30 December 2006

Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol
Eagles Nest Theatre

December 2006
Carlton Courthouse


‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through The Courthouse
There was room for no more, not even a mouse.
The people had gathered for a great Christmas tale
Zachariah’s Dickens proved too good to fail.

The Eagle’s Nest Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol should be on everyone’s holiday list next year.
I admit I was hesitant to see a solo reading of a clichéd tale. However I stand totally corrected and could not have been more wrong. The night was as perfect as Mrs Cratchett’s pudding.

Over 150 years ago Charles Dickens gave solo readings of his own works. Accounts of the time attest that they were theatrical events with Dickens performing every role to perfection. Under the strong direction of James Adler, Phil Zachariah has channelled the spirit of Dickens and created one of the most engaging, powerful and suspenseful nights of theatrical story telling.

The audience were not the usual La Mama/Courthouse crowd. These were people who wanted to see this play and this story. When I arrived, there were already disappointed people being turned away. Those who made it in were more used to the comfort of The Arts Centre and quite disturbed by the crowded and hot Courthouse. However within five minutes of starting, every member of the audience was transfixed.

This was due to the outstanding performance of Zachariah, and the outstanding writing of Dickens. There is a reason this is one of the most re-told tales. The original story is filled with surprises and complexities that are missing from most modern versions. It’s so much more than a parable about the value of people over money. Scrooge is forced to see his on life from an outside perspective. This is, of course, an irresistible yet terrifying prospect. Dickens tells us that own lives and experiences contain the answer to all our questions– if we look in the right places.

Hopefully this crowd may be brave enough to return to the Courthouse to see more independent productions, and hopefully, the venues that this crowd usually visit will grab this unforgettable production for next December and allow it to be seen by many more people.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

14 December 2006

Short and Sweet 2006 Week 3 Top 10

Short and Sweet 2006 Week 3 Top 10
14 December 2006
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre


Week three of Short and Sweet 2006 continues to surprise and show us of the intelligence, talent, originality and sheer guts of Melbourne’s theatre community.

This week’s top ten was not as strong as week one (sadly I had to miss week two), but the best pieces balanced out the weaker works and it was still a night to remind us how amazing a simple, well written, well directed, well performed play can be.

Many of this week’s plays were about issues of intolerance. These were the weakest works of the night. It is stories about complex people that make us care. These people can and should reflect the issues – but the issue should never be more important than the character and their journey. The most successful plays of the night were the ones about the quest for love. Does our dislike of conservatism ever overcome our desire for love and happiness?

Life as a Springer Show
The “Jerry Springer” host asks the audience to choose what happens to the non-descript latte drinking characters. We are given three options at appropriate places in the script. But this isn’t impro, so there is never the danger inherent in giving your audience some control. It would have worked much better if the characters actually cared about the scenarios given to them by the audience. A man reveals that he accidentally had sex with his mother the day before, but it worried him about as much as having low fat milk instead of no fat milk in his coffee. The outrageous revelations chosen by the audience had no impact on the characters or consequences to the rest of the story. So – we laughed – but we never cared what happened to them.

Terror Nullius
A couple dream that their unborn child has to undergo a test for its “aussie” values (just like anyone else who wants to enter and live in this country may soon have to do). It’s a great satirical joke which would have extended to a hilarious sketch, but it is not an interesting and dramatic ten minute story.

David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh and the Beard of Michael Rogers
Well staged and well performed, but a terribly predictable outcome and a script that got caught up in preaching about issues rather then telling a good story – and it was a good story. This was another work about conservative values in our society and their destructive consequences. Instead of painting such a black and white picture of us/young = right: them/old = wrong, I’d be much more interested in seeing the grey in between.

Billy Windlock
This was the first one person show I’ve seen in the festival. It was another play about intolerance, but this one told us an original and believable story that we cared about. The onstage and offstage characters were completely real and it evoked the sense of small town so well. My only concern is that it became the offstage character’s story, rather than the story of the woman talking to us from the stage. She’s so hurt and so angry that we want to know more about her. Your heart breaks for off stage Billy, but the audience’s empathy and sympathy is for the woman on the stage.

War Poems
Evocative, mysterious and beautifully staged. Two original, well presented characters, but they seemed to get lost in the dialogue and we were never sure whose story was being told. Whose journey was completed because of their meeting?

Uncomfortable Silences
This is what short play writing is all about. Our protagonist faces an obstacle and decision that is going to change his life. He is going to tell his best friend that he loves her and he knows he will lose the best friend he ever had – no matter how she reacts. He shows us their past interactions, but it is always his story, we are never confused by her story. His feelings resonate with everyone watching and we really care what happens to him. Directed, designed and performed to thoroughly engage and entertain us. This is one of my favourites of the festival.

Islands of the Good and Bad
Back to intolerance and racism. Characters created around (stereo) typical attitudes, rather than people who have these attitudes. This young girl had an amazing story to tell us, but we needed to get beyond the “racism is bad” message to empathise and care about her.

You Make Me
Well performed and a script that initially created mystery. We were very curious to know who the woman outside was, but lost interest when we knew she was being made up. As one character wasn’t real, we couldn’t hope for a future between them.

Sleepless Night
This was the second highlight of the night and some of the best writing I’ve seen in a short format. A complex, original and thoroughly engaging story, which never fell into the predictable and created empathy and emotion for everyone watching it. The supporting characters were brilliant, but never let us forget whose story we were watching. I’d vote it the best directed work of the festival so far, and maybe even the best ensemble cast.

Paradise
It wasn’t the best thing ever written, but it certainly made us laugh. Great performances, great jokes and the best curtain call of the festival.

01 December 2006

Short and Sweet 2006 Week 1

Short and Sweet 2006 Week One Top 10
29 November 2006
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

Forget the big shows that are on at the moment, the best night of theatre in Melbourne for the next couple of weeks is at the Short and Sweet 2006 festival at The Arts Centre.
 
From over 800 entries, 60 short plays have been selected, which are presented in three weekly programs. Each week has a top ten running nightly and a Saturday afternoon ten play “wildcard” session. Of the 60 plays, ten are chosen by the audience and a professional judging panel to complete in the final.
 
With so many outstanding writers, directors and actors involved in the program, I can’t begin to name everyone, but must give suitable cheers and accolades to Carla Hartog and Alex Broun from the Arts Centre program team for creating and producing this positive, supportive and exciting program. Short and Sweet proves the abundance of original and well written work that is being created, whilst showcasing so many of Melbourne’s independent and emerging directors and actors. It’s fabulous.

Week One Top Ten

Memoirs
Beautiful, captivating physical theatre that proves you don’t need words to create emotion and capture an audience’s heart. (And choreographically – it does for couches what Fosse did for chairs.)

The 11 O’Clock
Wit and word play worthy of Shaw. A psychiatrist treats a patient who thinks he is a psychiatrist.

Moving Fast
What happens when you come home from getting milk and your unemployed husband has decided to convert to Islam, claim his aboriginal heritage and stage a political coupe? Absurdism is alive and well, but it would have benefited by a clear decision about whose story it is telling – his or hers?

When We Fall
Slow to develop, but worth the wait. “An angel is floating in front of me and waiting to fall.” Poetic without sounding contrived, with direction that allows us to care about each character, whilst slowly revealing their tragic connection.

The Emotional Anatomy of a Relationship Breakdown
Undoubtedly and deservedly the crowd favourite of the night. Standard dumper and dumpee story made complex and compelling by having six actors represent different facets of the two characters. This enabled a unique and complex picture of the each person, which was supported by a simple, yet perfect design, very tight direction and an excellent cast.

Relics
This one just got better as it went along. Three of the most unlikely characters create genuine tension, mystery and surprises.

Charlie
Nice characters, well performed, but was too dependent on its offstage story and needed more of an onstage story to create the empathy needed with each character.

Eight Gen X Women
I’m too young to be a baby boomer and too old to be Gen X, but nothing ever changes about women talking about love, sex, men and babies. This was material that could have so easily been clichéd and boring, but it maintained a sense of humour and relevance and didn’t allow its characters to slip into stereotypes.

Jack Rabbit
Good performances and well written characters, but the writing seemed to concentrate too much on showing the similarities between the disparate group, rather than telling an engaging story about them.

Spring Session
Simply a funny, cleaver and original piece about Canberra, politics, picking up, work and dogs. (directed by Yvonne Virsik.)

Week One Wildcards

Miracleman – 1956
Possibly the most original staging I’ve seen in along time, but it didn’t work a venue with an audience on either side. A very funny and cleaver work about a 1956 comic book hero, but the staging didn’t allow for clear story telling and we never really got to know the characters. Right venue and a bit of a re-work will make this a winner.

Bound for Jerez
I really liked the concept of showing a woman’s changing perceptions from her latter years backwards to her to teens; each presented by a different actor. What didn’t work was telling the audience the end of her story in the first scene. We know that she never achieves her dreams, so are never allowed to hope for her on her backward journey. The writing also seemed to just be about women reacting to men. Of course, most writing is about relationships, but characters become more real when they are given a broader spectrum of experiences.

Black Dog
Well performed, with a surprising and fabulous twist. This piece shows the shame of depression and its external control on the sufferer. Where it did suffer was its concentration on the topic. It was a play about depression, rather than a play about Melanie – who suffered from depression. It needs to be her unique story to create the emotional impact that this work should have.

Is His Hers
Another physical theatre piece, with highly creative and engaging choreography that takes us on an exploration of what lies under the flannelette shirts of the ‘burbs.

North by East of Eden
Actors Studio versus Hitchcock……. What could have happened if James Dean had been cast by Alfred Hitchcock? It’s a great scenario and it a well written work, but the audience’s knowledge of the characters made it difficult to fully enjoy. In the end it wasn’t more than a set up for the final joke – which was funny – but could have been anyone – not specifically Dean and Hitchcock.

Mirrors and Smoke
Two actors face each other in a mirror. They are the same woman twenty years apart. This was another one that I really wanted to work, but it suffered the same problem as Bound for Jerez – we knew the end of her story, so how could we care what happened to her at the beginning? The flashback to her early marriage didn’t reveal anything new or offer any surprises.

Full Spectrum
Another work about women, but - finally - one not just about their relationships with men. Three women of very different incomes and “social standings” experience the loss of work. Written to show their changing expectations and show the unexpected similarity between having your AMEX declined and being forced into a homeless shelter. The direction allowed us to understand and care about each woman, without judging their lives or their choices. The writer also knows that drama comes when your characters face serious challenges and make unexpected choices. (Directed by Christina Cass.)

The Entrepreneur
Non-stop laughs, with broadly drawn characters that could easily appear on Kath and Kim. It would not have worked so well if the characters were not taken to the comedic extreme. The ending should have stopped at the punch line - the explanation of the final ironic joke (what was in the bag) wasn’t needed.

Celebrity is the New Bleak
One of the most original concepts I’ve seen. Magazines personified. It could have gone so wrong, but it went so right. Pure fun, topical, relevant to right now and the best plastic wrap joke ever.

Paradise Can
Acapella, pirates, bananas and disease! Another delightfully enjoyable and totally absurd work by another writer who understands that you have to do bad things to the characters you love in order to make good drama.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Story about Platform Youth Thearte

Story about Platform Youth Thearte

In the quest for aesthetic originality and perfect expression, it is easy to forget what powerful theatre is really about. An afternoon in the Platform Youth Theatre office reminds me that the best theatre tells an authentic story that is challenging, empowering and liberating.

Based in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Platform was formed in 1988. The company’s inclusive creative development and management model has made it a leader in the national youth arts sector.

With a motto of “Act Up: Speak Out”, the company welcomes and acknowledges the diverse ideals, values and creative talents of people aged 16 to 26. There are currently over 70 Platform members.

There is no audition process and the company aims to removes barriers that challenge anyone coping with physical and/or socio-economic disadvantages from taking part. No one is turned away and everyone finds their place.

With a program that includes mentoring, workshops and performances; skills development extends beyond acting. Writing and technical theatre are especially cultivated and over half of the company’s governing board consists of people under 26.

Platform’s original performance works are created though workshops. The young participants lead the creative decision making, under the guidance of professional directors, writers and designers. This collaborative process and ongoing community research ensures relevant content and authentic opinions are expressed.

Platform’s 2007 season started with The Golem of Rucker’s Hill, the final presentation of the Five Colours of Fear project, based on the colours of the USA Terror Code Alert System. Their next major project addresses gender issues.

30 November 2006

Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery: The Words and Music of Tom Lehrer
Melbourne Theatre Company
25 November 2006
The Arts Centre, Playhouse


From its unexpected and explosive opening, Tomfoolery is a thoroughly enjoyable night of song, dance and comedy. As expected of the Melbourne Theatre Company, it is designed, directed and performed very well, but it fails to be the challenging and irresistible theatre that should be produced by our local flagship company.

Tomfoolery was adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray in 1980, as a cabaret of loosely linked Tom Lehrer songs. Lehrer’s work remains funny - very funny. How can you not laugh at 'The Masochism Tango', 'The Vatican Rag' and 'I Got It from Agnes'. His writing is intelligent and witty, but it has become nostalgia rather than the contemporary and shocking satire that it once was. The inclusion of very recent material referencing Korean nuclear testing, Dick Cheaney and murdered KGB agents, reinforced that the absurdities of politics and war really never change. Nonetheless, it didn’t comment on Australian society, apart from proving that we are more aware of US and UK politics than we are of our own.

I also have to question why it was performed in the “original American”, apart from to set up a couple of jokes. Were the accents necessary? Would anyone perform a translated Asian language work with a bad “oriental” accent? The American accents just seemed to distance it further from our own lives.

Then again, I may have been the only person in the audience thinking like that. Tomfoolery is a perfect choice for the (slightly) conservative MTC audience, who were happy to enjoy the show for the nostalgic song and dance night that it was.

The stand out performance of the evening was Mitchell Butel. In fact, it is worth seeing Tomfoolery just for Mitchell. He understood every nuance of the material, supported the ensemble and never let his energy or concentration drop. Keep an eye out for his Elmo in Act 2.

Melissa Madden Grey continued to prove herself to be one of the most versatile, disciplined and funniest around, and Gerry Connolly and Bert LaBonte were contrasting and ideal additions to the ensemble.

The show is, however, being marketed on Rhonda Burchmore. Rhonda is one of our best, but her performance was disappointing. Her energy was low, she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself and failed to reach the standard set by the rest of the cast. She may have been having an off night, but there is no excuse for constantly rearranging jewellery and costume (please just cut the train off that frock), looking at your feet when you move, and failing to stay in character when not “in the spotlight”. The contrast between her and the younger members of the cast was especially noticeable. Learn from those who still love every moment they get on a stage.

If you want well-performed, light-hearted fun for your holiday season theatre outing, Tomfoolery is a good choice, but there are funnier, more relevant and just as well performed cabaret shows next door at the Speigeltent.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

Tina C: Sometimes I Frighten Myself

Sometimes I Frighten Myself
Tina C
The Famous Spiegeltent
1 November 2006


Saddle up cowboys and girls, as Tina C is in the Spiegeltent, and she may just be the best ride in this lil’ ol’ town.

Tina C is a true superstar. With politics as sharp as her stilettos and material as tight as her hotpants, she shines as garishly bright as the rhinestones on her Elvis inspired cape.

All the way from Throat Holler, Tennessee, Condy Rice has sent her on an anti-anti-American tour. She tells us she is an example of the soft power of America, rather than their hard power; because cultural imperialism is better than “What did it used to be called? Oh yea – war”.

She proves that white trash has nothing to do with colour or income; it’s a state of mind, nay a state of grace. Remember – to quote the title of Tina’s first album – “It ain’t easy being easy” and, just like the Virgin Mary, we can all open our hearts and feel like we have a little Jesus inside of us. Makes me kind of wish I’d married a cousin when I was 12.

Moonee Ponds is a long way from a Tennessee trailer park, but Tina C has a lot in common with our own superstar Dame Edna. Outstanding taste in clothing and amazing legs aside, she knows that the only thing funnier than relevant political satire is a count joke (pronounced as in country) and I do want the “No Dick is as Hard as My Life” cd and t-shirt.

Tina C is the creation of UK actor and writer Chris Green and she is always “she”. Like Barry Humphries, the performer never lets the actor interfere with the character. Tina C may be a parody of American-white-trash-conservative-country-music-singing-Christians, but she is real and completely believable. I had trouble accepting that she isn’t really American.

Tina C is appearing on November 8, 15, 24, 25 and 26 at the Spiegeltent. Her show was a delightful surprise to me. I didn’t stop laughing. She is one of the best who deserves her “whole” (rather than just her parts) loved by many.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

19 November 2006

The Opera Burlesque

The Opera Burlesque
19 November 2006
The Famous Spiegeltent

Review by Christina Cass


“Opera singers can sing but they sure as hell can’t act”, are mutters often heard while the audience files out of Carmen or La Traviata. That’s what keeps many people away from embracing the opera format – the stiffness of the performers we often see (which, by the way, has loosened up quite a bit lately). Ah! But the music is so dreamy that watching Pavarotti poke around the stage barely physically connected to the text of the story – much less barely resembling the character – doesn’t matter.

Not so with Ali McGregor’s The Opera Burlesque triumphantly back from the Edinburgh Festival for another Melbourne engagement at the Famous Spiegeltent. Ali McGregor, Antoinette Halloran and Dimity Shepherd make up the trio of lovely laced-up vocalists who can also act! That’s what struck me about halfway through their show – how wonderful it was to enjoy beautiful, classically trained voices wrapping their delicious vocal chords (not to mention corset chords) around uniquely mixed interpretations of Puccini, Madonna, and AC/DC all while being fully invested in their characters.

Okay, okay, bad boys and horny babes -- love gone murderously wrong and songs about tongue-tied ‘cunning linguists’ may not bring these ever-so-slightly-tarnished lilies a Tony Award, but to see a well-structured kabaret performed with polish is a great treat. This cheeky burlesque business can sometimes be just haphazard, titillating vaudevillian fare – which in itself can be very fun, don’t get me wrong, The Opera Burlesque has plenty of that but it also has a bit more structure than just getting down and dirty.

McGregor, who also directed the show, was apparently inspired by a late 19th Century group of opera singers who used to creep out of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, dash across to the East End and perform their arias in corsets and drawers for the vaudeville loving public. Parodying popular theatre of the day, these ladies gave the audience a taste of opera that they may not otherwise either experience or care for and that’s exactly what The Opera Burlesque ladies are leaving its audience today.

The Opera Burlesque has one final show, November 20, 2006 @ the Spiegeltent 9:15pm – try not to miss it!

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

18 November 2006

Babes In The Wood

Babes In The Wood
Malthouse Theatre
18 November 2006
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse


There has been more media coverage of Babes In the Wood over the last couple of weeks than most Malthouse productions receive for a season. Why? A song about Steve Irwin. It has been misquoted and taken out of context by every story I’ve read (including one on AussieTheatre).

Before September, Irwin was been a ripe target for satire, but now we have to be careful. (If you have just woken from a coma – Steve Irwin died in September). I’ve seen the great controversy. It’s a loving, kind, funny and totally respectful song about an iconic Aussie bloke who sings that we should all try doing the thing we love. He then dies doing what he loves, when three ridiculous stingrays come dancing in. If anything it is satirising the public response to Irwin’s death – who didn’t find themselves saying, “At least he was doing what he loved.” The only person who should be offended is Germaine Greer. Her character is the one singing all the misquoted lines.

There we go – another 170 words devoted to one of the best publicity calls made by a theatre company. I’m sure many tickets will be bought just to see this scene. It’s a good reason to go - it’s funny, respectful and relevant. In fact, it stands out as one of the better moments of Babes In The Wood.

If you saw the 2003 production of Babes In The Wood, don’t expect Babes 2 (in the city). This is the same production, with some new material. I missed the original, so cannot compare the two.

It is good old-fashioned pantomime, created intelligently. The opening scenes are enticing and captivating. It is great to openly laugh and enjoy “serious” theatre. How many other mediums allow you to boo at a John Howard joke and scream back “Oh no he isn’t” when the panto dame declares he’s a bold and visionary prime minister.

Sadly the show loses momentum and never recaptures the opening energy (except for the Steve Irwin number). A lot of material would read well in the script, but slows the show down on the stage. I know its hard to cut your good lines, but some people didn’t come back after interval. Much of the material is still relevant, but has lost the impact and power that it had in 2003. Tamper/children overboard, un-Australian, war on terror - is this political comment for 2006?

There is new material, but it seems to have been forced into the old script. The Rumsfeld “known and unknowns” joke was most welcome, "Under the Milky Way" at least referenced the Commonwealth Games and, if you look carefully, you may notice a reference to Steve Irwin.

The original music is terrific and supported by an eclectic and illogical soundtrack of 70s and 80s pop hits. The tradition of panto is to use contemporary music, but these retro moments are not contemporary. If it is a commentary on society today, why not use the music of the starettes that fill our media as much as any politician? Kylie’s return, aging rockers on the Countdown tour, wealthy singers trying to make poverty history, Australian Idol and Brittany are all too easy targets. (Amanda Vandstone singing, “Opps I did it again” instead of Nutbush?) Agadoo is funny – but what is its relevance?

What does sustain the production is the terrific cast. Caroline Craig, Diana Emry, Julie Forsyth, Max Gilles, Francis Greenslade, Eddie Perfect and Lucy Taylor. Each one as perfect as Eddie, having a ball on the stage and making sure the audience also enjoy the absurdity and silliness of the panto.

Babes In The Wood is a fun and irreverent night out, but is not the seditious political satire that I expected.


This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

17 November 2006

Tarnished

Tarnished
The La La Parlour
17 November 2006
The Famous Spiegeltent


Tarnished is ideal Speigeltent fare. It’s tight, sassy, funny and enjoyable, but remains unpolished. The appeal of the La La Parlour is their tarnished acts, but the show lacks the content and substance that would make it an outstanding cabaret.
 
Imogen Kelly, Tiger Lil, Kellie Vella and Neridah Waters are all engaging and fabulous performers. However, they need to decide if they are performing as themselves or as characters. Either way, further character development would create a much more intimate, and I suspect funny, show. There were hints of character and relationships between the four, but not enough to take it from a series of vaudeville style acts and turn it into an ensemble work.
 
Described as a shotgun marriage of circus and burlesque, Tarnished is two genres being forced to work together. Clowning, acrobalance, hoops and aerial are combined with the traditional vaudeville tradition of women getting their gear off. Artists like Azaria Universe have proven that the circus/burlesque marriage can be perfect, and with many female artists positively reclaiming burlesque traditions (Kunst ist Sheisse, The Burlesque Hour, The Town Bikes), it is unusual to see the tradition not being used as a questioning of gender, sexuality, desire and body image.
 
The Marie Antoinette cake strip, the spark spitting vagina and ongoing jokes about the shortest member of the ensemble do fit in the political burlesque category, but could all be developed further. The theme of the night appears to be knickers. The possibilities and power of this theme is endless, but isn’t used anywhere near as much as it could be. The poo/period stained pair of huge grundies is always funny, but how about a stained lacy g-string? Everyone should have left wondering if they were wearing “you know you want me” or “I can’t pick up tonight” undies.
 
Nonetheless, the sold out audience loved Tarnished. It is well worth seeing and totally enjoyable, but don’t go along expecting sharp politics and substance.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

30 October 2006

Some Faces You Know

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Some Faces You Know
Ozanam House

14 October 2006
Festival Hub

Some Faces You Know is an outdoor puppet show presented in a cold back alley. This is relevant theatre, sharing authentic and moving stories about people we tend to ignore.

The production is presented by residents at Ozanam House, a crisis accommodation service, and participants of Ozanam Community Centre, a drop in centre for homeless and marginalised people.

They have been involved in a Community Cultural Development (CCD) project, supported by funding from the City Of Melbourne and Arts Victoria. CCD is what used to be called community arts, a practice where the creative process is as important as the final product. Working with artists over four months, the Ozanam House community have created a show that lets us share their stories, their hopes and their dreams. Using a combination of statistics and real stories, it successfully challenges stereotypes and misconceptions about the homeless.

The chosen format of shadow, suit and banner puppets allows participation regardless of previous skill and enables stories to be shared without being put under the personal and direct gaze of the audience.

The choice of venue is perfect. This cold dark alley would normally be actively avoided by the Fringe audience, but we are led in to see that is has been transformed into a welcoming and beautiful space. The extreme Melbourne weather continually reminding us that this is not always such a nice place to hang out.

The joy of open access fringe programs is that this type of show is as valued as the most refined professional production. Presenting it as part of the Fringe has brought a new and welcome audience to this style of project. Some Faces You Know is a genuinely creative, engaging and moving work of theatre that deserves to be seen.

Bash

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Bash
5Kinds Theatre
11 October 2006
LaVish Modern Cuisine

Neil LaBute’s Bash is a well-known and brilliant piece of contemporary writing. The characters and their stories are complex and compelling. 5KindsTheatre demonstrate a deep understanding and passion for the text, but don’t succeed in sharing this understanding with their audience.

Bash is four monologues; the last two presented concurrently as different versions of the same night. All are about unexpected and violent murder. This production relied far too heavily on the shock value of the text, rather than letting the audience understand and connect to the characters.

Bash is written to be confessed directly to the audience. Confession fails without an intimate connection with your “confessee”. The design of the space does not help the actors in creating an intimate connection. We were sitting in on two sides of the stage, some on the floor, some on chairs and in full view of each other. It was not only difficult for the audience to focus on the stage, but even more difficult for the actors to focus on the audience. I can see how it was designed to be intimate, but, ironically, it would be more powerful with a traditional stage set up.

Grant Cartwright (Iphegenia in Orem) refused to make eye contact with any member of the audience. Without doubt this is a difficult piece to perform, but it is an empty performance if it is told to various spots on the wall. Grant’s delivery is strong, but he hit an intense level almost immediately, giving his character nowhere to go emotionally. Joshua Hewitt (A Gaggle of Saints) seemed to learn from Grant’s performance and made constant eye contact with one side of the audience. This made for a much more engaging character, but didn’t allow us to focus on the other character in the scene and most of the audience missed out on his connection. Ella Watson-Russell struck the best balance in Medea Redux and to her side of the audience in A Gaggle of Saints.

I can’t help but compare this production to another Fringe show - Debris. Both are violent contemporary texts based on monologue - one is presented by recent NIDA graduates and one by recent VCA graduates. Debris is superb theatre, Bash would benefit from more time at drama school.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Milk

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Milk
The Town Bikes

10 October 2006
Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club


The Town Bikes have taken their short, sharp, funny dance routines and successfully developed them into perverted pantomime.

The Bikes present two longer pieces based on the theme of milk. Lacteus Praesul is very different from the expected Bike/twin routine. It’s a semi-drag love story between a prince and princess, playing absurdly with classical ballet, pantomime and innuendo worthy of a “carry on “ film. Milk develops directly from the established and loved Bike acts, with a montage of dance routines and competitive interplay between the characters.

John-Paul Hussey directed Milk and appears as Brian of Aberdeen, the MC and stage manager. I have always like the absurd narrative and visual delights of his work, but am unsure about the combination of Bikes directed by Hussey.

As a theme milk has limitless potential. The Bikes play with mother’s milk, breast obsession, milk commercials, milk in pop culture and even death. The rest of the show needs some relevance to create cohesion. Each night there is special guest act, but they appear to have no connection to the theme. Brian is a curious character, but his only link to milk is that he was probably bottle-fed.

The show loses energy and drags during the act changeovers. I love a show that makes the audience participate in its creation, but asking us to talk among ourselves as the stage was reset is a bit lazy and fell flat – despite a very supportive audience. Ironically the Bikes were the perfect interlude between acts during The Burlesque Hour.

The Town Bikes are still an original and fabulous act. Milk is great fun, but a great cabaret show needs a tight structure and a consistent theme.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

I’d Like a Nicer Planet Please

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
I’d Like a Nicer Planet Please
Duff

11 October 2006
Bar Open

Duff declares I’d Like A Nicer Planet Please and proceeds with the standard routine about the evils of capitalism and the evils of any alternative - all oddly combined with prop gags, mime and object puppetry.

There has been much experimentation with form in this Fringe, but none as unique as Duff’s Confectionary Theatre. Object puppetry meets a Seven 11 in Expulsion of Adam and Eve. It’s a tray full of lollies – with the toffee apple of good and evil and God being represented by a pair of lolly teeth. To balance the food groups an apple-based and a potato-based story soon follow. Don’t get me wrong – this is bad theatre, but it is unique.

Duff is rightly angry at the state of the world’s politics. He opening is relevant, with the first Korean nuclear test joke I’ve heard this festival, but the rest of his material jumps from idea to idea, with no consistent (or coherent) theme.

Improvisation is a vital part of a stand up, but needs to be balanced with structure. Duff has some great one-liners - the Big Picture that politicians talk about is really just a 33 inch plasma screen – but their strength is diluted by his sometimes irrelevant improv. His mad rush at the end to include material meant that the material suffered. The final impressions are good; much better than the long improv about fucking a skank at confest. Balance and structure develop as a show runs, but rehearsal also helps.

Duff is appealing and unique, but the show needs a lot of work to be a polished act. See it if you like hanging out at Bar Open and supporting local comedy.

PS- just a quick note to Duff. I am an active supporter of the Coke boycott, but the brand of water you drank, and referred to, is the Coke owned brand of water, so grab another brand or rip the label off.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Songs for the Deaf

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Songs for the Deaf
Red Ribbon Productions

8 October 2006
Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club


Songs For the Deaf is three short works by South Australian playwright Caleb Lewis. His writing is fresh, clever and wickedly black. The performances are real and Anna Held’s direction is excellent. So why isn’t this engaging theatre?

I unfortunately missed the first play, due to a rigorously enforced, and possibly unnecessary, latecomers policy. I was going to leave, but a big brown bear convinced me to stay.

The bear appeared in Bunny. Lewis’ work appears to develop from scenario. What if a bear and a rabbit met on a beach?

This bunny and bear have come from a costume party and gradually “take off their costumes” to expose their true selves. The symbolism is obvious, but it works in an absurdist way. Lewis devises some disturbing stories for the characters to reveal and the performances by Andrew Brackman and Carolyn Ramsey are subtle and quite beautiful.

Rocketbaby is divine black comedy with an Australian suburban voice. What if a child died on Funniest Home Videos?

Sarah Lockwood is delightful and believable as Becca. She is 10, lives in Giles Plains and this is her video to her trusted angel – FHV host – Toni Pearen. (Maybe change the suburb to suit Melbourne. Giles Plains means a lot – only if you are from Adelaide.) Becca’s family are having a tough time, but their obsession with FHV is going to save them.

Lewis takes delight in torturing the ever-hopeful Becca. Her story is compelling, even though the introduction of a gun in the exposition does hint that it isn’t going to be a happy ending. Still – I didn’t care about Becca and her fate (or that of the bear and bunny).

This is well crafted writing, but it’s almost too clever for its characters. When you write from situation, rather than character, the voice on the stage is the writer’s, not the charaters’. If the people on the stage are not telling us their authentic story, we don’t believe them, we don’t care about them and the intimate empathy of theatre is lost.

Fringes are about presenting the art you love and seeing if it speaks to an audience. I admired, respected and enjoyed Songs For the Deaf, but it needs the voice of authentic characters to make it captivating theatre.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

The Pegasus Story and DEBRIS

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
The Pegasus Story
DEBRIS
Arts Projects Australia
Ride On Theatre and Black Lung Theatre
7 October 2006
Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club
High St


Picking the right double bill is an important part of the Fringe. This was a good night. I chose this double because they had both had successful productions interstate. Debris was acclaimed in Sydney and The Pegasus Story sold out at the Adelaide Fringe. Both have benefited from their “out of town” runs with tight, well-rehearsed shows. They are very different types of theatre, but both explore the use of monologue to tell their stories.

The Pegasus Story is thoroughly engaging and proves how truth is sometimes far more fascinating than fiction.

Mark De Ionno isn’t a trained actor; he’s just a guy telling us his story. He suffered a psychotic episode in mid 2000. The Pegasus Story is a very revealing and personal insight into Mark’s manic depression. Knowing he came though safely, we can sit back and enjoy the journey from northern Australian desert to Adelaide’s seediest street.

Mark’s story works, because it is not a performance. He easily evokes the empathy and compassion needed to draw the audience into his life. Working with director Daisy Brown has enhanced the story telling by using simple elements of theatre. The props, costumes, slides and perfect live music support the story, never compromising Mark’s affable personality or honest approach.

The strength of this work lies in its truth and I fully believe in moulding facts to tell a greater truth. An opening and reoccurring joke is that his initials are MAD, but he is not credited as Mark Anthony De’Ionno. Another good joke is set up with Mark working as an Indigenously sensitive tour guide, but he refers to Uluru as Ayers Rock. These are tiny, almost irrelevant criticisms, but if they cause the audience to doubt Mark, the veracity of the rest of his story is also doubted.

Debris has a very different creative team. All are recent NIDA graduates and this production is a testament to the outstanding quality of actor, director and designer emerging from the school. The text is also based on a style of monologue, but uses theatrical technique to tell its story.

The design, by the company, arrests you the moment you enter the space. It is so successful that I was initially genuinely horrified and felt very uncomfortable being there - until I realised just how brilliant the design concept was. (However, the risk and safety elements of the design really do need more consideration.) Ailsa Paterson’s costumes also come from a clear understanding of the text and reflect every nuance of the themes and characters.

Under the direction of Tanya Goldberg, this is intelligent theatre that engages your brain and your senses. Bojana Novakovic and Thomas Campbell give two of the best performances I’ve seen this Fringe. But does Debris tell a good story?

Before I could write about this show I had to do some serious googling to understand it. The need to research indicates that there is something not quite right with the story telling. Once I realised there was a common criticism in other Debris productions, I stopped analysing the acting and direction and looked at the text.

Debris is Dennis Kelly’s debut work, first presented in the UK in 2003. This is dark, absurd and extreme material. The language is stunning, but appears to be written for its own sake. I want to “read” this play. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the language often confuses and overwhelms the story telling. I was unsure if there were two, four or multiple characters talking to us and, despite faultless delivery, I found myself drifting away during the some of the monologues and losing the narrative thread.

Debris is astonishing theatre. I was shocked by the character’s stories, but it didn’t succeed in making me care about what happened to those children on the stage. By using minimal theatre and maintaining its authentic voice, The Pegasus Story is a more engaging experience because it tells a damn good story.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Living On The Edge...Of My Bed

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Living On The Edge...Of My Bed

The Bedroom Philosopher
Vanilla Productions

3 October 2006
Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club


I don’t know if Living On The Edge...Of My Bed is fumbling improvisation or the base of what could be an ingenious character. Either way, the show didn’t hit its stride the night I saw it.

Justin Heazlewood is The Bedroom Philosopher, but is The Bedroom Philosopher Justin Heazlewood? There was a lot of authentic and original material, but also a lot of confusion between the character and the performer. Neither were consistently on the stage. The Philosopher seemed to sing the songs and Justin appeared in between. I wanted to like either of them, but the appearance of one, made you frustrated by the other.

The Bedroom Philosopher has an active following through his radio and short appearances. He performs some terrific songs. The ones about buying mmmmdoms at the chemist, being over girls and his nan loving Radiohead are very funny and perfect devices for showing the Philosopher and his journey. The physical humour also supports the character (the harmonica gags are very special). Then there is the bizarre and surreal Swan song – all three versions. Bizarre is funny, but it doesn’t add to our understanding of the character. Bizarre needs context to really work.

I’ve said a lot recently about shows that reach a general audience by aiming at a specific audience. I have no idea who The Bedroom Philosopher is talking to. Characters work best when the audience understand them, like them and are taken on a journey with them. We love the fumbly nervous characters because we empathise with their weaknesses, but the empathy only comes though an understanding of who they are.

There are some great moments in Living On The Edge...Of My Bed, but they are just static moments that don’t come together as a full-length show. Letting the Philosopher (rather than Justin) control the show may lead to the cohesion and empathy that are missing.

My next show on this evening was Stephen K Amos – he played a character and then appeared as himself. Each knew exactly who they were when they were on stage. Stand up comedy can and should be this good. He had me at hello and I laughed non-stop with about 400 other people for over an hour. If you love and respect your audience, you can take the piss out of them and they come with you every step of the way.

 
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

The Taking of Ramsey Street

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
The Taking of Ramsey Street
theatre in decay

1 October 2006
Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club

There is racial tension on the suburban beaches of Australia. An enigmatic and zealous religious leader has convinced a young, hurt and angry teenager that a backpack full of explosives will teach the right lesson. However this leader is a Hillsong Christian and the teenager is a good, white, aussie kid. The Taking of Ramsey Street is the kind of material that theatre in decay do best.

This time it’s done as a satire of Australian soap opera  – complete with commercial breaks – and as a musical. All the elements are wrong, but the combination is so right.

Written and composed by Robert Reid, The Taking of Ramsey Street takes the conservative prejudices of Australia and splatters them in our faces. This is theatre for the young and angry, that plays with the conventions of the older and more jaded.

Presented as a workshop, this show should not be viewed as a completed production. The experience and ability of the performers varies greatly and it is presented in an empty black space. The Taking of Ramsey Street has some serious development ahead. It takes too long to establish the characters and a sense of plot, but once it gets going the tension develops and there are some nice little twists. I’m looking forward to seeing what it becomes.

PS: Have a quick look away from the stage, Reid silently sings along to the whole show. Once More with Feeling Rob...

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Nerd Alert!

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Nerd Alert!

David Heffron
1 October 2006
Jawa Bar and Cafe



If you argue about Picard versus Janeway, know Mulder and Scully’s first names, can draw a map of the Discworld or just been forced to play games on a dud computer-please share you’re nerdiness with David Heffron.

 
Sometimes it is hard to find your audience during the Fringe. My friend and I were delighted to be David Heffron’s audience. We hung out in the very fabulous Jawa Bar, had our choice of couches (vinyl or futon), drank Argentinean Beer and got to laugh for an hour with a lovely bloke who likes Buffy and They Might Be Giants (the band, not the film) - so he’s gotta be alright.

 
Nerd Alert! “aims to rock the world of geek-dom to its very core”. Now, I believe that nerds and geeks are different and should not be discussed as the same creatures. I’d call David an IT geek, but a Sci-Fi nerd, who has fortunately outgrown his childhood as a dork (he was scared of ET).

 
David tells us about his journey to becoming a self-professed geek, but doesn’t define, explore or expose geek culture. He used his love of books and sci-fi to escape PE and football, but did six years of reading and re-reading Terry Pratchett have any substantial effect on his life? He can recite the episodes of Red Dwarf in order, but doesn’t tell us why this genre of sci-fi captured his imagination. I wanted to know where his obsession went to from there, and why did he think Deep Space Nine was better than Voyager? I would also have liked to see him delve further into the world of the uber-geeks – who he admits he is a bit scared of.

I laughed with David throughout the show. He is very funny and appealing. If Nerd Alert! is going to move to bigger venues it will benefit from some tightening and external direction, but its casual and relaxed presentation is perfect for the intimacy of the Jawa Bar.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Coming Clean

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
Coming Clean
Rod Quantock, Fiona Scott-Norman & The Melbourne Justice Museum

2 October 2006
Old Melbourne Gaol

A tour with Rod Quantock is always worth your time. This time the destination is the Old Melbourne Gaol (when is hanging NOT funny…). Rod leads us to join four local comedians who tackle the theme of Coming Clean.

After a quick trial in the Magistrates Court we end up in the exercise yard of the City Watchhouse. I suspect this was the first time in a watchhouse for most of the gathered audience. It’s also the first time that the space has been used as a theatre and Rod Quantock’s first public use of toilet humour.

Here we were in the same room that Chopper Reid, Squizzy Taylor, Ned Kelly and many other less famous criminals have been. It’s actually quite nice when there’s a bar, friends to chat with and an illuminated EXIT sign on the open caged doors.

Judith Lucy opened by admitting that she is such a “goody good suck” that she didn’t have any great police or arrest stories to tell – apart from being stripped searched in New Zealand after a trace of marijuana was found in her tobacco. So she came clean with the most embarrassing of stories – she got detention in school for rehearsing liturgical dance at lunchtime. To recover from the shame, she told us about the night she paid for sex. I didn’t used to like Judith– but she’s winning me over.

Fiona Scott-Noman shared her wicked life as a schoolgirl shoplifter, with some neat tips about how to hide a single down your pants. I guess it’s the 70/80s equivalent of illegally downloading an mp3. She also found herself in a police station after heading to a shop roof to snog with her boyfriend. Apparently the constabulary don’t share our sophisticated sense of humour. What do you call the device that police travel between floors on? A copulator. Boom boom. The pun led to Fiona being stripped searched and arrested for trespass.

Lawrence Leung taught us about the art of grifting, swindling and lying. After seeing his confident, comfortable and very funny performance, I want to see his full Fringe show (The Marvellous Misadventures of Puzzle Boy).

It’s all well and good to laugh along with the jolly naughtiness of the urban, middle class comedians, with their witty, political left-wing humour. We don’t usually go to see comedians like Dave Grant (he’s a bogan…..).

Dave Grant was the highlight of the evening. This was a brilliant set about his experiences with violence and arrest. He has been in rooms like this before, but with far less empathetic company. Petty law breaking really doesn’t compare to blood pissing out the face of the man you’ve hit or waking up in a cell after being beaten unconscious by the police. He is also a bloody good left wing political comedian.

Next Monday there is a different line up of comedians joining Rod and Coming Clean. I’m tempted to go back.


This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

The Debutante Diaries

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2006
The Debutante Diaries
Kate McLennan
7 October 2006
The Festival Hub, The Raglan

Review by Christina Cass



Kate McLennan (The Wrong Night and Let Loose Live) had me absolutely howling with laughter during her new show, The Debutante Diaries, now playing at The Raglan in the Fringe Festival Hub until 3 October.

Directed by Fiona Harris (SkitHOUSE and Flipside) and written and performed by McLennan herself, I laughed; I cried (really, I really cried) but was mostly astounded by McLennan’s seamless work depicting the trials and tribulations of preparing for that classic teenage right of passage – The Debutante Ball.

McLennan morphs between eight different characters and with aid of only a prop or two. She completely embodies the bitchy “mean girl”, the perpetually perky socialite, her jock boyfriend and the lecherous perv teacher/organizer of the Ball. They’re great fun to laugh at and make fun of, because we all know these people – we dealt with them in high school and we’re probably still dealing with them today. That’s one of the reasons her writing is so successful – it smacks of truth – and when we witness her most poignant character, Sophie, negotiating the confusing maze of preparation to her “fairytale night” it can break our heart.

Harris’ direction is for the most part spot-on. Less is more in a one-woman show and although McLennan is a master at transformation, she would be greatly aided by better technical transitions. Perhaps by watching a recording one of Lily Tomlin’s classic one-woman shows, one can see how sound and light can truly act as a buffer between characters and help the actor propel the story forward rather than continually stop-starting.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen: From Here To There

MIAF 2006
From Here To There
Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen

26 October 2006
The Famous Speigeltent, Melbourne


In 2001 I noticed a dubious group of be-suited gentlemen roaming the Saturday markets in the far land of Canberra. For their musical antics I threw them some spare coins. They continue to be led around the globe by the enigmatic Mikelangelo. Last night I saw the Gentlemen in their true home - the Speigeltent. No longer begging for change, their sold out performance was greeted with well deserved cheering, foot stamping and hollering.

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen’s new show, From Here to There, proved a hit at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe. Their original music, unique characters and nefarious comedy makes for some damn fine cabaret.

If you are familiar with the Gentlemen’s antics, this show is full of new material, without forsaking the old favourites. Watching members of the audience mouthing, “sodomy is not just for animals” was a highlight. Nearly as high as Mikelangelo’s pants and his newly acquired bathing costume.

The increased theatricality of this show, allows each gentlemen to display their own unusual talents. The Great Muldavio’s taxidermy monologue is not easily forgotten and Guido Libido will have you yearning for the simple delights of the silent cinema.

But do not fear - Mikelangelo does not let the greatness of his gentlemen detract from his own greatness. Mikelangelo is pure charm, mixed with mystery, a dash of macabre and a hint of obscene. He also writes the music, which you will find yourself humming for days after - if you don’t immediately buy a CD.

I have seen no one comparable to the Black Sea Gentlemen, but they do remind me of The Tiger Lillies. Even if Mikelangleo and Martyn Jacques do sing at opposing ends of the vocal spectrum, and the Gentlemen are slightly more gentlemanly with their choice of subject matter. 'Formidable Marinade' is a veritable romantic song next to 'Masturbating Jimmy'. (I have a Mikelangelo song chosen if I ever have a wedding and a Tiger Lillies’ track if I ever have a funeral.)

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen really do get better and better each time I see them. From Here to There has struck an ideal balance between structure and improvisation, with stunning music and eye-wiping comedy.

There are few opportunities to see the show in Australia this year, but 2007 promises more visits around the country. If you haven’t spent a night of pleasure with the Gentlemen, don’t miss them.


This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Blind Date

MIAF 2006TY
Blind Date
Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Melbourne International Arts Festival
25 October 2006
the Arts Centre, State Theatre

Review by Christina Cass


Blind Date is a multi-sensory experience unlikely to make you casually walk out of the theatre and drive back to your nice, safe home nestled far away from the madding roar of war.

I was unhappy at first that this hugely layered undertaking by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company seemed to be some more trite America bashing – the U.S. national anthem, army fatigues, symbolic death on the battlefields juxtaposed with peace protectors…… I’m just tired of people taking jabs at Uncle Sam and here I had to sit through an hour and a half of a visual and aural bombardment of political and social atrocities performed by a highly acclaimed American dance troupe. “Whaaaa!?!?!?” you may say, but therein lays the spirit of Jones’ work: pushing buttons so we ask ourselves, “Why are we so uncomfortable with this?”

Not in the mood for a psychotherapy session either, I reluctantly took a stab at it: “What is it about Blind Date that was such a turn off?” Was it aural and visual overload with all the videos and spoken word and live music and dancing and poetry and gigantic dead yellow duckies floating above the stage that kept me from zeroing in on the theme? Was I frustrated that I wasn’t able to find more than the obvious anti-war message? That I couldn’t ‘get it’?

It turns out I was totally off the mark to look for a message from Jones hidden somewhere in the work. It was in plain view the entire time. Jones believes our global culture is awash with “toxic certainty” – the right or wrong of a particular position and in Blind Date, he takes on the concept of patriotism. To him, honour, sacrifice and identity are best observed in the phenomenon of young soldiers willing to participate in a misguided war. If those of us, who are not fighting, reject this idea of patriotism, then we must ask ourselves, “Do we believe in anything with the same passion that we are willing to die for it?”

Good point.

Jones, as many artists do, takes a social stand laced with political poison. Rather than ram his own personal opinions down the throats of his audience, he asks us to merely take a bit more care in understanding our own philosophies and where they come from. He asks us to take a stand, not point a finger.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

blessing the boats

MIAF 2006
blessing the boats
Melbourne International Arts Festival

20 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio

Review by Christina Cass


blessing the boats, written and performed by Sekou Sundiata, is one man’s personal mythology into and out of the depths of a prolonged near-death experience – of five years. The profound imagery Sundiata portrays through his gorgeous baritone spoken word transports the listener to another continent – Harlem, USA – to be exact, where Sundiata discovers he has renal disease.

By 1997 the undiagnosed warning signs of hypertension, chronic fatigue and flu-like symptoms are merely chalked up to his busy lifestyle: writing and performing his poetry and music. Not until he passes out in an elevator where he remains unnoticed for “two minutes or twenty minutes?” does his medical nightmare of kidney failure begin.

This story of “unearned grace,” as Sundiata describes it, is one with earth angels who come from unexpected places to aid a man who clearly doubted his own life was worthwhile. After years of dialysis and 18 months on the kidney transplant waiting list, there are five friends who stepped up to the offering plate – four of them were perfect matches; there is a woman with the cell phone who literally saved his neck after a car accident; and the list goes on. By the end of the performance, we are inclined to take pause and appreciate the everyday blessing that we ourselves are graced with.

Sundiata uses video imagery, music and multiple impersonations of his no-bullshit subconscious, medical “practicing” doctors and death stalking his hospital bed to take us to the ultimate celebration – life. He moves slowly and with purpose, around the stage into and out of lights, but perhaps therein lies my only complaint. I wish there was more energy in the overall performance. It may be due to a bit of ennui performing blessing the boats for several years now around the world, or most likely jet lag kicking in and kicking butt, but Sundiata’s normally commanding and rich voice didn’t carry nor did the celebratory nature of his story resonate through his body.

It would be a shame to say this coloured my experience of the profound poetry that is uniquely Sekou Sundiata, but it did. I can only hope that he is more well-rested for his second highly anticipated show of the festival, the 51st (dream) state.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels

MIAF 2006
Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels
Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio
Melbourne International Arts Festival

12 October 2006
CUB Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre


Kristy Edmunds program selection polarised opinions in 2005. The opening weekend of the 2006 festival has already evoked similar extreme responses. Post show discussions are not about details of interpretation, but whether works are brilliant or appalling. Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels is either a must see event or a boring and irrelevant piece of self indulgence.

Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio was founded in 1981 by Romeo Castellucci. The Tragedia Endogonidia series was developed between 2002 and 2004 in ten European cities. This process produced 11 episodes, each working as an individual production. Melbourne is seeing the fouth episode, developed in Brussels.

Visually the production is stunning. Castellucci creates theatre as art. His use of colour, space, and light create powerful images and his stage is continually presented as a well-designed canvas. He juxtaposes human with non-human forms and plays with unexpected and absurd combinations. A beared old man appears in a garish floral bikini and eventually proceeds to put on a complicated set of white (religious?) robes and finally a police uniform. It’s humorous, and quite literally layered with multiple meanings.

Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels has everything I usually love in a production. Dense theatrical language, creation of new form, abandonment of tradition, blood, violence and a small rhinocerous. It presents images and moments without explanation and forces the audience to devise their own interpretation. It could simply be that you are born, you die and get the crap beaten out of you in between - or a complex reconstruction of personal identity - or a contemplation about physical endurance - or an exploration of aging - or an intellectual deconstruction of the traditional dramatic form of tragedy, using traditions from the avant guarde.

By leaving interpretation open, Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels certainly does force you to consider your role as spectator and observer, but I wasn’t engaged with what I was watching.
This production aims to communicate directly to all our senses. I understood it intellectually, but had limited emotional and certainly no visceral reaction. I was neither shocked nor disturbed. Setting up the theatricality of the violence, diluted its impact.

The one consistent reaction to the production is the emotional response to the smallest cast member. A baby, not yet crawling, lies downstage. Its only company a metallic parody of a human head spouting nonsensical language. This cannot fail to provoke the universal reaction to gush at the cuteness of the child combined with the desire to protect it from its lonely existence – or even from the theatre makers who put a baby on the stage. We weren’t so keen to protect the old man in a bikini or even the man being continually beaten and forced into a body bag.

The opening night applause was lacklustre and unsure. It felt like the audience wanted to like it a lot more than they did. By all accounts the following night’s audience reaction was rapturous. Perhaps we just got a dud night.

Did I enjoy Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Brussels? No. Am I glad it is in this program? Yes. The genius of this festival program is that it does create extreme reactions. An arts festival should continue to challenge and surprise its audience. We can chose to see safe, conservative (and mostly enjoyable) arts practice any other time of the year. Kristy Edmunds lets us experience challenging theatre from all over the world. Surely this can only benefit us as audiences and as practitioners.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Ngapartji Ngapartji

MIAF 2006
Ngapartji Ngapartji
Melbourne International Arts Festival, UWA Perth International Arts Festival
and Sydney Opera House
13 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio

Review by Christina Cass

 
“Ngapartji Ngapartji” translated from Pitjantjatjara is, “I give you something, you give me something”. This is also the title and themeof the emotional new work written by Scott Rankin of Big hART. Perhaps play is not the right word – it’s more an experience of a nation’s journey told by master storyteller and co-creator of the work, Trevor Jamieson, and it is not to be missed.

The uniqueness of this ‘experience’ is that the journey includes the audience. Rather than pay a few dollars, see some Aboriginal tale come to life, go out to dinner afterward and talk about the stock market, Rankin hopes the audience will take home history, language and new ideas based on age-old themes. “I give you something, you give me something”, is ancient barter. On one level, the ensemble teaches some songs and phrases from Jamieson’s homeland in exchange for coming to the show; but on another deeper level, it is about exchanging nations’ narrations.

No one is immune from the collective consciousness. Ngapartji Ngapartji is meant to blur the lines between cultures. Aboriginal, Japanese, Afghan, Greek and English stories are told. The language of experience during the Cold War of the 1950s-1980s is the common bond. The production explores the greater themes of dispossession and displacement from country, home and family through Jamieson’s own Pitjantjatjara story.
The set is an austere landscape of black sand and white powder with a large copper relief/mountain/desert where the story unfolds. Rankin cleverly uses this set piece to help Jamieson transform into his characters but also allow the supporting cast to tell their own cultural journeys. Through monologues in native tongues and English translations, and sublime movement and projection we begin to understand that this is not one man’s tale, but the tale of many. The tale of Diaspora – or the displacement of people and cultures throughout man’s history – unfolds before us.

For Jamieson’s family, who lived in Spinifex country where his nation encompassed an area in central Australian larger than that of Great Britain, it begins with his grandfather during the Cold War. The English Prime Minister, Clement Atlee asked then Prime Minister Robert Menzies if England could use the deserts of central Australia as a testing site for its newly developed atomic bombs. Menzies, without consulting Parliament said, “Sure, nothing’s out there anyway”.

These Maralinga atomic tests and their effect on one of the most ancient and isolated cultures in the world still have repercussions today. Jamieson takes us through the subsequent generations of his family with great skill – he switches between English and Pitjantjatjara and moves with catlike ease and humour that the audience barely realizes they’ve been witness to 60 years of cultural history. That is something to emphasize. Although this shameful topic is uncomfortable for many people, it is performed with great humour and intelligence. No finger pointing here, just a story that’s been missing from this nation’s narration; a story that should not be overlooked any longer.

Ngapartji Ngapartji is scheduled to perform in Sydney and Perth, then perhaps overseas. I believe Jamieson’s and the ensemble’s performance is not only highly entertaining and timely, but it is pure Aussie-born and bred theatre. There has been much discussion in the papers lately about the lack of a voice for Australian theatre, and the fact that Kristy Edmunds has shepherded this project through the 2005 and 2006 MIAFs, shows that there is commitment to make a change. Supporting this project may open the gate for others – benefactors and artists alike – to soon follow.

Learn more about the history, language and culture of the Pitjantjatjara people by signing up for online language classes or attending performances. You are not only broadening your own scope of knowledge, but you are helping a nation rebuild and redefine itself: “ngapartji, ngapartji”.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.

insen

MIAF 2006
insen
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto
Melbourne International Arts Festival
14 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall

 
The combination of electronic and acoustic in insen is like chilli and chocolate; it should be so very wrong, but is irresistible, addictive and perfect after the first tentative bite.

This is also another Melbourne Festival production provoking extreme reactions. People walked out during the performance I saw and I’ve read some very negative opinions. However I thought it was one of the most beautiful and emotive works of live music I have seen, and am flabbergasted that others didn’t get it.

insen is a live collaboration between electronic composer/visual artist Carsten Nicolai (performing as Alva Noto) and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto is a Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar winning producer and composer, best known for his film scores including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor. Alva Noto is a multimedia artist using sound, image, sculpture and the computer as his tools.

Sakamoto’s minimalist composition is filled with subtle tension and unexpected resolution. The synergy created by the piano and the precision of the manipulated electronic sounds is surprising and astonishing.
The performance continually juxtaposes the “natural” and the “unnatural”. The severe lines of Noto's desk sit next to the classic and natural curves of Sakamoto’s piano. The austere concentration of the electronic artist contrasts to the emotional playing of the pianist. The freedom of the piano music compares to the controlled pulsation of the electronic sounds.

The dominating element of this work is the visual. An elongated LCD screen sits behind the musicians. The screen, controlled by Noto, is a visual representation of the music. The images are all electronically-generated, symmetrical patterns created from the pixels of the screen. Please do not think this is anything like the patterns on a windows music player. It would be like comparing a smiley face emoticon to the Mona Lisa. This isn’t just representation; this is art. Hypnotic, intriguing and layered with intelligence and understanding.

This might be what master musicians see in their heads. Noto’s electronic visuals perfectly demonstrate the complex structure, patterns and order of music. Sometimes it is representational, such as keys on a keyboard, or notes on a stave. Other times it is more the allusional, like the chaotic noise of hundreds of crossing white lines.

Rippling circles show the impact of a single note resonating throughout the whole piece. Bright, pulsating colours reflect the nuance of the slightest change in musical light or shade. Fading rectangles prove how the end of one note is the beginning of the next. Counterbalance becomes so clear when a strangely shaped chord sits above and within the straight pulsating bass lines.

I never knew that electronic could be so emotive and so human. It is strange, but fascinating, to see that music, our most instinctive art form, is based on pattern and order that can be recreated by a computer. It is like looking at the fractals in a mandelbrot set. There is recurring pattern and order in everything. Through knowledge of this order, the most original and creative understandings of our world emerge.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Of All The People In All The World: Pacific Rim

MIAF 2006
Of All The People In All The World: Pacific Rim
Stan’s Cafe

14 October 2006
Arts House, Meat Market


Who knew a pile of rice could be so moving or so shocking, or that a single grain on a piece of paper could make us laugh out loud.

Of All The People In All The World: Pacific Rim is part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival free program. It is presented by Britain’s Stans Café theatre company, who specialise in creating unusual performances in a range of contexts.

The unusal feature of this performance is an ever changing installation created by 33 tonnes of rice. Each grain represents a person in the Pacific Rim. The original Of All The People In All The World: UK premiered in 2003 with 989 kgs of rice. The whole world version used over 100 tonnes of rice and was recently seen at at Stuttgart’s Theater der Welt Festival.

A team of performers weigh and measure the grains to represent a variety of population and human statistics. Like all statistics, figures mean little until they are tangible.

On entering the Meat Market you take your own grain of rice – which represents you. You can almost immediately find yourself in a pile that represents the population of Melbourne (and the other Melbourne’s around the world). There is the fun of discovering which other piles you belong in. These could include people at the MCG during the AFL grand final, people who work at home, people born in the UK, or even those in an incredibly disturbing mound: the number of people who watch Neighbours.

Some piles shock and surprise by their sheer mass, others by our ability to count the individual grains. The pile representing Holocost victims will never cease to be sobering (that is what 6 million looks like), as are the few grains representing the Amish school girls so recently murdered.

Others are striking in their comparisons. The population of Britain is about the same as the number of people who buy McDonalds every day. The number of prisoners in the world is the same as people living in gated communities in the USA.

As laughter is so often the more powerful emotion, the most engaging aspect of this work is the unexpected humour and wit. Titanic the movie compared to Tiantic the ship. People who walked on the moon next to a famous moonwalker. And do not leave until you have found the US Secretary of State.

Throughout your wanderings are the cast. Clad in brown lab coats, the “statistic scientists” move around observing their work, quietly chatting with the visitors, gently rearranging the perfect piles, painstakingly removing any marks on the white paper bases or checking that someone hasn’t added themselves to the smaller piles. When I was there someone had tried to join Michael Jackson.

All The People In All The World: Pacific Rim creates a profound level of understanding to the numbers and statistics that fill our lives. It is a work that could make you feel insignificant, but instead maintains the value and importance of every single person represented by a number.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Ethel’s Greatest Hits

MIAF 2006
Ethel’s Greatest Hits
Ethel
and Melbourne International Arts Festival
14 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall

Review by Christina Cass


Last night at Hammer Hall I went to see the Australian debut of Ethel, one of concert music’s most exciting and energetic string ensembles. Their irreverent style – not a tux in sight – included casual interaction with the audience and spontaneous improvisation showing how important communication is within an ensemble.


Trust, skill and fearlessness separate the men from the boys, and the women from the girls, in creating truly unique and personal interpretations of music and theatre. Flying hair, shredding bows and broken strings are all part of the speed and heat with which Ethel plays. Let’s put it this way, I hope Ethel doesn’t drive the way they play; otherwise they will be locked up in no time.

This Julliard-trained, all-star foursome is Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Mary Rowell (violin) and Cornelius Dufallo (violin). They have been shaking up the New York music scene since 1998. Ethel has brought to its music an exciting, beautiful and rare combination of tastes and talents that has developed from each member's unique experiences in the music world. Members of Ethel have performed and/or recorded with Bang On A Can, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony, CONTINUUM, and with Sheryl Crow, Roger Daltrey and Yo-Yo Ma, among many others.

Ethel’s first piece, the bluesy Sweet HardWood (1998) by John King, had three movements which made me think of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, sex on the bayou and the unmistakable feeling of dark heat and loneliness of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I just had a stupid smile on my face that made me bob and weave back to the sweaty, Southern shores of the USA.

Next, New York composer Phil Kline wrote The Blue Room specifically for Ethel in 2002. He describes, “In four movements of alternating moods, two meditations are followed by urgent dances; juxtaposing, as it seems to me now, how the earth is doing versus how the world is doing.“ When I closed my eyes, I saw cockroaches in a dark and damp New York apartment building. Now that’s not a bad thing – but clearly the work brought about some very specific and powerful images.
The very complicated Shadow Quartet (2005) by Neil Rolnick is an homage and celebration of his own father’s life and death. Here Ethel has interwoven the pre-recorded electronic sounds of a hospital room with their live music to a startling effect of discordant sounds paralleling the terrible counterpoint of a dying man’s last breaths. Not easy listening by any measure.

The more successful Early That Summer (1993) by Julia Wolfe, was the final piece of the evening and brought back the sheer energy and power of Ethel. They introduced the piece as “incredibly difficult to play” and as anticipation slowly climaxed into shredded bows igniting the stage with heat and sound, the audience was finally released into a steady stupor.

We had truly witnessed an ensemble of extraordinary skill and passion. Ethel is playing two shows as part of MIAF and then go on to Shepparton and Bendigo. Try not to miss Ethel’s unique experience.