Festivals, Stage

Adelaide Fringe Festival review wrap #3

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Alongside the excellent, and similarly Edinburgh-derived Blood at the Root, British playwright Karla Crome’s Mush and Me is at the forefront of this year’s Fringe program at Holden Street Theatres in Hindmarsh. The plays share a theme as well as a venue: the triumphing of humanity over ingrained prejudice.
In Mush and Me, star-crossed lovers pictured above Gabby (Daniella Isaacs), a cultural Jew, and Mushtaq (Jaz Deol) a believing Muslim, must overcome the resistance of their families to interfaith relationships if they are to endure as a couple. In a delightful opening scene that exposes the laughable fraudulence of telesales, Gabby and Mush (as he is more commonly known) find themselves working next to each other after having been identified as high achievers by their employer. They bond over bad jokes and hummus (and one memorably bad joke about hummus), sparring flirtatiously as they ratchet up their respective sales figures with the cockiness brought about by too much time spent in a too little stimulating job.
In short order they find themselves at a party, Gabby drunk and garrulous, Mush resolutely sober. A hamburger lies between them like the forbidden fruit. She takes a bite first, then, later, him. The ice broken, their relationship blossoms in all aspects except one: the approval of their families, most pointedly Mush’s domineering mother and Gabby’s terminally ill father.
I initially baulked at the introduction of a terminal illness to the plot but Crome’s even-handed and deftly humorous writing precludes sentimentality or mawkishness. In any case, the illness is a forgivable device because it just adds urgency; the drama and pathos of the play are always located in Mush and Gabby’s relationship, in the tension that inheres in their cultural and religious divisions.
Purportedly based on the real life experiences of a Jewish relative of Isaacs who once turned down a marriage proposal from an ‘unsuitable’ man, the script is a model of finely tuned naturalism. The dialogue, in the mouths of the sharply individualised protagonists, sparkles, and is rewarded here by two highly sympathetic performances. Isaacs, partly no doubt on account of her intimacy with the material, is especially good — her Gabby is tenacious, charming and deliciously idiosyncratic.
Carla Goodman’s set, with its moveable, Ikea-like crates containing scattered religio-cultural paraphernalia such as a Hanukkah menorah, is suitably both flexible and suggestive. Rosy Banham’s direction displays a lightness of touch, obtruding only when extra formal clarity is required (for example, in the marvellous interweaving scene in which Gabby and Mush face up to their respective families about their choice of partner).
If Mush and Me seems to end abruptly, and perhaps half an hour before it should, then it’s only because Gabby and Mush are characters whose company we come to cherish. The play is, in fact, perfectly measured, and rightly ends on a teasing, tantalising note, the protagonists cast onto a threshold of tolerance and understanding that we, who have been rooting for them all along, so desperately want them to cross. The explicit happy ending Crome denies us is ours to advocate for in our own communities which are growing more, not less, multicultural, and in which love’s transcendence over bigotry feels as urgent as ever.  Until March 15. Four stars.
Over the way from the Arch, where Mush and Me is playing, can be found Duncan Graham’s Cut, a psychological thriller drawing on the Three Fates of Greek mythology. Produced and performed by the usually impressive Hannah Norris, it’s heartening to see this recent Australian work, which premiered at Belvoir in Sydney in 2011, being given a revival. Unfortunately, its intensely claustrophobic staging in the Manse theatre proved unbearable for this writer who had to excuse himself at the beginning of the show. By all accounts it is (constitution permitting) well worth checking out.
Meanwhile, The Royal Croquet Club’s circus-style tent The Rastelli is the home until 15 March of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s remarkable, faintly absurdist provocation White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. A different actor takes to the stage each night and is handed a sealed envelope containing the script, of which they have no prior knowledge. Performer and audience discover the words for the first time together, the first act of collusion in a play that strives to make everyone present feel complicit in the evening’s events and outcome. On the night I attended the actor was Jude Henshall, a comfortingly familiar presence and, it turned out, a spirited host.
Henshall is not quite herself, not quite a character, and not quite the playwright but some slippery combination of the three. Her most important role, however, is as a conduit for the writer’s voice. Soleimanpour, a conscientious objector to Iran’s mandatory two-year military service for males, wrote the play at a time when he was barred from leaving Tehran; White Rabbit, Red Rabbit would travel the world in his stead (it has been translated into 15 languages since its shared 2011 premiere in Edinburgh and Toronto). Soleimanpour, through Henshall, tells us that the knowledge that his play is being performed by someone, somewhere ‘tastes like freedom’.
The play itself, freely moving between modes of allegorical monologue, improv game-style audience interaction, and existentialist chin stroking, is quietly enthralling. A Holmesian dilemma involving two glasses of water, one of them potentially poisoned, lends the show an old-fashioned frisson of high drama. What really intrigues, though, is Soleimanpour’s terse, rhythmic and provocative handling of two key themes: conformity and cruelty through social conditioning, and the legitimacy of suicide as a response to the problem of existence (there are seventeen types of suicide, he writes, plus an additional one: life itself, which just happens to take much longer to achieve the same end).
The play’s title is drawn from a striking parable, reminiscent in form and content of Orwell’s Animal Farm, about the behaviour of caged rabbits when made to compete for food. Soleimanpour has said the play is not about Iran, but it is ineluctably political. Even if the audience is not explicitly divided into white (victimising) and red (victimised) rabbits, the thought is chillingly ever-present, almost as profound a presence in the room as that of the playwright himself who remains, to the end, a puppet master, both demanding and challenging our subservience to his power over audience and performer alike. Four stars.
Perth indie company Weeping Spoon Productions’ This Is Not A Love Song (Perske Pavillion, Tuxedo Cat) has been receiving a healthy amount of praise around the country. An affable memory play-cum-jukebox musical, it stars (and was written by) gravel-voiced comedian Greg Fleet. He plays an older version, Jimmy, of protagonist James (Shane Adamczak).
Fuelled by whiskey, Jimmy unreliably narrates the story of James’ share house romance with Soph (Tegan Mulvany, who also directs). We’ve seen such couples countless times before: he a dope-addled, eminently forgivable slacker, she the relationship’s motivated, energised helm. She goes out to work while he tinkers with painting or some other ostensibly artistic pursuit or, more likely, schleps himself around to a mate’s house for Mario Kart and weed. It doesn’t take long for the writing to appear on the wall.
 

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Naturally enough, the couple’s basic incompatibilities are neutralised at first by James’ astute record collection — probably a few too many best ofs, but plenty of Lou Reed, the Stooges, and Lennon — and a shared reverence for guilty pleasure The Horses. The soundtrack, performed live by guitarist Mick Moriarty, is a satisfying iPod shuffle of antipodean ’80s classics (Message to My Girl, Reckless) and enjoyable out-of-left-fielders like Bowie’s Kooks. Moriarty, and the cast, drift in and out of singing these songs and sound great when in harmony, Mulvany’s gutsiness and Fleet’s pack-a-day growl good foils for Adamczak’s WAAPA polish.
There are few surprises here, and the fidelity with which the characters of James and Soph adhere to gendered archetypes is wearying, but Fleet’s playful and ultimately poignant script easily clears the bar — even if, admittedly, it has not been set too high. Until March 15. Three stars.    
Trygve Wakenshaw’s Squidboy was an unexpectedly big hit at last year’s Adelaide Fringe, the Gaulier-trained clown widely impressing with a singular fusion of mime, physical comedy and off-the-wall surrealism. Kraken (Le Cascadeur, The Garden of Unearthly Delights) is cut from the same cloth (or should that be hatched from the same mass egg deposit?).
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The show opens with a brilliant routine, conducted in comical and physically precise slow motion, that sees Wakenshaw completely disrobed – twice. Track pants and white t-shirt done away with, he squeezes his tall, muscular frame into a black singlet and tights, and off-yellow head- and wristbands. I thought immediately of Rowan Atkinson’s inimitable Pink Tights and Plenty of Props and the comparison (props aside, for Wakenshaw’s world is an entirely imaginary one) proved to be not far wide of the mark.
As with the Atkinson familiar from Rowan Atkinson Live and Mr. Bean, Wakenshaw is an exemplary physical comic, his looseness of limb, bodily control, and rubbery facial contortions able to create microworlds in instants and then banish them from our minds just as quickly. His persona, in keeping with the bouffon genre of clowning that would no doubt have been taught extensively during his schooling, is both charming and grotesque.
At times, such as when Wakenshaw mutilates a unicorn or disembowels himself with the severed horn to make sausages out of his intestines, the latter dominates. One of the show’s outstanding set pieces, involving a bird we at first think is going to eat a helpless nestling but that transpires to be a parent with a bellyful of food to disgorge into the young one’s mouth, manages to be both delightful and nauseating. The show’s highpoint reaches beyond both into the realm of pure, dazzling silliness — a dexterous series of Terry Gilliam-like segues that see Wakenshaw transform his singlet into a baby, a multi-channel TV set, and, finally and hilariously, a cow giving birth.
Not all of Kraken works as well. A routine in which Wakenshaw repeatedly attacks himself and has an audience member kiss the injured body part better outstays its welcome by several minutes. Occasionally, too, Wakenshaw’s freneticism can leave our imaginations with too much work to do to fill in the gaps left by a lack of lucidity.
For the most part, however, Kraken is a headily enjoyable deep-sea dive into a flailing, subterranean chaos. Mind you don’t get the bends on your way back up. Until March 15. Three and a half stars.
See more Adelaide Fringe reviews here and here and finally here

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