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 Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.