Back at the Dojo

Belvoir St Theatre, June 22

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Luke Mullins as Patti and Brian Lipson as Danny. Photo: Brett Boardman

All writers inevitably draw on their own experience but some do it more directly and consciously. Playwright Lally Katz frequently draws on her own life and family for inspiration and then mixes in fantasy and dashes of magic realism.

In her latest play, Back at the Dojo, she draws on stories that she heard as a child about her father’s involvement with a karate dojo in Trenton, New Jersey (where she was born). There, a tough Japanese sensei helped him recover after almost blowing his mind with hallucinogenic drugs as a young man in the late 1960s. It was at the dojo that Katz’s father Danny met her mother Lois.

In telling her father’s story, Katz makes no bones about her appropriation, calling the characters Danny Katz and Lois – though there’s plenty of fiction mingling with fact. For starters, in the play her mother Lois is dying in hospital, while the real Lois was very much alive and well at the Belvoir opening night.

Katz has also drawn on another experience for the play. In 2010, when she and Kohn began talking about Back at the Dojo, she happened to meet a New York woman on a bus who revealed that she had been born a man but was now transitioning to the woman she always knew herself to be.

That story inspired a fictional character, Danny’s grandson Patrick, now a woman called Patti in honour of Patti Smith. The two inspirations weave around each other to create the play.

Commissioned by Melbourne indie company Stuck Pigs Squealing and co-produced with Belvoir, Back at the Dojo begins in an Australian hospital room where Lois lies in a coma. Danny (Brian Lipson), now in his 70s, doesn’t accept that she is dying and refuses to leave her side or sleep. Instead he sits holding her hand or moves through a karate routine to help keep his sanity.

Into the room storms Patti (Luke Mullins), who hasn’t been in contact with her grandparents for two years and who was still Patrick last time Danny saw her. An emotional mess having just been dumped by her boyfriend Rex, Patti is uptight, petulant, anguished, still struggling with who she is, still disappointed in life and tripping on LSD.

As she and Danny try to connect with each other again, the past invades the hospital room, rewinding to follow Danny as a young man (Harry Greenwood): his difficult relationship with his own father (Dara Clear), his hippie drug-taking in Kentucky, his recovery at the dojo and his relationship with Lois (Catherine Davies), the sister of Jerry (Fayssal Bazzi), a gentle young man at the dojo whose progress is held back by his club foot.

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Harry Greenwood as the young Danny and Catherine Davies as Lois. Photo: Brett Boardman

Interestingly, rather than staging the scenes from the past as if the older Danny is reliving his memories – which would make more sense in straightforward narrative terms – Lipson’s Danny remains oblivious to them until the very end. Instead, it is Patti who watches the past unfold, initially as if the scenes are part of a drug-induced hallucination, then memories of stories she has heard since childhood. Eventually the two worlds and time frames merge.

Katz certainly knows how to spin a compelling yarn and her writing has a lovely ease and flair to it. She is able to inject humour into pain and heartache without undercutting the poignancy of a scene though the the play does feel a bit over-egged emotionally towards the end. Jerry’s fate doesn’t have enough of a lead-up and Patti’s anguish begins to feel overwrought. But the performances keep it feeling real.

Mel Page’s detailed, naturalistic set design of an open hospital room makes the Belvoir stage look as big as it ever has. A large window along the back wall, looking out onto the hospital corridor, is cleverly used for various scenes from Danny being harassed in Kentucky to a beautiful image of the sensei slowly rising as she sings to Patti’s frenetic dance to a pounding song by her namesake, staged with a surprise twist.

Kohn directs a fast-paced, fluid production, while Jethro Woodward’s music and buzzing, electronic sound design is very evocative in underpinning emotion, tension and a sense of mystery.

Early in the development of the play, Kohn brought a Melbourne-based sensei called Natsuko Mineghishi into the project and Katz started training with her as part of her research. A diminutive but commanding presence, Mineghishi plays Danny’s sensei on stage and makes the theme of discipline and honour tangible.

Having a real sensei there leading a fair amount of karate (having trained the cast in the basics with a class each day during rehearsals) gives the play a visceral physicality and exhilarating energy. The crack of Mineghishi’s bamboo cane across the younger Danny’s body makes you wince, while a fight between the sensei and a brown belt is thrilling.

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Natsuko Mineghishi and Dara Clear. Photo: Brett Boardman

The performances are excellent across the board. Lipson’s accent feels a little wayward but he anchors the piece as the older Danny. Mullins plays Patti as if every nerve ending is exposed, hands tremoring, eyes and nose dripping in the grip of engulfing emotion.

Greenwood has enormous charm as the younger Danny and the chemistry between him and Davies as Lois really sparks. The rest of the cast do a terrific job in several roles apiece. Bazzi is touching as the gentle, unhappy Jerry, Sharri Sebbens exudes a warm, positive energy as the kindly nurse, Lois’s rambunctious sister Connie and a mysterious old man, while Clear is Danny’s conservative, judgmental father as well as a redneck Kentucky farmer and an unsympathetic karate brown belt.

The two stories of Back to the Dojo may not totally come together and the play may verge on melodrama at times but it weaves a powerful spell and moved me to tears.

Back to the Dojo plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 17. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6

Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Bondi Pavilion, September 3

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

You have to applaud Toby Schmitz for the ambition behind his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas. But it still has a way to go before that ambition is realised on stage.

Set in 1925 on board a cruise liner called the Empress of Australia, headed for New York, we meet a group of first class passengers: the dandyish Richard (Dick) Civil-Lowe Cavendish (Nathan Lovejoy) who managed to avoid service in World War I, a brash South African called Anthony Hertz-Hollingsworth (Anthony Gee) and his new wife Nicole (Ella Scott Lynch), a London flapper and party-girl with a taste for cocaine, and a gangster-like Chicago businessman called Jacob ‘Bang’ Reiby (Fayssal Bazzi) who works for emerging company IBM.

There’s also Mr Frey (Anthony Gooley), a bookish, Australian poet who fought in the war and has been seduced by Dadaism, who has been invited onto the upper decks as a guest, a bigoted priest (James Lugton), a cabaret singer (Billie Rose Prichard) and a plodding detective (Duncan Fellows), among others.

It’s not long before we discover there is a serial killer on board. The first victims are Bengali ship stewards but the murders quickly escalate, becoming ever more grisly, so that no one is safe.

In a story by Elissa Blake in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/sailing-into-the-darkness-20130829-2srew.html) Schmitz said that “the set-up is deliberately Agatha Christie” but that the ship is actually a metaphor for “a nation adrift” and a way to examine Australia’s post-colonial history.

In the theatre program Schmitz references the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (also alluded to in the play), which showcased the various nations in the Empire, while director Leland Kean writes: “As a nation, Australians find it extremely hard to face the fact that in the name of bettering the world we live in, we did some terrible things. That our ancestors committed atrocities in the name of race is something we still struggle to comprehend, and admit. Likewise it is also extremely hard to imagine the world they lived in, as it was when these atrocities occurred. This play bravely attempts to take us to this horror.”

I must confess that had I not read the story and program notes I wouldn’t have realised that this was Schmitz’s aim. Though the characters talk and talk, voicing views about the Empire, race, class, war and history, the play doesn’t cohere dramatically.

I found myself straining to follow what was being said. A lot of it is smart and amusing, with Noel Coward-like witticisms, but there is just so much of it that it’s an uncomfortable experience as you struggle to pull it all together and shape it in your mind.

There is a somewhat Stoppardian feel about it. Schmitz is, of course, starring in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company at the moment. But where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also dense and rewards close listening, Stoppard allows you to relax, follow what is being said and enjoy it. Empire has you straining so hard it’s exhausting. Gee’s aggressively loud turn as Hertz-Hollingsworth coupled with a frequently indecipherable South African accent doesn’t help.

There’s little tension along the whodunit lines; it’s obvious fairly early on who the killer is and the perpetrator is revealed in Act I – though the other characters remain in the dark. Why the killer is driven to murder so indiscriminately and voraciously isn’t entirely clear. Post-traumatic stress as a result of war? Or were they already a psychopath? As for the mix of styles, the play never convincingly moves beyond the nod to Coward and Christie to something genuinely horrific.

There has been publicity about the gothic horror being similar to something from the Saw films but don’t believe it. It’s hard to put fake intestines on stage and make it look believable. I’m incredibly squeamish but the gory scenes come across as comical in a gross-out way rather than stomach churning.

Staging a play this big – with a cast of 15 – is just as ambitious on the part of Rock Surfers Theatre Company. Kean runs a fairly tight ship in his staging.  James Browne’s handsome set with wooden crates, suitcases and a chintzy looking cabin is effective and his costumes are stylish.

The performances are generally good. Lovejoy is particularly impressive as the “pansexual” Cavendish, tossing off witticisms with just the right level of breezy, self-satisfied affectation, his comic timing immaculate as the words trip effortlessly off his tongue.

But in the end it just doesn’t come together. Running three hours including interval, Empire feels long and underdeveloped.

Schmitz is an exciting writer. His play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth movement is a little gem and his recent work I Want to Sleep With Tom Stoppard (also directed by Kean) is an entertaining, intelligent comedy.

Empire is commendably ambitious. All too rarely these days so we see work of this scale.  But the play needs further work for the themes and big ideas in it to emerge more strongly.

Empire plays at the Bondi Pavilion until September 28