20 August 2014

Review: Einstein on the beach 2

Einstein on the beach
State Opera of South Australia
7 August 2014
Her Majesty's Theatre
to 21 August 2014

Photo by Bernard Hull

I didn't know if it were possible to see State Opera of South Australia's Einstein on the beach without comparing it to the original Wilson-Glass-Childs production (which toured to Melbourne in 1992 and 2013: both were sublime), but it was such a different experince that comparisons are irrelevant.

Einstein is the second part of the Philip Glass Trilogy being presented by State Opera (with Akhnaten and Satyagraha). They are the first company to present the trilogy as a cycle and one of a tiny handful of companies that Glass has trusted with his operas.

Leigh Warren, as director and choreographer, approached it as a dance work about Einstein's E=mc2  and the theory of relativity. It's not the sensory overload and 4.5 hour non-stop endurance challenge of the original. With breaks, a meal-length interval (with Adelaide's amazing Gouger St restaurants minutes away), there's time to talk and take it all in and see the wonder of this composition through fresh eyes.

The choreography is a visual interpretation of the music with the 1–12 dancers following different parts, rhythms or structures of the score. As much of it wasn't written as dance music – Glass wrote half of it to accompany Robert Wilson's design and direction, with the knee plays written just for scene changes, and the rest for Lucinda Childs's choreography – Warren's approach allows the audience to see the music come to life through the dance. I know the music very well and heard things I've never heard through watching the dance.

At the same time, the dance is all about Einstein's theory. At the most obvious level, the first half is about mass and the second about light. But, just as the dancers depict the music, they demonstrate the movement of mass and light through space far better than any physics lesson – and show it with a sense of fun and emotion that lets us feel the passion behind the equation.

The choreography starts with or re-visits classical arm or leg positions. Like Einsten's physics and Glass's music, the first-learnt classical rules are always there but are questioned and re-constructed to create something that feels so right and balanced and still completely new.

Photo by Darren Williams

And it all melds with the sound created by Timothy Sexton, the small on-stage Adelaide Art Orchestra and the 16-person State Opera Chorus, who were at times brought into the dance space to become more than sound.

From sounding like one voice to times when all four parts could be heard or a spoken voice was combined with singing voices, the chorus sound exquisite. Working with the dance, Sexton ensures that Glass's music is heard in new ways.

While there's spoken poetry in the text (given to the dancers and allowed to be delightfully funny), the music's lyrics are numbers and solf├Ęge. Like classic positions are the beginning of dance, counting and do-re-mi are the first things we learn in music. Everything on the stage begins with first steps and expands to something complex that's unimaginable at the beginning: just like how Einstein's theory changed physics.

Musically, Glass treats voices like instruments; they are sound without personality. But by seeing the singers and having them on the stage with the dancers, there was personality. I can't decide if I loved this or would have preferred the unexpected power of the Wilson emotionless/neutral face that dominates that original production. Seeing the personalities of the individual singers and dancers brings a warmth to the stage, but at the same time something like a singer watching a dancer or counting on their fingers distracts so much more than it should.

There were some initial problems with the amplified sound feeling stuck at the back of the stage and getting lost behind the dancers. This improved throughout the night, but still left it feeling like we were seeing the music through a wall of dance rather than the dance through a wall of music – which might have been the point.

The stage and lighting design were relatively simple and, while supporting everything on the stage with triangles, balance and light, didn't feel like an equal element of the production. I was in the front, so it may be more impressive from further back or in the circle.

Still the biggest disappointment was the number of empty seats and general lack of sense of occassion. Come on Adelaide, you do festivals brilliantly and here's your state opera company being trusted with a masterpiece of 20th century modenist composition. This is something to celebrate and support.

It's nothing like the original Einstein on the beach, but it's nothing less than it. It's a remarkable production that starts with Glass's music to create a work that feels like he wrote it for them, and reminds us to never be scared of seeing any work through new eyes.

There's still a full cycle left of all three operas (if I'd had time, I would have loved to see the others) and I suspect that the third cycle will be the one to see as they as word gets around that it's unmissable.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

18 August 2014

Pledge to Mikelangelo's new album

I met Mikelangelo in Canberra. He got my attention because he was sitting naked in a radio studio.

We moved to Melbourne around the same time and both found ourselves at home.

This glorious man is making a new album about this glorious city and needs some crowdfunding help.

All the details are here: www.pledgemusic.com/projects/mikelangelo

And he's offering some of the best supporter offers ever offered. From dumplings with Mikelangelo to his first guitar or having him MC your event. Seriously, it doesn't get much better.

16 August 2014

Last night of The Container Festival

The Container Festival
Monash University, Clayton
to 16 August

Being crook and being not in Melbourne meant that I couldn't get to The Container Festival until it's second-to-last night.

In its second year, this amazingly fun and original festival is presented by the Monash Uni Student Theatre and Yvonne Virsik is its Artistic Director.

Students and graduates are invited to create any type of performance, on the condition that it fits in a shipping container or other surprising space. The results are intimate and personal and can't be seen anywhere else

Tonight is the Closing Gala Extravaganza with over 20 of the best cabaret, music, comedy, burlesque and theatre acts of the festival. And it's all in the Hub where it's much warmer than outside and there's a bar with good beer and $5 pizzas!

Last night I saw Re-verie: Tom Molyneax's beautiful, creepy and confronting verbatim piece about dreams. If you think your dreams are disturbing, try seeing stangers' dreams come to life when you're shut in a shipping container with such stunning lighting that it's easy to forget that it's safe.

Gale Force

Next was Gale Force Wins!!!: a live game show hosted by Gale Force (the endlessly classy Jack Beeby). We were allowed in a small room for this one. Gale hates KAK and wears a 70s psychedelic jumpsuit better than anyone has dared to. Four contestants are chosen from the audience and then it's nothing like Rock Wiz, Family Feud or Deal or No Deal. My team came second (last) and my favourite game was Celebrity Head, which had nothing to do with guessing celebrity faces.

And Jack is hosting the gala tonight!

The Dig Collective in the Hub

Then it was into the Hub for The Dig Collective  for cabaret, pizza and beer. They said that their "show contains coarse language, unsexy bodies and Scott Morrison being hit by leaks". I couldn't have said it better myself and think that Whack a Mollinson should be played in Canberra.

My night ended with Unease: a burlesque piece that's about every women finding what they think is glamorous and not being scared if it seems weird, gory or unexpected. 

This is a wonderful little festival that creates a sense of excitement and place at Monash Uni and encourages emerging artists to create the kind of work they want to make. And when you make the work you want to make, you find the audience that loves you.

04 August 2014

A moment in yarn

A moment in yarn
Sayraphim Lothian
as part of Craft Victoria's Craft Cubed festival

Craftivist Sayraphim Lothian says A Moment in Yarn is a participatory craft experience; I say it's absolutely beautiful – and when she does it next, you must book your spot.

The experience is simple. You sit down with Sayraphim and she asks you to tell her a happy memory. I told her the story about how I eventually got my cat Flue. She asked me some specific questions and as she started crocheting, we talked about our pets.

A few minutes later, she handed me my finished square. It was immediately something precious to me because in it I could see a story that's mine.

We get so caught up in trying to tell complicated and universally-meaning stories and often wonder why they don't seem to connect.

Here a connection is made instantly and unguarded emotions and a memory are made solid by some scraps of yarn and a short conversation.

It's so beautiful.

So please, the next time Sayraphim does it – venues and events, you can book her – take family and friends. Use your square to start a rug or a use the squares made for your family to make a cushion cover. Whatever you do, you will want to do something special with something that looks like a scrap to anyone else.

Mine is the perfect size to put on top of the tin that holds Flue's ashes.

Her eyes are in the centre, the white bits are her, the middle is the colours of the first collar I bought her, and it's held together by me in black clothes that were always covered in white fur.

02 August 2014

Last chance: Green Screen and Purgatorio

What really must end this weekend is my time with a gastrointestinal virus. I'm excited that I can now get out of bed, but am leaving myself in quarantine until there is no sign of it. It doesn't needs sharing and I'm on my way to becoming an obsessive hand washer.

As I don't write well in the bathroom, some great shows missed out on reviews and they finish this weekend. There's time to see them both. Unless you are sick. Then stay home.

Green Screen
Sans Hotel
finishes Sunday

Nicola Gunn's Green Screen ends the second NEON Festival of Independent Theatre. I can't compare her theatre to anything because Gunn creates work that is like her unconscious explaining her soul.

The more of her work that I see, the less I understand it. And I never want to. I'm scared that if I begin to see how her creations work,  I'll begin to see the trick. Meanwhile, I have no idea how something that begins with a line of toy animals, hummus pasta, a green monster blow-up mattress and gold body paint can say so much and be so personal to someone who has never eaten hummus pasta.

And she's joined by Nat Cursio, Tom Davies, Jonno Katz and Kerith Manderson-Galvin who meet, talk and sing in a community centre that tries to calm with beach-scene wall paper. They are a complete joy.

Green Screen is bitingly cynical but deeply loving and, in a breath, the final moments bring the work's disparate events together to let us know what it's all been about. It's beautiful.

5Pound and Attic Erratic
The Owl and the Pussycat
finishes Saturday

Well, you might not be able to see this because it's sold out. But it can't hurt to call and check.

Melbourne audiences generally like to let a show run for a bit until they see it. This often means that people miss out on great shows by being cautious and waiting to hear if it's worth seeing. Lesson: go early and be among the people making the word of mouth.

Purgatorio is by Chilien-American playwright Ariel Dorfman, who's best known for Death and the Maiden. Here Purgatory is the soulless empty between Heaven and Hell where a Man interrogates a Woman over the murder of her children, and a Woman interrogates a Man about his guilt over his wife's death. It doesn't take long to recognise the Greek myth the stories are from, but it's far more than a reflection on Medea and Jason as Dorfman continues to explore what it takes for humans to do the unthinkable and if there's hope for redemption in a world set on revenge.

Director Celeste Cody finds the endless layers in the script without giving away its secrets, and she uses the tiny space of the Owl and the Pussycat to create a dark and empty world that's neither hellish nor real. And by placing the audience on either side of the room, each side naturally align themselves with Man or Woman.

But Freya Pragt and Jason Cavanagh ensure that the audience's allegiances are never firm. Both performances are riveting, but it's how they work together that makes this script so frighteningly real.

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross
Melbourne Theatre Company
19 July 2014
The Sumner
to 9 August

Photo by Jeff Busby
David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross is many things. It won Mamet the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama because it captured a time, place and attitude so remarkably. He re-wrote it as an acclaimed film (1992) and the play's an aspirational piece for actors. Who doesn't want to do a Mamet? But this MTC production fails to capture what makes Mamet so popular.

It's hard make the anger and social-grasp of Mamet dull, but director Alkinos Tsilimidos manages to make it feel like a soporific mid-afternoon tv movie. It passed the time pleasantly enough, but lacked any spark to make a blaze.

The cast are all terrific actors, but seem to be performing to be watched for their performance rather than working together to tell a story (which has nothing to do with John McTernan coming in at the last minute and still having his script).  They're enjoying the experience of being in the play, but they're not bringing the audience into the world on the stage.

There's no way in for the audience an emotional connection or to find a reason to care. The most empathy comes from Brett Cousins, as the conned Lingk, but the play's not about him; he's there to show what a dick Roma (Alex Dimitriades) is and what a dick Levene (McTernan) can be.

The detail of the design's 1980s office is a welcome distraction, but there's no comment, fun or satire to support the script or help make it about now and us. And it's not like there are no parallels to easily draw about dodgy real estate being sold to people who can't afford it.

If a production isn't a reflection of us and now, why bother?

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

31 July 2014

Review: The Book of Loco

The Book of Loco
Malthouse Theatre
17 July 2014
Beckett Theatre
to 2 August

Photo by Pia Johnson

Among walls of tape-sealed cardboard boxes stands a middle-aged man in a suit. He has a beard, an accent and looks like he's going to sweat a lot. And he might be mad and/or mad because he's being searched before boarding an international flight. Boom?

Aliro Zavarce's The Book of Loco won Best Theatre Production at the 2013 Adelaide Fringe. Zavarce was born in Venezuela and moved to Adelaide in the early 90s where he studied drama at Flinders University and has become well known and rightly loved on Adelaide's stages. The Book is an exploration of grief and madness that started when his wife left him on the September 11 2001 and his mother, in South America, became terminally ill.

He kept journals and, working with director Sasha Zahra, created a piece that looks for the lines where grief becomes identity and then moves towards something irrational, and, in turn, sees the rational madness that's everywhere. His own pain and loss is enough to drive anyone loco but what's the excuse of a world that so easily accepts and explains the most crazy of acts, ideas and attitudes?

The trip from the personal to the universal is made even smoother with Jonathon Oxlade's box of boxes design that shows endless hidden and collapsing secrets, truths and lies, and Chris More's animations and graphics that restrict themselves to the edges of the boxes and make it seem like we're looking into the hidden space.

Zavarce is warm and delightfully affable and his story's at its most engaging and moving when he's talking about his personal experiences, especially the end of his marriage and being made to feel like an outsider on a flight home to Australia (in a scene that makes Steve Kilbey singing "Under the Milky Way" sound so ocker). These easy-to-connect-with moments make it easy to accept the earnest madness of explaining the rational madness of a clearly mad world.

But don't get fooled by the earnest rants of a madman, The Book of Loco is funny and loving and ultimately lets the craziness of grief hurt a little less.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

26 July 2014

Review: Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Victorian Opera
19 July 2014
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 26 July

Photo by Jeff Busby

After the success of their Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine created Into the Woods (1986), which beat Phantom of the Opera at the Tonys and firmly sits on the top of many favourite-musical lists. Following the success of their 2013 production of Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera have followed with an Into the Woods that's as close to sold out as it can be and even closer to perfection.

With a boldness, a sense of cheekiness and an understated sophistication, Vic Opera tell the tale with Australian twists and a loving understanding of the power of once-upon-a-time story telling. If you have a ticket, don't let it out of your sight because the show's simply unforgettable and reminds us that music theatre should never be a fading and dull copy of another production.

Lapine's book (he also directed the Broadway version) takes characters and well-known stories from the Brothers Grimm's collection of European fairy tales (mid-1800s) and sends them into the woods to find themselves together as part of a bigger story. Act one brings everyone through trials to their happy-ever-after; Act two asks what happens next and is as dark, confronting and blood-filled as traditional fairy tales really are.

Part of the inspiration for Woods was the 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by academic and therapist Bruno Bettleheim. Since his death (1990), Bettleheim has been criticised academically and personally, but his book continues to influence and inspire countless writers. Internationally successful Australian children's/young adult writer John Marsden (Tomorrow When the War Began series) is among those who recommend it. It's partly a Freudian psychoanalytic analysis of Fairy Tales (mostly the Grimm's collection) and the rest is a discussion about the psychological impact of fairy tales on children – or the importance of telling and re-telling stories. At the most simple level, we tell stories to understand the world.

But there's nothing simple about Into the Woods. From its surface of fairy tales and gorgeous syncopated rhymes (that Sondheim and his lyrics!), layers are torn away and complexities revealed until grown ups find themselves crying because they see it as a story about themselves. We re-tell stories to understand the world and our place in it.

And the music's by Sondheim, so it shares the every emotion without a word being spoken.

Photo by Jeff Busby

While one of the genius notes of Into the Woods is the complexity of its re-telling of known tales, much of the magnificence of Victorian Opera's production is how director Stuart Maunder lets the story be told without over complication or sentimentality, while supporting the comedy and freeing it from the so-well-known Broadway production that so many of us have seen because it was filmed for TV.

Adam Gardnir's design of bare trees creates an ever-changing wood that's comforting and familiar and terrifying and bone-like (with perhaps a nod to Freud), and the woods are given depth, darkness and magic flashes by Philip Lethlean's lighting. Which are all an ideal world for Harriet Oxley's costumes that take the shape of pantomime-fairy-tale costumes, but are filled with bold colour and geometric shapes that help tell a story that's for now and forever.

Conductor Benjamin Northey and sound designer Jim Atkins create a recordable pit–stage balance that uses the amplification to emphasise the unique sound of each singer, and helps to enforce the idea that stories are best told by human voices.

Vocally and emotionally the cast nail it. While Christina O'Neil (Baker's wife), Rowan Witt (Jack), Queenie van de Zandt (Witch), Josie Lane (Red Riding Hood) and Lucy Maunder (Cinderella) lead the way, everyone brings a real bit of themselves to their roles and every character has their moment of pure enchantment.

The only disappointment about Into the Woods is that it has so few shows and the tickets left can be counted on one hand (hint: try for singles). With producers letting sub-standard shows run for months in big theatres, surely there are ways to bring this production to a bigger audience. #IWish.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

22 July 2014

Review preview: Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Victorian Opera
19 July 2014
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 26 July

Photo by Jeff Busby

After the success of their Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine created Into the Woods (1986), which beat Phantom of the Opera at the Tonys and firmly sits on the top of many favourite-musical lists. Following the success of their 2013 production of Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera have followed with an Into the Woods that's as close to sold out as it can be and even closer to perfection.

With a boldness, a sense of cheekiness and an understated sophistication, Vic Opera tell the tale with Australian twists and a loving understanding of the power of once-upon-a-time story telling. If you have a ticket, don't let it out of your sight because the show's simply unforgettable and reminds us that music theatre should never be a fading and dull copy of another production.


MORE on AussieTheatre.com

The full review will be published here in a few days

20 July 2014

Review: The Death of Kings

The Death of Kings
15 July 2014
Howler Arts Hub and Bar
to 19 July

Photo by Brendan Napier

Melbourne is hosting the 20th International AIDS Conference on 20–25 July. Alongside the conference is a cultural program, including The Death of Kings with a short run until 19 July.

Based on interviews with men who were part of Sydney's gay scene around Oxford Street in the 1980s, it's a verbatim piece that began when writer Colette F Keen become concerned that the stories about the initial community response to HIV in Australia were getting lost.

The cast of five (Mark Dessaix, Greg Iverson, Sebastian Robinson, Joseph Simons and Tyson Wakely) represent at least two interviewees each. In some ways this is confusing because it's difficult to follow the individual stories, but it also frees the experiences within the stories and the context of their telling to be heard without the emotional connection to a person.

And it is important to keep telling these stories.

It's not just because there are still over 35 million people – 35,000,000! that's the population of Australian and another half – living with HIV/AIDS in the world, but because the communities who led the fight and took the first casualties are slipping out of living memory.

The Death of Kings is about remembering and celebrating how the Sydney's gay community (and its allies) faced (or denied) a plague that took the world too long to understand. There are stories about parents who disowned sons and about men who blamed themselves for getting sick, but they are balanced by the stories of love, acceptance and dance parties – and by those of survival. It's sentimental, but these stories all come from men who are still with us today; they are worth some sentiment.

And it's not all crying and poppers. It includes incidental stories of how communities communicated before the internet and how our federal government responsed. This was the early days of Medicare (imagine, free universal healthcare!) and the Labor government reasoned that prevention and education were far cheaper and would result in far less death than treatment alone. It wasn't long before there were free condoms everywhere and free support where it was needed, and within a realtively short time the Grim Reaper made sure that we knew how to minimise the risks. There was still an unfair stigma associated to HIV/AIDS and it wasn't eradicated, but the spread slowed to the point that young people are having unsafe sex again! This isn't something to celebrate.

For people like me in their 40s and 50s, the idea of unsafe penetrative sex was and is unthinkable. I'm too young to have seen hoards of my friends die, but I remember the AIDS jokes of the 1980s and I know what it's like to see a friend become a barely breathing skeleton and die from AIDS. It's a horrible horrible way to die.

What is also being forgotten is that HIV/AIDS was a death call in the 80s and early 90s. If you were a gay man in your 20s to 40s at that time, it was possible to lose count of how many of your friends died. I try and I cannot imagine what that must be like. Some in The Death of Kings like it to towns and communities who lost most of their young men in wars.

This is why shows like this are so important. Sure, it needs some tightening as a piece of theatre (and its opening night audience were generally people who were around in the 1980s and didn't need a lesson in the hanky code or how to put on a condom), but these works become keepers of stories; stories that mustn't be forgotten because we know what happens when we forget the lessons of the past.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.