Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

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The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

The scintillating horror of Doubt

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

What would you do if you suspected something appalling was happening in your midst, where an innocent child’s well-being was at stake, and the issue was a disaster you think you might have the power to avert? This is the kind of dilemma embraced in James Cuningham’s stage version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable.

It is not so much the 2008 film version featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that this play evokes, but Jean-Jacque Annaud’s 1986 interpretation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in its engagement with the blind and stubborn faith of the establishment, played with unforgettable vehemence by Feodor Chaliapin Jr as Jorge and Volker Prechtel as Malachia, the priests who guard the sanctity of the library.

It is this fierce and dark tone created by the stylised set in juxtaposition with severe costumes and utterly honed performances by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante that embraces the moral contradiction of the play that will haunt you. Ramsay, in particular, embodies the sense of a die-hard old nun without a glimmer of light in her outlook; terrifying to contemplate, but magnetic to behold. Her slight frame embodies something so massive and catastrophic clutching so tightly to the one-upmanship of religious sway, it is unforgettable.

Ramos-Violante is the younger nun, the foil to the tale. Opposite Ramsay’s Sister Aloysius, her Sister James is small fry, a woman easily threatened by the authority of church hierarchy in a misogynist world.

The prescience of this work, set as it is on the cusp of a kind of collapse of innocence of Western culture – just after the assassination of President JF Kennedy – cannot be overlooked, in our world of increasing religious fundamentalism, but also one of increasing social transparency, which sees the unravelling of so much horror that traditionally happened behind closed doors – and where the presentation of young boys and priests in the same sentence leads one to believe the worst.

And yet, unlike Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) which confronts the same issue, the subtlety in Cuningham’s direction and the collaborative energies of the cast, is almost more devastating, offset as it is by an utterly sterling cameo performance by Mwenya Kabwe as the child’s mother, which is pivotal to the whole work.

Doubt is a cleanly composed, terrifying piece of muscular, unpretentious theatre, unforgivably tight in its use of language, but also completely developed and three-dimensional in how it describes the dilemma. You don’t leave the environment armed with a healthy dollop of homophobia and self-righteous hatred of the establishment of the church education system. But you do leave in an emotional state of turbulence that might keep you awake.

  • Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley is directed by James Cuningham and designed by Tina Le Roux (lighting), Vaughn Sadie (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes). It is performed by Mwenya Kabwe, James MacEwan, Janna Ramos-Violante and Fiona Ramsay, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 15. 0118838606 or visit co.za

Lara Lipschitz: On hilariously keeping that chin up

"You want me to do WHAT?!" A still from Lara Lipschitz's Chin Up. Photgraphy: Devin Toselli.

“You want me to do WHAT?!” A still from Lara Lipschitz’s Chin Up. Photgraphy: Devin Toselli.

Actress Lara Lipschitz (26) has enjoyed stints in local soapie, Isidingo and top musical Jersey Boys, but she’s hungry for more: “I’ve always wanted to make my own show,” she told the SA Jewish Report recently, in speaking of her series of YouTube films, Chin Up. <<A version of this story appeared in the print version of the SA Jewish Report.>>

“It’s about stuff that happens to me as a career actress that I think is funny. Putting my work out there is about the accessibility of the internet, and it’s free. I’m a kind of a late bloomer,” she blushes. “I’m young, I should know about the internet, but it has taken me a long time to get connected to the world. I’ve also realised that there aren’t so many people who are doing it. There’s really only a handful of people doing it, including Anne Hirsch, and Derek Watts and the Sunday Blues guys…  so there’s basically this space. And it’s not oversaturated.

“If you monetise the video, with advertising putting out work on YouTube has potential to make money. If you reach 20 000 views in South Africa, you earn money every time someone views your video.” She’s not that concerned about this side of things, yet; “I know that there’s currently a phenomenon of professional Youtubers – who are mostly teenagers – who speak dirty in the camera, or whatever – and have millions of followers.

“In terms of making money, I believe there’s potential for it to become a show or the seed of a show, which is one of the other reasons I’m doing it.

“I have tried to do random jobs, which are related to the film and theatre world, like styling or make up or research, but I don’t enjoy any of them. I’m prepared to work hard. I’m prepared to work for free on my own stuff or on acting stuff.

“Also this show has made me realise how much I love this kind of work. It’s also enabled me to give voice to a new dream for myself. I would like to become a producer and have my own production company. There’s space for it in South Africa. There’s not enough here.”

“I’m loving the creative process. It’s more satisfying than being in any production. You think: here’s my idea; let me write it down. Who can I cast? Are they available?  Where can we shoot? You organise the whole thing. Shoot it. Edit it. And put it out there. And it’s like wow! It’s real.”

While Lipschitz plays the main role in Chin Up, she is supported by performances from other people in the acting fraternity, including her contemporaries and friends, Aimee Goldsmith and Claudine Ullman as well as established performer, James Cuningham. “James is a dear friend of mine. He lectured me a little at Wits, and he’s helped me enormously. But it was with some trepidation that I approached him to play my father!” she laughs. “I didn’t want to insult him. But he was very amenable. I have a well known face or a famous person in every one of my episodes and getting them to perform without the expectation of being paid hasn’t been hard for me. They want to be part of something cool and original.”

Very cognisant of the fact that people must be paid in order to earn a living, she adds, “they’re very aware that this is a passion project, and it’s a favour.” And it may well have creative babies.

This new step in her career has been a long time coming, but it also represents an important break in routine for her. “Jersey Boys was an amazing experience,” she’s unequivocal. “I didn’t originally audition for it, and then I auditioned for Dirty Dancing, which was at the same time. I didn’t get in. But someone was cast for Jersey Boys and she pulled out”… the short end of the tale was that she auditioned over Skype and became part of the Jersey Boys company, as an offstage swing.

“I’d never been in a big musical. It was a crash course for me. As a swing, you have to learn multiple roles, multiple versions of the same song. I played three different roles. It’s frustrating to be an offstage swing. You have to be there, for every performance, all warmed up and ready and on standby. And if no one needs you, you go home at the end of the performance, without having performed at all. And it’s a lot of waiting.

“That took its toll on my soul and my ego. I went with them to Singapore, and I was with them for three months, which was amazing. And then it came to Jo’burg and I got to perform all three roles a few times. But I will never be a swing again. It’s a thankless job, and it’s the hardest, in so many ways: for one thing, you’ve got to be as good as the cast when you go on.

“With this show in particular, it’s hectic, because it’s fast paced and tight. If you’re one beat off, you can ruin the whole show. I travelled with it to Cape Town.” The next leg of Jersey Boys’ tour was Korea and Kuala Lumpur and it was then that Lipschitz’s contract came to an end and she elected not to renew it.

“It was a weird decision for an actress, because there are not lots of jobs out there waiting for you. And it was a decision that was made the more difficult because they offered me Carmen Pretorius’ role as she tot into The Sound of Music. But my mind was made up.

“I really needed a break. I wanted to come back and make my own work,” she is earnest about the idea of getting Jersey Boys fatigue. “You have to keep getting re-inspired and re-motivated, somewhere, somehow, all the time. The audience can tell if you’re bored with your role.

“It’s like being in a soapie,” she adds. “You have to really love your role. For example, if I got Sally Bowles from Cabaret, I would do it for five years and not mind, but for just a chorus person, it must get really boring.”

After Jersey Boys, she did one commercial – “which was like winning the lottery: I had auditioned for hundreds!”, she got a new agent, and she has been “auditioning and auditioning and auditioning and auditioning and getting callbacks and almost getting a movie and almost getting a series… and then nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing… and then I was going out of my mind. I need to be active. I need to take control of my career. I can’t just sit around and wait for an audition because they are so few and far between, for my look or whatever.

Chin Up, which is about having courage in the face of creative failure, doesn’t romanticise. “It’s a little sad,” she chortles. “But acting is not a glamorous career choice at all. I’m not showing the good parts. There are a lot of successful parts in my career. The bad parts are the funnier ones. The agent, for the record, is not based on my current agent. And my dad is not a dentist,” she grins. “But he does relate to the material. It’s really rewarding when people laugh.”

Each episode is about 6 minutes in length: “I will aim for a shorter length, going forward, which I’ve learned is more pragmatic. There are different contexts in which it gets seen. If it was on television, it would be 18 minutes.” She’s currently writing a pilot episode of that length, even without knowing the ardency of the market for this type of thing in South Africa.

“It does get disheartening, at times, but then I remember why I’m doing it. It’s growing me as writer, actress, producer… it’s so much easier to complain. I know there are millions of flaws, but if I were to think about every issue, I wouldn’t put it out. It would paralyse me. I don’t have a budget.”

Her photographer boyfriend Devin Toselli is assisting her with the project, which they started late last year. Chin Up now has five editions.

Next Thursday evening from 19:00, Wolves in Illovo hosts the official launch of Lipschitz’s Chin Up series. The event will feature screening of all five episodes plus live performances from local bands Stolen Pony and Yo Grapes, which feature in Chin Up (011)447-2360.