Friday 30 September 2022

MEASURE OF A MOMENT - Theatre Review

 WHAT: Measure of a Moment

WHEN: 28 September - 2 October 2022

WHERE: La Mama Courthouse

WRITTEN BY: Charles Mercovich

DIRECTED BY: Robert Johnson

COMPOSED BY: Louis Ajani

SET BY: Riley Tapp

COSTUMES BY: Amy Oakes and Emily Busch

PERFORMED BY: Jordan Chodziesner, Liliana Dalton, Claire Duncan, Asher Griffith-Jones, Carissa McPherson, Darren Mort, Abigail Pettigrew, and Luke Toniolo

STAGE MANAGED BY: Jemma Law

Asher Griffith-Jones and Jordan Chodziesner - photo by Cameron Grant

People think making theatre is easy. People think writing plays is just another writing style. People think anyone can act. It takes plays like Measure of a Moment - now playing at La Mama Courthouse - to show us how fallacious those thoughts are.

Measure of a Moment is set in the 1890s in Melbourne and follows the misfortunes of a young lad named Connor (Jordan Chodziesner) as he deals with career disappointment and the temptations of vice. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of gambling and the pitfalls of peer pressure. Across the course of a misspent youth it also tries to echo the social and technological advances of the turn of the century. In many ways this is the play's biggest problem - it tries to do too much.

Playwright Charles Mercovich is strongly influenced by Marcus Clarke's For The Term of His Natural Life and tries to echo the episodic structure of the book as well as more overt acknowledgements including the appearance of the ghost of Clarke (Darren Mort) at the end of the play. The trouble is, there is not enough information in the play. It is hard to keep track of who the characters are or who they are talking about. 

The program notes refer to dramaturgical support but there is no acknowledgement in the credits. Regardless, the project needs some proper dramaturgy and it is extremely disappointing that director Robert Johnson hasn't taken a stronger hand to help let the audience into this work. One of the roles of a director is to draw out the themes of a play and make sure all of the signifiers help point in the direction intended. After all, is a message a message if nobody knows what it is? Johnson's failures in this regard are rife throughout Measure of a Moment.

The visual impact of the Riley Tapp's set is powerful when you first walk in, and it is a design which keeps on giving as it morphs across the evening to put us in different places and times in Connor's life. Unfortunately it is solidly grounded in a settler aesthetic with warm woods and cloths rather than echoing the themes of automation and disconnection that come from vice and industrialisation which are constantly referred to in the play. 

Luckily, Tim Bosner's excellent lighting design helps lift us out of the ordinary and into the non-natural writing style created by Mercovich. This leads to my next criticism of the direction. The language in the play and the structure of it are not naturalistic so why are the actors playing naturalism? The exception is Liliana Dalton who plays a wonderfully evocative Bagman who would have done William Shakespeare proud. Suffice to say the costumes ground us even more firmly in the past rather than a looming future. They are nice but inform us of nothing.

The actors do a solid job of difficult material but there are a lot of times in Measure of a Moment when I think they really don't know what they are saying or what their role is in the story telling. Not their fault. The script is confusing and the director has obviously not supported them enough to find character arcs. 

The play misses important information and becomes needlessly bogged down in pointless acts of art. As an example I cite the final two songs. Asher Griffith-Jones is a phenomenal singer and a wonderful actor but apart from thinking there is some attempt at mimicking Bertolt Brecht I have no idea what those songs do for the story.

I am not going to lie. I wanted to walk out by around the last 15 minutes of the show. I had no sense of the story and I didn't care about the characters. There was little of visual interest to stimlate by that point and I could not tell by anything I was seeing or hearing whether the play was ever destined to end. This wasn't helped by the fact that nobody - not even the venue - knew there was an interval which led to an overall mistrust of just how long the play really was. I am going to lay this one at the feet of Jemma Law, the stage manager. I can't even work out in my head how the venue was not advised of that information

1.5 Stars.

Thursday 29 September 2022

WHALEBONE - Theatre Review

 WHAT: Whalebone

WHEN: 22 - 24 September 2022

WHERE: Theatreworks

CREATED AND PERFORMED BY: Jens Altheimer

Jens Altheimer

We all know how important stories are, and we know that history repeats when we don't keep track of our stories. In Whalebone Jens Altheimer aims to pass on the ideas of remembering and recycling to our younger, computer literate, high consumption next generation.

Altheimer is a Lecoq trained clown who brings a delightful dodderiness to his collection curator character. He is also a self-proclaimed tinkerer which is witnessed by the odd and amazing collection of trinkets and apparatus peppering the stage space. The junkyard/steampunk stories repository sits in juxtaposition to the swirling, geometric AV fractals projected onto a huge screen behind him.

With a premise similar to The Bureau of Magical Things, Altheimer has created a depository (or library) which retains the history embedded into the souls of everyday objects. He places objects like swimming caps in a contraption which scans and extrudes the life of that object so far, and stores it in his digital databank. He then takes said object and recycles it to create amazingly outrageous new devices.

One day an object just appears and he meets the first AI (artificial intelligence). Being an old school collector Altheimer resists the AI's demands for the password to the databank until it is attacked by malware and he needs all the help he can get. Of course, like all of us, he has trouble remembering the password and he must solve a complex puzzle he created to remember the password.

Altheimer has long experience with shows and installations for children and he ticks all the boxes. The most important one is getting the audience participating right from the beginning and keeping them involved to the very end - including the Q&A which is not your ordinary type of Q&A. He keeps the magic alive from beginning to end.

There is so much to love about Whalebone. The contraptions are creative and hilarious, he has paid excellent attention to the AV which is completely interactive across the whole show. 

Perhaps the most fun and beautiful thing is that he leans on science based magic. A master of kinetic energy, he powers machines with pedal power and has 'stories' flying around using air pressure and surface tension. The room is full of magic but there is no doubt for a single second that science and physics are the wizard's wand making it all happen.

It is exciting to see a quality children's show which isn't all about primary colours and oversized moulded plastic. If I had a criticism it would be that Altheimer himself might be erring slightly on the side of being too doddery and could lift the pace a fraction. Having said that, there are a lot of moving parts to this show so maybe a little caution is called for because in a show like Whalebone everything has to work - and it does, which is the true miracle! I also wonder if there couldn't be a little attention paid to explaining why remembering is important just to create a context.

The true measure of any show is the conversations which take place afterwards and I heard some great discussions. One boy was debating what is good AI and what is bad AI. I heard another parent explaining the show as a cautionary tale to her little girl. I would place bets on every one of the children in the audience going home and insisting their parents let them try juggling balloons with the hairdryer! 

If Whalebone comes to a theatre near you this is the kind of show your kids will love. It is full of junk, fantastical objects, artificial intelligence, drama, thrills, puzzle solving - and a couple of kids even get a bit of exercise as they help provide the peddle power to get the gadgets going!

4 Stars


Friday 9 September 2022

THE LIGHTHOUSE - Opera Review

 WHAT: The Lighthouse

WHEN: 8-10 September 2022

WHERE: Brunswick Mechanics Institute

WRITTEN & COMPOSED BY: Peter Maxwell Davies

DIRECTED BY: Kate Millett

CONDUCTED BY: Evan Lawson

DESIGNED BY: Casey Harper-Wood

LIGHTING BY: Gabriel Bethune

SOUND BY: Jack Burmeister

PERFORMED BY: Sung Won Choi, Jonathan Rumsan, Henry Shaw, Daniel Sinfield, Phoebe Smithies

Henry Shaw, Jonathan Rumsam, Daniel Sinfield, Sung Won Choi, and Evan Lawson

Winter is officially over but we Melburnians know it will be months before it really warms up again. As such, this is the perfect time of year for thrillers and BK Opera has brought us the perfect feast of thrills and frights to revel in on these dark, cold nights. The Lighthouse, a chamber opera by the late Peter Maxwell Davies written in 1979, is being performed at Brunswick Mechanics Institute and will chill you to the bones despite the warmth and comfort of the theatre you are sitting in.

The Lighthouse is a chamber opera based on a horror story which was based on a true account of three lighthouse keepers in Scotland who went missing without a trace. It is an opera in 2 acts. The first - titled 'The Lighthouse' - has the crew of the relief ship recounting their arduous sea journey to deliver provisions and the mystery of the disappeared lighthouse keepers. This part of the opera is very straight narrative story telling with little melodic relief although there is some excitement in the rats sequence.

It is the second act where the real magic happens though. 'The Cry of The Beast' puts us in the lighthouse on the night the three men disappear and give us a window into the madness and chaos which might have made up their final evening. And then there is the cherry on top - the coda. This is the stuff nightmares are made of!

When you are a man alone on an isolated rock, surrounded by deadly seas and in the company of two other men who were strangers when the adventure first began, strange things happen in your heart and mind. Sandy (Daniel Sinfield), Blazes (Jonathan Rumsam), and Arthur (Henry Shaw) spend what will be their last night on this earth eating oatcakes and tea, because all other provisions long ran out, desperate for the relief ship to arrive and terrified by the rising storm.

Sinfield's light tenor brings a sweet romanticism to his solo aria, and Rumsam is just delightful as he gads about the stage with a banjo telling a torrid tale of a mispent and inglorious youth. Shaw is suitably imposing with his developing bass-baritone voice as he rains down an evangelistic zeal worthy of the Crusades. Preaching about the fatted calf, it is no surprise that radical Christianity brings about the doom about to descend on them all.

These young singers are still developing their stage craft and Evan Lawson does an excellent job of guiding them strongly through a very complex musical journey whilst creating exquisite dynamics and details in the playing by Sung Won Choi (piano) and Phoebe Smithies (french horn). I admit to loving the horn work. The chamber opera is written for 6 instruments, but what is achieved with piano and horn (and banjo) along with a clever and powerful sound design (Jack Burmeister) gives all the body needed and more than enough chills. The horn is not just an instrument in this production of The Lighthouse - it is another character.

Kate Millett has directed this production with clever restraint, not getting in the way of the singers or Lawson, but creating a very clear concept and intention which has been ably realised by Casey Harper-Wood. In fact, as you enter the theatre the set creates a definite sense of wow and a curiosity on how the show will work. An imperfect hexagon of mirrored panels evidently represent the lighthouse and Gabriel Bethune's lighting lets us inside and textures the space effectively. 

My only regret is the panels prevented the sound waves of the voices from filling the room and affecting our bodies. Thus we did lose some of the visceral possibilities of the show. Perhaps having at least one of the panels (maybe the one facing the repetiteur) as a scrim rather than a solid would have allowed us to appreciate being in the room with the singers. Instead, I found myself feeling a bit like I was watching TV. 

I really can't praise and recommend The Lighthouse enough. It has a sadly short season, but go out and see it this weekend if you can. If you have never been to opera this is the opera to go and see to wet your feet - just don't step too close to the cliff edge or you may descend into the madness which befell these poor men!

4 Stars

Monday 5 September 2022

DEBUT - Comedy Review

 WHAT: Debut

WHEN: 27 August 2022

WHERE: The MC Showroom

WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY: Daisy Webb

Daisy Webb

Theatre venues and performers all over Melbourne are trying to catch up on all the cancelled shows from 2020 and 2021. For some it is not about having a 'season', but rather about allowing all the work and love they put into the creative process having it's moment in the spotlight - literally. Daisy Webb's show Debut is one of those lost treasures and got it's moment in Queer Comedy Week at the MC Showroom for one night only.

Webb is a transgender woman and takes us through some of the awkward and uncomfortable moments as she transitions. She also has a podcast with her partner called The Daisy Diaries which explores this journey between them.

As a cis woman I always enjoy hearing transition stories because I learn a lot about my assumptions about gender, and it is usually a really interesting look at the nature versus nurture question. There might also be some generational ignorance to pepper my understanding too. 

For example, I was listening to Webb talk about her breasts and I found myself thinking it sounded a lot like those dodgy Hollywood 'a man finds himself in a woman's body' crappy comedies. I am not saying Webb wasn't funny, it was more that the tone was one which I had always ascribed to the 'men's jokes about women's bodies' category. On the other hand, I guess for Webb they really are a fun new toy...? I am probably just jealous because, as she said, her boobs will always be 30 years younger than she is.

As with all good comedy Webb does hit some home truths which make us take a look at ourselves. For example she jokes about cis women constantly saying "welcome to being a woman" when she complains about something. Webb observes that it doesn't feel very welcoming. I find myself thinking cis women are just surprised that a trans woman would choose to go from a position of social/economic/political privilege to one of disempowerment. That is the point though, isn't it? It is not a choice at all.

When Webb is talking about her topic her material is strong and funny. Sadly, for some strange reason, she has decided to fill the show out with a lot of not great puns and random jokes. Thus, it is an hour long and slightly tiresome, whereas it could be a wonderful and hilarious 40 minutes of quality performance. 

My advice would be to avoid going for the cheap laugh. Tell the story and trust that  it and yourself is enough. I am glad Debut got it's time on stage and I look forward to, what I hope will be, another iteration.

2.5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024 WHERE: TW Explosives Factory WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce SET BY: Dav...