Friday 20 December 2019

Chicago - Musical Review

What: Chicago
When: 14 December 2019 - 21 February 2020
Where: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Music and Lyrics by: Fred Ebb and John Kander
Book by: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by: Walter Bobbie
Choreography by: Ann Reinking
Performed by: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Alinta Chidzey, Andrew Cook, Todd Dewsberry, Rodney Dobson, Samantha Dodemaide, Casey Donovan, Jason Donovan, J Furtado, Ben Gillespie, Chaska Halliday, Travis Khan, Hayley Martin, Tom New, Jessica Vellucci, Romina Villafranca, Rachael Ward, and Mitchell Woodcock
Set by: John Lee Beatty
Costumes by: William Ivey Long
Lighting by: Ken Billington
Casey Donovan and Alinta Chidzey - photo by Jeff Busby
Having been on stage since 1996, there is not really anything I can tell you about Chicago which you don't already know. It is saucy, it is sassy, it is dark, and it is on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne until the end of February. It is rare to see a show which has the audience laughing and cheering from start to finish, so get along to see this one which has Melbourne audiences finally expressing some real (and loud) appreciation!

I don't know what was going on in Kander's and Ebb's heads when they wrote Chicago, but they were definitely not feeling good about the world and really let rip with all of their cynicism in the songs. I suspect it was Fosse who was responsible for toning down the book and giving the whole thing a little more respectability than a Tupac style playlist. If you think I am exaggerating check out the lyrics of 'Class'.

Don't get me wrong - I love the writing in this show. It is satire and it is rough - the hold no prisoners kind of satire which bites to the bone at the same time as you are laughing so hard your whole body is bouncing. My favourite lyric is "Why is everyone now such a pain in the ass?" (from 'Class). As true now as it was when written...

The story is a remake of a 1926 play by Maureen Dallas Watkins. She was a reporter during the roaring 20s for the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, during the Jazz era a lot of women were going around and killing husbands, lovers, and boyfriends and being let off by the criminal justice system.

In the meantime, in a precursor to our internet explosion, the papers were making these women fake celebrities. Chicago draws an analogy between the temporary stardom of these women and the fickle world of the live theatre scene, with just enough of a gloss of feminism to keep someone like me warmed to the cockles of my heart.

Chicago is quite young as musicals go. It was first produced in 1975 and this 1996 revival doesn't stray too far from the original although it is more of a concert style production with the only set piece being the band area which is a fallen picture frame. There are a series of levels and steps which allow us to enjoy the musicians, and are used as entrances and exits for cast. The proscenium is also a matching gold picture frame. The black on black aesthetic of costumes and set hark back to black and white photos of the 1920's - as if we are remembering a distant past whilst at the same time it flails us for our very modern failings of treachery, manipulation, corruption, and the fickle fight for celebrity status.

Combining the ideas of jazz dance with the older aesthetics of Jazz music, the choreography is familiar, yet fun and playful with just the loveliest touches of Fosse flavour. As well, Kander has written music which covers the spectrum of vaudeville styles including burlesque, tap, tango and others.

This means the cast of Chicago have to be not just good dancers - they need to be brilliant and this cast meet that need and excel far beyond it. I admit to totally falling in love (or lust) with the cameo character of Fred, Roxie's (Bassingthwaighte) murdered lover. He can do those push ups for me any time! The feminist in me also needs to say it was refreshing to see a male character - even if it is only an ensemble member - being objectified the way the entire female cast is.

But now it is time to talk about the singing [drum roll please]... Oh yes, it is the magnificent Casey Donovan as Mama Morton who is the first to really bring the house down with applause with 'When You're Good To Mama' (although we were well and truly revved up with 'Cell Block Tango' only moments before). I have heard the words "show stopper" used before but have never seen it until now.

The big surprise for me was Alinta Chidzey (Velma). I didn't think it was possible, but Chidzey can match Casey Donovan note for note and growl for growl and if you had any doubt, just sit back and enjoy 'Class'. (You might be realising right about now that I LOVED that duet...)

Bassingthwaighte is really in her element as Roxie and she and Chidzey have a great chemistry as they negotiate a compicated nemesis/ally relationship. Watching them struggle to create space in the world for themselves made me proud of their inner strength and intelligence. I was probably supposed to think they were amoral women, but they are super heroes to me. Especially as they come to accept that old adage "be careful who you step on on the way up, because you will meet them again on the way down".

Jason Donovan is playing Billy in Melbourne. I have always had a fan crush on this man - I even liked his album in the 80s. I think the music for Billy goes further down the scale than is his comfortable singing range but he is on pitch all the way- his voice is just weak in the lower registers. It is a pity because his performance is magnificent but he is almost inaudible in 'Razzle Dazzle' and this means he isn't able to portray the oiliness of the real Billy Flynn. I am still in love with him, regardless of this.

This same point could be made with Bassingthwaighte's rendition of 'Me And My Baby', but with all that oozing, ditzy blond character work she does who really cares? I don't know if I have seen finer theatre than the puppet scene.

I also found myself wondering if the song 'Mr Cellophane' (sung by Dobson) resonates anymore. Do people still use cellophane or is this an image which will fall into the anachronism category soon? The white gloves is also a little too evocative of the Black and White Minstrels - which is authentic vaudeville, but a fraught topic these days. Having said that, it is a tricky problem to solve and this may go over the heads of the new generations...

Chicago has a Brechtian construct, but I have to say I didn't like seeing the dancers on chairs on the side of stage. It seemed to be the one messy thing in the whole show. It is a very big misconception of the late 20th century that to do Brecht you have to do this. Being Brechtian does not mean you have to show the lighting grid and all the actors all the time, etc. It just means you have to remove the 'trickery' of theatre. By showing the trick you make the point much stronger than just going with the traditional concept of 'the magic of theatre'.

Enough criticism though. Chicago is brilliant. It is full of fantastic and clever humour, sharp shards of insight, and moments of great pathos such as the hanging of the Russian woman who's only English words were, "Not guilty." In a world full of liars and scoundrels how can you possibly identify the innocent?

A piece of popular theatre which is sexy, smart, funny and insightful? Does such a creature exist? Yes it does! It is Chicago. Check it out for yourself!

4.5 Stars

Thursday 19 December 2019

Anna - Theatre Review

What: Anna
When: 17 - 22 December 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Bagryana Popov
Directed by: John Bolton
Set by: Lara Weeks
Lighting by: Bronwyn Pringle
Stage managed by: Julian Adams
Bagryana Popov - photo by Justyn Koh
Bagryana Popov is one of the heavy weights in the Melbourne theatre scene and leading into Christmas she brings us her searing tale of secrecy, intrigue, and paranoia. Anna is playing at La Mama Courthouse for the next week.

Anna is not the cheerful, snow and laughter filled December tale we are used to being sold at this time of year. Instead, she takes us back to post WWII Bulgaria and a people smothered by governmental secrecy and betrayal. A community where citizens are used against other citizens to wheedle out discontent, and where there is no sanctity in marriage or family. This is the world of Popov's childhood.

Why tell Anna's story now? Perhaps Popov has been seeing a corollary between our current government and it's policy of secrecy and under scrutinized legislative activity? If she doesn't, I certainly do. I should mention this is in no way indicated in the play. It is just my own musings...

Popov's doctoral thesis (2013) was about embodied experience and memory of a totalitarian regime. There is nothing to indicate Anna was a real person, but Popov has done extensive research to back up this story in it's ideas and representations, and she intertwines these moments with real fairy tales to reinforce the understanding that memory is experiential, even when environment is factual.

Anna is a woman, a mother, a wife, living in Bulgaria in the 1950's. It is interesting to note that history sees this era as a time when Bulgaria begins to emerge from it's extreme totalitarianism, but as with all situations, the darkness has to come before the light, so Popov's tale is about those darkest of times which came first.

Anna has a philandering husband who is engaged is some nefarious activities she wants to know nothing about. Hyper-vigilance is the normal state in this community and for good reason. She has a young daughter and writes children's stories. (Popov uses her favourite real stories by the author Aveskos).

The State decide to use the husband's affair as leverage to get Anna to spy on her husband and they promise her work as an incentive. As is the way of things, once her job is done she is tossed aside and her descent into madness begins. But remember that old adage - just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!

Popov is a good actor and she slips between an array of characters with mastery yet without fanfare. It is amazing to see her do it, and when she is in presentational mode (such as the plotting scene) the play is lively and intriguing. This is less true when Popov is being representational. I felt little connection or sympathy for Anna because she demonstrated little softness or complexity and emotions such as crying were just too fake for me. She felt 'acted'.

The play would have been stronger if we saw Anna finding moments - however brief - of joy and love. Perhaps the story book moments would have been enough if we could have seen her really enjoy the characters - a bit like Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter...? Instead these moments were crammed with Popov playing with tiny puppets and mechanical toys which are not big enough to be stage worthy in my opinion. I know there is a school of thought which says it is interesting to watch actors engaged in minute and detailed activity but I am not of that leaning. If you love that stuff, you will really like this play.

Week (set) and Pringle(lights) work together to build a wonderfully suspenseful world. Week has built looming filing cabinets which take us to the world of imposing architecture loved by dictators, and reinforce the idea this show is about a child's memory - a small creature in a terrifyingly big world. Surrounded by these overwhelming symbols of bureaucracy, Pringle has partnered this with looming shadows, and deep pockets of darkness found in the dark of night and a world of hidden agendas.

The biggest disappointment is the whimpering end. Anna descends into a miasma of paranoia but the play, the acting, and even the lighting do not reinforce this confusion of lost boundaries and logic and order. Overall, Bolton has directed a very stilted performance which is disappointing given Popov's background in choreography, and he fails to create a dynamic tempo across the show - and particularly towards the end - which would give the audience stimulus and triggers to support the narrative arc of the play. In a play written in a narrative style, as this one is, life needs to be found in more than just the text. Perhaps the failure to include a sound design was a mistake?

Anna is an intriguing story, and in an Australia which is teetering so close to totalitarianism as we are right now it is good to be reminded who or what the real enemy is. The world is in danger and we need to remember the lessons of the past. Anna helps us do that.

3 Stars

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Beyond The Woods - Film Review

What: Beyond The Woods
When: 29 November 2019
Where: Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick
Written and directed by: Brayden DeMorest-Purdy
Featuring: Christie Burke, Jeff Evans-Todd, Broadus Mattison, and Steven Roberts
Steven Roberts
 In film making there is a mandate to 'show, don't tell' and Beyond The Woods takes this mantra to heart. Coming in at just under 2 hours, this Canadian thriller brings looming landscapes with dialogue as sparse as the pine trees buried under the snow.

The story takes the standard structure of a detective (Mattison) interviewing a suspect, Adam (Roberts), about the disappearance of Jack (Evans-Todd). Time shifts regularly between recent past, a slightly more distant past and the present. The icy cold of the snowy mountains casts a pall of lethargy over the insinuated seething passions of the community itself.

This film works with a slow dramaturgy and most of the shots involve the men sharing their space but mostly in contemplation. It is offset by random explosions of great emotion which then settle back into a pensive musing. As well as the time shifts, there are also reality shifts as Jack swings between reality and delusion as he finds himself in a nightmare he cannot escape.

Adam lives on a remote, seemingly abandoned, ranch of some sort with his wife, Laura (Burke). Laura disappeared and conclusions were drawn that she killed herself because she had pre-existing mental health issues. Jack joins Adam at the ranch to attend the funeral. He thanks Adam for all the love and support and comfort he has provided for Laura and the family as a whole.

Meanwhile, Adam has been cleaning out Laura's belongings and there is a big fire pit in the yard where things have been burnt. In a lonely moment of grief Jack stands contemplating the ashes and accidently makes some gruesome discoveries. At this point I would leave the property and go to the police. Jack, on the other hand, decides to confront Adam. The rest, as they say, is history.

Suffice to say, Jack doesn't turn up for the funeral and the police get curious. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the film is Adam's reluctance to kill. This is what brings it a step outside the standard tropes for this kind of film. In many ways, Adam finds himself in situations he can't figure out how to get out of just as much as Jack does.

I really did like Beyond The Woods but in the end I feel it is too long and too slow. For the amount of time it took to tell the story I would have liked more DeMorest-Purdy to provide character development of other characters, not just Adam and Jack. More about Laura to tell us why people would be okay with the suicide story. More about why Adam didn't just call the police in the first place. More about why the detective gets so emotionally unbalanced in the interrogation.

Having said that, the cinematography is grand and there is always something powerful in juxtaposing small, fragile humans against large and looming mountain tops. A really effective device was the use of smoking. Endless puffs of smoke emitting from Adam's mouth replicate the warmth needed to keep man alive in a countryside devoured by snow fall.

I also loved the framing of these shots. The cigarette smoke became so visceral because of the extreme front on close ups of each puff. Even though the film is not 3D I really did feel as if I could smell and feel the smoke in the air of the cinema. This use of extreme close ups also had the effect of making us co-conspirators in certain moments, such as when Adam drags Jack up a snowy bank. It feels as if Jack is being torn away from us and we become helpless spectators in what ensues next.

There is some bad steady cam work and a few little continuity problems, such as a vase in the loungeroom which is smashed by Adam in a fit of rage and frustration and confusion, but then is whole later when the detective inspects the room. These aren't big problems though, and the colour grading of the film works well to give it a slightly aged air. For some reason it is set in 1993 although I don't really know why.

Beyond The Woods is not too bad. It is just a bit too long and slow and could use more character development to help us care a bit more and get a bit more invested. The acting is pretty good, and the cast do well with a script which doesn't give them a lot of layers to develop.

3.5 Stars

Sunday 1 December 2019

Philophobia - Film Review

What: Philophobia
When: 30 November 2019
Where: Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick
Written and directed by: Guy Davies
Featuring: James Faulkner, Charlie Frances, Joshua Glenister, Jack Gouldbourne, Kate Isitt, Alexander Lincoln, Harry Lloyd, Kim Spearman
Joshua Glenister and Kim Spearman
Lift-Off is a global film network which began as a festival and is now an international distribution platform which provides opportunities for films to gather audiences and win prizes. As part of it's operations it creates screening festivals around the world and last week it came to Melbourne. A combination of features and shorts, fictions and documentaries, each film is given a chance to be seen and have the opportunity to win prizes and get feedback. One of those films this year was the English coming of age story, Philophobia.

Film titles are important, so let's begin here. Philophobia is the fear of falling in love. Not recognised in the DSM-5, it can still be considered to interfere with a person's lifestyle and can be an anxiety condition.

This is not what Davies' film is about so I am not going to talk about this much more except to explain the main character, Kai (Glenister), wants to be a writer and spends a lot of his time circling words in a dictionary. Philophobia is one of those words.

Kai is about to embark on final exams at high school and he and his 2 mates (they are always in groups of 3 in these kinds of movies) are playing their final pranks, panicking over their final swatting, and planning their opaque futures. Sammy (Frances) is the sexless but sensible friend, Megsy (Gouldbourne) is the clown, and Kai is the dreamer who is the only one with any hope of getting out of the small town and making a real future for himself. I should mention at this point the character of Kai is semi-autobiographical.

These three boys are portrayed as sweet and loveable, getting into some mischief, choofing an awful lot of doobies, but turning their noses up at harder drugs and all of them are virgins. I am starting to find my credibility stretched already... Having said that, they are a fun trio. Gouldbourne pushes a bit too hard at the humour and there is one scene where they are trying to sneak a rifle out of the house which is so fake it was irritating - but that is a direction problem, not the actor's fault. The window just wasn't that high!

Philophobia starts with perhaps the best lines in the film when Kai's English teacher (Faulkner) tells him his writing lacks authenticity and "There's a whole world out there waiting to shit on you. Let it. Use it." No prizes for guessing what this film is going to be about, eh?

Actually, I think the moral of this film is 'be careful what you wish for because you might just get it'. Kai is the teacher's prize pupil and this little piece of advice nearly causes him to fall off the rails. In fact, perhaps it does just that. As with life, the story doesn't end when the cameras stop rolling.

Between getting high, planning the ultimate end of school prank, and sitting exams, Kai has developed an obsession on the young woman (Spearman) who lives across the road from him. Kai's bedroom window looks right across the street into Grace's window and she is the kind of girl who gets undressed with the curtains open. Essentially, Philophobia is a sex fantasy and, again, by the end I just found myself thinking 'be careful what you wish for'.

Grace has a crazy boyfriend, Kenner (Lincoln) who is also the school bully. They are already sexually active and they engage in auto-erotica which Kai discovers at a party when he stalks her and catches them in the act. The rest of the movie is essentially about Kai and Grace trying to stumble their way towards a real connection - something grander and more honourable than just horny teen sex.

The film stumbles over itself though, and I can't help feeling it is because it is confused about what it wants to be. If it is a coming of age story it needs more innocence and a hero. Instead Davies let's it indulge in erotic fantasy and obsession for far too long (it is 2hrs long!) and I got really annoyed with how Grace is depicted the whole way through as, basically, an animated sex dummy. The camera angles, shot framing, and focus pulls are all designed to flatten her out and only show Grace as a mouth to put a dick into.

For a film to work we have to care about the characters and Davies doesn't give me any reason to care about the leads. Kai is vapid, Grace is a blow up doll, and Kenner is portrayed as psychotic. Sammy and Megsy are kind of adorable but they are not who the film is about.

My other problem with this film is at just an hour into it, the movie feels like it has a natural ending but then it starts again - a bit like Luhrmann's Australia. Philophobia would be a much stronger film if Davies had organised it so that these two main plot lines were concurrent. The movie would be shorter and the tensions in both stories would support the other and raise the stakes which might provide a much more fulfilling gestalt in it's final moments.

I suspect it is going to be hard to lock down an appropriate audience for this film. The sex stuff is too sordid for a young teen audience, but the whole point is about coming into adulthood. There are things which make it very young adult, such as the reccurring stag images which are very Harry Potter, and the high school end of year prank which is fun and harmless. On the other hand, the portrayals of women and sex are going to make this a hard one to seat in that age range and the rest of the story is too twee to work for older audiences.

2 Stars

Saturday 30 November 2019

Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives - Film Review

What: Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives
When: 29 November 2019
Where: Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick
Featuring: Lou Allstadt, Helen Bender, Ron Gulla, Tony Ingraffea, Brian Monk, and David Smith

In Australia we live on the driest inhabited continent in the world. The human body cannot survive more than a week without water. We know this. This is science. Despite this our Government keeps turning a blind eye to the great risks resource mining is putting on our miniscule water resources and endangering our existence. The film Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives looks at the most looming existential threat to Australians - fracking. The Lift-Off Film Festival brought it to Melbourne audiences last night.

Fracking is a term we hear a lot, but I suspect few of us really understanding. It is the process of injecting liquid at very high pressure into underground rock layers in order to open up pre-existing cracks and fissures and create holes or tunnels. This process releases the gas which has been stored in the rocks, enabling extraction for human use. Personally, this is all I need to hear to make me want to say "No way! You want to make the solid ground I stand on turn into swiss cheese which puts everything at risk of collapsing into sink holes?" Still, that might be considered over reaction so let's calm down and investigate the story further.

The type of fracking we have heard most about in Australia is coal seam gas extraction, which is the type of industry which has swamped the agricultural lands around Chinchilla in Queensland. This kind of fracking breaks open the seams in the layers of coal and produces immense amounts of methane. Methane. That gas animals fart and which climate activists say is one of the reasons we need to eat more vegetables so that we don't kill the planet through global warming...

The industry which has spurred this movie into production is the process of shale fracking which was an issue of great controversy in South Australia in recent years. Shale fracking is different than coal seam fracking because you have to go deeper into the earth and therefore powerful hydraulics must be used. As the film shows us through interviews and site inspections in Pennsylvania, these hydraulics are noisy, require maintenance and have been known to fail. Ignoring the standard methane leakage (which is, in practice, well above proposed specifications in Australia), there have been pipeline failures and, in fact, it has been shown that ALL pipelines will fail within 100 years of installation. So there we have guaranteed failure within the span of one human life time. Not scared yet?

In the south-east of South Australia lies the geological marvel of the limestone plains which encompass the areas around Mount Gambier. South Australia is the driest state on the driest continent, but in Mount Gambier there is The Blue Lake - the only water source for that part of our country. Limestone is a kind of rock which is made up of the fossils of sea creatures which build shells, and the district is covered with caves and a whole lot of already naturally occurring sink holes. (I need to point out my Mum lives there, so I do know a bit about the area myself). Shale fracking was proposed on the limestone coast.

Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives is a film created by farmer David Smith, who had serious concerns about the consequences. He set off to understand other communities experiences and make sure everybody who supported this process understood the risks and destruction which might ensue, and to learn how to identify the marketing spin and outright lies from fact and fortune.

Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives is not the kind of documentary which spouts facts and figures. It is an experiential investigation which focusses on speaking to people and looking at the cost/benefit outcomes for them. In this case (as should be in all cases) cost/benefit doesn't just mean economic profit and loss - it also means personal loss and community disruption...and, in the saddest of cases, loss of life.

Travelling between Queensland and the USA, Smith talks to locals, farmers, and academics to try and look at the full picture. The film does start with the mechanics of fracking, but it doesn't get bogged down there and in talking with real people we start to see the bigger picture.

This is a tricky technology because it is new and research papers have only really started to be available for study since around 2009 and most of those early ones were by the mining companies themselves who are trying to develop the technologies so they hold an inherent bias. This also means many of the reports of water contamination still fall into the same grey categories of issues such as cancer clusters and chemical plant leakages - poor health incidents are way above coincidence, but can you prove it in a court of law?

What we do know, though, is people in Pennsylvania have enlarged and exploding spleens, people are losing access control and enjoyment of their land because of the noise and traffic associated with building and maintaining the wells, and irregular extraction schedules. People are only seeing royalties of any great degree for around 3 years before the money falls off to negligible amounts. Most fracking wells are only viable for around 30 years. Methane does leak at higher levels than the companies propose. Wells do fail which leads to potentially catastrophic consequences. Communities disintegrate because their quiet agricultural idylls turn into noisy, industrial hubs. New born livestock are dying at far higher rates than previously. The reproductive cycles of humans and animals are being interrupted. People are killing themselves in desperation and frustration to have their objections and concerns heard by Powers That Be. Only a handful of the fracking sites installed produce profitable amounts for the land owners. All of this is revealed in Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives.

So how do we get back to the question of water? Water is one of the most absorbent substances we know. Have you ever left water in the fridge for a week without a lid? Have you noticed how it becomes smelly, kind of dense and possibly discoloured? So what do you think happens to our incredibly limited ground water, aquefers, and the Great Artesian Basin if we go around creating massive fissures in our continent's substrata and releasing gasses? Is a mining companies profit margin worth the risk to our country? Our planet? Are a few jobs or the money to build a house worth the extinction of our lives? And is it worth risking all this damage for something which only has an economic lifespan of 30 years?

Just before this film was released (and undoubtedly partially as a result of what was revealed through its making) South Australia did impose a 10 year moratorium on fracking, and WA has now protected 98% of itself from the process. However, in South Australia the moratorium is up in 2028 and the conversation needs to start again. In Victoria fracking is banned completely, but as Finucane & Smith told us in The Rapture: Chapter II, 85% of the Northern Territory is under, or in negotiation for, a fracking license.

I am pro-technology and progress, but there is nothing in my 'waters' which tells me this is a good thing. Apart from the whole bigger climate change catastrophe we are creating, lets just get local for a moment and ask ourselves can we really afford to turn our island into a giant sinkhole and risk what little water we have to contamination? Don't we already have enough water problems with the Murray/Darling disaster? Is mining money really more important than our ability to drink and eat?

I can't answer these questions for you. Neither can Pipe Dreams Fractured Lives. You do need to watch it though because when you consider your position and the fate of our land and our people these are the things which need to be mulled over. Hear from people who are in the middle of it. We all hear what the mining companies want us to know. Listen to the stories they don't want us to find out about and then make up your mind. This could be the biggest post-truth age decision you ever need to make.

4 Stars

Friday 29 November 2019

I Shot Mussolini - Theatre Review

What: I Shot Mussolini
When: 27 November - 8 December 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Alice Bishop
Performed by: Bridgette Burton, Michael F Cahill, Anthea Davis, Sophie Lampel, Marco Lawrence, Heather Lythe, Matthew Molony, and Greg Parker
Lighting by: Stelios Karagiannis
Sound by: Nat Grant
Video projection by: Salvador Castro
Stage managed by: Hayley Fox
Sophie Lample, Bridgette Burton, Michael F Cahill, Heather Lythe, Anthea Davis, Matthew Molony, and Greg Parker - photo by: Renan Goksin
We live in troubled times at the moment with growing nationalism and plutocracy and isolationalism. It is causing many artists to see parallels between the early years of last century and this century. I Shot Mussolini is one such reaction, investigating idealogical conflicts within Italy and concurrent activities in Ireland (with a brief nod to Hitler). This is the play showing at La Mama this fortnight.

I Shot Mussolini is a dramatisation of the story of Violet Gibson, an Irish Baron's daughter who went to Italy and tried to shoot Benito Mussolini - the recently established dictator of Italy - through his car window. There is little actual documentation about Gibson and why and how she did what she did, but we know a lot about things which were happening in troubled Europe at that time, and Bishop (writer and director) has created an intriguing mystery adventure with hints of the Dan Brown style of layers and intrigue.

With little actual historical evidence, Bishop has cleverly interwoven the fanaticism of the 'Il Duce' fervour with the mysticism of Catholicism and the secrecy, subterfuge, and violence of the IRA. It is worth noting that whilst these links cannot be proven, they may also be incredibly true... There were three attempts on Mussolini's life in 1926 of which Gibson's was the first. She may well have been a part of some bigger conspiracy or, as history contends, a mad women.

So first, some background. In 1919 Ireland began it's War of Independence and which failed in Dublin after some atrocious degree of bloodshed around 1920 - 1921. Gibson was a Dubliner. On the other hand, her father became an important instrument of the British restoration of order in Dublin so we can never know what Gibson's position on the IRA was - conspirator or casualty?

Meanwhile, the IRA was also trying to set up a gun running deal in Italy with Mussolini and one of his opponents. A windfall deal was reached which would have been to the benefit of the IRA, but Mussolini's main interest was to quash his opponent and so the IRA got screwed over. Thus, there was motive for them to hate Mussolini and perhaps try and organise an assassination.

In 1925 Mussolini dismantled the democracy and established himself as a dictator. Mussolini was a staunch atheist and was in a battle with the Catholic Church as well. Gibson had a complicated history with religion and a questionable past with regard to mental health and institutionalisation. Her mother was a Christian Scientist and Gibson, herself, explored Theosophy before settling comfortably into the Catholic faith. In 1926 Gibson came to Italy and attempted to assassinate 'Il Duce'.

Bishop has created a visual world of black and white to reference the old news movie reels of that time, which were screened before feature movies. Instead of a full screen though, the projecting surface is 5 tall flats which also reference those wonderful ancient Roman columns and the grandeur and mystique of antiquity which follows older faiths. Castro uses these columns to brilliant effect switching between divine light, the dank grey stones of a convent/prison, and ancient architecture. The only hint of colour comes towards the end as Karagiannis (lighting) brings in orange and blue and starts to reveal the spaces behind the columns hinting at an enlightenment which never comes and a conflagration which does.

The play begins with Gibson (Lythe) in a dark room with a gothic chair. She is marking a newspaper and putting an object in a small bag, testing it's weight. She is edgy and nervous. Next, we see 5 heavenly figures and she talks to them. Here is perhaps the genius in Bishop's interpretation of this story. We don't know who these creatures are or what they are. Are they real people? Are they angels? Are they memories?

It is eventually revealed they are Catholic saints who have come to visit her. The cleverness is in which saints Bishop has chosen: St Dymphna (Burton), the Irish saint of mental illness; St Teresa of Avila (Davis), the saint of mysticism; St Catherine of Siena (Lawrence), a mystic and activist; and St Joan of Arc (Lampel), the warrior women who went into battle because the voices in her head told her to do God's work.

So Gibson chats to her...guides?.. and then heads off to shoot Mussolini during a parade. I can tell you this because it all happens in the first 15 minutes. This play is not about the assassination attempt, it is a crime thriller trying to sift through the veil of confusion to try and understand what was going on in Gibson's head and the world's temperament at that time. At the centre of it all, sparring all the while with Gibson, is Chief Superintendent Pennetta (Parker).

Parker is magnificent, holding the sturdy centre of the vortex as the world shatters into meaninglessness and a fractious and feisty Lyth swings between innocence and provocation. With the gravitas of Patrick Stewart and the doggedness of Columbo, Pennetta is convinced Gibson is not insane, but can he prove it and is it in anybody's interest for him to do so?

Bishop has written and lively and surprisingly funny script despite the serious subject and the ominous overtones which make watching I Shot Mussolini a great night of theatre. Her direction is also light, clever and confident. I love how perfectly she demonstrates the wonderfully unique quality of theatre vs film - the fact that the whole stage is in the scene and the entire mis-en-scene is a picture of life and activity. None of this detracts from us being able to focus and understand. After all, this is how we experience life. Things are always going on around us.

The acting ensemble as a whole are magnificent, working together with a synergy you rarely see and a confidence which comes with maturity and assuredness of intention and purpose in every moment. I can't list favourite actors but perhaps I do have some favourite characters. Cahill's Enrico Ferri was confident as smug as a lawyer who never loses, and Molony was a surprisingly empathetic investigating magistrate.

If there is one thing missing for me, it was the simple question of why do we need to see this story in Melbourne right now? Perhaps this is one of the shortfalls of having the writer direct. In the program notes Bishop talks about her anger with Donald Trump and the state of the world, and in light of that it can definitely be seen there may be a conflation of Trump with Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but it is very, very implicit at best. Some kind of interplay between place and time - even perhaps just some small hints in the projections - would have finished this off for me. I admit I do like my theatre to give me some idea why I should spend my time being there, in the room, watching these ideas...and I don't really want to have to read the program notes to find that out.

Despite what I just said, I Shot Mussolini is a wonderfully written and expertly crafted piece of theatre and if you want to see the best artists doing their best work, this is the show to go to. This is how you make theatre.

4.5 Stars

Thursday 28 November 2019

Her Hour Upon The Stage - Theatre Review

What: Her Hour Upon The Stage
When: 27 - 30 November 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Lucy Seale
Performed by: Emma Bampton, Liv Bell, Matt Bertram, Genevieve Simone Brott, Nicholas Kirkby, Isabel Knight and Annabelle Mitchell
Designed by: Nicola Dobinson
Lighting by: Oliver Ross
Music direction by: Merryn Hughes
Dramaturgy by: Ashleigh Morris
Stage Managed by: Shane Woods
Annabelle Mitchell, Liv Bell, Genevieve Simone Brott, and Emma Bampton
As we draw nigh of the summer garden Shakespeare onslaught in Melbourne for 2019/2020 there is a show at The Butterfly Club everybody must see first - Her Hour Upon The Stage. Billed as an adaptation of the mighty play Macbeth, Seale takes a moment to raise the dead and let the women of this play have a say about what went on on those Scottish moors and this is so well crafted in every way - writing, direction, acting - you will be missing the best offering on the table if you don't get down there this weekend.

Her Hour Upon The Stage is billed as an adaptation of the Bard's tale of the Scottish king, but I would suggest it is a response to, rather than an adaptation of. Flooded with a wonderfully crafted syntax and rhythm almost indistinguishable from the borrowed parts of the original text, Seale's play has all of that Elizabethan mystery, majesty, and angst Shakespeare is so known for, but asks modern questions about how history is reported. Which lens are we looking through and what influence do we wish to impose in our telling of these stories?

My last review, The Trojan Women, talked about how important choice of translation is when putting on a play. Seale investigates this question further by focussing a spotlight on our, arguably, most canonical English writer and what looking at history through his lens has done for (or to) women across time. She speaks to the misrepresentation of the witches as human female, rather than otherworldly beings which then creates the metaphor of women being unnatural creatures themselves.

There is also a conversation about being non-binary - as in the witches are neither spirits nor humans and do not exist in a binary measure which challenges us to understand that there are many things in this world - perhaps everything? - which is non-binary. This is a particularly significant conversation in Macbeth where the first time we see the character of Lady MacBeth she is imploring the spirits to remove her womanly softness and replace it with a core of steel just like a man. The irony that she says this because she realises her husband will be too weak to do what needs to be done despite being a man seems to be missed by everybody in the whole world since forever...

For those who don't know much about the original play, Macbeth was written later in Shakespeare's career soon after King Lear and right before Antony and Cleopatra. Macbeth was a real Scottish king but it is believed the Bard took his ideas from Holinshed's Chronicles rather than being a rigorous examination of history. Key elements he took from the Chronicles was the witches (which were beautiful sprites, not ugly crones) and perhaps the character of Banquo.

Anyway, 3 witches appear to Macbeth and tell him he is going to be king. He and his wife set about killing everybody to make it happen. His wife goes mad and kills herself, he gets all uppity so everyone rebels and he is eventually killed along with just about everybody else in the cast. Standard Shakespearean fair.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the source play is Lady Macbeth is considered to be one of the strongest (most horrible?) female characters created by this playwright - mostly because she demonstrates ambition and strength of will before going mad, as we all do of course... What Seale asks us to do in Her Hour Upon The Stage is take a look at these women and this woman in particular and ask questions about the huge gaps, silences, and lack of information Shakespeare leaves us with. Seale gives us a way to see the myopia of our patriarchal heritage and how vehicles such as these plays are a part of the structure put in place to keep the engines of power running the way they always have. Which is why we keep doing them over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Lady Macbeth was also a real historical figure. Her name was Gruoch. In Macbeth much is made of her inability to provide Macbeth with an heir and in typical fashion it is her barrenness which is the problem, not his possible infertility. In real life Gruoch did have a son to her previous husband (killed by Macbeth) so she was not bare of womb at all. Seale does not state this explicitly in Her Hour Upon The Stage but she does keep asking the question, what if Lady Macbeth already had a child? Doesn't that change so much of what she says and does?

More importantly, what if her child's life is dependent on her full blown support of her husband? Doesn't that change how we see her actions as well as her mental state? It certainly has to effect how you read her initial speech about hardening up. If she is as much a prisoner in this manner - be it in velvet chains - as anyone else in the play, would that not explain her decay as she sees child upon child die at the hands of kingly ambition? Of course, it all gets too hard for Shakespeare and he sends her off stage to kill herself just like he does with poor Ophelia...

Seale also examines the embedded reaffirmation of original sin. The witches are the serpent and Lady Macbeth (Mitchell) is Eve. Poor Adam (Macbeth) is the lost lamb led astray by the mighty power of some words said to him by people who just happen to have mammary glands. Macbeth is a strong, successful soldier but it is every man's fate to be bowled over by the tiny puffs of air created by the sound waves which come out of women's mouths when we speak. It is funny how our words of treachery are so powerful but whenever we speak about doing good and kind things men seem to be quite impervious..?

Not forgetting the men though, it is really quite hilarious when, upon being interrogated about his inability to not act upon the women's words, Macbeth (Kirkby) gets all pouty. As Macduff (Bertram) points, out it is harder to be a man than to be a soldier.

Okay, so I love the ideas in Her Hour Upon The Stage. Seale's writing craft is beyond magnificent and Morris' dramaturgy is brilliant but what about the show? The fantastic news is everything about this play is top notch.

The Butterfly Club stage is tiny - especially for a cast this size - but Seale has used the space well and Dobinson (design) has kept it clear apart from a couple of crates. This gives the actors all the space to use and they use it and their bodies with confidence and creativity, making vibrant and dynamic choices and creating tension and drama at the top level.

The costumes are the real tour-de-force. Dobinson has kept them historical and within the visual canon, but they are blood splattered as they arise from the killing fields and give a frisson of our favourite zombie classics to add a bit of fun as well as representing the blood baths Shakespeare liked to fill his plays with. Ross' lighting is also suprisingly evocative and powerful given it really just works in the red, blue and warm white spectrum in a tiny space.

Brott, Bampton, and Bell are fabulous as the witches (sprites?). There is a temptation, through the current common use of the phrase, to assume the non-binary commentary in Her Hour On The Stage is gender related but in the casting Seale does not follow that through, leaving it to be implied as a general conversation about our insistance on binary measures of all sorts. All three have clearly defined characters and appear to be on something of a corporeal/incorporeal spectrum themselves with Brott being rather whispy, Bell being very earthy and reptilian, and Bampton being somewhat closer to the human spectrum of the three.

I could keep enthusing about this show but it would take you longer to read this then to actually go and see Her Hour Upon The Stage. Instead, close this page and head on down to The Butterfly Club because there are only 3 more shows and you really do not want to miss it!

5 Stars

Saturday 23 November 2019

The Trojan Women - Theatre Review

What: The Trojan Women
When: 22 - 23 November 2019
Where: Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Euripides
Directed by: Emma Sproule
Musical direction by: Sheridan Killingback
Performed by: James Dale, Emma Fawcett, Mitch McDonough, Josiah Moa, Roisin O'Neill, Joshua Quinn, Madeline Rintoul, Emma Rogers, Hannah Rule, Mitchell Sholer, Jon Simpson, Tahlia Summer, Jett Thomas, Melanie Thomas, Kate Tomkins, Liam Tyssen, and Eli Williams
Set design by: Sally Curry
Costume design and dramaturgy by: Melanie Thomas
Sound design by: Brad de La Rue and Sheridan Killingback
Stage managed by: Gabrielle Rando
Madeline Rintoul, Tahlia Summer, Hannah Rule, Emma Fawcett
There is a new translator of classical texts on the world stage (Emily Wilson) and Dionysus theatre have brought her understanding of Euripides words in The Trojan Women back to the stages of Melbourne after an initial award winning production in 2018. Sadly, the show only appeared at Chapel Off Chapel for 2 nights but I am sure those who caught it were as impressed as I was.

Euripides was a 5th century BC Athenian playwright. In 415 BC his play The Trojan Woman was produced as part of the annual Dionysian Festival as part of a trilogy, for which he won 2nd place. None of the works of the playwright who came first that year have survived.

The role of playwrights back in those time was to take classic myths and give them a contemporary morality. Euripides took the 400 year old tale of the battle of Troy and juxtaposed it against the tragedies of modern warfare.

The play begins with end of the war Homer told us about in The Illiad and before The Odyssey. The city of Troy is burning, the men have all been killed and the women have been allotted amongst the winners as slaves and concubines. Euripedes, in writing this play, was reacting to the reality of exactly this being done by the Athenians on the island of Milos (where the Venus di Milo was found) the year before.

The Pelopannesian Wars between Sparta and Athens had been going for 15 years so far, and after an uneasy peace lasting around 6 years, all hell was about to break loose. The Athenian army were being forced to re-enter the conflagration by their allies. As an interesting aside - when Sparta eventually won in 404 and took over Athens they were urged by their allies to commit the same atrocities and they refused...

Sproule (director) has honoured this tradition of contemporaneity by bringing the performance foward to Hollywood in the 1920s. The actors play out Hecuba's (Fawcett) pleading and laments on a sound stage where a Greek movie is being made. The chorus consist of 3 women (O'Neill, Rintoul, and Rule) who sing their narrative to a jazz swing beat with flawless harmonies which had me thinking of groups such as the Andrews Sisters. Kudos to Killingback (MD) for such fantastic music!

Bringing the play into the 1920s allows for a beautiful aesthetic, and costume designer Melanie Thomas really has created a stuning collection of vintage dresses and classic suits for the men. I also have to really dip my hat to Hecuba's dresss. Somehow it really spans the two periods, from the ancient toga to the satin arte nouveau seamlessly (pun intended), embodying Hecuba's regalness and allowing us to see her as an agent in both times.

This is fortuitous because for the rest, there is a real disconnect between the set and costumes. Not enough work has been done to establish the sound stage and I found myself in a degree of cognitive dissonance the whole way through. I won't even talk about Cassandra's (Summer) candelabra...

Choosing Wilson's translation of this play was the genesis of Sproule's idea. Wilson is known for creating translations which are forthright in their text which makes them accessible, and also, she attempts to correct cultural blindspots of the past which includes bringing the female voice into interpretations and eschewing cultural artifacts lurking in translations from the past which have caused language to be watered down to maintain patriarchal definitions of good and evil, or to be overdramatised to ameliorate the ego of the academic perhaps...?

In particular, Sproule wanted to reference the current ripples which have emerged from the #metoo movement and the revelations which have come out of Hollywood about sexism, abuse and assault. This is completely in line with the intentions of the work of the classic Greeks, but for it to really work it needed to be brought all the way forward. I understand wanting to engage in the fantasy fuelled beauty and freedom of that time but it was 100 years ago now, and if you want to make a contemporary statement you don't do it by placing it in the ancient past. It is too hard to make the connections.

According to the program, the analogy was to the abuses which have been revealed about movie stars of that era and the atrocities of the casting couch as it was back then where it all started. There is some sense of that with the 'off camera' activity between the men and the women but it is too far in the back ground. Sproule's ideas are strong but she hasn't quite managed to blend the two (three?) worlds. The main play is still in Athens and it is just the costumes which are wrong. I will say there is a lot of potential if she chooses to explore it further and take some risks. It would help if there were less studio executives and more fellow actors and crew with equipment.

Fawcett was a magnificent Hecuba, with all the regalness of a Queen and all of the pain of a mother and grandmother. Most of the rest of the principals suffered from overacting but this is perhaps because of their lack of knowledge. Euripides was , in effect, the forerunner of realism and he was all about presenting the high and lofty as ordinary people. His writing was the first to focus on the interior which, a millenium later, became the province of Shakespeare. As such, melodrama is not the way to go when presenting his work. Playing a Euripides play the same way you would present an Aeschylus play isn't right because Euripides was an innovator.

Perhaps my major disappointment though, was the emotional arc of Hecuba was never realised and that is the whole point of the play. There are major notes which have to be hit - death of Paris and Hector, Cassandra being sent to be a concubine, Andromache (Tomkins), and her grandson Astyanax (Williams) being sentenced to death. All of these have to be hit one upon the other without pause to work up her hatred for Helen (Rogers) so that the tension in her attack in the trial with Menelaus (Sholer) hits home and we get the catharsis of running into the flames. This allows us to really feel the defeat just as Hecuba is defeated in even this tiny act of defiance.

Overall, this production of The Trojan Women is an enjoyable hour + with heaps of creative potential. It just misses the mark of putting it all together into an integrated whole. It is not enough to just put ideas next to each other. They need to be blended and merged and there has to be seepage for it to work. Sproule is almost there but needs to focus less on creating pretty pictures and more on telling the story she wants to tell. A lot of deeper dramaturgy is needed when you want to make work this meaningful. I think Melanie Thomas has really let her down in this regard despite the magnificant costumes.

I really want to thank Sproule for bringing Wilson's translation to my attention though. It is really wonderful and makes certain aspects of The Trojan Women feel current and insightful. It has a great resonance with the feminist movement in our time. Here is a classic I wouldn't mind seeing on stage regularly. I think, until I saw this production, I never truly appreciated how much the choice of translation matters...

3.5 Stars

Thursday 21 November 2019

Electric Dreams - Musical Review

What: Electric Dreams
When: 20 - 24 November 2019
Where: Gasworks Theatre
Written, composed and conducted by: Drew Lane
Directed and choreographed by: Roman Berry
Performed by: Zak Brown, Ryan Evans, Madeleine Featherby, Matthew Field, Po Goh, Tom Green, Owen James, Drew Lane, Sophie Laughran, Stephen Mahy, Damien Mizzi, Anth Nekich, Aidan Niarros, Anglea Scundi, Anthony Scundi, and Courtney Smyth
Design by: Lachie McFarlane
Stage managed by: Leane Maddren
Madeleine Featherby and Tom Green
Yesterday I told you about some wonderful new musical theatre songs which have the potential to make great shows (Songs Of The Northern River). Today I am here to tell you about a brand new musical which has been developed into the full deal. Electric Dreams is a musical theatre version of the 1984 sci-fi romance film and Music Theatre Melbourne have brought it to the stage at Gasworks this week for us all to have a laugh and think about how visions of the future become the reality we find ourselves living in today.

Lane first came up with the idea to turn this iconic film into a musical 8 years ago. Whilst the film itself was not a particularly great example of film making, what makes it stick in our minds is the ideas underlying them. In this case it is the question of whether we can stay in control of all this technology we are creating to extend our human capacity.

The story behind Electric Dreams is that of a technophobic architect , Miles, who has a great idea but is convinced by his boss he needs a computer to help make the calculations for a new, earthquake resistant building brick. As with most users, his reluctant start becomes an obsession as he comes to realise what the computer can do and rigs it up to control his household appliances (think Alexa, Siri, Google...). Just like Spiderman and the radioactive spider bite, Miles (Green) spills liquid on the computer and it becomes sentient.

Meanwhile, a cellist named Madeline (Featherby), moves in upstairs and the computer, who calls itself Edgar (James), falls in love with her playing. It teaches itself to play in accompaniment and this is how Madeline meets Miles. They hang out and fall in love. Edgar gets jealous and starts an electronic game to ruin Miles and win the girl. Things get out of control with all of Miles' credit cards being cancelled, him being put on a 'watch' list, and eventually getting electrocuted.

Eventually Madeline discovers Edgar and realises it made the music and Edgar realises their love can never be. Miles recovers and everyone says sorry, Edgar commits computer suicide (or does it...?) and Miles and Madeline live happily ever after.

The timing is great for a reboot of this story. As I said, we now live in an active age of this kind of technology - it is in so many or our homes - and we have an unprecedented level of terrorist 'watch' lists since the 911 incidents. As good and faithful as this remediation is, I do think it misses an opportunity to bring the ideas forward in time. As the work stands at the moment, it is a fun retrospective to life in the 80's but does not resonate with the living paranoia which made this rom-com something of a horror story too.

Berry's direction is a bit colour by numbers, but what really brings this production to life is McFarlane's realisation of Edgar and how he has managed to superimpose Edgar's dominance over Miles from the tiny little 1980's computer to the entire expanse of the stage. Using set, lighting, and video - and with the fantastic vocal talents of James - I found myself falling in love with this lonely little computer and my eyes really did moisten up when it's heroic heart realises the only answer for everyone is for it to disappear. That idea punches even harder because it has to do it to itself. Edgar has human proofed itself against intervention.

Lane's songs are fun and Angela Scundi (Millie) and Mahy (Frank) bring life and laughter to the main couple as their BFFs who find their own parallel romance whilst trying to couple up the leads. Anthony Scundi does a creditable David Hasselhoff look-a-like, and there are a couple of ensemble members who really shine too. Niarros plays a few minor one-off characters with humorous abandon, and Smyth is a great singer with, sadly, too little to sing.

Despite a few recognisable riffs (I swear I heard the base line for 'You Can't Hurry Love' at one point), the songs are fun and Lane has been careful to incorporate the synth sound Giorgio Moroder used - and let's face it, one of the reasons the film endures in our memories is because of that fabulous theme song 'Together In Electric Dreams'. My one concern is I think the drums are too present in this current mix. They sound too garage rock and need to be pulled back and re-tuned.

The truth is, you are pretty much going to get all the pizzazz and wow of the big musicals when you see Electric Dreams with nothing like the cost so head on down to Gasworks and check it out. As a bonus you are near the beach and avoid the inner city traffic and parking problems. And trust me, you will all fall in love with Edgar!

4 Stars

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Mutating Roots - Circus Review

What: Mutating Roots
When: 14 - 17 November 2019
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Maya Muto
Directed by: Celia White
Maya Muto

Mutating Roots is a new work created by Japanese Australian dancer/circus artist Maya Muto and GUSH. Premiering at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year, Circus Oz brought it to Melbourne as part of the Sidesault Festival line up.

In Mutating Roots Muto explores the challenges of relocating outside of one's cultural background. Muto moved to Australia 12 years ago, after spending time in Belgium and Germany, and has found a cultural dissonance which is consistent across her migratory travels.

Muto uses her circus and dance background to speak to us about how her Japanese heritage supports, binds, and traps her throughout her interactions with other worlds. Her point: She is her heritage but she is not defined by her heritage. This is the challenge faced in our modern multicultural communities.

The show begins with Muto boxed in by a shoji screen (the paper has been removed). Is she in a safe place or is it a cage? Across the stage are 4 lines of cloth and rope. They are all a bit different but they are all thick and twined and resemble the roots of a ancient tree which have become exposed in the ground.

Muto emerges from her hideaway and dances across these ropes/roots. There is a bit of hair fiddling and whilst it is not evident at this point in time, this is a marker for a dominant part of the story Muto is about to tell us.

One of the 'roots' - the thickest - is a pair of silks which are loosely knotted from the anchor point in each direction across the stage. Muto goes from end to end slowly udoing each knot and identifying her female lineage on either side of the family. "Great grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunt," and so on until near the end she reaches herself. The ribbon rises and she used the remaining knots to frame tender and cute self portraits before she latches on and she rises to perform a complex silks routine across the four swathes of material.

I was impressed with the complexity of this routine and the skill in keeping all four strands from getting tangled. Unfortunately, I found myself getting frustrated because a lot of the routine (and all the following aerial routines) was performed with her back to the audience. I don't know how difficult it is to swing around but I have never had this sensation watching other artists. Combined with the problem that all that cloth meant Muto was cloaked a lot, I found myself feeling very frustrated as an audience member.

In fact, as good as Muto's performance is, and as complex and intriguing as the ideas underlying this show are, Muto spends way to much time with her face covered by her own hair, various cloth objects, looking down at the floor, or with her back to the audience. I am very surprised White (director) hasn't addressed this.

Eventually the warm embrace of the silks (her ancestors) becomes smothering and she needs to escape. Muto then performs a conceptually similar rope routine with an elegant white fringed rope and wearing a delicate pink kimono. The kimono floats beautifully, but Muto gets tangled in it, just as she was tangled in her ancestry.

In direct address to the audience Muto tells us she is always asked "When are you going to do your cultural dance?" She then presents a dance style montage and asks the audience to identify her cultural dance and let her know when we have seen it. Is it jazz? Is is ballet? Is it disco? We fail and cringe at ourselves as we recognise our ignorance...

In counterpoint Muto actually does take us through a album of female Japanese archetypes through her hair. I loved this section - the Harajuku Girl, the Geisha, the Elegant But Demure Woman. Not a word is spoken but we recognise who they are. Muto then pulls up another rope, plaited this time, and we expect another aerial routine but we are intriguingly suprised as this rope snakes us back through time to an age of the Shogun.

Muto explores the danger and ugliness of the crone before settling on the more modern stereotype of the Hello Kitty manga school girl before eschewing them all. She frees herself from all these signs and symbols, lets her own hair go free and scales an unadorned rope to revel in who she is in all her glory - unadorned, unsignified and magnificent. A modern woman who is all of her past, but ready for a strong and adventurous future.

Mutating Roots is a wonderful show but it still needs some work - just a bit of detailing. There is the problems I have mentioned earlier about not seeing Muto enough. Also, as much as I love all the deliberate hair stuff, there is too much messing around with it in the dance sequences. I kept wanting to shout out "just leave it alone!" It is great when it is a symbol, it is irritating the rest of the time.

Mutating Roots speaks to immigrant Japanese cultural tensions but the conversation is true across all cultures. Our history is our strength and our comfort, but it is also a tool which can strangle and bind us and stop us from moving forward - because of both ourselves and the people aound us. This is the conversation on everybodys' lips in Australia at the moment, but few people manage to articulate the complexities and tensions with the insight and honour Muto does in Mutating Roots.

 If you get the chance to see this show do go. It speaks to us all and has 'words' we all need to hear and are desperate to articulate. Thank you for doing this for us Muto.

3 Stars

Songs Of The Northern River - Music Review

What: Songs Of The Northern River
When: 19 - 24 November 2019
Where: The MC Showroom
Written and composed by: A.J. Ridefelt
Directed by: Jess D'Souza
Musical direction by: Rachel Lewindon
Performed by: Anne Gasko, Savannah Lind, Olivia Morison, Teagan Nowicki, Shannen Alyce Quan, and Ambrose Steinmetz
Design by: Alexandra Runge
Choreography by: Matthew Dear
Stage managed by: Erin Handford
Olivia Morison, Ambrose Steinmetz, Shannen Alyce Quan, and Teagan Nowicki
Melbourne has long been a hotbed for new Australian musicals and The MC Showroom has discovered genius in its own ranks, A.J. Ridefelt. A composer and lyricist, Ridefelt brings us a selection of his talent in the song cycle Songs Of The Northern River.

It is crazy to talk about a 'best of' album with a new artist presenting unpublished (until now) work but Songs Of The Norther River really is just that. This collection of 12 songs is a hit album in the making which you can buy on site (including the scores) and Craig Bryant of Paxus Production (musical arrangement and sound production) has given us the chance to own this music before it explodes in the Disney machine - yes it really is that good!

This song cycle is the result of the first iteration of the Hatchery program at The MC Showroom and Ridefelt is their first graduate. What a way to start! Providing Ridefelt with mentoring and the resources at their command including the venue and the production support, The MC Showroom really enter this developmental layer of theatre in Melbourne with hutzpah!

Within this cycle of 12 songs riffing off the idea of dealing with change and adversity lies the seeds of at least 2 full musicals and perhaps one pantomime. Ridefelt already has the hit songs which really are up there with 'Let It Go' and 'Defying Gravity'! His songs 'Stepping Stones' (Quan and Morison) and 'Butterfly' (Steinmetz) are going to be the iconic anthems of musical theatre of the future.

I am gushing but this is because not only is the music composition world class, but Ridefelt is an amazing lyricist. It is surprisingly rare to be able to say that, but Ridefelt understands that words are rhythm and music as well as meaning makers and his rhyme play and ability to overcome the difficulties of the stubborn language of English creates a joyful musical experience as he tells stories of loss, embarrassment, fantasy and humour we can all relate to.

The singers in this production are still developing but they have been working under the artful hands of D'Souza (director) who has created a production which is sophisticated, working within the construct of a concert whilst demonstrating to perfection, with broad brushstrokes of what the full musicals might look and feel like. Dear's choreography also highlights the potentials whilst never losing sight of the aim and purpose of this presentation. His work in 'Another Roll Of The Dice' (Morison, Steinmetz, Nowicki, and Quan) is a wonderful example of this - fun and cheeky but never falling into crass or sleazy.

Each of the singers is at a different stage of vocal development but the casting has been clever and, for the most part, really highights the individual strengths and potential of each performer. Morison is probably the most confident singer with the rest falling off pitch occassionally. Nowicki explodes with acting range and power - I couldn't stop laughing at 'Pissed' and everybody could relate to the story of getting stuck on a train!

Steinmetz has true talent as a comic artist, and Lind has the opportunity to reveal her ballet skills. Gasko brings authenticity and gravitas to the mix and Quan has a gentle innocence about her.

I should say, even though there were pitch problems, this music is not easy. Lewindon's music direction is fabulous but she has not gone easy on the singers and the music is challenging with wide dynamics and complex tempo changes. It is full of tongue twisters and harmonies which are delightful for the audience but would challenge even the most experienced of singers.

I truly loved every song in the show but I am going to give a shout out to 'Jausterdon' (Morison and Steinmetz). It took me completely by surprise and I wasn't sure about it when it began - with characters called Parsnip and Tuna! - but by half way through I was bopping with the beat and dreaming of a show where these characters exist.

Just to put the icing on the cake, as minimal as the design is, Runge's costuming really steps this production up to top class professionalism. Keeping everything in a simple palette of blue, Runge still manages to clearly define every character and every scenario clearly, reflecting the tone of the songs as well as the intentions.

What can I say? Songs Of The Northern River is a fabulous hour of performance and potential and I guarantee all of you music theatre addicts will trip over each other to buy the sound track after the show is over.

4 Stars

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Subjective Spectacle - Exhibition Review

What: Subjective Spectacle
When: 14 - 17 November 2019
Where: RRI, Circus Oz
Created by: Kimberley Brewster, Mindy Davies, Lowana Davies, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellman, Rockie Stone, and Natalia Velasco
Rockie Stone
The Sidesault Festival is all about taking circus out of the big top and letting it play in whatever performance arena it finds a home. One of the more exploratory iterations of this idea is the gallery exhibition Subjective Spectacle.

Working within the paradigms of performance as art, performance art, and visual art, a collection of artists have come together to present a range of spectacles for viewers to examine and ponder. Whilst no two contributions are alike, all riff off the idea of the human relationship to, and effect on, the environment.

There is no real definitive order to how we experienced the exhibition, but certain events did occur at different times across the viewing hour, and some, such as Stone's, continued throughout reminiscent of a ticking clock counting down our time on the planet. Slowly, rythmically she makes her way around a huge circle of bottles again and again and again. In the middle of the circle is a bottle of ice with a candle underneath. Eventually the warming causes the bottle to crack and explode. Stone picks up the pieces and tries to put it back together but can't. Instead she leaves the shards in a pile over the candle to continue melting. In the meantime she continues her journey across the bottles. Every time one falls or shatters she stops to note the extinction date of Australian animals in chalk outline on the floor. All of this takes place in silence and with no emotion and no break in relentless tempo. This is what makes it so powerful and painful.

Diagonally across the room is a naked body lying face down, surrounded by a curtain of fishing line. At some point the body starts to levitate and we see the striations of the fishing lines across the underside of the body, cutting into flesh at is suspends it in the air. The body is suspended by what resembles a marionette frame and large boulders hang on either side. The audience is silently invited to play with the rocks and force the body to move despite being lifeless and hopelessly entangled. The image is beautiful but terrifying. In this work Francis and Velasco are speaking to our overfishing of the oceans and lakes of the world. And perhaps there is commentary about our plastic wastes catching and drowning sea creatures and feeding birds, leaving their lifeless bodies to haunt the oceans until they disintegrate - something the plastics will never do.

To the left is a photography exhibition by Brewster. Brewster is fascinated by the body in space and the collection invokes a range of bodies engaging unusually with architecture and space. Her works speaks to the strangeness of nature versus industry and the soft curves of the human form integrate with cold, hard RSJ's for example. There were prints available to take home if you wished. I came away with one taken of the body caught in fishing wire. It is beautiful and yet harrowing to look at...

To the right is another photo exhibition, this time by Gellman, who later presents a piece of performance art. These photos are portraits of the LGBTQIA+ community in Sydney. The faces are all made up in drag and resemble haunting death masks. As beautiful as the make up is, the face paint speaks strongly to the fish marionette beside it and there is a loneliness to these colourful images.

Just then, a video commences on a large TV screen. Lowana and Merinda Davies have created an 11 minute video which speaks to what happens when we redirect water away from its habitat. Juxtaposing a body floating underneath water, lifeless, against a body trapped in huge concrete water pipes waiting to be laid this video asks the question do we understand we are killing ourselves by killing our environment. This is a hugely important conversation to have with the Murray/Darling water issues and droughts we are facing. You can still watch this video HERE.

Subjective Spectacle ends with a performance art presentation by Gellman. Part of the decor of the room has been huge swathes of metallic gold wrapping paper which rises up the walls from the entrance of the space which resolve into shapes resembling the tail fins of whales. In an unassuming manner Gellman comes in and starts scattering small shards of this paper which floats skimming across the floor like fish in a pond. They add some tiny motorised versions which buzz around the floor in a manner which got us all laughing at how cute and beautiful they were. Gellman disappears and a long shard of pointed iron descends from the ceiling. Gellman comes back but they are some sort of Asianesque sea god - naked but covered on one side with the gold paper and wearing a white mask (again the puppet theme...). The god is curious about the metal and plays with it, eventually scaling it. But the harpoons of whaling boats are not a toy and the iron ends up dripping with gold fish corpses...

Subjective Spectacle asks us to question what spectacle means for ourselves. Is it glitz and glam? Is it sparkle and spangle? In Subjective Spectacle there is plenty of that, but this exhibition asks us, in a number of unusual and gob smacking ways, are we ready to see the pain and death this glamor costs? Will we look it in the eye, and will we do what we need to do to stop the torture and destruction - to the world and also to ourselves?

4.5 Stars

Earshot - Theatre Review

What: Earshot
When: 18 - 20 November 2019
Where: Footscray Community Arts Centre
Written and directed by: Kate Hunter
Composed by: Josephine Lange
Performed by: Kate Hunter and Joesphine Lange
Sound design by: Jem Savage
Josephine Lange and Kate Hunter - photo by Leo Dale
Premiering in 2017 at fortyfivedownstairs, the Due West Festival has brought the phenomenal audio/theatre composition Earshot back to Melbourne audiences for only a few short days so be quick or you'll miss it and that would be a huge shame. Hunter, Lange, and Savage have come together and recreated this amazing symphony of human conversation at the Footscray Community Arts Centre and it is awe inspiring!

Hunter has always been an avid eavesdropper and she has collected an hilarious and terrifying array of overheard snippets of conversation which Lange has crafted into a concerto of verbatim presentation. Working with pace, punctuation, and polyphony, the performances of these two women are augmented by masterful reinforcement, sampling and live processing by Savage.

The space has been designed to represent a kind of surreal echo chamber, but the word echo is mutated into the varieties of ways we hear ourselves and others in the analogue world and the digital one as well. Closed captioning is an echo, voice travelling down a tube and emerging somewhere else in the room is an echo, digital delay is an echo, two people speaking the same words at the same time is an echo.

The genius in Earshot is many fold but perhaps the most evident is the idea that we rarely hear any conversation in full. If someone is talking on the phone you only hear their side of the conversation and if you are the person on the other end you may have the conversation of others in the room interrupting the logic and tempo of the conversation. In a three way conversation you only hear two voices - we rarely listen to our own voice in these circumstances. When you overhear a conversation at a restaurant you may hear everything but have absolutely no context with which to make sense of it.

Making sense is what Earshot is all about. How do we hear? What bits are we hearing? How many ways is comprehension and understanding interfered with through noise, through unspoken words which are assumed, through only accessing half the conversation?

The situation becomes even more complex when extreme emotion and disability enter into the picture. What does a conversation sound like/mean when you have tinnitus, partial hearing loss, memory deficit, or live next door to a construction site? How can you make meaning when you are working through imperfect translation such as voice activated close captioning? When your head is full of the chemicals of terror what does threat sound like?

So far I have made it sound like Earshot is deep and dark. It does have these elements and they are what provides us with the base notes of this concerto. There is also melody, harmony and a lovely application of tremolo.

For the most part you will laugh your way through this show. There really is nothing funnier than most overheard conversations. Without context nearly everything we say is farcical - not to mention how we say it! Lange's composition really highlights the humour because there is no dependence on real speech patterns. They certainly begin that way but at the 'music' progresses there are moment of andante, legato, fortissimo, and crescendo which stretch or compress the dialogue into wonderfully surreal charicatures of the semiotic symbols they begin life as.

Dramaturgically, Hunter has brilliantly chosen to not edit around recording glitches and incomprehensible moments which adds to the hilarity. The pair also work with a very delicately curated level of body art which helps us journey through the events. A cyclical tick in a recording becomes a regular little stand up moment (literally) in the performance. An incomprehensible portion of speech is uttered as "mumble" in the middle of a sentence - in some cases several times over. Their hands touch their hearts whenever the abusive man calls the woman a profanity... Hunter and Lange perform in perfect synchronicity, acting as all the instruments in an orchestra - sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes as call and response, etc.

Across the front of the space 5 flexi pipes are set up to represent a musical stave with the ends open at each side of the stage, also bringing to mind pipe organs. In the auditorium these pipes emerge amongst the audience creating a fantastic analogue surround sound replicating busy government offices as Lange and Hunter whisper down them at the same time as performing a conversation in a Medicare office.

Analogue and digital ways of transmitting and listening work side by side in Earshot. Speaking into tin cans sits side by side with closed captioning (the captions are hilarious by the way), noisy kitchen appliances share the stage with # hieroglyphics littering the video screen, vocally created forest sounds share the air waves with a complex digital sound scape.

Earshot is funny and clever, but it is also powerful. There is power in hearing someone else say words we have probably said ourselves but in a different context. There is power in the ways people are prevented from hearing everything clearly and distinctly.

How may Facebook discussion threads have you been involved with only to discover there was something you didn't know going on the background which makes your comments inane, redundant, or inappropriate? Have you read the entire thread of that Twitter comment you just replied to? What exactly is it you are hiding behind all that corporate speak, media spin, or technical jargon? Do you realise you are isolating people with disability if you choose not to consider their barriers to understanding?

I have made Earshot sound very deep because it is. But as is true with all brilliant compositions, the layers unfold in a way which speaks directly to your heart whilst bringing your brain along with it. As with any great movie sound track, you will feel your way along the journey and have a fun and wild ride as deeper understanding sneaks in and delivers insight.

I cannot recommend Earshot highly enough. It is great theatre, great music, and great conversation (pun intended). It's only on for two more days so hurry down to Footscray before it is gone again!

5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

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