Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Songs Unsung - Music Review

What: Songs Unsung
When: 18 April 2020
Where: YouTube
Performed by: Daniel Assetta and Nicholas Griffin
Lighting by: Peter Rubie
Daniel Assetta
The internet is full of people finding ways to express their work in a live format whilst keeping themselves and the rest of the community safe. Sole Sessions has found a way to allow performers who have lost their gigs a chance to perform and earn at least a bit of money to help them get by.

Daniel Assetta leads the charge with his half hour homage to musical theatre in Songs Unsung. The show took place live on the 18th April, but with the magic of YouTube you can listen to Assetta's magical voice (and Nicholas Griffin's excellent keyboard skills) as often as you like. It's better than radio because you don't have annoying announcers or ads or competitions!

Assetta is a musical theatre star in the making and whilst I can't comment on his dancing, I can tell you his voice is one of those magical tenors which give you goosebumps in the higher notes. You don't have to believe me. Check it out for yourself.

I do think he was a bit nervous at the start which had his vocal chords a bit tight, but as he settled in the true beauty he has been gifted with was able to be set free. Assetta is still young and with a voice this good now, I can't wait to hear how his voice develops over the next few years.

Part of the nerves comes from the fact this is new format for him. He has always been surrounded by all the people, rigmarole, and narrative which comes with a musical theatre production. In Songs Unsung Assetta strips all of that away and it is just him, a pianist, and a microphone.

Assetta has chosen some of his favourite songs including my favourite, 'Somewhere'. The songs include 'Don't Rain On My Parade', and 'Losing My Mind' amongst others. Assetta also apparently has an unhealthy love of Disney. I forgive this though, because his Disney medley was so incredibly well constructed and sung so gloriously.

Assetta tells us a bit about himself and his connection to these songs, but he keeps it short and very authentic which helps really show up the live aspect of the show. My only complaint is I would have liked him to look to the audience (camera) sometimes to keep us connected.

There are critics who might say you don't get the atmosphere of live performance in this format but the live chat really makes the audience feel connected to each other and the performer. No, it's not the same, but it is pretty damn good!

Sole Sessions are ticketed events, but each performer also has a tipping mechanism (Assetta's is PayPal) and the details are available as captions on the screen as well as a link being in the description. You can pay whatever you can or whatever you think his work is worth. In this case you are probably going to want to pay a decent tip I reckon.

The Sole Sessions format, which is the brainchild of Amylia Harris, Leila Enright and Jeremy Willmott, is a very clever idea and a great addition to the online live offerings available at the moment. This live performance online outreach trend is exciting and this team is doing it extremely well. Productions values (image, sound, and lighting (Rubie)) are excellent. Keep an eye out for the next one!

4.5 Stars

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Cooped Up Cabaret - Cabaret Review

What: Cooped Up Cabaret
When: 4 April, 2020
Where: Zoom
Created and presented by: Sophie deLightful and Timothy Christopher Ryan
Performed by: Avril Angel, The Mighty Ceasar, Celestial Circus, Evelyn Coulson, The Old Married Couple, Sophie deLightful, Monty Montgomery, Kitty Obsidian, Timothy Christopher Ryan, and Kindled Spirits
The Mighty Ceasar
So you think live performance is on sabattical because of physical distancing? Not on your life. Artists are racking their brains and working around the clock finding ways to not only bring performance to the audience, but more specifically to bring live performance into your home. Two of the trail blazers in this arena are Sophie deLightful and Timothy Christopher Ryan with their fortnightly Zoom offering, Cooped Up Cabaret.

Yes, it's not the same as being squashed into a dark black hole with a bunch of stangers and forced to be silent for an hour or more, but that is it's strength. And no, it is not reality TV... or perhaps it is more true to say it is real reality TV rather than that highly produced and manipulative thing we have on our televisions using that name. In fact, I am so inspired by the Zoom platform I have my very own variety offering heading your way soon!

Artists have always taken technology out of it's natural habitat and employed it creatively to bring truth and beauty into the world and Zoom is just the latest in that honored tradition. Zoom is a flexible meeting platform and really does lend itself to cabaret style shenanigans.

Zoom is a live platform. The difference between what we might usually define as live theatre is that the performance comes to the audience rather than the other way around. It also means the frame is changed. Now live performance has to consider the camera view much like film, but it is still has that immediacy and potential risk of all live performance. It also has the added benefit that not all performers need to be in the same city... or even country!

Whilst I don't know if this new development will survive in its current form past the end of isolation, I can state with absolute certainty, the aesthetic and language will become a regular feature of traditional live performance. Let's face it, this concept of things happening in boxes has always been a feature of the stage...

I will be honest. This first iteration of Cooped Up Cabaret had technical problems,he biggest of which was Eurovision clogging the internet. The team were not deterred however, and though the show started late, it was glorious and brave.

The line up was as diverse and exceptional as any normal cabaret. The show had a bit of everything: Performance poetry, cheeky burlesque, fire and light manipulations, dance, the lollipop pole, aerial acrobatics, mime. What more could you ask for?

There were some technical issues including switching problems, lighting problems, and camera lag, but for a first go this was pretty good. What it didn't lack was talent, artistry, and professionalism. It was great to see how everyone had really considered the camera point of view, although I think some artists might need to consider using external cameras because built in computer cameras just aren't designed to cope with complex images. Having said that, in some acts such as the light manipulation by Kindled Spirits the lag actually enhanced the performance because it caused a strobing effect!

Perhaps my favourite act of the night was the dance routine by The Mighty Ceasar. Here is a performer who really understands his art form and the camera lense. Creative concept and so well constructed! This dance (along with deLightful's full bodied rendition of 'Let It Go'), reminded me of what true cabaret is about. In essence it takes the ugly and makes it beautiful, and takes the beautiful and makes it ugly all in the same breath. It shows both sides of the coin. Life doesn't always come up heads.

I also loved The Old Married Couple's songs about isolation, Kindled Spirits' light manipulation, and the amazing acrobatic lollipop pole routine by Celestial Circus. My award for best costuming goes to Kitty Obsidian, and cutest joke goes to Timothy Christopher Ryan's new kink.

Cooped Up Cabaret is a ticketed event which will take place fortnightly, with the next performance scheduled for this Saturday evening. As well as buying your ticket you will be encouraged to tip your favourite performers or the whole cast via PayPal. I think for the near future tipping art you like is how performers are going to survive across all art forms. Think of it like crowd funding or dropping money into a busker's hat. Also, the performers may change with each performance as is the tradition in the world of burlesque/cabaret.

I am very much looking forward to Cooped Up Cabaret becoming a regular feature and it makes a perfect in house date night. The first show was a little long but the hosts will stream line the process as they become more familiar with the technology. They even have a built in intermission so you can go and grab your second bottle of wine.

2.5 Stars

Thursday, 2 April 2020

The Glam Gizmo - Podcast Review

What: The Glam Gizmo
Launch Date: 28 March, 2020
Written and produced by: Tom Denham
Featuring: Clint Facey and AJ Winters

The Glam Gizmo is the newest podcast out of the SYN stable and it takes off like a rocket. Created by writer and engineer Denham, The Glam Gizmo is sci-fi comedy horror filled with all the best Scooby Doo style plot points and effects needed to keep us guessing and keep us laughing at the same time.

Full of a certain macabre humour, the best thing about The Glam Gizmo is the characters. Whilst the two leads, Max (Facey) and Lucy (Winters) are Everyman characters, the supporting characters are a total hoot. They are ghoulish and gruesome in a hilariously loveable way.

The set up is fairly straight forward. Oliver Keppel (Stefan Bradley) has created a device which rips holes between different dimensions and strange phenomena are crossing over into our world. In this first episode it is the snakeman Boltizor (Anthony Bradshaw) who is into puppet taxidermy and is stealing people's skin and covering them in felt.

The puppets Bumble and his friends are a hoot and the character Soup Of The Day (Michael Langan) could be straight out of Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy! Denham even makes a cameo appearance in this first episode as Dr Paradox. He saves the day but then leaves the rest of the work up to his new unwitting recruits, Max and Lucy.

The sound design is pacy and creative and I really enjoy how Denham keeps us shifting from scenario to scenario with no warning. It keeps us wondering what is going to happen with only the odd moments of feeling a bit lost.

Denham is an engineer not afraid of processing and he has a lot of fun with characters although I do find myself wondering how he is going to keep up the originality with this pace of story. That will be part of the fun and magic to be explored along with the story as I keep listening.

I do have a few little niggles. I think there is a bit of overprocessing at times - such as the introduction - when it is hard to understand what is being said. Denham needs to remember audiences are hearing these words for the first time and they pass by quickly. It is an issue if what is being said has important plot information.

I also found Facey to be a quite dull and lifeless Max. He lacks urgency and energy and, at times, steps out of his character reality to telegraph the joke. For example, when he is told he might be evicted he sounds disinterested rather than stressed, and when Max tells Lucy he didn't know she had a bike Facey sounds like he is delivering a punch line. It is funny, but not for Max. If other cast were doing this it would work, but all of the other actors are playing the truth in their world so Facey needs to do that as well.

This is not a big hurdle though, because there is so much going on and the story has been set up so every episode (dropping on Saturdays) has guest artists who will help this hapless duo seek out the Keppel Machine and repair the rift between dimensions, restoring order to the world.

The show is around 30 minutes which is a good length. You get a nice chunk of story which doesn't put a dent in your day. And you get a whole lot of laughs with sci fi and crypotological jokes.and just enough blood and guts to keep the cynical amused!

4.5 Stars

Saturday, 21 March 2020

True Story - Book Review

What: True Story
Publication date:  4 August 2020
Written by: Kate Reed Petty
Published by: Quercus
True Story, by Kate Reed Petty, is the first book I have read from start to finish without getting sidetracked by other books in a very long time. It is also the first book, I think, I have ever read which made me want to start again straight away.

True story is unique in its construction although it has a very clear provenance from James Joyce's Ulysses.This horror/crime novel is written as a collection of literary styles, all of them swirling in a Vorticist style, to bring us a sense of truth in a world built on stories.

Petty's writing always has a sense of being a third party, almost witnessing, account. It is something about the short sentences and the dearth of metaphors and similes which give it a dispassionate, straight to the point kind of feel. Add to that her penchant for using alternate text forms to tell the story, and you have the feeling that you are putting together the story or 'case' just as if you are a detective.

It is also what makes elements of this tale so visceral and terrifying. There is something about 'witnessing' horrifyingly inevitable events dispassionately which really gets the heart thumping in frustrated terror. I found myself wanting to scream at the pages to tell the characters not to do what they are about to do, just like I do when watching horror movies... It's like watching a landslide and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop the rocks from falling.

I say there is an ancestral link to Ulysses because, just like Joyce, Reed writes every part of the story in a different format and/or a different point of view. There is standard prose in a mix of first, second, and third person syntax. There is film script. There is transcript.

What adds edge and confusion and what keeps the reader on the back foot is that within all of these styles, Reed also breaks the formatting rules. Italics instead of quotation marks, left justified dialogue in screenplays, paragraphs headers as chapter titles, there are no page numbers - only locations and the numerical sequence is linear by not consecutive. And there is font carnage!

Everything about True Story is designed to keep us asking questions and the answers are never where we expect them to be and are not what we are led to believe. This novel really does keep throwing up surprises from start to finish. In fact, the first 2 chapters had me completely baffled (don't worry, they are short), and I wondered if there was a problem with the galley I was reading.

The book is not perfect, but it is certainly one of the most entertaining I have read in a long time. The second 'chapter' doesn't quite do what I think it intends and the last chapter doesn't work for me at all.  There is still essential information in it but it feels apologetic to some degree in a way I don't think the rest of the novel reflects. I also sometimes struggled to now if I was in Alice's story or Haley's.

Nick is an incredibly well drawn character - the best in the book - and I admit I find myself impresses which just how insightful Reed is about men and male behaviour. Whilst True Story is a mystery/thriller (despite the horrible cover art), it is really a seminal text on toxic masculinity and how it propogates in our world and changes our world. It begs the question 'are the true monsters the perpetrators of abuse or are they the people who create a world view which normalises, pardons, and then dismisses it?'

Men should read this book. Fathers should read this book and then give it to their sons to read. This is information the world needs and this is a mirror men need to find and fix the root causes of why and how women are so very disadvantaged and oppressed in modern society.  Yes, it is a feminist text, but it is not a book for feminists.

4 Stars

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Running With Emus - Theatre Review

What: Running With Emus
When: 11 - 22 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Merrilee Moss
Directed by: Kim Durban
Performed by: Sam Baxter, Kevin Dee, Gregory J Fryer, Julie Nihill, and Elizabeth Sly
Design and stage management by: Adam (Gus) Powers
Lighting by: Jacob Shears
Julie Nihill and Elizabeth Sky - photo by Darren Gill
I don't mind a bit of Australiana on stage these days. I have decided to get over my cultural cringe and am an avid champion of Australian plays and am always excited to see presenters and producers taking them on and presenting them to audiences. The latest to hit the Melbourne stages is Running With Emus which is on the VCE curriculum and is being presented at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Running With Emus is written by Moss, who has strong track record as an Australian playwright, and is directed by Durban who has a strong track record as a director. Add to that the talents and prowess of Nihill (Patricia) and Fryer (Pie) and I expected to be in for a real treat.

Running With Emus as a story about an old woman who is trying to live out the last of her life in seclusion with her best mate - her house. Her granddaughter, Krystal (Sly), drops in unexpectedly and the woman is forced to feel connection again.

No. Wait. The story is about a young woman, Krystal, who has had a bad breakup and runs to the less than comforting arms of her grandmother to recover and possibly mend some burnt bridges in the family.

Noooooo... Running With Emus is about a small town with a racism problem. A young woke activist blows into town and decides to tell them how they should run their community.

No, that's not right either. Running With Emus is the story of a young woman returning to her ancestral home, reconnecting with her family, the land, and maybe falling a little bit in love with the local school principal (Baxter) as she bumbles her way into country life.

Nope. Let me see. This play is about... Do you see my problem?

Running With Emus feels like several different plays crammed into 1. Or perhaps it is more correct to say it is a 5 act play squeezed into 1 act. There are great ideas here, and intriguing characters and several good story lines but they are all competing for time and space on stage. Moss either needs to embrace a longer format for this idea to truly work, or create a triptych of one act plays to make these ideas and characters really sing the way I think she wants them to.

On the surface, and according to the publicity, Running With Emus is about Krystal coming into a quiet country town and helping them move towards becoming a 'Refugee Friendly Zone'. Along the way she starts a fight, makes some friends, and forces her grummy to understand the truth about herself and her family history. Whilst probably on the right side of politics, I have to say I felt everything about Krystal personified exactly what country people hate about woke city folk with few redeeming qualities except a willingness to try and get involved.

Ignoring the problems with the script though, I also found myself disappointed with the staging. I thought in the hands of someone as skilled and experienced as Durban, the flaws would be minimised and the magic revealed. I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

Running With Emus is described as a non-naturalistic play in all of the publicity and I can't help thinking Durban and Powers (designer) took this as some sort of dare and tried to make this production as naturalistic as they possibly could. The stage is full of real domestic detritus and kitsch, and the acting is realism 101 with performance techniques from the early 20th century.

Part of the fault is the design. The stage is literally cut in half by the verandah - which is really a loungeroom? - and so there is no depth for the actors to perform in. Thus everyone comes on stage, form a line, open out and speak directly to the audience rather than each other, and then go off stage. It is one thing for a director to not get in the way of the play, but I do expect the team to be encouraged to be creative and support the work, not bury it in a mire of visual tedium! The exception is the lighting (Shears) which does as much as it can to bring texture and allegory to this world Moss has written.

Fryer and Dee (Sparrow/Jim) are excellent and my only sorrow is how under-utilised Fryer is, with the smallest role. This is one of the things which helps drag this play into a story which belongs in last century, not this one - the subtext hurts. The two new kids on the block, Sly and Baxter (Raffaele/Goose) have great energy but need to develop subtlety and nuance in their craft to create a real connection with the audience.

Running With Emus is a great centrepiece role for Nihill. Patricia's journey is complex and is really the only fully realised character in the play. Nihill is a wonderful curmudgeon but I think she and Durban failed to explore deep enough to find what small things would give Patricia pleasure. There are a few little moments in the script which could open these doors for the audience so that we care a whole lot more about what happens at the end, but at the moment the role is played in a single palette which makes all of the moments blurr.

Running With Emus is actually a great script for the VCE curriculum because it literally covers every single thing ever said about the inclusion of refugees and a whole lot more besides. In the classroom it would be a cornucopia of things to explore surrounding patriotism, colonisation, immigration, ancestry, refugeeism, regionalism vs urbanism, political activism, the dreaming, and the milking behaviour of cows.

On stage this production is a play which is trying to do much and direction which is trying to do too little. I do find myself wondering if the staging is like it is because of an intention to tour. I don't find that much of an excuse though.

The comedy has to force it's way through to us but it is there. Moss has given us some classic one-liners, such as Patricia talking about another character and saying "No one will die wondering what she thinks!" The three old guys (Pie, Sparrow, and Goose) are also funny and would be a much stronger tool if only they weren't shoved into a corner.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this show. I think the script for Running With Emus carries a lot of good material and with some intensive dramaturgical work could be a magical concoction. This production is more dated than spiced ham though. My biggest regret is that this is a school show and I want young people to be enthused and excited about theatre. This production is just going to make them look to other outlets for entertainment I am afraid.

2.5 Stars

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities - Circus Review

What: Kurios - Cabinet of Curiosities
When: 12 March - 10 May 2020
Where: Flemington Racecourse
Written and directed by: Michel Laprise
Composition by: Bob & Bill, and Raphael Beau
Set and props design by: Stephane Roy
Costumes by: Philippe Guillotel
Lighting by: Martin Labrecque
Makeup by: Eleni Uranis
Chih-Min Tuan - Photo: D-CORD <Keiju Takenaka> Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2018 Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil are back in town at probably the most important time ever. If there was ever a time people needed some cheering up and a nudge to their own imagination, it would be now. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is all about celebrating our own imagination and how to make magic happen in our own lives.

I will begin with the story, although I do use that term loosely. The press kit is full of backstory and metaphors which I don't think realise on stage but hey, this is circus. It doesn't need a strong narrative. It needs a strong imagination and a truckload of talent and ability. Kurios has all of that in spades.

Having said that, I will speak about the show's meta-arc. There is a mad scientist character called The Seeker (Anton Valen) who is engaging in experiments to try and release an invisible world of impossible things. He is aided by the two assistants he created, Kurios Winch and Kurios Plunger.

The Seeker's world is Steampunk delight thanks to the glorious talents of Roy (set and props designer) and the clever creations by costume designer Guillotel. Cirque du Soleil shows are always visually stunning and Kurios is a benchmark example of their production perfection.

The point at which you know the narrative is unimportant is when Microcosmos (Karl L'Ecuyer) arrives with his friends Klara (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya) and Nico (Nico Baixas). I think maybe an experiment goes wrong, and then a train arrives, and then a whole bunch of people emerge on stage to enact 'Chaos Syncro 1900'. It really was quite chaotic and unfortunately it didn't wow me.

I was sitting in front of one of the judges for Dancing With The Stars (Craig Revel Horwood) and I imagined him saying to the dancers that their set up was too long and he wanted to see more dance. This is how I felt. Give me less story and more stun.

This lull was blown away by amazement and visceral fear when two porcelain dolls came to life to perform 'Russian Cradle Doll'. It literally took my breath away as this huge man (Roman Tereshchenko) tossed the diminutive Olena Tereshchenko) tumbling into the sky at full thrust and then catching her only to toss her back up. Now this is what you come to the circus to see!

Professor Calamitous in Jimmy Neutron defined Steampunk as "...colonizing the past so we can dream the future." This is what Kurios is all about - pulling items out of the curio cabinet and imagining a world of possibilities for them to play in.

Around 60% of the performers - according to the press kit - have performed in other Cirque shows and now these acts have been collected into a memorandum of future possibility - their very own curio cabinet. For example the glorious siamese twins aerial straps act (Marat Dashempilov and Vitali Tomanov) which I remember from Varekai. Perhaps this is one of Cirque du Soleil's sustainability initiative to avert the climate crisis...?

There is so much top quality and sensational circus in Kurios. I personally loved the 'Acro Net' performance. I really wished I had a backyard trampoline that big when I was a kid! I thought the costumes were flying fish because there were fishermen everywhere but apparently they were Martians...? Regardless they jumped so high my heart was in my mouth every time, and Guiseppe's (Stephane Bouglione) final high dive and bounce routine nearly gave me several heart attacks!

The show publicity talks a lot about bringing the human forward in the performance and so they have done away with most stage mechanics - ensuring that all props and set items are independent units. Ironically I think that has done the opposite. For example in 'The Invisible Circus' it is the personless puppetry which takes all the limelight, and in the 'Theatre of Hands' it is the camera work which becomes the star.

Puppetry of all types, and mime, are the centrepiece of Kurios. This is such a perfect show for kids because a lot of what they do on stage can be taken home and played at home. All it takes is imagination...

Sadly we didn't get the contortion act last night and it did throw the balance of Act 1 and Act 2 out a little bit. Partly because Act 1 lost a bit of wow power, but also because the giant mechanical hand didn't make an appearance until 'Theatre of Hands' and because of that it really overpowered that act.

Having said that, the mechanicals all had life and agency in the show just as much as the humans did. For example a yappy little gramophone had a stand up stoush with the big dog in the yard (Facundo Gimenez). There is something for cat lovers too when later, Gimenez turns into a very accurate cat during the Cirque's usual tedious, exploitative, annoying, and traditional audience participation moment with a pretty young woman from the audience. A laser will point at her breasts in case you didn't know they were there. It is a sour moment in a very excellent show.

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a wonderful blend of origins (the 'Invisible Circus' reminded me of old flea circuses) with modern day whiz bang glamarama! I reckon the lighting designer (Labrecque) must have been like a kid in a candy shop exploring how light works in this circus world of wonder.

Oh, and did I mention the band? A live band playing a kind of swing/techno scat arrangement across the evening kept me bopping in my seat - to the annoyance of those around me I am sure...

Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is a lot of fun and perfectly crafted (of course). The performers are the best in the world and the tricks have been rehearsed to perfection with a reliability most circus performers would envy. Parents should take their kids. The family will come away with a whole lot of new fun and games to explore in their own homes of imagination.

4 Stars

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Bitch, Antigone - Comedy Review

What: Bitch, Antigone
When: 9 - 21 March 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Steven Dawson
Performed by: Angus Brown, Steven Dawson, and Scott Middleton
Scott Middle, Angus Brown, and Steven Dawson
For those of you who feel lost and bereft in the large abyss of emptiness left by the end of Carry On and Monty Python you have a reprieve! If Michael Palin and Kenneth Williams had a love child, it would look an awful lot like Bitch, Antigone which is playing at The Butterfly Club at the moment.

The brainchild of Dawson, who is is also the brains behind Outcast Theatre (the longest established LGBTQIA+ theatre company in Australia), the show Bitch, Antigone is a a cross between Noises Off and a pantomime, with an unhealthy splash of Shakespearean language - well, nothing is perfect after all... The story follows a troupe of actors in ancient Greece as they prepare to perform the Sophocles play Antigone at the Dionysia Festival.

Dawson plays a aging actor who specialises in playing female actors, Mynniscus. Imagine a Joan Crawford temperament with the body and pomp of Robert Morley and you are on the right track. Mynniscus has spent his career playing female leads. He is tired, bored, sad, and lonely and he has had enough. Antigone be damned!

Enter Brown (Theodore/Creon) as the stalwart 'The show must go on!' character and Middleton (Callipedes/Ismene) who is eager to take on any and every role and who believes improvisation is the answer to everything. The first moments of the play are the best and I found myself in gales of laughter at all of the self-deprecating in-jokes about actors and literature. It really is very, very clever.

As the actual performance of Antigone begins, the conceit holds with fun irruptions of reality where the actors struggle over names (suddenly ancient Greece is full of people named polyester, menopause, and antihistamine...) and 3 actors are fighting for the limelight with little respect for the actual story. This is one of the clever layers Dawson has built into the melodrama. The Sophocles play Antigone is a play which questions the rule of order over chaos. Bitch, Antigone is all about chaos reigning supreme over order. This show has all of the things you might expect in a lampoon of this play including the ducks machine.

Although it sets out to be a fun lark, the show Bitch, Antigone has a lot of elements to make it high art. It is a shame it doesn't quite meet it's potential.

While the laughs do keep coming, they peter out in intensity mainly because the jokes repeat and there is little which comes later in the show which is a fresh idea. I also think there is too much Antigone and not enough meta frame content. Let's face it - Antigone is not a funny story even if you turn Ismene into Paris Hilton.

Some of the humour is lost because of a last minute injury to a cast member. Brown literally took on the role of Creon 2 days ago and is still on script - although the progress he has made in 2 days is phenomenal and there are a lot of actors out there who could take a lesson from him! Whilst his performance is right on point in style and energy I suspect some of the physical clowning around the idea of up-staging is lost at the moment which is a shame and might be part of why the second half peters out a bit.

This could also be the direction though. One of the things I noticed is that there is not a lot of attention paid to physical shapes on stage. The costumes are divine (I want one of those dresses/togas), and the props are good. It is the bodies which lack creativity. This may be where the production pays too much homage to it's film ancestors.

There is a white (ish) sheet across the back of the stage to allow entrances, exits, and off stage comedy. I think Dawson has missed the opportunity to play with this as a photo studio back drop. If you have a Paris Hilton character why not play with the idea of selfies and paparazzi?

Bitch, Antigone is not a show which has reached its potential, but it will bring a lot of laughs to people who really miss that older English style of comedy. It is also an unintended metaphor to what Anglo-centric history looks like to anyone not born into that tradition. Oh, and the lip sync stuff doesn't work and probably can't be saved. Just get rid of it!

2 Stars

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below - Comedy Review

What: Going Down - How To Stay on Top When You're Getting Sucked Below
When: 2 - 7 March 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created by: Trudi Ranik
Performed by: Vivian Nguyen and Trudi Ranik
Trudi Ranik and Vivian Nguyen
We hear a lot about fake news these days, but apart from religious leaders and politicians, the biggest producers of codswallop are the people who populate the wellness industry. The most recent entry into this market is The Truru (Ranik) who is at The Butterfly Club this week to promote her new book, Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below.

I have to say that is one hell of a title and it really needs one hell of a show to support it. Whilst The Truru has a body of work behind her, I would suggest that at the moment the show does not earn its title - or perhaps it is truer to say it only earns it some of the time.

The Truru has been through a hard struggle, going into a very dark place after having made a name for herself as a wellness guru. Along the way to fame she has alienated all of her staff and there are a hoard of angry bloggers calling her out and saying she is full of shit.

Reaching the depths of despair and self-doubt The Truru realises her mistake has been her hubris and pulls herself out of the doldrums with her newest set of affirmations and leaning on her totem animal - the pigeon. It was through the incredible homing powers of the pigeon the truruth was revealed and The Crystal Method was born.

The Truru is determined to spread the joy and release of her newfound understanding and is using her D-MOC (Digital System Of Connection - also known as Instagram...) to spread the news about her SOT (System Of Thought). Along the way she has found love with a rock star who just happens to be releasing his own book at the same time... and together they are doing the talk show circuit. If only he would stop touching her!

Half way through the show The Truru is visited by her ex-personal assistant, Susan (Nguyen) and this is where the show really picks up and gets good. The Truru must use her newfound pigeon power to release the anger and tension Susan is exuding, and also stop her from creating a competing, I mean, system of wellness.

The arrival of Nguyen is a power punch of energy and a breath of fresh air the show really needs. Whilst the concept of Going Down is good, Ranik is just too real and believable. Comedy is about archetypes and exaggeration. There is no place for naturalism on a comedy stage and Ranik just doesn't quite understand this yet. She needs to release the clown!

The writing itself is funny and there is good interaction with video image. Unfortunately the sound on the video exerpts is bad. The levels are all over the place and there is an awful lot of digital distortion. The material itself is good and considering the AV is so integral to the show I would have expected more care to be taken on that score.

Going Down: How To Stay On Top When You're Getting Sucked Below is a really good start but Ranik needs to work with more experienced theatre makers to make it zing. Also, the show isn't about sex so maybe change the title...?

2.5 Stars

Friday, 28 February 2020

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep - Theatre Review

What: Dragon Ladies Don't Weep
When: 28 February 2020
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Directed by: Tamara Saulwick
Composed by: Erik Griswold
Performed by: Margaret Leng Tan
Videography by: Nick Roux
Costumes by: Yuan Zhiying
Lighting by: Andy Lim
Margaret Leng Tan - photo by Pia Johnson

Asia TOPA has created a glorious week for me and it was topped of with the amazing Margaret Leng Tan performing her story at the Playhouse in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep. Partnering with Chambermade, Tan and her long time music collaborator, Erik Griswold, took us through a personal journey of music, mental health, and magic.

A significant proportion of the show was dedicated to Tan's relationship with John Cage and his compositions but make no mistake, Tan is significant in her own right both in the incredible artistry of her performance skills but also for such notable ground breaking moments as being the first woman to ever receive a doctorate from the internationally famous Julliard School. As significant as Cage was in Tan's musical development and explorations, she was also one of the artists who helped him to continue to compose and innovate past his ability to play and is now considered one of the foremost authorities on Cage in performance.

The story of Dragon Ladies Don't Weep begins when Tan is just a little girl with a counting problem. Discovering that music and counting are natural partners was a catalytic moment for Tan. Lucky for her, she made this discovery in a time when minimalist music was crescendoing in popular culture (think Nyman, Glass, etc) and so her version of OCD really did find a home which would be advantageous rather than self sabotaging.

For those who don't know, Minimalism in music is about using only the smalles number of phrases or notes and using them in a repetitive pattern, usually with slowly ascending chords. Minimalist music points to itself rather than Romanticism - which I have been talking about a lot lately - which tells a story. There is more to it than that, but I am not here to give a music lesson (and am not qualified to do so). It is the love of Minimalism music which is one of the threads which binds Leng's musical connection composer Erik Griswold.

What does Minimalism have to do with Cage I hear you ask? Nothing. But this is another point of synergy between Tan and Griswold. Cage is known for being the originator of making non traditional instruments worthy of the great concert halls of the world. Cage invented the prepared piano (the act of placing objects in a piano to change the sound/tuning of the strings). He wrote Suite For Toy Piano which was a seminal work which helped define the rest of Tan's musical life. He played the piano like a percussion instrument and allowed musicians to explore it in ways nobody ever had before. You haven't seen anything until you see Tan bow the strings like dental floss!

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not so much Tan's chronological life journey. It is more an ode to her development as an artist and the man who helped her find freedom to explore the things which excite her. Tan refers to herself as a "child of cage" and she can be seen playing just about anything and turning that sound into great art. In the show a toddler's toy phone sits beside her mobile phone and her toy piano and somehow Griswold has composed a funny and exhillerating concerto which is played with glorious artistry by a musician who is still well inside her prime despite being what we euphemistically call  a senior citizen.

The idea of a prepared piano is to make the instrument sound like a full orchestra and with some brilliant composition, playing, and four ordinary bolts Griswold and Tan manage to make her grand piano develop a beautiful Chinese flavour which is enchanting in the piece 'Dragon Lady Calling' and creates a sonic gestalt throughout the entire show.

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not a recital though, and what brings it into theatrical performance is Tan's wit and honesty as she tells us stories of success, but also failure. She quotes Beckett early on  with "Fail again. Fail better." and talks about her lack of awareness, and how accidents are as much a part of the fabric of her life as is intention. This itself mirrors Cage's interest in chance-control in music.

The visual interpretation of Tan's world is realised by some exquisite video imagery by Nick Roux. Refusing to take a literal approach, he too follows the precepts of minimalism to augment Tan's memory and thought processes with geometry and slow motion and careful architectural texturing. I get goose pimples when all the artists on a team are working in the same mode and this is exactly what is happening in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, including gentle and restrained lighting (Lim) and masterfully non-intrusive direction (Saulwick).

Sadly, Dragon Ladies Don't Weep was only on in Melbourne for one night so if you weren't there yesterday you have missed it. The good news is there are 3 performances coming up at the Opera House so you can head up to Sydney in March to see it before it heads to Singapore.

5 Stars

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) - Theatre Review

What: Hades Fading (Hades Memudar)
When: 27 February - 1 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Sandra Fiona Long
Music direction by: Ria Soemardjo
Performed by: Rinrin Candraresmi, Sisca Guzheng Harp, Heliana Sinaga, Ria Soemadjo, Wawan Sofwan, Dasep Sumardjani, and Godi Suwarna,
Set by: Emily Barrie and Deden Jalaludin Bulqini
Costumes by: Emily Barrie
Lighting by: Aji Sangiaji
Stage Management by: Dasep Sumardjani
Heliana Sinaga and Rinrin Candraresmi - photo by Muhammad Sa'iquddin
We often talk about theatre as being a beautiful art form and in Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) we get to see this truth at the pinnacle of possibilities. They say that beauty is only skin deep, and if you want to know if someone is truly beautiful you must look into their soul and judge their deeds. Hades Fading is the Platonic exemplar of beauty and is showing for the briefest of moments at La Mama Courthouse as part of AsiaTOPA.

An Australian/Indonesian co-production, Long (writer/director) has collaborated with Mainteater in Bandung to explore the ancient Greek realm of Hades through the story of Eurydice (Sinaga). Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus (Sofwan). She died on her wedding day and her husband - a musician of supernatural sweetness with the talent to be able to persuade anyone with his music - descends into the Underworld to try and get her back.

Hades (Suwarna), brother to Zeus and ruler of the Underworld, was not an evil god. He was, however focused on maintaining balance in the world with a heartless lack of discrimination. Nobody was allowed to leave Hades and return to live above because the world would become overcrowded. An interesting conversation to have in light of our efforts to live longer and the growing world population, perhaps? But I digress...

Orpheus decides to try and get Eurydice back regardless and charms Hades wife, Persephone (Candraresmi), who then persuades her husband to let Eurydice go. There was only one condition - Orpheus was not allowed to look back until they were both safe above ground. Typically, he could not trust his wife to arrive, he looked back and she was lost to the living forevermore.

In Long's version of the tale we hear the tale from Eurydice's perspective and I was quite intrigued by her musings as the couple start to ascend. It made me think about how many young brides rush into marriage - in this case enchanted by glorious song and music - and are left to ponder how much they don't know after the vows have been said.

On this point Barrie's costume designs are brilliant. Eurydice is dressed in an ornately laced wedding dress of pure white. In Western culture it is the sign of purity and marriage, in Indonesia it is the colour of mourning. All the characters wear white in this dreadful, dark Underworld.

The true messages underlying Hades Fading are much deeper though. Eurydice finds herself slipping in and out of forgetfulness. She is mired in the shredded remnants of a library and is frantically riffling through old books trying to remember who she is.

For Eurydice the books are how we remember and in a world of commentary about fake news she brings us starkly to the realisation that all of history is fake news. As she researches, this young bride discovers the texts are contradictory. Was her mother a water nymph, a wood nymph, a flower nymph, etc? None of the texts agree and her confusion is overwhelming.

Persephone joins her and tells her about the state of the world above. The seas are bubbling cauldrons of plastic, mountains of concrete, and the humans are no more. Eurydice realises her symptoms are a part of the disappearance of gods because there is nobody left to believe in them - an old tale but Hades Fading takes an interesting turn as we then slip into the story of Orpheus.

As ephemeral and delicate and earnest as Sinaga is, Sofwan is powerful and hilarious as the self-annointed rock star.  Sofwan is as seductive in his humuor as Orpheus was reputed to be through his music.

One of the impressive things about Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is Long's ability to manage the pace and modality of the performance, and the structure has a definite symphonic arrangement. This is not surprising because all of Long's work is intrinsically meshed between text, sound and music. Pair her up with the incredible Soemardjo and what has resulted is a sonic piece of theatre filled with sounds, music, and rhythms which transcend the show into an aesthete's dream. All of the instrumentation is Asian and, in fact, the show begins with Harp luring us in like the Pied Piper and the children of Hamelin (or Orpheus and his young lovers as tales would have it...) with a gourd flute.

The show is bilingual and I mean this in a really composite context. Yes, the spoken language of the show is a constant shift between Bahasa and English - sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. The world of Hades is a maze of scrims (it has been ages since I have seen scrim used!) and the surtitles are projected through those layers, pushing back through time just as the story does.

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is breathtakingly  beautiful and incredibly haunting as it speaks to forgetting the past and losing the lessons of old, inevitably heading to a future without human life. The cast constantly find themselves asking what language they are using, caught in a maelstrom of spoken word, music, and visual messaging. It makes me think of all the possibilities and information available in a globalised world which we are ignoring. Indirectly it also made me think of our recent bushfires and the offers of our Aboriginal peoples to teach us how to care for and manage this land and our reluctance to hear them.

Hades Fading (Hades Memudar) is a dream. It is a beautiful dream. It is a nightmare. It is funny, it is hope, it is despair, it is a warning. It is art.

5 Stars

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? - Theatre Review

What: Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?
When: 26 - 29 February 2020
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Written by: David Finnigan
Directed by: J Kanicoche
Performed by: , Blanche Buhia,  Bunny Cadag,Claudia Enriquez, David Finnigan, J Kanicoche, KIKI House of Dévine, Ji-ann Lachica, Claudia Enriquez, Efren Pamilacan, Brandon Relucio and Adrienne Vergara
Video by: Joyce Garcia
Sound design by: J Laspuna
Lighting by: Roman Cruz Jr
Stage Managed by: Sigmund Pecho
photo by Sarah Walker
Are you ready to see theatre of the scope and scale we rarely make in this city anymore? Are you ready to sit inside a whirl of energy and movement and exciting political polemic? Are you ready to be dazzled by technology and good, fun silliness? Are you ready to be afraid? Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? Then come on down to Arts House and immerse yourself in Sipat Lawin's newest live cinematic experience. Hurry though. It's only on until Saturday sadly.

People talk about their theatrical endeavours being experimental, but if you really want to see experimental work you really need to check out Are You Ready...? Is it film? Is it live theatre? Is it dance? Is it cabaret? Is it bilingual? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. But this show is not political... 

Set in their motherland, The Phillipines, the Sipat Lawin ensemble have created a live action thriller movie which follows the hunt for kidnapped pop idol Gracielle V (Buhia). In a land overflowing with beauty contests and where celebrity politicians are in plague proportions, an event of this nature aught to bring out the Police in droves. But this show is not political...

When the powers that be choose to deny the kidnapping happened it is up to a teenage vlogger, Selina (Lachica), her activist older sister (Enriquez), and a rogue police woman (Vergara) to track the singer down and free her. They are chased by the Police through the streets of Manila in a jeepney, gate crash a beauty contest, find themselves in a rap and dance battle, swim the river and cross a cemetery as they follow the tracking hacking provided by Huawei technology. But this show is not political...

An hilarious high action romp, Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? does not stop there. Enjoying a Brechtian meta-platform, the live film is framed by a film festival where Finnigan (writer) interviews Kanicoche (director) about the film. This interview and some other sequences interrupt the videography (Garcia) on the 3 big screens (the performance area forms a kind of horseshoe). But this show is not political...

One of the many meta-commentaries in the show examined through form and content is the question about whether there is any difference between life and art. This live filming mirrors the archetype of Selina as a modern youth who never puts her phone down and uploads every moment of her life to the internet. It also brings us to question why do we give power to celebrity and how much of this is responsible for the real fake news which is the stories politicians spin witout any basis of fact or reality? I'm not mentioning any names...Scomo,Tump... But this show is not political...

Underneath all the flash and dazzle and outrageous costumes there are significant pointers which speak to a community in crisis. Since 2016 Fillipinos have had Presidential permission to shoot and kill suspected drug criminals extra-judicially. Think about that. No process or protections to allow a chance to prove innocence. It is like "I don't like the look of you. You are poor and dirty. You must be a drug criminal. You are dead." That's one way to enact gentrification I suppose. But this show is not political...

The older sister, the activist, shows us how much folly there is in believing politicians. Senator Malaine Gutierrez (Cadag) - a character whose story very strongly resembles that of Leila de Lima - speaks out vocally against the government's policies on this matter, but as with all idols she has feet of clay. But this show is not political...

The really important question Sipat Lawin is asking is who is responsible for making the change you want to see? Is it politicians? Is it the police? Is it the activists? Or is it you - the 15 year old with a social media profile and voice more powerful than you can yet understand? But this show is not political...

Why are you waiting for someone else to fix things. Get out and be heard. There is a saying which goes 'the world is run by the people who turn up'. Sipat Lawin want you to turn up! But this show is not political...

I loved all the production elements of the play, but there were some big costume malfunctions which really shouldn't have happened. I assume there was a dress rehearsal and they are easy fixes. It was disappointing and gave it a slight air of being amateur which is not actually the case. I hope they deal with those moments rather than ignoring them.

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? is only 90 minutes but it did feel a bit longer than that. Partly because there is so much going on as the cast run around between the three staging areas, the scenes clipping together like film edits in the cinema. 

It is also partly because there are some pauses in the action as cultural information is provided. This is done well and doesn't let the humour drop, but it does interrupt the flow in a way a film wouldn't. It is fine because this isn't Hollywood. You will find it's corollary much more strongly with Bollywood!

Perhaps if this work was something other than the magnificent beast it is, I would say it tries to cover too much in it's satire, but it just works so I say viva Sipat Lawin! Sipat Lawin's work is historically boundary destroying, demanding audiences understand there is no line between art, life and politics. They are one and the same thing. They also take responsibility for modelling behaviours and the change they want to see. I think I just became a Sipat Lawin groupie! But this show is not political...

If you love Bollywood you will love this show. If you are missing the glitz and glam of Midsumma you will love this show. If you are a Brecht devotee you will love this show. If you think movies are all that, you will love this show. The only people who won't like Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? are the powers that be which is why you MUST see it! But this show is not political...

4.5 Stars

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Grass - Theatre Review

What: Grass
When: 24 - 27 February 2020
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written by: Yvonne Martin
Performed by: Stephanie Daniel and Sarah Oldmeadow
Sarah Oldmeadow and Stephanie Daniel
Grass is one of the new theatre pieces taking part in The Butterfly Club's new One Act Play Festival. It is an examination of how friendship is hard work once you leave the hothouse of education and start making independent decisions and choices.

There are no programs for shows at The Butterfly Club so I may end up making assumptions which are not correct here because my Google stalking skills are a bit fallible. From what I can gather though, Grass is Martin's first play. If this is true, it is a very, very good effort. The structure is good and the character development good. The only thing it lacks is action...which is a bit of a problem for theatre I admit.

I have mentioned this before, but I don't think 2 people talking on stage is inherently interesting no matter how engaging the conversation is. Theatre is a visual medium so there needs to be something to look at. I also think if, as an actor, you find yourself sitting down for more than half the play you need to explore your skills directory, but I will talk about that later.

First I want to talk about the story. Oldmeadow plays a stay at home mother of 2 children. Daniel is a child free modern woman living a life of independence and without obligation. These characters met in college (I think?) and became firm friends over a Eurovision drinking game.

After graduation though, they made significantly different life choices and after Oldmeadow's character had her first child, Daniel's character felt invisible. Over time they both started turning to other people instead of each other for love and support. They are meeting up after several years of absence and the play investigates how they come to terms with who they were, who they are, and who they want to be.

Grass is perhaps a slight misnomer for the play because I don't think either of these women envy the life choices of the other. The grass isn't greener on the other side for either of them, it is more that both resent the idea that they were ghosted by the other and are struggling with misconceptions of what happened and why.

I don't like the way mothers and child free women are pitted against each other in our culture, and I also don't like how mothers groups are portrayed as bitchy and competitive. I have a sneaking suspicion these are tropes propogated by the patriarchy to make women distrustful of each other.

Sadly, Grass does feed into this narrative. As a child free woman I have found my friends which are mothers have been very inclusive, and their mothers groups have been essential for maintaining their sanity and also knowledge sharing.

If we disregard my personal opinions though, Grass is a well structured play. It works in flashback mode and focuses on key ocurrances which show the trajectory of the friendship and how the two women find themselves so estranged. The tension, pace and climax build beautifully and would probably make a better short film than a piece of theatre.

Daniel and Oldmeadow have excellent acting skills although it is more head based than body based. Daniel in particular, has incredibly expressive eyes which would be perfect for the camera!

Or perhaps the lack of physical dynamism is the restriction of the play and the staging? Once again I find myself at a theatre show where a table has centre stage. What is so interesting about that table which makes it earn the most powerful position? There has been some attempts to break the frame with Oldmeadow and Daniel sitting on the front edge of the stage for intimate moments but that just cuts them off from anyone sitting towards the back of the room.

There are some logic problems too. For some reason, in the two monologue scenes the other woman leaves the stage, but this makes no sense. They are still in the cafe - it is just a step outside of reality and into the minds of the women. A tried but true simple freeze for the other actor would make the piece flow more freely by a good 100%.

I try to avoid commenting on production if there is no design team but I am going to complain about the sound in this show. For some unknown reason they have soft music playing in the background for the whole show. It is soooooooooooo annoying. I assume it is because the women are in a cafe, but it keeps playing through the flashbacks and interior monologues too! I really had to continually fight myself to not stand up and ask the tech to please turn it off.

Remember, your sound design has to point to the same things as the play is pointing too. If you are being diagetic then you need to be consistent and accurate. I will stop their, although I would suggest the team go into a cafe some time and listen to what is actually played.

I feel like it sounds as if I am panning Grass, but I am not really. I am just saying it is not good theatre yet. It needs a director and a designer to bring a 3 dimensional life to the staging. However this is far more than simply an off book staged reading. Oldmeadow and Daniel are certainly worth watching as an excellent examples of character work and script analysis.

2.5 Stars

Monday, 24 February 2020

Chook - Theatre Review

What: Chook
When: 24 - 27 February 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Ava Campbell, Claire Bird, Kaine Hansen, William Strom, Dominic Weintraub, Hugo Williams
Kaine Hansen, Claire Bird, and Hugo Williams
Chook is one of the first lot of shows kicking off the inaugural One Act Play Festival at The Butterfly Club this year. Created by a freshly minted set of VCA graduates, Company 19, Chook is a frenetic action thriller about the relationship between humans and chickens, much in the style of Planet of The Apes but with a lot more laughs.

The VCA school of theatre has always had the tradition of naming graduate groups by the year they graduate. The idea/hope was that those groups of students - after three years of intensive undergraduate training - would go forth and create theatre companies. It worked sometimes.

Of course, this concept began when production, acting and theatre making were all one school. So, for example, I am Company 97 (and Company 16, sort of, but that's a vaguer connection). The bigger concept crumbled once Production divorced Theatre (although a success story for a while was Hayloft Project). It all became even more ambiguous when theatre making disappeared in favour of the autonomous actor.

The Theatre School kept up the tradition however and there have been some very successful outcomes including Hotel Now. In fact, Chook reminds me very strongly of Hotel Now's Dog Show and What's Yours Is Mine although Chook is not quite as sophisticated...yet.

The Wheel of Life (Samsara...) keeps turning though, and Company 19 are the first graduating class from the recently reinstated undergraduate theatre making stream. By the looks of Chook, the emphasis of the training still sits very heavily in acting over dramaturgy but there are nuggets of very powerful possibilities in Chook if the group continue to dig into the idea with perhaps a bit more rigor.

It is billed as an experimental work, but really all collaborative theatre falls under that category as a technicality. I would be more likely to consider multi-media or cross-form work experimental. Having said that, Chook is a fast-paced piece of physical theatre performed by a team who have acting skills only VCA graduates emerge with. Their knowledge of how to use the body to tell stories is outstanding and they still have that energy, sense of fun, and connectedness which comes from being recent graduates. It all comes through in the work.

Underpinning Chook is the Orwellian idea of animals revolting against humans. Rather than retell the story of Animal Farm though, Company 19 have chosen to focus on one animal - the chook.

I kind of want to disregard the introduction and the first scene because they are just set up to gain cheap laughs and don't have much narrative logic. The Perfect Match game show premise is so overused now it doesn't have any flesh left on it's bones and I found myself wondering if anyone under the age of 40 even really gets that trope? We are in the age of The Bachelor and Love Island now so I think we can put those old style game shows in their grave now.

Once the show moves on though, things pick up quickly and Chook gets very dark (in a comedic way) very fast indeed! It starts with a cooking show on how to cook chicken for kebabs and for roasting. A chook (Bird) comes out and teaches us how to paralyse a bird but ends up accidently paralysing herself. The next thing we see is her being pre-baked and then stuffed into another chook (Williams) to make a ch-chicken. This is where the rebellion begins.

Chook doesn't enter into any particular political debate beyond that point, but instead uses manic clowning techniques to tell a science fiction tale about evolution. Having made a h-human in retaliation (Campbell and Weintraub), the chooks learn to use human technology.

Along the way they develop human behaviours as well. Eventually they begin to create art and through interpretive dance we learn about the rise of the Chook civilisation.

I loved the central concept of Chook and how the clowning is used to blacken this dark, dark tale. The boundless energy which is Company 19 is totally infectious and I like how they are not afraid to go wherever their scary minds take them. What I would like to see is a greater commitment to dramaturgy. I don't think they actually trusted that this show would work and it comes out in the shortcuts they have taken.

They probably need to slow a bit of the physical stuff down too. Yes, the audience full of VCA comrades got it because they have been in classes with them, but some of the clever detail work goes by so fast I don't think an uninitiated audience will catch it all and it really is too good to miss.

I strongly recommend going to see Chook. It is high energy, quite hilarious, and has an enchanting darkness which actually made me shudder because it became so visceral in my mind.

3.5 Stars

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Salome - Opera Review

What: Salome
When: 22 - 27 February 2020
Where: Palais Theatre
Composed by: Richard Strauss
Libretto by: Oscar Wilde, translated by Hedwig Lachmann, and reduced by Richard Strauss
Conducted by: Richard Mills
Directed by: Cameron Menzies
Featuring: James Egglestone, Liane Keegan, Vida Mikneviciute, Dimity Shepherd, Ian Storey, and Daniel Sumegi
Choreography by: Elizabeth Hill-Cooper
Set by: Christina Smith
Costumes by: Anna Cordingly
Lighting by: Gavan Swift
Stage managed by: Whitney MacNamara
Vida Mikneviclute - photo by Craig Fuller
There are few operas which carry the infamy and outrage which litters the history of the story of Salome. It is also a rare beast in that is it only 90 minutes long. Most definitely an opera created before it's time, Strauss' Salome is being presented by Victorian Opera for 3 performances only at the Palais Theatre and closes on the 27th.

Strauss is a composer of the late Romantic era. For those of you who think that was so long ago think again. The Romantics were music makers from the mid 1800's to the early 1900's. In fact, you could argue we are still in the Romantic era because most of the famous film scores still use the principle of music as narrative.

When you go and see Salome you will instantly find your mind drawn to composers of the ilk of John Williams (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter etc). Thus, musically speaking, even the youngest of audiences will feel at home.

Assigning a librettist for this opera is tricky though. It is generally listed as Hedwig Lachmann but he only translated the play written by Oscar Wilde from the original French to German. In truth it is neither of these because by the time Strauss stripped it down by at least half, it resembles little but the barest outlines of Wilde's play.

I know this is hard for many people to understand, but a playwright uses language the same way a composer uses instruments. An analogy would be if I decided to use the music from Salome and remove all the repeats in the lietmotifs. (Strauss works groups of three throughout the score). On the other hand, this is very much how modern film works - in a show, don't tell and let the music do the heavy lifting kind of way.

Sadly, I think Menzies (director) didn't live up to his side of the bargain, but I will get onto that in a moment. Firstly I want to talk about the magnificent job done by Mills (conductor).

Salome is an opera with lush orchestration and one of the most exciting moments is to walk into the gorgeous theatre and see the orchestra swell beyond the pit walls and into the auditorium. Percussion and horns seep into the edges of the audience just as Jochanaan's blood seeps from his head at the end.

Orchestra Victoria do what they always do and under the sure and confident guidance of Mills the musical world of Salome embraces the audience and doesn't let go until after the final note. This opera has sometimes been called a tone poem and if you close your eyes during the show you will be swept into a world of beauty, despair and thrilling, edge of your seat horror.

In a European sense, the staging was also quite grandiose. Smith (set designer) has created an aged and ancient, run down theatre-like environment and this is complemented by Swift's lighting which streams through cracked windows and broken roofing. Cordingly (costumes) has also created a palette of old theatrical icons embodied by the cast who are characters of theatre long past.

It is all very impressive, but with regard to how any of this relates to the story of Salome, all I could do was spend a lot of the night silently asking "why?" Menzies does provide a very long winded explanation in the program but to be honest, I don't think his ambitions equal what has been produced and I saw nothing which made me feel the story was being brought '...forward to the ongoing themes moving into the 21st century. '

I could go into a full-on polemic about this dramatic interpretation but suffice to say it was lost on me and my plus one. Based on some veiled comments in other reviews, it was not very well recieved by others as well. I will say you can get a bit of a clue the show isn't working as a '...warning to the world...' when the audience are laughing. Herod (Storey) as the ghost of the Cowardly Lion from Wizard of Oz really is a step too far to take seriously although the analogy is obvious.

My great moment of disappointment was that the team had not found a way for the audience to see Jochanaan (Sumegi) in his dire imprisonment, although that may have to do with the dissonance between text and the stature of Sumegi. Regardless, it was impossible to feel a connection to someone singing off stage most of the time.

Menzies' stilted and disconnected blocking doesn't help either. I found myself wondering if he had set a rule for Sumegi and Mikneviciute (Salome) along the lines of "always stay as far away as you possibly can from each other whenever you are both on stage." Regardless, there was no tension between them and the whole scene was comedic (which is why the audience laughed).

My great moment of despair was the 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. Or should I say what dance? Hill-Cooper, choreographer, tried to be clever and make Salome's dance pathetic - a commentary on the idea that no matter how bad she was, Herod adored her so much he would think it was beautiful.

Perhaps Mikneviciute is not a dancer. Fair enough. But then don't dress her as a cabaret fan dancer. Also we needed to be let into Herod's fantasy through some sort of ghost dancer because otherwise his revelation of her true ugliness at the end becomes underwhelming. Especially with little text to support these big, complex moments.

I did enjoy the severed head. In a post True Blood era, I think the company could go even further though and have blood streaming down Salome's body!

Luckily, in opera, music is king, and just as wonderful as the orchestra is, so are the principal cast. The Palais is not the best venue for opera accoustically, and yet the key characters cut through with their powerful and dynamic vocals. Mikneviciute was wonderful and carried both the range and the dynamics through to the very last note. Storey was dominant as Herod and Sumegi managed to sound clear and present even though he was offstage.

In what is left of his script - and even in the structure of the story as a whole - Wilde's subversive and abrogating ideas and aesthetics about people still manage to come through in the opera Salome. He investigates the human insanity of worship and adoration. He links the worthy with the unworthy, leaving neither of them complimented.

How far does Jochanaan go in his worship of a god he can never see? To what levels of perfidy will Narraboth (Egglestone) descend for a woman he only sees ride by behind a veil? Are their any limits to what Herod will do for some attention from his daughter? What lengths will Salome go to in order to be desired by every man she comes into contact with? In a selfie-obsessed world, these questions are even more prominent today than they were a century ago!

3 Stars

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music

What: Clara - Sex, Love and Classical Music
When: 18 - 23 February 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Elena Mazzon
Directed by: Catriona Kerridge
Lighting by: Paul Reisenberger
Elena Mazzon - photo by Sav Schulman
Clara: Sex Love and Classical Music is a show Mazzon created in 2018 in anticipation of the bicentenary of the birth of pianist and composer Clara Schumann. It is a feminist interpretation of what restricted a woman of such talent from achieving the place in history afforded her husband Robert in a gentle and witty retelling of her life.

Clara Schumann was a virtuistic pianist during the Romantic era and was the peer of people such as Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt... and the list goes on. More than their match on the piano, she also dabbled in composition although - as Mazzon shows us - her life as wife of male composer and mother of 7 children, it was just not possible for her to develop her compositional skills. Especially when her husband forbade her to play whilst he was composing because it interfered with his creativity...

Whilst there is a moderate body of work which shows she had talents as a composer, what most people don't understand is she was the rock star of her era. A child prodigy who started touring at the age of 9, Clara Schumann basically invented the concept of playing recitals by memory -  now a common expectation - and, in fact, really made the piano recital the popular performance mode which has dominated so much of musical presentation since her death.

Sadly, you won't hear any of this in the show Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music because despite Mazzon's feminist approach, all she really does is continue the patriarchal framing of women in history by the men surrounding them rather than the achievements themselves. As with all the films and other retellings of Clara's life, Mazzon focusses on the controversial marriage to Robert Schumann (against her domineering father's wishes and the subject of a court case), and her unconsummated love affair with Brahms. The great irony of a patriarchal history is embedded in the reality that it was Clara's skill and popularity which really allowed Robert's and Bach's music to be heard and therefore recognised - a truism all women know and can relate to.

As a tale of love and historic oppression, Clara is still quite a telling and insightful show though. What Mazzon does well is show exactly how having children is an immediate impediment to a woman's career - something we know is true even in the 21st century. There is also the intriguing truth that 3 weeks of Clara going on a concert tour earned the household more money than a year of Robert's composing and editing. I also loved the honesty of the Brahm's love story and how important it was in a pre-contraception era for a woman to avoid sex.

I don't know if this is a recent addition to the show, but there is a striking moment of unity of art and politics as Clara berates an orchestra she is conducting because Robert fell ill. She references how she can see how unaccustomed the men are to a women being there because of the lack of female toilet facilities. Give the recent sports rorts in our federal political arena this tiny moment of witty observation echoed resoundingly around the room. Don't think of that as ancient history either, because I know in the early eighties (1980's that is) women were still being denied employment because workplaces did not have female toilet facilities!

Mazzon's performance is lively and delicate at the same time. I was a bit confused about her constant air of nerves though (beyond the opening conceipt which is hilarious). Clara was a strong woman raised by a demanding father, mother to 7 children and the major bread winner in her family. Portraying her as a delicate flower seems odd and is not really in harmony with her music which is darker and perhaps more risk taking than that of her husband's.

The dramaturgy is not the best. Time shifts around. That doesn't bother me, but the narrative logic of the shifts is slightly opaque. There is also some tedious repetition. I really only needed to hear about Robert's repression of playing while he composes once. Not three times in a work which sits at around an hour long.

I also really wanted the story to be more connected to the music and I just wanted more music generally. The Romantic era is about music being connected to narrative and there are moments when it works well in Clara - such as the use of variations as a means of communication between the Schumann's when they are banned from contact. Beyond that though, the linkages are weak and the music seems more of a performance requirement. I suspect this is a problem with the direction because Mazzon rarely played and spoke. The story telling and the music felt somewhat disconnected. Kerridge needed to work harder to have those two modes blend I feel.

Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music is a solid piece of theatre with a lot of laughs built in. It definitely lets us inside the world of Clara Schumann as a woman even though it doesn't really speak to her impact on music and her true place in history. A better piano would make the music speak a bit louder in the work (metaphorically speaking) but we all know how expensive having a piano in any show is (with the cost of hire, transportation and tuning) so congratulations on making this work in an independent context. It is definitely a show which benefits from intimacy and would have shone in glory in the old La Mama theatre.

3 Stars