29 October 2007

La Clique

La Clique
28 October 2007
The Famous Speigletent

Perhaps it was the fizzy wine, perhaps it was the perfect summer evening, perhaps it was the fabulousness of The Fabulous Spiegeltent tent or perhaps La Clique really is the best night out in Melbourne this hot, sweaty season.

If you’ve seen La Clique in previous years, don’t hesitate to come back for more, because its better than ever and there are a selection of new acts that you just can’t miss. Some old favourites also return. Yes - David O’Mer is back in the bath!

See La Clique for the very hot people, see it for its wit, see it for its vulgarity or see it because each act has taken their circus skill, perfected it, added something new then twisted it into something very sexy, very funny and slightly perverse.

La Clique is so successful because the performers are so much more than just a sexy choice. Each is a true masters (or mistresses) of their genre. Even if they weren’t so damn hot, these are the kind of circus and burlesque acts you want to see for their skill and originality.

New to the clique this season is Cabaret Decadanse from Montreal. This is surely what the Sesame Street Muppets fantasise about. If you’re not turned on by foam rubber, the Decadanse divas may just change your mind.

Mario, Queen of the Circus, has found his way down under. Don’t think drag – think Queen and the greatest (and butchest) rocker of all times. Actually Mario makes Freddie look quiet and reserved. With full Freddie leather and facial texta; he also gives us the one thing Mr Mercury didn’t give (well not in public) – juggling and unicycling. Seriously, he does things with three balls that very few can manage.

Also new is Krin Maren Haglund. She is from Montreal’s amazing Cirque Éloize (last seen here in 2006). Using every centimetre of height, her tissue routine is dynamic, expressive and original. And she’s funny. Very funny. Her routine lampoons the ridiculous stereotypes that define femininity.

The English Gents continue to amaze and prove that you can do acrobalance with a stiff upper lip. Marawa’s faultless hoop spinning looks at a giant, seductive kaleidoscope and own beloved Captain Frodo continues to make rude and amazing shapes out of himself. If you have seen him move through one tennis racquet – hold on to you tender bits – because now he goes through two.

And – just in case you missed it – David O’Mer is back. His aerial work is strong and expressive – but his work in the bath continues to make most of the audience wet.

Throughout this season the dysfunctional La Clique family will be joined by special guests. We saw the exquisite rope trapeze of Erna Sommer. Aerial isn’t just about strength and trick. It’s about dance, style and grace.

La Clique sells out because it’s a fabulous night out. That is if you like laughing a lot, cringing a bit and watching good looking people do things that are amazing and breathtaking.

This review originallly appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

28 October 2007

(The Pilot Version of…) Something to Die For

(The Pilot Version of…) Something to Die For
Store Room Theatre Workshop
28 October 2007
The Store Room

“This is a risk”, declares The Author midway though (The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For. I am thrilled that the Store Room Theatre Workshop (SRTW) program gives its artists the opportunity and freedom to take these risks to explore and create original, complex and relevant theatre.
(The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For is written by SRTW associate artist Ross Mueller. It’s is a monologue by the playwright, who has written himself as the character – but it will always be performed by an actor. In this case David Tredinnick is playing Ross Mueller.

You can see this simply for Tredinnick’s superb performance, which is ably guided by director Aiden Fennessy. Tredinnick has a difficult script to work with, but continually keeps the audience personally engaged and fascinated. He demonstrates the difference between a good actor and someone who knows his craft so well that we can no longer see the work and the skill.

The structure of this work references David Hare’s Via Dolorosa. Don’t know it? Sir David himself performed it at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2004. Patrick Dickson presented the Australian premiere at the Festival of Contemporary Arts in Canberra in 2001. Missed it? Hare wrote The Blue Room (that play where our Nicole and then our Sigrid got their kit off) and Stuff Happens (that play about American politicians). What about his screenplays? Plenty (Meryl was in it) or The Hours (the one where our Nicole won the Oscar for having the big nose – and Meryl was in it). Come on – Sir David Hare. If you go to the theatre, you must know him.

If you know Hare, the premise of the work is Mueller meeting Hare at a workshop in London.

If you don’t and you’re wondering why on earth I’m raving on about David Hare, I’m guessing this is how you’d will feel watching (The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For.

It’s no secret that I love Ross Mueller’s writing. He understands theatre and why we keep going back. He writes personal, honest and heart moving works that resonate way beyond their intended audience. I reckon he’s as good as David Hare.

Very early in the piece, Mueller tells us that he believes that anyone who goes to the theatre is intelligent and that he’s openly prejudice towards the intelligent. Kind of makes you feel special and much more inclined to admire and laugh along with the jokes. I admit that I caught myself laughing at a reference I didn’t understand, because I didn’t want to appear ignorant. (Thanks to Google I now know about playwright Martin Crimp – and will read his work.)

I understood (The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For. I was intrigued and laughed out loud, because I know Via Dolorosa. I know it very well. I’ve read it, saw Dickson’s performance, Hare’s performance, heard Hare discuss it and even have a copy of Acting Up – Hare’s book about writing and performing it – which I’ve read.

I know this play isn’t really about David Hare or Ross Mueller. It sensitively, accurately and creatively deals with issues of depression and male identity. It delightfully and over-intelligently satirises and references its own form, theatre writing, Melbourne independent theatre and the playwright. The emotional core and structure of the work is so strong, but it is getting obscured by its own intelligence. It’s trying too hard to be clever, searching too hard for metaphors and trying so hard to connect with its audience that it may be pushing them away. The excellent writing is getting in the way of the story telling.

I’m afraid I have to quote myself here. This is what I wrote on this site about Mueller’s astonishing Construction of the Human Heart.

“Mueller does write for a very specific demographic. Mid-30s to early-40s / living in inner city Melbourne (preferably north) / over educated / know too much about theatre (please laugh at the “it’s David Hare, not Williamson” joke) / struggling with your own creative career while trying to earn an income / loath the concept of Ikea, but have too many Ikea items in your house / and have experienced the kind of love that leaves you empty and broken at its loss. Fortunately that is most people I know (except some of us live on the south side of the river). Construction of the Human Heart is written for now and written for us. In doing so, Mueller shows how honest, personal writing can connect with universal themes. Even if you don’t get every cultural reference and joke, the emotion of the work sustains it.”

My concern with his recent work The Ghost Writer (MTC 2007) was that Mueller was writing to such a broad audience that the work was losing the personal emotional resonances. My concern with (The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For is that he is writing to such a sub-section of his audience that it’s losing the universal emotional resonances.

If I had to review this review I’d say. “It is over wordy, far too long, needs a ruthless edit, loses itself in its own structure and seems so intent on proving the author’s own credibility, intelligence and knowledge that it forgets about its intent and its audience.” I guess I’m trying to create the same sense of frustration I felt with Mueller.

I enjoyed (The Pilot Version of….) Something to Die For and am sure it will grow and change from this season into an amazing work. However, in its current state I’m hesitant to recommend it.

This reveiw originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

24 October 2007

European House

MIAF 2007
European House: Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words
24 October 2007
Playhouse, the Arts Centre

At first it’s a bit like watching a Big Brother on stage. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the voyeuristic nature of reality television. However this work is nothing like exploitative telly. It gently unfolds into a complex, mesmerising and thoroughly original piece of theatre. Teatre Lliure’s European House: Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words must be one of the highlights of the last week of this amazing Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Teatre Lliure was formed in Spain in 1976 by a group of independent theatre professionals and has become one of their countries leading companies. European House is exactly that; a prologue to Hamlet, performed without words, set in a European house.

If you read the program (which the festival are giving out this week - I liked downloading mine before I went out, but understand why people were missing them), you know who appears from Shakespeare’s great work. If you know Hamlet well, don’t read the character names, because it’s much more fun to recognize each as they appear. If you don’t know Hamlet, knowing their names means little.

Two maids are working in a large, modern house when a young man and his mother arrive home after a funeral. We do know his name is Hamlet. Soon an older male relative appears. He acts like an uncle. Then Hamlet’s best friend joins them. Then a neighbour and his two children ring the bell. This young man and woman are also friends of Hamlet. Then two more of Hamlet’s mates join the grieving household. The last two are the only ones who are not immediately recognisable, but only because Guildenstern has undergone a sex change. Throughout their interactions, an older man wanders unseen and takes notes. He just might be the ghost of Hamlet’s recently deceased father. How he choses to finally reveal himself to Horatio is one of the funniest and most original moments I’ve seen in any interpretation or working of this play.

We see seven rooms. We watch the characters as they move through the house. There are no words. None are needed. Their relationships are clear. Knowing the story and the tragedy that is about to unfold heightens the enjoyment and admiration of the work, but it isn’t necessary to know everything you need to know about them. All amateur - and professional - Shakespeare performers should see this production, just to understand how to portray complex status and relationships without relying on dialogue.

European House gently and seamlessly develops its complexity. It’s as perfectly structured and paced as, well - a Shakespearean tragedy. At first we watch the very mundane act of making coffee in one room. By the end we are looking in all seven rooms as each of the characters experience their own inner grief and turmoil. It’s like a wordless version of the soliloquy. We are clearly seeing what is going on in their heads when they are alone. It’s intimate and voyeuristic. Hamlet takes a shower and makes a large soap question mark on the glass. Guildenstern has a wee. Their acts are private and hidden from each other, but can see the seeds being sown for future problems.

Director Alex Regula says, “In order to maintain this sense of realism the actors and therefore the characters were unaware of what was happening in the other rooms during the entire development process.” This process created some outstanding moments, such as Hamlet and Ophelia gently holding hands in his bedroom, whist in the bedroom below Claudius has stripped Gertrude and has his face buried deep between her legs.

Watching European House is like peering through your neighbour’s window. There is something so fascinating about watching people go about their own life unnoticed. To achieve such natural performances is an astounding feat by the cast. There is no sense of audience or performance. And they all give totally recognisable, but unique interpretations of Shakespeare’s famous characters. Gertrude is especially complex and intriguing and Guildenstern is highly original and pivotal to the theatricality of the piece.

For a work so reliant upon realism, it is directed with an astonishing sense of theatricality. The house draws you into every hidden corner. The design is a cutaway of the whole house, but there is a glass wall installed, not just a fourth wall removed. The glass is important theatrically and dramatically. The sound inside is amplified so we are drawn closer into each room. We hear the turning of pages, the coughing and clinking of plates. When each room is lit, we can see every detail. When not lit, they are in complete black.

After the prologue, I would have been more than happy to watch the rest of the play unfold, but it is unnecessary, as we have already seen everything we need to know. And they didn’t utter a word.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

18 October 2007

An Actor Prepares

An Actor Prepares
Eagles Nest Theatre
La Mama Theatre
18 October 2007

Review by Christina Cass

Walking into and through the set of An Actor Prepares by James Adler, is a trip through time.  With the ferryman (in this case ferrywoman) musically guiding the audience’s urban raft.  Where you are, you don’t exactly know, but the set by Magdalena Romanuik is heartbreakingly simple and heavy with memory.  Burning sage scenting the air immediately transports the viewer to a mystical time:  hanging Druidic runes; shorn tree stumps; and a white-robed and bearded Mr. Adler all summon up a mystical, religious experience.  I couldn’t help but feel witchcraft – in all its earth-honesty – hanging in the air.  What would Jesus (whom Mr. Adler bears a striking resemblance to) be doing in the middle of a wiccan warren?  Where ancient primal music composed and performed by Nela Trifkovic resonates through the space.

We soon understand the subtitle, “When Does Peace Mean War?” of this new Eagle’s Nest Theatre production at La Mama, has on one level much to do with a struggle against the terrorism of creativity but I came out with more of a, ‘Heck, when does anything mean anything?’  feeling. The imagery and essence of this play are stunning:  simple and heartbreaking. They challenge the audience to trust their senses. Do I see floating runes or shrapnel hanging in the air? Is it a trumpet, a musical instrument of joy (and reveille) or a carefully deconstructed machine gun?  A cradle or a deathbed?  These images beg timeless questions of who are we if we are not what we seem.  None of us are.

That said, the script makes much more sense than in a stand alone context.  It is intentionally fractured, weaving tales through time and, as a work in progress, the performances by Ms. Trifkovic and Mr. Adler are courageous.

They really have something very special, very personal and still accessible here and I hope they take this further because I do think that very personal work needs an outside eye to help take the next step toward a mature piece of theatre.

It’ll be hard to find a director as sensitive and absorbing as Ms. Trifkovic and trust him or her with this piece, but they must to get to the next level.  Once relieved of wearing two hats, I am quite sure that the talent in the room will leap up and continue to punt through these deep waters of the story without fear.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com

17 October 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead

MIAF 2007
Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Township Theatre, South Africa
Arts Projects Australia and CICT17 October 2007

Review by Christina Cass

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a richly crafted morality play by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona of the Township Theatre in South Africa. The second in a series of three Statement Plays is sparsely directed by the legendary Peter Brook and performed completely in French with English surtitles. There are times when I go to an Italian opera and become distracted by the supertitles being flashed above the stage or on the back of the seat in front of me – taking both body and mind away from the action on stage. Now that’s not so bad with opera (as ‘action’ is not often used in conjunction with the performance medium) since it’s primarily an aural and atmospheric experience. So taking your eyes off the stage doesn’t mean you’re lost.

However, in dramatic or comedic theatre, surtitles can be a problem. You might miss too much of the unfolding visual story on stage, but not so with Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Habib Dembélé has us riveted from the very beginning. He deftly creates a story about his former factory life at Ford Motors in South Africa with just two rolling racks (the ones you use to transport garments on) and a giant collapsible garbage bag. He spins them around to create entrances and exits and transforms his body and voice to portray multiple characters. Not being fluent in French was hardly a liability for me because this engaging actor embodied each and every one of his characters, so if you missed a few translations, you still understood the story.

Dembélé’s nearly 30-minute monologue sets up the entrance for our protagonist, Sizwe Banzi, played with equal deftness by Pitcho Womba Konga. We are better prepared to understand big city conditions of King William’s Town that Banzi is faced with as a young father far away from home. He cries, “What’s wrong with me? I’m a man. I’ve got eyes to see. I’ve got ears to listen when people talk. I’ve got a head to think good things. What’s wrong with me?”

Ultimately, Banzi’s plight to legitimise his right to work in addition to running from the authorities brings us to a crisis when he is faced with the possibility of stealing a dead man’s papers in order to feed a family who will think he has disappeared. Banzi is forced to confront the deeper meaning of this action and the knowledge that the shift is irreversible. He is told, “You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. This world and its laws, allows us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except the memory of ourselves.”

With a focus on identity, humanity, truth and survival, Banzi is Dead blurs the lines of repression and makes this journey universally accessible. An absolute must see.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.

14 October 2007

Half Life

MIAF 2007
Half Life
14 October 2007
Playhouse, the Arts Centre

Half Life has deservedly won many Canadian theatre awards since its Ottawa premiere in June 2005. Necessary Angel Theatre Company’s production is a moving, gentle and thought provoking piece of theatre.

Necessary Angel’s web site declares that no question is too simple or too large for the company to tackle. Patrick and Clara meet in a nursing home. Both think they may have once known each other . They fall in love. Their story is interwoven with that of their 40-something children who are facing their own aging and the loss of their parents.

John Mighton’s script actively explores multiple issues of aging, memory and loss of memory. Donald understands computers and how artificial intelligence will one day overcome human intelligence, but he cannot understand that his demented mother is in love with Patrick. The structure and intelligence of this work is so tight that it sometimes overwhelms the emotional beauty of it. Mighton puts his own opinions and philosophy’s into his characters, but there are moments when this stops them being their authentic selves. At times their dialogue sounded just a bit too “written” and forced.

Director Daniel Brooks says “John writes on many different levels. There’s usually a potent theatrical metaphor in every scene, but he doesn’t always think about how you get from one to another.” The director knows that he is dealing with a dense and occasionally overwritten script, but he brings its inherent beauty and profound intelligence to the stage. Even an obvious metaphor of a spilt drink and Donald saying he “made a terrible mess” flows seamlessly and beautifully.

The direction brings the unconscious level of the script to life. The mood of Half Life is always twilight. Darkness and light combine to form something else. There’s none of the fluorescent lights and musak (or grim silence) associated with hospitals or nursing homes. There’s a soundscape of gentle, yet sombre music filling the silences. The costumes are shades of earthy browns and greens. The stage is always dark, with just the immediate environment of the characters lit. We see just what we need to, but always know there is much hidden from our sight.

The cast support the mood and direction superbly. We care and feel for them, but they never let one character dominate or steal the audience’s sympathy.

Brooks says that Necessary Angel “reject the convenient, the conventional and are committed to giving every play we create the necessary time to develop.” Half Life is a shining example of an artistic process that understands and values the art of theatre.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

13 October 2007

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

MIAF 2007
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Melbourne International Arts Festival
13 October 2007
State Theatre, The Arts Centre

The problem of having high expectations is that they may not be met. The Temptation of St Anthony didn’t meet my expectations. It totally surpassed them. Musically, visually and emotionally it is exquisite. It gently grabs your soul and doesn’t let it go.

Robert Wilson (I La Galigo MIAF 2006, Einstein On The Beach MIAF 1992) is an undisputed master of western avant guard theatre. Last year we saw him his signature touch on traditional Indonesian dance. This year Melbourne sees his version of a musical. Wilson said he wanted a musical for this story because “it is universal and speaks an emotional universal truth”. The masters know the emotional power of musical theatre.

The Temptation of St Anthony ignores, subverts and breaks most conventions associated with musical theatre, but I can say that is simply the best and most powerful musical that I’ve ever seen.

Ironically Wilson doesn’t start with music when he directs. “I start with silence, then add the movement and at the end, the text or music”. He does, however, know how to find the most perfect musical collaborators. (Philip Glass composed Einstein On The Beach; Tom Waits composed The Black Rider.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote the music for Saint Anthony. Halleluiah! Reagon was the founder and artistic director of the divine a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. This score is based in the history of African-American music and culture and includes spirituals, blues, shouts, gospel, hymns, jazz, doo wop, hip hop and rock. The African-American cast of singers and dancers were selected for their mix of western training, church singing and folk orientation. She wanted a mix of old and young voices and they had to be able to move. Every member of this cast is sensational, even though Wilson takes away so many of their standard methods of communication.

Imagine the sound, the emotion and the movement of gospel singing. Now take away the individual personalities and take away any direct connection they have with each other and with the audience. The performers are performing for us, but never to us. They never look at the audience. It really is like they can’t see us. They also very rarely look at or touch each other, but are always working like an intricately connected machine.

Daniel Dodd Ellis plays St Anthony. He has a voice commands attention, whilst melting your heart. He is always on the stage, but he rarely sings. It’s not St Anthony’s story, but the story of his temptation and his journey. We don’t see character, but we do feel his emotion.

This may sound slightly disturbing. It is - and that is also why it’s so astonishingly effective. You don’t watch a Wilson show, you experience and feel it. It’s difficult to use words to describe the impact of a communicator who has so little use for words.

Wilson communicates with movement and colour. He developed this visual language by working with people who had severe difficulty communicating in our text based world. Wilson overcame a learning disability as a child and later worked extensively with disabled and brain injured children. Possibly his most important and powerful works have never been seen by the public. In the 60s he used theatre games in hospitals and schools to enable and encourage communication with patients and children deemed unable to communicate. In one hospital show his cast of patients were only able to make small movements with their hands or mouth. So he connected them all with photo sensitive string and showed how humans can visually communicate no matter how impossible it may seem. Wilson’s public frame and regard were established with his separate collaborations with the young artists Raymond Andrews (Deafman Glance) and Christopher Knowles (A Letter for Queen Victoria). Andrews is deaf and Knowles is autistic.

Some people don’t use words or eye contact or text to communicate. Wilson uses this style of language and that is why his theatre communicates so strongly with us, even if we don’t consciously understand how.

Everything on a Wilson stage is precise and controlled. There is no room for a spontaneous gesture, interpretation or even thought. This control becomes even more evident when the cast were released. During the curtain call, they bow and finally sing and dance as themselves. Suddenly the stage is filled with 16 unique personalities. The contrast is astounding and the emotional release of seeing them free is as powerful as seeing them contained.

Review of Absolute Wilson that originally appeared in The Pundit.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

12 October 2007

The Tell-Tale Heart

MIAF 2007
The Tell-Tale Heart
Melbourne International Arts Festival/Malthouse Theatre

12 October 2007
CUB Malthouse Workshop

The Tell-Tale Heart is sold out. If you have tickets, guard them well and be very glad that you got them while you could.

Barrie Kosky is back in Melbourne directing his English language adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart. It was originally performed in German in Vienna in 2004. It’s a story that was created to be read on paper, but put in the hands of Kosky, becomes a monologue that could be told in no other way but on a stage.

Kosky continues to prove that he completely understands the art of theatre and theatrics. It opens in darkness and silence. Then we see light and a man on an endless staircase than may reach from Heaven to Hell. Then his voice breaks the silence. This is theatre at its addictive best.

Martin Niedermair is the story teller. His performance is as close to perfect as it can be. It is sharp, precise and controlled. Yet he creates tension and danger and never lets the audience feel too safe. It’s like watching his soul or his psyche. This is what we might be like without our consciousness controlling our thoughts and actions.

Kosky has created a work about the darkness and light of our minds and our souls. The design’s use of dark and light is astonishing. Whereby Robert Wilson (The Temptation of St Anthony) is using lighting to create colour and emotion, Kosky uses it just for light and dark. To have light in our lives, we must acknowledge the darkness that dwells within us and lets us hide.

This work is reliant upon the power, threat and tension of pure black and pure silence. The Malthouse workshop is not designed for either, so minor things became more distracting that they should have. Someone looked at their well lit mobile phone in the black, a motor bike drove past during the silence and a passing moth did what all moths do and headed to the light. This is obviously a very difficult venue to completely black out and silence. However the impact of the endless staircase is lost when you can see where it meets the wall and how the steps are constructed. The light and dark of the narrator’s story and mind is lessened when we can see the physical lights that create it.

As it’s also so dependant on the contrast between silence and sound, I wonder why Kosky chose to accompany the work himself. Certainly he is capable of putting the right fingers on the right notes at the right time, but he isn’t a pianist and certainly not an accompanist. The art of accompanying is to amplify and support the performer, whilst being almost unnoticed. Kosky’s playing isn’t good enough to go unnoticed. A singer and performer as sublime as Niedermair needed an equally brilliant musician, not a competent piano player. And please tune the piano every day. Pianos don’t like big, cold warehouse spaces and let you know through their sound.

If you are lucky enough to be seeing this work, I recommend getting there early to make sure you get your choice of the general admission seats. Don’t be tempted to go to the front and head at least half way up. This will give you the best view of the stage and shield you from most distractions.

Yesterday I wrote that director Robert Wilson takes the beautiful and makes it exquisite. His works prove that beautiful isn’t good enough. On the Wilson stage there isn’t room for a moment that isn’t as perfect as it can possibly be. The Tell-Tale Heart is astounding and magnificent and I loved every second of it, but there were small distractions and imperfections that are keeping it that step away from exquisite.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 October 2007

2007 Melbourne International Festival Opens

2007 Melbourne International Festival Opens

No more sleeps. Tonight is the opening of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. For the next 17 days we will be treated to an arts program that has silenced even the harshest critics. Much is already sold out, but there are still opportunities to buy tickets and an extensive free program.

Opening Night kicks off with a free family sing-a-long at 6pm in Federation Square with Grammy Award winning Dan Zanes and Friends.

The highlight of the festival’s first week also opens tonight. Last year we were treated to Robert Wilson’s mesmerising I La Galigo, in 1992 we had Einstein On The Beach. This year he returns with The Temptation of St Anthony. Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours watching Wilson perfect a couple of minutes of this show during the dress rehearsal.

St Anthony is as astonishingly beautiful as the international reviews have said. Wilson creates art that somehow bypasses conscious thought and goes straight to your heart and soul. The gentle and almost haunting opening moments had me wiping away a tear, without even realising what I was feeling. The cast enter from the auditorium with bamboo bird puppets. Its so Lion King! I also cried in the opening scene of The Lion King, but this show is something so, so much more than a commercial musical.

This is music theatre of a calibre and standard we rarely see.

It is possibly Wilson’s most accessible piece. It’s sung in English, is under two hours and has a discernable story line. Starting from the figure of Saint Anthony in Flaubert's novel, this production asks questions about sin, goodness and the temptations of the flesh.

Wilson collaborated with Bernice Johnson Reagon to create Saint Anthony. Reagon is probably best known to our audiences as the founder and artistic director of the divine a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. The score is based deeply in the history of African-American music and culture ranging from spirituals, blues, shouts, gospel, hymns, jazz and doo wop to hip hop and rock. It features an all African-American cast of singers and dancers and is accompanied by a live band led by music director Toshi Reagon. Toshi is Bernice’s daughter and also appearing with her own band BIGLovely at the Speigeltent. Toshi Reagon simply has a voice you can’t tear yourself away from.

Then there is the colour. The Festival’s Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds intrigued us last year by saying that Wilson invents colour before our eyes. I can promise you that you will never see lighting and colour as phenomenal as this again. Wilson and lighting designer AJ Weissbard paint the stage with an intricacy comparable to an impressionist master. The colours of I La Galigo were primary and striking. St Anthony’s are subtle and complex and rich. I cannot even begin to describe the multitudes of blue. I just know that I wanted to wrap myself in them. Colour and light are Wilson’s expression of feeling and emotion. He makes words irrelevant.

Wilson is a perfectionist. His precision leaves no room for vagueness or spontaneous artistic interpretation. In the rehearsal a few minutes of the show were perfected over two hours. The first run already had me mesmerized. Then Wilson fixed some spacing, spent minutes directing a performer to make one tiny step and insisted on the exact speed of the removal of a piece of set. These moments would be unnoticed by most, but that is what makes this director’s work so addictive. He takes an already beautiful moment and makes it exquisite.

The Temptation of St Anthony runs from tonight until Sunday at the State Theatre. There are still some tickets available, but be quick or you may miss this spectacular and astonishing work. Go to www.melbournefestival.com.au for details.

This story originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

10 October 2007

A Record or an OBE

A Record or an OBE
Shaolin Punk

10 October 2007
Caz Reitops Dirty Secrets

There are enough Goodies fans in Melbourne to make sure that A Record or an OBE sells out this Fringe. It’s full of shameless Goodies gags and references, Brit comedy name dropping and all the little details that only Goodies nerds will understand. But does it work if you don’t know this trio?

Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie worked together as The Goodies from 1970 to 1982. The Shaolin Punk trio of Ben McKenzie (Graeme), Robert Lloyd (Tim) and Scott Gooding (director) obviously spent many, many, many half hours in the early 80s sitting on the couch at 6pm watching the ABC. So did I. I also remember playing The Goodies with my friends Sam and Michael in the 70s. I always had to be Tim, because he dressed up as a woman.

Fortunately A Record or an OBE is more than a fan tribute (and Rob is a better Tim than I ever was). The show opens and closes with a voice over giving some well chosen Goodie facts, but it also tells us that what we are seeing isn’t true. They ask what could have happened if Bill had left in 1975? Could two Goodies be better than three?

I really liked that neither performance was an impersonation of Tim or Graeme, but reflections of the possible characters that both were off screen. However far too much is based on the audiences’ established understanding of who they were. We still need to care about and understand THIS Tim and Graeme. I could see that the actors knew their characters, but this understanding and empathy wasn’t clear on the stage. There was a bit too much telling and not enough showing.

Fans, of course, are missing Bill (there’s no live via satellite link). Those who don’t know Bill have a limited concept of who is missing. He is a vital offstage character who has really only been described as a scruffy wanna be rock star. The impact of his loss isn’t clear through the characters or the direction. We needed to see the empty space/ the missing limb/the emotional impact of this loss.

Gooding’s direction sensibly times and shapes the show like a Goodies 30-minute episode (complete with voice overs and a very funny Beanz add). The performance space is tiny and has the atmosphere of an intimate BDSM soiree. I really would have liked to see this show take more advantage of the space and make it work for them. Perhaps constrict the staging more and really play with the conventions of 70s TV camera shots. Make it look and feel even more like sitting in the lounge room watching a tiny box.

There is a very witty moment when the duo devises a Bill-less Goodies episode. Graeme stresses that Tim’s idea is not a plot, it’s just a mood – they need action and a story. Is this is a post-post-structuralist-introspective-ironic commentary on the actual script? If yes – it’s a delightfully self-satirical moment. If not...please listen to your own advice. My concern with this script is lack of action and drama. It’s witty and funny, but we don’t see goals and journeys and changes. Dramatically “Part Two” is far more interesting than “Part One”. Break ups are real and will always resonate with an audience.

So, should this show speak to non-Goodies fans? I took someone who didn’t know the Goodies. She didn’t get it. Without the assumed knowledge, the combination of fact and fiction is very confusing and ultimately makes you question the credibility of the whole piece.

As a piece nostalgic-fan-fiction-theatre I enjoyed A Record or an OBE. If you were a Goodies geek – don’t miss it. If you have no idea who I’m taking about, don’t remember the 80s or used to watch the news at 6pm – perhaps wait for Shaolin Punk’s next show.

PS: Why do I have the feeling that next Fringe Neil is going to walk out of the share house?

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

03 October 2007

Pick Ups

Pick Ups
Sodastream Productions

3 October 2007
Cape Live, Fitzroy

Picking Fringe shows is a bit like internet dating. There’s the pic and the blurb, but you really have no idea what you’re going to get. Sometimes those sparks fly and you’re begging for more. Sometimes you’re polite and pleasant for an hour, then happily leave declining the offer of another drink. Sparks didn’t fly for me at Pick Ups, but I’d still recommend it as a good night out. In fact, it may be the ideal outing for a first date.
Pick Ups is well performed, it’s fun and diverting and kind of cute. Using a real bar as the setting is inspired, the staging and direction is solid and the writing is tight. But it’s not a full length play. It’s a series of sketches and gags, with disappointing content and a lack of structure.

Pick Ups is about “the comedy and loneliness of contemporary dating”, but doesn’t let itself really explore or question how or if dating is really any different these days. There’s a joke about a murderer at speed dating. It’s very funny, but doesn’t explore anything about speed dating.

The wealth and depth of content available around this subject is as endless as content can be. Yet these pick ups are all just a bit predictable and float gently on the top, rather then plunging into something deep or dark. A black suited business woman pulls out a sexual contract. I loved the set up and the joke, but she asks for pretty standard, Mills and Boon, vanilla sex. We’ve all read the standard contract. She would have been so much more interesting if she insisted on new clauses. Or if she was as an outrageous, PVC clad dominatrix who pulled out a business contract insisting on love making in the missionary position with extra cuddling after.

The most original and interesting scene took place in a bathroom where a woman was picked up by the guy who had left her housemate asleep in her bed. The coffee shops and bars of the rest were too expected. What about a tram pick up or a supermarket pick up?

The most intriguing character was a biscuit designer, with an impressive knowledge of Iced Vo-Vos. As soon as he revealed he was lying, he became boring. Why can’t we have these kinds of interesting characters? The “geeks” were played purely for laughs. I was waiting for one to slip on a banana skin. I’m not saying they weren’t funny, but I have no idea what these characters were meant to be saying about “the comedy and loneliness of contemporary dating”.

Contemporary dating cannot avoid the internet. There’s the nice little RSVP internet date. It’s a lovely sketch. Millions of folk are on RSVP type sites. Millions also have their naked profile on the multitude of sex only meeting sites. There are an abundance of sites joining up people with every kind of classic and curious kink. Fetish is the new fellatio. Everyone’s trying it – except the 37 characters in Pick Ups.

Sorry, 35 of the characters. There is one swinging couple, who are presented as stereotyped freaks with about as much authenticity as 70s amateur porn. Why not “normal” or “nice” couples wanting to swap? Or take the characters to much greater extremes and make it satirical. Give us the boom-chukka-wah-wah music and the facial hair and let them try to pick up a Picnic At Hanging Rock school girl. The most alternative scene is two women in a lesbian bar and even that was verging on standard male fantasy of what two girls would talk about.

The multiple characters, multiple story concept isn’t new, but the good ones are all made cohesive through theme, linking characters, design or structure. I was hoping that Pick Ups would use Schnitzler's very powerful circular La Ronde structure. This has been used very successfully by the likes of David Hare in The Blue Room and was seen a few Fringes ago in 360 Positions and a One Night Stand. There were a couple of re-occurring characters, but there was no sense of journey or change or growth for any of them. The theme is obviously pick ups, but I felt it need something more solid to really give it a sense of cohesion.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

02 October 2007


2 October 2007
Fringe Hub

Testosterone has the most appropriate venue this Fringe. Set at the reception venue of a Polish wedding disaster, the Lithuanian Club Ball room could be no better. When this play was recently filmed in Poland it broke box office records. Rah Rah Productions version has some inspired and funny moments, but isn’t gelling as a whole and failing in its satire.

It’s described as “politically incorrect and relevant”. Unfortunately it’s neither. It’s the story of group of drunken men who get violent, drunk, honest, more drunk and ultimately bond. Luckily there are some characters who are biologists, so they can intersperse the story with lectures about what testosterone is and how it affects men.

I learnt that castrated men tend to live long lives, because high levels of testosterone make you more susceptible to disease. And women with high levels of testosterone like sex. Sigh. At times all it really showed was a mob of stereotyped yobs who may be better off blaming their behaviour on their attitudes, choices and beliefs, rather than their dominant hormone.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a damn good “politically incorrect” satire. Chris Lilley is currently doing it brilliantly on the ABC. Humour is a mighty strong way to show how absurd some situations are. However, you really have to understand the fine line between satire and offensive when you’re yelling “damned be all the cheating bitches of this world.” Perhaps it’s my oestrogen levels, but I wasn’t laughing all the time and 70 minutes of “fucking bitches” did begin to get a bit icky.

There were some terrific moments and clever direction. The scene changes interludes are perfectly absurd, the improvised band where scene is lovely and the realisation that men only invented footy to impress women, but “when we want to watch it “ those “fucking bitches” force us to look away had me laughing out loud. But they were just moments. It’s an illustrative work of mighty fine characters, so it needs a very strong guide to make it an engaging overall story, rather than a collage of moments.

I can see what this script is trying to do and I like what this script is trying to do. This production is heading in the right direction, but needs more coherency, more forceful direction and a much better grasp of satire.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.