Thursday, 2 April 2020

The Glam Gizmo - Podcast Review

What: The Glam Gizmo
Launch Date: 28 March, 2020
Written and produced by: Tom Denham
Featuring: Clint Facey and AJ Winters

The Glam Gizmo is the newest podcast out of the SYN stable and it takes off like a rocket. Created by writer and engineer Denham, The Glam Gizmo is sci-fi comedy horror filled with all the best Scooby Doo style plot points and effects needed to keep us guessing and keep us laughing at the same time.

Full of a certain macabre humour, the best thing about The Glam Gizmo is the characters. Whilst the two leads, Max (Facey) and Lucy (Winters) are Everyman characters, the supporting characters are a total hoot. They are ghoulish and gruesome in a hilariously loveable way.

The set up is fairly straight forward. Oliver Keppel (Stefan Bradley) has created a device which rips holes between different dimensions and strange phenomena are crossing over into our world. In this first episode it is the snakeman Boltizor (Anthony Bradshaw) who is into puppet taxidermy and is stealing people's skin and covering them in felt.

The puppets Bumble and his friends are a hoot and the character Soup Of The Day (Michael Langan) could be straight out of Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy! Denham even makes a cameo appearance in this first episode as Dr Paradox. He saves the day but then leaves the rest of the work up to his new unwitting recruits, Max and Lucy.

The sound design is pacy and creative and I really enjoy how Denham keeps us shifting from scenario to scenario with no warning. It keeps us wondering what is going to happen with only the odd moments of feeling a bit lost.

Denham is an engineer not afraid of processing and he has a lot of fun with characters although I do find myself wondering how he is going to keep up the originality with this pace of story. That will be part of the fun and magic to be explored along with the story as I keep listening.

I do have a few little niggles. I think there is a bit of overprocessing at times - such as the introduction - when it is hard to understand what is being said. Denham needs to remember audiences are hearing these words for the first time and they pass by quickly. It is an issue if what is being said has important plot information.

I also found Facey to be a quite dull and lifeless Max. He lacks urgency and energy and, at times, steps out of his character reality to telegraph the joke. For example, when he is told he might be evicted he sounds disinterested rather than stressed, and when Max tells Lucy he didn't know she had a bike Facey sounds like he is delivering a punch line. It is funny, but not for Max. If other cast were doing this it would work, but all of the other actors are playing the truth in their world so Facey needs to do that as well.

This is not a big hurdle though, because there is so much going on and the story has been set up so every episode (dropping on Saturdays) has guest artists who will help this hapless duo seek out the Keppel Machine and repair the rift between dimensions, restoring order to the world.

The show is around 30 minutes which is a good length. You get a nice chunk of story which doesn't put a dent in your day. And you get a whole lot of laughs with sci fi and crypotological jokes.and just enough blood and guts to keep the cynical amused!

4.5 Stars

Saturday, 21 March 2020

True Story - Book Review

What: True Story
Publication date:  4 August 2020
Written by: Kate Reed Petty
Published by: Quercus
True Story, by Kate Reed Petty, is the first book I have read from start to finish without getting sidetracked by other books in a very long time. It is also the first book, I think, I have ever read which made me want to start again straight away.

True story is unique in its construction although it has a very clear provenance from James Joyce's Ulysses.This horror/crime novel is written as a collection of literary styles, all of them swirling in a Vorticist style, to bring us a sense of truth in a world built on stories.

Petty's writing always has a sense of being a third party, almost witnessing, account. It is something about the short sentences and the dearth of metaphors and similes which give it a dispassionate, straight to the point kind of feel. Add to that her penchant for using alternate text forms to tell the story, and you have the feeling that you are putting together the story or 'case' just as if you are a detective.

It is also what makes elements of this tale so visceral and terrifying. There is something about 'witnessing' horrifyingly inevitable events dispassionately which really gets the heart thumping in frustrated terror. I found myself wanting to scream at the pages to tell the characters not to do what they are about to do, just like I do when watching horror movies... It's like watching a landslide and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop the rocks from falling.

I say there is an ancestral link to Ulysses because, just like Joyce, Reed writes every part of the story in a different format and/or a different point of view. There is standard prose in a mix of first, second, and third person syntax. There is film script. There is transcript.

What adds edge and confusion and what keeps the reader on the back foot is that within all of these styles, Reed also breaks the formatting rules. Italics instead of quotation marks, left justified dialogue in screenplays, paragraphs headers as chapter titles, there are no page numbers - only locations and the numerical sequence is linear by not consecutive. And there is font carnage!

Everything about True Story is designed to keep us asking questions and the answers are never where we expect them to be and are not what we are led to believe. This novel really does keep throwing up surprises from start to finish. In fact, the first 2 chapters had me completely baffled (don't worry, they are short), and I wondered if there was a problem with the galley I was reading.

The book is not perfect, but it is certainly one of the most entertaining I have read in a long time. The second 'chapter' doesn't quite do what I think it intends and the last chapter doesn't work for me at all.  There is still essential information in it but it feels apologetic to some degree in a way I don't think the rest of the novel reflects. I also sometimes struggled to now if I was in Alice's story or Haley's.

Nick is an incredibly well drawn character - the best in the book - and I admit I find myself impresses which just how insightful Reed is about men and male behaviour. Whilst True Story is a mystery/thriller (despite the horrible cover art), it is really a seminal text on toxic masculinity and how it propogates in our world and changes our world. It begs the question 'are the true monsters the perpetrators of abuse or are they the people who create a world view which normalises, pardons, and then dismisses it?'

Men should read this book. Fathers should read this book and then give it to their sons to read. This is information the world needs and this is a mirror men need to find and fix the root causes of why and how women are so very disadvantaged and oppressed in modern society.  Yes, it is a feminist text, but it is not a book for feminists.

4 Stars

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Running With Emus - Theatre Review

What: Running With Emus
When: 11 - 22 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Merrilee Moss
Directed by: Kim Durban
Performed by: Sam Baxter, Kevin Dee, Gregory J Fryer, Julie Nihill, and Elizabeth Sly
Design and stage management by: Adam (Gus) Powers
Lighting by: Jacob Shears
Julie Nihill and Elizabeth Sky - photo by Darren Gill
I don't mind a bit of Australiana on stage these days. I have decided to get over my cultural cringe and am an avid champion of Australian plays and am always excited to see presenters and producers taking them on and presenting them to audiences. The latest to hit the Melbourne stages is Running With Emus which is on the VCE curriculum and is being presented at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Running With Emus is written by Moss, who has strong track record as an Australian playwright, and is directed by Durban who has a strong track record as a director. Add to that the talents and prowess of Nihill (Patricia) and Fryer (Pie) and I expected to be in for a real treat.

Running With Emus as a story about an old woman who is trying to live out the last of her life in seclusion with her best mate - her house. Her granddaughter, Krystal (Sly), drops in unexpectedly and the woman is forced to feel connection again.

No. Wait. The story is about a young woman, Krystal, who has had a bad breakup and runs to the less than comforting arms of her grandmother to recover and possibly mend some burnt bridges in the family.

Noooooo... Running With Emus is about a small town with a racism problem. A young woke activist blows into town and decides to tell them how they should run their community.

No, that's not right either. Running With Emus is the story of a young woman returning to her ancestral home, reconnecting with her family, the land, and maybe falling a little bit in love with the local school principal (Baxter) as she bumbles her way into country life.

Nope. Let me see. This play is about... Do you see my problem?

Running With Emus feels like several different plays crammed into 1. Or perhaps it is more correct to say it is a 5 act play squeezed into 1 act. There are great ideas here, and intriguing characters and several good story lines but they are all competing for time and space on stage. Moss either needs to embrace a longer format for this idea to truly work, or create a triptych of one act plays to make these ideas and characters really sing the way I think she wants them to.

On the surface, and according to the publicity, Running With Emus is about Krystal coming into a quiet country town and helping them move towards becoming a 'Refugee Friendly Zone'. Along the way she starts a fight, makes some friends, and forces her grummy to understand the truth about herself and her family history. Whilst probably on the right side of politics, I have to say I felt everything about Krystal personified exactly what country people hate about woke city folk with few redeeming qualities except a willingness to try and get involved.

Ignoring the problems with the script though, I also found myself disappointed with the staging. I thought in the hands of someone as skilled and experienced as Durban, the flaws would be minimised and the magic revealed. I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

Running With Emus is described as a non-naturalistic play in all of the publicity and I can't help thinking Durban and Powers (designer) took this as some sort of dare and tried to make this production as naturalistic as they possibly could. The stage is full of real domestic detritus and kitsch, and the acting is realism 101 with performance techniques from the early 20th century.

Part of the fault is the design. The stage is literally cut in half by the verandah - which is really a loungeroom? - and so there is no depth for the actors to perform in. Thus everyone comes on stage, form a line, open out and speak directly to the audience rather than each other, and then go off stage. It is one thing for a director to not get in the way of the play, but I do expect the team to be encouraged to be creative and support the work, not bury it in a mire of visual tedium! The exception is the lighting (Shears) which does as much as it can to bring texture and allegory to this world Moss has written.

Fryer and Dee (Sparrow/Jim) are excellent and my only sorrow is how under-utilised Fryer is, with the smallest role. This is one of the things which helps drag this play into a story which belongs in last century, not this one - the subtext hurts. The two new kids on the block, Sly and Baxter (Raffaele/Goose) have great energy but need to develop subtlety and nuance in their craft to create a real connection with the audience.

Running With Emus is a great centrepiece role for Nihill. Patricia's journey is complex and is really the only fully realised character in the play. Nihill is a wonderful curmudgeon but I think she and Durban failed to explore deep enough to find what small things would give Patricia pleasure. There are a few little moments in the script which could open these doors for the audience so that we care a whole lot more about what happens at the end, but at the moment the role is played in a single palette which makes all of the moments blurr.

Running With Emus is actually a great script for the VCE curriculum because it literally covers every single thing ever said about the inclusion of refugees and a whole lot more besides. In the classroom it would be a cornucopia of things to explore surrounding patriotism, colonisation, immigration, ancestry, refugeeism, regionalism vs urbanism, political activism, the dreaming, and the milking behaviour of cows.

On stage this production is a play which is trying to do much and direction which is trying to do too little. I do find myself wondering if the staging is like it is because of an intention to tour. I don't find that much of an excuse though.

The comedy has to force it's way through to us but it is there. Moss has given us some classic one-liners, such as Patricia talking about another character and saying "No one will die wondering what she thinks!" The three old guys (Pie, Sparrow, and Goose) are also funny and would be a much stronger tool if only they weren't shoved into a corner.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this show. I think the script for Running With Emus carries a lot of good material and with some intensive dramaturgical work could be a magical concoction. This production is more dated than spiced ham though. My biggest regret is that this is a school show and I want young people to be enthused and excited about theatre. This production is just going to make them look to other outlets for entertainment I am afraid.

2.5 Stars

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities - Circus Review

What: Kurios - Cabinet of Curiosities
When: 12 March - 10 May 2020
Where: Flemington Racecourse
Written and directed by: Michel Laprise
Composition by: Bob & Bill, and Raphael Beau
Set and props design by: Stephane Roy
Costumes by: Philippe Guillotel
Lighting by: Martin Labrecque
Makeup by: Eleni Uranis
Chih-Min Tuan - Photo: D-CORD <Keiju Takenaka> Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2018 Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil are back in town at probably the most important time ever. If there was ever a time people needed some cheering up and a nudge to their own imagination, it would be now. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is all about celebrating our own imagination and how to make magic happen in our own lives.

I will begin with the story, although I do use that term loosely. The press kit is full of backstory and metaphors which I don't think realise on stage but hey, this is circus. It doesn't need a strong narrative. It needs a strong imagination and a truckload of talent and ability. Kurios has all of that in spades.

Having said that, I will speak about the show's meta-arc. There is a mad scientist character called The Seeker (Anton Valen) who is engaging in experiments to try and release an invisible world of impossible things. He is aided by the two assistants he created, Kurios Winch and Kurios Plunger.

The Seeker's world is Steampunk delight thanks to the glorious talents of Roy (set and props designer) and the clever creations by costume designer Guillotel. Cirque du Soleil shows are always visually stunning and Kurios is a benchmark example of their production perfection.

The point at which you know the narrative is unimportant is when Microcosmos (Karl L'Ecuyer) arrives with his friends Klara (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya) and Nico (Nico Baixas). I think maybe an experiment goes wrong, and then a train arrives, and then a whole bunch of people emerge on stage to enact 'Chaos Syncro 1900'. It really was quite chaotic and unfortunately it didn't wow me.

I was sitting in front of one of the judges for Dancing With The Stars (Craig Revel Horwood) and I imagined him saying to the dancers that their set up was too long and he wanted to see more dance. This is how I felt. Give me less story and more stun.

This lull was blown away by amazement and visceral fear when two porcelain dolls came to life to perform 'Russian Cradle Doll'. It literally took my breath away as this huge man (Roman Tereshchenko) tossed the diminutive Olena Tereshchenko) tumbling into the sky at full thrust and then catching her only to toss her back up. Now this is what you come to the circus to see!

Professor Calamitous in Jimmy Neutron defined Steampunk as "...colonizing the past so we can dream the future." This is what Kurios is all about - pulling items out of the curio cabinet and imagining a world of possibilities for them to play in.

Around 60% of the performers - according to the press kit - have performed in other Cirque shows and now these acts have been collected into a memorandum of future possibility - their very own curio cabinet. For example the glorious siamese twins aerial straps act (Marat Dashempilov and Vitali Tomanov) which I remember from Varekai. Perhaps this is one of Cirque du Soleil's sustainability initiative to avert the climate crisis...?

There is so much top quality and sensational circus in Kurios. I personally loved the 'Acro Net' performance. I really wished I had a backyard trampoline that big when I was a kid! I thought the costumes were flying fish because there were fishermen everywhere but apparently they were Martians...? Regardless they jumped so high my heart was in my mouth every time, and Guiseppe's (Stephane Bouglione) final high dive and bounce routine nearly gave me several heart attacks!

The show publicity talks a lot about bringing the human forward in the performance and so they have done away with most stage mechanics - ensuring that all props and set items are independent units. Ironically I think that has done the opposite. For example in 'The Invisible Circus' it is the personless puppetry which takes all the limelight, and in the 'Theatre of Hands' it is the camera work which becomes the star.

Puppetry of all types, and mime, are the centrepiece of Kurios. This is such a perfect show for kids because a lot of what they do on stage can be taken home and played at home. All it takes is imagination...

Sadly we didn't get the contortion act last night and it did throw the balance of Act 1 and Act 2 out a little bit. Partly because Act 1 lost a bit of wow power, but also because the giant mechanical hand didn't make an appearance until 'Theatre of Hands' and because of that it really overpowered that act.

Having said that, the mechanicals all had life and agency in the show just as much as the humans did. For example a yappy little gramophone had a stand up stoush with the big dog in the yard (Facundo Gimenez). There is something for cat lovers too when later, Gimenez turns into a very accurate cat during the Cirque's usual tedious, exploitative, annoying, and traditional audience participation moment with a pretty young woman from the audience. A laser will point at her breasts in case you didn't know they were there. It is a sour moment in a very excellent show.

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a wonderful blend of origins (the 'Invisible Circus' reminded me of old flea circuses) with modern day whiz bang glamarama! I reckon the lighting designer (Labrecque) must have been like a kid in a candy shop exploring how light works in this circus world of wonder.

Oh, and did I mention the band? A live band playing a kind of swing/techno scat arrangement across the evening kept me bopping in my seat - to the annoyance of those around me I am sure...

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a lot of fun and perfectly crafted (of course). The performers are the best in the world and the tricks have been rehearsed to perfection with a reliability most circus performers would envy. Parents should take their kids. The family will come away with a whole lot of new fun and games to explore in their own homes of imagination.

4 Stars