25 November 2014

GET INVOLVED: What Melbourne loved, 2014

It's nearly time for the third "What Melbourne loved" series.

Calpurnia Descending. Photo by Brett Boardman

In the many years that I've been writing this blog, this is the most popular thing on it and easily my favourite thing to collate, edit and write.

It's open to everyone.

If you want to be involved (and haven't been emailed or joined the Facebook event), please send your contribution to Sometimesmelbourne AT hotmail DOT com. All you have to do is answer:

What was your favourite theatre moment in 2014?

It could be a show, a conversation in a foyer, a lighting design moment that made you shiver or anything.

And include a jpeg image with photographer credit (if needed).

The series will be starting on 1 December and I can tell you that the first day will be cast members of Calpurnia Descending (which I suspect will get a mention or two).

What Melbourne loved in 2013
What Melbourne loved in 2012

Review: Calpurnia Descending

Calpurnia Descending
Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company & Sisters Grimm
14 November 2014
Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
to 30 November

Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo by Brett Boardman
As Pennsylvania Avenue opened at the MTC, I know I wasn't alone as I wondered why. But they've just announced extra performances, so I think we know the answer. Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened and restored the faith of us who wonder why mainstage shows like to be safe.

Calpurnia Descending has already had a run in Sydney, but this is the first time the locally-adored punk camp Sisters Grimm have had a main stage show in their home town. 

And it has enough subversion, heart and guts to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Like their maiden aunt at the MTC, Calpurnia Descending is also set in East Coast America, in New York, and also worships divas. Ash Flander's American hometown gal is as sweet as Bernadette Robinson's (but he's prettier; he's always prettier) and the Sisters knows that their Australian audience is likely to be better versed in popular US culture than by their own.

It starts with the simply-staged kind of show that would have worked as well in the days when the Sisters performed in the Collingwood flats' car park. Singing telegrammer Violet St Clair (Flanders) finds herself in the Miss Havisham-esque house of former-stage-goddess Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) and we're ready for a high-camp drag All About Eve. 

But the girlz know what we expect and expectations are damned as Sisters-founders Flanders and Declan Greene show us what they can do when they have some support and a mainstage theatre.

As always, director Greene is a step or three ahead of his audience and takes us places so unexpected that he makes it seem inevitable and obvious that much of it would be filmed live and shown on a giant screen and that it would be part-animation, part-game and part-better-than-any-mind-altering-drugs-I've-taken.

But with all its danger and manic thrills, it comes back to Capsis's Beverly, who can't find grace in ageing and would rather wear a wig cap than look at what she hides underneath her silk and wigs. As Beverly is faced diminishing and no choices, Capsis is astonishing. There's an art to finding the heart in drag and no matter how grotesque and gut-hurting hilarious Beverly is, Capsis never lets us forget that she's real and hurting – and she remembers what it's like to be as pretty as Violet.

Along with the ever-wonderful Flanders and Capsis, Sandy Gore drags up as the manipulating men in Beverly's life and Peter Paltos proves that he would have been a matinee idol as butch as Rock Hudson were he born in an earlier time. They are all glorious.

Calpurnia Descending questions gender, sexuality, age and everything about our obsession with American culture. It even questions what belongs on a funded mainstage, while being one of the most exciting, smart and insanely beautiful shows on our funded mainstages this year.  

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Pennsylvania Avenue

Pennsylvania Avenue
Melbourne Theatre Company
13 November 2014
Sumner Theatre
to 20 December

Photo by Jeff Busby
Last week, Melbourne's two mainstage companies opened shows by Melbourne writers. Both directed by Melbourne directors and featured Melbourne performers and creators. Both were also set in the USA and based on US culture. But the chasm between Pennsylvania Avenue, at the MTC, and Calpurnia Descending, at Malthouse Theatre, is so wide that one can barely wave at the other.

Pennsylvania Avenue gets the Songs for Nobodies gang back together. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips and performed by Bernadette Robinson, Nobodies is a heartfelt work about five fictional nobodies who encounter five famous and broken singer somebodies (Garland, Cline, Piaf, Holiday and Callas). Each story is complete and uses the music and Robinson's talent to mimic to add so much to the stories about how nobody is really a nobody.

Pennsylvania Avenue started with the same idea and ran in the other direction.

Set in the Blue Room, another oval room, in the East Wing of the White House in Washington, it's the story of nobody Harper Clements who worked as a social secretary at the White House from presidents Kennedy to Bush jnr. She's well over 50 (the horror) and it's time for her to leave with her cardboard box of memories, like when she recommended that Marilyn Monroe take her knickers off to get a better line in the dress when she sang "Happy Birthday" to Kennedy and when she accidentally suggested to Reagan that "Tear down that wall" would help his Berlin speech. With photos of her in the background of famous photos, her story begs for more inside knowledge of the White House and the people who live and work there, and for a greater insight into her own politics.

But she's fiction. In all fairness, it's never claimed that she's real, but it was the question everyone was asking after the show because she seemed real enough to wonder.

So why this story? Why is Melbourne's flagship company commissioning a story that has no direct or even thematic connection to Australia? Apart from maybe the fact that side-stepping politics is easy. The post-show treats were even Budwiser and fries with USA stickers on the box.

When did Melbourne become the out-of-town try out city for Broadway? Because that's where this show wants to go and as a bland celebration of USA culture, it might run for years.

The inspiration of the work is Robinson and she continues to sing like the best. This time she sings the songs of people who performed at or visited the White House (including Monroe, Streisand – "she's Jewish – Vaughan, Kitt, Ross and Dylan – Bob). But while there was connection in Nobodies, there was little connection between songs and this character. And this time the mimicing felt weird. Why doesn't Harper sing as Harper? It felt like a drag show without any of the subversion.

Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened. It has already had a run in Sydney, but this is the first time the locally-adored punk camp Sisters Grimm have had a main stage show in their home town.

And it has enough subversion, heart and guts (and drag) to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Calpurnia Descending review.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

12 November 2014

Review: Dreamers

8 November 2014
to 30 November

Photo by Jeff Busby

I wasn't in Melbourne when the Keene/Taylor project was the darling of this city's independent theatre scene (1997–2002), so it's a joy to see Mary Lou Jelbart's fortyfivedownstairs brings writer Daniel Keene and director Ariette Taylor back together with Dreamers.

Originally written by Keene for French company Tabula Rasa (Keene is loved in France),  Dreamers is about loneliness and the hope that can be found even when the isolation seems impenetrable.

Set in a low-income block of flats in any city, widow Anne (Helen Morse) lives alone and earns her living from sewing consignment garments. She's rarely interrupted, except when she catches the bus to babysit her grandson. At the bus stop she meets fellow residents including building foreman (Marco Chiappi), a former bus driver now ticket inspector (Paul English) and younger new-comer to the city Majid (Yomal Rajasinghe) who's looking for work.

Majid knows that people ignore him and move away because he's black, but Anne doesn't and when he's turned away at their local cafe by the waiter (Jonathan Taylor), she buys him a coffee. When their friendship develops, locals (Natasha Herbert and Nicholas Bell) are disgusted and her daughter (Brigid Gallacher) doesn't understand.

While it's a clear reflection on the many ways people hate each other for no reason, Taylor's direction – and an impeccable cast – never forgets that everyone is a likeable and loved person in their own way. With songs around a pianola and dances around garbage bins, the gentle humour makes it easy to see how hate can surface in the most everyday of places and in the most unsuspecting people.

The design uses the long an difficult fortyfivedownstairs space beautifully. Adrienne Chisholm's design incorporates the supporting poles and lets us see into tiny rooms and the whole block at once, with Andy Turner's lighting defining space.

While there are many angry plays about all the isms and how they are wrong, Dreamers is a gentle work about people; people who can always change how they see the world.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

11 November 2014

Review: Passion

Life Like Company
5 November 2014
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 8 November 2014

Photo by Ben Fon

I'm still having trouble believing that 1994's Passion is a Sondheim–Lapine creation, let alone that it won a small pile of Tony Awards. As it's so rarely performed, I'm not the only one who thinks so. New Melbourne company Life Like chose it as their debut piece. There are enough Sondheim diehards in town to ensure a sell out, but will it ensure anticipation for their next work?

It's 1863 Italy and soldier Georgio is having a happy secret relationship with married and pretty Clara. When transferred out of the city, he finds himself at an outpost where the only woman is Fosca, who's plainness hides her mental illness. She falls in love with Georgio at first glance and behaves with stalker-like obsession. Will he fall for her unquestioning, pure love or shoot her for being a freak?

Based on a film that's based on a book, Passion does away with subtext and complexity and delivers a passionless melodrama.

Of the many things I love about Sondhiem, his women fascinate me the most. The women in A Little Night MusicCompanySunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are complex and real. Fosca and Clara are women whose actions and thoughts are only those seen through the eyes of the man they are both obsessed with; they are creatures who exist only for him. And this reflection of the world isn't helped by the minor female characters played by men in hats in this production.

Life Like's design and direction are close enough to the original production (thank you YouTube) to please fans who have never seen Passion. But they don't bring anything new or exciting to this piece. It may as well have been a concert performance there was so little risk or real passion brought to the stage. It's not rarely performed because it's controversial, it's rarely performed because it's boring.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

27 October 2014

FESTIVAL: When the mountain changed its clothing

When the mountain changed its clothing
Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica & Heiner Goebbals
23 October 2014
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 26 October

Photo by Wonge Bergmann

"If you liked that show, I'm going to push you under a tram." It could only be said in Melbourne, at an arts festival. It was said to me at the end of When the mountain changed its clothing.

I liked it.

Others didn't.

My favourite bit was the cutting open of teddy bears to make clouds. And the throat singing choir of teenagers in coloured and patterned gum boots.

German composer and director Heiner Goebbals makes a form of music theatre that's made to be an experience. Much closer to performance art than narrative theatre, he creates a strange and beautiful base for the audience to layer their own interpretation and emotions onto. 

He was last at a Melbourne Festival with Stiflers Dinge in 2010. Without performers, stripped upright pianos were played by mechanical arms in a leafless and pond-filled forest. They moved, sound came from everywhere and there was lots of dry ice. It was mesmerising and weird and left people smiling without knowing why.

When the mountain changed its clothing has performers. Forty teenage girls and young women from Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica: a girls ensemble, directed by Karmina Silec, that searches for and explores new forms of music and vocal techniques. Their singing is exquisite. And their movement is as disciplined as their music. There isn't a step or note out of place. While each is dressed individually, they work as one and none would dare to stand out. It's also a bit creepy.

Without a safe or easy narrative, scenes have themes and as they build on each other, the intent of the previous scenes becomes clearer. The music and text is a mish-mash – music includes Schonberg, traditional Slovenian music and new work by Goebbals;  text includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ian McEwan, Gertrude Stein and an excerpt from a tv show – that somehow sounds like it belongs together.

There's logic and complete understanding of the work on the stage – it's easy to see it's about transitions – but seeing the understanding isn't as easy. And this is how Goebbals's work soars or plummets.

I saw it as a middle-aged look at teenage girls and how they have been, and continue to be, represented in literature and the arts. The choir of teens show attempts at capturing the experience of being between child and adult; a time when a girl thinks they are one thing while the world sees them as the other. A time when innocence means more than child or adult understands.

There's an early scene when the girls sit in a line at the front of the stage and silently = look at the audience. A middle-aged man two-people along from me whispered, "Show us your tits". I wish I'd reached over and slapped him. I saw children in t-shirts and jeans. He saw tits. I hated him. I hope he reads this and for one fraction of a second feels what it must be like as a girl to have a man old enough to be your grandfather say that to you.

The girls and young women on stage are controlled, but there's rebellion in the creepy consistency. I saw a show that celebrated the strength and power of young women and laughs at anyone who dares to only see tits.

It's today's $25 SwiftTix offer. For $25 it's worth the risk to see what your feel at the end. Meanwhile, I'm staying a few metres away from tram lines.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

23 October 2014

FESTIVAL: My Lovers' Bones

My Lovers' Bones
Brown Cab Productions
15 October 2014
Footscray Community Arts Centre
to 18 October

Kirk Page. Photo by Deryk McAlpin

My Lovers' Bones is another premiere Australian work developed for and supported by the Melbourne Festival. Created by independent company Brown Cab Productions, it's a fascinating story of a man running through city streets being chased by a malevolent force that's not giving up.

This force could be his past, his self, a woman he once loved or a bunyip that's lived in the city since the time before cities were imagined.

Directed by Margaret Harvey (founder of Brown Cab with her brother John Harvey), it explores how Indigenous myth and Dreaming are a part of the land we share and creep into our beliefs and lives even if we don't understand how or why. And it reminds that ancient stories from indigenous people and elders all over the world come from a place of truth.

As the running man, Kirk Page's performance is mesmerising. He captures a world where he wants to think the fear is in his head but knows in his soul that it's real. His confusion and terror is made more palpable a stunning sound (Anna Liebzeit) and lighting (Lisa Mibus) design that creates a world that's floating between the seen and unseen; between safety and horror.

At less than an hour, its concise telling doesn't dwell on anything superfluous, but, while it's beautiful to watch, some of the show's heart is caught on the stage and hasn't found its way out of the creators's heads and into the audience's hearts. As a story about a bunyip, it needs to be felt in the gut more than understood in the head.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

FESTIVAL: Complexity of Belonging

Complexity of Belonging
Melbourne Festival, Chunky Move, Melbourne Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival
9 October 2014
Sumner Theatre
to 25 October

Photo by Jeff Busby

Melbourne Festival, the Brisbane Festival and Melbourne Theatre Company have coordinated to support the creation of Complexity of Belonging. It's the type of work that international arts festivals are terrific at developing.

Falk Richter, writer and director from Schaub├╝hne Berlin (a favourite at recent Melbourne Festivals) and Anouk van Dijk, now the Artistic Director of Melbourne's Chunky Move, have previously worked together in the Europe and have developed this piece with an Australian cast that's premiered in Melbourne and will tour Europe next year.

Working with nine actors and dancers, it's a collaboration where the performers contributed stories that result in semi-fictional hyper-real versions of themselves on stage. The stories are about finding a way to belong when you're not feeling a part of your tribe. Looking at Australian culture from an outside – mostly European – eye they include the aesthetics of being a performer, looking or not looking white, not understanding Aussie culture, finding a perfect man, keeping love alive, coming out, religion, Indigenous identification and the despair of having a partner who doesn't go down on you.

A magnificent seamless curved cyc of an Australian desert makes the stage feels vast. With live projections onto a screen happening concurrently with dance and monologues, this vastness makes the stories feel somehow connected to a greater whole and isolated.

This contradiction continues throughout the production and varies in its success.

At times everything works together and results in the kind of emotional and technical mind-meld that we hope for every time we sit in a theatre. As performers speak, van Dijk's mesmerising choreography is like the uncontrolled always-falling-or-climbing inner-chatter that we try to keep hidden from the world, and the screen captures and magnifies the emotions and reactions that are rarely spoken.

Then there are times when the content and the text verges on the banal and #middleclasswhine, especially when the hyper-realised personas are clearly in fictional worlds, and the authenticity is strained. The joy of this piece depends on how the stories are so believable and connectable. They are allowed to fly with the support of the dance, design and great performances, but when the momentum gives out, there's too much room to crash.

And still, I wonder if this in itself isn't part of what makes the rest of it work. There is a lot of banality in finding ways to feel like you belong. I want to see what Complexity of Belonging becomes with feedback of stage time. It may already be a very different show from opening night.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

FESTIVAL: Mikelangelo, City of Dreams

City of Dreams launch
14 October 2014
Foxtel Festival Hub
to 16 October

Photo by Tom Chuma
Mikelangelo isn't from Melbourne and spends a lot of time travelling the world, but – like many of us – he fell in hopeless love with this city and made it his home. Last night, surrounded by friends who collaborated and friends who swooned and cheered, he launched his new album City of Dreams, a love song to "Where I feel safe and where I feel loved".

And where better to launch a love song to Melbourne than in the  Festival Hub on the banks of the Yarra.

With his voice deeper and hotter than hell, the album's more gentle and less character-driven than his Tin Star or Black Sea Gentlemen music. While Black Sea Mikelangelo explodes with yearning testosterone and pomade, Melbourne Mikelangelo strolls through the city streets, often hand-in-hand with Clare St Clare, and sees that everything around him is bloody beautiful.

There's still a rockabilly influence, but Miles Brown has convinced him that a theramin and synthesizer are as sexy as a well-worn guitar, and his guest vocalists, including St Clare, bring a balancing lightness to his irresistible darkness.

The album's wonderful but it was its Pledge Music crowd funding campaign that created the extra love to make it something that won't be forgotten – and it wasn't just the money.

His pledge rewards are personal and offer unrepeatable experiences like Mikelangelo meeting you in Edinburgh Gardens to shine your shoes, taking you to his barber, serenading your grandmother, taking you to Piedimonte's to discover if you can get a cappuccino upstairs, or MCing your event. And some of his favourite suits are up for grabs.

Campiagn updates included photos of thrilled mums, hand-inked cd covers, the newly quiffed and men full of dumplings. Plus personalised messages to every pledger and a bonus EP for us who live so south that we can listen while we feel the white sand of Sandringham beach on bare feet.

At last look, his powder-blue suit is gone but the "Name your baby" reward is still available. And there are two more performances of the City of Dreams album at the Festival Hub tonight (Wednesday) and tomorrow. Be prepared to float home in he afterglow.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.