Saturday 27 October 2018

Heathers: The Musical - Musical Review

What: Heathers - The Musical
When: 26 October - 3 November 2018
Where: St Martin's Theatre
Written by: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe
Direction and lighting by: Jack Wilkinson
Musical direction by: Peter Verhagen
Performed by: Elyse Batson, Matthew Bertram, Tess Branchflower, Antoinette Davis, Matt Di Nardo, Morgan Dooley-Axup, Houston Dunlevy, Edu Herrera, Alexandra Knight, Cody Leggett, Peter Levey, Grace Maddern, Jayla McLennan, Timothy Ian McMullin, Jack Michel, Amy Nguyen, Alexander Palamara, Madeline Pratt, Dean Robinson, Oliver Ryan, Edward Seiffert, Alison Shuttleworth, Sean Smyth, and Tess Walsh
Choreography by: Grace Maddern
Alexandra Knight, Jayla McLennan (keys), Grace Maddern and Morgan Dooley-Axup - photo by Matthew Howat
It's all about everything Heathers this spring. The cult 1988 movie never gets old, the spinoff TV series is all the rage right now, and Heathers: The Musical is popping up on stages around Melbourne. Right now you can see it playing at St Martin's Theatre in South Yarra.

This production of Heathers: The Musical is the latest offering by GJ Productions. You may recall my January review of their version of Twelfth Night which I really enjoyed for it's boldness of interpretation. Heathers is less successful for the most part because it lacks exactly that element.

Wilkinson directed both productions but whereas in Twelfth Night he committed to a Commedia del'Arte idea, there is no discernable point of view he has brought to Heathers: The Musical. I should mention there is great boldness in the technical elements and the scope of the production. At it's most overwhelming this production has 24 performers on the Irene Mitchell stage. There would have been 25 people but there was no room for the percussionist (Di Nardo) so he was relegated to backstage. Normally the Irene Mitchell feels like quite a large playing space but this production makes it feel like The Butterfly Club... almost.

Obviously this means there is not enough room for any big dance routines. Maddern is listed as the choreographer but to be honest it feels more like traffic management than dance. Having said that, nobody tripped over anyone else and some interesting shapes and groupings were created and that is definitely an achievement in this circumstance.

Heathers: The Musical is a spin-off of the 1988 movie starring Winona Ryder (Veronica) and Christian Slater (JD). Whilst the movie was a cutting and incisive black comedy commenting on the rash of teenage suicides and why it was happening, the musical is much tamer in philosophy although perhaps also much more direct about interpersonal struggles.

One of the key quotes in the movie is "Society accepts any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself". Screen writer Daniel Walters is talking about the pain teenagers inflict on themselves and others. It was the 80s and the boredom and ennui enveloping the youth in a world which had perfected consumerism is reflected beautifully when Walters wrote "teenagers are cruel and parents are unresponsive." Nothing anyone does seems to get the attention of the parents and so the kids just keep upping the stakes, desperate for someone to call a halt. In the end it takes one of there own to bring an end to the madness, but in an act of naive prophesy Veronica points out early in the film "Somebody else is just going to take her place."

It is not for nothing JD quotes Baudelaire. The premise of the movie Heathers has strong links to the poet's seminal work Les Fleur Du Mal. In this book he is critical of the new (1857), orderly streets of Paris and the rise of industrialism bringing a bourgeois cleanliness and order which was alienating to the ragamuffins and ne'erdowells of the old order. Nothing represents this more outstandingly in Heathers than the game of croquet which is the centrepiece, and the constant references to pate.

Heathers: The Musical focuses more on high school, putting the emphasis more squarely on the quote "...not because society didn't care but because school is society." As such, the story gets smaller, but what O'Keefe and Murphy have done is to make some of the smaller moments pack a much harder punch. Scenes such as the date rapes, bullying, peer pressure, and the father's accepting their sons' homosexuality stand out so much more than in the movie.

In the GJ Productions version, there has been a strong commitment to reproducing the 80's aesthetic in the costumes. The rest of the production elements have been kept to the bare minimum which is probably a good choice given the lack of space. I do wish Wilkinson and Verhagen had taken this approach with casting and musical arrangement. At least 5 actors did not need to be there and have no significant contribution to the show except as chorus, and whilst I love the ambition of Verhagen's musical ensemble I can't help but wonder why Tinder Tales can do what they did with 3 musicians and three instruments, but Verhagen needs 8 musicians and at least 11 (possibly more instruments)?

On the positive side, I was astounded at the technical ambition. This is a production where all 16 of the cast had radio mics, the band were reinforced, there is foldback, and conductor cam! If only someone had remembered to turn on the FOH sound...

Look, I usually don't mention production elements when nobody is credited for them but in this case I have a small rant. As I just mentioned, this is a complex live sound set up and until now I have never known anyone brave (or silly) enough to attempt this without having a live mix engineer. I say this because even when somebody finally worked out  there was no FOH sound and turned it on, it was clear nobody was monitoring it because we still couldn't hear a lot of the dialogue and some singing (a problem caused partly by the size of the band). In the end it didn't really matter the cast had mics on because nobody was there to listen to make sure they were doing their job. This is an easy fix and I hope GJ Productions learnt their lesson last night and bring someone in to mix the sound for the rest of the season.

This brings me to the point where I have to admit it is hard for me to say much about the production because I couldn't hear much of it over the foldback and the reeds. Davis (Veronica) gave a dynamic and nuanced performance and Maddern (Heather Chandler) was a powerhouse as head bully. She really comes into her own as the ghost. Pratt was also scene stealing at times as Heather Duke. Michel was good as JD but I felt he played the role too slavishly mimicking Slater in the movie. I was also extremely impressed with Knight as Ms Fleming and Batson's Martha was heartbreakingly sweet.

There were some great musical moments including 'The Me Inside of Me' and 'My Dead Gay Son' was an experience of great beauty and pain. 'Blue' was incredibly well done but the actual content was more than my particular palette enjoys. My plus one actually laughed at me when he saw the distaste on my face as the refrain of "swordfight in her mouth" kept being sung over and over again.

This production of Heathers: The Musical is solid if somewhat uninspiring. Sometimes less is more and you can't do a proscenium arch size production on a studio size stage without the whole thing being compromised. Having said that, if you love Heathers (in all it's remediated versions) you will get a kick out of this show.

2.5 Stars

Friday 26 October 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody - Film Review

What: Bohemian Rhapsody
Release date: 1 November 2018
Written by: Andrew McCarten
Directed by: Brian Singer
Featuring: Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Allen Leech, Rami Malek, and Joseph Mazzello
Rami Malek and Gwilym Lee
We have been waiting a long time for Bohemian Rhapsody to be made and released but now the wait is over and on 1 November the people of Australia will get to walk in the footsteps of Freddie Mercury and his travels with the mega group Queen. A rhapsody itself, honoring the life of Mercury (Malek), Bohemian Rhapsody is Queen's homage to the man who pushed them into realms they were willing to explore.

Much of the publicity suggests secret insights into the life and times of Mercury but I admit I didn't feel I discovered much I didn't know. Not being British, I was perhaps not as aware of the racial slurs heaped upon him - he was constantly called a 'Paki' although in fact he is a Parsi - and this undoubtedly was a battle he had to face once his family migrated to England in 1964.

Mercury was 17, foreign and had a massive overbite so he was undoubtedly in for difficulty. He also managed to break into the music scene during the glam rock era which - along with his incredible singing abilities (rumoured to be 4 octaves although only 3 have been proven so far) meant he probably found the one place in the world at the time where someone with all of his incredible uniqueness could thrive and prosper.

Mercury (born Farrokh Busara) also managed to find a family with his band mates in Queen - May (Lee), Talor (Hardy), and Deacon (Mazzello). The magic which was Queen came from a synergy of great musicians who pulled, pushed, fought, and feted each other to bring out their best. Queen, like ABBA, explored not only their music, but how to layer it and manipulate it and cross over genre and defy expectations. It is no coincidence these are two of the biggest groups in rock/pop history nor why the music of both of these groups lives on and will continue to engage and excite into the far distant future.

The movie Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates Mercury's relationship with the band and it is not a surprise given Queen are the producers. It is not a deep delving biopic about Mercury although, as always, he is the bright, shining star we all tend to see. It is a very clever and important look at the life and times of the band as a whole. It is great for us to see how important and talented the other members of the band were, a point which is driven home when, in the film Mercury swallows his pride and the band is reunited just before the historical Live Aid concert in 1985.

Bohemian Rhapsody is something of a love story. It is a band living in a nirvana of success, a garden of Eden of light and life and like all Eden stories there must be the snake of temptation which tears down perfection and brings sin into the world. In Bohemian Rhapsody the snake is Paul Prenter (Leech). Prenter - according to this movie - leads Mercury down into the hedonistic belly of his homosexuality, indulgent lifestyle, drug use and eventually the break up of the band and Mercury's exile even from the "love of his life" Mary Austen (Boynton).

A lot is missed or glossed over in Bohemian Rhapsody. We never find out anything about how he became a musician or his previous experience with bands. We do meet his family and discover their Zoroastrian faith but it is hard to see how their mantra of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" which are reiterated constantly throughout the movie really impacted his life. There is some effort to infer Queen's participation in Live Aid is an act of redemption for Mercury but playing one 20 minute gig for free on the biggest stage the world had (has?) ever known as a band come back event is hardly putting in a huge effort.

The film also makes a huge deal about Mercury's dental deformity, saying it is responsible for his range. Mercury was born with four extra incisors and he believed this was responsible for his singing abilities. Probably an oversimplification, but the architecture of the jaw and mouth definitely affect the tone and timber of the sound so it is not to be discounted.

Having said that, Bohemian Rhapsody could easily be renamed Freddie's Overbite. It appears as if  the director (Singer) and DOP (Newton Thomas Sigel) were obsessed with this unique feature. Firstly, whilst the dental prosthetic used might have been accurate, Malek's mouth and jaw are not evolved to deal with so much tooth matter and so it looks very, very fake to the detriment of his incredible acting and portrayal of Mercury. Secondly, the uptilted camera angles used accentuate this feature all the time. Thirdly there are a ridiculous number of closeups of Malek's mouth which really just serve to show how bad the prosthetic works.

I have watched a lot of video of Mercury since then to see if my impressions of him were somehow whitewashed in my memory, but no they arent. Mercury's jaw and lips were adapted to his unique dentistry (it is amusing that Taylor studied dentistry...) and as such whilst his overbite is prominent, it is not as outrageous and uncomfortable as the film suggests.

The acting is fantastic in Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek is wonderfully complex - both gentle and outrageous as Mercury was known to be. The other amazing performance is Lee as May. You can tell from the movie that May and Mercury were very closely bonded. There really believed they were family. Hardy's performance as Taylor is also wonderfully dynamic.

The movie itself is full of the great milestone classics. It travels from their first big hit 'Killer Queen', through 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to 'Another One Bites The Dust', et al. The Live Aid concert is amazing and I do remember at the time it took a long time for donations to really start rolling in which was a huge disappointment. I didn't realise it was Queen's set which got the ball rolling.

I also remember at that time AIDS was a guaranteed death sentence and people were afraid to be near or touch people with AIDS. It was dubbed the gay disease (which we now know is complete rubbish) and there was a lot of stigma attached. It is not explained in the movie, but Freddie's secret admission to the band would have been huge. I am not convinced their acceptance was quite as romantically perfect as the movie suggests, but it says a lot about the relationship of all of them for them to continue forward as they did.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a beautiful movie. If you love the band and love the music you will enjoy it greatly. It is not the epic biopic the band deserve to have someone make for them, but it is a really good film and after leaving you will want to go home and pull out your own Queen collection and listen to it all again.

4 Stars

Thursday 25 October 2018

Tinder Tales - Musical Review

What: Tinder Tales
When: 24 - 28 October 2018
Where: The Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Mattie Mcleod
Composition and musical direction by: Thomas Bradford
Directed by: Clary Raven
Performed by: Thomas Bradford, Amy Cumming, Paige Easter, Gordon Li, Tom New, Ashlee Noble, Francesca O'Donnell, Edie Testro-Girasole, Callum Warrender, and Anna Wilshire
Choreography by: Kirra Sibel
Design by: Rachel Mclean
Lighting by: Jason Crick
Stage managed by: Kyra Von Steigler
Francesca O'Donnell, Tom New, Ashlee Noble, and Eadie Testro-Girasole
Tinder Tales is an energetic new musical being performed at Chapel Off  Chapel this week. A micro interogation of the online dating world Mcleod, with a lot of help from the musical stylings of Bradford, takes us on a Tinder journey which is perhaps more of a nightmare than it is living the dream.

Tinder is regular comedy fodder in the cabaret scene and there are at least two other musicals about the subject (Tinder! - The Musical and A Tinder Musical) but there is still more than enough laughs in this "love at first swipe" generation to play with the idea some more. The trick is to find a unique hook - or do it better.

Macleod's story follows Abby (Testro-Girasole) in her Tinder search for the "perfect for her" guy. Despite being plagued by Insecurity (O'Donnell) and Doubt (Noble) Abby manages to leave the house and meet up with Evan (New)...and hook up on the first date. After sex Evan admits he's not looking for anything serious and the awkward exit ensues.

One of the hilarities of Tinder is the surveys you can send. There might have been a bit of a connection between Evan and Abby - at least Abby thinks so. Evan casually invites her to a party, and thanks to the help of her two constant companions she drinks too much, kisses the wrong guy and...well... you all know where this is going, don't you? Not even another Tinder survey can save this sinking ship.

The performers are all very high caliber and cover the gamut of musical theatre training in Australia which is impressive (VCA, Monash, Griffith, WAAPA, APO, Federation) as well as a couple finding there way up 'through the traps' as they say. Noble is probably the strongest singer although Easter (Mum) gives her lungs a run for their money! Testro-Girasole is perfect as the lead though. Her voice has a wonderful range and a lyrical quality. It is still developing in strength, but what it lacks in volume at times, it more than makes up for in tone and versatility.

The rest of the cast double as minor characters and voices in Abby's head. Warrender has a wonderful comic persona which revels in playing mutiple supernumerary roles with flare and attitude.  New is also perfectly cast as Evan - sweet but not a pushover.

I really wanted to like Tinder Tales more than I did. Bradford's music is catchy and fun crossing styles similar to the work of Eddie Perfect. The actors were all lively and invested and the three piece band was full of attitude.

My problem was in the writing. Whilst I liked the concept of Insecurity and Doubt, Doubt in particular was mean and crass and incredibly unlikeable (no reflection on Noble!). The constant degradation and insults thrown at Abby from the voices in her head became awful to hear rather than funny. There was more than one time in the show when I heard the audience gasp in shock or moan in disapproval.

The songs generally bypassed most of this flaw and there are some great tunes including 'Love And All Your Wicked Ways', 'Perfect For Me', and 'Survey Song'. Unfortunately there was also 'Dick Is Dick' which was just too far on the wrong side of the crass line.

I enjoyed Sibel's clever and economic choreography in a very tight space, and Riven has done a good job with moving the cast around and keeping the space dynamic. Whichever one of them made the decision to have Warrender trying to force Wilshire to perform oral sex at the end of one of the routines should think seriously about what they are doing though. Not okay at all! - And definitely not funny.

Tinder Tales is only 70 minutes long so despite the flaws it is a good showcase of some serious musical theatre talent bubbling up in melbourne and bodes well for the industry. Mcleod needs to find a way to make her humour less overwhelmed by her pain and cynicism though. We won't laugh if we don't like the characters. It is good to have a moral or a point of view in the work but this may be a case of the right story being told in the wrong art form perhaps.

3 Stars

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Jugg Life - Circus Review

What: Jugg Life
When: 18 - 21 October 2018
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Byron Hutton and Richard Sullivan
Byron Sutton and Richard Sullivan
Jugg Life is a juggling act which has been around since 2014. In 2016 Sullivan left to develop his skills in Europe, but he is back now and the show is totally fabulous. Playing at the Melba Spielgeltent as part of the Sidesault program, Sullivan and Hutton have a show which is witty, vibrant, and both adult and child friendly.

One of the aspects which sets this juggling performance a step above many others is the understanding that juggling is all about rhythm. Embracing this element Jugg Life incorporates the tom and the snare to set the marching orders of the juggling, and also incorporate the rings (and sometimes other objects) as percussive full stops and sonic players themselves. Add in sampling and looping and you have a full spectrum audi and visual feast.

The idea of a 50 minute juggling show sounds exhausting and it is - both for the jugglers, but also for the audience. Partly because even as a watcher concentrating on the juggling is tiring. The other fatiguing aspect is the amount of energy the audience expend on laughing as Sullivan and Hutton engage in juggling combat and endurance routines.

On the night I went Byron won the juggling games. Watching the two of them try to keep their clubs and rings in the air whilst also trying to interfere with their opponent was hilarious as well as tense.

As well as being master jugglers and great musicians, it turns out the Jugg Life duo also have a rare life skill. They can solve the Rubik's Cube! In amongst the many fabulous tandem work, the pair solve the cube after having an audience member mess it up for them.

There are a few more drops at the end then there were at the start but I am rather surprised their arms were still working at all to be honest. The 5 minute endurance juggle was a feat to behold, especially with a hilarious soundtrack designed to distract them and make them laugh themselves.

I totally loved Jugg Life. It is 50 minutes of great fun and both the kids in the audience and the adults had the best time. So much laughing in one show is rarely heard.

5 Stars

Saturday 20 October 2018

One And The Other - Circus Review

What: One And The Other
When: 17 - 28 October 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Devised by: Debra Iris Batton and Sue Broadway
Directed by: Clare Bartholomew
Musical direction by: Teresa Blake
Performed by: Debra Iris Batton, Sue Broadway, and Teresa Blake
Designed by: Emily Barrie
Lighting by: Sarah Platts
Debra Iris Batton, Sue Broadway, and Teresa Blake
It feels like circus is everywhere at the moment. 'Sidesault' has taken over the Melba Spiegeltent, Rock Bang is about to explode into the Merlyn and One And The Other has just opened at La Mama Courthouse for two weeks.

What is exciting about this current fever of circus activity is the breadth and spectrum on display. From the newbies at the Speigeltent, to the master craftspersons in the Merlyn, and to the maestro pioneers at La Mama, the entire spectrum of modern circus - origins to outcomes - are filling the stages for audiences to marvel at and admire.

One And The Other is perhaps the icing on the cake as veteran pioneers of the modern circus form, Batton and Broadway, team up once again to remind us all how it is done, what it should look like, and to stamp their claim as the Aunties of the Australian circus world. It's not just circus though. Batton and Broadway are veterans of the second-wave feminist movement too. Inspired by the #metoo movement they have girded their loins to look back on what they did and how they did it as women and circus artists and to pioneer new ground, showing what being an older woman can and does look like in this brave new world...

Let me begin with the really important stuff first. Batton and Broadway are master clowns and from the moment the lights come up the audience were laughing their arses off. "Sorry. Sorry." I meant to say laughing their behinds off. Broadway is the straight man (person?) and Batton is the joker in this comedy duet of the caliber of all the greats - Lewis and Martin, Hope and Crosby, Laurel and Hardy, French and Saunders, etc.

Their hat juggling is as suave as it is hilarious and the afternoon tea routine is classic pie in the face humour of the best sort. What Batton and Broadway understand is the laugh is the thing, not the trick itself. If the trick doesn't land (which is rare indeed) they know how to continue to work the moment until the audience finds the funny side. You can laugh with them or at them. They don't care as long as you laugh and don't stop until they say it is time. They also understand it is not the number of tricks. Rather it is the quality of the set up and delivery which matters most.

Batton is the acrobat who can still do amazing tumbles off a vault and trampoline, backflips, carwheels - all the good stuff. Broadway is a balance artist and a master of legerdemain. She brings back classic prestidigitation such as the floating wand dance as she recounts her family pedigree in the circus arts.

Part of the conceit of One And The Other is a celebration of their achievements - both personal and also in the development of circus in Australia. Broadway was a member of the founding Circus Oz troupe and beyond that went on to AD Strange Fruit, currently working as AD for Westside Circus and being the Chair of the La Mama Committee of Management.

Batton was an award winning gymnast until she turned the ripe old age of 17 and aged out. Batton has a long and extraordinary career in physical theatre and circus including being AD of Legs On The Wall for a decade. One extraordinary skit in the show is when Batton emerges as a balloon of a person and slowly, one by one, strips away decades of gig tees until she reaches current times. I lost count of just how many there were (as well as being amazed she kept them all!).

All of these shenanigans and tomfoolery are accompanied by the sound stylings of Blake. Working with samples, sequences, looping and a bewildering array of live instruments (cymbals, high hats, a harp, a cello, recorders, et al...) Blake is responding to the action on stage and it is fun watching Batton and Broadway working with her throughout.

Blake sits above the action on an incredibly simple, beautiful, and ultimately effective set created by Barrie. Two black flats cover left and right of stage leaving a central entrance and exit arch for Batton and Broadway. The flats are actually workshop shadow boards on which she has affixed all of the props the performers need throughout the show. Their candy coloured vibrancy look like they are floating in the space, waiting to be selected, much like Broadway's wand floated in their pas de deux.

As I mentioned earlier, though, this candyland of magic and mystery has a feminist edge which gets sharpened as the performance continues. It is subtle at first. The 'sorry' sequence after the tea party hinting at how women are required to apologise for everything - even things they are not responsible for or even did not do. It culminates into a bludgeon at the end with the 'fuck you' sequence. Here the laugh stops and all of pain, humiliation, and frustration of living their lives against the grain emerges for all to see. Very unladylike indeed!

In One And The Other Batton and Broadway bare their souls (and their bodies) as they show us where we have been, where we are now, and where we have yet to go. Directed by another of our clowning greats, Bartholomew, One And The Other should not be missed. It also needs to be archived because the work these women are doing cannot be lost to the vagaries of carelessness. This is our living history and we must preserve it. Hugh Jackman are you looking for another film project?

4.5 Stars

Friday 19 October 2018

Hell Is Other People - Circus Review

What: Hell Is Other People
When: 18 - 21 October, 2018
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Jess Love
Jess Love
You would almost not recognise Jess Love in her new show Hell Is Other People, playing as part of Sidesault at the Melba Spiegeltent this week Eschewing her fast paced hilarity as a genius of the hula hoop and skipping rope (amongst other apparatus), in this full length solo show Love bares her soul - and her body - as she takes us through a kaleidoscope of relationship experiences, a couple of which are not for the faint-hearted.

The quote 'hell is other people' comes from the Sartre play No Exit. Whilst often misrepresented, what Satre is talking about is the gaze of the other and what it does, what it signifies, and what it manifests in the self. Love understands this and in her show of the same name she exposes herself body and soul to our gaze as she lives and relives key relationships in her sexual maturity and talks about how she exposed herself to their gaze as well.

Although the hula hoop does not feature prominently in this show, Hell Is Other People is circles within circles as Love recreates each relationship by repeatedly 'birthing' naked from backstage. Each iteration involves her donning a new set of clothes (a new costume), and taking a new role for each partner. It is worth noting there were various name changes for this show, but in my opinion it could have also been called Love Is A Battlefield as each expulsion from the womb is accompanied by the sounds of war and every encounter leaves scars.

Some relationships are simpler than others. 'Frenchie The Clown' is a fairly harmless figure who enjoys imagining Love juggle dildoes. 'The Alpha Lesbian' helps her leave 'Bananaman' which is empowering until it is overpowering. Each relationship has a circus skill attached - hula hoop, clowning, rollerskating, corde lisse, etc. The circus element is not really the point though.

When I reviewed Feed The Horse I said Dadaism was anti-art and I wonder if Hell Is Other People is more truly of that genre than the Radish By Night show. There is a sense within this show that Love is not trying to 'entertain' and is working to minimal theatricality. That is not to say it is not highly complex and meticulously constructed. It is more that in a circus framing where we tend to expect in your face and over the top feats that wow and awe, Love treats it all as everyday ennui.

It all becomes clear when Love gets to the intermission which doesn't exist. After drinking herself to puking, Love lures us into a dark world of great pain. She introduces us to a lover from her distant past - 'The Paedo'.

In the show Love quotes the Oscar Wilde saying 'Everthing in the world is about sex except sex.  Sex is about power.' Having never spent more than 6 months alone, it is possible nobody understands this better than Love. Hell Is Other People is definitely adult content so don't bring the kiddies.

2.5 Stars

Feed The Horse - Circus Review

What: Feed The Horse
When: 18 - 21 October, 2018
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Radish By Night
Radish By Night
Feed The Horse is one of the three experimental circus shows which opened for the second week of the Sidesault festival at Melba Spiegeltent last night. I haven't been able to find out details of the cast members but they all worked as a very tight ensemble.

Feed The Horse is billed as being a Dadaist/Surreal/Butoh performance. It is supposed to be immersive and shock the senses. I am not convinced it lives up to the marketing but what I will say is Radish By Night have an incredibly strong visual aesthetic and some great circus skills.

Dadaism and Butoh were essentially created out the the same impetus although in different parts of the world at different times. Both movements were about breaking down the traditional ideas of what art (or dance in the case of Butoh) is/was. They are both a form of 'anti-art' movement. They are both about breaking taboos and revealing the ugly, the real, the visceral. Surrealism was born out of Dadaism and reached deep into the subconscious to make unexpected and absurd connections and bring them into the conscious world.

Radish By Night have certainly captured the look of Butoh, and the sequences around and beyond the hand balancing routine capture the look and feel of traditional Butoh - although I suspect more as an aesthetic than a movement. I was  impressed with the hand balancing routine although I think there were some problems with the stability of the apparatus. Having said that, the acrobat who performed it was extremely skilled and created the most amazing nightmare shapes.

 I am not convinced they touch on Dadaism at all as they stay well within modern post-dramatic performance forms (it is hard to be Dadaist in a post-dramatic age). The one exception may be the final sequence where the audience are made to stand in the middle of the room for apparently no purpose at all. I also think that is the closest element of immersion as well. I don't define running around the audience in a big top tent as immersion...

The great strength of the show lies in it's surreal vision. For those who don't know, the term "feed the horse" refers to stimulating and/or fingering a female for pleasure. The show begins with the most incredible visual sequence which links the idea of the womb, to the vagina, to the mane of the horse using the stunning natural locks of one of the male performers.  As I said earlier, the visuals in this show are phenomenal and Feed The Horse is worth seeing just for this aspect alone. I also suspect the performers have done some work with Viewpoints looking at how they use and balance the space and each other so endureingly.

The ideas and images are strong in Feed The Horse, and the circus elements are great too. This is the only show in the Sidesault series to use the tight rope and there is a simple, yet stunning aerial trapeze act. The simplicity in itself a Dadaist rebellion in a way. The manic skipping clown was fun too. The sound track to Feed The Horse was wonderfully otherwordly and helped create the idea of dreams and nightmares.

The show is short - only around 40 minutes which is great because as the last of the three on offer, it means if you see the whole set it is still not an overwhelmingly late night. It will however leave you with amazing visions to inspire your own dreamscape as you sleep.

3 Stars

Monday 15 October 2018

Laser Kiwi - Circus Review

What: Laser Kiwi
When: 10 - 14 October
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Degge Jarvie, Zane Jarvie and Imogen Stone
Zane Jarvie, Imogen Stone, and Degge Jarvie
I don't know if I have ever had so much silly, ridiculous, outrageously dorky fun as I did watching the Colossal show Laser Kiwi at Melba Spiegeltent. One of the acts in the 'Sidesault' festival, I have to tip my hat to our neighbours in the land of the long white cloud who showed us how to have a whole lot of good, clean fun just for the purpose of laughing our heads off.

The name of the show, Laser Kiwi, comes from one of the quirkier entries in the flag changing referendum New Zealand held in 2015. Unsurprisingly, it didn't win (although it should have, I reckon). Colossal have taken the outrageous and audacious humour of this flag and turned it into a comedy/circus hybrid which - for all the same reasons boaty mcboatface won the ship naming competition in the UK - captures the imagination of everyone and puts a huge smile on the face, and a brings a disbelieving laugh (and occassional groan) to everyone's lips.

Laser Kiwi is much more comedy than circus, but Stone's aerial space walk on the silks is mesmerisingly beautiful, albeit continually interrupted by Degge Jarvie's prop puns. Stone is also something of a contortionist and the final routine 'The Perfect Match' is as funny as it is incredible to watch as she lights matches and candles with her feet whilst doing a handstand, amongst other incredible feats.

Zane Jarvie is the balancing aficionado. One of my favourite routines in the show is the recurring montage of the 'Planet Gobblers'. For those of you who don't know, there is a video game of the same name which involves a giant pair of lips eating planets which are tiny balls of different colours which look impressively like m&ms. Throughout the show the three of them come grunting out on stage and eat their planets. Zane, however, always tries (and fails) to be clever and toss the candy into the air to eat it. Eventually the other two have enough and Zane comes up with a fool proof plan. He has made a mousetrap style maze pillar which he balances on his face.

The idea is he throws it up in the air, it lands in the dish and rolls down this complicated series of tunnels and into his mouth. It was even funnier on the night I saw it. As you know, the nutty m&ms can be irregular in size and in a glorious irruption of reality, the candy kept getting stuck in several places in the tube. It was hilarious watching Degge try and nudge it loose whilst avoiding making the contraption fall off Zane's face.

The Colossal team are not afraid of irruptions of reality and a portion of the hilarity of their show is the way they abashedly share the humour of the fortunes of fate on their endeavours. Laser Kiwi is bursting with prop humour and puns. Some of my favourites were the incredibly accurate snail, the tape worm, and the final front ear.

Another very funny sketch is the one which parodies the Japanese game show Hole In The Wall. Instead of humans they bring up an audience member who plays against Stone with wooden mannequins. Perhaps the one sour note for me was when the last cut out was a pair of boobs. Pretty much everyone in the audience went quiet on that one which made me proud.

Unfortunately the Laser Kiwi season at Sidesault is over, but this week brings 3 new and amazing acts to the Melba Spiegeltent. Get on down and discover what other new adventures are happening in the world of independent circus.

3.5 Stars

Sunday 14 October 2018

Summer & Smoke - Theatre Review

What: Summer & Smoke
When: 3 - 14 October 2018
Where: Good Shepherd Chapel
Written by: Tennessee Williams
Directed by: Tanya Burne
Performed by: Alice Bishop, Helen Doig, Leah Filley, Joseph Green, Cecilia Low, Ryan Murphy, Cariad Wallace, and John Wood
Costumes by: Emily Harvey and Amanda Hitten
Lighting by: Natalia Velasco
Music and sound by: Julian Lyngcolm and Peter McKeown
Stage Managed by: Joey Burford
John Wood, Helen Doig, and Leah Filley
Summer & Smoke is a play written by Williams at the beginning of his golden era of play writing. It has never been a play produced in Australia, but White Horse Collective have changed that and have put on a season at the Good Shepherd Chapel in Abbottsford.

Produced on stage in 1948 (just after A Streetcar Named Desire), Summer & Smoke was made into a film in 1961. All of Williams' plays are considered to be autobiographical and Summer & Smoke clearly delves into his family situation.

Williams' mother was considered to be pretentious and was the the daughter of a minister (Wood), as is the protagonist Alma (Filley), and his grandmother was a music teacher as is Alma as well. Williams' sister was diagnosed schizophrenic and had a lobotomy, and the mother figure (Doig) in Summer & Smoke is suffering some form of serious mental illness which restricts Alma's life as she has to take on carer duties. Williams himself took on responsibilities for his sister and suffered from depression - again, reflected in the character of Alma. Williams' mother married a young shoe salesman and Alma ends the play going off into the night with...a young shoe salesman. You get the picture...

The story revolves around the transformation of Alma and John (Green) from one state to another. For Alma it is the journey from devout good girl mired in duty and faith and for John it is travelling from a hedonistic corporealist to a man of responsibility and conformity.

Summer & Smoke was not one of Williams' more successful works, and I think it is because the transformative journey for Alma is not quite credible. There is not quite enough in the writing to get the audience to change their view of her from saint to sinner. John's journey is much more clearly accounted for.

Much of this can be blamed on the writing, but in the White Horse Collective production there is a portion of blame to lay on the direction (Burne) and the acting. Williams spends a lot of dialogue capital talking about Alma's affectations including the use of the 'long A'. John mocks her about it, telling her he saw someone mimicking her, Nellie (Wallace) talks about taking up her affectations, and Alma even admits to a small portion.

Nothing of that comes through in Filleys performance. Yes, she does use the long A occassionally, but it is swaddled in a sea of realism and authenticity in the southern accent so at best she seems like the slightly nervous type and that is about it. The greater the affectation, the more scope there would have been for Filley to play with the breaking down of her sense of self and values and the greater the dynamics and tension possible between the cast members.

As well, John identifies Alma has a doppelganger and this is key to her descent. He is talking about a sensuous side which has been locked up under the watchful stare of the fountain angel Eternity. This is a bit harder for us to grasp because White Horse have decided not to include the prologue. I don't think they understood how important it was to help us understand both John and Alma and why they are like they are - how they could grow up and yet have such opposing beliefs.

Burne does not allow Filley the space to explore the battle within Alma. John teases and prods and pokes to release the doppelganger to join him in his own moral descent. The tension of the work really lies in Alma's failure to overcome. Rosa (Low) is the image constantly thrown in her face as the kind of woman John wants and until she allows her corporeal needs to overcome her spiritual constraints she cannot have him. Without this tension, her downfall is hollow.

The character of the mother is also woefully under used. One of the great tensions working on Alma from childhood is the caring of her mother who has debilitating and destructive mental health problems. Burne just keeps her sitting behind the action raising some verbal interference. We rarely see them fully interacting and we never get to fully appreciate the fear or love Alma must have for her. We never see the destruction she has on the lives of both the reclusive father and the overwhelmed daughter who has to put on a facade of superiority to hide her misery and despair.

The company in general do act out the play well and Burne has directed the story well, it just feels as though the intention was missed and, to be honest, I don't know how much more a playwright can do to tell people what the story is.

I love the accents. I rarely say that, but this is because they are rarely done well or consistently. This ensemble of actors have worked hard though and none of them miss a beat. This is essential for producing Williams' plays because he is a poetic writer and the rhythm of his work relies on the melody of the southern drawl.

The decision to present Summer & Smoke in the Good Shepherd Chapel is a stroke of genius. I just wish (again) they had included the prologue somehow because the fresco work could then be a much more powerful and active agent in the story and add to the overwhelming pressures working on Alma.

The sound and music was absolute perfection. Lyngcoln and McKeown play live and in particular they make the decadent scenes sing with power and potential. All of the production elements worked to do their bit although the lighting could have drawn on the iconography within the chapel more perhaps.

I did enjoy this production of Summer & Smoke. It is the fact it was so good which has made me frustrated because I can so clearly see the potential of the powerhouse it could have been. I don't know if it is a play which will get much more stage time in Australia because it speaks very little to the Australian life or current modes of society but I am glad I have seen it staged. Tonight is the last performance and I would recommend seeing it if you can.

3.5 Stars

Saturday 13 October 2018

Zelos - Film Review

What: Zelos
Digital release date: 13 October 2018
Written by: Claire J Harris
Directed by: Jo-Anne Brechin
Featuring: Shannon Ashlyn, Ainslie McGlynn, and Ben Mortely
Shannon Ashlyn and Ben Mortely
Zelos is the Greek work for both passion and jealousy and Harris' film of the same title is about that and so much more. Having won a slew of awards from film festivals across the globe, the film has its digital release today in iTunes Store, Amazon Prime, and Google Play.

Zelos is the first feature film for both Harris and Brechin. Originally a short story by Harris, the two of them developed the idea into a film script when they met at AFTRS. Two years after graduating they finally had the film in the can so to speak. In 2017 it was released on the big screen and now it is available for general consumption through your favourite digital outlet.

Zelos is the story of a thirty-something middle class couple who are literally crossing the threshold to live together. It could be said the details of the film are cliche; Sarah (Ashlyn) sleeps with someone while on holiday and Bernard (Mortley) spends the rest of the film trying to come to terms with it. Both of them are desperate to hold the relationship together.

It is said that one person in a relationship is always more invested than the other and in Zelos it is Bernard who is that person. We never really find out why Sarah went on holiday without Bernard although towards the end it becomes apparent there were miscommunications long before the moment the film starts the story.

Counterpoint to Sarah and Bernard's story is the relationship between Rebecca (McGlynn) and her husband. The desperation with which Sarah and Bernard are working to hold their relationship together is counterpoint to how carelessly Rebecca's marriage is allowed to fall apart. Add the subtext of Bernard having always had a secret crush on Rebecca and you have the ingredients for a fairly tried and true relationship drama (it is billed as a dramedy but I didn't find much to laugh about).

Don't worry though, there is a much deeper commentary in the film than first meets the eye. Having read interviews and publicity I am not sure Harris even knows what an incisive commentary on the relationship dilemmas of modern times she has written in Zelos. Underlying all of these people and their relationships lies the question of partnerships as property.

Historically marriage was always connected to transfers of wealth and property. In a world where everyone has an independent means of income (educated middle class Sydney for example), the financial transactions are no longer central to the need for partnering.

The other element of classical marriage contracts was the woman as being a element of property requisite to the exchange transaction. Getting in the way of that is that pesky feminist revolution which gained so much ground in the 20th century.

Finally, for women in the past sex meant children which meant an inability to provide due to pregnancy, birthing, and then nourishing multiple mouths. With the advent of birth control came sexual liberation. In the modern age and in first world countries the idea of woman as property is not incumbent.

It is this idea which Zelos incidentally explores and struggles with in an intriguing fashion. It raises bigger questions. As Rebecca points whilst disparaging When Harry Met Sally, we are expected to have sex with a lot of people and then get married and just sleep with one person for the rest of our lives. We can blame the Disney princesses all we like, but the manifesto for the role of women has been in place for millennia prior to us. Bernard's struggle, whilst seeming to be patriarchal bullshit is still subtextually wired into our society. It is no accident this is Bernard's story and not Sarah's.

I really enjoyed this film and the question it raises about what partnerships are in this new world, especially in light of gay marriage plebiscites, the religious right push for celibacy and fidelity, and the questions about the character and behaviour of far too many politicians to enumerate. We are struggling with these questions globally and at an intrinsic level.

Zelos is not a perfect film however. Sarah and Bernard are supposedly both writers. Bernard has lost his mojo and been swallowed by the corporate world of app development. In the course of his relationship struggles however, he pulls out his post-it notes and laptop and writes a screenplay.

There are some writer group scenes (which are meant to be comic relief I think), where he writes the screenplay for the movie we are watching. One of those 'the play within the play' kind of thing. In the group he is told it has been done before. The idea is stale.

I think this is a moment for Harris to thumb her nose at someone who may have made those comments about this film. Whilst I didn't like those scenes, good on her for going ahead with it. It works if you have something new to show, and in Zelos she does.

I adore the design palette and the colour grading of the film. It is so refreshing to see a film which is not blurange. It has a very sun-washed look with subtle sepia tones which gives it a kind of classic feel. It is like watching a bittersweet memory, but a fresh one..

Zelos is a great movie to download and watch on a quiet night in. There is something comforting about watching others struggle with what we are struggling with and this film provides some deeper food for thought and perhaps some insight as to why relationships really are so hard.

3.5 Stars

This-That - Theatre Review

What: This-That
When: 8 - 13 October 2018
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Kotryna Gesait
Performed by: Kristina Benton, Candice Lillian, and Ryan Stewart
Kristina Benton and Candice Lillian
This-That is the latest offering from writer/director Gesait and has been playing at The Butterfly Club this week. Perhaps slightly inaccurately billed as an anti-rom-com rom-com, the show is nevertheless a good two-hander and well worth seeing for the great acting and intriguing character studies.

Let's get the tedious part over with first so I can get onto the good stuff. It is not a comedy. This-That is a dramatic piece of theatre which has funny moments. The funniest of those are in the meta-structure when they step outside the drama to tell us what the next step of the show would be if it was a real romantic comedy.

The internal structure of the play is, however, quite a deep and sensitive interrogation of how two women cope with the realisation that the other woman in their man's life is a real person and not just some cartoon cut-out stereotype. Alice (Benton) is the wife of a university professor and June (Lillian) is a math prodigy uni student. Both are, of course, sleeping with the same man.

June never knew he was married and we never find out how or when Alice discovered the deception, but I have to assume it was a recent discovery because the play starts with her storming in and saying things nobody should ever say to anybody regardless of circumstances. Benton is a powerful actor with an expressive face so when she plays angry, everyone in the room ducks for cover.

June is a straight laced, goody two-shoes, straight A, mathematical prodigy. This becomes relevant because Gesait uses this meeting space of June and Alice between the end of their relationship with the man to the beginning of the relationship between themselves as an exemplifier for the topological application of empty set theory. June goes into great detail of how the empty set can be everything and nothing. I think it is a slight misreading of the theoretical principal but it is an intriguing hook to hang the story on. I would explain what I mean but do you really want to read me going on about X and null sets and vacuous truths? I didn't think so... June says enough for both of us.

Both women are great actors although it is intriguing to see they both have very different acting styles. Benton is a master of Stanislavsky's realism and is a representational actor, whereas Lillian has a fine tuned awareness of her physicality in the space and is more of a presentational actor. I don't think I have ever seen the two styles juxtaposed so clearly before.

I was also very impressed and intrigued by the use of the upstairs stage at The Butterfly Club. I have never seen the back stage area opened up and it creates all sort of exciting possibilities. Gesait has used this space well although I did not enjoy the work done down the aisle as much.

The room is not set up for traverse theatre and I personally hate having to twist around to watch stuff that does not need to happen away from the natural eyeline of the audience. I can forgive it in cabaret because of tradition, but it has no place in a work of this nature and adds nothing to the story or experience. Likewise, bringing Stewart into the action to demonstrate romantic tension was pure gimmick and disappointing in an otherwise quite sophisticated play.

I'll be honest. I did not appreciate the originating premise of the show. I don't understand why women blame other women when men cheat on them. It is the man at fault so the only reason for Alice to invade and attack June at the outset is to reinforce the patriarchal trope that women are to blame for every evil, not the poor hapless man who just has the natural inclination to spread his seed everywhere. As a feminist piece of writing This-That fails from the outset.

I also couldn't really see the logic in the relationship between Alice and June. This may be because the meta- structure break ins actually destroyed any sense of tension or emotional development. In particular the sleep montage did not work. I didn't get it at all. Where was the montage?

This-That is nowhere near as funny to me as other reviewers have found it but I did find the play to be an intriguing representation of how two women in an awkward situation can actually show themselves to be rational and intelligent, and even interesting - a far cry from the representation of women in the historical western canon of play writing - and for that I loved it.

3 Stars

Friday 12 October 2018

My Sight: Their Sight - Circus Review

What: My Sight - Their Sight
When: 11 - 14 October 2018
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Performed by: Ryan Darwin, Romain Hassanin, and Abby Madden
Ryan Darwin
Blindful is a dance/circus venture created by Abby Madden and the show My Sight - Their Sight is a part of this year's Sidesault festival. Exploring the question of how the loss of sight affects a person's understanding of space and safety, this show kicks off the nightly program at the Melba Spiegeltent.

My Sight - Their Sight is an idea Madden was interested in exploring and for which she created the company Blindful. Born with glaucoma, Madden was interested in how sight (and the lack of it) affects physicality and interconnection.

Madden is a contemporary dancer. Joining her on this journey is another dancer and parcour specialist (!) Hassanin, and circus artist Darwin.

For the most part, My Sight - Their Sight is a dance show. Hassanin has a love of break dancing so it is no surprise there is a lot of floor work.

There is only really one nod to circus, which is Darwin's beautiful rope routine. He is blindfolded and it is fascinating watching him carefully measure out his height on the rope with his feet. Darwin is phenomenally strong and it is awe inspiring to watch him spend so much time just swinging by one hand, especially blindfolded! Anyone who has worn a blindfold knows how wierd and disorienting it is - and to be swinging it must be so much worse!

The show starts with running though. Lots of it. The company of three run in and out of the circle of chairs playing some sort of game of hide and seek. The energy and the running never stop and we get to see the extreme fitness of the troupe in every step, jump, and dance move they make.

The blindness explorations start simply with the company trying to spin on the spot, jump in sequence and box step together. The blind folds come on and off.

I loved the commentary on how, when blindfolded they had to be more mindful because they had less sensory data to inform. There is an extended repetitive sequence where Hassanin is blindfolded and keeps trying to do a floor roll/spin sequence and Darwin calls out when he is safe, and Madden tells him to reset when he gets too close to the audience - which means he has to start everything from the beginning each time. This is why it is important to not move furniture or leave chairs poking out around people with vision impairment!

I love the concept of My Sight - Their Sight and all of the performers are incredibly skillful. The show is very short though - maybe forty minutes - and I think this is because the idea just hasn't got enough body yet. Even as a dance it feels more like a series of rehearsal room explorations than a finished performance with intention. The endless repetitions didn't help the sensation that this work isn't finished either. I know that is an elements of contemporary dance but too much and it just looks like filling in time.

I also would have liked to see much more exploration of the blindness. There was too much time with full sight for the blindfolds looking to look like much more than a gimmick. I would have liked to see more successes in that state, more actuation and celebrations of positive outcomes.

My Sight - Their Sight is a show which has great potential and I look forward to seeing it fully realised in the future. It is a nice, gentle start to the evening of circus happening in Sidesault this week though, and has just the right elements to help switch out of work mode and get your into the right headspace for a great night of circus at the Melba Spiegeltent.

2.5 Stars

BOSS Squad - Circus Review

What: BOSS Squad
When: 11 - 14 October 2018
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Performed by: Marina Gellman, Lisa Goldsworthy, Flick Lannan, Marcela Sheuner,  and Amy Stuart
Lisa Goldsworthy, Amy Stuart, Flick Lannan,
Marcela Sheuner and Marina Gellman

BOSS Squad is a joint venture between Point & Flex Circus and Madhouse Circus. Together they have created a crazily energetic show which celebrates the strength of women and it is on show at the Melba Speigeltent until this Sunday as part of Sidesault.

Dressed in the purple, green and white of the suffrage movement, this ensemble of insanely strong and vibrant women have just enough black to remind us there are no powder puffs here. This troupe mean serious business.

BOSS Squad is a glorious array of circus acts and a few sideshow elements which take us back to the glory days of freak shows and the idea of the super human.  This show debunks the myths of femininity being a synonym for fragility, delicacy, and weakness. These women are strong and fit and not afraid to be just a little bit gross when the moment warrants it.

The show begins with a fantastic teeterboard routine. It immediately set the tone for much of the show, demonstrating an eye for the ensemble and switching in and out between the whole troupe to show there are no specialists - everyone of them are powerful and can do it all. We have all heard of the ubermensch, well here are the uberfrau!

This interchange process carried through most of their circus tricks including the juggling and the acrobatic skipping with various degrees of success. Whether the tricks landed or not was not as important as the skill and strength they demonstrated in doing some very complex work. Awe and incredulity were in ample supply amongst the audience from start to finish.

We often see the Cyr Wheel in circus these days - less so the older German Wheel. It is a big, heavy, unwieldy apparatus and usually used by men but Lannan shows us just how much power she has as she skillfully moves this wheel in a dance of grace and delight.

Gellman loves the sideshow elements. What she does with milk after drilling a hole in her nose is something you need to see for yourself, and her appetite for light bulbs is... enlightening? She is also a phenomenal singer with a voice of great poignancy.

Proving that women are not fragile, Goldsworthy and Gellman dance a beautiful acrobatic duet on a pile of shards of broken glass. This routine is still a little rough, but then I defy any of us to find our core with a broken bottles under our feet!

The score underlying the show is a medley of iconic feminist power pop songs (including Miss B of course!). There are fantastic voiceovers including debunking myths men have about women. My favourite was - and I had never heard this before - there are men who think women can control their menstruation kind of like we can hold in our pee!

Women do bleed, and Gellman reminds us of that in another sideshow routine which involves a staple gun and her arms and a commentary of being labelled. Standing still as the blood drips down her body, she makes the strongest statement possible. I couldn't help looking at the bruises and other marks on her body too from her circus training which all spoke to the same story interestingly.

BOSS Squad is a fantastic show and incredibly empowering for women. The team still need to work on their tricks. It is not that they aren't highly skilled. It is more that what they are doing is so incredibly complex. I love that they are not afraid of that though, and are in it for everything they have got!

BOSS Squad is a late show (9:30pm) but we are all still Fringe fit so why not see all three shows, starting from 6:30 and just make a night of it? Circus Oz have opened an indoor bar for between the acts and there is popcorn and choctops and all your circus faves, as well as a liquor shelf to warm your cockles on these still a bit to cool nights.

3.5 Stars

Thursday 11 October 2018

Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel - Cabaret Review

What: Dance Hall - The Diva Carousel
When: 10 - 14 October
Where: The Famous Spiegeltent
Performed by: Mama Alto, Paul Codeiro, Maude Davey, Moira Finucane, Kathryn Neische, Willow Sizer, Clare St Clare, and James Welby

Clare St Clare, Paul Codeiro, Moira Finucane, James Welby, Mama Alto, and Maude Davey
With all the glitter, grace, thrills and chills of an amusement park, Finucane and Smith bring Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel to Melbourne. The Famous Spiegeltent has raised it's big top in Luna Park and Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel brings all of the dreams, desire and daring of the fun park onto the stage.

Finucane and Smith have been touring Dance Hall across regional Victoria and are taking a moment to allow Melbourne into the glory and glamour of humanity celebrating itself with a richness of ideas and urgencies which need to be expressed. The amazing doyenne, Moira Finucane, begins the night with a quote from the iconic revolutionary Emma Goldman - "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution." In Dance Hall everyone dances because it is our revolution!

Finucane and her team are absolutely revolutionary, opening people's minds and hearts one diamante, ostrich feather, and shimmy at a time. She and partner Jackie Smith also always bring some great woman from history to their shows, reminding us that the fight for freedom has been a long and glorious and painful one and that we are not alone. This time it is Emma Goldman - Russian born and American made. If you want some really empowering words to fire you up Google Emma Goldman quotes and prepare to be affected.

The show begins with Finucane's fabulous 'Extemporaneous Provocations' in which she links Goldman to the great outrages of our current times - Kavanaugh, climate change, etc. She is not lecturing though. The art of Finucane and Smith is to drop an idea, dance and sing around it and let it settle in your mind where and how it will. As the title of the segment implies, Finucane provokes. She prods and teases and dares to question. There is a definite point of view, but if you are just listening because a gorgeous woman is standing in front of you in a see-through dress covered in sequins that's okay as long as you are listening!

Dance halls used to be the meeting places of yore and in Dance Hall Finucane and Smith are allowing humanity and freedom meet each other. Having said that, Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel has a stronger lineage to music halls. This iteration is more in the style of variety and strongly reminiscent of the famous Parisian music halls such as the Moulin Rouge. There is exotic dance (Codeiro), outrageous gogo (Welby), witty burlesque (Davey), puntastic comedy (Davey), and the amazing chanteuses Mama Alto and Clare St Clare whose singing transcends the earthly and takes you straight into heaven.

Finucane and Smith are more than just a performance company though. Much (if not most) of their work is about community. Dance Hall has been teaching dance across Victoria and providing those communities with the opportunity to explore their talents and express themselves through performance.

On their travels, in a tiny little town called Yarck (population 548), they found Willow Sizer. Now on scholarship with Finucane and Smith, Sizer is a powerhouse performer with an amazing voice, a dynamic stage presence, and dance moves to impress.

It is perhaps wrong to single anyone out in Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel because every second of the show is magnificent. I almost went hoarse from so much cheering, and laughing and joining in the frolics. I do have to talk about the return of Maude Davey though.

In 2014 Davey decided it was time to hang up her tassles and stop performing nude, but to celebrate her glorious career she created the phenomenally successful show My Life In The Nude. It was meant to be a full stop to that part of her career because she felt she was too old to continue getting naked on stage, but it had so many remounts due to popular demand it almost became its own ironic statement.

I am delighted to announce that Maude Davey is back! In Dance Hall: The Dive Carousel Davey reprises two of her most famous burlesque acts and tops the whole thing off with a new stand up comedy routine as Mother Earth. You should see her polar cap... "It is very attractive."

Earlier I said the show is more music hall than dance hall, but Finucane always finds a way to get us up on our feet and Dance Hall is not exception. Dance halls were the precursor to discotheques and nightclubs and the night begins and end in boogie fever as Welby and Codeira shake their tail feathers and get us all up on our feet to join in the fun.

Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel is more than just the stage show though. Celebrating the great Luna Park you can get the Luna Park experience which includes rides.

I cannot express how exhilarating and uplifting this show is. Don't miss your opportunity to experience Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel at Luna Park (if there are any tickets left). Do you remember the Tivoli? Welcome back!

5 Stars

Saturday 6 October 2018

Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl - Theatre Review

What: Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl
When: 4 - 14 October 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Jane Miller
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Keith Brokcett, John Marc Desengano, Annie Lumsden, Andrea mcCannon and Glenn van Oosterom
Design by: Emily Collett
Lighting by Dans Maree Sheehan
Sound by Zac Kazepis
Andrea McCannon, John Marc Desengano, Glenn van Oosterom and Keith Brockett
Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl is a mouthful of a title, but it is the name of the new play written by Miller and directed by Beng Oh being performed at La Mama Courthouse until 14 October. Such an unassuming sounding play is a smokescreen for a show which packs a wallop, sizzles with energy and takes you places you have no idea you are heading for.

It is suprisingly rare to see shows with this much energy outside of VCA theatre student productions - Hotel Now is the only other group in Melbourne which springs to mind and they actually are VCA graduates so this 15 Minutes From Anywhere production really does stand out in the crowd. Played in traverse (which I love!!!) Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl bounces around and across the stage at a breakneck pace bringing a barrel full of laughs before blowing the mind with this post truth examination of The Rake's Progress.

Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl investigates just what a woman will do for love. Starting with the girl (Lumsden) being tutored in the art of 'getting a man' which includes not being smart, ambitious, or independent McCannon teaches her to laugh at the man's jokes and like whatever he likes.

Inevitably the girl meets a boy (Brockett), they have sex and her very rich parents disown her. The boy wants to be in a band so the girl tries to get him into her brother's (Desegno) band. They don't want him because he can't sing so she solves the problem in a most unexpected way, clearing the way for him to pursue his dream only to hear him say he doesn't want that dream anymore. Instead he wants to be a business man.

Her pattern for problem solving continues as does his vacillation between career choices. In the end it is clear all he really wants is to be rich. As with The Rake's Progress the boy leaves the girl to marry a rich woman (McCannon).

It is really at this point in the play Miller starts telling her own story and everything changes although perhaps the logic is a bit confusing given all the set ups so far. I feel, given everything that has happened in the play, the logical thing would have been for the girl to kill the wife, but it would be hard to have that scenario fit the story Miller wants to tell - which is confronting to say the least! Having said that, the final twist is well worth that small element of confusion.

As I said earlier Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl is played in traverse which is perfect for the picaresque structure of the play. As the actors run on and off stage it is like the pages in a book or photo album are being flipped to tell the next part of the story. Collett has created a wonderfully simple but clever palette to move the story through its 3 act structure and Beng Oh has directed the set changes well, not allowing the energy to drop.

As each of the three layers are revealed the depth of Collett's understanding of the world of the play is revealed and her choice in the final act is genius, moving us out of the literal just as Miller moves us out of the comical into a completely different realm of being, into another version of truth in this 'progress'.

Sheehan's lighting is functional, simple, and quite beautiful using a lovely rose tone to augment the open white signature of the work. Kazepis has created a great sound design, although I do have some small hesitation about his choices for the third act. In particular there is a transitional choice used a few time which is quite jarring. It is not that I don't like it. It is more that I don't think it has been worked into the rhythm and pace of the performances and the lighting properly. That is just a personal aesthetic though.

The acting ensemble in Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl are brilliant. Most of them have worked with Beng Oh and Miller several times previously and I think the synergy of their working relationships really shines through. I admit to really being impressed with van Oosterom's work, but everyone is brilliant so that is probably an unfair shout out...

Just A Boy, Standing In Front Of A Girl is a fantastically wild ride but don't be fooled by all the laughter. The material is deep and painful. What is the incredible thing about Just A Boy is Miller's ability to understand and demonstrate cause and effect in such a blindingly clear fashion. This play shows us that life and people are truly farcical, but also incredibley dangerous. Everybody is.

4.5 stars

Friday 5 October 2018

The Magnolia Tree - Theatre Review

What: The Magnolia Tree
When: 4 - 6 October 2018
Where: Kingston Arts Centre
Written and directed by: Michael Gray Griffith
Performed by: Ezra Bix, Rohana Hayes, Michelle Robertson and Bruce Whalley
Stage managed by: Jessica McKerlie
Ezra Bix, Rohana Hayes, and Michelle Robertson
The Magnolia Tree is a play which has captured the imagination of Melbourne since it's initial production at La Mama in 2017. Since then it has gone on to be performed at Gasworks and Queanbeyan. In its current iteration it is touring Kingston, Knox and Doncaster throughout October.

In The Magnolia Tree Griffith has teased out a contentious and sensitive issue which all of Generation X are having to face about their Baby Boomer parents. In a society obsessed with life at all costs, the question about the quality of end of life services and options is on the forefront of the personal and political agenda.

Griffith has written a play which places the questions surrounding palliative care and euthenasia in a boxing ring to be battled out by the children of a women who has been experiencing a degenerative illness for 11 years and which now leaves her with no real quality of life now, and no capacity for independent living. It is not stated explicitly in the play the mother has Alzheimers, but Griffith says the idea came to him whilst working in a facility tending people with this condition so...

Vicky (Hayes), one of the daughters, has been providing live in care but the doctor has advised it is now time for the mother to be re-homed into full time nursing care facilities. The other two children, Jack (Bix) and Deborah (Robertson), have come over to discuss the options and come up with a plan.

The topic is a difficult one and the play begins with the unfortunate truth about the state and care levels of our seniors nursing home and the picture is not flattering. The children come to the conclusion that a home with suitable resources and appropriate levels of service would cost around $600,000 and the only way to raise the money would be to sell the family home. This is where the conversation gets difficult.

Everyone has an agenda, difficult personal circumstances (except maybe Jack - we never get to find out much about him...), and a desperate need to move on with their lives. Deborah is a mother herself and is in difficult financial circumstances and Vicky's life revolves around tending her mother.

Griffiths has said he has created Jack's character around the story of the tempting of Jesus in Matthew 4: 1-11 and I think this is where the great flaw in this play sits. Firstly, it makes Jack not really human. It somehow sets him up as being outside the conversation - an observer and perhaps a judge. It unfortunately sets up some uncomfortable gender commentary too but I am going to pass on that conversation for this review. It also means the entire conversation of the play sits around tempting the sisters rather than being a real conversation about the woman in the bedroom and the relationships and history of the family.

I am Gen X so yes, I am having those types of conversations in my own family and I am also hearing them going on around me in work places, at pubs, etc. I hate them because they all seem to come down to who will get what in the will. It may be because my family do and have always lived below the poverty line and so we have little to pass on, but I personally believe this is not anything which should be under consideration by the potential recipients at any point in time and certainly not in the context presented in this play.

One of the features of this work which has received a lot of hype is the audience get to decide the outcome by popular vote (wonderfully set up and adjudicated by Whalley). I actually really loved this feature. It is a little bit of choose your own adventure but it is a good litmus test for the mood of the community. From my understanding the result has generally swayed in favour of euthenasia.

I personally voted that way. Not because of my personal bias in that direction and also not because of anything said by anyone in the play - until just before the voting. It wasn't until those last few moments that we finally heard what the mother had to say about it before she lost her faculties and I voted in accordance with her wishes.

Griffith has spoken about his surprise at the general bias of responses but personally I think he is misreading the 'data'. In my opinion it is not a response to difficult economic times, selfishness, or moral vacuity. Rather, I think it is a sign we are moving towards a climate of respect and a ethical imperative to honour the choices of the person at the core of the debate. Given that almost no moments in The Magnolia Tree even seem to spend much time considering the mother's experiences and interests it is perhaps not surprising the 'data' appears to be pointing elsewhere. It is not a very flattering portrait of Gen X either!

Griffith has directed this production of The Magnolia Tree himself and whilst it looks beautiful it is far too cerebral and lacks theatricality. This is evident in the glossing over of deeply emotional moments such as Vicky's supposed breakdown when Jack reveals he tried to euthenise the mother a year ago. I think an external director would possible have found ways to break down the socratic structure to breath some humanity into the characters.

Hayes played Deborah in the previous versions, but this time she plays Vicky. Hayes has the emotional depth for the role but the blocking is appalling with her spending a lot of time with her back to the audience fiddling with brochures. She does a wonderful job of demonstrating emotion held to the point of breaking, but never let's herself actually break down so it is hard for the audience to see a softer side to her. All we really get to see is the lonely gambling addict she has become.

Robertson has taken over the role of Deborah. She does a fine job of it. The problem for her is the writing. Deborah just comes across as a greedy, opportunistic thief. Bix is intriguing as Jack (and I swear he could be Bruce Willis' brother!) but again, the writing gives him nowhere to go as an actor or as a character.

I love the ideas behind the inception of The Magnolia Tree and these issues are absolutely current and topical and must be examined and discussed. I just think Griffith has missed the true core of the respect for life/quality of life conversation and has been unable to grapple with the true complexities of life long family relationships. It is too 'in their heads' as people like to say.

3 Stars

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