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Thursday, 30 May 2013

THEATRE IN NEW YORK: dissected by me

What a grandiose statement. As if I could cover the depth of theatre happening in New York City- hardly. But I did spend a week there in April and managed to see six shows whilst I was there so I thought I’d give a quick review of my impressions of those shows.

First up was ‘Bullet Catch’ at 59 E59th St Theatre in conjunction with The Arches, Glasgow as part of their Brits Off Broadway season. Written, directed and performed by Rob Drummond and co-directed by David Overend, ‘Bullet Catch’ refers to the magic trick that is supposedly the most difficult to execute- the one where you appear to have caught the marked bullet in your teeth. 

Drummond, an accomplished magician, recreates one of the tragic scenarios of this trick from Victorian times and takes us through this role play, with a foot firmly in contemporary times too, in order to examine what makes a man risk his life and seek out an unwitting accomplice from the audience to assist in the trick and the effect on has on them both.

59E59 is a tiny theatre, like Belvoir Downstairs, as so its intimate nature is perfect for audience interaction. Like any magician worth his weight in gold, all you need is a convincing stooge and then to direct attention away from the trick itself. Drummond was outstanding on both counts. Not only did he have the audience convinced that he might die doing this trick but the volunteer from the audience was just as convincing. One of my students had to leave the room, the tension was so palpable. It’s not until after the show you try to put the pieces together of how we were all so completely manipulated into believing what just occurred in front of us. And that’s the beauty of the trick- that it did occur directly in front of its audience- each magic trick was executed in this 75 minute narrative with utter conviction and flair. This show went down as one of the highlights for the students.

You have to see at least one big name on Broadway if you’re in NYC and for us it was Alec Baldwin in ‘Orphans’ at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. But as good as he was (and he was), it was the other two actors who stole the show. Ben Foster (replacing Shia Le Bouf…can anyone tell me why he ‘quit’ the show weeks before it went on?) and Tom Sturridge put in a real star performance as brothers Treat and Phillip, orphans trapped in their dead mother’s house, living frugally and relying completely on Treat’s ability to steal and scam. Enter Harold (Baldwin), who starts as Treat’s drunken kidnap victim and ends up being a surrogate father, deep in the belly of the underworld and taking these young men with him. Harold teaches each of the boys to hope for better before the inevitable tragic ending.

This play is classic realism and although engaging, it was overshadowed by other shows we saw in NYC at the time. However, Sturridge in particular, deserves his own special mention for his agility and integrity as naïve and lovable Phillip. The play also deals beautifully with the theme of loneliness and emptiness- of love and hope and, most obviously, of a father figure. It offers up hope in filling the void and then the profound loss of something potentially healed only widens the gaping despair of that emptiness when it is removed.

RSC’s ‘Julius Caesar’ was playing at BAM when we were there and we took advantage of seeing it. It turned out to be our most disappointing show of the six. Maybe it was because it was a matinee and we were sleep deprived. Maybe it was the freezing air conditioning malfunction or maybe it was because I performed an uncharacteristic act of charity and swapped seats with a man so he could be next to his elderly mother to discover that there was a huge supporting pole right in front of my new seat that obstructed my view. I’ll say it was a combination of all but not aided by the actual show itself.

The acting was great, the design was beautiful but the sum of all of its parts never came together. I felt like I was watching a series of puzzle pieces floating about on stage that could never effectively complete the whole picture. There was a lack of cohesion. The rhythm of the language in this Jamaican/African inspired interpretation just seemed to falter. The pace of the show consequently kept falling into holes, much like my consciousness.

It did help to assert in my mind that so much of the Shakespeare performed professionally here is some of the best you’ll ever see. If you’re getting the job done better than the RSC, kudos to you. We might only make up 2% of the world’s theatre companies in Sydney but you get one big tick for getting it right.

Going from professional to amateur, we also caught ‘Our Town’ at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Sentimental and long (I didn’t quite realise how long until this show), ‘Our Town’ served the play’s form and narrative with some of the strengths and flaws you’d expect from a high school company. There were some very strong performances and I can’t fault their focus and commitment.
‘Our Town’ is part of the American canon of works and a classic staple of any student work but I think I can retire from seeing it again for a while. I’ve seen three productions of it now and as much as I like its message, it feels dated. I appreciate how it played with form, especially for the time it was written but it now carries a ‘do not disturb’ sign firmly on its cover.

And while I’m at it, what’s with giving everything a standing ovation in the States?

‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at New World Stages was our next outing. If I tell you that I gave this one a standing ovation (my only one in NYC), that should indicate how good I thought it was.

Prequel to Peter Pan and based on the books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Elice’s play was spot on for entertainment and sheer audience joy. ‘Peter & the Starcatcher’ is a Grotowski-inspired physical embodiment of the actor’s power in creating not just characters but environment, mood, tension, humour and audience engagement. It answers for us why Peter wants to stay as a boy and how he and the lost boys found their power. It also deals with the history of Captain Hook and Wendy.

The golden moment of the lazzi of (soon to be Captain Hook) Black Stache’s hand in the trunk was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. I loved the shifts in movement to suddenly create a brand new location, attitude and plot twist. Roger Rees and Alex Timbers’ direction with the movement choreography of Steven Hoggett was superb. If I was to recommend a show you have to see in New York, it would be ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’.

Finally we headed off to see the newest musical on Broadway, ‘Matilda’ at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre. Roald Dahl’s book has been re-written for the stage by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin by The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers and directed by Matthew Warchus. The striking design by Rob Howell of the jumble of letters amongst the huge library with fly-ins of huge set pieces is enough to excite any audience.

The play was a great night out, although I felt that the cast couldn’t handle some of the songs with clarity and articulation. Acting wise,  Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was a highlight and the kids on stage were a ball of energy and mugged to the audience with cuteness galore. These are very skilled and focused kids.

No theatre experience is complete without the crankiest ushers in the world and this show had them in a plentiful supply. I get the impression that they were only one step away from becoming Miss Trunchbull themselves.

Being in New York reminds you how wonderful  it is to be in a place that offers a huge market of theatre. I’m appreciative of all the choices available and if you haven’t been to NYC, get there when you can, hunt down the shows you want to see and go for it. It’s as hit and miss as anywhere really but there are hundreds more options that you won’t find anywhere else and I guarantee that you will find something that you will love. 

I heart NYC. 

Friday, 17 May 2013


The Ensemble Theatre and David Williamson have been married for some time. It’s one of those marriages that seem to keep both partners happy and as time passes, the partnership settles into one of those really comfortable relationships reliant on security and familiarity, even though they probably find each other predictable and boring. It’s safe with the devil you know. You know exactly what you’re going to get.

‘Happiness’ was exactly what I thought I was going to get. Directed by Sandra Bates, it was as predictable as the grey resurfacing in my hair’s regrowth. Unlike my hair, it’s not as if all the predictability was unwelcome. It’s just that I’m not going to be surprised by the behaviour of any of the characters, the dig at right wing politics, the disillusioned middle aged characters whose own marriages have fallen into a slump, and the portrayal of women as superficial. The play is all of that. Examine Professor Roland’s (Mark Lee) life. His wife Hanna, (Anne Tenney) is a lush. She’s cheated in the past and is bored by her marriage. Enter, stage right, her old lover, Sam (Peter Kowitz), rich and successful and ready to spice things up. Meanwhile, Roland and Hanna’s daughter, Zelda (Erica Lovell), who’s frustrated by her own lack of direction, re-examines her own relationships to find that elusive ‘happiness’. It plays on popular psychology of scaffolding or coaching people into finding happiness, letting go of past hurts and finding gratitude in what you have in front of you.

It has some humorous moments, some witty dialogue and a few chances for characters to enjoy themselves. It firmly grounds itself in comic realism. It makes a solid use of the stage. It discusses fairly current topics. It is what it is: David Williamson. Not unpleasant but perhaps forgettable.

The story did have some moments brighter than others. In fact, if more of the play centred around the character of Zelda (Lovell), it may have been much more engaging. There were two scenes that made me stop watching Christopher Stollery sleeping in the audience or forget the distraction of the two old women up the back who, Beckett style, took three painful minutes to unwrap their Werther’s Butterscotch Originals, and both of those scenes belonged to Lovell.

The first was when she reads her letter of gratitude to Ronnie (Adriono Cappelletta) and the other was when she is confronted by her Murdoch paper editor, Evan (Glenn Hazeldine). Both of these scenes, and especially the latter, enjoyed shifting expectations ever so slightly in trying to give its characters depth- something usually missing from the formula of many of Williamson’s characters. Hazeldine took this small role of Evan and manipulated him into a character that we could love and hate simultaneously and allowed his physicality to tell a story. His ability to step outside the words and play with the moment certainly drew the audience in. Lovell took the role of the angry young woman and tried to give it layers, as much as Bates would allow in Williamson’s world. The actors did their best to fulfil the writer's material and the director's interpretation.

Anne Tenney’s questionable ‘drunk’ acting at the start probably needed a re-working. In fact her character, Hanna, for a role that is so often seen in the play, had limits to what it can offer and if I had a criticism of any of the cast, it was the first half of the show with Tenney. I know Williamson can play with the obvious but even Tenney pushed that to the limits with her character. Perhaps that's exactly what Bates asked for- it's hard to know. I say, scrap the whole storyline with Roland/Hanna/Sam and the play might have been much better. I’ve even heard a rumour that the casting was reshuffled when Williamson sat in on rehearsals so if these characters and its actors are so interchangeable, maybe give them more dimensions to flesh out these roles.

The set (Brian Nickless) of the glossy TV screens that indicate location (Surry Hills, newspaper office, etc), the neon Happiness sign, the plastic chairs and tables, neutral and superficial, were more than appropriate to indicate a cross between bland and functionality. The set felt irrelevant but really, it was. Essentially, the play just needs an open space with a few chairs and tables and that’s what you got. Dressing it up would have felt very out of place.

‘Happiness’ should keep the oldies happy and perhaps you could hand them out unwrapped boiled sweets pre-show . I didn’t mind the show. I certainly didn’t hate it. I’m just struggling two days later to remember much of what happened and that is exactly what I thought I was going to get.

Sometimes expectations are met.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


‘The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars’ by Van Badham is a great script. What a pleasure it must have been for director Lee Lewis to have it land on her desk. It has everything going for it to make it an incredibly successful production: sophisticated ideas that take classic Greek mythology and reinterpret these stories in a modern context, terrific characters whose relationships reflect the complexity of choices we make in falling in love and running from it when the pain hits, fast-paced witty dialogue that exposes our tactics, weaknesses and desires, clever use of technical elements, motifs and even cupcakes. Mmm…cupcakes.
So what could go wrong? What would stop me loving it? What choice could Lee Lewis make that would distance me from the multi-layered, engaging ideas and staging of this play? One word: casting. It’s a simple case of getting the casting so very wrong.
Let me be more explicit. Here’s the description of our female protagonist, Marion, as given by Van Badham, as spoken by the character Michael in the script and in performance, “He thought: short. Marion wore her light brown hair in plaits much like a younger woman, had glasses. Short and fat- and not his type.” Contrast this to the description of his wife; “His wife was a taller woman. Freckles and long legs and straight dark hair. Smaller breasts…thin and pretty.” We never see his wife. We only see the male characters played by Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca playing Marion. Colloca is a gorgeous Italian thin, modelesque-proportioned actress. See the dilemma??
Let me break it down with our physical criteria. Is Colloca short? No. Fat? No. Does she more fittingly describe the wife rather than Marion? Yes actually, she does. Would you ever look at her and not recognise straight away how beautiful she is? Are you blind? Does this matter? Yes. I think it does.
You see Marion’s beauty is in how it sneaks up on you and one day, bam, she seduces you with the blue dress, the curves, the humour, the cupcakes. When Michael says, “She’s nothing like his wife…she’s beautiful”, I have to say, ‘She’s exactly like your wife. She’s exactly how you described your wife. WTF?’
I mean, are there no 30+ women out there in the acting world who are curvy, short and not classically beautiful? Can you honestly tell me that Colloca was the best person for this role? That her video audition tape, sent from Milan (with her husband Richard Roxburgh reading in the male roles) was the most obvious casting choice? I cannot believe that is the case. I think Lee Lewis has been seduced by more than the blue dress. She’s been ‘Lysandered’. Puck has dropped the damn love potion in Lee Lewis’ eyes and she’s blind to how this will read to her audience. Colloca is a fine actress. She is just in no way right for this role.
If this was a play where your physical notion of self was irrelevant, then I could run with it. But Marion’s appearance is integral to the play. The men who fall in love with her dismiss her initially. She doesn’t even rate on the radar. I just don’t get it. I don’t need the blue dress or any of the described costumes or settings or props. I can easily imagine them. But I cannot see Colloca as anything but a slender and beautiful woman. Big mistake. What it means is that the tilt of the men, when they suddenly see Marion in a new light doesn’t happen. It was obvious from the start. Lewis can argue that they decided to abandon all the physical descriptions in order to liberate choices as much as she likes but in the end she's also abandoned a very powerful notion of being surprised by desire because she has put beauty front and centre.
Alright. I’ve made my point. Moving on to other elements of the play. Loved Zeremes. Great range of characters from beast, man, God. Enjoyed Anna Tregloan’s set and incorporation of the ‘blue’ in the carpet, the multi-purpose scaffolds that can be reconfigured but still expose our characters journey and narration, the disco balls that suddenly show us the coronet of stars when lit beautifully by Verity Hampson, Steve Francis’ creation of action, atmosphere and environment in his sound composition and design. The physical commitment of the play was impressive.
I know I’ve slapped Lewis across the face with the casting but she’s done a nice job on stage honouring Van Badham’s words into a performance text. And that’s what I love the most. The script. I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I got home.
This play is good. Very good. But it could have been magnificent. Coulda, shoulda. Casting.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


If my last review was of ‘The Ham Funeral’, this one may as well be called Ham Acting. ‘Something Natural But Very Childish’, directed by Julie Baz for the Sydney Independent Theatre Company and in their first outing as the new residents of the Old Fitz, they tried so hard to be good, so very, very hard to be good. But sometimes all you’re left with is the desperation and not the goods and that just about sums up this show.

‘Less is more’ should have been the adage of this show. Instead, Gary Abrahams’ script, based on Katherine Mansfield’s stories, was bombarded with as much detail on stage as possible, in expression, set, costumes, props, vocals, sound effects….this production presumed its audience would never understand its complexities so it gave it to us like a dumb show.

‘Something Natural But Very Childish’ explores three couples as they explore lost love or opportunities, or what reignites love that seemed lost. It’s filled with the hopes of finding someone who fulfils you and then examines what happens when it doesn’t. It’s not a new story and not a hard story to follow, even if we weave in and out of each duologue through time and the performance space.

What I don’t need is signposting of every shift. I don’t need train carriage noises with people sitting on bags, rocking and then telling me you’re on a train. I don’t need the larger than life expressions constantly in a theatre that might sit only 40 people. Perhaps if I was at the back of the Myer Music Bowl, watching the actors compete with a train actually on the stage in an Alfred Dampier melodrama, I might need large facial expressions. Here it was completely over the top. I don’t need the piano refrain in every transition. EVERY transition (and there were a lot as we moved from each scenario constantly). I didn’t need to see poor timing executed on stage, like when Margaux Harris (Anne) stamps her foot to stop laughing but she’s already stopped laughing and her facial expression has already changed to mortification before the foot ever moves to be stamped. Mostly I needed to not be in the front row when I couldn’t contain my hysteria at being trapped there and starting laughing until I cried.

The problem with ham acting is that nothing is believable and therefore, live or die, win or lose, who cares? If you’re trying to play with the tragicomedy of the play, and the introduction in the program states it is “combining classic drawing room comedy, surrealism and knife-edge Chekhovian like drama”, this production doesn’t succeed in achieving any of those styles. The actors, as directed I presume, are trying to ‘play the funny’. Nothing is as unfunny as someone who cleverly tries to show you how funny they are. Surely Chekhov understood with his characters that they had to be oblivious to how absurd they were. Baz should have utilised that concept a bit more. And how can you execute surrealism when your set and costumes (designed by Rachel Scane) are so detailed that you are firmly in the belly of realism? These styles worked against each other in this show and it imploded on stage because it couldn’t reconcile its parts.

Carla Nirella (Mrs Bullen) was probably the pick of the cast and if allowed to play with subtlety, she could have delivered more. Perhaps I could almost put Kieran Foster (Henry) in there had he been given a chance to play with the dimensions of that role. It’s hard to say. The actors might be better than this play suggests and its clear they’ve worked hard on it. But Julie Baz has not allowed them to find organic ways into character development so the contrived acting choices drive the audience away. The second half had about half the patrons, if that, and at interval I even had to seek out the three year old exposed M&M’s in the machine at the bar to get some sort of sugar to tide me over till the end of the play and perhaps it might explain my uncontrollable laughter in the second half. God knows, it wasn’t the comedy of the production that took me there.

These are lovely people who are involved in staging this play. They really are. But lovely doesn’t cut it with this show. The Old Fitz might be having conniptions after seeing the first play from their new tenants after years of quality from the Tamarama Rock Surfers. 

I’d suggest SITCO invest in some subtlety, stat. Failing that, rancid chocolate at interval might do the trick.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


Years ago I saw an adaptation of Patrick White’s novel, ‘The Aunt’s Story’ at Belvoir and wanted to poke myself in the eye with a blunt stick. You could see me rocking back and forth in the audience and murmuring like a mad woman, trapped in my own Hell and with no way out unless I walked across the stage. Etiquette won. Sanity lost. I stayed but I vowed to not do that to myself again and Patrick White has been persona non-gratis ever since.

Even when Belvoir and STC combined to put on ‘A Cheery Soul’, which garnered critical acclaim, I did not crumble. I would not risk it. Could not risk it. Instead I confined myself to reading his work, whenever I needed to bring myself down from whatever high I might have been on, until I found the one play I thought I might be able to handle without sharpening razor blades afterwards. That play was ‘The Ham Funeral’ and on Friday night, I jumped back into the breach and let it do its thing and I was not unhappy I did.

The New Theatre’s production of White’s play, directed and designed (set) by Phillip Rouse was, for the most part, an engaging interpretation of White’s work. The play deals with the young poet (Rob Baird) and his experiences as tenant in this surreal and tragicomic decrepit household and those of his landlords, the Lustys, especially once Mr Lusty dies and the funeral meats bring out the grotesque relatives. And there seems to be very little difference between Mr Lusty alive or dead and that’s the whole point.

When the performance embraced its surrealism is when it worked the best and this was most typified in the performance of Lucy Miller as the Landlady/Mrs Lusty. Miller holds this play together, finding the techniques that most express this style and the language of its writer. She dances between puppet-like dehumanisation, fluidity, slow or staccato rhythm and vocals, mechanical and dream-like in their formalism. The slow repetition of the cutting of the ham in the second act, the chorus of relatives in their violence and distorted sense of social function and the extreme emotions and instant transitions all aided in keeping its audience suitably uncomfortable so we could sit with the play’s ideas long enough to transmit their dark and disturbing meanings.

Rousseau once said “that civilisation has corrupted mankind” and we see this distortion in the fluid reality of the staging of ‘The Ham Funeral’. The slanted set, open and perilous, our landlords (Miller and Zach McKay) front and centre, our poet behind them, looking out over the world but never able to connect with it and off to the side, the ethereal girl (Danielle Baynes). Walls are implied but its openness reads to us of the constructivist playground for the biomechanics of expression in the play. The house also makes sounds- groans, cries- all representing the frustration and burden of life present in the house. The browns and tepid colours shown in set and costumes (Anna Gardiner) and again in lighting (Sian James-Holland) enhanced the bleak, depressing world where babies are born deformed, struggling for life and those of us that get to live have it much worse. Happiness lies on the other side of the wall but if you dare to open the door, it’s already moved and is out of your reach.

I thought I’d struggle watching this play but I didn’t. Dare I say, for what is a writer and a style that doesn’t rate in my Top 40, I enjoyed it. I thought Rob Baird needed to work on vocal clarity and how to speak the language of White but as Lucy Miller was so strong and supported by the ensemble including McKay, Kallan Richards, Ben Vickers and Steve Corner, so that even the potential misogyny was given a stylised rendering in keeping with this deformed world, I forgave Baird’s inexperience in utilising his skills more effectively.

The play’s meta-analysis of its own plight combined with the expressionist and surrealistic representations mean that it was not a simple transference of page to stage. Director Rouse has taken a very difficult text and space to showcase the play’s complexities and done a pretty fine job with it.

For those looking for theatre that doesn’t comfortably sit in the box, who don’t spend enough time thinking life vomits all over you, this is the play for you. For those of you who can connect to both of the above, maybe it's for you too. I didn't think it was for me. In this case, I'm glad to be wrong.

Sunday, 12 May 2013


Well hello Guvnor. Thanks for coming.

STC are very savvy when it comes to bringing out a successful show that will have mass appeal to its subscriber base and maybe open their doors to a new audience. The National Theatre of Great Britain's 'One Man, Two Guvnors' was a smart choice for their 2013 season and if the screaming of the 800 audience members in the Sydney Theatre was any indication, every player wins a prize in this production and that prize is great belly laugh.

This show has already done the rounds of England and Broadway and hit our shores in early April. Everyone I know who had seen it told me it was a must. I mean, every body. So I bit the bullet and I can certainly see why it's a show to thoroughly enjoy. Based very closely on Carlo Goldoni's 'Servant of Two Masters', playwright Richard Bean has given 'One Man, Two Guvnors' the English Music Hall/ Panto/Carry On makeover.

We begin with the pre-show enertainmnent of a 60's style band, slightly a precursor to The Beatles in flavour, with original music devised by Grant Olding. And you just don't see the washboard used as an instrument enough these days. The band then add to the soundscape of the play and jump up during quick scene changes and certain cast members join them at intervals, gaining huge support from the audience each time they emerge.

The play itself, as the title suggests, is based on the idea of our low status character, Francis Henshaw (Owain Arthur), lacking in food and intelligence in the style of the Harlequin from commedia dell'arte, finding himself in the employment of two bosses and the chaos that ensues as he tries to serve them both without each of them discovering the presence or identity of the other. Add in several sub-plots that involve deceit, romance, greed, lust, revenge and a generous helping of audience participation (and what is staged to feel like it), it's a recipe for success.

Lead actor Arthur was superb in likeability, manipulating his audience and playing off their energy. He captured the essence of the 1960's Britain reworking of the play with homage to the comedy popular at the time and bringing it into the contemporary age for his young and exuberant audience. Edward Bennett (as Stanley Stubbers) had some of the best moments with his English boarding school habits exposed, relishing in their brutality as if it was the most natural expression of masculinity and friendship but kudos to all the cast in executing a fresh and vibrant version of a classic play.

The audience probably most responded to the times the play exposed the facade of events and commented on itself, especially in response to the offer of a hummus sandwich by someone in the second row to Owain Arthur's character Henshaw. The audience completely went with Arthur, even though his persona as 'the actor and not the character' in the play is really another character in itself.

The set and costumes, designed by Mark Thompson, filled the notoriously cavernous Sydney Theatre with a colour and brilliance and every corner of the stage was used effectively. I was sitting up the back in the balcony and never did I feel distanced from the action. As stated before, as audience were used as part of the action, we felt the whole theatre was the stage.

Director Nicholas Hytner (and revived by Adam Penford) with physical comedy director, Cal McCrystal have taken Bean's excellent script and reinvented the clown for the modern stage. It's a perfect blend of slapstick, audience interaction, wit and farce. Keep in mind, this play first opened in the National Theatre's Lyttelton's Theatre in May 2011. Two years have passed. Some references have been reinserted after their Broadway run (and a few extras for its Australian audience). How  the cast can still give this play the freshness they do with the sheer joy of performing with such warmth on stage is a mystery and if they're faking it, they're utterly convincing.

Wherever you are in the world, if this play hits your doorstep, be sure to catch it, even if you've got to get two guvnors to buy you a ticket.

And I will never look at hummus in the same way.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

BELVOIR’S ‘FORGET ME NOT’ dissected by me

I feel like in the last fortnight I’ve been bombarded with plays about orphans. This is not a criticism but an interesting trend in terms of what themes are prominent right now or what I’m noticing thematically as an audience member. Perhaps it’s in the forefront of my consciousness because I lost all my family decades ago (don’t despair-it hasn’t made me bitter at all…) and these plays that touch on conversations with the dead reach in and firmly grip my heart.
Tom Holloway’s ‘Forget Me Not’, a co-commission between Belvoir, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, certainly grabbed me where I live and if not the fact that I was watching it in a theatre full of school students who’ve seen me blubber at every other orphan play we’ve seen recently, I had to show some decorum. If they start thinking I’ve gone soft, my reputation as a hard-nosed sadist will be crushed forever. So I temper my review by saying that I did deliberately distance myself from the emotion. When counting the lights stopped working I found doing maths problems in my head was a fine distraction. Isn’t that pathetic? Yes, but also very effective.
‘Forget Me Not’ delves into the life of Gerry (Colin Moody) and it draws upon the true stories of the ‘orphans’ who were shipped from Liverpool to Australia and the experiences that awaited them here. Whilst Gerry’s story is more to do with his present and future, it can’t help but explore its past in looking at his life now, what it might have been and how his inability to love and his penchant for self-sabotage is inextricably connected to these experiences.
Director, Anthea Williams, treats the play with great respect and as Belvoir’s Literary Manager, I suppose she understands how much a playwright can offer us with his or her words and as director, taking them and giving them the focus of the stage to explore each moment is an important rite of the work’s passage. That’s not to say that Belvoir’s design de jour, the rotating stage with the smashed set by the play’s end as designed by Dan Potra, didn’t go unnoticed. It was a fitting choice, demonstrating the devastating effects of a home that never was and the truth behind the harshest of lies.
There are some really powerful moments on stage (where even the maths problems couldn’t completely override the subject). They are evocative in creating the experiences of Gerry and his institutionalisation. When Gerry talks about sneaking out of the orphanage at night as a child just to hug someone and the punishment inflicted once discovered, it captures a life where love is withheld, foreign and forbidden and goes a long way in explaining Gerry’s own issues with love and intimacy, typified by his relationship with his daughter, Sally (Mandy McElhinney).
The reconstructed or imagined scenes with his mother Mary (Eileen O’Brien) were also beautiful and made all the more potent when we see Mary as she really is, frail and feisty, in her scene with Mark (Oscar Redding).
Holloway plays with linear time, reality and imagination tracing two different lives for Gerry, those with his daughter and those with his mother. Although some of the teenagers in the audience struggled to connect with the structural narrative construct, most got it and like me, enjoyed how we had been manipulated into following these storylines so artfully.
Colin Moody was the perfect casting as curmudgeonly Gerry. You always feel that Moody is treading the fine line between genius and feral animal (and I’m talking about in real life here). Firstly I have to congratulate him for not ripping the heads off the kids in the audience who asked the typical stupid questions post show. That was a test of fortitude for Moody, who is no lover of foolish people or thoughtless statements. Playing an angry, disconnected, vulnerable man whose barriers to love drive every decision was a skilled portrayal. Moody is a terrific actor and also a terrifying one. But don’t we want our actors to question and make it difficult when there is integrity in the process behind it? I think we do.
The cast were all strong and a special mention to Eileen O’Brien, whose portrayal of Mary, when stripped down to her reality, was heartbreaking and humorous at the same time. What a brilliant discovery for the Australian stage, particularly after her years of experience and success in the UK. I’m so glad she came to Belvoir to do this show.
I really would recommend you see this show and forgo the algebra. Let yourself swim in the ideas of ‘Forget Me Not’ and consider that the greatest tragedy of this play is its truth.

Sunday, 5 May 2013


Director Mark Kilmurry can sit comfortably in his artistic director's chair and feel pretty good about what he's doing at the Ensemble. I managed to catch his production of Nick Dear's play 'Frankenstein' just before it closed and I'm glad I did. It is worthy of praise and so here it is.

Frankenstein is not an easy story to tell. Mary Shelley's gothic tale has done the rounds of black and white movies and is associated with a square-headed, piecemeal created monster, outcast and wandering the countryside terrifying the locals. We treat Frankenstein much like we do the boat people. Ironic really, isn't it? That the fear of the strange still sends us into becoming dispassionate, fire-wielding members of One Nation or today's equivalent. So the story is not new but it is still oh so relevant.

There are plenty of motifs that emerge from the play as highlighted by Kilmurry and his team: the father and son relationship becomes very pertinent, especially adding in the element of science and nature. Each father fails his son in one form or another and vice versa. The play also delves into broader themes like the right to life, where does it begin and end, who has the right to have it or end it and of course, amongst all the fear and death we see man's overriding fight for survival and what action he will take to secure it. Most thematically prominent is the idea of love, our desire to belong and be someone's most important other and the pain of it eluding you. Kilmurry has explored these very real themes using the most unreal of devices and has captured the passing of time without those jumps eluding his audience with the smoothest transitions possible.

Kilmurry's opening image of Lee Jones as the creature, breathing into life with an animalistic screeching and clawing of discovery, like a bird emerging from the egg, alone and terrified at his new awareness, unable to comprehend his own body, let alone sentience is an uncomfortable but powerful start to the play. I love how this is then book-ended by his master/father, Victor Frankenstein's (Andrew Henry) own movements, clawing away from death in the harsh snow and desolation of the North Pole.

The use of live sound effects created by the cast (Foley artist style) with sound designer Daryl Wallis is another great touch, especially utilised at the start before the creature finds words. Sound is used to create our dialogue, almost like the world of the caveman before he evolves into 'man'. And what a man the creature becomes. If the adage of 'we learn from what we see' is true, this is a damning portrayal of man.

My other favourite moment of the play is when the creature is in the bedroom with Frankenstein's bride, Elizabeth (Katie Fitchett). When the creature is telling Elizabeth of all the things he has learnt from Frankenstein and humanity and utters the words, 'He taught me to lie', we know the worst is about to unfold in front of us. Once again, we examine our own tendency to want to believe the best of outcomes is possible, that with the villains in our narratives, the bad can be reformed, transgressions forgiven. We want a happy ending. We want love to triumph. Don't walk into this play and expect it. This is no Tarzan and Jane. It'll slam your hopes into your face like a slap on a cold winter's day (ie- it's gonna hurt, got it?)

Lee Jones took this play under Kilmurry's artful direction and turned what can be a cheesy melodrama into a performance of great integrity, manipulating its potential flaws into a sophisticated interpretation. Jones is a creature of steel who can contort every muscle into elastic. He holds such tension and anguish throughout the play that it was a relief to see what he actually looked like during the curtain call, even though he hid none of his features during the show. He was as transformed as I am since my last passport photo. Given I was almost arrested in Copenhagen for travelling on someone else's passport, even though it was actually mine, and the phrase describing the passport photo by officials was 'This is terrible. You look 70', I'm clearly suggesting Jones uses his physicality like a professional. You would not know they were the same person.

The use of the cello by Heather Stratfold and composed by Elena Kats-Chernin was another smart device. It's lonely haunting melody took us on an auditory journey matching the creature's own. Simone Romaniuk's design aesthetic also captured the cold and clinical cycle of the play, using the curtains to hide and reveal, complemented by Nick Higgins lighting, creating questions of nightmares that lurk in the darkness in this murky gothic world. It feels like we are always in the misty confines of night and there's danger in its shadows. Romaniuk's costumes add to the grime and stripped experimental nature of man's ego over his morals and still fulfils a gothic simplicity of time and place.

Let's see more of Kilmurry in the vision of the theatre because he just might bring the pieces of the Ensemble creature back to life with works like this.

Friday, 3 May 2013

THEATRE IN CHICAGO, APRIL 2013 dissected by me

Recently I spent five days in Chicago checking out their theatre scene. I tell you, if you ever wanted to get rid of me, band some money together and send me to live there.
Known for its great architecture, home to many great comedians, Oprah and a deep dish pan pizza that can send you into instant cardiac arrest, it was the choice of theatre that most excited me.
First stop (and I mean that literally as I went straight from the plane to the theatre) was Lookingglass Theatre. Lookingglass is founded on the principle of the ensemble of artists who ‘create original, story-centred theatre through a physical and improvisational rehearsal process’. I saw their debut production of ‘Still Alice’. If you’re familiar with Lisa Genova’s novel you will know it’s a story that covers a woman’s descent from early-onset Alzheimer’s and how she and her family deal with the loss of memory, sense and identity.
Playwright and director Christine Mary Dunford has made the choice to have two actresses represent Alice on stage: one clearly as the character Alice (Eva Barr) and the other as ‘Herself’ (Mariann Mayberry). This lends the device to the drama that an awareness of a new identity is being forged and a conversation is taking place between the conscious and the subconscious mind and allows this theatrically to take place. The narrative voice is given dual significance and although this device is used well in the play, I think there is still some room to enhance this artifice for a more powerful duality of Alice’s predicament, especially in the fear of what is known and what is forgotten.
The stripping away of the familiar is also seen in clever set choices by John Musial. Musial’s contemporary kitchen is a movable piece so that each part of the kitchen can be moved or removed and we see this occur as the play reaches fruition until ultimately the metaphor of familiar surroundings becoming an empty barren space hits the audience. It’s a simple but wholly appropriate choice- especially as the heart of the home disappears in front of us.
I also enjoyed the use of the wall as a screen of words, designed by Mike Tutaj- full and vibrant at the start and jumbled and piecemeal towards the end.
The moment in the play I found most powerful was probably Alice’s son, Thomas (Cliff Chamberlain), sobbing as he recounts how much he misses his mother Alice (Eva Barr), although she is right there. It is a beautiful reminder of what makes us who we are and questions whether the ‘shell’ or body carries our life or whether we are fully defined by our stories and how they emerge in our personality.
‘Still Alice’ was a lovely play, although still in preview when we saw it, it was still a little rocky in finding its rhythm and pace. Dunford hasn’t quite mastered the power of the novel in the form of the play. We see the literal deterioration in its characters and through some of the metaphors in set and technical elements but in the structure of the play there is still some work to be done. Each ‘loss’ of memory or identity feels repetitive in its execution on stage in the plot point it explores. I’d like to see how Dunford could play with this more stylistically. She has already employed the dual narration. I would think there’s more that she can do to thoroughly capture the story’s complexity.
I just wanted to add that one of the nice additions to the theatre’s showing of ‘Still Alice’ is to include free workshops on Alzheimer’s and dementia awareness and support as part of their community program. This is thoughtful theatre programming.
Chicago is home to some of the world’s best improvisers and one of Chicago’s  best institutes of improvisational excellence is iO. It was a real treat to go and watch the improvised musical stylings of The Deltones. Taking a simple offer like Starbucks we were then taken on a journey of the Harold, the long form staple of improvisation. The Harold might best be explained as a starting scene using the audience offer that involves the whole ensemble exploring the machine of the offer until a theme finds itself emerging from the group. The scenes then involve disparate ideas that eventually find their connections by the end of the hour. This one hour musical improvised theatre explored the concept or theme of what it meant to be free or liberated from convention, relationships, prison, sibling rivalry, even morals. I loved the duet, ‘Be my bitch’ about dog walkers in the park, the gentleman corrupted from convention and tempted to let it all go, and the arsonist out of jail who struggles against returning to old habits.
If you’re heading to Chicago I’d definitely recommend you attend one of the iO shows. This is not theatresports, this is long form improvisation and as someone who does and loves both, you are going to see some terrific stuff here (and I promise you, you won’t be dragged up on stage, unless you throw yourself onto it).
Probably my favourite moment of theatre in Chicago was at Steppenwolf as part of their Garage Rep series. We saw Buzz22 Chicago’s production of ‘She Kills Monsters’ by Qui Nguyen and directed by Scott Weinstein. This is a fairly new company (three years old) and essentially made up of people who came out of grad school and realising good roles are hard to secure decided to form their own collective and stage what they were passionate about- the ‘coming of age’ stories that ‘challenge who we are and who we want to be’. Well they must be doing something right if this production is anything to go by.
‘She Kills Monsters’ is set in 1995, an age before social media instruments of mass communication dominated our very existence. Remember that? This is an epic tale. It is the story of Agnes (Katherine Banks), a conservative young teacher who, as part of trying to reconnect with her younger sister Tilly (Jessica London-Shields), who passed away in a car accident with her parents, stumbles upon her Dungeons and Dragons diary and takes it to a D&D expert to role play it with her. Along the way she enters the world of her sister Tilly and discovers things she never knew, fights obstacles she didn’t know existed and discovers even more about who and what she wants to be.
‘She Kills Monsters’ also gave me something I rarely see in entertainment- a play led by and exploring strong female protagonists. The beauty of seeing five strong women’s roles not defined by men or a search for a mate is seeing the strength to overcome physical, emotional and mental barriers using humour and pathos as a weapon. These are the stories young people need to see, as normally women are grossly under-represented as champions or heroines of their own destiny. Add in the fantasy element and you’ve got a winner.
I loved the use of Dungeon and Dragons to create the character you want to be and represent your enemies in fun and fantastical ways. Buzz22 also used their stage, designed by William Boles with props by Jamie Karas and some pretty spectacular puppets by Colleen Werle to take the rough house staging of this small intimate space and create an epic and intricate world of fantasy and fiction. The clever use of entrances and exits from multiple directions, the action and physicality of the play so close to its audience and even the sign language translations occurring in the right hand corner all made for an inspiring night of theatre. And all of that for $15. Buzz22 Chicago is another thing to put on your list if you are heading to the USA.
Finally, I made the bold choice to go and see Tony Award winning musical, ‘Book of Mormon’, written by the South Park creators. Need I say more? It is a very entertaining musical using the tried and true story formula- put two diametrically opposed personalities together, dump them in an environment with the biggest obstacles to their success you can find and watch it unfold. Two Mormon Missionary elders find themselves in Uganda, a place so full of obstacles it would make your hair curl. Their mission: to convert the people. Anyone who knows the musical will know that it becomes clear very early on that success will be hard fought and although they do succeed in a fashion, it is in the most unexpected ways. It doesn't hurt that it also questions the founding of the Mormon Church of the Latter Day a very humorous way.
The soundtrack to this was terrific and the polish of the show unquestionable. Yes- some of it was a challenge to sit through, I’ll admit. I would not consider myself particularly conservative but strangely enough, what I found fearful to listen to was the references to child rape and female circumcision. Now we know these things happen and thankfully none of this unfolded on stage but was merely referenced and the importance of shocking its mainstream audience is noted, especially in the context of the journey of this play. But it was interesting to see that we prefer to be ignorant to these things, blind ourselves to their existence as we feel powerless to stop them and the authors and composers are well aware of the need to say it aloud and have it enter our consciousness.
‘Book of Mormon’ is deserving of its Tony Awards and I’m glad I saw it. Just don’t know that I could do it again.
So next time you’re in Chi town, make sure you get to the theatre and more than once. We just touched the surface in our brief time there. Avail yourself of its variety and talent and have the best time possible in exploring its arts scene.
And take a warm jacket. You’re going to need it.