Friday, 16 August 2019

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Musical Review

What: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
When: 9 August - 3 November 2019
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Book by: David Greig
Music by: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by: Jack O'Brien
Orchestration by: Doug Besterman
Featuring: Benjamin Belsey, Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Elijah Slavinskis, Paul Slade Smith, Edgar Stirling, Lenny Thomas, and Lachlan Young.
Choreography by: Joshua Bergasse
Design by: Mark Thompson
Lighting by: Japhy Weideman
Sound by: Andrew Keister
Projections by: Jeff Sugg
Puppets by: Basil Twist
Lenny Thomas and Tony Sheldon
It is time to indulge your sweet tooth and head on down to Her Majesty's for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. A night of shockingly funny spectacle and lots of laughs, this production is a hoot.

I don't know how you grow up in the modern Western world and not at least have a passing familiarity with the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book, the films, the golden tickets...even Cadbury now have a real Wonka Bar. It would be beyond belief to think it would not be made into a musical and so it has, and here it is.

This musical began it's life in 2010 and debuted in London in 2013. It had a decent run but also didn't hit the heights of imagination. In 2017 it was reworked with a new director (O'Brien) for Broadway and is still being tweaked as it moves across the world. I reckon they have pretty much got it right now.

I admit I am not a musical theatre addict so it may not be surprising that I will say this show is fabulous when critics of the Sydney season were so harsh but here I go. I am not overly impressed by all the sparkle and the spangle. What I look for in a show is a strong story told using all of the elements of theatre making and all of those elements working together to support each other. This is what you get in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But don't worry - there is also a bevy of fun and funny surprises along the way just as you would expect in Wonkaland.

This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leans more towards the family fantasy of the 1971 film. Having said that, there is definite darkness there and this is what makes it feel like a secret night of naughty for us grown ups while the kids are enjoying all the colour and movement.

Yes, there are the twee moments, such as when Grandpa Joe (Sheldon) makes jokes about his age and references Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills but this is what musicals do and you can hate on it or - as I did - groan a bit and then laugh at the inevitability. This jaded tolerance is the perfect precursor to allow yourself to sink into the glorious blasphemy which sits below all of Willy Wonka's (Slade Smith) charm and affability.

Perhaps the biggest change to the story is in the musical Wonka seems to have selected Charlie long before he (or Charlie really) ever comes up with the idea for the competition. Yes, it telegraphs the outcome but we already know how the story goes and this way we don't have to pretend surprise. It is all about the journey as they say.

Sheldon is great fun as Grandpa Joe - full of energy and life contrary to his supposed aged and crippled state, and Slade Smith is excellent as Willy Wonka. This is not a dance spectacular. This production is all about great lyrics being sung well and I don't know anybody with the dental dexterity of Slade Smith in the songs which go 100 miles a minute! The top of Act 2 is a wonder as he gallops through 'Strike That, Reverse It'. My poor brain couldn't keep up but it had nothing to do with the delivery or the sound system which is as clear as a bell (except for 'Queen of Pop' for some reason).

I loved all of the children, but most of all I loved their dreadful fates as they disregarded all of Wonka's warnings. The true genius of Slade Smith's Wonka is he becomes so very, very human as he gives in to the understanding he won't be listened to and what will happen next is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow morning.

The Gloop family (Octavia Barron Martin and Jake Fehily) are adorable, and the Salt's (Stephen Anderson and Karina Russel) are satisfyingly autocratic. The Beauregarde's (Madison McKoy and Jayme-Lee Hanekon) do the Kardashian's proud!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of sleights of hand and fun illusions. Violet Beauregarde's evolution into a giant purple ball and then bursting had me in stitches but the true coup d'etat comes in Veruka Salt's demise. In this production Veruka is a prima ballerina and her encounter with the sorting squirrels is straight out of The Nutcracker Ballet. For those of us who get that reference this is the pinnacle display of why this show is so good.

It is the dramaturgy, people, and it pokes up it's head in moments of brilliance all across the show. For example Mrs Green (Joseph Naim), the rotting vegetable seller, is a hoot and a fun reference to the age of pantomime. The Oompa Loompas are also resolved in a very clever and satisfying way and one of the great decisions for this musical is to leave out many of their songs. They are there when they are needed and they are gone when they add nothing to the story.

Traditionally one of the main morals of this tale has been said to be 'bad things happen to children who don't behave' but in this musical this is not true because at the very end Charlie does not heed his warning and yet he wins the kingdom. I think it is the song 'It Has To Be Believed To Be Seen' which tells us the truth of this show and is the idea which resonates across our post-truth world. So much of the sparkle and spangle being sold to us by our leaders - social, political, theological, geographic, economic... - requires faith in the message or the mouth because there is not a whole lot of evidence to back up their statements of 'fact'.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the whole package. The production values are fantastic but more to the point they do what they do perfectly and it all points to the story not at itself. The performances are all consistently brilliant. The dancing and choreography is clean and precise although this is not really a dancing musical. The singing is perfection.

Part of the brilliance is when it works best is when all of this is left behind! One of the scenes which had me laughing the most was the journey through the wind tunnel. The whole journey is done with mime. Not a single prop or set piece is in place but we know exactly what is happening to everyone at every moment and it is bellyachingly funny.

Okay, I will complain about one thing. I think the glass elevator should rise faster. The end of the show, musically speaking, really slows down into a kind of lullaby tempo. It is beautiful but I was tired and suddenly, at the end, all I wanted to do was go to sleep. This will be great for the parents because their kids will be ready for bed!

On the night I went Lenny Thomas was playing Charlie and he was terrific. I also saw Elijah Slavinskis at the media call and he was equally as brilliant. I suspect no matter which night you attend you will love whoever of the 5 boys playing Charlie you get.

5 Stars


Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Wild Cherries - Theatre Review

What: Wild Cherries
When: 14 - 25 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Daniel Keene
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Lucy Ansell, Molly Broadstock, Milijana Cancar, Dennis Coard, Carmelina di Guglielmo, Kim Ho, Troy Larkin and Enzo Nazario
Set and costume by: Emily Collett
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound by: Ben Keene
Stage managed by: Teri Steer
Molly Broadstock and Milijana Cancar- photo by Sarah Walker
Riffing off the work of Chekhov, La Mama presents a new play by Daniel Keene (writer) to the stage. Wild Cherries shifts the lens of The Cherry Orchard and examines the plight of labour slaves rather than the ruling elite.

Beginning as short pieces about modern slavery written for Sydney Theatre Company for a project which was never realised, Daniel Keene crafted the idea into a mirror play for The Cherry Orchard. Whilst Daniel Keene and director Oh say in the program notes Wild Cherries is looking at modern slavery, the construction and style have an old world feel and remind me most strongly of writers such as Steinbeck and perhaps Williams, and the costumes (Collett) also take us into a kind of Great Depression aesthetic.

Wild Cherries tells the story of 8 cherry pickers. They are itinerant labourers paid little and fed even less. They are people at the bottom of the heap and who are about to fall even further as the employer plans to separate the men from the women and ship them off to unknown places to do even more menial work in worse conditions.

Probably because of its genesis, Wild Cherries is written in a very monologic style which makes it tricky to maintain dramatic action and Oh appears to have really played into that by having most of the text spoken on a rostra downstage right.  It was an intriguing choice if a bit confusing. The Courthouse has a lovely sized stage and cordoning it off and mostly only using one spot seems like a strange choice.

I also wonder at directors who seem to have forgotten centre stage is the most powerful spot for performers. I keep seeing tables and other furniture put there, and in this case it is just completely ignored and unused. I would love to say it was reinforcing some point in the play but I don't think that is true. It really does seem to just be an affectation and one which is uncomfortable for the audience who have to sit for just over an hour and half with their neck craned in an unusual direction.

In this review I shall ignore the 3 ladders. It is the kindest thing I can do and appears to be what the cast do for most of the show beyond the first 5 minutes anyway.

In an interview with Cameron Woodhead, Daniel Keene spoke about constructing this play as an attempt at creating a "beautiful object" and "a piece of poetic writing". I did wonder if Oh's insistence on everything happening on a plinth was an attempt at referencing a living sculpture rather than a play as such - perhaps something in the vain of Gustav Vigeland?

If so, it does begin to work in the blocking but the stage placement and Collett's design don't really reinforce that idea.  Having said that, without the fruit tree netting structuresin the set - which are so impressive upon entering the space - Grant would have had very little to light and there would have been no way to bring the play to a climax visually.

Daniel Keene's homage to Chekhov is strong and consistent in the structure even to the final moments of Fir(The Cherry Orchard) and Afina (Wild Cherries) . The monologues are heavy and Wild Cherries is dense with despair and hopelessness. Having said that, like the Russian, Daniel Keene's writing is alway filled with humour and it is as much a mistake to play to the pathos with him as it was when Stanilavski did it to Chekhov.

Despite his protestations otherwise in the Woodhead interview, Oh has unfortunately fallen into that trap. The actors lean heavily into their emotional repertoire, layering everything with anger and sorrow which is emphasised by Ben Keene's (quite amazing) sound design.

Performances are strong (although all the different - and not consistent - accents had me confused), and luckily a couple of the actors found ways to shift out of the doldrums to bring life and hope and humour to the show. In particular, Ansell (Elena) and Nazario (Anton) gave emotional dynamism which allowed us respite from the gloom which, in turn, helped emphasise the horror of the circumstances. Larkin (Emil) also portrayed a wonderfully layered performance.

Some aspects of the story are problematic for me. The women are written from a very male perspective and the wedding - whilst necessary for some kind of group survival celebration - was a mystery. As the granddaughter of a woman who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp with toddlers I can attest to the fact that women are not as much the victims of fate and passive in the face of oppression as Daniel Keene has written, but for a man this isn't such a bad set of portrayals.

Wild Cherries is the beautiful object Daniel Keene was desiring to create and Oh has, for the most part not gotten in the way of that. It is longer than it needs to be. Perhaps the one major criticism is the pace. Every scene seems to move at the same pace. It is difficult to manage this because of the monologic structure, but this is the kind of circumstance where the director's skill can become evident. Daniel Keene gives all of the verbal hints in the script needed to understand the climactic conclusion, now Oh and the cast just have to craft the momentum of the work to get us there.

Wild Cherries is a dip into an older style of theatrical story telling. It is languid in a way we don't see a lot of any more. It perhaps doesn't make it's point about modern slavery very clear but it is still wonderful writing and the echoes of Chekhov resonate deeply.

3.5 Stars



Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Helping Hands - Theatre Review

What: Helping Hands
When: 7-10 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Directed by: Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonzalvez, and James Matthews
Performed by: Tara Daniel, Vanessa Di Natale, Emily Griffith, Dee Matthews, Artemis Munoz, Aislinn Murray, and Alexander Woollatt
Set and lighting by: John Collopy
Costumes by: Hannah Aroni
Sound by: Jacinta Anderson
Stage Managed by: Jacinta Anderson and Loughlin Turpin
Tara Daniels (with Uncle Bob) - photo by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
Helping Hands is a phenomenal piece of theatre now showing at La Mama Courthouse and I strongly advise everyone to go and see it. Presented by neurodiverse theatre company A_tistic, this show is a comedically serious investigation into how neurodiversity manifests in our society and what help does and might look like in order for people to flourish.

Helping Hands is devised theatre show inspired by an essay called Quiet Hands. The theatrical project began as a creative development and spun off into a array of explorations including: Them Aspies, Pinocchio Restrung, and Alexythemia. This fourth show looks at what help for people on the Autism Spectrum looks like. It doesn't leave it there, though. Helping Hands goes on to model what might be more positive ways to guide and assist people with neurodiversity to experience their lives to fullest.

Beginning with a talk show interview, the comic tone is set by Munoz (host) and Murray (mother) talking about the difficulty of raising an allistic teenager (not autistic). The mother bemoans the tendency to lie and other problems which would never happen if the daughter was autistic. It is an outrageously funny beginning and the laughs don't stop for the next hour and half.

Helping Hands is a serious work though, and throughout the hilarious sketches of appalling ignorance in the health profession and our seriously flawed welfare system, we follow the story of Donna (Murray). This little girl is attached to her red ball and the parents engage a therapist (Matthews) to help Donna separate from her comfort toy.

The therapist uses the common place ABA (Applied Behavioral Training) to teach Donna new techniques. ABA is a process based on positive and negative rewards. A criticism posited in this show is what Donna actually learns is her body is not her own and the definition of fun and happiness is defined by what people around her say it is and not her own personal experience.

The story then goes into nightmare territory as we learn about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Centre which still, to this very day, use electric shocks to 'train' their students in a manner not dissimilar to how shock collars are applied to dogs. As you can see, hidden inside the humorous sketches and outstanding theatrical techniques are issues of great pain and horror and we need to understand what we are doing and make sure when we help that is exactly what we are doing - not causing more harm!

And so we watch a film noir sketch which takes digs at academia's inability to demonstrate flexibility unless you are formally registered as special needs (I know a bit about this myself so I can speak to the accuracy of this depiction). We see a college party where the line is blurred between what is awkward social abilities and more common social ineptitude. We see an overbearing mother harangue her children but is she just house proud or is there something neurodiverse going on? An important question because historically it has been assumed the occurance of autism in females is much lower than males - an assumption which is now being questioned.

Everything, theatrically speaking is done simply but very, very well. The design and staging is extremely minimalist, but not careless. The dramaturgy is excellent and the story telling clear, dynamic and completely engaging. The acting is uniformly engrossing and the lighting (Collopy) and sound (Anderson) work to shift between a world of nightmares and safety.

What sets Helping Hands in a stratosphere rarely reached by most theatrical performances is the team manages to create safe spaces for the audience to get what they need for their comfort and safety. By this I mean they do not shy away from using techniques such as flickering lights which can cause problems for people with neurodiverse abilities for example, but as a part of the structure of the work, the audience are given the opportunity to provide their own self-care.

Such options include pre-show warnings and a chill out room for people to access whenever they need it. A break is built in half-way through the evening after a particularly challenging sensorial moment to allow for rest and quiet if needed. Given that a portion of the cast also identify with neurodiversity this also allowed them to recentre and recover before moving forward. This may sound like it slowed everything down, but because of the excellence of the theatre making and the pace and cleverness of the work, it really just felt like a mini interval which was much enjoyed by everyone.

The second half of the show thrust off most of the negativity and began exploring what good and positive help might look like. Donna's carer (Griffith) learnt how to positively help when a panic attack occurs without interfering with Donna's autonomy as a person. Matthews and Di Natale show how just lifting light levels can calm a space down for the neurodiverse and it does not destroy the artistic integrity of the piece - you could say on many levels it actually improved the integrity part of the phrase artistic integrity...?

Most importantly, as well as presenting a story about Autism, the production proved their message of positive contribution and interaction by having a cast facing these kinds of challenges participating in creating and performing this clever and magnificent piece of theatre. It does not fail in either areas of art or integrity unlike television shows such as The Good Doctor for example.

I really cannot speak too highly of Helping Hands and I am not being nice because it is work created by a neurodiverse team. Anybody who reads my reviews knows I can never be accused of being nice... The company are engaging in a Q and A after every show of the season so you can ask questions about what you have seen or what their process was, and the show will also be available on-line for viewing - check the A_tistic website for more information on that.

5 Stars

Sunday, 28 July 2019

We Three - Theatre Review

What: We Three
When: 25 July - 1 August 2019
Where: Studio Theatre, Gasworks
Written by: Hayley Lawson-Smith
Directed and designed by: Eryn Kimberley
Performed by: Mohan Lakshmipathy, Andrea Mendez, Berk Ozturk, and Paul Wentford
Lighting by: Emma Fox and Tomas Gerasimidis
Sound design by: Mark Dosenko
Stage Managed by: Vivian Siu
Mohan Lakshmipathy, Paul Wentford and Andrea Mendez
Perhaps timed on the calendar a little oddly, a nativity play with a twist is being presented at Gasworks. We Three takes the story of the quest of the three magi from the New Testament and gives it a contemporary post-truth twist.

We Three is written by Lawson-Smith who, in the program notes, talks about having a dissonant connection to Christmas. Through We Three, Lawson-Smith takes the opportunity to recreate the story by removing the privilege of Christianity and bringing these magi down to the level of ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance.

Traditionally the 'three kings' who welcome the baby Christ into the world with gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankinscence are said to represent the 3 ages of man - aged, mid-life, and youth. Lawson-Smith takes the youth symbolism and stretches it to the extreme making Balthazar (Mendez) a pregnant woman who, like the Mother Mary, is not too far from giving birth to a boy and who is also on a pilgrimage.

Tradition is a bit confused about whether Gaspar (Wentford) or Melchior (Lakshmipathy) is the old man who brings the gold. Lawson-Smith settles the debate by making Gaspar the old man, but leaving Melchior to bring the gold. Cultural diversity in the casting also brings a contemporary depth and resonance.

Lawson-Smith has also created new back stories for the characters. Gaspar is the lover of Herod (Ozturk), Melchior is a drunken prince who tried to kill his father with a butter knife, and Balthazar is the daughter of a high ranking official in Herod's court. There is also another character played by Ozturk - a goatherd who follows the party on their travels.

The play has a lot of moments which reference bible stories. At one point Balthazar washes the feet of Gaspar- but then refuses to do the same for Melchior. The goatherd is often referred to as a shepherd, but he tends goats so I assume that is a reference to Christ the Shepherd, and also the sheep and goats story. And this is where I started to get lost.

Kimberley has directed the show at a very slow pace, with lots of stage business and big pauses, Lawson-Smith, on the other hand, has pared back the dialogue in the script to a level which is just a bit too obscure so I (and my plus one) found it really hard to follow any kind of meta concept or narrative through line. These three people are sent on a quest to find the baby and they do - with a surprising twist at the end - but I struggled to come to any conclusion about what I was supposed to understand or realise or think about at the end.

I do lay the problem at the feet of the direction. One of the important jobs of a director is to provide markers and pointers in the staging to help steer the audience towards understanding. Kimberley has created a neat and clean aesthetic but to me it seemed the actors merely performed the text of the play, not the subtext (if only I could figure out what the subtext is).

In a play which is extremely obscure this becomes fatal for the audience because we need clues to know what point of view is being presented so that we can make our own assessments and judgements and take our own position on the topics raised.They say a play is not complete until it is staged. I don't prescribe to this sentiment, but I do think a play which is not interpreted in performance is not complete.

It is also hard to lay the blame on the cast. They are not inexperienced but there are obvious flaws such as the character of Melchior. His dialogue has been written with brilliance but a key point is that he is a drunkard and a hedonist. Lakshmipathy gives a lively performance but at no point could it be said he seemed drunk despite everyone else talking about it.

His character also gave Kimberley the opportunity to add a level of chaos or nihilism to the narrative to help reinforce and play against the overt and quiet spirituality of this Gaspar and to add a lively Maypole humour to the Donkey Wheel trek, but the opportunity has been missed and the show plods along like their feet in the dunes as they cross the desert.

Both the obscurity in the script and the lack of depth in the direction surprise me because this production team did work with a dramaturg (Vidya Rajan). All I can think is is must have been a very limited relationship because Rajan is not credited in the program, only thanked in the program notes.

Lawson-Smith is a very experienced and talented writer in the field of young adult theatre but can sometimes veer into trying to be too esoteric when creating more mature work. I think another draft of the play just taking a look at clarifying the objective would make it a wonderful modern December play to be staged.

1.5 Stars

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Last Words - Theatre Review

What: Last Words
When: 24 July - 4 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Joseph Sherman
Directed by: John Bolton
Composed by: Christopher Marlow Bolton
Performed by: Christopher Marlow Bolton and Joseph Sherman
Set by: Brian Lipson
Lighting by: Emmie Turner
Stage managed by: Emmie Turner
Joseph Sherman
We live in strange times. I keep harking to the current theatrical trend towards surrealism and in Lasts Words at La Mama we go there again - although in a much gentler way than perhaps other shows I have reviewed lately. A show which is, for the main part, a journey towards trying to comprehend Alzheimer's - objectively and subjectively - Sherman weaves a heart warming and heart breaking tale spanning a century and crossing the globe.

Sherman is the grandson of Russian Jewish lineage from the city of Odessa. He is the son of two parents whose lives end in the tragic miasma of Alzheimer's. Sherman is also a doctor as well as a theatre maker.

Last Words is essentially a story told in 3 acts. Act 1 follows the simple oral traditions as Sherman talks, sings and dances his way through stories of great courage. His maternal grandparents were in the lucky 100 000 Jews who escaped the 'forgotten' Odessa Holocaust. The remaining 90 000 where killed in horrific ways. Perhaps one of the saddest moment is when Sherman jokes about them remembering a time when Jews didn't have to carry special papers.

After their return to their home city, his mother (Rita) and father (Misha) meet. His father was at home in the seedy world of graft and black markets, but his mother not quite as much. One of the beautiful features of this part of the story is the details such as his mother pulling down a curtain and making a dress for their first date. The entire first act is a dance between world history, family memoirs, and personal recollections.

The family was allowed to leave Odessa in the Jewish emigration which came out of the USA/USSA SALT I deal in 1971 - also known as the 'Wheat for Jews' deal between Brezhnev and Nixon. I think no other people in the world must be as aware of how the value of a human life fluctuates, like shares on the stock exchange, than the Jewish community.

As Sherman tells the family's migration story and settlement in Melbourne I admit to getting a bit lost over who is who, but then I always get lost with names in most Russian stories so I just settled back and enjoyed the rise and fall of the dance. I got the gist and that is the main point. A turbulent relationship, some fiery years and then a sad descent into dementia was the destiny of the Sherman parents.

In act 2 we meet Dr Sherman. Complete with blackboard and props which light up the good doctor gives a lively lecture on Alzheimer's as a disease. It's history, it's biological mapping and progression, and why it is so hard to combat. I loved this part. Not only because of the good information, but Sherman is the kind of lecturer I always adore - feisty, knowledgeable, and passionate! My one tiny disappointment is I think Grant (lighting) could have gently shifted the architecture for this section to help relieve some of the environmental tedium.

Act 3 brings what some people might call 'real theatre'. Engaging in all the theatrical tropes Sherman is joined on stage by Bolton who plays gentle droning lullabies and takes on Sherman's persona as Sherman becomes his father - lost and confused and down right grumpy. Or is this a portent of Sherman's own destiny?

The black and white gallery of photos Lipson designed, the samovar, the eagles, the jewels, the piano become a labyrinth of detached recollections for the suffering Misha. What was a glorious album of shared memories under Grant's simple open white wash in acts 1 and 2 becomes floating oddities teasing and taunting Sherman elder in his distress as the stage darkens and fractures into corridors and bubbles of light and colour. Sherman junior eventually leaving the piano to help his papa shower and defecate, trying to soothe yet inadvertently creating distress at the same time. If Alzheimer's has touched your life you know of what I am speaking.

Last Words is tri-lingual (English, Russian, and Yiddish) and what this allows is for us to let go at times and just experience a confusion which is nothing like, yet reminiscent of, the experiences of victims of this disease. At times Sherman translates, at times Bolton translates, and then there are moments when no translation is offered - except through performance. It is a waltz. The waltz of three generations.

Last Words is beautiful if, perhaps, a tad too long. Act 1 and 3 could possibly do with some trimming. Having said that, it is such an important work on two levels. The first is the Alzheimers awareness and conversation and the second is the reminder of the times we came through last century and a subtle - and perhaps unintentional - warning to never forget.

Never forget is a phrase which has been commandeered to mean don't forget the sacrifices made by our service men in the World Wars. Last Words reminds us what we must not forget is why those wars were necessary. It also reminded me to work harder to gather my own family history because that too should never be forgotten - by me at least.

Last Words is a beautiful and sorrowful story about the inevitabile fate for 1 out of every 3 people in our community. It also a warning to value and cherish our families, our histories, and to understand there comes a time when the cared for must step up and become the carer. It is a call to arms as well. We need to find out why some people get this disease and others don't. We still don't know anywhere near enough!

4 Stars

Monday, 22 July 2019

Kevin Peterson's Stand-up Show! - Theatre Review

What: Kevin Peterson's Stand-Up Show!
When: 22 - 27 July 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Max Paton
Composed by: Philip Dallas
Performed by: Stuart Anderson, Catherine Holder, Daniel Hurst, Fraser Mitchell, and Isabella Octigan
Designed by: Jeremy Pryles
Lighting by: John Collopy
Fraser Mitchell and Stuart Anderson - photo by Julia Kaddatz
I had the best surprise of  my life last night when I went to see Kevin Peterson's Stand-Up Show! at The Butterfly Club. Betrayed by the title, I turned up expecting to see a good, but traditional hour of stand up comedy in a town overflowing with such stuff. Instead I was entertained with an hour of fun-filled surrealist theatre which made me laugh in spite of myself.

Kevin Peterson (Mitchell) is a Millennial who is doing a theatre making undergraduate degree. He duly apologises to his parents and mocks his own art, describing  theatre's relationship to the world as akin to "a bedroom to a teenager." This is perhaps the first hint the show is going to be more than meets the eye if you are paying attention.

In fact, if I had been paying proper attention I would have realised a whole lot earlier with the appearane of Peterson's best friend, Ivy (Holder). Still, even if you are not fully cognizant to what is happening don't despair because eventually it will hit you in the face...er...brain as the mind bending takes hold and all objective reality ceases to exist.

Kevin Peterson's Stand-Up Show! is about anxiety. Peterson takes the stage to perform his first stand up show ever and, over the course of the very bad and genetalia obsessed puns, enters a kind of cognitive dissonance as Anxi-tee (Anderson) takes over.

His friends pop in and try to cheer him up and cajole him out of his funk but he sinks deeper and deeper into a riotous horror world of plastic lobsters, humiliating game shows, and floating t-shirts. Surrounded by the fame-filled world of Chris's and a pathological revulsion to Ben Shapiro, Peterson finally admits to needing medical assistance to find his way back to a world which makes some sense.

Perhaps my biggest issue is with the moral of the piece which is "perception is not reality". In a post truth world perception absolutely is reality - as our very recent election cycle has proven. However in a post truth world both objective reality and subjective reality coexist and the challenge for us all (and Peterson in particular) is to find that sweet spot where we can deal with both productively.

Paton has written a play which deals with an important topic and has done so cleverly and with heart. Dallas' sound design really sets the tone, mood and journey though, cleverly augmented by Collopy's lighting design. I admit, this is the best use of the lighting at The  Butterfly Club I think I have ever seen.

The performances are great. The whole cast formed a great ensemble, but I did really enjoy Anderson's insanity, and Octigan has a mesmerising physical precision. Hurst and Holder are absolutely bursting with energy and keep the whirlwind spinning around a hapless Mitchell.

Surrealism seems to really be taking Melbourne by storm and it excites me as much as it raises a niggle of concern. What are we reacting to which makes us want to re-enter an expression of confusion and cognitive dissonance. What is happening in the world which is mirroring this time last century? How afraid should we be?

Back to lighter things though. Kevin Peterson's Stand-Up Show! is a funny and frolicking take on a condition we have probably all experienced at some point - although some worse than others. Regardless of whether your experiences are mild, acute or chronic you will get a laugh and if you have a friend with this problem it may also help you to develop an understanding of what is happening to them. It is a great hour of theatre (and nice and early so you won't be out late in this cold weather).

3.5 Stars

Friday, 19 July 2019

Once Upon A Drag Storytime - Theatre Review

What: Once Upon A Drag Storytime
When: 13 July 2019
Where: Footscray Community Arts Centre Theatre
Created and performed by: Po Po Mo Co
The Blokes
Good friends of Hares and Hyenas book shop, Po Po Mo Co decided to create a show for children for this school holiday period and thus was born Once Upon A Drag Storytime, presented at FCAC. Featuring the reading of three current popular books for toddlers, this queer performance troupe brought queer storytelling to life on stage.

Po Po Mo Co is a short-hand version of post post modern company. If post-modernism is anything goes, then post post modernism is anything goes with a queer bent and a lot of fun for Po Po Mo Co who describe their style as neo-vaudevillian physical theatre.

One set of regular characters in this troupe are The Blokes. Gavin, Keith and Mark make regular appearances on the cabaret circuit. Decked out in lurid 80's male drag, this comedy trio have a ball and (surprisingly) have a good sense of rhythm which they always put on show. I always love their Fosse-esque routines which are full of ...er...style (?) and blokey bravado.

In Once Upon A Drag Storytime The Blokes have decided to read their three favourite story books and beef them up with some song, dance, and puppetry. The books include Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz, Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love, King And King by Linda de Haan.

It is at this point we all can agree I was not the target audience for this show - by many decades in fact - but luckily for me the room was filled with little humans from ages 0 and up and I got to watch them laugh and squirm and dance along. They had a great time and The Blokes interacted well with them.

I am guessing if I were a kid I would say this show was 10 hundred out of 10. As an adult, however, I have my reservations. One of my biggest issues (and one which will be very controversial) is I didn't like the first two books.

I have had the opportunity to read many kids books in my life and I do not think Feminist Baby or Julian Is A Mermaid are very well written although I do like their ideas. I couldn't figure out what it was that made this baby a feminist (although I believe there is a range of Feminist Baby comics and books which probably exemplify feminism better) and Julian Is A Mermaid is all pictures and very little story. I really did enjoy King And King though.

After the first book Po Po Mo Co indulge is some black theatre puppetry and three puppet babies mime along to Joan Jett's Bad Reputation. This was my first moment of concern. I found myself wondering about the age appropriateness of the lyrics - and also I wondered about whether the pop references were too old for this audience.

A magical fish light puppet made it's way across stage during Julian and it livened up the room as pages lacking dialogue where flicked past. Obviously the books were too small to be seen by the entire audience, but the puppet walked past the young'uns on the cushions in front and got them excited and invited interaction which was great.

Kieth and Mark acted out King And King and even threw in a Dirty Dancing lift but again, I found myself wondering if that reference is just to old. This was one of the quietest moments for the kids in the audience and I suspect it is because they didn't really understand what was going on.

It was the end of Once Upon A Drag Storytime which really shocked me and had me questioning the age appropriateness of the show though. The show culminates with the appearance of burlesque star Rosy Cheeks. She sings an entire song but let me just point out her lips where not properly placed and I just don't know what this act was meant to be telling the children. It is one thing to familiarise them with queerness, it is a whole other thing to sexualise the proceedings.

Luckily the kids seemed to just recognise a bare bum and laughed. Most of the parents laughed along too - obviously it was a sympathetic audience - but one or two dads in particularl appeared to be struggling to find the funny side in the moment. Perhaps if it was a quicker appearance I would have laughed to but to be honest, it really did feel like the song lasted forever and those lips needed to be a little bit higher. This is all I have to say about that...

I love the ideas behind Once Upon A Drag Storytime, and queer books needs to be included in the general reading material of the entire population. I think on this occassion though, Po Po Mo Co should have tempered their adult aesthetics a bit and they probably need to update their cultural references for an audience this young.

2 Stars

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2) - Theatre Review

What: The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2)
When: 10 - 21 July 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and directed by: Robert Reid
Musical direction by: Kelly Wilson
Performed by: Zainab Abdul, MelanieBeddie, Casey Bohan, Georgina Bright, Madeleine Brown, Peita Collard, Amanda Dhammanarachchi, Elena Fanaratis, Mia Fine, Jess Gonzalves, Ellen Grimshaw, Caitlin Harry, Jessica Hayden, Eleanor Howlett, Tijen Inmak, Sharon Kershaw, Baria Khan, Carissa Lee, Gillian Lee, Audrey Li, Gemma Livingstone, Tess Luminati, Ellen Ma, Celina Mack, Kerith Sefton, Manderson-Galvin, Bianca Montagner, Roxana Paun-Trifan, Freya Pragt, Yoni Prior, Chelsea Rabl, Xanthe Shamita Sivabaian, Felicity Steele, Alice Stewart, G Ulrich, and Kathryn Yates
Set by: Jason Lehane
Stage Managed by: Caitie Murphy
Chelsea Rabl and Chorus - photo by Aleks Corke
I knew I was in for a long haul when I decided to see both Parts 1 and 2 of The Bacchae at La Mama on the same day but to be honest, I was not expecting it to be the endurance test it was. Framed by the Euripides play of the the same name, Reid has interwoven 20th century American history through the loom built by the Ancient Greeks.

Billed as a "fierce retellling" of partriarchal story telling, around forty women were meant to take centre stage in a Schechnerian performance of reclamation. There is truly a stage full of women, but there is no reclamation in this particular set of performances. These women are merely playing men and telling the stories of men - from Aeschylus (Manderson-Galvin) and Pentheus (Howlett) to Charles Manson (Lee), the SLA and Schechner (Manderson-Galvin) himself.

In theory, and using the deconstructed theatre methods you will most likely associate with companies such as The Wooster Group (the heir to Schechner's The Performance Group), Reid has woven the characters and story lines of famous 20th century acts of revolt - most of which have been led by men but have dragged women (the bacchae to their Dionysus) to their doom. Given the venue - the Courthouse theatre - there was no ability to engage with Schechner's ideas on environmental theatre (which is basically an ethos which says put the audience inside the set), Reid has gone back a few steps and presents The Bacchae as Poor Theatre which the size of the cast probably demands.

One comment I will make is Poor Theatre strips away all of theatre's excesses but it does not mean throw away all sense of aesthetic and unfortunately The Bacchae does exactly that. Barely one synapse seems to have been expended on the concept that everything on stage is a sign or symbol and points to something.

There is blue canvas on the floor and I can only think it is so the Chorus stand out in their theatre school black outfits but I could find no further relevance. There is something to be said for the uniformity of the blacks but this is completely countermanded by the lack of consistency of style or the use (or lack there of) of makeup. I then find myself thinking why bother with the concept of house lights if the show is just a open white wash? I do admit, the boredom and disappointment of this was probably emphasised because I had to endure it over 4 hours (not including the long dinner break between Parts 1 & 2).

Before I go further I want to say I was very impressed with all of the performers. I can't possibly speak to everybody in this review but I can say Howlett was an incredibly strong and powerful Pentheus, Manderson-Galvin had the Schechner hand gestures down pat, Beddie was a fiery Fury, and Lee was an oddly intriguing Manson. All of the chorus - when they had individual lines and cameos - commanded their words and space, and there was almost no flagging of energy from the first moment of Part 1 at 5pm to the final moment of Part 2 close to 11pm regardless of the disparities in acting traning and experience.

As good as they were though, the faults in this work are myriad and fall to both the construction/dramaturgy and the direction. Deconstructed theatre is becoming a bit old hat now and even Schechner himself has said he could see a time when "performance is" will constrict back from the anything goes era he emerged into and helped define. I think we are there now.

Everything about this production seemed outdated to me. The place for Poor Theatre is questionable now with technologies and skills so available and low cost. The shock and awe of juxtaposing old stories with modern events has now been incorporated into modern writing and directing and has much more sophistication and affect than before. Collage is one of those techniques which evolved in the modernist era. It took Post Modernism to bring it to the stage but now we enter the Post Truth era and its time feels like it is done now.

Regardless of style I question why I should even care about the subjects presented in this play. From the Ancient Greeks to the 20th Century Americans - what does this have to do with me today in Australia? Reid's history of writings shows he does have a fascination with America but I really don't care. There is so much of the world and history to choose from - especially our own. Why do we need to rehash Manson and Patty Hearst and the anti-Vietnam protests in Ohio?

The fact that I am asking these questions is less a demonstration of my lack of awareness and more of an indication in the gaping hole in the dramaturgy of The Bacchae. I am a woman. I should care about this play, but I just don't.

Unfortunately Reid's direction doesn't save it either. The pace of the whole four hours plods along like an annoying metronome set to 4/4 time. The collage is stuck together with sticky tape but the ends don't meet and there are a lot of places where someone spilled water on the page and all of the words run into each other so that meaning is lost rather than heightened.

The text is entirely expository. You could be forgiven for thinking The Bacchae is a lecture rather than a play/performance. I have always been a fan of a bit of exposition, but I do like a bit of dramatic action in between. Can you believe I just said that???

Riffing off Schechner's Dionysis in 69, I guess I expected a lot from The Bacchae. It was probably never going to live up to my expectations. What I didn't expect was such a clear illustration of how theatre has moved on from these celebrated techniques of the 20th Century. Just as the source material is foreign and from the past, so are the performance tools used in this production.

2 Stars

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Work It: New Manifestos - Event Review

What: Work It - New Manifestos
When: 12 July 2019
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Presented by: DJ Abyss, Fay Bendrups, Candy Bowers, Simona Castricum, Maude Davey, Emma Edwardes, Jamaica, Jess Knight, Lay the Mystic, Akec Makur Chuot, Alice Pung, and Sheree Stewart
Candy Bowers and DJ Abyss
One of the exciting new innovations Emily Sexton has brought with her brand of programming at Arts House is a public forum for community and artistic manifestos. The first iteration, First Dance, was presented as a low key affair as part of Dance Massive. The success of that event has led to the current presentation of Work It: New Manifestos which was curated and presented by one of our most powerful artists, Bowers.

The list of amazing femme artists and organisers which crossed our stage is an expanded program. What was 8 in the original was 12 in Work It. 12 strong and passionate femme perspectives took centre stage to tell the world what we want and how we are going to get it. What stood before us and spoke to us were voices of freedom and hope. With those voices came a vision and a plan - a plan which will work if only we would make the space for them to happen.

In a program switch which proved to be poignant and potent, the night began with Pilepileta (Stewart), a midwife and performer. Pilepileta had to speak first as she literally had to run to bring a new life into the world and she asked us to make a space for this returning spirit. Before she left she encourages us to engage in a loud and joyous chant of welcome for this newest member of our community.

Bowers then came on stage to welcome us into this space of truth telling. A nature goddess herself, Bowers had ensured the hall was filled with fragrant flowers and encouraged us to partake of their pleasing aroma across the evening - the lavender, the peonies, the silver princesses... Then she brought her power as her list of demands were laid down: 1. If you don't respect my existence, expect my resistance; 2. Women don't owe you shit; 3. Bite my thighs; and finally, 4. Decolonise and moisturise. She left us with the mantra for the evening - "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Pung, writer and lawyer, talked to us about how hurtful 15 year old girls can be. You know the ones - they are vegan and believe in climate change, but don't you dare have a mixed race relationship because that is fair game for teasing and harassment! When asked by a young girl when the racism would stop her reply was simple. It probably won't, but you will develop a resistance and you will eventually find your own tribe. "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Castricum is a musician and architect. Castricum performed her pop dance piece Carry The Weight. Singing to a backing tape and playing the snare the auditorium filled with lyrics such as "Generations - they carry pain, Did you think they have no right to complain?' Li'l Mama (Edwardes), life coach, then powered on to the stage trying to soothe a baby to sleep before launching into an energetic (and almost physically impossible?) dance routine. The t-shirt over her leotards read 'Own Your Power' and own it she did as she did an amazing dance routine - a lot of it standing on her head! "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

In a programming coup, Bowers invited Bedrups to speak to us about humanitarian initiatives and what hopes and plans she has for how Australia might cope with emergencies - basically by acting like a real community. Bedrups is with the SES and she spoke of her research into emergency control in Peru. The lesson she would like us to learn and process she would like us to adopt is a revolution where emergency management is taken back from the beaurocrats and put back in the hands of the community. Take lessons from initiatives such as Neighbourhood Watch. Have street parties and assign roles to everyone who lives there. Run your own local drills. Identify the people around you who might need a little extra help and work out who will take that on. Keep it fun, keep it light, keep it in the forefront of everyone's mind, keep it in the community. "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Makur Chuot was one of our pioneer AFLW players and is now one of their Multicultural Development Officers. Makur Chuot spoke about the experience of spending the first 11 years of her life in a refugee camp and the despair and hopelessness which comes of that. She also speaks of her first experience of racism in Australia. It was the moment she first realised "my skin was going to be a problem." Crossing a road a man yelled out to her, "You black sluts...go back to where you came from." There was more but I can't bring myself to write it. I am too ashamed."Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Jamaica, Sydney-based rapper, then bounded on to the stage and took us lyric by lyric through the meaning of their anthemic song but not before Bowers and DJ Abyss reinterpreted the misogynistic lyrics of a well known rapper, creating a more polite rendering of courtship. One of the points Jamaica was making though, was to find your tribe because when you have a group you are stronger. The song breaks down the daily struggles of being a queer person of colour and the sentiments reflect Bowers' manifesto - "The one's who don't respect you don't get respect back." "Pain that is not tranformed is always transmitted."

Next on stage was Knight and her diminutive stature was no indication of the amount of insight and humour she would bring to us all. Knight talked about the repression of growing up Mormon. She regaled us with the doctrine of a woman's body being a gift to be unwrapped by her husband on the wedding night and how any exploration or enjoyment of before that moment was an untenable sin. As she discovered in her liberated 20s though, "Nobody fucks me like me!" Knight is now an apostate as she long ago came to the realisation that "Everything fun makes God sad." "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

DJ Abyss (3CR) took the opportunity to speak to us through her music selections with lyrics such as "You don't like pussy with power" before the stage was colonised by the powerful essence of Davey. Davey spoke to us as a middle-aged white women who is by default complicit in all the things that are killing our people, our society, and our world. "The world is dying - or is it just me?" Davey talks about her shame in what we have done and her dreams to catch up on all the things she has missed in the mists of colonial living. Things like learning an Aboriginal language for example. Aware of the smaller half of her life left to live and the time running out for catch ups she drives it home with a final "The world is dying - or is it just us?" "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

This evening of wanderers and warriors was brought to a close with Lay the Mystic. Lay brought their lyrical poetry and talked about all the shapes they carry inside their, how they are a hybrid set of stories. They talked abut how "My mothers all gifted me and my body" and asks us not to call them a woman because it mispronounces who they are. The point: "Nobody is ever experiencing one thing at a time." "Pain that is not transformed is always transmitted."

Work It: New Manifestos was an intelligent and exciting night of femme perspective, femme hope, femme despair, and femme vision. Pain was spoken to - the pain of people, of communities, of old ideas. More importantly though, it was a hope for the future and a plan to go with that hope which was the overwhelming message. The other key point was it is time for us to clear the decks because as Pilepileta so poignantly brought into focus "You mob all make space because the next generation is comin'!"

4.5 Stars

Monday, 8 July 2019

I Hope It's Not Raining In London - Theatre Review

What: I Hope It's Not Raining In London
When: 8 - 13 July 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written by: Nicholas Thoroughgood
Directed by: Riley McLean
Performed by: Daniel Cottier, Cassie Hamilton, Nicholas Thoroughgood, and Zoe Walker
Cassie Hamilton and Nicholas Thoroughgood
It seems playwrights are getting all existential again a century after the first time around. In a world leaning more and more into proto-fascism it is not surprising, I suppose, that artists are once more questioning meaning and purpose in life. The latest - and very worthy - production to worship at the feet of Beckett is I Hope It's Not Raining In London playing at The Butterfly Club this week.

A rash of plays have come onto Melbourne stages over the last year or so which espouse a lineage to the Absurdists of the 20th Century - Q, Two Animals, and most recently Two On The Night Train for example. As the latest entry into this arena, I Hope It's Not Raining In London is one of the more successful attempts and is quite a thrilling hour of theatre.

Unsurprisingly, Thoroughgood found himself inspired by Waiting For Godot, and this play began as a 2-hander. All of the publicity talks about it in this manner - 2 characters, One and Other, who find themselves in a room. They have no memory but boxes keep appearing and they slowing piece together memory fragments as the play progresses. In this regard it is perhaps more of a reference to Act Without Words - except that it has words of course.

The four cast are meant to rotate through the two roles randomly across the season which is quite clever. On opening night in Melbourne Cottier was playing One and Thoroughgood was playing Other. I assume the play has evolved over the course of the tour though, because both Hamilton and Walker performed in cameos of mothers and girlfriend which makes the play more logical but takes it way off track as an absurdist work.

Having said that, in this configuration the casting is gender normative which settles the text and action too firmly in realism. In other rotations, and assuming the text (which has a male gender bias for One and Other and a female bias for the rest of the characters) doesn't change, the whole thing might unsettle into an intriguing world of discognition and curiosity which might be quite intriguing.

In the program notes Thoroughgood talks about his confusion with the existential aspect of Theatre of the Absurd and his confusion about Nihilism versus Existentialism. His intention was to explore both in I Hope It's Not Raining In London. He does, however, also speak of the realism and authenticity of the acting and this is where the style has gone wrong and why it comes across as a realist non-linear narration dressed in an existential overcoat.

An essential element of Theatre of the Absurd is to also question the existentiality of language. Thoroughgood has not played in this arena. He uses proper words, sentence structure and dramatic action and the two main characters find a trajectory rather than just being lost in a loop.

Do not take this detour as any kind of indication that I Hope It's Not Raining In London is not a great piece of theatre. The acting is wonderful overall and Thoroughgood is an incredibly dynamic actor. Between that and McLean's clever and, at times, shocking staging the show becomes confrontingly visceral. Trigger warning: This show contains graphic replications of self-harm! And blood. Lots and lots of (fake) blood.

I Hope It's Not Raining In London is a fascinating tale of two people (men?) who are trying to work out who they are, where they are, and why they are there. Their journeys are at different stages. One has been searching longer than Other, but does his experience help or hinder Other in his quest and does Other's arrival move One further along his path or drag him backwards? These are the questions which can only be answered if you enter the room with them at The Butterfly Club.

4 Stars


Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest - Theatre Review

What: The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest
When: 3 - 7 July 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Matthew Crosby
Performed by: Matthew Crosby, Kathleen Doyle, Eidann Glover, Alana Hoggart, Lorna McLeod, and Rodrigo Calderon Tobar
Set by: Noriko Ikaga

Rodrigo Calderon Tobar and Kathleen Doyle - photo by Oscar Socias

In a situation where there is no false advertising at all, The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is, indeed, very intriguing. Playing at La Mama Courthouse for this week only, it is probably best described as an anime/noir fusion. There are only a few tickets left for the final performance though, so book now or miss out on one of the most...intriguing pieces of theatre produced recently.

The ensemble putting on this murder mystery evening call themselves The Thursday Group because they meet on Thursdays to engage with the practice of Suzuki Method of Actor Training. All of the performers in this group have an extensive background in Asian theatre forms generally, and Crosby and Doyle in particular have engaged with the home of this method, SCOT (Suzuki Company of Toga). There is always a lot of interest and curiosity about the Suzuki method and you won't see a better example of how it translates into performance in Melbourne for a very long time I suspect.

I did train with this group for a short while a few years ago now. The Suzuki Method is tough, disciplined, and comes from a deep and strong methodology which literally emerges from your core and is solidly grounded in your feet. This is evidenced in the planar tableaux created throughout Silent Forest.

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is a murder mystery which reveals domestic tragedy. A young girl, Mary (Hoggart), is found dead and Detective Rob (Crosby) is trying to find information about her older sister Josephine (Doyle). What emerges is a tale of sad and horrifying domestic child abuse.

As the play moves forward across around an hour and a half, what is perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this work is its focus on Josephine and the issue of secondary trauma. Most tales of this sort tend to be about the target, but the insight of Silent Forest will start many new conversations around this issue.

Crosby is a very lyrical writer and I think the text indicates he is a phenomenologist. I guess you could say The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is well and truly at home within the world of Expressionism - it is subjective, focuses on one main character, and is the world of nightmares and whispers and secrets. Why does Josephine go into the forest? And why is the forest so quiet? Every scene and every word, every description is designed to evoke a visceral response.

I said at the start this play is a kind of anime/noir.  By that I mean it encompasses all of the tropes of both. Noir films always have murder at their base, shadowy aesthetics and ethics, and tropes you can't help but trip over. Anime has cartoonish figures, world ending devastation, and random moments of unexpected humour sometimes with elements that have no apparent functional purpose. As an example of this I am talking about the comic penguin in Neon Genesis Evangelion perhaps. The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest has all of that and will leave you guessing what it is about and what has been going on until the very last moments.

Those who enjoy stylised theatrical techniques such as Commedia dell'Arte will get a real kick out of this show. At the core of Suzuki character creation process is identifying the characters walk and developing character and tableaux from a technique called statues. The Suzuki method is not as prescribed as Commedia - the characters are found through exploration - but the similarities are clear, with a strong emphasis on what Brecht called gestus.

Suzuki is a presentational style of performance and its clearly Asian aesthetic makes it strange to us, but not impenetrable. Even the lilt and rhythm of character's speech is developed from the core of the actor so that the very normal (and beautiful) words Crosby has written become strange and unsettling whilst also inviting us to lean and listen just that little bit harder.

The Intriguing Case of The Silent Forest is a powerful work created by true masters of their craft. Doyle is mindblowingly fantastic and terrifying and piteous as the lost little girl/monster and Detective Rob (Crosby) is funny yet sincere. He is the Everyman and together we try and work our way through the brambles and bushes of this hidden tale. As happens with all dark and shadowy glades, we do get lost but the rest of the ensemble are the lamps which light our way out of the darkness.

4 Stars

Bluebeard's Castle - Opera Review

What: Bluebeard's Castle
When: 2 - 10 July 2019
Where: Basement, Mycellium Studios
Composed by: Bela Bartok
Libretto by: Bela Balazs
Directed by: Kate Millett
Conducted by: James Penn
Performed by: Zara Barrett and Adrian Tamburini
Reorchestration by: Kym Dillon
Costumes by: Suzanne Stevens
Lighting by: Jason Bouvaird

Adrian Tamburini and Zara Bennett - photo by Daniel Burke

I love indie opera. I love it more than main stage opera. It is brave and bold and ambitious and comes from a pure love of the art form which is not always true of indie theatre. One of our small indie opera companies, BK Opera, is back with their latest experiment - Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and is being performed for a few dates in July at Mycellium Studios in Brunswick.

Bluebeard's Castle is the only opera Bartok wrote. It is a grand and ambitious exploration of expressionism. Sadly it was judged to be unperformable so it is rarely staged in anything other than concert presentations.

Based on the french tale Bluebeard written by Charles Perrault in 1697, Balazs - with the assistance of Bartok began writing the libretto several years before the opera was completed in 1912. It has been suggested Bartok wrote it in honour of his first wife of 15 years who he had recently jilted for a young piano student. Given the subject matter, this could very well be Bartok working out some of his guilt.

The story in the opera is a little different than the fairy tale although the themes are essentially very close. Expressionism was emerging as a strong artistic movement in those turbulent European years and opera is a perfect vehicle for an art influence which focuses on a subjective and distorted effect, usually to express negative emotions.

Bluebeard's Castle only has 2 characters - Bluebeard (Tamburini) and Judith (Barrett). It is worth noting that the term 'bluebearding' was commonly known as a man who kills his wives. With such an economical cast you would think this opera would almost be saturating the market. Unfortunately Bartok wrote the music with massive orchestration and there is literally no action on stage - thus being considered unperformable. Having said that, it is short (just over an hour) so with some clever modern staging and technology I don't think those problems are insurmountable.

The great genius of this presentation of Bartok's only opera is the electronic reorchestration of the score by Dillon. The start of the music (after 'The Prologue of The Bard') is quite shocking with it's ethereal inorganic sounds. My plus one mentioned he felt like he was about to watch Flash Gordon which is appropriate because only a few years before composing this opera Bartok had attended the premier of Strauss' Also Zach Zarathustra.

The score seems thin at the beginning, but as the story unfolds it grows and grows until we are consumed by the polytonal movements - one for each of the 7 rooms Judith explores. Much is made of Bartok's use of the minor second (known as the 'blood' music) to register Judith's shock on noticing the beauteous riches of each room are dripping with blood and I think it is even more present in this synthsized orchestration.

Whoever agrees to sing the roles of Bluebeard's Castle are very brave and incredibly competent - they have no choice and nowhere to hide if it goes wrong. Luckily, in the hands of Tamburini and Barrett we are safe. Both are master singers, and both demonstrated a deeply complex internal life as the tragedy unfolds.

Luckily, in the Basement space of the Mycellium Studios, the audience and performers have an intimate connection and we could see the tears as they swelled, the flashes of rage, the yearning for a simple and uncomplicated love. Less fortunately this was not reflected in their bodies or the direction (Millett).

I know the opera is written very static in it's staging but there are tricks which could make it at least have some small variations. The 7 rooms could all have a slightly different point on the horizon. The actors could have some sort of circling to indicate they are coming to another door. There is a glorious backdrop of bedazzled and bejewelled riches across the stage which could be staggered across the depth so that - at least occassionally - the tableaux could shift to give the audience something to excite the eyes.

Bouvaird does his best to create texture and movement in the space, but he is somewhat hamstrung by practicalities. The Basement is one of those spaces with no 3-phase power so there are practical limitations to the lighting. Having said that, Bouvaird has placed lighting trees and birdies in strategic positions around the space which could create angles and architecture. Unfortunately he is using mostly fresnels rather than profiles so he ends up lighting the walls more so than the performers. Their static placement between two columns also unfortunately puts them in the one place he can't hit them with side light.

Bouvaird uses his usual palette of bold colours - particularly orange, red and blue - which bring emotion to the whitewashed basement which gives us something to look at. When lighting opera though, you have to pay attention to what the music is doing. Bartok creates a key plan which travels from F# to C to F# which are allegorical of the amount of light in the castle (and in Bluebeard's life). I would have liked to see some of that come through in the lighting design.

The costuming (Stevens) is problematic. Tamburini has a cartoonish fake blue beard which works with the expressionism of the piece, but Barrett is dressed like a Disney princess? She is also wearing a wig which is not well applied and when the performers are this close to the audience you just can't do that. We see everything. And given that nothing happens and no-one moves it means we see it for every minute of that just over an hour show.

BK Opera like taking on lesser famed opera composers and I really admire Bluebeard's Castle for what it does and for showing Melbourne audiences an opera the major companies are unlikely to ever present. I also think with a few staging tweaks it will be a strong show. I don't think Millett has moved the show away from it's standard themes of the dangers of curiosity, but I do think she has achieved the goal stated in the program of 'focussing on the power dynamics between the couple'. I am less convinced Judith is stripped of her humanity though, and feel Bluebeard has his chance of happiness stolen from him.

Don't take my word for it. Instead, take a risk and decide for yourself. There are a couple more dates at the Mycellium Studios in July and then a proposed remount at Northcote Town Hall in August. Give it a shot. Bluebeard's Castle is very surprising.

2 Stars

Friday, 28 June 2019

Crazy Arms - Cabaret Review

What: Crazy Arms
When: 27 - 29 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Created by: Damon Smith
Performed by: Adam Coad, Trent McKenzie, and Damon Smith
Damon Smith, Adam Coad and Trent McKenzie
These days the piano (or pianoforte in full) is considered to be something of a classical instrument but Smith knows there is so much more to it then that. In his new show Crazy Arms, playing at Chapel Off Chapel this week, Smith takes the piano out of the opera house and puts it back in the bars and dives where it lost its patina and livened up the world.

Beginning very formally, Smith comes out on stage in a three piece suit and bow tie and sits himself down at the baby grand, beginning his tale of this magnificent instrument in 1708 with Mozart. We learn a few things, such as why the instrument was such an important invention (because the harpsichord had no dynamic range - softness and loudness), why the word 'forte' is such an important inclusion, and also how Mozart found himself spying on his sister's piano lessons and then trying stuff for himself.

So far the evening seems quite formal and I found myself wandering why there was a 4 piece drum kit and double bass on stage. "Oh, they must be for the next show" I thought, given this is the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and there are several shows across the night in the venue. I settled in for an hour of beautiful music and virtuosic playing.

This is exactly what I got. Smith is a bit of a larrikin however. He has already cracked a couple of small jokes, but then he calls out a friend from back stage to help him with tempo. Out strides Coad holding a huge metronome. Immediately these two fall into a comfortable old patois and the jokes - most of them musical and all of them hilarious - begin.

After the trusty yet despised metronome gives in and as Smith moves through Beethoven and Chopin, Coad makes his way to the kit and begins to accompany Smith through the works of Satie and others (occasionally with a washboard instead...) until McKenzie also comes on stage to claim the double bass.

The journey continues across time with Smith switching between the grand and an upright, and McKenzie embraces the formality by bowing his instrument. But then we enter the era of Boogie Woogie and all bets are off (as is Smith's jacket and McKenzie's bow).

Leading us into the 20th century, Smith allows us to realise the fun and importance of the pianoforte on modern music. We visit Liberace, Atwell, Joplin, Dr John, and others. Moving from Boogie Woogie into rock and roll the team serenade us with 'Blueberry Hill' and 'Great Balls of Fire' before sliding gently into the jazz era with Dorsey.

This festival iteration of Crazy Arms is a pared down version. The full show is 2 acts of 50 minutes, but in the Loft we got a greatest hits version across a very short hour. One of the highlights was the groups version of 'Night Train' which allowed McKenzie and Coad to really strut their stuff with solos. The night ends with the title piece 'Crazy Arms'.

Don't be fooled into believing Crazy Arms is a concert. The music includes classical mashups and modern medleys and even 'Popcorn' pokes it's head out at one very delightful stage.

Crazy Arms is only on for one more night at Chapel Off Chapel. Don't despair if you can't make it tonight though because I believe there are a couple of tour dates coming in July.

4.5 Stars

Thursday, 27 June 2019

I Really Don't Care - Cabaret Review

What: I Really Don't Care
When: 27 - 29 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Ron Elisha
Directed by: Suzanne Heywood
Musical direction by: Meg Hickey
Performed by: Kate Yaxley
Kate Yaxley and Meg Hickey
I think in some ways everybody in the world is fascinated by Melania Trump. How can she be married to The Donald? Can she really love him? What is in it for her? This week you can find out playwright Elisha's point of view about this in I Really Don't Care at Chapel Off Chapel.

The title of this show refers to that day in 2018 when Melania decided to wear a jacket branded 'I Really Don't Care, Do U?' whilst on a visit to children of refugees who have been separated from their parents as part of the US immigration policy. It has since been explained as a message to a malicious media cohort, but at the time there was a lot of questions about the incidence which assumed an ugly position on the part of the American First Lady.

Elisha is a renowned playwright with an extensive back catalogue but I think I Really Don't Care shows his limitations. As an aging male I felt the text demonstrated his inability to empathise with the woman behind the he public image.

In some ways, I Really Don't Care is a fantasy in which Donald gets his come-uppance with Melania (Yaxley) struggling harder and harder to justify staying with him. In the end the question is raised as to whether even a prenuptial agreement is a strong enough incentive.

Elisha tries hard to reveal a women of depth and a mother desperately concerned for her son but the story is circular and repetitive and just keeps coming back to the idea Melania is simply a gold digger and will do whatever it takes to live the life she wants. In fact, at one point a lyric in one of the songs actually says that.

Speaking of the songs, they are fantastic and I wish there were more of them and less text, the lyrics are biting and clever and set to music we all know. The two stand out songs for me were parodies of 'Anything Goes', and 'Price Tag'. Yaxley is a phenomenal singer and I just wanted to hear more of her versatile, soaring vocals, and far less about Barron and Donald. - or even Melania for that matter. A less interesting bunch of people I can't imagine - except for Donald's ability to destroy the modern world, of course.

I Really Don't Care is a script which continually allows itself to delve into the banal and purile. There is commentary on the size of Donald's penis. A lot of time is expended on Melania's nude photo shoot with GQ and implications of escort work. The point at which the show reaches a real low is the discussion about Donald and Barron being on the autism spectrum. There is no evidence of such a thing despite media speculation and unless it is contextualised well, autism is a topic which should be treated with great respect.

To be honest, I feel Heywood's direction just feeds into the shallow stereotypes and she has Yaxley changing clothes so often it becomes incredibly tedious. On the bright side, you know that once Yaxley makes it through all the clothes on the dress rack the show will be over. The idea is to reinforce the idea of Melania as a style icon and ex-model, but turning Yaxley into a clothes horse is serious overkill.

Yaxley and Hickey make a good team. They both attended the Queensland Conservatorium together and their synergy is evident and explains why the songs are just so good. Hickey also doubles as Melania's personal dresser for the never-ending costume changes with a wonderful attitude of discreet, bored tolerance which fills in the gaps between the music.

I find myself curious as to how audiences will respond to I Really Don't Care. I think on opening night there was a significant number of people in the room who might be sympathetic to Donald's world view and I did hear a couple of older men after the show discussing whether penis size should be an issue. I agree. Perhaps in the Comedy Festival or the Fringe Festival there might be a more energetic response.

I probably sound as if I didn't like the show, which is not true. I just didn't like the point of view of the show and did not feel it really had a female sensibility. Yaxley is magnificent in her role and everything production is schmicko. The inner feminist in me did get a boost as Melania talks about Donald's propensity for the pussy grab, etc. I think it was just a bit cruder and shallower than I was hoping for.

Don't miss this opportunity to see Yaxley perform though. We will be seeing a whole lot more of her on Australian stages, believe me!

3 Stars