Friday, 31 March 2017

Summerfolk - Theatre Review

What: Summerfolk
When: 23 - 26 March
Where: Theatre Works
Written by: Maxim Gorky
Directed by: Robert Johnson
Performed by: Elisa Armstrong, Kerrie-Anne Baker, Amy Bradney-George, James Christensen, Nick Clark, Alisha Eddy, Charlotte Fox, Tom Heath, Luke Lennox, David Meadows, Sarah Nicolazzo, Seton Pollock, Nicholas Rijs, Alex Rouse, and Yuchen Wang.
Set by: James Lew
Costumes by: Carletta Childs
Sound by: Liam Bellman-Sharpe

David Meadows, Yuchen Wang, Seton Pollock, Alex Rouse, Nicholas Rijs, Alisha Eddy, James Christensen, Elisa Armstrong, and Sarah Nicolazzo
Summerfolk is the latest production from the nascent company Burning House Theatre and comes off the back of their successful 2016 production The Tragedy of Coriolanus. Both of these plays have been presented at Theatre Works in St Kilda whilst founding member and director Johnson undertakes his Masters degree in directing at VCA.

The play itself was written by Maxim Gorky in 1904 and is a typical social realist play of that era consisting of a huge cast (over 15 characters) and a meandering story line. Gorky was a part of the Moscow Theatre group which consisted of Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov and, in fact, Summerfolk is said to loosely based on Chekhov's life.

Gorky wrote novels as well as plays. His earlier (and perhaps most famous) play is The Lower Depths written in 1901. The Lower Depths is a bleak work which investigates the brutality, odd comradeship, and never ending changelessness of a strata of society with little to no agency in the world - the morbidly poor.

Summerfolk on the other hand, is a play which reflects Gorky's growing sense of optimism, activism, and wish for change. The play looks at the rise of a new social strata - the intelligentsia who were the children of the conscious working class. From humble beginnings, this emerging class were educated into a life of comfort and ease and in the play Summerfolk Gorky is calling to them to bring their forebears with them into a better life. He is saying that with opportunity comes responsibility to their families and their society. Their gifts are not to be squandered and dissipated, but to be honoured and expanded upon. He is asking for a social conscience in a world of idleness and waste.

In the program notes Johnson says "...as we move toward a new Cold War...and the growing divide between the rich and the poor, it feels we are not so removed from Maxim Gorky's world." I agree, especially with all of the concern surrounding the priorities of Gen Y and the Millennials.

Unfortunately, none of these concerns are reflected in Johnson's direction. Focusing on the "summer langour and romance" Johnson fails to bring any sense of urgency or concern to this production at all.

What he does do well is manage space on the stage. With 15 cast members the stage could become a messy place indeed. It is possible to argue that Summerfolk is supposed to be messy - one of Meadow's characters constantly talks about the mess they leave behind. Leaving that aside however, Johnson creates a variety of tableaux which are interesting and cover the entire stage space well.

Having said that, he has prioritised this over the world of the play and it is not an exaggeration to say that every entrance and exit of every character was line dependent. Each actor would enter stage to say their lines and then leave again once they had said their piece. This made for an incredibly tedious and frustrating evening with certain somnolent characteristics.

Nothing in the design elements worked to make any statements either. To some extent, hearing this on radio would have been a very similar experience.

The actors generally did well but because of a lack of directorial intention they were all just acting. Gorky's work is social realism but half the cast sat in melancholic Russian acting and the other half were playing in modern physical Shakespearean style. I guess if I had to choose I preferred the Shakespearean style because even though none of the performances demonstrated any real connection or development, at least the physicality provided a point of energy.

There were some stand out performances. Heath played a memorable Vass, and Eddy and Baker were a wonderful mother and daughter combination. Bradney-George also had a certain hypnotic element to her understated naturalism.

Unfortunately they were counterbalanced by Fox (Vavara) who demonstrated no vivacity and Wang (Suslov) who seemed to miss the bit in the script where he was called a drunkard by his wife Yulia (played by Nicolazzo). Nicolazzo gave a valiant performance but it was overshadowed by the lack of fabric in her costumes.

I admire Johnson for the ambition of this project. Summerfolk is a play of scope and scale which makes it almost impossible to stage these days. There is a reason for that though, which is about lack of resources. Not just money, but also time - time to rehearse, time to discover and develop themes, time to explore connections and relationships.

I guess in the end I am saying this project, whilst pretty and ambitious, had no heart or soul. The only glimpses of why we were watching it came in the didactic words of Gorky towards the end. In a world which rejects didactic theatre this is great example of why it is important for playwrights to make their statements clearly and boldly rather than trusting their work to fate.

2 Stars

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Rogue Romantic - Cabaret Review

What: Rogue Romantic
When: 29 March - 2 April
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Anya Anastasia
Directed by: Wes Snelling
Musical Direction by: Lucien McGuiness

Anya Anastasia
Rogue Romantic is Anastasia's newest solo cabaret performance following such hits as Metawhore! and Torte E Mort. A witty and rapier sharp lyricist, talented musician, and sexy-as-hell cabaret artist her shows are funny and pointed as she is a veritable prodigy of tease.

I first came across Anastasia in Miss Everheart presents: Early Burly and at the time I commented on how bawdy and clever her acts were, teasing the mind unmercifully. This hasn't changed.

Anastasia begins the night flopped on the piano before drearily falling into a melody of unrequited love. She talks of losing her marbles and how 'they are becoming a trip hazard'. After you stop laughing at the unexpected turn of the lyric it is clear this will be a night of the delightfully unexpected housed in a package which looks disturbingly familiar.

The show officially kicks off in the next number and as the songs weave across the evening we hear the tale of a sad and lonely women (perhaps a little unhinged?) on a desperate search for love. Looking for her perfect man, she stumbles from her 'one true love for the moment' to the next with the blink of an eye and a turn of her head.

Anastasia's musical style is still as dynamic and hysterical as it ever was. I did feel that she fell into her 'shrill' mode a little too often - especially in the first half of the show - but as the story moved on her vocal chords relaxed and we got to experience the warmth and invitation of the lower tones much more. The night became very sultry indeed!

As a cabaret artist Anastasia has evolved and watching Rogue Romantic I couldn't help but feel the essence of the great doyenne of Melbourne burlesque, Moira Finucane, in the air. Don't get me wrong. Anastasia is not a bland copy of Finucane. She is a unique artist who embodies the confidence and ease in herself and her work which is a hallmark of Finucane's performances.

Swinging wildly from torch songs to calypso Anastasia moves in and out of love dragging many of the audience members on stage with her. The finale in the key of G is not to be missed!

Dressed in a sexy sequinned red dress split up to the (... groin?), with legs that never end and seem to have a life of their own, and a slightly crazed look in her eyes which in turn terrify and invite, Anastasia brings a night of fun and hilarity. This time she has a band too!

I admit this show of hers is not as original as the other work I have seen, but it is just as funny and even more full of surprises because it seems so familiar. The Melba Spiegeltent is made for this kind of intimate cabaret and Anastasia brings it to life in all its glory and potential.

4 Stars

Miss Everheart Presents: Early Burly - Cabaret Review

What: Miss Everheart Presents:  Early Burly
When: 27 February
Where: The Butterfly Club
Performed by:  Ainslee Adams, Anya Anastasia, Adelaide Everheart, Caterina Vitt

Image courtesy of Jackson Auditore

Burlesque is a word that has evolved in meaning and intention over the centuries.  Originally a term used to designate literature, drama, or music created for the purpose of causing laughter through caricature, in modern times the most common understanding is that of variety shows involving strip tease.  Yes, we can blame the Americans for that.

In modern times, even the idea of it being for laughter is not part of the common parlance – with most lay people, when they talk of burlesque, focussing on sexualised performance a la men’s clubs, The Pussycat Dolls, and pretty much any modern female pop music video.  Again, let’s blame the Americans...

Early Burly is a burlesque show which covers all the definitions you might have come across for that genre.  Our energetic, and slightly awkward, mistress of ceremonies – Miss Everheart herself – kicks of the show with a sexy rendition of ‘Come Into The Jungle’ before assuming her MC duties.  Everheart has a musical theatre background and her voice is strong and seductive.

As she comes on stage, Everheart is dressed in an elegant yet masculine waistcoated ensemble which is a sexy foil to her hourglass figure, pincurled hair and sky high stilletoes.  Everheart takes the time to explain the roles and expectations of the audience and issue a warning that if you don’t look like you are having a good time you may just become the victim of some audience participation.

Everheart’s strength as an MC is her persona as a nervous ingĂ©nue and her singing voice which is stunning.  She gets away with telling really bad ‘dad’ jokes whilst performing her duties as the ‘stage kitty’ and collecting all the costume pieces after each act.

The first act introduced is Caterina Vitt.  Vitt is an amazing dancer and demonstrates a flexibility that excites men no matter what their age.  Vitt’s act is probably the most modern interpretation of burlesque – it is sexy and grinding and every move is designed to draw your eyes to her lady parts. 

Adams comes on next.  Adams epitomises the legend of burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee.  We have all seen the musical or watched the film about Gypsy’s story.  Adams exemplifies that sexy, teasing grace and elegance that Gypsy was known for.  Her first costume is a rich, green velvet, with a tulle mermaid base, and a long zip from the top of her left thigh to the top.  On her exposed thigh there is a magnificent tattoo of a woman, as as she continues to disrobe, we discover more and more jaw dropping gorgeous skin art.

The final performer, Anya Anastasia, wowed us all with her entrance in a magnificent Marie Antoinette ensemble, complete with wig, jewels and gloves.  Anastasia surprises us all by sitting at the piano, but what comes next is just glorious.

Anastasia embodies the original meaning of burlesque.  She sings hilarious and bawdy and clever songs, teasing our minds rather than our libidos – although she does do a little bit of that at one point!  Anastasia’s first song is about her character, and she discusses the benefits of removing one’s head.  My favourite line was about having one’s head chopped off is a great way to lose a couple of kilos.

For her second number ‘I don’t do Burlesque’ Anastasia plays with us unmercifully as she finds ways to remove items whilst constantly telling us that she won’t.  Apparently it is hard to play the piano so the gloves have to come off, and my, isn’t it hot in here now?

There was a short interval so that everyone could refresh their drinks and costume changes took place.  Even Everheart surprised us by coming out in a flashy yellow gown reminiscent of ballroom dance. 

My biggest disappointment was that the second half had very little to distinguish it from the first half except the change of costumes.  There was not much variety in the dances performed by Vitt or Adams and they all performed in the same order so it became predictable.

The one exception to that was Anastasia who came on to stage in a surprisingly sexy skeleton unitard.  Lit with UV lights, the bones were eerie as she sung about visibility.

Miss Everheart presents is a fun and clever show, generally speaking and the performers have very clear definitions within their characters and style.  Needless to say, the costumes are all magnificent.

I also want to give a quick plug to Anastasia’s upcoming show, Metawhore! which is playing at La Mama from next week.  Go along and see it.  She is an amazing performer with a biting and clever wit.

4 stars

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

C'est La Vie - Theatre Review

What: C'est La Vie
When: 13 - 17 March 2017
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Written by: Stephanie Silver
Directed by: Thomas Ian Doyle
Performed by: Andy Aisbett, Carolyn Dawes, Jakob Duniec, Gabrielle Savrone, Katie Ann Stirk, and Indiana Tali

Gabrielle Savrone and Katie Ann Stirk
C'est La Vie (or Such Is Life) is the new world premier which has opened this week at The Owl and Cat Theatre in Richmond. It is a very short season, closing on Friday, so don't wait because if you blink you will miss it and that would be a great shame. The team have put in a massive effort to get this show up in only two weeks (because of some very unfortunate events) and to be honest, it is as good - if not better - than many shows which have twice as long and five times the resources.

C'est La Vie, written by Silver, is a play which weaves between six people who become intertangled in each others lives. There is some commentary on a mythical dissolution of Medicare and it's ramifications but really that topic is irrelevant to the real story being told and is almost an irritating political affect rather than a morality position.

Essentially this play is about human interaction and human interconnection. A play presented in two acts, the first act introduces the characters and demonstrates a series of relationships where physical closeness and sex is essentially a mask for emotional connection. Not necessarily an original concept but very keenly observed and cleverly written. Silver weaves between time and space with the same intricacy as the characters weave their relationships.

There is a longing which sits underneath the idea of 'such is life' and these six characters, intricately portrayed by the actors, demonstrate this longing as they flitter through the story montage. Whilst Silver does not waste time setting the scene or explaining her characters, her writing is incredibly evocative. Susie's (Tali) lines in particular sprang out at me as she comments that 'love is your guts ripped out'. Maxine (Savrone) also talks about life being an act of 'self-hurt in the pursuit of love'.

As I mentioned earlier, this play jumps around time lines and locations like nothing I have seen before and with some of the shortest scenes I have seen written. I spent the night being completely amazed that I was never lost or confused about when or where we were and all the credit for this has to go to Doyle (Director).

Doyle understands the need to trust the playwright in this complicated spectacle so he doesn't try to do too much, but also does just enough to help us through. His transitions are brilliant with nary a blackout to be seen! Doyle has cleverly used lighting and cast ghosting to help the audience and help the actors wend our way through this adventure. Perhaps my one comment is that by the second act I was looking for a slight change of pace but in the end I decided I didn't need it because Doyle has an arsenal of performance making techniques which kept things alive and intriguing.

C'est La Vie is a play which offers no magic cures or easy answers. Perhaps the best advice it can offer is when Maxine talks about love being the glue which holds relationships together as they start to shatter. Once you fall into a real closeness - or love - in the fairytales everyone lives happily ever after. In the real world things keep going and wheels fall off carts, and logs fall across the road, but such is life...

The performances are all very strong and I would love to see this play remounted. I think if the cast were given more time there are a million more layers to these characters and stories which could delight us even more. Regardless C'est La Vie is a great show with a polish and sophistication which is indicative of the professionalism and talent The Owl and Cat team have developed over the last couple of years.

4 Stars