An indie theatre mini-festival

Delectable Shelter, The Reginald, Seymour Centre, August 13. Fireface, ATYP Under the Wharf, Sydney, August 14. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Factory Floor, Marrickville, August 15

I HAD the interesting – and unique – experience this week of having an invitation to the theatre withdrawn. I was to have reviewed, for The Australian, visiting US music-comedy show Blue Man Group, now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Its producer, Rodney Rigby, decided he didn’t wish to provide me with a complimentary ticket. I go into this in a little more detail on my DJ’s Diary page on this blog, but mention it here because I rearranged my week in light of this event. Instead of seeing Blue Man Group on Wednesday I decided to see independent company Stories Like These’s Fireface, by Marius Von Mayenburg. The night before I’d gone to the tiny Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre to see The Hayloft Project’s Delectable Shelter; the following night  – last night – I was at Marrickville’s The Factory Floor for the Australian premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. BBAJ is a deliciously dishevelled musical about, yes, the seventh president of the US.

So: three nights, three independent companies, three small and endearing theatre spaces and three reminders of the imaginative reach of theatre made outside the mainstream. It was like having my own little indie theatre festival – an event that could be replicated by Sydneysiders this weekend, and indeed would have to be replicated this weekend, as Delectable Shelter and Fireface end tomorrow. You could start off tomorrow at 2pm with Fireface, see Delectable Shelter at 8pm tomorrow, and then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at 5pm Sunday. The latter does run until September 1, but two shows don’t stack up as a mini-festival, do they?

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong
Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

You may even divine some (very broad) connections between the three pieces, part of the joy of seeing them in close proximity. In Fireface a family is destroyed; in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson there is wholesale slaughter of a continent’s original inhabitants (sound familiar?); in Delectable Shelter the entire world is imperilled. And further joy: the productions could not be more dissimilar.

Fireface is apprehended as if by flickering light. In the space of 100 minutes a multitude of short scenes burst into life and are quickly snuffed out. But we get the picture clearly enough. Kurt (Darcy Brown) is an unexploded bomb, ever more unstable as he rejects his parents (played by James Lugton and Lucy Miller) and gets inappropriately close to his sister Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson), who understands too late the extent to which she is playing with fire by aligning herself with Kurt. Except for a scene in which Kurt and Olga poeticise an adventure they have in a factory, Fireface is claustrophically enclosed within the family. The apparently ordinary, middle-class home is posited as a place of torment and disgust, and one is reminded with a shiver of the horrors that such places can hide. Brown is extraordinarily good but Irwin-Simpson is one-dimensional and unconvincing, which diminishes the horror of Luke Rogers’s production. But certainly worth seeing.

Delectable Shelter is a slightly over-extended apocalyptic fable but so much fun that writer/director Benedict Hardie is forgiven. The world has been so badly damaged that the only hope for human survival is for a lucky few to take refuge in underground shelters, wait for, oh, three and a half centuries, work hard at repopulating, and try again up on the surface. We soon realise that the chosen are very few in number indeed – five, to be exact – and obviously they are rich and white. Except for a group of Chinese people on a space station.

With this tiny gene pool responsible for humanity’s future the omens are not auspicious. It’s clear it would take more than a nuclear winter to rid the world of privilege, xenophobia, religious fervour, sexual politics and the apparently unquenchable desire for power. Yesse Spence, Simone Page Jones, Jolyon James, Brendan Hawke and Andrew Broadbent are all wonderful and as a bonus intersperse the action with 1980s pop songs performed a cappella in the manner of sacred music. A further treat is Claude Marcos’s dazzling design, brilliantly lit by Lucy Birkinshaw.

It’s hard to understand why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should ever have been considered a sensible choice to take to a Broadway theatre, where it appeared relatively briefly after being performed Off-Broadway in 2010. It is no Once, the gentle love story that won a Tony Award for best musical last year. BBAJ is a raucous grunge musical that presents Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States and founder of the Democratic Party, as a deeply flawed but super charismatic rock star; the guy who put the “man” into manifest destiny. Did I saw deeply flawed? Jackson ruthlessly drove Indian nations from their lands and if they wouldn’t go, they were slaughtered. “We totally know you were here first. We don’t give a shit,” he says exuberantly. Was he a great president or a genocidal murderer – you decide, dude!

Writers Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) manically elide early 19th century American politics with those of the present day (the show is performed in modern slacker dress). Taxes, big government, election stealing, conservative thinking – “It’s morning in America” – and a host of other references are slyly inserted into the roiling mix of comedy, political satire and song. Attention has to be paid to a piece that throws in Alexis de Toqueville, a funny song about metaphor, a bitter version of Ten Little Indians and a whole load of early American presidents (Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams) with zero explication.

The cult of personality in politics is depicted with the kind of vim and zest that apparently got Jackson elected way back then and which persists to this day and not only in the US. Australian political parallels will be noted. All of this is very good indeed and happens at breakneck speed under Craig Stewart’s direction. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is over in a bouncy 90 minutes, although it would be an even stronger piece with a few excisions. Jackson is seen in Injun-killing or betraying mode rather too many times.

Squabbalogic’s no-frills show (set Sean Minahan, lighting Mikey Rice) is just right for the piece. The excellent band is up the back and the hard-working actors up the front, there are some fairy lights on the ceiling, a generally brothel-red glow throughout, some bits and bobs around the place and that’s that. Peter Meredith (Andrew Jackson) anchors the show forcefully and Jay James-Moody stands out in an array of characters. The singing, by and large, is pretty ordinary, and the use of microphones erratic and therefore puzzling. Nevertheless, Squabbalogic has come up trumps by giving the Australian premiere of this work. Fascinatingly the company is going to follow up with another premiere, the revised version of Carrie the Musical.  It’s impressive programming.

If you were to see these three shows, you would have to spend no more than $120 for the lot. Just as a point of comparison, top price for Blue Man Group on a Saturday night is $150.

Fireface, final performances tomorrow (Saturday August 17) at 2pm and 7.30pm. Delectable Shelter, final performances tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ends September 1.

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