Back at the Dojo

Belvoir St Theatre, June 22

Dojo1

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.

Dojoj4

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.

Dojo3

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

Advertisements

Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir St Theatre, February 12

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City is full of big ideas yet intimate at the same time, a piece that plays with form, and throbs with love and anger.

Theatre director Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) is feeling somewhat adrift and in search of meaning after the death of his father (Anthony Phelan). Pulling out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he plans to spend Christmas with his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse) at a friend’s beachside house.

When she suddenly collapses, Will dupes himself into believing that it’s not that serious. In fact, she is dying of pancreatic cancer. Faced with the awful truth, Will sits by her hospital bed talking to her.

Locating the play right from the start as taking place in a theatre, Will sometimes addresses the audience directly and introduces scenes in Brechtian fashion.

Through his interactions with an eclectic range of characters – a school teacher who wants him to lecture on Brecht, his mother’s best friend, a woman consumed by grief and a Bible-basher who both visit his mother in hospital, a teenage boy fleeing family arguments over the Christmas Dinner table – Gow takes on a host of weighty subjects: Brecht and political theatre, Marxism, rampant consumerism, capitalist exploitation, the power of church music, mortality, grief and love among them.

Eamon Flack directs a clean, clear, eloquent production on Nick Schlieper’s pristine, open set that makes the Belvoir stage look bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A circular, white curtain around the space covers quick scene changes, while the cast performs harmonised Christmas carols (music by Alan John).

Flack draws excellent performances from his impressive cast, which also includes Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz and Tara Morice.

Will is a huge role and Cowell pulls it off magnificently with a raw, compelling performance that captures Will’s pain and his rage at the world. Morse is radiant as Jeannie, seeming to fade into bird-like frailty before our eyes when illness hits.

I’m not sure that all the different elements of the play come together completely. A couple of scenes seem to add little, while Will’s final school lecture feels like an all-too-obvious device for Gow to vent without really shocking us into fresh insight – though he makes his points.

However, much of it is extremely moving (there is plenty of robust humour too), particularly the scenes between Cowell and Morse. The encounter between Will and the teenage skateboarder (Greenwood) is also unexpectedly poignant, while Phelan is terribly touching as an awkward, gentle godbotherer with a surprising insight into the gospels.

Once in Royal David’s City runs at Belvoir St until March 23. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company

Known for writing plays that voice the concerns, dramas and ideologies of educated, articulate, middle class protagonists, Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, embraced by audiences but frequently dividing critics.

Her new play Fury, commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, is set in the comfortable, inner-city home of a liberal, professional family. Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a highly successful neuroscientist who is about to receive a prestigious humanitarian award. Her husband Patrick (Robert Menzies) is a moderately successful novelist.

IMG_1603

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The play opens with a well-researched student journalist (Geraldine Hakewill) interviewing Alice and then Patrick for a personal profile about Alice: an obvious device (which Murray-Smith also used in her play Honour) that allows the characters to articulate thoughts they wouldn’t in ordinary conversation.

A teacher (Tahki Saul) then arrives to inform them that their only son Joe (Harry Greenwood) has been caught with a high school friend putting graffiti on a local mosque. From here the play unfolds to reveal a secret that will undo the family.

Fury is very much a play of ideas set once again in a familiar, middle class milieu. It’s wordy but engrossing. The writing is heightened, sharp, intelligent and witty. The ideas are provocative and eloquently expressed.

In one scene the parents (Claire Jones and Yure Covich) of the other boy – who come from a more working class background and could not have afforded to send their son to the same school were it not for a sporting scholarship – visit Alice and Patrick to discuss with the mosque incident.

The father states clearly and unapologetically his views on the situation, from Muslims living in Australia to parenting today. Again, it’s a way to discuss ideas but to my mind Murray-Smith avoids making it all-too-obvious debate by creating characters that extend beyond stereotypical mouthpieces. Terrific performances by Covich and Jones definitely help.

Andrew Upton directs a tight, absorbing production, drawing detailed, layered performances from a strong cast. Peirse in particular is compelling as Alice, moving from easy, authoritative, self-assurance to unravelling doubt and vulnerability, while Greenwood makes a very impressive professional stage debut as the troubled Joe.

David Fleischer’s open set with concrete walls and polished marble floor is a cold, brutal, elegantly contemporary space that suits the emotional world of the play though it doesn’t feel like the book-filled home of arty intellectuals.

The plot of Fury does feel slightly contrived to embody the debate it dramatises and Joe’s act is never fully explained. Nonetheless, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking play embracing themes including race relations, radicalism, intergenerational conflict, gender, and the anger and anxiety in today’s isolating society.

The foyer on opening night was buzzing with people discussing what they had just seen.

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1 until June 8