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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

kerosene/SIRENS at fortyfivedownstairs - two plays - 50 minutes and 65 minutes respectively

A superbly nuanced performance by Izabella Yena elevates an outstanding piece of writing from Benjamin Nichol, who directs kerosene with Yena.

She plays Melbourne-based Millie, brought up by her grandfather, known as Gramps, who was raised in Coober Pedy.

Yena weaves a tale of love, loss, loneliness and obsession.

Photos by Darren Gill

So convincing is she that I was immediately transported to the world she created around her as Millie.

I felt that I really got to know all the characters she spoke about.

Millie is tied inextricably to her best friend, several years her senior, Annie.

With no other female role models in her life, Annie always has Millie’s back.

That could mean extricating her from embarrassment or advising her to use her smarts, rather than her muscle.

Millie has somewhat of an awkward relationship with Gramps, from whom she receives a special gift when she turns 13.

It is one she doesn’t appreciate at first, but something that becomes more meaningful when she hears about its family history.

The present also plays a part in the ensuing narrative, involving Annie.

Things change repeatedly for Millie, as she fills us in on her post school studies, pursuits and exploits.

Her relationship with Annie takes a turn after the latter – who becomes a hairdresser – meets Trent, an older man.

In her desire to better herself, there is also recklessness and rage about Millie.

With just Yena on a bare stage for 55 minutes, kerosene relies upon her ability to create a meaningful story and that she does, with aplomb.

Yena is one of my favourite actors because of her extraordinary talent in transposing herself into the characters she plays.

So it is with kerosene. It is reflected in how she delivers her words, in the pitch, pace, pause and emphasis she brings to her performance.

More than that, it is the way she carries herself throughout and the mood shifts that characterise her portrayal.

She appears equally at home as a petulant child and as a belligerent adult.

Yena is truly mesmerising for 55 minutes.

Writer and, in this case, performer Nichol and co-creator Yena are at it again after a 20-minute interval with SIRENS.

At age 22, rurally isolated Eden is bored, aimless and heavily into gay sex (seemingly the more he can get from meaningless hook ups the better).

Eden is also a gifted singer (singing makes him feel good) and for the past 18 years he has taken pride of place leading Christmas carols alongside his musical mother.

Mum’s life is church (she is also frequently sick), but Eden is a non-believer, while his dad is a heavy drinker.

Eden is as a cleaner and that includes working at an aged care facility where his former English teacher, Mr J, who has lost his grip on reality, is a resident.

Eden chooses to ignore Mr J, despite repeated urges from a former female classmate, Shelley, now a nurse, who works at the facility, not to do so.

Then Eden meets 35-year-old David, who grew up in the town but moved to the United States, and his life changes.

Eden is convinced he has found his Mr Right and fantasises about his future with David, only as it turns out reality is far different.

Like Yena before him, Nichol immerses himself into the role of Eden, the latter looking for meaning and connection.

Nichol’s performance is gritty and raw, one in which he doesn’t hold back.

Again, it is just Nichol and empty floorboards, so the play relies solely on him carrying ecstasy and devastation.

He does so with distinction, not only with his spoken voice, but melodically, for a cappella numbers are included in the 65-minute work.

While strong and powerful, I thought SIRENS – directed by Olivia Satchell – could readily have been pared back and thereby had even more impact.

Further, I found the story arc in kerosene more compelling.

Nevertheless, the double bill has massive resonance.

The works, which – in context – include heightened swearing, are willing and audacious, capturing hot and heavy slices of life.

kerosene/SIRENS is on at fortyfivedownstairs until 13th August, 2023.


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