26 July 2014

Review: Into the Woods

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

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
thedeathofkings.com

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.

19 July 2014

Last Chance: The Good Person of Szechuan

The Good Person of Szechuan
Malthouse Theatre and National Theatre of China
2 July 2014
Merlyn Theatre
to 20 July
malthousetheatre.com.au

Photo by Pia Johnson

The Good Person of Szechuan. Epic!

And it finishes on Sunday. So there's still a chance to see it again.

The cast and performances are divine (even the ones playing gods), the design is somewhere between wtf and wow, the text is Aussie and the direction's Chinese. And it's as Brechtian as Brecht can be.

Brecht was a German modernist and a Marxist who rejected the emotional heart-grab of namby pamby naturalism and wrote theatre that was about understanding the manipulation and falsity of realistic storytelling in order to see the creation of fiction by rulers, governments and politicians. He wrote because he saw his world being torn apart.

Be it sense, fate or luck, he left his home in Germany in 1933 and moved around Europe (avoiding German invasion) and before going to the USA in 1941. He began Good Person in 1938 and completed it in 1943; no wonder there's enough content in this play to make it feel like it's written for any audience who have seen it since.

Set in a fictional Szechuan-cum-Berlin-cum-Melbourne-cum-AnyCity, it's about three gods coming to earth to find good people. It doesn't take long for them to settle for finding one good person. With the help of a water seller, they meet prostitute Shen Te, who gives them a room for the night and is rewarded with enough money to buy a tobacco shop. And then it gets really hard for her to maintain her goodness.

Photo by Pia Johnson

This version is by Tom Wright, who makes it sound like it was written in Melbourne. And it's directed (in translation) by Chinese director Meng Jinghui, whose work in China comes close to having a cult following. His Rhinoceros in Love was part of the 2011 Melbourne International Arts Festival. I didn't get it. However, I was sitting next to a group of young Chinese women who didn't stop laughing. It clearly spoke to them, and to so many others; it's been in ongoing production in China since 1999. I wanted to know what I was missing.

But I got The Good Person of Szechuan. Perhaps all I needed was a slither of familiarity.

And from the gods arriving with shopping bags and looking like bridezilla Madonna (Christian and pop) icons (design by Marg Horwell), it's a world that's filled with the nearly unrecognisable familiar.

From designer dresses (thank you audience member for telling me that they are genuine expensive frocks and not be-dazzed K-Mart t-shirts) to the smoke machine, piles of baby dolls and the live musician (THE SWEATS) in a glass box, there are no secrets but this forced distancing is combined with performances that draw us back into the world and make us see it as us and ours.

And Moira Finucane, Genevieve Giuffre, Emily Milledge, Josh Price, Bert LaBonté, Richard Pyros, Aljin Abella and Daniel Frederiksen! What more do I need to say.

The friend who came with me did have something else to say and she said it to the man who was sitting two rows behind us, Minister Malcolm Turnball.
"At the after party, I slyly bumped into him accidentally, so he had to notice me. After introductions, I questioned him about what was happening to the boatload of Tamil asylum seekers. His answer was, 'I don't know'. He tried to reassure me they were safe because we were 'looking after them'. I politely berated him about it and he really didn't have much to say. Finally I said, 'You've just seen a play by Brecht. What do you think he'd have to say about this?' Malcolm: 'I know what he'd have to say'. Me: 'Exactly."
I loved this production because it must be talking to those who don't care about Tamil refugees and carbon taxes and slow internet. It's made for our Malcolm Turnballs. If those in power can see the world how we do, surely they'll change.

Nup.


PS. I'm blaming my computer for losing my real review. And by computer, I mean I accidentally deleted it.

Last chance: The Myth Project: Twin

NEON
The Myth Project: Twin
Arthur
11 July 2014
The Lawler
to 20 July
mtc.com.au

Photo by Sebastian Bourges

NEON's Twin is the first of Arthur's The Myth Project series that's about exploring the Australian psyche and the myths it creates. Exploding in a shiny-streamer world that moves from a cabaret-noir-cum-disco underworld to a bleak country pub that hides a secret, it's the second show opening this week where an established company is working with high school students.

Arthur is director Paige Rattray and producer Belinda Kelly. They work with a group of collaborators and for this project the group includes 32 year 11 and 12 students from Launceston College in Tasmania. Unlike Red Stitch's current collaboration with students from St Michael's Grammar school, The Flock and the Nest, the teenagers aren't the focus of the story. Instead they are a chorus who watch and mock and are welcome every time they are on the stage. And they're terrific. It's easy to stand out on a stage; it's a skill to blend with 31 performers and still be yourself.

The overall story is hard to follow but each episode (by writers Amelia Evans, Duncan Graham and/or Dan Giovannoni) has a satisfying completeness and adds to the ongoing mystery. It starts with twin sisters, a cowboy and a pub, and continues years later at the adult twin's birthday party where the guests are strangers, singing is dangerous and no one knows who is really alive at the end. Does this family have any hope or is Hell a place where our past deeds come back and where everyone wears shiny blue dresses?

And if is Hell, then I'm joining the line to get in. Twin is creepy and mysterious, and while never letting the tension drop, it doesn't lose its sense of fun or its heart; we may not really know what happens to the sisters, but we sure care and want them to be happy.

Part of the joy in watching is the continual questioning of what happened and the displacement from where we thought we were, but it wouldn't work without a cast who are as shiny and spectacular as their teenage ensemble. From dream-haunting weird to sexy-as-all-go-get to innocence-with-a-gun, Julia Billington, Catherine Davies, Kevin Kiernan-Molloy, Rose Lockhart, Markus McKenzie, Kurt Phelan, Guy Simon and Netta Yaschin, with Stephanie Francis and Trinnay Hancock-Holmes as the young sisters, are at one with the picnic-at-hanging-rock-teen-disco-mystery-horror-movie tone and know how to know the truth without sharing the secrets.

This is theatre that wants to create a world that's always questioning the world it's created in. Without using tired icons or even hinting at the obvious, Twin shows an Australia that's disturbingly recognisable and perhaps a lot closer than we'd like to think.

And the next instalments of The Myth Project will be at  Red Stitch and at Theatre Works.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.


17 July 2014

Review: The Flock and the Nest

The Flock and the Nest
Red Stitch and St Michael's Grammar School
10 July 2014
St Michael's Drama School
to 19 July
redstitch.net


St Michael's Grammar School is next door to the Red Stitch theatre and when the school approached the theatre company to collaborate on a production, it was impossible to say no.

Working with director Gary Abrahams and playwright Glyn Roberts, The Flock and the Nest was developed specifically for and with the cast of students (a role was created for everyone who wanted to be in it) and four Red Stitch adult actors.

They started with wanting to explore the gap between childhood and adulthood, the pros and cons of competition, and the concept of utopian lives and living the dream. The result is a story about a comfortable family in the city who seem to have it all and what happens when they meet and visit their cousins who live in the country in a small community who are trying to create their own dream.

By involving a cast of 16, it's run time gets close to too-long, but any cutting would cut performances that don't deserve to be cut. It's more ambitious than many high-school productions and its biggest strength is how it feels like a story that the teen cast (from years 9, 10 and 11) had a large part in creating.

The structure and big-picture is from Roberts, but so much character development and character choices clearly come from the teenage actors. This gives it an authenticity, relevance and freshness that is often missing when adults write teenage characters.

As a collaboration, The Flock and the Nest blurs the line between high-school and professional theatre and suggests that collaborations like these could happen more.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

11 July 2014

Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables
Cameron Mackintosh
3 July 2014
Her Majesty's Theatre
lesmis.com.au

Hayden Lee. Photo by Matt Murphy

In 1985 the first English production of Boublil and Schonberg's musical  Les Misérables opened in London. That original production has moved theatres a couple of times, but it's still running, and it's been produced all over the world. It's estimated that 65 million people have seen a production. I guess that at least 64,924,601 loved it to tears and for those who are seeing it for the for first time here in Melbourne will soon know why this astonishing piece of music theatre will soon have been running for 30 years.

Based on the much loved French 1832 novel by Victor Hugo, Les Mis is ultimately the story of Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his niece, but breaks his parole and is pursued by obsessive guard Javert until they both end up in 1832 Paris where the doomed June Rebellion is beginning and God and fate catches up with everyone. Hugo was in Paris during this rebellion and his story has become so well-known that the line between it's fiction and fact is often blurred.

This new production was created for the musical's 25th anniversary and is the same as the one currently running on Broadway. And I can't imagine the New York one being any better than ours.

The new design incorporates projections that are based on visual arts works by Hugo himself. They give a depth to the stage and, at their best, brings us into the graveyard and sewer, but Javert's backstroke to destiny tries too hard to create illusion.

The new Australian cast are relatively unknown but incomparable and unlikely to be forgotten. Vocally, from Valjean to ensemble, they are begging for a cast recording (of course there can be another one!) and each bring something surprising and new to the so-well-known songs.

Simon Gleeson gives Valjean a delicacy that makes the role his own (and he'll be a star like all the Valjeans before him), Hayden Tee lets Javert's humanity continually fight his sense of justice, Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulchay are clowning delights as the Thernardiers, Kerrie Anne Greenland (in her professional debut) makes us wonder why Marius doesn't want Eponine, and there's no one whose name won't forever be connected with their role in this production.

My only quibble is that, as a whole, the production and cast seem almost too aware of its pedigree (it's Les Misérables after all) and build towards moments and hit songs rather than letting them develop naturally. At the same time there's a tendency, from ensemble upwards, to overplay emotion which leaves it feeling more melodramatic than it could be. There's little in the story or music that's subtle in its emotional gut punch and the extra emphasis distracts and brings attention to itself rather than bringing us closer to the story.

Regardless, Les Misérables is beyond critique and the only way to know if it's worth all the fuss is to experience it for yourself.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

05 July 2014

Finishing this weekend: The Witches and Photographs of A

The Witches
Malthouse Theatre
Last show tonight
malthousetheatre.com.au


Roald Dahl's children's stories are dark and naughty and let children get into all sorts of trouble without bothersome grown ups ruining the fun or trying to help. The Witches is about what happens when a group of children-hating witches meet at a hotel and come across an orphaned boy.

Having missed chunk of the beginning (I should have known there is no right turn onto Sturt Street from Kings Way during peak hour), I didn't review but I loved what I saw.

Guy Edmonds plays everyone in this stage version of the story, which is based on a play by David Wood. His instant transformations from horrible hag to squeaky fast mouse are magic. There's little on the stage except the performer and the imagination of his audience – it's pretty close to the experience of reading – and together they create a show that's more spectacular, far scarier and more loving than anything made from special effects.

Here's what Keith Gow thought after seeing it earlier this week.

NEON
Photographs of A
Antechamber and Daniel Keene
Last show tomorrow
mtc.com.au



Until this show, I didn't know anything about 15-year-old Louise Augustine Gleizes. Known as "A", she was a celebrity hysteric in Paris in the late 1870s whose hysterias were photographed and the young woman was exhibited by her doctor, the influential neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Photographs of A by Daniel Keene explores the young woman's illness and experiences in the Salpetriere sanitarium from inside A's head.

If only the public display of ill and sexually traumatised young women didn't feel so familiar.

Sixty-something Helen Morse is Augustine and, even though Ben Grant and Anouk Gleeson-Mead appear on stage with her, the script is nearly all hers. Her performance is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

Having seen the photos (they are in the free program), we know A was as gorgeous as any teenage girl is and the key to this work is hearing the teenage voice – one that's still full of hope and doesn't understand the consequences of her experiences – come from an old, ugly and near broken woman. The power of Keene's script comes from what's unspoken.

However the production, directed and designed by Brian Lipson, is so aware of its theatricality that it never escapes the falseness of being in a theatre and feels so obvious that there's little surprise or space for unexpected wonder. When the design starts with rows of tea-light candles, the expectation of their lighting and snuffing takes away from the beauty of the candlelight.

The NEON festival is about the new and the daring. Photographs of A is a lovely piece that's worth seeing for Morse, but it feels out of place in NEON.

03 July 2014

Review: Sunglasses at night

MELBOURNE CABARET FESTIVAL
Sunglasses at night: The 80s apocalypse sing along cabaret
Geraldine Quinn
27 June 2014
Chapel off Chapel
to 28 June
melbournecabaret.com


"We are young
Heartache to heartache 
we stand"

If you're now singing and frightened that you remember those dance moves but can't remember how to unlock your phone, you need to get to Geraldine Quinn's Sunglasses at night: The 80s apocalypse sing along cabaret. Sadly, she's only doing two performances at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival – last one TONIGHT – but it will be back. It has to be back because there are too many people who were teenagers in the 1980s who need to see this and sing along.

SING ALONG! Not sing under your breath and annoy the people near you, but loudly and proudly and in fear of a microphone being put in your face if you don't.

In an 80s shoulder-padded dress, which could only be improved if it were colbolt blue, and patterned tights that flatter no leg, Geraldine sings the songs I know. I think I could have done most of it without the words on the screen. And it's not karaoke I-can't-read-that tiny type. It's neatishly hand written, I-can-read-that-without-my-glasses PowerPoint slides, decorated with coloured pens and doodles, and scattered with mondegreens that pose a genuine sing-or-laugh dilemma.

Born in 1975 (it's ok, she says that in the show), Geraldine's view of 80s pop is different from that of us born earlier. I remember intense and pretty singers with their social conscience on their sleeve, a huge brooch on their lapel, beautiful make up, gel sculptured hair, and hips that wore a jacket perfectly – and if anyone thinks for a second that I'm talking about woman, you weren't there.

Geraldine saw these artists and their music as intense, poncy and overly concerned with the cold war and nuclear destruction. And with a couple pics of Midge Ure for reference, it all comes flooding back.

It really does answer a lot about us who grew up with this music. But, to be fair, it wasn't all ponce and destruction; there was the positivity of Wham and their Choose Life t-shirts – who am I kidding, they were poncier than Ultravox and Spandau Ballet.

If you remember injuring yourself trying to Kohl pencil a perfect Cleopatra eye and bought blue mascara from the Body Shop, make sure the silicon chip inside your head's not switched to overload, turn around (bright eyes) and sing for Gold (gold) with Geraldine.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

28 June 2014