Thursday 13 April 2017

High Achievers - Comedy Review

What: High Achievers
When: 10 - 22 April 2017
Where: Tasma Terrace
Written by: Tim Smith and Michael Symes
Directed by: Sam Russo
Performed by: Chelsea Zeller

Chelsea Zeller
High Achievers is a comedy sketch routine written by the enduring comedy writing team Tim Smith and Micheal Symes (best known for the iconic TV sketch show The Comedy Company). Part of this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it is being performed by Chelsea Zeller at Tasma Terrace (a new MICF venue behind Parliament House).

Zeller has teamed up with Russo (director) to bring us a delightful hour of hilarious and well crafted characters which we can all recognise and love and thank the powers that be we are not them. It is very much a short-hand version of Joanna Murray-Smith's Bombshells although Smith and Symes have not restricted the gender of the characters in High Achievers.

Apart from the overall structure of a series of character monologues, this performance reminded me of Bombshells because the depth and detail of Zeller's charicatures is on a par with the premier performance of that play by Caroline O'Connor (for whom it was written). I know this is high praise but I feel Zeller is worthy and as a performer still in the early stages of her career, I suspect Zeller is someone to watch as her career burgeons.

The premise of High Achievers is that of a motivational change transformation seminar - the kind all professionals have come to know and loath. Lynne Purcell takes us through the three steps to manage change - the most important one being 'move on'. She did lose some credibility at the point where Gordon's inability to stack the knives in the dishwasher properly forced a hasty retreat off stage.

Four astounding high achievers came and spoke to the secrets of their success. Poppy epitomised a positive attitude to the point of inducing homicidal tendencies in the audience as she constantly asserted the refrain 'I was lucky though...'. After being chased by bears, swarms of bees and packs of wolves her 'luck' just keeps on going. Any more luck in her life and she will be dead soon.

Gerry G then came on stage to get down with his daaaawgs. After the hit song 'We're Full Mate, You Two Girls Go On In' the G made it big and on this occasion he gave a surprise performance of his new single 'I Would Like Icecream'. Penelope tells us about her life's work studying the activity patterns of the sloth, and The Fish talks about how he got to meet the Queen.

High Achievers will have you hooting and howling with laughter, all the time thinking about how much you don't want success on their terms. The show is expertly performed and it is a style of character based sketch comedy we don't see much of any more. I didn't realise how much I missed it until I saw it again. Great writing, good direction, superb acting - what more could you want? Don't miss it!

5 Stars

Sunday 2 April 2017

Puppetry Of The Penis - Comedy Review

What: Puppetry Of The Penis
When: 2 - 9 April 2017
Where: The Palms at Crown
Created by: Simon Morley and David Friend
Performed by: Rich Binning and Barry Brisco

Rich Binning, The Hamburger, and Barry Brisco
If you haven't heard of the hit comedy show Puppetry of the Penis by now you haven't been living on planet Earth. Created for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival back in 1998, this show has grown exponentially over the years and is now a permanent Vegas show. For one week only Binning and Brisco perform it for us at The Palms at Crown.

I confess that I am one of the few people in the world who had not seen the show yet, so I was...excited(?)...to get the opportunity to experience this unique form of puppetry which could only be invented by the Australian ocker. It was a bit strange to hear the American accents of this new generation of puppeteers but given the scope and scale of the Penis machine it is not surprising.

Brisco tells us "There are two rules for Puppetry of the Penis: You want to keep it from being sexual and you want to keep it from being gross." Binning and Brisco manage that balance well and in between belly-laughs I couldn't stop myself thinking 'how can that possibly not be painful?' My plus one assured me it wasn't but I am still not sure I believe him.

The show begins with a trick we have seen many times before - the Woman. Not so funny because it has been done so often. Brisco follows this up almost immediately with the Vagina and it is at this moment I exploded into my first round of riotous laughter - which almost brought on an asthma attack! It was so unexpected and so graphically accurate - and then Brisco proceeded to demonstrate a game we all like to play...

Having gotten the gender genetalia issue out of the way the puppetry moved onto more abstract techniques. The traditional repertoire including the Baby Bird, the Hamburger (shown above), and the Loch Ness Monster featured along with a bunch of new tricks.

One of the exciting elements of the new tricks is the use of props to complete the picture. Everyone who knows me is aware of my adoration of science fiction so ET was a big favourite although it was Yoda which really blew me away. I also had a lot of fun watching the recreation of the Myley Cyrus 'Wrecking Ball' video. The Trump puppet was also breathtakingly accurate.

The show runs for an hour with a fluffer (I had never heard that term before...) Nikki Britton getting us ready prior to the men coming out. Now that is a job opportunity I had never considered...This is about the right length for this show. Towards the end it felt like there was some repetition in the tricks and Brisco's lively patter also seemed to be running down.

It is a fun show for hen's nights and perhaps some younger lads could learn a trick or two... although they have probably already worked some of it out for themselves. There is an instruction book for sale if you want to develop puppetry skills for yourself or your partner. Binning and Brisco do offer to provide some onstage tutorials for any intrepid men in the audience but on the night I went there were, sadly, no takers.

I did find myself thinking that men spend far to much time with that particular appendage but it is really just a night of good, clean, and unique humour. It is a fun accompaniment to a martini or two and you may need a cigarette at the end...

3.5 Stars

Saturday 1 April 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

THE ROOF IS CAVING IN: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In WHERE: La Mama Courthouse WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024 WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen ...