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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Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777