Friday, February 20, 2009

Bison / Natural Born Hooker

FOCUS THEATRE present BISON by Lachlan Philpott and NATURAL BORN HOOKER by Konrad Product at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre. (It is part of The Sydney Gay Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009.)

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009 logo stands beside the FOCUS THEATRE logo at the top of the program. BE WARNED then, that, these two plays, as performance pieces, have a very specific audience target in mind. Both plays are examples of extreme verbal voyeurism. Both plays have what seems to be a recent Hallmark of Focus Theatre performances, a de rigueur requirement of including “male striptease” and full frontal nakedness, a titillating element of soft porn. (Witness BLOWING WHISTLES and it’s soft porn memories.) I guess if Channel 9 can score audience targets with similar tactics in both series of UNDERBELLY, let’s go one step further and give the nudity to them: Live! LIVE!!! LIVE!!!!!! Live simulated sex acts on stage!!! (There are various ticket prices available and at $48 dollars for the double bill, $30 a single, you may or may not feel you have got value for money - entirely dependent on what you go to the theatre for.) Definitely the ordinary audience might find the material both confronting and maybe informative. Even certain factions of a Gay audience may find a lot of the material confronting and maybe uncomfortable to watch. (There is very little in this material to excite a Lesbian audience, it is entirely concerned with the male experience.) These plays in my estimation are of interest to a very small cognoscenti of the public.

BISON by Lachlan Philpott is an Australian play. Originally written for a Melbourne Theatre space, the Builder’s Arms Hotel, in 1999, Mr Philpott and the production company Focus, have reworked the material to bring “it up to date”. In this work one can see the origins of what I think is a very exciting writer, based on my memory of his later play COLDER. But this play reveals a writer at a much earlier time in his career, still finding his voice, no matter how much recent adaptation has gone on. The play begins with what is fashionable in some areas of theatre writing at the moment, Chorus Speak: shared lines that give us direct information without the pretence of character. Four actors take on the responsibility of character and ensemble in different parts of the script. They are ensemble to the featured characters story. Primarily we meet Jase (Stephen Multari), Simon (Christopher Tomkinson), Tom (Quinn Gibbes) and Dick (John Turnbull).

The text has been adapted to the Sydney Gay scene and there are many laughs of recognition from the knowledgeable in the audience (Maybe FOCUS could get funding for location placement). Each story covers different areas of the gay experience: a coming out for a young (17 year old) guy and subsequent gay lifestyle journey; a man with a penchant for "sex-pig" experiences i.e extreme sex, (we are in there with a video camera with him); a man on an odyssey of searching the world for a real connection, (and like Peer Gynt finding it was at home all along); and finally, a modern fable of an older man finding the threshold of a loving but bored relationship and moving into a space where some solace on the internet and beat sex provides distraction. There are great familiarities with most of this play but there are also some, occasionally, interesting insights into the peculiar predicaments of being gay at all different points of “being Gay”: Age, appetites, fantasies and practices. What this play lacks, which is not the case with the later play COLDER, is a “bigger picture”. It is to narrow in it’s pre-occupations and sometimes errs into salaciousness for its own sake.

The acting is, above all else, courageous. The experience of the performers is very obviously varied and the work is mostly only adequate. The real problem is in the direction in this space. (Pete Nettell) It seemed the actors had not had enough time to work out the dynamics of the space, especially vocally. Each member of this quartet had their “musical notes” down but not their tones or harmonies. The sounds they were making were not connected to each other and as the writing format requires a Chorus like energy and “sound “ it was too loud, combative and disassociated from each other, so that it was mostly a cacophonous jangle of noise. The instruments were mostly out of tune with each other and so the communication was relatively disjointed. More familiarity in the space may ease this problem.

NATURAL BORN HOOKER by Konrad Product, was, the writer facetiously tells us, found in "China" after much digging. And although it has been "polished" into what Mr Product regards "as a diamond-in-the-rough" to a state of "perfection" by Alice Livingstone & Pete Nettell it probably should have stayed buried. This is a bio-graphical telling of an American sex worker of his often rough and savage experiences from his early abuse as a child to a kind of resurrection at the end of the narrative. It is, still, a textually time jumping jumble, and is oh so familiar that boredom is a very possible experience for some of the audience (Of course there is the gratuitous strip tease and full frontal nudity to keep you hooked, if you last the distance).

A very good reason to last the distance is a very mature and creditable performance by Daniel Scott as Konrad, who reveals a powerhouse mental stamina and theatrical commitment to the task of breathing life into this text and keeping it afloat. Physically he is very adept and, unlike the other company in BISON, has a masterly sense of the best way to use his vocal instrument in this space to keep us attending to the play. But in the end the play feels foreign, too familiar and out of date. This actor should find better material to reveal his talent as an actor. It is obviously burgeoning and has benefited from the long stint as "Felicia/Adam" in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. One looks forward to seeing Mr Scott playing other, worthier material, to match his potential.

The Set and Costume Design (Newman Cobar); Lighting (Verity Hampson, the design as beautiful as ever, clever within the confines of the space) and Sound, also Composition,(Sarah de Jong) have great style. But it is no matter how stylish it may be, within the budget constraints, it is no substitute for substance.

A note in the program tells us that “All proceeds from the sale of programs will be donated to SWOP (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) , an initiative of ACON.” I felt this slightly cynical considering the cost of the tickets, either separately or as a double bill and that some percentage of the Box Office might have been a more realistic gesture to make to that organization. The proceeds from the Program Sales!!!! Oh, Come On. Certainly the URBAN THEATRE production of THE LAST HIGHWAY for the Sydney Festival last year, a devised work about sex workers in the outer suburbs of Sydney had more relevance and impact then this oddly chosen piece. If the plight and life experience of the Sex Worker is a concern for this Company than perhaps a commissioning of a play from Mr Philpott would be more relevant for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian audience. It probably would be of interest to the wider community too, based on the reception that The Urban Theatre project had.

This production of these two plays seem oddly ill chosen to celebrate the Gay and Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009. The tone of the material is oddly out of tune with a season of celebration. It felt tawdry and left a bored and bad taste to the time that I had given up to be there and supportive.

Playing now until 15 March. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

5 comments:

Mike Sobraon said...

Yes, Mardi Gras is a season of celebration, although this does not mean that theatre has to solely reflect the happy/light side of gay culture. Theatre which tackles the lighter AND darker sides is far more interesting, and I would have thought resonates more authentically with a Mardi Gras audience. I think we should give people more credit - theatre-goers are generally intelligent and if they are looking for fluff, then I'm sure they can catch 'He's Just Not That Into You' at their local Greater Union.

As for the nudity - In Bison, there is about 10 seconds where the 4 actors are completely nude (only 2 in full frontal). They literally strip and put a towel around themselves- They are in a sauna for pete's sake! In Natural Born Hooker, the actor is nude for about 5 mins. The scene is ever-so powerful and is by no means unnecessary.

These plays are not your ordinary, piece of fluff, 1-cock-on-stage-every-half-hour Mardi Gras plays. There is real substance and it was so fantastic seeing actors in a space tell their 'relevant' stories without the bells and whistles. I believe less is more and these guys nailed it. I attended opening night and the general consensus was - 'success'!

I find it amusing the difference in opinion whilst comparing this review to the one on SameSame. Both reviewers attended the same Opening Night:

http://www.samesame.com.au/reviews/3639/Theatre--BisonNatural-Born-Hooker.htm

Congrats to the Focus team and the fantastic performances from these 5 boys. All the best for the season!

Alice Livingstone said...

Dear Kevin

As the producer of Bison/Natural Born Hooker, I have to take issue with your comments regarding the donation of program proceeds to SWOP and the cost of the tickets.

Focus Theatre has had a policy of giving back to the community in some way with each of its productions since it was formed in 2003. We have previously raised funds for Twenty/10, ACON and The Aurora Foundation through either a percentage of Box Office or program sales. We also support The Luncheon Club with a block of tickets to every Focus Theatre production.

With this production, as well as the program sales, we have donated a block of tickets to SWOP, and Acceptance Sydney, ACON and other community groups have been given tickets to the double bill to be used for raffle prizes or similar fundraising efforts. In monetary terms, this equates to over $1,500 in donations.

As you seem to think that the program donations is a parlous amount to give, perhaps you could donate the value of your free tickets ($96) to SWOP?

As to the cost of the tickets - we are paying rights to two writers, covering production costs including theatre hire, publicity and Mardi Gras fees, as well as attempting to ensure the professional theatre workers involved (actors and production team) are recompensed for their work - all without the buffer of funding. As you know, Box Office is the only source of income for most independent theatre companies.

Kind regards

Alice Livingstone
Producer - Focus Theatre

Jeremy Adams said...

I hardly feel I need to 'BE WARNED' that I'm attending a play reflecting the gay and lesbian community during Mardi Gras. Isn't that the point of the Mardi Gras festival? To reflect and celebrate the diversity of said community and the emergence of new talent?
Sitting in the audience on opening night of both these plays I felt BISON in particular reflected this diversity perfectly. A cast ranging in ages and styles were still clearly connected as a 'chorus' not only by their uniform blue outfits but also by their obvious ease and comfort with each other. The play requires a lot of physical theatre and it was totally refreshing to see four actors simply use the theatre space without a reliance on huge sets or elaborate costuming to display their craft.
As for the 'titillating elements of soft porn', the scene requiring (the very brief) nudity was set in a sauna and judging by the audience response at the end of the play no one else felt the need to clutch their rosary and feign a superior moral outrage as the nudity was entirely within context.
Interesting (and perhaps a little hypocrytical) you felt so ill-at-ease with the strong sexual overtones Mr Jackson considering your own history as a prominent member within the community. Too close to home? Surely good theatre these days should be 'confronting and informative'!?
As for the ticket price, a quick check of all the other theatre companies and productions on offer during the festival shows the Focus Theatre Production of these two plays to be quite competitive and each could easily stand alone as an enjoyable night out at the theatre. Certainly all my friends who joined me on opening night thought so and we'll be recommending the plays to anyone looking for intelligent, witty and exciting theatre this mardi gras season.

Kevin Jackson said...

I personally found none of the material "too close to the bone" or "confronting and informative" nor was I particularly ever uncomfortable. But others may be and in talking to me, some were.(I am sure that if "my aunt or even uncle" naively went to this production of these plays she or he may find them a little taxing. I felt they should be prepared for what she may be about to witness. One assumes the Gay and Lesbian community would be open to what might ensue.) On the other hand I also had a conversation with someone there that night who did find the play’s material informative. That surely is what theatre should aspire to and does, evoke a range of responses. Each of us have our own personalized experience depending on a lot of given circumstances. You have read mine, I yours.

One of the artistic problems for me is the physicality in BISON. The direction seemed not to trust the play or the writer. On attending to the text closely the material seemed to be best when the verbal/language elements were not burdened with the invention of the physical direction. This play is not about ‘physical theatre’ but about the language/storytelling. It does not seem to need it to be acted out. In fact it distracted me from some of the beauty and observations of the writing by being over fussy in the movement. Mr Philpott’s plays, not just this one, strive for this engagement in the poetry of the spoken word. For me the most successful section was "Tom’s" story. It was directed with the actor simply sitting and talking. It had the best level of communication for me on the night I attended and seemed to be honouring the writer’s intentions and artistic endeavours. Whereas I felt, generally, that the direction of the actors to physical action, often obfuscated the writer’s intentions and style. I felt not enough attention had been given to the
voice/speech work that Mr Philpott’s material requires to succeed. If some of the Time of rehearsal had focused on the musical accuracies that Mr Philpott’s writing is about, rather than the physicality you talk about, a much better experience may have been given. I am fairly certain and think the writer may agree.

As for the nudity, it is a matter of taste, as I suggested in my review. I wonder if it was gratuitous and simply just a "sensational" choice?. Did the writing really require the explicitness of needing to act out the sauna sequences etc? I felt not. Others, on examining the writing, may feel so. This director and artistic team felt so and that is what we are witnessing and consequently are discussing. But even the poster-image seems to emphasise an element of both plays that really is so tangential to the serious subject matter that the plays attempt to engage in, that the choice of image seems to be, for me, more about salacious marketing than in reflecting the serious intentions of both the plays. What were the other images that were discarded in the marketing strategies and why this one? It is just a question, interested in the process of art and its resultant choices. Certainly the image is arresting and may be connected to the NATURAL BORN HOOKER play, as to BISON and its concerns, it may not reflect that work honourably. The poster may need to prepare us for the evening as a whole and address its real preoccupations other than the enticement of naked sexuality. Maybe?

Thank you for reading the blog and thank you for participating in the arts by adding your point of view, as an interest other than just escapist entertainment experience. The arts and specifically the theatre is not, I feel, just a distraction to our life style but an integral reflection of who we are as a culture at a particular time in history. The multiplicity of response is what will ensure a complexity, maturity and strength of a civilization. And boy, do we need individuals to converse rather than just the silent critics or the defensive hysterics in all areas of our lives at present. However, if you want to see a gay experience and be inspired rather than slightly depressed than I recommend the film MILK - it is the best piece of Gay Art that I have witnessed so far this Mardi Gras.

Kevin

Mark Adnum said...

Golly gosh - nudity on stage!

Reminds me of the story of my mother's auntie stepping out of a performance of the original Sydney season of HAIR clutching her pearls and wondering whatever was next.

Enjoyed the plays a lot.