"Grace", directed by Chenoeh Miller
by John Lombard
Canberra’s short theatre scene has burst into life over the last four years with companies such as Budding Theatre and venues such as the sadly missed Smith’s Alternative providing a forum for smaller, bite-sized pieces of theatre. However the biggest event in the short theatre calendar is still Short+Sweet Canberra, our local branch of the international Short+Sweet festival: this is Tropfest for theatre.
Where Short+Sweet is different from Tropfest and many other variety shows is that there is no theme or image that links the plays, so an individual night of Short+Sweet can feel like a grab bag of ideas. The strictly-enforced 10 minute time limit is biased towards the snappy comedy, and those are always in abundance. But there are often also more ambitious pieces - last year’s festival included a musical compressed to 10 minutes. The opening night performance had the expected comedies and relationship dramas, but also included burlesque and more challenging art pieces.
In this case I am not a reviewer, I am an observer participant: I have been very involved in the festival for the last three years and one of my plays is appearing next week. This is a sketch of my impressions at opening night and I encourage other people to contribute their own opinions to the conversation, especially next week when my own work is up for critique. Short works often slip under the radar and I think it is important to focus not just on the festival but on the creative people who give their time and energy to making it happen. With that in mind I am diving right in: here are the thoughts of one participant on the opening week of Short+Sweet 2015.
Tampon Please! (devised and directed by Genevieve Kenneally)
Tampon expert Jaz (Katie Woodward) lives in a public toilet and dispenses wisdom but not, unfortunately, actual tampons. This is a problem for Sal (Alison McGregor), who has had an accident during a hot date and desperately needs something to plug her flow and save her dignity. Sal begs Jaz for salvation in the form of a tampon but Jaz instead leads her on a semi-mystic journey exploring how women are raised to embrace or shun their periods. Part absurdist comedy and part political attack on the tampon tax, this unabashedly feminist piece seeks to confront the audience but has a lightness of touch that saves it from being a polemic.
Making It (writer Kathryn Roediger and director William Pitt)
Chloe (Monica Styles) wants to audition for Tennessee Williams but her photographer roommate Janice (Judith Peterson) tries to completely destroy her confidence to keep her under her thumb. I was strongly reminded of “Notes on a Scandal”, with the older woman trying to crush the younger one so she can control her, with a hint of sexual desire flickering beneath the surface. However Janice is so openly nasty (she has taken secret photos of Chloe masturbating and bullies her over not signing a release so they can be in an exhibition) that we want Chloe to shake off her controlling abuser. The compromise they reach is intended to suggest that their mutual dependence is holding them both back, but Janice’s brutality makes any compromise feel like a further defeat for Chloe rather than a true victory.
Smackfest (writer Jasper Burfoot and director Tse-Yee Teh)
Whenever Jasper Burfoot performs, whether it’s stand-up comedy or his self-devised theatre pieces, the focus is usually an attack on the Catholic Church. With this in mind it was oddly comforting to see Burfoot take the stage and almost instantly get stuck into the Catholic Church. This time his ire was focused on Pope Francis’ declaration that it is OK to hit your kids provided you preserve their dignity by not punching them in the face. Burfoot connected this to his own experience of child abuse, launching into an elaborate, highly sarcastic fake forgiveness of his own father. It was not entirely clear how much this was Burfoot’s own experience and how much this was a persona he was adopting. Burfoot’s humour is often deliberately unsettling but in this performance the jokes mostly landed, even if his gleeful endorsement of corporal punishment led to more than a few cringes as well.
The Truth about Mum and Dad (written and directed by Greg Gould)
Greg Gould is one of the best local comic writers, specialising in situations where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. In this play the unstoppable force is Rachel (Jess Waterhouse), a serious young woman convinced she has seen her father enter a strip joint. The immovable object is her carefree brother Jason (Brendan Kelly), who meets her for a clandestine attempt to spy on their dad (complete with binoculars) and then antagonises her by refusing to take anything seriously. In this case the discussion of the sex lives of their parents ends up being a red herring: the real story is about how Rachel needs to loosen up. This was much lower key than the crazy situations Gould has presented in the past, and was hampered by static direction. However Gould’s dialogue is always excellent and the lively patter between the siblings is strong enough to carry the play.
Untitled (written by Harriet Elvin and directed by Evol McLeod)
In an art gallery a hilariously pretentious art critic (Ben Crowley) is confronted by a challenge to his beliefs when a cleaning lady (Helen Way) walks in and begins to provide her own, far more direct form of art criticism. Crowley and Way make a meal of the script, providing spot on comic performances that are beautifully exaggerated but still likeable. As the two discuss art and the brutal economics behind it they discover they have more in common than they imagined. The twist ending seems to come out of nowhere but is a lively end to a fun play.
Beautiful (devised by Alison McGregor)
As someone who has seen Alison McGregor’s “Sparkles” character before and knew the act she was performing tonight by reputation, I more than a little nervous to finally see it myself. Sparkles is a burlesque performer and trainwreck, a women desperate for love but so broken and obsessed that she has no hope of ever finding it. Tonight Sparkles took the stage to do her routine already drunk (with her dressing gown still on) and began to read increasingly desperate and threatening love poetry before finally collapsing in tears. Then she gave up entirely on trying to perform, taking food out of dressing gown pockets and eating it for comfort while while crying. Sparkles has no character arc, so by the end of the routine her life was just as hopeless as it was at the start. However the climax of the performance is memorable and disgusting.
Face Hole (written and directed by Laura Griffin)
First-time playwright Laura Griffin presents us with a familiar situation: the mother (Kym Starr) doesn’t approve of what her son (Luke Atchinson) wears when he goes out. The twist is that this is a near future where pants are dispensed with but everyone wears face masks. The mother defends the wisdom of airing your buttocks while her son tries to argue that the mouth is not as shameful as we are taught. However his own progressive politics are challenged when his lively girlfriend (Michaela Ripper) visits and, shamefully, has begun to wear pants. The satire on the arbitrariness of social conventions is engaging and a strong debut for a new writer.
The Adventures of Captain Midnight (written by Angus Algie and directed by Arne Sjostedt)
Gentle and prim elderly gentleman Gerald (Don Smith) is adjusting to his new life in a retirement home when an act of humble chivalry makes him the hero of the ladies in the community, the reluctant “Captain Midnight”. The story is told in flashback as a monologue and Smith does a good job of playing the character’s innate timidity and reserve, but it would have been interesting to see him open up and become more flamboyant as his new identity helps him become more confident and assertive.
Three Seats (written and directed by Danielle Asciak)
Sometimes on transport you sit near an attractive stranger and can’t help planning your life together before you’ve even said hello (of course, this could just be me). Asciak explores this situation, with a woman (Olivia Hropic) living her relationship with the stranger one seat over (Vivek Sharma) while simultaneously engaging him in conversation in the hope of getting something started. The experimental storytelling of this piece initially made the situation opaque and it was only towards the end that I became aware of what was happening. However the direction was excellent, with the dialogue not just delivered but fully acted out in the movements of the performers.
The Interview From Hell (written by Robert Armstrong and directed by Trevar Alan Chilver)
Plays that delve into the afterlife can always be a little uncomfortable, especially those that take eternal damnation as their theme. In this mordant comedy a newly deceased go-getter (Oliver Durbidge) is forced to interview for the position he will have for eternity, or at least for the next half dozen centuries - presumably 666 years. However the for devil (Alison Bigg) the job interview is an elaborate practical joke, another opportunity to torment the damned - just like in real life. Durbidge is strong as a smarmy charmer but the grim material is likely to raise as many rueful smiles as chuckles.
Grace (written by Alex Broun and directed by Chenoeh Miller)
Chenoeh Miller is known for Little Dove Theatre Art and her powerful movement-based work. Tackling a script is a departure for her, but with Alex Broun’s exploration of the celebrity of Grace Kelly she has strong material to work with. This play stood out with its abstract staging, with three women (Robyn Higgins, Alison McGregor, and Katie Woodward) reciting their dialogue with their backs to audience over a beautiful soundscape. Miller often likes to focus on a single action, either repeating it or radically slowing it down, and this play is no exception. The three women ever so slowly turn to face the audience and then just as slowly walk towards it, an action stretched out over the full length of the play. As the women approach they repeatedly fall hard and then pick themselves up again, their pain encouraging us to connect with them. The effect is striking and beautiful but the script is sometimes lost over the music. Words are distrusted as a means of communication with music and movement our most reliable sources of truth.
Call Out (written and directed by Lis Shelley)
The final play of the night had telephone technician Ray (Michael Ubrihien) repairing a phone line and accidentally ending up with a direct line to God. Ray thinks is just a prank, but things escalate when the Almighty tells him he has a job offer (which as conversations with the creator can go is definitely one of the better outcomes). The play was helped along with impressive, realistic props that added a lot of authenticity, especially one touching surprise that is unveiled late in the show.
Overall, I enjoyed the opening night line up a little more than I have in previous years. There is a still a wide range of skill and experience on display, but one of the values of Short+Sweet is that it provides entry-level experience for writers and actors. The Canberra festival with its strong local focus has built a tight community and part of the fun is seeing new work from regular contributors. The current line-up runs until Friday night, and after that there are two new further sets of plays: the Wildcards on Saturday and then Week 2 from Tuesday to Friday. Seven years in the festival is going strong.