30 June 2013

Goodbye Julia G

Many of us ranted like angry and hurt ranty things on our social media this week, but Karin Muiznieks's social media of choice is song.

What do you do when you'd donate a kidney to ensure that Tiny A doesn't get to sit at the head of the table, but to do so you have to put a 1 or 2 next to Shorty B's name?

27 June 2013

Mini review: Cranked Up

Cranked Up
Circus Oz
26 June 2013
The Big Top at Birrurung Marr
to 14 July

Yesterday was a day of backflips, juggling and falling to the ground. But the Circus Oz mob did it with class and humour and made sure that anyone falling was caught and given a big, safe and loving mat to fall on.

I watched the circus last night. The one I saw was a gazillion times better than the one playing out in Canberra.

Cranked Up doesn't feel as complete as last year's From the Ground Up, but it's impossible for Circus Oz to not be gloriously funny, original and simply awesome.

For 35 years, this company have been a bold and loud Australian voice when others have been scared to peep about equality, diversity and social justice. Circus Oz rock in every way possible from their live shows to community workshops and if you haven't seen them, what are you waiting for?

With FOH staff who welcome everyone and talk to you because they want to (I talked politics with intelligent fesity women while buying hot doughnuts: it doesn't get much better); a $10 program that you want to buy because it's fun, full of info you want to read, celebrates everyone who helps to make the show, designed by someone who cares and printed on recycled stock; and ushering staff who are as terrific as any one on stage, a night at the Big Top would be worth it without the great show.

Maybe if the Big Top planted itself on the lawns of Canberra's Parliament House, our representatives might remember that supporting equality, diversity, social justice and not letting anyone fall is the best way to win friends. And sharing hot doughnuts. Everything feels better with a bag of hot doughnuts.

Photos by Rob Blackburn.

26 June 2013

Opening this week: The Okinawa Hymen Repair Kit Factory

The Okinawa Hymen Repair Kit Factory
Baggage Productions
26 June – 6 July
Bluestone Church Arts Venue

If you watched Insight on SBS last night, you will know that hymen repair kits are easily bought and that there are doctors in Australia who will sew one in for you. 

I'm horrified that that such a thing needs to exist, but I'm pretty sure that Baggage Productions The Okinawa Hymen Repair Kit Factory will show us the funny side in their  "comedy about openings, closings, and closing openings".

Baggage are collaborating with SM favourite playwright Jane Miller (True Love Travels on a Gravel Road), so it's sure to be worth a trip to this new arts space in Footscray.

Details here.

25 June 2013

Helpman help from Sean Bryan

The Helpman Award nominees were announced yesterday.

There was free booze at the Melbourne event, but I wanted a night off (ok, I like my weekly dose of QandA indignation) and I can read the list of nominees; a list that always makes me go, "but what about (insert name of a much better show)".

I know I'm not alone in my confusion about the Helpies, especially regarding eligibility. You have to be a member of the LPA and/or pay a fee to be considered.

Sean Bryan was a part of the creative team who produced last year's (award-winning*) Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert. He's in London at the moment, but wrote a piece asking: So how do we get the Helpmanns to help Musical Theatre in Australia?

Read it here.

He asks the sort of questions we should all be asking when we congratulate a Helpman winner.

If King Kong wins an award from its previews, when shows like Flowerchildren don't get a look in (who may not have self-nominated, but it's still a better show), there's something wrong with the system.

*As a development work, they didn't nominate for the Helps, but it was still the BEST musical I saw in 2012.

UPDATE: Twitter tells me that Flowerchildren was registered. I have no idea how it could be overlooked.

23 June 2013

Mini review: Herding Cats

Herding Cats
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
7 June 2013
Red Stitch
to 7 July

Herding Cats slipped through my review net. I enjoyed it and will always say "see Red Stitch" no matter what a review says. But I couldn't put my finger on what bugged me about it.

UK writer Lucinda Coxon's very funny and very dark play about isolated 20-somethings taps into the loneliness of living in a society that lets us interact at superficial levels and the dangers of disregarding the superficial as harmless. I loved how she drew us into a confrontation that would never happen and how she took her characters much further and into a much darker place than I imagined it would.

The balance between black humour and social commentary was teetering a bit, but the direction and performances were great, with all finding a personal connection to the story. The design was a bit dull, but didn't distract from the work.

One of the accents annoyed me because I could hear the actor behind the accent and it hadn't settled yet. And I don't always understand the choice to use an accent.

Begin rant.

We do Asian plays without Asian accents and the last show at Red Stitch, About Tommy, was done without accents and still set in Zagreb. I haven't seen a Chekov done with a Russian accent or a Pirandello with a Kingswood-Country-style bloody-wog accent. European opera is sung without accents. Maybe – I mean, of course – it's because they'd sound offensively racist. So why are our theatres so attached to performing UK and American plays with accents? Unless it's intrinsic to the meaning of the text, they distract and put the focus on the actor, rather than the work. (And, no matter how good they are, I suspect they make native speakers cringe. Remember Meryl Streep's Aussie accent in Evil Angels? Few are better than she is, and she still got it wrong.)

End rant.

But this accent would easily settle in a day or two and it didn't take anything away from the work or the character.

I've finally figured out what it was. I could see the actors judging the characters. It's a tiny and very subtle thing, but it's up to the audience to judge the characters. In this style of realistic theatre, if the actors are agreeing with us about their characters, the characters don't live. They have to be seen to be doing what they believe is best. No one wakes up and thinks, "I'm going to make a very stupid choice today".

But my advice is to read the raves about this show or ignore us all, see it anyway and make up your own mind.

22 June 2013

Review: Voyage

Voyage: The Actual and Properly Truthful Account of the Emigration of Thomas Pender
A is for Atlas
21 June 2013
to 30 June

Thomas Pender was 23 when he took his wife and baby on a dangerous 126-day sea voyage to Australia. People died on the way, they couldn't land in another country because for fear of disease and were quarantined on their arrival in Australia. A boat person arrives.

In 1883, 23 year old Thomas Pender took his wife and baby on a dangerous 126-day sea voyage from England to Australia. People died on the way, on a detour to South Africa for food, they weren't allowed to leave the boat for fear of disease, and on arrival in Sydney they were quarantined for two weeks to ensure the on-board fevers were kept on board. A forefather arrives.

Pender kept a diary of those 126 days. His hand writing is immaculate and precise. His diary is still with us and his great great grandaughter, director Tamara Searle, has made exquisite theatre about their respective journeys through history.

The bare boards of fortyfivedownstairs seem like they were created to be the floor for this show. The performers use every part of the space like it was designed by them, and with only a few suitcases, trunks, costume props and an overhead projector, they create a journey that's as fearful, hopeful, claustrophobic and agoraphobic as a sea journey to the other side of the world can be. And the overhead projector is used in ways that create more emotion and atmosphere than any of the squillion dollar effects currently seen in Melbourne's bigger theatres.

The ensemble (Steve Brown, Kate Parkins, Shannon Quinn, Jon Richards, Brook Sykes
and Leone White) begin by addressing the performers' expectations of the audience and the audience's expectations of the work (yes, I always wonder if anyone is going to take their clothes off and if I'm sitting next to that person's mum). This gently and delightfully brings the audience into the space, lets us get to know the performers, and ensures that their collaboration is as much of the story as Pender's diary. Then, starting with Pender's diary, they play the on-board characters and themselves, while questioning their interpretation of the writing and discussing the truth and fiction of facts.

If we were born here, most of us are a descendent of someone who came to Australia from another country, and maybe if we made this kind of connection to their journey, we'd welcome any and everyone who hopes to escape something by joining us here.

But, as we wonder if Searle's great great grandfather would recognise his own story, this work never screams or even articulates its underlying message. It's much more complex than that and its exploration is theatrical, mesmerising and human.

Voyage is one of the most beautiful and unexpectedly moving works I've seen this year. Its story is so personal for the director, but told in way that ensures that it's our story, no matter when or how we came to Australia.

This will be on AussieTheatre next week.

Photo by Justin Batchelor.

Review: Domino

Attic Erratic
19 June 2013
Abbotsford Convent
to 29 June

Young independent company Attic Erratic started performing and working together in 2010 and are well on their way to being on of those companies who you have to see what they do next.

I missed quite a bit of their early stuff, but not anymore. If you don't know them, start with DOMINO.

Firstly, it's on at the gorgeous Abbotsford Convent in the slightly creepy Industrial School (follow the signs near Lentil as Anything – and arrive early to eat at Lentil as Anything) and they sell warm and spicy mulled wine with currents. Winner already.

In a post-apocalyptic dystopian future of forever night, five young men are alone, angry, bored and desperate. Light and hope are things of dreams, but they play a game about the end of the world, not knowing if there's a line between reality and myth.

With a bar and a huge space to use (the same space where a rat up-staged everyone at the 2012 Last Tuesday Society's Xmas special), the design team (Laura Harris: set and light, Lucy Welsh: projection, Zoe Rouse and Mia Zielinski: costume, Tom Pitts: sound and music) have created a space that begs to be entered, while creating a sense of nervous fear with dark corners and unseen rooms where wolves can hide.

Director Danny Delahunty lets the creative and beautiful language of Melbourne writer Giuliano Ferla's script lead the story and define a world that's so far from ours that the rhythm and meaning of English has evolved.  It's like a memory of language; it makes sense, but isn't quite right. And it's a world without women. A world without easy comfort and the eternal life of procreation has to be found elsewhere.

Actors Alex Duncan, Joseph Green, Kane Felsinger, Matt Hickey and Spencer Scholz relish the work and let us see beyond their facade of bravado and toughness. Nerves could be seen on the preview I saw, but they have nothing to be nervous about.

This is a powerful work that questions masculinity and the future of all of us in a time when playing the "gender card" brings calls of unfair.

This will go up on AussieTheatre next week.

LAST CHANCE: Flowerchildren finishes on Sunday

Flowerchildren: The Mamas and Papas Story finishes on Sunday. Review.

If you don't see it, you're missing something that will stay with you for a long time. If I had a free night, I'd go again.


Photo by Gavin D Andrew

21 June 2013

Review: By Their Own Hands

NEON Festival of Independent Theatre
By Their Own Hands
The Hayloft Project
14 June 2013
The Lawler
to 23 June

I can't say enough wonderful about the MTC's Neon Festival of Independent Theatre. Five of Melbourne's most loved, most successful and most challenging independent companies were asked to create something new – no restraints.

We're still talking about Daniel Schlusser Ensemble's Menagerie (based on the works of Tennessee Williams) and Fraught Outfit's On the bodily education of young girls (based on a 1903 novella and developed with a cast of teenagers from St Martins Youth Theatre). I wrote about them here.

The Hayloft Project's Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks also adapted.  By Their Own Hands is the story of Oedipus and Jocasta; loved by the ancient Greeks and so popular that Freud based his own legacy on it. But do we really know the story and the people in it?

Anne-Louise and Benedict begin by simply telling the story, and telling it in a way that gets the audience involved without any embarrassment. There's nothing to be feared when they ask the audience to join them on the stage, and you might only be disappointed if you're not chosen as a cast member. (As Sphinx, I can end the year happy that I was recognised for my true talent.)

Then we're sent back to our seats and they tell the story again. It's now that a huge plastic curtain and Marg Horwell's design comes into play and they tell the tale in ways that remind us how these ancient tales are as much about now and us as they were 2500 years ago when Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were all the rage.

The title alone takes responsibility away from the gods and fate. They show how conflicted a man must be to consider killing his baby, and the moment when Jocasta realises who she married is soul chilling.

There's been a lot of boring hoo-ha in recent weeks about the evils of adaption V original work. This season is proving that there's nothing unoriginal about adaption. These works are sending us back to the source texts (what would Freud say about me having all the Electras and none of the Oedipuses in my book shelf?) and letting us see them again with such fresh eyes.

I don't like the phrase "intelligent theatre", but By Their Own Hands explores the relationship between audience and stage and re-tells a known story so powerfully and originally that I could feel new brain cells growing.

And we have The Rabble's Story of O (after Pauline Réage's novel) and Sisters Grimm's The Sovereign Wife (inspired by Aussie-Aussie-Aussie cultural icons like Ken Done and The Man From Snowy River) to look forward to. After The Rabble's astonishing Orlando at last year's Melbourne Festival and having recently read O, I think this may be one of the most unforgettable shows of the year, unless they're outdone by the glorious camp trashiness of the Sisters who have promised/threatened the likes of a character called Poof Cop.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Shane Warne, the Musical

Shane Warne, the Musical
Arts Centre Melbourne, Adelaide Cabaret Festival
20 June 2013
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 21 June

Oh Eddie Perfect! You gorgeous, sexy, magnificent beast. You're as hot as King Kong and if you had a fraction of the resources that developed the magnificent monkey, Shane Warne The Musical could tour Australia for ever – or until Warnie does something else that begged for a new song.

The original 2008 version of Shane Warne the Musical (review) made me kind of love our Shane. He's our ultimate anti-hero who finally realises that acting like a dick leaves you looking like a dick.

The concert version has cut some of the old to make room for the introduction of Liz Hurley – I remember when the tweets started and I didn't believe that Liz Hurley would ever date Warnie – and the new stuff's as great as the old.

The new concert version (only seen at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and here in Melbourne for two nights) clearly lacks the spectacle of full staging, but continues to prove that this show isn't dependent on anything but its music and writing.

It's hilarious and smart and so full of heart and sass that the only disappointment is its two-night run.

I haven't followed cricket since Kim Hughes was captain, but I know what Warnie gets up to. He's a brilliant choice for a musical hero, and Eddie Perfect wrote (and stars in) a show that celebrates the spin bowler who changed cricket, without denying that he's been a bit of a douche along the way; all the while laughing and totally loving everything about the public and media's obsession with his celebrity.

And having what may be the most gorgeous mass of talent ever is just a bonus. There's Perfect, Shane Jacobson (Kenny), Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins), Christie Whelan Browne (A Funny Thing happened...), Rohan Nicol, Mike McLeish (Keating), Jolyon James (Moonshadow), Amy Lehpamer (Margaret Fulton), Andy Conaghan and Lisa McCune (easier to list what she hasn't been in). Throw in tight direction from Simon Phillips and music direction from Iain Grandage (whose conducting leads the enthusiasm and joy) and it's hard to get a better night in a concert hall.

As the last week has been filled with ridiculous fighting over the value of King Kong, Shane Warne, the Musical is an apt reminder that there are you-bloody-beauty musicals made in Australia about Australians and Australia (Keating, Margaret Fulton) that don't need squillions to be created.

And let's not forget the absolute gorgeousness of Flowerchildren by Melbourne's Magnormos that finishes on Sunday! (I don't understand how everyone who sees this show falls in utter love with it, but it's not getting the sold out signs that it so deserves.)

But tonight's all about Warnie. If you missed it in 2008, you have to see it to get what the raves were about, and if you loved it then, you'll love it again.

I'd love to see this show out of expensive velvet concert halls and into town halls and local theatres all over the country. It's an awesome work for us theatre snobs, but it reaches way beyond us. This is a show that blokes come to and get up during the show to get another beer. It happened in 2008 and happened in Hamer Hall last night. Dudes got up during the show and came back with beers to watch their Warnie. I scowled at their lack of theatre etiquette, but I fucking love the intent. Yep, this is a show that can be watched while drinking beer and I now wish that I'd asked them to get me one.

Photos by Meredith O'Shea

20 June 2013

Review: Solomon and Marion

Solomon and Marion
Melbourne Theatre Company
12 June 2013
Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
to 20 July

In Cape Town in 2006, actor Brett Goldin and designer Richard Bloom left a party and never got home. They were found naked, except for their socks, near a freeway; they had been robbed and shot through the head.  Goldin was playing Guildenstern in a production of Hamlet  that was about to fly to Stratford to open the Complete Works Festival. Writer Lara Foot worked with the same theatre company and Solomon and Marion is the result of her trying to understand the incomprehensible – and incomprehensibly accepted – violence in her country.

It's a beautiful play. Its uneasy undertone of violence and mistrust creates tension, but it's gentle and loving and finds hope in the endless grief.

Marion (Gillian Jones) is an old white South African who lives alone in the Eastern Cape. She doesn't want to move to Australia to be with her daughter and grandchildren and leaves her door and windows open, despite the constant threat of violence. Solomon (Pacharo Mzembe) is the black grandchild of Marion's former maid and he turns up one day saying that he's been sent to see her.

In a world that's dominated by loss, poverty and guilt, Foot explores two people who cannot escape the violence and are secretly scared of their own complicity.

In a production where design (Richard Roberts, set and costume; Rachel Burke, lighting; David Bridie, music), performance and script work like one, director Pamela Rabe lets this very place-specific story resonate way beyond its South African borders. As its secrets are dug up and assumptions buried in the hilly floor of sand, Marion and Solomon try to understand why the other is in their life, each wanting the other gone, but terrified that they might leave.

But the night belongs to Mzembe and Jones.  I first saw Jones in the early 80s in Jim Sharman's Midsummer Night's Dream; when Mzembe wasn't even born. You don't forget the great actors when you see them, and on TV and stage, Jones is an actor who leaves ego aside and creates characters who live. Mzembe graduated from NIDA in 2007 and lets us see every nuance of Solomon's complex relationship with Marion, which begins with a confused mix of resentment, respect and pity.

This story had its roots in the kind of violence and loss that creates hatred, but it leaves the hate behind to reveal the broken hearts of two people whose have to live with its consequences.

Photo by Jeff Busby

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

18 June 2013

Review: King Kong

King Kong
Global Creatures
15 June 2013
Regent Theatre

Oh King Kong! You gorgeous, sexy, magnificent beast. Your entrance may be the most spectacular thing ever seen on a live stage. Every time you’re on, the audience is yours for the taking, as all around you pale to dull, despite all manner of shiny costume. You are glorious and unforgettable. If only a fraction of the care, love, money and time that went into your creation was put into creating the story you are doomed to play in.

After a couple weeks of previews and rumours, King Kong opened last night.

It’s spectacular. Visually and technically, this is theatre that we haven’t seen before and it has to be seen just to see its amazing pretty.

Peter England’s design, Peter Mumford’s lighting, Frieder Weiss’s projections and Roger Kirk’s costumes are so WOW! that doesn’t matter that it doesn’t feel like New York or that Skull Island screams Tron. The sea of light, the Skelator Statue of Liberty and the fluffy monkey leotards are so sensorially sensational that it’s easy to forgive the inconsistent style and questionable portrayal of women.

Then there’s the beast created by Sonny Tilders and his team. Kong defies superlatives. With a team of puppeteers (led by Peter Wilson), this amazing critter shows emotion and heart befitting his size; his breath-taking magnificence is the reason alone to see his show. (But if you’re taking young theatre fans who could be scared, it’s worth speaking to someone who has seen it.)

And there are humans to see as well. The huge ensemble is sensational. With choreography by John O’Connell and circus/aerial direction by Gavin Robins, their energy and step-perfection fills the huge theatre as much as Kong’s roars.

Principals Esther Hannaford (Ann, Kong’s love), Chris Ryan (Jack, Ann’s love), Queenie Van De Zandt (Cassandra, a prophet) sing beautifully and bring so much more than they are given to their roles. And they are given so little to work with.

Hannaford even overcomes the endless sniffing of Ann (her girly smell attracts monkeys and men of all sizes) and a dream sequence where she realises she’s an ok woman because dream angels in black pvc corsets tell her she’s hot and sing, “We don’t need no story or director to make us perfect”.

Hot you may be dream angels, but why you are there is one of those mysteries that may never be answered.

The story isn’t there. There’s a plot based on assuming the audience know King Kong’s film story, but it’s filled with illogical leaps, clunky dialogue and the melodrama of unearned emotion.  It feels like it was written around the spectacle (during a tech run, before previews).

Kong deserves some writers. They don’t have to be expensive, award-winning writers, just writers who know story and how to tell story in theatre. People who know that a foreshadowing monkey has to come back; that unearned kisses don’t create love; that if a guy sings a song about Lady Liberty, his story should be about liberty; and that long-legged women don’t fill plot holes.

It’s a slightly dodgy analogy, but I’m going to compare it to a Pixar/Disney film. Films like Wal E, Toy Story and Monsters Inc are visually and technically sensational, but they start, end and are seen by zillions because of their stories. These scripts are written in writers’ rooms and drafted until they are perfect. Every syllable and story beat is analysed and worked until it’s assured that there isn’t a second where the audience will stop caring or drift off. The animation is the icing and ribbon around the cake of the story. Icing is vital and delicious, but doesn’t make sense without cakey substance.

When interval and post-show conversations are “what if they …”, instead of “what about when”, there’s something wrong.

Oh A-M, you’re a writer, so of course you care about the writing; the general public don’t care, they just want to see pretty. No one cares about story.

Think of your favourite stories – book, film, comic, tv, told in the pub. How many of them do you wish were different? How many do you remember just for how they looked? The sleazy producer Carl, who captures Kong, even says in the opening scenes “People want stories”!

So, it looks amazing, the dancing monkey is to-die-for and the cast nearly overcome the woeful story, but what about the music? It’s music theatre after all.

The music is forgettable. It’s not boring, but it doesn’t move the story, show character or add much more than a beat for the spectacle that it’s supporting.

The most successful number is Ann’s lullaby to Kong on Skull Island. Emotionally and dramatically, this is the moment for Ann to tell her secret, to reveal her soul to the god who can never share her truth. It’s the moment the audience is meant to be so with these two that every subsequent obstacle to their survival is heart breaking. Its repetition in Act 2 should leave the audience crying. But it’s a song about the moon. It’s performed beautifully and looks stunning, but it’s gutless.

The music could be removed from the show without affecting the story. I can’t name a long-running or award-winning show that can say the same.

King Kong could be a game changer. There is so much jaw-dropping, razzle-dazzle magnificence on the stage that it’s already changing the rules, but until the same amount of work that created its dazzling glory goes into the writing and the music, it’s just a couple hours of exquisite pretty that’s too easily forgotten.

Photos by Belinda Strodder.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

17 June 2013

Vale Betty Burstall

Betty Burstall

In 1967, Betty Burstall founded La Mama theatre in Carlton. I can't even begin to imagine the development of Australian theatre and Australian theatre voices without La Mama.

From Liz Jones and the staff of La Mama:

"On Friday afternoon last our beloved founder and mentor Betty Burstall left us. She was 87 and died peacefully surrounded by loving family members .

"Artist, homemaker and teacher, in 1967 Betty established La Mama Theatre in the elegant Victorian warehouse, at 205 Faraday Street Carlton. Recently returned from New York, Betty was determined to replicate the exciting ‘off-off Broadway coffee-house theatre’ scene that so involved her during her stay there. A very determined woman, she let nothing stand in her way, even self-funding the space in its formative years.

A devoted mother, grandmother, wife, lover and friend she will be missed by so many in our wider community who were inspired by her energy and vision.

"She will be remembered as a woman who led a magnificent life, lived to the full."

In the coming weeks we will remember Betty at an open gathering in the La Mama forecourt.

15 June 2013

Mini review: Distance

La Mama
13 June 2013
La Mama Theatre
to 16 June

Ellen and Andrew are no longer together, but are forced into the same room when their 15-year-old son is arrested for attacking another boy, leaving him nearly dead in hospital.

Daniel Nellor's script is full of grief and anger and guilt, as these two try to understand how they raised a violent son and try to not let their own relationship and personal pain dominate the arguments. It's a bit overwritten – the subtext is louder than the writer thinks – but it doesn't take away from its impact.

Director Chris Thompson guides striking performances from Margot Fenely and Kevin Hopkins; Fenely especially, as she lets us see the screaming turmoil that never leaves her head and feel the stabbing black pain in her heart.

I saw this show with a room full of teenagers. As a play about their parents, I expected a few eye rolls and whispers, but they were silent and glued to the stage. This says so much more than I ever could.

It finishes on Sunday.

Mini review: Button

La Mama
13 June 2013
La Mama Courthouse
to 16 June

Someone (Cameron) gave this show the sort of review (bollocking) that ensured that I'd see it.

Button is as cute as a button, but if you don't think buttons are cute, you might not get it. And I'm not sure that I like women in their 50s described as harmlessly cute.

Performers Carole Patullo and Jane Bayly, and director/dramaturg Melanie Beddie have developed a piece about the frustrations of ageing and the negotiation of friendship, and it's clear from the love oozing off the stage that it's a work they loved making.

As a woman-of-a-certain age, I got it and happily laughed along. And as my Nanna had a button box that she let me play with (does anyone say "Lets play with the buttons" today?), I was swept along with the nostalgia.

But it's a bit preachy and sings the obvious instead of showing what it's like to have your body begin to betray you when your mind is finally in the right space and the oddness of realising you're socially invisible.

If you keep buttons, you'll love it. If not, it's not for you, so see something else.

It finishes on Sunday.

Mini review: Bunker

La Mama
13 June 2013
La Mama Theatre
to 16 June

I'm not sure what Bunker is about, but it's mesmerising and intriguing and has some of the best lighting and sound design I've seen in the tiny box of La Mama.

Created by Greg Dyson, Trudy Radburn and Charlie Laidlaw, and performed by Laidlaw and Radburn, it gives nothing away in the program and all we have to work on is the title.

Sometimes communication has nothing to do with understanding and this short work is fascinating enough to let everyone find their own meaning.

It finishes on Sunday.

13 June 2013

Write Up Festival

How many writers festivals are there in Melbourne and Victoria? Lots!

The City of Kingston has its first literary festival called Write Up,  21–23 June, offering discussions, readings, workshops and performances.

If you're a writer on the bay side of town, Friday 21 June from 6.30 to 9.30 is Meet the Locals at the Kinston Arts Centre. The night includes short play readings, a spotlight on local playwright Kieran Carroll, an open mic and a Writers' Club (yes with the apostrophe there), where local writers can meet and sell their work. It's free, but bookings are essential. I'd love to say, see you there, but I'm already booked to review that night.

More info at kingstonarts.com.au.

Return season: Standard Double

Good news if you missed Kate McLennan and Wes Snelling in Double Standard at this year's Comedy Festival. They've booked themselves back into The Blackman from 9–20 July.

Book here.

Mini review: Arafat in Therapy

Arafat in Therapy
Jeremie Bracka
8 June 2013
Chapel off Chapel
to 9 June

Jeremie Bracka is a good Jewish boy from Caulfield who studied law, went to Morocco to learn Arabic, worked as a human rights lawyer for the UN and continues to do so in Israel. He's also very funny.

Arafat in Therapy starts with a tea towel joke and there's not too more of Arafat. Where his show really comes to life (and is loved by his audience) is his depictions of the ironies of Israel and of growing up Jewish in Melbourne. As a goy who lived next to Caulfield for 10 years, I know the characters and the world. He shows his upbringing with the kind of love, honesty and belly-laughs that no one could take offence at.

Offence? Any show about Israel is sure to include something that will offend. It's a topic that I will never discuss with some friends because they are my friends and I like them and I don't want to fight about a situation that we may not find a common ground on. For all Bracka's humour and talent, there's nothing in this show to cause offence to his audience – and there was no one in the audience who would know anyone who wears a 'tea towel'.

The closest it came was describing Arabs as lovely people who always offer him coffee. Which is something – humanising characters is what theatre and comedy do best – but it's by no means the parody of the Middle East peace process that it describes itself as and, as he's worked in Gaza, I suspect that Bracka has much stronger opinions that are not on display in this delightfully funny, but ultimately very safe work.

He's also performing in Sydney and in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem later in the year.

12 June 2013

Mini review: Heaven

La Mama
29 May 2013
La Mama Theatre
to 30 May

Heaven won writer/director Kit Brookman the Phillip Parson's Young Playwright's Award in 2012 and this production proves that he's a young writer to keep an eye on.

With an uneasy tone that forces questions of what is real, Heaven is the story of a group of teenage friends who try to bring a classmate back from her recent death. Although maybe a bit over done at times, his writing captures a teen voice and his story has them making choices and behaving like teenagers.

And the cast – Jessica Clarke, Andre Jewson, Lachlan Woods and Sarah Ogden – grasp the tone and mood perfectly; each bringing enough extra to the script to make the characters theirs.

Heaven did so well that extra performances were added. Next time, I'd like to see what a different director finds in the work, but the good news is that we'll see a new Kit Brookman play (with Sarah Ogden) later in the year (I don't think I can say where yet).

Chat: Ngaire Dawn Fair

Herding Cats
Red Stitch
to 6 July

Red Stitch present the Australian premiere of Herding Cats by UK writer Lucinda Coxon. Opening this week, it’s 2010–11 UK productions won the acclaim of critics and it was shortlisted for writing awards.  It’s described as bleak with shards of black humour and The Guardian said “see it and shudder”.

Ngaire Dawn Fair graduated from the National Theatre in 2008 and made her Red Stitch debut in 2011 in My Romantic History. She has performed in with ITCH productions and Hoy Polloy and been in television shows including Rush, Satisfaction, Neighbours, Killing Time, The Slap and Winners and Losers. She chats  about being in a show that initially made her feel very odd.

What three words best describe Herding Cats? 
Fast, dense, surprising

What do you love most about this show? 
The way it keeps you guessing. I love how unusual it is. Some people will love it, some will hate it and everyone will have different ideas on the how the characters are interconnected.

What is one of your favourite shows you've seen at Red Stitch? 

What do you love about being a Red Stitch ensemble member? 
I love the people. There’s a lot of trust; I don’t work well under supervision. There’s a real sense of freedom and equality, everyone just does their jobs and there’s always support if you need it. 

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced preparing for this show? 
If Justine (my character) was a cartoon character she would be Taz Devil, she’s a whirlwind. She rarely takes a breath, so just maintaining the energy to keep up with her is a challenge.

What was your reaction when you first read this Lucinda Coxon’s script? 
I felt very odd, I had to tell my partner about about it. And in the retelling, I decided it was special. 

Who would you love to see in the audience one night? 
Richard Gere. That would be excellent.

Is there anyone you don't want to see in the audience? 
My dear grandparents, they would be horrified.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor? 
I don’t think I ever really wanted to be an actor but I always loved playing characters. In high school I performed a monologue to my class from Educating Rita and that was the first time I felt an audience engrossed in a story I was telling. That was a special moment. That might have been the beginning.  

Apart from this one, what was the last play you read?
Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp.

Do you believe in any theatre superstitions? What are they? 
No, I say good luck. 

What's some great theatre advice you've used? Who was it from? 
“Be bold, be big hearted.” My grandfather said that, for theatre and life (different grandfather from above, if he was still with us, he would love this show, I think). 

In your wildest dreams, who would you love to work with on a show?
I would like to be in a play with James Dean please.

Do you read your reviews?
I fantasise about not reading them, but I do.

Convince a stubborn north-sider to head over the river to St Kilda. 
The train to Flinders from Windsor only takes 9 flipping minutes!

Tell us about your fellow cast Paul Ashcroft and Dion Mills and director Suzanne Chaundy. 
We have had so much fun working on this show.  The play is much funnier than I anticipated, so rehearsals have been a hoot.  Suzanne is open, honest and clear with a wickedly encouraging laugh. And Paul and Dion are perfectly cast (although they might not like me saying that). It’s just like a weird little family. 

This was on AussieTheatre.com

10 June 2013

Review: Palace of the End

Palace of the End
Daniel Clarke in association with Theatre Works
6 June 2013
Theatre Works
to16 June

Tell your story, tell our story or tell a story that means so much to you that it doesn't matter whose it is. In Palace of the End, nice middle class, successful Canadian writer Judith Thompson tells stories about the wars in Iraq.

She wasn't there and her personal connection is living next door to an Iraqi family, so are they her stories to tell? She said in an interview with Canada's CBC, "Who would I be to write about it?  How do I dare?  But finally I trusted myself as a writer and made a leap.".

Her writing starts with facts about three people that results in three fictional monologues. Unlike verbatim theatre (like the documentary style of The New York Theatre Workshop's Aftermath about  Iraqi refugees, which left me shuddering),  it doesn't use the recorded words of real people and this mix of truth and appropriation is both disconcerting and powerful.

Disconcerting because not knowing the line between truth and imagining creates a distance from the characters and the work. Powerful because her imagining lets us see them as so much more than their worst or best recorded moments.

Each of the three could, and will, be remembered for their abhorrent acts and behaviour.  Private Lynndie England (Hannah Norris) was a 21-year-old US soldier who posed for photos with abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. Dr David Kelly (Rob Meldrum) was a British weapons inspector complicit in the "sexing" up of facts, and Nehrjas Al Saffarh (Eugenia Fragos) was a member of the Communist Party of Iraq who let her sons be tortured.

Each story is disturbing and the facts are chosen for their shock and emotional impact, but what makes this production so striking are performances that find the humanity and a raw emotional honesty in each character.

And they are fictional characters. They are based on real people and stories assumed from limited public evidence, but the on-stage stories are fiction. And it's this fiction that takes each from a story so far from most of our experiences – a story about them – to one that could be mine or ours.

Norris, Meldrum and Fragos's performances are stunning, and what makes then so remarkably moving is their letting us see how easy it is to make choices that seem unthinkable when looking from the safety of distance and retrospect. As the fictional England says, "Imagine your weirdest second played out for eternity".

Director Daniel Clarke's gives his performers freedom to find personal connections with their characters, but ensures a completeness and bigger-picture by helping the audience to connect to the three and letting the three (who would never have met or crossed paths) reach and maybe understand each other.

Clarke's design team (Eugyeene Teh, design; Russell Goldsmith, sound;  Rob Sowinski, lighting) are rightly listed as equal creators and have made the Theatre Works space intimate and confining. There's no escaping to empty space and no where to look but at the people speaking. The long narrow stage lets Norris tell her story from what feels very far away, Meldrum's is closer and Fragos's leaves no room to ignore her, making the audience almost complicit in her story. The lighting and sound concentrate the emotion and the inescapable darkness and, with Teh's exquisite set, give the final air and breathing space that's needed before walking out into St Kilda and thinking about poppyseed cake or pizza.

Palace of the End at Theatre Works is a harrowing night of theatre with images and emotion that are difficult to forget, but its story about these horrors is beautiful and honest and ultimately hopeful. 

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Photos by Sarah Walker

05 June 2013

Chat: Hannah Norris

Palace of the End
Theatre Works
Theatre Works
5–16 June

Palace of the End opens at Theatre Works tomorrow. It’s about the wars in Iraq and tells the stories of three people whose lives changed because of the wars.

Private Lynndie England (played by Hannah Norris) was a 21-year-old US soldier who posed in the infamous photos taken of Iraqi detainees being abused at Abu Ghraib prison. Dr David Kelly (Rob Meldrum) was a British weapons inspector, and Nehrjas Al Saffarh (Eugenia Fragos) was a member of the Communist Party of Iraq.

Writer Judith Thompson combines fact and imagination to create monologues for each character and the work was greeted with critical acclaim and a couple of awards in the UK.

Hannah (Goodbye Ruby TuesdayMy Name is Rachel Corrie) talks about finding the humanity and sympathy for a character whose behaviour and beliefs are so far from her own.

What was your reaction when you first read this play?
I was surprised by voices I hadn’t really thought of before. The life to people who had only been a name, a headline or an image to me. The humanity of the details and circumstances in the lives of the characters.

Before preparing for this play, did the wars in Iraq impact on your life?
I was one of the many thousands of people who protested in the city of Melbourne on Valentine’s Day 2003. So many people, I think they say up to 250,000, came in to Melbourne CBD because we believed Australia should not invade Iraq along with the coalition forces. It was inspiring to see so many people opposed, and disappointing that the action didn’t disrupt or stop our government from participating in the invasion. The lies that then were revealed with the dossiers and about weapons of mass destruction were so shocking. But I feel that I, like a lot of others, in the past few years had become disengaged with the current situation in Iraq. It’s important to be talking about it again 10 years later.

What’s something about these wars that we never saw in our Australian news coverage?
My investigation for Palace of the End has mainly been about Lynndie England and the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. Discovering more to Lynndie’s story and of the other soldiers involved has been eye opening. Lynndie’s image is a symbol for that abuse, but learning more about her relationship with Charles Graner who was another of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the type of man he is, as well as Lynndie’s own personal and family history really made me feel a lot more for her, and far more equipped to tell this story.

You play a real person, what strikes you the most about this person?
That Lynndie could have been anyone. I have no doubt there are millions of other people just like her – or who could have been caught up in this situation – even people I know or who will be in our audiences, maybe even I could have been her. Following orders, drunk on power, in love with a man, in a foreign country, 21 years old, under-educated, misled, in an environment where normal rules no longer seemed to apply, the threat of punishment if you were to disobey or question the actions of others and your superiors… She is no criminal mastermind, not a person of influence.

Is this person someone you would like/have liked to know in your life?
I don’t think we’d get along. We have very different views about the world, and experiences that have made us the people we are, given us the moral codes we have. We have different dreams and ideologies. I could go and meet her, I could actually go to Fort Ashby and find her, I have thought about it – but from knowing what I do of her, I don’t think it would be a good experience.

What’s something you found you had in common with this person?
Being in love with a man and wanting to do anything for him – to make him happy, for him to still want me, desire me: I get that. And I think that is very important to her story.

Has doing this play changed your opinions about Iraq and the wars?
No I don’t think so. But it does make me want to talk about it more, and become more informed, and get more people thinking and talking about Iraq again – and about the decisions our governments make, especially in the lead up to an election.

What drew you to this work?
I like political theatre. And working with Dan (Clarke). That’s a good combo for me.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced preparing for this show?
Integrating the real-life Lynndie that I know from research, Youtube, docos and print interviews – and the Soldier in the play. ‘My Pyramids’ (my monologue) was the first piece written from Palace of the End, (earlier than 2008, I’m not sure when exactly) – and since it was written, there is more information and interviews from Lynndie and about Abu Ghraib. ‘My Pyramids’ is based on research but is a fictional monologue; it is not verbatim and it includes imagined situations, stories, feelings and reasons for events and behaviour. Some of this is contradictory to factual things I’ve learned about Lynndie.

Also, letting go of imposing too much impersonation or trying to be the Lynndie I’ve seen in interviews. The theatrical setting and potential of the monologue was being limited by me trying to be too much like her, and since I’ve released that, Dan says that a lot more of her essence and character is coming through now.

Who would you love to see in the audience one night?
Tony Abbott!?

Is there anyone you don’t want to see in the audience?

What do you love about working with your director and cast?
I love the way Dan questions me. I trust him completely, I trust in the theatre that he wants to make, so I will try anything in the rehearsal room because I trust that what he chooses, and wants from me, will be the best way to tell the story. I respect Eugenia and Rob greatly, it’s a privilege to be in a cast with them. And our design team is awesome too – I’ve worked with Eugyeene (Teh) and Russell (Goldsmith) before – they’re both very talented and hardworking, and Rob (Sowinski) is new to me. Sam Hopkins our production manager is so valuable to have on the team, and Hayley the stage manager has already said I made her cry, so I’m quite happy to be in a room with her.

What is one of your favourite shows you’ve seen at Theatre Works?
The Year of Magical Wanking: I thought it was ridiculously clever, brave, entertaining and inspiring. And I just think that Dan has done the most amazing job since taking over as creative producer there.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
When I fought for it as a teenager. And I am reminded every day, the desire to act has never left me.

Apart from this one, what was the last play you read?
Managing Carmen by David Williamson.

What’s some great theatre advice you’ve used? Who was it from?
In Zoe Caldwell’s book I will be Cleopatra there was a passage where she talked about playing tennis and how you should always play someone better than you – same with acting. Always want to work with people better than you.

What role/character do you really want to play one day?
It used to be Ophelia, and maybe I’m not too old for it… maybe…

You have one trip in the TARDIS; what performance do you see?
Brando. Streetcar.

What actor/director/writer has taught you the most?
Too hard – too many – too much!

What’s your favourite cake from Acland St?
I prefer the gelati shops.

In your wildest dreams, who would you love to work with on a show?
I know that I’d love to be directed with Ian Rickson and act with Ewen Leslie. I could probably get wilder than that – but that would be some good theatre experience right there

Do you read your reviews?

What’s your advice on accepting criticism (or praise)?
Be informed. Know who it is that is saying things about you, what else they like, if you have similar tastes. That it is one person’s opinion. I know who I respect and who’s approval I seek. I try to take the others more lightly whether it be good or bad. It’s always feels good when people say nice things and it always hurts a bit when it’s bad – but to be informed as to where it’s coming from, and even perhaps why they might think like that makes it better and easier.

Convince a stubborn north-sider to head to St Kilda.
The 112 or 96 trams – too easy. But also, my housemate, Cat Commander, says that many men have tried to make her cross the river before but Dan Clarke (what he’s done at Theatre Works) is the only one who has been able to make her do it consistently.

There’s a Pozible campaign to support this show; why should people donate?
It’s tricky asking for money but Dan has asked people to just donate $10 – that’s easy enough (and you can do so here). I especially encourage people from interstate, people who will be getting free tickets or those won’t be able to get to the show to make a donation.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Photo by Sarah Walker.

Star of the Brighton Fringe

Wonderful news from the Brighton Fringe festival with the announcement of the festival's awards.

The Brighton Fringe (the UK's Brighton) is one of the largest festivals with over 750 events and 4000ish performers. I haven't been, but it reminds me of the Adelaide Fringe.

Best Cabaret was won by our own (and so very loved) Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen.

And the Star of the Festival award – STAR of the Festival, what a brilliant award name – went to Mikelangelo. With his usual charm, style and handsomeness, he said he was "Very chuffed!" and shared his very beautiful award with us.

But will he sacrifice a pair of shoes or tin of pomade to fit it in his baggage?

04 June 2013

Review: Menagerie and Bodily Education

NEON: Festival of Independent Theatre
Daniel Schlusser Ensemble
17 May 2013

On the bodily education of young girls
Fraught Outfit
31 May 2013

The Lawler

The MTC's NEON Festival of Independent Theatre is letting five of Melbourne's best independent companies create and present a new work without the stress of finding a venue and an audeince. It's exciting knowing that these amazing and very-loved companies will be seen by a broader audience, but that doesn't mean they are going to be loved by new eyes.

The season opened with the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble's Menagerie.

They tried to get the rights to Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menangerie, but thankfully they weren't granted because what they created was far more fascinating.

I thought Menagerie was beautiful. The cast were faultless and I was so engulfed in the experience that it left me a bit wordless. So, please read what Chris Boyd said in The Australian.

Others didn't love it, like Cameron Woodhead. I've read whinges along the lines of "how could he have misread it?", but all reviewers can do it read what they see on the stage and his review makes it very clear that he didn't see a work about love.

I was less worried about interpretation, which could be because I like and admire, rather than love Tennessee's writing (and my feminist reading of him never left me feeling comfortable or seeing the love), but this work did inspire me to re-read The Glass Menangerie. 

However, Schlusser's work isn't so much about interpreting text. He creates worlds for characters to live in and it's up to the audience to decide who and what they watch. In this case, it's still William's New Orleans, but in a trailer park after Cyclone Katrina, where there's a plastic paddling pool, a hot tin roof to play on and people from William's life and work.

It's nothing like a Williams play, but it's the essence of Williams and if it doesn't bring you closer to his work, it sure brings you closer to something about the man who wrote some of the more important theatrical works of the twentieth century.

The next NEON work (finishing this week) is Fraught Outfit's On the bodily education of young girls. 

It's inspired by a 1903 novella by Frank Wedekind and director Adena Jacobs has worked with ten young women (13 to 16) from St Martin's Youth theatre.

It's another remarkably beautiful work to watch with a very different, but utterly delightful cast.  But, unlike Menagerie, I didn't leave inspired to read the text. In fact, my reading of the summary of the text left me re-interpreting what I saw on the stage.

Sitting in the theatre, I gave up looking for story and meaning and was happy to watch the young women stretch and dance and play. Does that sound pervy? It didn't feel so watching it, but reading that it was about a group of young girls in a boarding institution being groomed for an unknown future made me feel awkward.

I initially saw a gorgeous and heartfelt reflection on ageing and the difference in seeing teenagers as women or girls – and especially how teenagers see themselves as one or the other. But as a place that was training them up for something "unknown", I saw it as a reflection on the performance world these young women want to work in.

Already they have been cast based on how they are going to look on the stage and the world of performance can be wonderful, but often cruel and judgemental. Is this their bodily education? Instead of watching them as young women being themselves, I saw the process that created the work and any onstage awkwardness as misunderstanding.

I wish I hadn't read the program and could only see it as something that was beautiful.

And we still have Hayloft, The Rabble and Sisters Grimm to come!

(And I am currently reading The Story of O in preparation for The Rabble's work. At this stage, all I can say is Oh...)

Menagerie photo by Sarah Walker.

Bodily Education photo by Lachlan Woods.