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Liverpool Performing Arts Ensemble: The Shifting Heart - Review by Nicole Smith

Written by Richard Beynon, The Shifting Heart is set in a working-class suburb of Melbourne. It tells the story of the Bianchi family, who face intense hostility and prejudice from their neighbours due to their nationality. It is a powerful and thought-provoking play that explores the themes of racism and discrimination in Australia during the 1950s being staged at the Casula Powerhouse by Liverpool Performing Arts Ensemble.

The venue itself is a treat, tucked away down a little access road that is an treasure hunt to find. As the road ambles alongside a river and open grassed spaces it reveals the dynamic and vibrant arts and cultural centre which serves as a hub for creativity and community engagement. The Powerhouse's impressive heritage-listed building houses stunning gallery spaces, a theatre, rehearsal studios, and a riverside café.

One of the most striking aspects of The Shifting Heart is its ability to shed light on the harsh realities experienced by Italian immigrants in post-war Australia. It vividly portrays the racism and xenophobia that pervaded society at the time, highlighting both the subtle microaggressions and the overt acts of aggression faced by the Bianchi family.

Angela Pezzano, a beacon of strength and resilience in the face of adversity, portrays the matriarch Momma Bianchi. Pezzano's performance as is captivating. Her delivery of Mama's monologues grips the audience and her presence on stage adds heart and authenticity to the overall performance. Pezzano makes Momma an unforgettable character, one who is fiercely protective of her family and culture. Pezzano has crafted her character with a beautiful physicality, gestures and even some one would guess bonafide Italian. In the program Pezzano notes that she hopes to honour her family. I dare say that goal will be met. Alongside her Johnathon Hartley as Poppa Bianchi and beautifully conveys the emotional turmoil and internal struggle he experiences while showcasing her unwavering love for his family. His ability to oscillate between vulnerability and resilience is commendable. Together Hartley and Pezzano lead the ensemble and are magic.

Each member of the ensemble brings depth and authenticity to their respective characters, effectively portraying the range of emotions and complexities explored in the play. Maria, played by Charlotte Rinaldi represents the struggle of assimilation and the tension between her Italian heritage and her desire to fit in with Australian society. She captures Maria's vulnerability and the internal conflict, torn between her love for her family and her yearning for acceptance. Dominic Collier takes on the role of Clarry, Maria's husband. Clarry is an Australian-born and bred man with an evident bias against immigrants. Through Collier's performance, Clarry's transformation is thoroughly explored. Initially, Collier portrays him as a complex character with deep-seated prejudices. Still, as the play progresses, he skillfully brings out a vulnerability and self-realisation, challenging the audience's preconceived notions.

The remaining ensemble do equally beautiful work with Axel Berecry portraying Gino, who faces relentless discrimination, refusing to bow down to the racist attitudes that surround him, leaving a lasting impact on the audience. Allison Brown as neighbour Leila Pratt offers comic relief during the opening scenes but Brown cleverly adds depth as we learn of her struggles and compassion for the Bianchi family. Paul Mackenzie plays dual roles as Donny Pratt/Detective Sergeant Lukie, shifting physicality and substantial character work to both roles.

The production benefits from a well-executed set design by Don Ezard (and constructed by Jonathon Brown and Duncan Dodds) that effectively recreates the working-class suburban neighbourhood, transporting the audience back in time. Seeing so many shows with digital sets, it felt like a step back in time to be greeted by the facade of the little house and fence palings. The lighting and sound design work harmoniously to create a palpable atmosphere, enhancing the emotional impact of the scenes.

Director Tony Woollams brings to light an important and often overlooked chapter in Australian history. By spotlighting the experiences of Italian immigrants in the 1950s, the play encourages reflection on the damaging effects of xenophobia and discrimination. It serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of compassion, understanding, and unity. The production impresses with its strong performances, insightful storytelling, and skilled design. It is a testament to the power of theatre in raising awareness, fostering empathy and making us want to do better, to be better. This is great stuff, 4.5 Star entertainment.

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