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

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