Top shows
Not only was Dizzee Rascal (for Perth Festival) my gig of the year – his show was one of the best live music experiences of my life so far.
Let Me Finish was a powerful, hilarious and emotive feminist work that showed at The Blue Room. If you missed it, it’s coming back for Fringe next year so get tickets!

Five women laughing and hugging
Powerful, hilarious and emotive: ‘Let Me Finish’. Photo: Susie Blatchford

Arts highlight
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival artistic director for 2020-2023. Whilst I’m still sad that Wendy Martin’s time at the helm is coming to an end, I’m excited to see what direction Grandage will take!

Looking forward to…
Hearing the Silk Road Ensemble in the Perth Concert Hall. If you’re not familiar with them, I recommend you watch the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (2015, Dir. Morgan Neville).


David Zampatti
Top shows
Folias Antiguas & Criolas: “From the Ancient World to the New World”, Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo: It is impossible to imagine a more exciting or exquisitely performed concert than this.  It was thrilling to listen to, and wonderful to watch.
The Tale of Tales, Clare Testoni: A small, brilliant gem of storytelling, and a breakout achievement for its deviser and performer, Clare Testoni. Her images have a magical three-dimensionality, and move with an almost cinematic quality. It’s an honest show, and a heartfelt one.
What Doesn’t Kill You (Blah Blah) Stronger by Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods: Tyler Jacob Jones, as a writer of script and lyrics, and as a comic actor and singer, is the most prodigious talent in this town. His long-standing partnership with the composer Robert Woods and the versatile performer and director Erin Hutchinson has honed their skills to starry heights.

Arts highlight
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival Director for the next four years. We’ve got much to thank our recent directors for, but Iain brings his virtuosity as composer and musician, and makes history as the first born and raised West Australian to fill the position. Exciting times ahead!

Arts lowlight
Obviously I can be accused of self-pity here, but the retreat of The West Australian from coverage of the arts is both a symptom of a much wider malaise and a cause for particular concern. Still, change is good. Platforms like Seesaw have the capacity to fill the void and energise and grow the audience.

Looking forward to…
It’s hard to look past the festivals right now:
Gatz: After the overwhelming experience of The Gabriels, who wouldn’t be looking forwad to another 8+ hour (with breaks for libations) American marathon.
Icarus: Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Paradise Lost was one of the marvels of the ’17 Fringe. This time he’s taking to ancient skies.
Our Town: I’m not sure that “looking forward” is exactly what I’m doing to Clare Watson’s take on Thornton Wilder’s classic American novel performed by a cast of professionals and “everyday Perth Citizens”. Including me…

Pictured top are Andrew Searle and Zoe Wozniak in “You do Ewe” by Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.

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News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A super charged one-hander

Review: Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company & Te Rehia Theatre Company, SolOthello ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, November 21 ·
Review by Jan Hallam ·

There are stories and there are storytellers. When a good story meets a good storyteller, magic happens.

Regan Taylor, from New Zealand’s Te Rehia Theatre Company, in collaboration with co-writer Craig Geenty, has adapted the culturally problematic Othello into a one-hour maelstrom of high drama, pathos and flat-out comedy.

Directed by Tainui Tukiwaho, SolOthello is hugely entertaining and inventive, with highly successful insertions of Te Ao Maori language, effective use of exquisitely crafted masks and one super-charged personality in Taylor, who carries this one-hander to its inevitable conclusion.

Taylor begins the performance with a “dissertation” on the “thief Shakespeare” who, Taylor asserts, stole the story of Othello (and probably a whole heap more) from Maori lore. Given the uncanny similarity of his interpretive Te Mata Kokako o Rehia mask-work to commedia dell’arte, we might have to reconsider the Italian Renaissance as well!

Co-produced by WA’s Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company – SolOthello is much more than a Shakespeare mash-up. Cultural appropriation and alienation are all at play here, refreshingly disruptive and thereby enhancing the notions of race, gender and power that Othello traditionally evokes.

It is, at times, a raw confrontation.

SolOthello strips the Shakespeare play back to four characters – Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Rodrigo – revving up the devastating impact of patriarchy, jealousy and envy of the original text (yes, I’m revealing my cards).

Taylor’s haka-inspired heart pumping, foot stamping Othello is impressive and his whining Rodrigo exquisite. But his Iago is something else. He manages to grow Iago’s small-minded malevolency into a golem capable of enormous evil. It is really something to see.

The gender discourse of this play is a well-tilled field. In this respect, Othello, and its natural companion from Shakespeare’s “comedies”, Much Ado About Nothing, never fails to imbue a thinking audience with unbearable sadness.

Not for its history but for its Ground Hog Day future – no culture on earth has yet come to grips with men’s violence against women for what it is – men’s absolute responsibility to own and to change.

Taylor exquisitely renders Desdemona as a speechless, keening wraith, drifting through the hands of powerful and manipulative men until Othello loves her “none too wisely, but too well” for the last time and murders her.

Lovers of Shakespeare and theatre have seen this scene many times, on the stage and in their minds, but they are encouraged to revisit it with Taylor’s master hand. His simple yet heartbreaking portrayal is up there with the best.

SolOthello is an intense, provocative hour of theatre, which Perth is fortunate to witness.

SolOthello plays Subiaco Arts Centre until November 24.

Pictured top: Regan Taylor in “SolOthello”. Photo: Dana Weeks.

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SolOthello
Calendar, November 18, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: SolOthello

20 – 24 November @ Subiaco Arts Centre ·
Presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and Te Rehia (NZ)·

A bold and humorous Maori twist on the classic tragedy in which Te Reo, original prose, and contemporary English come together.

Using traditional Maori masks (Te Mata Kokako o Rehia), this solo interpretation of Othello puts the spotlight on the characters Iago, Rodrigo, Othello and Desdemona, and places them into the context of a war between tribes in pre-colonial New Zealand.

Our adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic Othello places the tale within a Te Ao Maori context and pares back the story to focus on three aspects; character, the core story line driven by the characters very human motivations of revenge and deception and on finding the humour in this tragedy.  We place the spotlight on the characters of Iago, Rodrigo, Othello and Desdemona who are explored physically through the Māori performance mask form Te Mata Kōkako o Rēhia. In this adaptation the war setting is maintained as the backdrop for the story and is transposed onto a battle between two far flung iwi in a timeless Aotearoa.

We bring together four specific “voices” to tell this tale; The original prose which is the language of the maskless outsider Othello, te reo Māori interspersed throughout, a quintessential colloquial Māori male voice particularly through Iago and finally Regan’s own voice of the performer, his comedic improvisation engages audience in the mechanics of the storytelling, bringing the audience on the journey and making Shakespeare’s work accessible and engaging for all.

More info:
www.ptt.wa.gov.au/venues/subiaco-arts-centre/whats-on/solothello/

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A little bit goes a long way

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Skylab ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 18 August ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

1979. It was the best of times.

Sir Charles Court was in his pomp, and under his selective vision, Western Australia was becoming the world’s quarry, and its new Wild West.

While a contented and complacent Wadjela population packed the pubs and the footy for their easy entertainment, fortunes were being made under the benign, indiscriminate gaze of Court’s government by the names that would ultimately bring the whole edifice down.

Not so indiscriminate or benign though, was the treatment of those who didn’t figure in the Court vision; whether it was his phalanxes of police roughing up the custodians of Country at Noonkanbah on behalf of American oil companies, or the neglect of families – especially Indigenous ones – who weren’t part of his big plans.

While the state’s business leaders and journalists loosened their wide ties and played bizarre drinking games over long lunches at the Palace Hotel, battling families in the bush coped with empty fridges and paychecks that came late or not at all.

Families like Nev, Jem, their three kids Amy, Sonia and Nate and their Nan, eking out a bare living outside Esperance, searching for stray bullets around the house so Nev could hunt a roo to supplement their meagre supplies; their mad-as-a-cut-snake Uncle Harvey in the shed with his diagrams and short wave radio, ranting about the Russians, the CIA, and the sky falling.

So when it really does, and bits and pieces of the American space station Skylab crash around them, does it portend change, and, who knows, better times to come?

Man and woman outside a corrugated iron shed
There’s genuine frisson between Alan Little and Laila Bano Rind, as Nev and Jen. Photo: Dana Weeks.

It’s the jumping-off point for the playwright Melodie Reynolds-Diarra’s phantasmagoria of dreams fulfilled and desires delivered, a candy store of wonders for the little family.

A new world where Weetbix turns into Fruit Loops and stray cats become pink ponies. Where diamonds are as big as the Ritz, and Elvis performs the marriage rite in the Chapel of Love.

Where debts are erased, the old boss comes up with wads of cash he’s withheld – along with an apology for stealing the land – and a Blackfella gets served first in the general store.

It’s a bit silly, but it’s a bit exhilarating, and there are real messages underneath all the fun and games.

Unfortunately – and it’s a real shame – Skylab seriously overstays its welcome.

Three children dressed as astronauts
Charm and energy: Benjamin Narkle, Juliette Laylan & Liani Dalgetty. Photo: Dana Weeks.

There’s genuine frisson between Alan Little and Laila Bano Rind, as Nev and Jen, and charm and energy from Juliette Laylan, Benjamin Narkle and the wonderfully sparky Liani Dalgetty as the kids (they alternate with Eva Bartlett, Donnathia Gentle and Jacob Narkle in the roles).

There are some nifty effects from set designer Matthew McVeigh and vision designer Mia Holton, and some effective cat-herding from director Kyle J Morrison and his associate Ian Michael, especially in the play’s first act.

But it all goes on way too long, and becomes far too trivial and self-indulgent. Example: a continuing sub-theme revolving around the Japanese cult TV show Monkey is messy, interminable and philosophically confusing.

By the time Skylab gets to the finishing line, its charm and exhilaration have all but dissipated and its messages are obscured.

But the silliness remains pretty much intact.

Skylab plays the Studio Underground until September 2; Karratha September 5 and Carnarvon September 8.

Pictured top: Gary Gooper as Uncle Harvey and Liani Dalgetty as Amy. Photo: Dana Weeks.

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Huff by Cliff Cardinal
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Raw, innovative and utterly engaging

Review: Huff by Cliff Cardinal, co-presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and Native Earth Performing Arts ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, March 21 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Huff is stunning – in both senses of the word.

At the end, we applaud until Cree playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal has returned to the stage for his third bow. Thank you, I try to say with my palms; thank you for that extraordinary theatrical experience. Thank you for using your immense skill and talent to shine a light on those who have fallen through the cracks. The audience is then slow to move. Many of us just sit, pressed to our seats by the gravity of all we have witnessed in the past 70 minutes.

Huff, directed by Karin Randoja, is set in the 1980s on a Canadian reserve. Wind and his brothers are caught in a torrent of solvent abuse and struggling to come to terms with their mother’s suicide. Australian audiences will instantly recognise the parallels with issues facing our own First Nations people, in the wake of colonialism, racism, inter-generational poverty and trauma.

Our introduction to Wind is truly shocking. A freezer bag covers his face, secured by tape around his neck; his hands are taped behind his back. As he gasps for air, the plastic clings to the contours of his face. This is a suicide attempt, he tells us. Another horrifying minute passes while he describes what is happening to the air and to his brain.

A member of the audience literally saves his life.

Finally able to breathe, Wind explains events leading up to that point. He begins his story before his conception, when his mother’s beauty “pulled the air out of an Indian’s lungs”. But the young couple’s difficult life “on the res” is soon tarnished by alcohol and violence. Wind is the middle of three brothers – the eldest, Charlie, is a sadist affected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome; the youngest, Huff, is a sweet soul destroyed by his appalling circumstances.

Cardinal plays all these roles, along with that of Wind’s patronising schoolteacher, his wise yet worn-out grandmother, his baffled stepmother and the stoned DJ of Shit Creek Radio (“For those who are up shit creek without a paddle … The weather will be warm and weird today.”) It is easy to believe there’s a full cast on stage, such is Cardinal’s skill at portraying and switching between these diverse characters.

The dysfunction and despair of Wind’s world, the loss of innocence and depravity is heartbreaking. “Is that your sacred gift from Creator?” his little brother asks, as Wind siphons petrol from his teacher’s car.

In a motel room they’ve broken into through a hole in the roof, Wind “huffs” the petrol. “Gas tastes like metal, but also like being scared – like someone screaming in your face,” he tells us. He narrates the brief hallucinations that follow in the style of a TV games show host, before puking on his hoodie. That huffing is a relief speaks volumes about their intolerable, suffocating life.

Sydney - January 22, 2017: A scene from Huff, showing at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
The ensuing scene, in which Wind washes himself with crushed tomatoes, is a comic delight. Yet  darkness soon returns. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

Somehow, this dark story is frequently injected with humour and playfulness. Cardinal plays a skunk who often threatens Wind, then eventually sprays him. The ensuing scene, in which Wind washes himself with crushed tomatoes, is a comic delight. Yet darkness soon returns. As he stands ever closer to the audience, his red-soaked arms, neck and shirt are more akin to murderous violence.

The simple set, designed by Jackie Chau, is comprised mainly of a chair, milk crate and beer bottles. It is used in clever, original and startling ways, helping Cardinal give a voice to outsiders and often unspoken taboos.

To me, this is theatre at its best – raw, innovative and utterly engaging. It is theatre you experience with your gut as well as your brain; theatre that does not just offer a window into another world but throws a brick through that window, inviting us to reach out a hand.

Huff plays Subiaco Arts Centre until March 24.

Top: It is easy to believe there’s a full cast on stage, such is Cardinal’s skill at portraying and switching between these diverse characters. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

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Huff by Cliff Cardinal
Calendar, Featured, March 18, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Huff

Thursday 22- 24 March @ Subiaco Arts Centre ·
Presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, written and performed by Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja  ·

Nominated for Quebec’s 2016 Critic’s Awards, HUFF is the wrenching, yet darkly comic tale of Wind and his brothers, caught in torrent of solvent abuse and struggling to cope with the death of their mother. Wind’s fantastic dream world bleeds into his haunting reality, as he’s preyed on by the Trickster through the hallways at school, the abandoned motel he loves more than home, and his fragile psyche. With his signature biting humour and raw, vivid imagery, Cardinal expertly portrays over dozen characters in his captivating solo performance.

Winner of the 2015 RBC Tarragon emerging Playwright Prize; Winner of 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk & Innovation.

“Cardinal writes graphically yet with economy and haunting realism. the characters he creates he inhabits skillfully, moving from one to another with fluid clarity and lithe delineation.” Stage whispers

More info: www.ptt.wa.gov.au OR http://yirrayaakin.com.au
Email: yy@yirrayaakin.com.au

Pictured top: A scene from Huff, taken at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival).

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Calendar, February 18, Performing arts, Theatre

Fringe World: BANNED by Barbara Hostalek

6 – 10 February 2018 @ The Blue Room Theatre •
Presented by The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights and Mudskipper Productions in association with Playwriting Australia and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company •

From emerging theatre company Mudskipper Productions comes the world
premiere of a thoughtful new work about race, class and footy.

BANNED
6 – 10 FEBRUARY 2018, THE BLUE ROOM THEATRE
“I got one son, that’s why I’m ‘ere to make this right for ‘im. Don’t matter what I bin through.”

An ugly incident at her son’s football game results in time in jail and a life-time ban from future footy matches for Kaarla. Now she wants the ban lifted. But Jane, the injured party, wants blood. Mediation is a last-ditch, volatile shot at negotiating some form of mutual justice. Can these two women move from hurt and hatred, towards reconciliation and forgiveness?
Banned is the thought-provoking professional debut by emerging playwright Barbara Hostalek, and is directed by award-winning playwright and director, Hellie Turner.

Banned is made possible through Playwriting Australia and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Next Step Program, which gives the opportunity for further development with Indigenous artists who engage in the theatre sector.

Website: summernights.org.au
Email: info@blueroom.org.au

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