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Thursday, 23 October 2014

STC & MALTHOUSE THEATRE’S ‘CALPURNIA DESCENDING’ dissected by me

When I saw Sisters Grimm perform ‘Little Mercy’ last year, I thought it was brilliant. Their ‘Summertime in the Garden of Eden’ at Griffin- terrific. So I eagerly awaited ‘Calpurnia Descending’, currently playing in Wharf 2 at the Sydney Theatre Company and no one was more surprised than me as I sat agape for the first fifteen minutes wondering if the parody inherent in their ‘gay DIY drag-theatre’ was now a (very pretty) pony that I have seen ride around the stadium one too many times.

The play deals with the reappearance of the once thought dead Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) by young and hopeful starlet/telegram girl, Violet St Clair (Ash Flanders). It quickly captures an era of a late 1930’s New York kind of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis rivalry as the ‘ladies’ fight for the attention of director (Peter Paltos) and the starring role in a play about the women of Julius Caesar, aptly named Calpurnia Descending. And no Broadway show is complete without producer, Max Sylvestri (Sandy Gore), debt-ridden and desperate and some intrigue about the fate of the show. 

There were times it was genuinely entertaining and times when ‘Calpurnia Descending’ felt distinctly clunkish. As a live action theatre show, it doesn’t quite work. The ham-acting has a short shelf-life and after the establishment of plot and character, you wonder what else it has in the tank. And then the emergence of a giant dancing rat telling people to ‘stay in school’…well, ‘you dirty rat’ is the closest I can come to trying to explain that. But then through use of live action film, ala Hollywood black and white movies, broadcast onto the scrim for us whilst the real action is happening behind the curtain, the play literally takes off.

‘Calpurnia Descending’ works as a film in the environment of live theatre. It’s a strange contradiction in terms, to sit in a theatre and watch the action, hidden from view, unfold as a live video feed. The acting conventions of the Sisters Grimm are perfect for this- hysterical hyper-realism, melodramatic mayhem.

Ash Flanders is exceptional at drag. Hedda Gabler he ain’t but frocked-up-innocent-scream-queen, that’s his forte. I found Flanders the strongest thing about the show but Gore’s Sylvestri was also very good. Paltos plays the romantic interest with great awe and energy and Paul Capsis ran hot and cold for me. His classic drag skill is indisputable but maybe I just prefer more fish than fierce (oh I feel so RuPaul just saying that). I think you either love Capsis or perhaps his work doesn’t sit well with you. It’s drag on steroids and I could drive a truck through the gaps in dialogue and high drama so I think I just prefer the subtlety of Flanders in this regard. However, once we hit the film portion of the night, Capsis comes into his own and he drives that truck all the way to the end. He’s not afraid of the grotesque and for that I am grateful, even if I don’t always love it.

Jed Palmer’s sound design is exceptional in creating life beyond the screen and capturing the atmosphere of the parody of place and genre and Matthew Greenwood’s animation with Matthew Gingold’s design provides a lovely blend of contemporary commercialism with old world horror.
Declan Greene’s writing and direction truly knows how to shock in the most matter-of-fact ways and loves to leave its audience with sometimes more questions than comfort. But it’s still a breath of fresh air in many ways in its lavish experimentation of style and form and the techniques employed. But to have to keep reinventing the wheel to keep it fresh is an enormous pressure for the Sisters Grimm and I hope they continue the drive. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

NEW THEATRE’S ‘HARVEST’ dissected by me

It’s been a long time between reviews but the traveller has now returned and is ready to answer the call.

Last week I headed to the New to see Richard Bean’s ‘Harvest’, directed by Louise Fischer. You are probably more familiar with Bean’s later play, ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’, which is a lovely interplay of 1950’s rock and roll and commedia style playfulness, complete with audience interaction, bumbling farce and the decimation of an audience ‘plant’ as a reinvention of Goldoni’s ‘Servant of Two Masters’. ‘Harvest’ doesn’t have the control or flair of ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors’ but it attempts something epic- 100 year in the life of Yorkshire farmer, William, as he journeys from young WWI soldier to legless (a war injury) pig farmer to ruthless wheelchair bound vigilante. Fill that with a large cast of bit players who feature in different parts of William’s life- his mother, his brother, his love interest, his nieces, the local squire, the German prisoner of war, the local lads who try to rob his house- well, it’s like a musical without the music or a melodrama without the melo. Sounds outrageous?  It is and its black comedy is scattered throughout the narrative but unfortunately not always mastered in rhythm and timing, especially in the first hour, when this harvest had spent just too long in the sun and was a tad overripe.

But apart from some very, very dodgy accents and missed comic timing and a desire for this play to reach its conclusion quicker than what it did, there are a few bright moments in this long play that are worth mentioning. Jeremy Waters (William) had to carry the load of this play and although there were times dialogue was declaimed and overdone, I felt like he was doing his best to compensate for his more inexperienced counterparts who struggled to get lines out and land delivery. Waters certainly has energy and skill in finding the mischievousness intent in our protagonist and damn straight, I wouldn’t mess with him, wheelchair or not.

Peter Eyers as Lord Agar/Young Agar was probably my highlight of the night. The play came to life once he entered, wrapped in his outlandish fur jacket and doing his dance of the Eskimos. Proficient in accent, gesture and attitude, Eyers was the first to capture the earnest comedy with the expert playing of English farce like an unleashed episode of John Cleese in ‘Fawlty Towers’. Benjamin Vickers was the other highlight as pig farmer Titch, suicidal and sociopath, Vickers made his rogue the most lovable of the night.

There’s some nice soundscapes to create the world of rural Yorkshire for us- from clopping horses, birds and other sounds of nature from Alistair Wallace and Tony Youlden has accentuated this with a tightening of light as the decades progress, from the lightness of the early years to a vague dim wash and deepening shadows at the end. Bethany Sheehan’s set was functional and as non-descript as you’d want for a set that has to span a hundred years. Plenty of nooks and crannies to add theatrical interest and reminiscent of my grandmother’s old kitchen in its dirty muted sunshine yellow cupboards and drawers. Small changes like the radio, updated to indicate time shifts, kept us alert to the progressing narrative. But what ‘Harvest’ truly needed was some professional accent coaching.


I think Fischer has given the cast all the tools (minus accents) and as the season progresses, this show will tighten and if they can shave off the lag in delivery, this could be worth viewing. At the moment, it’s hard going at times. There’s a lack of subtlety when it’s needed and some relationships, like William and Maudie, lack conviction. 

Kudos for the ambition of the show but it’s not reaping all that it sows. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

PACT FRINGE DOUBLE - THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR 'ALL THE SINGLE LAD(IE)S + HIM dissected by Hayley

Spring is a happening and so is the wonder that is the Sydney Fringe Festival. So I bounced on down to PACT to catch a double bill of The Cutting Room Floor's- 'All the Single Lad(ie)s' and Coleman Grehan's 'Him'.

I really love the courtyard at PACT. The atmosphere is chilled and welcoming. They serve wine in plastic picnic cups. I like this. No pretensions here.
So when the theatre opened almost half an hour later than it was meant to, I barely noticed the time as I moseyed on into All the Single Lad(ies).



All the Single Lad(ie)s


I take my seat in the almost completely packed theatre. White Ikea furniture frames the stage. A rack of dresses in various shades of white hangs from the ceiling. We are greeted by a drag queen who would become our MC and inner voice for the 50 minute duration. Although her red dress a little too tight and heels a little too high, she assures us she knows what she is doing and for a minute I believe her. Then she starts with the anti-feminist rhetoric. I am immediately defensive. Although she does make the point of targeting “radical feminists” I have to admit, I don't think the women's rights movement has come far enough that we should be worrying that the balance has tipped the other way. If the day does come that men's rights are frequently abused, I will sash-up and Mister Suffragette for the cause. But that time is not now. I fold my arms across my chest and wonder how far this will go. Thankfully it's not long, the MC does a Beyonce number and leaves the stage.

We are then catapulted into the world of a small boutique shop and the lone shop attendant getting a little too into the shops soundtrack. To briefly recap the narrative; a man uses a gun to hold up the shop attendant only to have the gun turned on him. He is consequently tied up by the attendant, and after one bout of consensual sex, he is trapped in the store and used as her plaything, long after he was willing to consent.

I don't think this piece is intentionally anti-feminist. It possibly would have had more impact if it had attempted to tell the story outside the context of gender, instead of just reversing the genders, a gimmick that is used far too often.

Periodically our MC returns to perform more drag, which is fun, but her insights into gender theory were mostly confused and often miss the mark. The performance uses very little subtlety with its themes of consent, power and gender roles.

However Scott Corbet's direction was superb, the use of split focus during the rape scenes made something that is essential unwatchable, less painful. The performances where all solid, especially Verity Softly's performance as the shopkeeper. There is something about her that is just so watchable. She has an incredible emotional depth for someone so young.

So I guess “All the Single Lad(ie)s just felt a little confused. I feel like it had good intentions, but possibly would benefit from some more thorough research in gender theory. It's a shame because I think perhaps it could have been more than just a vehicle for soapboxing an idea that perhaps doesn't really deserve a platform.

So I walked back into PACT's courtyard, feeling confused and a little disappointed, eagerly checking out the program for the next show.


Him


So as a rule I am not a huge fan of performance art. I've got this bee in my bonnet about things that I consider are potential 'wankery'. Maybe it is a throw back to my rural upbringing. Although I am a huge fan of experimental film makers such as Matthew Barney and Jan Svankmajer, so maybe my line of what is wankery and non-wankery is a little ambiguous. I think I can narrow my definition of wankery down to this: if I feel the form is obscuring the meaning, due to self indulgence, I chuck it in the wankery basket. You can be as self indulgent as you like, as long as you aren't pitching it as entertainment and asking me to pay to see it.

Reading the program I begin to worry that Him, was going to be largely a piece of wankery. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised. 'Him' uses the Japanese form of dance theatre, Butoh, as a medium to tell the story of a past relationship and it's collapse. For the uninitiated (as I was) Butoh is traditionally performed with an artist, or artists, fully painted white, using hyper-slow movements to tell a story.

I've never seen any Butoh before so I can't comment on whether he nailed it or not. I can say that I enjoyed it. Coleman combined his spit with pigment and painted his body to demonstrate the emotional stages of a previous relationship. It felt deeply personal and I felt connected to Coleman Grehan during the whole performance. Grehan's performance can only be described as beautiful. The sound design (also created by Grehan) complimented the performance perfectly.

I left this performance feeling refreshed. It was short, about 30 mins in total, which was perfect for my Gen Y attention span.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT & WHITE BOX THEATRE’S ‘UNHOLY GHOST’ dissected by Rhiona

The loss of a parent: something we have all faced or will face in years to come. It will never seem fair, or right, or time. No matter the circumstance, it will incite a myriad of emotions – some we didn’t even know we could feel. Unholy Ghost navigates through a world of grief and through this, emerges a familiar portrait of life – one pervaded by absurdity and unexplainable occurrences, at times endearing experiences and at others, heartbreaking ones.

Campion Decent’s remarkably real play highlights the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of a dysfunctional family. The play follows the story of a middle-aged playwright (James Lugton), who is faced with the imminent death of both of his parents. Lugton performs with warmth and confidence and interacts with the audience with ease. He is playful and conversational, bridging us to his story.

One cannot dismiss the Mother (Anna Volska) and Father (Robert Alexander), whose individual stories and performances reduced me to tears. They encapsulated the foibles and eccentricities of their characters - the slightly racist remarks, the irrational behaviour and the terribly frustrating conversations, all the things that mean nothing when we have to finally consider a parent’s eventual passing.

There were moments that played upon the sensitivity of the subject matter and at times it was all snatched out from under us. It was this cyclical and lifelike approach to the writing that made it so successful. 

Director Kim Hardwick brought the absolute best out of Decent’s writing and Michael Huxley’s sound design added sentimentality to the play, with glimmers of music in the opening scenes, recurring later in a bittersweet reprise. 

The production design by Martin Kinnane was a downfall though - the red velvet carpet felt kitsch and unnecessary. Also, the bubbles, disco lights and 80s music at the end wasn’t exactly the ending I was hoping for. It seemed to dismiss the sadness, undermine the reality and upset the natural course of the drama. It sort of flung it all away in one grand gesture of “carpe diem” when so much of the play seemed to assert a different attitude.

Having said that, it is poignant writing and it undeniably resonates with us all – it reminds us of the fragility of life, and rationalizes the complex and, at times, incomprehensible relationships we have with our parents.  Unholy Ghost is a beautiful trinity of mother, father and son; past, present and future; devastating, delightful and delicate.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

CIRCA’s “S” dissected by Rhiona

 A dim light hangs low centre stage, swinging gently side to side, illuminating the contortion of the artist below. I say artist because that’s what each of these performers were. S was not your average circus show with clowns and brightly coloured costumes. It was minimalist, simple, stripped back and bare. It is a performance that plays on the impossible, a show that pushes what we perceive to be human. It gave the performers (Jessica Connell, Gerramy Marsden, Daniel O’Brien, Brittannie Portelli, Kimberley Rossi) room to have their craft distilled, to highlight the sensitivity and artistry of acrobatics.

Created by Yaron Lifschitz, S used the shape and sound of the letter to produce something modern and unusual. It was a visual feast. The strength and dexterity of each of the artists was phenomenal, however, it was the fusion of contemporary dance and circus that set this show apart from others.

As for the acrobatics itself, it was unconventional and unique. It used elements of traditional circus acts such as balancing water bowls and spinning multiple hula-hoops (Jessical Connell), however, the combination of these with the music made entirely new acts out of classic ideas.  The show featured music from the Kronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonon and Samuli Kosminen, which combined eastern tonality with western structure, resulting in high intensity pieces that impassioned the performers and the audience too.

One thing that really struck me was the versatility of each of the performers. Each was able to carry at least two other cast members, flip and fly and contort themselves, and balance and control each of their movements. It was this characteristic of the cast that made for a cohesive performance – a sense of cooperation and interdependence that made the production fluid and uninterrupted.

Libby McDonell’s decision to put the performers in simple black leotards/pants was very effective and worked well with Jason Organ’s stark lighting– it left every muscle exposed for the audience to marvel at. That’s really what the show celebrated, the determination and bravery to push one’s body to its limit.


Circa’s S had the Riverside's audience on the edge of their seat – people ooh’d and ahh’d throughout regardless of age. It took me back to the magic of circus, otherworldly and impossible, but this time sinuous, sleek and sophisticated.  

BELVOIR’S ‘OEDIPUS REX’ dissected by me

Seriously? I mean, seriously?? This is how you want to represent the story of 'Oedipus Rex'? Belvoir and its director and co-deviser (with the cast) Adena Jacobs has given everyone a post-Oedipal Complex with this one by stripping the play down to its basest form and ideas and then flushing it down the sinkhole of theatrical sewerage. This is Oedipus after Oedipus after Sophocles, and Jacobs and her cast have created something where nudity is the last of its problems.

Look, I’m from Sydney and so we all know that I am a luddite or philistine and apparently I just don’t get avant-garde. I’m too Williamson to appreciate the five minutes of darkness that starts the show or the sight of Oedipus (Peter Carroll) with his singlet over his head, standing on a chair and flashing his tackle. Nor can I understand the subtleties of Oedipus wearing a bra as Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) humps her father. Well, may I suggest you take that shit back to Melbourne where the intelligentsia and luvvies can hail Jacobs as the new King and leave Sydney to get on with making watchable and engaging theatre?

Jacobs is deserving of her own bingo card these days- after just three Sydney productions, that’s quite a feat. Start with darkness. Silence. Tableaux. Childlike games. Assaulting music. Nudity. Disjointed dialogue. Glass box. Check. ‘Oedipus Rex’ might not have a glass box but its set from Paul Jackson, is the scaffold of a house under construction, complete with plastic covering, which is the next best thing I suppose.

Can I ask a few key questions here? Firstly, if this is directly after the events we know of the original play, how is it that Oedipus is so old? If Jocasta is his mother, how old must she have been when she discovered the truth? If Oedipus is a frail old man receiving a sponge bath from his daughter when not inhaling oxygen from the mask attached to the tank at the side of the stage, Jocasta must have received her telegram from the Queen by now wishing her a Happy 100th Birthday. I’m surprised she had the strength to hang herself.

Secondly…well actually…this is going to take so long, let’s just cut to the chase. It’s not clever. It’s not good. It’s seventy minutes and it feels like seven hours. Playing Hide and Seek with your blind outcast father, building a house of blocks, stealing from blind dad’s pile, knocking down the house, playing I-Spy, sitting eating a sandwich as dad prattles on about his tragedy…I swear- I wish Jocasta’s brooch could have done the rounds of the audience so we could all pluck out our eyes instead of watching this travesty of a tragedy.

There is no chorus in this version but at least when Demetriades as Antigone writes her frustrations of boredom on large pieces of paper and throws them around the space, I felt like it was an honest representation of chorus as audience because it was giving voice to exactly what we were thinking about this production. And as Jacobs sat up the back, barely able to control her amusement at her work, I realised that she genuinely thinks this is good. Even Benedict Andrews must have felt some sort of shame at ‘Every Breath’- or maybe that was just his cast, who gave up on the show long before its run was done.

So in this version of Oedipus, man is frail. Got it. We all return to childhood. Okay. Having sex with your parents is part of the game. Sure. Life is one big painful inescapable chore and happiness is a game that must end. Well, this production has all of it and it's as poignant and powerful as running over your cat.

Just don’t do it to yourself. There’s less than ten minutes of this show that you might find interesting and the rest is like internal organ failure or waking up to discover that someone stole your kidneys. It’s contrived. It’s one-trick-Jacobs at it again. I-spy-with-my-little-eye a cancellation of our student subscription to Belvoir. Thanks for the memories.


Let it slip quietly into the night and pray to whatever God you believe in that this is the last we see of this kind of work at Belvoir again.

NEW THEATRE’S ‘WOLF LULLABY’ dissected by me

Hilary Bell’s play, which was first produced in 1996, was Bell’s response to cases like the murder of toddler James Bulger by two ten-year-olds and another case involving a four-year-old killed by a thirteen-year-old boy. It is not so much the unfathomable death of toddlers at the hands of children that is Bell’s chief focus. It is our response, as society, to these young killers- our outrage, our hatred, our condemnation to blame their parents or to quantify it by stating that some people are just ‘born evil’. Further to that is trying to recognise how the parents of those children who committed these crimes manoeuvre through the media and public backlash and try to come to terms with the implications, roles and responsibilities as parents amongst the tragedy. 

It’s been sometime since ‘Wolf Lullaby’ was staged and so it was nice to see the New Theatre tackle this play. Directed by Emma Louise, there is integrity in this production that manages to find the tension in the dilemma and its relationships. Maryellen George was strong in the lead role as nine-year-old Lizzie Gael. Finding the childlike aspects of the character is a challenge for any adult actor but George was convincing in her playfulness, inquisitiveness and cheekiness.

Lucy Miller (as mother Angela Gael) and David Woodland (father Warren Gael) projected parents trying to do their best- fractured, fearful of the way ahead and the implications of their role as genetic creators and guardians of Lizzie. What does it mean now and in the future if they created this? Nature versus nurture debates abound as they step carefully around the minefield of public perception or try to profit from curious media scrutiny. Both Miller and Woodland were believable in their grief and confusion and their relationship had complexity and truth. Peter McAllum as Sergeant Ray Armstrong was part intimidation and part paternal in his portrayal, vacillating between wanting to condemn this child and protect her in the same action.

There are some nice touches to the set design from Allan Walpole and lighting designer Heidi Brosnan. The spirit of the wolf, shown at the end in the reflective paint and red hues that lie under our foundations, flashed with the sounds of heartbeats from designers Chelsea Reed and Alexander Tweedale, was a powerful metaphor for what lies under the surface for each and every one of us. As Warren states '..it was just games. All kids did it. You had to...But we stopped in time." 'Wolf Lullaby' takes us past the point of what might happen if we didn't stop in time. The visual and aural representation of the murky undergrowth of morality was a lovely finish to this play.

There are still moments when this production is finding its rhythm but it is a solid, faithful interpretation from a highly competent ensemble and they are invested in the text and its expression.


It’s worth a viewing.