THEATRE REVIEW: The Chapel Perilous (New Theatre, 2017)

This review was originally published on AussieTheatre.com.au

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Photo: Bob Seary

A need for strong female representation arrives at the forefront of today’s entertainment context; to pursue well-rounded characters, and not reduce them to plot tools (the Bechdel Test is an example of how character tests are frequently applied to films/TV shows). It is a real testament to Dorothy Hewett’s 1972 play, The Chapel Perilous – with its sexually-liberal female protagonist – that it does not feel aged at all, remaining heartedly relevant in New Theatre’s polished production in 2017.

Sally Banner (Julia Christensen) is confronting but bitingly witty from the moment she sets foot on stage. She is a defiant schoolgirl at a religious Christian school, who isn’t afraid to talk back to her superiors. Transitioning between hilarious interactions with her parents, schoolteachers and classmates, to her tragic downfall following her failed relationships, the trajectory of the play works through the peaks and troughs of Sally’s school to adult life, as she navigates between her desires and her struggles against the context of World War II.

Sally begins as self-indulgent, but Carissa Liccairdello’s tender direction never suggests that this borders on the pretentious, and both Hewett’s writing and Christensen’s performance give sincerity to the deepest of her flaws. As moments of Sally’s sharp sarcasm wanes into crumbled vulnerability, Christensen gives full weight to her difficulties – relinquishing a ferocious and passionate portrayal that breathes vivacity into Hewett’s headstrong protagonist.

While its protagonist soars, Hewitt’s play struggles with its intermittence as a musical. Working more seamlessly with the first act as a provider of context, it becomes more noticeably a quasi-hyper reality that feels out of place with the continuity of the play. In one scene, all ensemble members burst into the Hockey Pockey Shake (a play on the Hippie movement?), but lighting (Martin Kinnane) nor technical direction signifies any reason for shift – and it is rendered absurd as a result. A questionable surrealist-reality also appears with the repetition of a court trial where Sally is the accused; she is put on the stand for her outrageous sexual behaviour, her disobedience – but is this a dream? Or is it a dramatization of the guilt she feels at defying pressure of her peers and authorities? The unclear barriers between real-life and this imagination don’t knit well together, befitting as an unwelcome interruption than an effective storytelling device.

The comment on male behaviour becomes more powerful as a tool to explore the harshness of realities against Sally’s freedom; particularly when Sally’s romantic interests (Michael, Thomas, David, Saul) accumulate into one – all played by the versatile Tom Matthews. Shifting convincingly between the initially charming Michael to the naïve Thomas, the quadrupling of characters is piercingly horrifying as their ultimately manipulative treatment of Sally accrues towards them labelling her a “bitch”, demeaning a character we’ve seen grow before our eyes, into a cheap label. These figures become increasingly frustrating as Sally’s character is also sacrificed; her fiery character is less recognisable in the second Act as her choices become more indecisive, and if not more unbelievable. She is desperate to be loved, but the repetition of pursuit, break-up and forgiveness, begins to mark a predictable cycle in the play that this production cannot entirely fix.

As the lights dim and the last scene plays, Sally walks through the glowing light of the chapel for the first time (the set by Martin Kinnane is simple but multifunctional). New Theatre’s production is scaringly pessimistic – questions are left unanswered about her place in the world alone. The position of the woman, especially of those who cannot conform, is equally as ambiguous.

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Photo: Bob Seary

The Chapel Perilous is showing until 27 May 2017 at New Theatre. You can find out more about the show, including how to book tickets, here.

THEATRE REVIEW: Big Fish (Hayes Theatre Co, 2017)

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Photo: Kate Williams Photography

Musicals that pull on your heart-strings are not an easy find, but the Hayes production of Big Fish – a modified 12-chair version of the 2013 Broadway musical – proves that imaginative but humble stagings can ignite the magic of storytelling equally, if not better than the often rife efforts of a full-blown spectacle.

Based on 1988 novel by Daniel Wallace (also adapted on screen in Tim Burton’s 2003 film), Big Fish focuses on a father-son relationship on the verge of breakdown. On Edward Bloom’s deathbed (Phillip Lowe), his now-adult son Will Bloom (Adam Rennie) remembers talltales his father told him as a child, questioning Edward’s identity in a series of flashbacks that attempt to discover the real father he believes he never knew.

Flicking between present day and Edward’s storybook past, the musical roots itself in the real-world present, paralleling Edward’s tumour diagnosis (a foreboding death) against Will’s now-pregnant wife (the excitement of a new life). Both personalities of father and son could not be more different; Edward is an optimist, a believer in stories and Will, a realist, naturally dismissing these tales as implausible. The world of Edward’s dreams is the one John August’s book sides with most (he also wrote the screenplay for Burton’s film), and with playful yet charming numbers, like ‘The Witch’, director Tyran Parke’s spellbinding vision brings the audience into the action of Edward’s charismatic storytelling.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

 

FILM REVIEW: The Zookeeper’s Wife (Caro, 2017)

This review was originally published at ImpulseGamer.com.au

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Blockbuster movies set during the Holocaust are not a rare specimen; but The Zookeeper’s Wife offers a unique unfolding of an untold story in wartime Poland, where zookeeper of the still-standing Warsaw Zoo, Jan and his wife, Antonia – transform their zoo into a hiding refuge for over 300 Jews during World War II. At the risk of their own lives, the Zabinski’s real-life heroism pins an arresting starting point for Niki Carlo’s feature to soar, and while it stumbles in suffusing its characters with proper development, it achieves a humanist undertone unmatched in films realised in this context.

 The picturesque depiction of pre-war peace swells in its beauty as the camera tracks Antonia Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) waking up the zoo, light streaming through the blue skies as she speaks to the animals as though they were humans. But this too-perfect setting is brutally shattered as Carlo unrelentingly shows the chaotic effects of the first Nazi bombs on the zoo, killing animals and sending them fleeing onto the streets – familiar territory turned into a disorderly mess, only a taste of what is to come. This is the Nazi’s image of an ideal “picture”, where the death of animals (a parallel to the Jewish extermination?) is simply part of the ‘war effort’; where the regal eagle is stuffed into an ornament, and majestic animals, previously frolicking and untroubled, destroyed into war resources.

The change in perspectives results in protagonists that are no longer the victims but the middle-(wo)man. Stakes are still high as Carlo effectively crafts a tense but quiet drama that sees the transformation of the zoo into a pig-farm, and the Zabinski’s occupation in the smuggling of Jews from the Ghetto into their home. Through the stained window of Jan Zabinski’s (Johan Heldenbergh) truck, we see the appalling state of the Ghettos, but we only see what Jan does, and it is so brief; the truck must move on.

It is this frustrating impediment that Carlo’s film struggles with despite its well intentions. Although a winning and torn performance by Chastain oozes compassion that delves the film with emotive feeling, both Antonia and Jan’s inability to exercise action beyond hiding their occupants signifies their limitations in a crisis that effected millions of people. In one scene, Jan lifts children to their unknowing fates on what audiences would recognise as the carriages that would transport them to Auschwitz – a feeling of doom puts into perspective the limitations of their bravery.

Victims of the German regime are also brushed over in Angela Workman’s script, which render them only familiar faces; seen as a collective than individuals. The potential depth of stories is sacrificed, even so for Zabinski’s own child, whose upbringing in the zoo household leads him to shout anti-Nazi rhetoric that turns the head of German zoologist Lutz Heck (played creepily by Daniel Bruhl in yet another Nazi role).

But where the film is lukewarm towards development of its supporting characters, it makes up in its tender treatment of the subject material. Carlo’s fearless use of silence is when The Zookeeper’s Wife becomes most disarming, and it’s when the courageous hearts of the Zabinskis’ are on full display.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Directed by Niki Caro
Produced by Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick, Julia Blackman
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl

RATING ½ out of 5