Friday, 27 October 2017

Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose - Theatre Review

What: Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose
When: 25 October - 5 November 2017
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: R. Johns
Directed by: Alex Menglet
Performed by: Maria Paula Afanador, Alice Blatt, Carolyn Bock, Milijana Cancar, Jim Daly, Greg Fryer, Huw Jennings, Adam May, Asleen Mauthoor, Meg Spencer, Peter Stratford, and Yvette Turner.
Set by: Peter Mumford
Costume by: Michael Mumford
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound and Stage Management by: Millie Levakis-Lucas

Maria Paula Afandor and Huw Jennings
There was a time, a time long ago, when the world was different. It was a world full of beautiful objects and great despair. Something had to change. Something had to be lost. And so we kept what we couldn't live without and gave up the beautiful object. Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose playing now at La Mama Courthouse marks that moment the deed was done. The Romanovs of Russia were executed and an uglier and yet far more dynamic (if confused) world was released.

Ipatiev House was the last residence of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Ironically this residence had the same name as the Monastery where the Romanov dynasty ascended to the the throne. And thus the circle was complete. It is a shame this wasn't referenced in the play because it would have given the work  a meta frame which it desperately needs.

Instead the play focuses on the final moments of their life, the experience of diminishment and social change the focus rather than any hint of cause or consequence. It is a singular moment in time when what was has become petrified and the only way to move it is to destroy it.

Ipatiev House became designated as 'The House Of Special Purpose' for the Ural branch of the Communist Party. We know now what that purpose was. It must be horrific to know you will die but know not when. The Tsar (Daly)  and his wife Alexandra (Bock) must undoubtedly have known they would not leave this place alive, but what of their four daughters?

Olga (Batt), Tatiana (Spencer), Maria (Turner), and of course Anastasia (Mauthoor) were only young women. For them the dream of a future had to be kept alive.

This is how we come to Tchekov. Johns likens the four daughters to The Three Sisters in Tchekov's world. Rather than harking back to an idealised memory of Moscow, these girls cannot let go of their trinkets of privilege - none of them can. So while they starve and freeze and gather layers of dust and grime over their royal bodies Tatiana insists they rehearse the Tchekov play. Just asTchekov's Olga, Maria, and Irina never return to Moscow, this play will never be performed and the Romanov girls will never return to the world.

Johns does a magnificent job of blending and matching much of the Tchekovian style to her play. Some beautiful character detail between the three older Romanovs to the Tchekov's sisters takes place, with Anastasia matched to the character of Andrei. There was a Romanov son but Johns chooses to leave him out except through references - probably because there was not place in the conceit because of the extra (and most famous) daughter.

The family cook and doctor were incarcerated with them which was a perfect link to Tchekov, and the Soviet guards round out this fan fiction play. With this cast Johns is able to play with Tchekov's style and structure as well as his melancholy - although for me it fell more into a Gorky-esque tone as the script lacks the humour and absurdity Tchekov brought to his play(s).

This is where Menglet hits his stride as director. Menglet brings the authenticity to this play. His cultural aesthetic understands where the humour in the pathos is - a facet of Tchekov so often overlooked in western post-Stanislavski theatre making. He can see the absurd and is not afraid to face it because without it we cannot understand why and how these people can stay alive.

On the flip side though, at times the additions of dance and play he inserted really get in the way and stand out as not connected to the writing. Of course, this is always the tension when a story is told which is not your own. For me the problem is in the play. This Russian tale is not John's story and Menglet is trying to layer in truth. It works enough to make the play beautiful but does not innately meld.

Menglet doesn't do everything right though. There is another play written in England in 2009 of very similar name and exact topic. That play was criticised for having no meta-purpose and Johns' play fairs no better. Menglet tries to layer in issues of equality but there is no content to work with so these forays end up dangling dangerously in the breeze.

Usually I would just say it doesn't work but in his efforts Menglet makes a horrific mistake in casting. Fryer is one of the best actors to ever have graced our stages and he does a magnificent job with the material he is given but at one point I was silently screaming at the play to not do what it was about to do. Cast as the unwaveringly loyal Cook, Fryer is placed in a position where the only non-white actor in the cast is the loyal servant and then to make matters worse he is stripped and covered with white flour! I still have a hollow feeling thinking about it. If this was perspectivised in any way it would be different, but for me this was a horrific thing to do without more care and intention in modern Australia.

Aside from this tragic error, overall it is a fine cast who work well as an ensemble. Daly and Brock match each other well in their despair and insanity. I was strongly reminded of the parents in Pride And Prejudice - the retreating, idealised father and the neurotic mother. The sisters are a beautiful group of "porcelain dolls" trapped between childhood and the realities of being an adult.

In the program Menglet talks about how important it was to have the guards portrayed by two strong women. Again, there is nothing in the script to support or deny a gender commentary  so it is a decision which neither adds nor detracts from the story. I do note that the doctor (Stratford) spends the entire show in a wheelchair so this could have been a great opportunity for a disabled actor...

Whilst I cannot endorse Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose because of the casting, it is stunning as a piece of theatrical beauty. The conceit behind the writing works, Menglet's aesthetic brings beauty and the production elements (especially Mumford's dresses for the girls) support the story completely.

2.5 Stars

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Small Acts Of Love - Cabaret Review

What: Small Acts Of Love
When: 19 - 22 October 2017
Where: The Butterfly Club
Written by: Fiona Scarlett
Directed by: Sarah Vickery
Performed by: Angus Grey and Fiona Scarlett

Fiona Scarlett
I seem to have been following Fiona Scarlett's career quite by accident over the last few years and I have to say it has been a pleasure every step of the way. Beginning in 2015 with impressive vocals in Insomnia at La Mama, our paths crossed several times at The Owl and Cat Theatre where I was blown away by her acting. In Small Acts Of Love I got to see her combine drama and song in this wonderfully depressing cabaret about love shortening our life expectancy.

With the fey elegance of Leslie Caron, the presence and power of Shirley MacLaine, and the mesmeric vocals of Edith Piaf when Scarlett told us love kills I couldn't wait for the tale to unfold. Starting the show ensconced on a throne, ukulele in hand, and crooning 'Burning Ring Of Fire' it was anyone's guess where the show was heading. Scarlett cleared it up quickly though with the simple statement "Love kills".

Learning from the experiences of historical greats such as Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet Scarlett concisely makes her argument. She also laments her incorrigible habit of ending romances amicably which is great for her life expectancy but not much help to a method actor.

Never fear though, because Scarlett has a plan. In the absence of any significant enough real painful breakups, Scarlett has decided to use the world of song to journey through a variety of pain and unrequited love in the hope she can shortcut her way to truth in acting. Accompanied by Angus Grey on the piano - repetiteur extraordinaire and very funny mime as well - Scarlett puts down the uke and everything starts to look very cabaret predictable. Sometimes, though, the cabaret form can blow you away. These times are when the artist truly has all the skills to bring the audience with her.

Scarlett has created a range of characters and one of my favourites is her French amore. Donning a beret and splayed across a bentwood chair she launches into 'Jezebel' - in French!!! The whole performance left me speechless and in no doubt about the awesome abilities of this Melbourne performer.

Switching between French and English a few times Scarlett explores the devastations, betrayals, frustrations, and humour of the trials and tribulations encountered when love comes to its end. I constantly found myself torn between closing my eyes and listening to the song and watching Scarlett perform. I didn't want to miss any of the experience!

Riffing off the concept of the Eternity Snake towards the end Scarlett turns down the lights, and bares her soul drawing tears from the audience with her words and with her song. Small Acts Of Love is a wonderful carpet ride which laughs at painful truths and shows us we are not alone. We are all part of a never ending line of people who have loved and lost...and died...

4.5 Stars

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Melbourne Monologues - Theatre Review

What: The Melbourne Monologues
When: 17 - 22 October 2017
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Louise Baxter, Katie Lee, Anita Sanders, Bruce Shearer, Adele Shelly and Carmen Saarelaht
Directed by Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Alec Gilbert, Cosima Gilbert, Celia Handscombe, Ruth Katerelos, Jack McGorlick, and Karissa Taylor
Lighting by: Adelaide Harney
Stage Management by: Mazz Ryan

Karissa Taylor in 'The Bystander is the Gatekeeper' - photo by John Edwards
Melbourne Writers Theatre(MWT) was the founding company at La Mama Courthouse and it is great to see both the company and its relationship with the venue live on with their annual season of The Melbourne Monologues. Presenting six monologues written by local artists, this season follows their short play season Six Degrees In Melbourne.

MWT is committed to supporting and developing Melbourne writers and whilst they rarely fully produce plays, public presentations of these kinds are essential building blocks in the craft of storytelling. Taking advantage of this opportunity in 2017 are six exciting writers with varying styles and a range of intriguing explorations.

Kicking of the night was Katie Lee's 'To Understand' performed by Ruth Katerelos. 'To Understand' sees Katerelos trying to come to terms with death a mere 48 days after the loss. Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows that 48 days is merely the beginning. This monologue is intriguing because most writers either look at the issue from the immediate perspective or with a greater distance of time. What Lee presents in this monologue is the anguish as meaning is sought where there is no meaning. Understanding is sought where none will be coming. The quote of the night for me comes from this work: "Hope exists when you are trapped." Katerelos was suitably somber but to give the piece more life she needs to find the restlessness and discomfort in the grief processing.

Stage stalwart Alec Gilbert was next with Carmen Saarelaht's 'No Feet'. This is a dangerous monologue and only an actor with the incredible depth, range, and understanding of Gilbert could deliver it and tread respectfully over the minefields inherent in the work. Trying to explain and contextualise body dismorphia, Saarelaht dares to consider it along with transgender issues. It is through Gilbert's ability to find the truth of the pain and then let the audience in to understand that this monologue reaches the realms of enlightenment.

The MWT seasons have been a bit of a Gilbert Fest this year, but this only means good things for audiences. Hot off the heels of a great performance in Six Degrees In Melbourne Cosima Gilbert is back to bring us Adele Shelley's 'Girls' School Delight's'. At only 14 years of age herself, Gilbert was a shoe in to play A, B, C, and D in this high school romp. Exploring the personalities of 4 teenage girls in the class room this monologue is hilarious if somewhat cliché. The teenage girl as a clown is prominent in our society as we saw in How To Kill The Queen of Pop. I was disappointed to not see more depth to the portrayal and Gilbert needs to find more definition between B and D, but the piece is a phenomenal achievement and the audience showed their appreciation.

In stark contract we see saw Jack McGorlick portray a young apprentice in Bruce Shearer's 'Garry' delivered with great earnestness and respect. Ironically, I felt McGorlick needed to explore the character's paranoia more to bring out comic elements.

The next monologue was a piece I admit I just didn't understand. Anita Sander's 'The Bystander is the Gatekeeper' was completely over my head, set as it was in the world of computer programing and hacking. A morality tale about standing aside and not speaking out and wonderfully performed by Karissa Taylor, I just don't know enough about coding to understand the work.

Ending the night was 'Fairy Dust' by Louise Baxter. Performed with great delicacy by Celia Handscombe this beautiful monologue was a perfect ending to an enchanted evening - complete with a final spray of flutter!

The Melbourne Monologues was a wonderful evening. What a monologue gives us over a full play is the understanding that life is all perspective. Nothing exemplifies this more than 'No Feet'.

3 Stars

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Rhythmic Kaleidoscope - Dance Review

What: Rhythmic Kaleidoscope
When: 6 October 2017
Where: Irving Hall

Imogen Moore and Joe Meldrum
This year is the 6th year for the Australian Tap Dance Festival (ATDF) and Melbourne has been immersed in a week of tap dancing and shoe shuffling workshops and residencies. All of the energy and achievements were highlighted this weekend at their gala event Rhythmic Kaleidoscope.

ATDF is the only festival of it's kind in Australasian so our most successful national and international dancers eagerly take up the opportunity to undertake residencies and run workshops under its umbrella. Local dancers get to indulge in experiences which broaden their skills and expand their understanding of the art form.

The great thing about tap dance is its incredible democracy. It is not a dance form which suffers gender definition. You do not have to be super slim, super supple, or super strong. It lives outside the strict pedagogies of most other dance forms - although it requires just as much rigour and technique! It is also a form which can be danced at 6 years of age as well as 60. And, as we saw in Rhythmic Kaleidoscope, it is a dance form which is inclusive and can mutate with times.

After all, what is tap? It is using the body (mostly the feet) to create aural percussion. Tap dance is about sound and rhythm foremost so it takes a keen ear as well as amazing muscle control and isolation.

Because Rhythmic Kaleidoscope was the festival showcase, the overall skill and talents of the performers was a bit patchy as workshop participants demonstrated skills they had been working on over the week, but when the visiting artists did their solo pieces it became clear that we were seeing some of the world's best on this tiny stage in Armadale.

The evening was cleverly curated with the first act focussing on the tradition and applications of tap in film and music videos, such as 'A Fine Romance' and 'Smooth Criminal'.  The second part of the evening - the most powerful section - was about where the artform is going and hints at the possibilities yet to be foreseen.

Shane Preston kicked off the soloists and he showed us the suave art of the Gene Kelly's days. It was a lovely laconic tilt to the greats of the golden days of Hollywood. Darren Disney was one of the original 'Tap Dogs' but as he danced it was actually 'Lord Of The Dance' which came to mind for me. That is perhaps not as odd as it sounds as Dein Perry and Michael Flatley were contemporaries.

Thomas Egan is a contemporary 'Tap Dog' and he totally blew my mind with his ability to control the tempo of his tapping. Speeding up and slowing down with perfect rhythm you could see he was listening to what he was creating as much as he was feeling and dancing it.

The second act was a celebration of improvisation and all the ways tap dance can be used to create art and we had some of the world's greatest tap artists here to demonstrate. Thomas Waddleton calls himself "music maker, tap dancer, and story teller" and tonight he showed us what he means. Coming out on stage with a banjo, he took a seat and sang an improvised song about confessions before getting up and exploring the rhythms and sounds he could make with his feet. Echo had been set on the tap mics and it was as if Waddleton was live sampling his tap and building rhythm upon rhythm.

Nathaniel Hancock and Ritchie Miller got the juices flowing with a exhilarating duet. Ah, those 'Tap Dogs'!

There is no denying, though, the performer of the evening was the exquisite and transcendent Roxane Butterfly. Her tapping is pure art. Opening with a contemporary performance including AV montage Butterfly showed us that tap dance can be slap dance if you take off your shoes and it is just as amazing and a holds a fascinating set of harmonics and resonances - not dissimilar to playing a hand drum. She then dances a more traditional and graceful duet with Ruben James on piano before heading into a durational duel with Newton Peres on the slap board.

Tap Dance has a lot in common with Hip Hop in that it is inclusive and it's strong jazz links give it the ability to be completely individual whilst also being part of a communal whole. In fact, the hybrid tap/hip hop 'Hit 'Em High' choreographed by Brianna Taylor showed just how modern tap dance is.

Experiencing tap dance is a unique experience because you feel the rhythms created by the dancer and travel a physical journey with them. If you think 'Anything Goes' is the height of the art form just wait until you see everything else it can be under the exploration of great artists such as Egan and Butterfly!

2.5 Stars

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Echo - Theatre Review

What: Echo
When: 27 September - 1 October 2017
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Amber Hart and Christie Rohr
Lighting by: Julian Adams

Christie Rohr
The newest entrant in the conversation of being female in Australia at the moment is Echo, playing at La Mama Courthouse. A show hovering somewhere between testimonial and social cliche it is the rawness of knowing these experiences are real for Christie Rohr and Amber Hart which lifts it out of the banal.

These two women have been friends for years. Both have a long and diverse performance making background spanning decades (although they really don't look that old!). They have the rather unusual bond of both experienced unplanned pregnancy and both deciding to keep the child.

Hart starts us off, talking about the experience of choice. To have or not to have, that is the question. None of the conundrums are new. Ever since free love and contraception became the norm women have been struggling with these questions and coming to a range of diverse conclusions. Whilst Hart adds nothing new to the conversation it is important for us all to understand that nothing has been resolved and every time pregnancy occurs, these questions must be struggled through. It never gets easier and it never can get easier.

Rohr echoes Hart's dilemma but her story goes much, much deeper and brings up the issue of abuse. What happens when the birthing question is influenced and manipulated by an abuser?

Rohr is intensely honest to the point of extreme pain for her and the audience. She does not shy away from her culpability but she also stands strong in the belief she has done the best she can.

Again, this story is far too common. In Rohr's tale though, we can make change. We can act to change circumstances. We can work harder to recognise abuse and refuse to tolerate it. We can remove the mythology young women are raised with which says we must have a man no matter what and any many who will stick around is better than no man at all.

Everything we know about social health proves this wrong and it is time we started teaching young girls and women of their intrinsic worth so that men cannot get away with this behaviour and women won't join in the game as if it was normal and okay. Let's break the generational cycle and let the children born of these circumstances know there is a different choice.

The ideas in Echo are strong and the staging ticks a lot of acceptable boxes. Adam's lighting works well and lifts some moments out of the ordinary although there were some scenes when actors were completely unlit which confused me.  Av is used especially effectively and anyone who has taken out an intervention order will fee the impact of what Rohr does with this.

The biggest problem with this show is pace. What in Rohr's performance seems restrained and measured comes across like a 45 vinyl single playing at 33 & 1/3 in Hart's scenes.

Echo is not a bad night of theatre but it does lack dynamics and needs more development on it's meta-statement. I don't know if this particular play has much more forward momentum but I will be interested to see what this pair come up with next.

2 Stars