27 May 2017

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
20 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 10 June

Spring Awakening. Photo by Belinda Strodder
Melbourne’s had the opportunity to see two adaptions of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening this month. Stage Art’s production of the 2006 musical – which won eight Tonys, including Best Musical – is the better known and opened at Chapel off Chapel on the weekend that Daniel Lammin’s powerful Awakening closed its second season to critical love and full houses at fortyfivedownstairs.

The original play, sub-titled "A children's tragedy", was censored and banned for its confrontation of teenage sex, sexual ignorance, rape, abortion, abuse, suicide, depression and the failure of adults to educate and love the children in their care. It’s still performed because it still feels far too like now.

With its indie rock sound track, the musical, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, continues to develop a near cult following as it strips away the pretence of happy-ending music theatre. It talks as much to teenagers, who recognise a world where they are denied knowledge and power, as to the adults who let this happen.

Immediately striking for those familiar with the music is director Robbie Carmellotti’s change “from nineties rock to a modern music festival sound”. While letting the singers shine, it brings a new and more gentle perspective to the show and removes some of the anger and desperation of its expected rock.

Already less angry, the tone is set early with an inconsistent mix of humour and unearned emotional outpourings that tell the audience what should be felt rather than showing characters who feel. Hanschen doesn’t need to be high camp to like men, but, at least, the Hogan’s Heroes “I see nu-think” accents are more ridiculous than offensive.

There's humour in Spring Awakening, but the content is serious and too many laughs come from the melodrama of extreme emotion or from laughing at issues of sexual ignorance, violence and depression.

After Awakening, I have to discuss the end of Act 1 where teenagers Wendla and Melchior have unplanned sex in a barn and its dramaturgical choices range from rape to loving sex. The musical's book leaves room for interpretation; however, it also establishes that the 14-year-old girl knows nothing about sex and the 14-year-old boy thinks he knows everything about sex. Consent isn't possible – even if the characters think it’s romance. Awakening confronted with rape. It ripped the hearts of its audience by continuing to explore the aftermath from both points of view and reflected on every teen-rape story that includes “but he’s such a good young man”, “what about his reputation?” and “what did she expect to happen?”.

This sex is played as seduction, supported by the cast surrounding the couple with fairy lights. Act 2 opens where Act 1 ends, except she's naked; he's not. The teenage child with no experience or knowledge of sex is presented as a sexualised (implied post-orgasm) adult with all the control and power that accompany that knowledge and experience. In case there's any doubt, she lovingly holds his hand when she sings about guilt and confusion. Which makes for a much easier resolution for the hero Melchior.

Many choose to create a less-confronting Spring Awakening, but the choice to be safe supports the very issues that this powerful piece of theatre is trying to change.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

24 May 2017

Review: Minnie and Liraz

Minnie and Liraz
Melbourne Theatre Company
22 May 2017
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 24 June

Minnie & Liraz. Virginia Gay, Rhys McConnochie, Nancye Hayes. Photo by Jeff Busby

One of the many things I love about Lally Katz's writing is that it really doesn't matter when a new show doesn't quite hit the mark. Often new writing needs to get on a stage and be seen before it really finds what it's meant to be and Minnie and Liraz, MTC, needs some time on (and off) the stage to find its stride.

The 90-something Cohens, Minnie (Nancye Hayes) and Morris (Rhys McConnochie), have been married for 70ish years and are living in an expensive, bland and peach-coloured retirement home in Caulfield (that doesn't feel like Caulfield). When Minnie's bridge partner dies, Liraz (Sue Jones) is  determined to take her place. The Cohens don't like aggressively loud Liraz, but she does have a single 36-year-old grandson (Peter Paltos) who might be perfect for their single 38-year-old granddaughter (Virginia Gay) – grandchildren would be worth the price of Liraz in the family. And for a lot of the night, the story plays out how it's expected to – but this is a Lally Katz play, so it's easy to reject the peach-coloured view of the world before getting too comfortable.

Katz writes from her life and the Cohens are based on her own grandparents and, perhaps, her own experience of finding someone who's your-kind-of-awesome in your late 30s. At her best, Katz's characters are created from such a place of love and understanding that it's impossible to see them as fiction.

Minnie and Liraz is at its most delightful when it explores character. With loving and detailed performances and direction (Anne-Louise Sarks) that focus on character, the love for these people  drive it far more than its story.

However, as the romance trajectory and the death of at least one oldies is inevitable, the plot and climax feel forced – no matter how funny – and there's a lot of awkward exposition that bring us back to watching the construct of the play rather than being in the world with these people. Much of the exposition is through Norma (Georgina Naidu). She's the staff member who knows her residents too well but always feels like the outsider or a convenience, like her running a memoir class that lets Morris tells the story that  tells everything about him but doesn't sit in the narrative.

Minnie and Liraz often feels as peachy safe as its decor and design. But does anybody really like peach? Lets hope we get the chance to see the much darker and tighter work that it will become.

23 May 2017

Review: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady
Opera Australia and John Frost
16 May 2017
Regent Theatre
to 27 July

My Fair Lady. Photo by Belinda Strodder

"Words, words, words!
I'm so sick of words
I get words all day through."

This was always my favourite song from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Even with misguided teen romance-goggles, I appreciated Eliza's frustration with being told what to do, think and say. Show her! Show me! Show us!

Which is hard to do in a theatre that doesn't let most of the audience connect with the show.

Opera Australia and John Frost have re-creacted the original 60-year-old iconic Broadway production. To bring some relevance (and bonus music-theatre nerd squee points), it was directed by Dame Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle.

And it is a glorious re-creation of a magnificent production. Those Cecil Beaton costumes! That Oliver Smith set! The Ascott Opening Race!

Based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion, the story of the flower seller Eliza being taught how to be a "lady" by the pompous Professor Henry Higgins is well known. And as long as those romance-goggles don't interfere with the idea of the very young woman falling for the much older man who treats her like scum and really doesn't respect or like the women in his life, it's an insightful reflection of the gender, class and social power that, sadly, rings as true today as it did 100 years ago.

What makes this production more than a re-creation is that contemporary opinions have shaped the performances.

Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins, Henry's mother, and Deirdre Rubenstein as Mrs Pearce, Henry's housekeeper, bring strength and power to the women who know how their social positions are controlled by others. Reg Livermore's Alfred Doolittle and Tony Llewellyn-Jones's Colonel Pickering balance of clowning with the understanding of men who are beginning to lose their social power with age.

Charles Edwards (my Downton Abbey fan-heart smiled) lets Henry see his own absurdity, even if he refuses to budge. Edwards performance is excellent, but it is strange that there isn't a middle aged, English-speaking actor in Australia who would have been just as terrific.

Which leaves Anna O'Byrne as Eliza. She's wonderful. She ensures that Eliza's choice to go to Higgins is far more than an attempt to escape poverty, and lets her heart break when she realises that her education may have left her with less than what she started with.

But if you're sitting anywhere other than the first  rows of this huge theatre, it's difficult to appreciate what makes this more than a re-creation. It wasn't designed or directed for the Regent Theatre. It's visually magnificent and grand but its emotional power relies on performances and people. Even with such strong performances, I don't know how  Eliza feels in the final scene – I was too far away; even in good seats – which is the moment that makes or breaks a contemporary My Fair Lady.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

20 May 2017

I'm scared to review: Wild Bore

Wild Bore
Malthouse Theatre
18 May 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 4 June

Wild Bore. Zoe Coombs Marr. Photo by Tim Grey

Wild Bore. noun
1. Those who talk out of their arse, dribble shit and don't understand dramaturgical intent.
2. Theatre reviewer.

It's also Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott's response to critical responses to their own work, and that of others. Opening to a critical contingent of two at Malthouse on Thursday, its verbatim(ish) mash-up of memorable reviews is as much a celebration of arts writing as it is a hilarious damnation of us who write those so-wanted-but-so-hated reviews.

Readers of reviews and critical writing in Melbourne will recognise some of the quoted voices.

But I'm not cunty enough to have been quoted.*

I don't know how I feel about that.

It's really nice to be quoted.

There are plenty of theatre makers who think I'm a bitch. I've seen the letters about my ignorance and know about the quest to get me banned. Most of these criticisms of the critic have been over writing about women's voices, women's points-of-view and how women are presented on stages.

I should have said feminist (bitch).

Wild Bore is mostly about people who write about women with a gaze that makes women feel so fucking special.

It's why these performers continue to make theatre that also encourages critical responses that use less-quotable words like gender, privilege, diversity and gaze. And why that writing can get a bit sweary because we're fucking over having to explain why we're fucking over it.

Remember when Jane Montgomery Griffiths wrote a response to reviews on ArtsHub that questioned a gender bias in reviews about her interpretation of Antigone (Malthouse, 2015)? Grab a snack and go deep into the comments – some are in the show – and know that the ones that were going on in a not-so-public sphere were funnier, smarter and bitchier. Some of us do censor our public voices.

Wild Bore. Ursula Martinez Photo by Tim Grey

This work – which they've been developing in their three home continents while performing their own shows – naturally focuses on the negative reviews and the failure (perceived or willful) of the writers to understand (or accept) the intent of the works.

With their best cheeks forward – the talking-out-of-the-arse imagery is clear –, each discuss reviews of their work that didn't get chosen for their pull quote of adoring adjectives or appropriate number of stars. Having seen the shows discussed, it was confronting to hear only the negative voices.

As artists and creators, do you really listen to those voices? Are the positive, researched, sat-up-until-4am-trying-to-get-the-words-right, you-made-me-feel-and-care reviews dismissed by the negative?

Of course, it makes far better theatre to use the negative voices – and the Wild Bore performances as described by the reviews may be worth the pain of those bad reviews. But it highlights why the bad bad reviews are encouraged, and why the responsibility of a reviewer's voice isn't necessarily considered.

Negative, bitchy reviews with memorable metaphors get read. They get shared. They get clicks. They encourage engagement and conversation. And so writers are encouraged, and often paid, to write more reviews like that.

It's awesome to be read.

It's brilliant to get paid to write.

Arts writers are writers. WE LOVE BEING READ.

Verbose metaphors get read.

Can anyone who read Byron Bache's corn-in-the-poo quote ever forget it? The show (The Crucible, MTC 2013) may have been forgotten, but not that quote. It got him regular paid work; the dream of most arts writers. But despite him continuing with some excellent writing and critical comment, he might only be remembered as the corn-in-the-poo quote critic. Arts writers understand irony.

Those gloriously hideous reviews are read.

They not only get read more than the positive ones, they get a bloody wonderful feminist theatre show made out of them.

 And, shhh, Krishna Istha.

Wild Bore. Adrienne Truscott & Zoe Coombs Marr. Photo by Tim Grey

*Or nice enough to be in nice quotes on the web page.

Time to Talk with The Guardian, 23 May after the 7 pm performance, Van Badham joins the cast to talk about their encounters with critics.

Monash Meets Malthouse, 27 May at 5 pm at  Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Alison Croggon, Cameron Woodhead, Richard Watts and Fleur Kilpatrick join the cast to discuss artists responding to critics.

The reviews

Maxim Boon: themusic.com.au

Alison Croggon: The Monthly

Cameron Woodhead: The Age

Rose Johnstone: Time Out

Keith Gow: keithgow.com

Kate Herbert: Herald Sun

16 May 2017

Review: Spencer

Lab Kelpie
12 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 28 May

Spencer. Lyall Brooks, Jamieson Caldwell, Fiona Harris, Jane Clifton. Photo by Pier Carthew

Independent company Lab Kelpie (Adam Fawcett and Lyall Brooks) have been quietly finding their space in Melbourne's theatre community with Fat Pig, Super Girly, Elergy and A Prudent Man. Discussing concerns, especially about the social power, and presenting characters that are too often ignored on our stages, they continue to bring us some of the most exciting new writing around.

Following the success of Katy Warner's one-act A Prudent Man at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe (performed by Brooks, heading to New York in November and back in Melbourne the same week), Spencer is her new full-length work. If this production – cast, design, direction, Lyall's undies – doesn't get picked up by bigger stages and/or tours the country, there's something wrong.

Going back to the family home makes the most grown-up of us behave with the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old wanting to play with a tired puppy.

Scott (Jameison Caldwell) is the younger brother of Ben (Brooks) and Jules (Fiona Harris). In his 20s, he still lives at home with his mum Marilyn (Jane Clifton), but he's the most successful in the family because he plays professional AFL. Ben's always there to offer advice, even if his own footy career didn't work out, and because he's had to move back in the family home. They are soon joined by 30-something big sister Jules who needs her old room again. Still, everyone is excited because Scott's two-year-old son, Spencer, is visiting for the first time. He may not have been around for his first couple of years, but he's family and is already considered more family than their father Ian (Roger Oakley) who hasn't seen his adult children since they were children.

Warner has captured an authentic and loving Australian suburban voice. It's confronting – we don't sound like that! Yes we do – and so familiar that it's easy to find the awkward comfort of laughing at ourselves.

Warner's characters are written from the inside out. They are so easy to laugh at, but they are always recognisably real and the reasons for their decisions and behaviour are always painfully clear.

This emotional undercurrent is supported with Sharon Davis's tight direction that lets the rhythm build and fall naturally and ensures a consistent tone that never lets the performances or the script fall into a world where we're laughing at them and not at ourselves.

And there's a lot of laughing – it's squeak-out-loud hilarious. With timing that reads the audience perfectly, each performer brings a touch of clown but they all start with the heart and humanity of their characters. They do and say the most horrible things, and we still love them like family.

Bryn Cullen's costumes of K-Mart chic uggies, too-bright colours and clothes-we-only-wear-around-the-house add to the comedy without feeling unnatural. As does the design (Cullen and Rob Sowinski) of faux-wood panels with cheaply-framed family photos, furniture and a stereo that were new (or off the side of the road) in the 1990s, and a green vinyl kitchen chair (that I want) that's slightly exaggerated and full of visual surprises. It shows us everything about this family and still feels like we've all lived there.

Even though we may not know Marilyn, Ian, Jules, Ben and Scott, they are our families. They are the frustration and  resentment, the in-jokes that aren't funny to anyone else – Coco Pops are now ruined –, the behaviour that's only accepted if you share a bond that can't be broken, and the love that makes all the bad feel worse and still forgives everything.

Warner's script should be published and this production left me feel as good as watching The Castle or Kath and Kim. It's hilarious and it hurts in all the right places because it's us.

PS. I only tweeted about A Prudent Man and Super Girly: they were both ace.

14 May 2017

Review: Awakening

and fortyfivedownstairs
11 May 2017
to 21 May

MUST, Awakening. Photo by Theresa Harrison

Spoiler alert: the last paragraph discusses the ending. 

MUST's production of Awakening was one of my favourite shows in 2016.  It gave me a fist-size ball of pain under my heart but ultimately left me so happy that young theatre makers are confronting the bullshit that surrounds them and are showing us that we can and will overcome the trauma and pain that threaten to define us. Thankfully, fortyfivedownstairs also saw what a remarkable work it was and have given it a second season.

Written and directed by Daniel Lammin, it’s a response to Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening. The story is often sub-titled "A children's tragedy" and was censored and banned for many years as it confronts sex, masturbation, rape, abortion, abuse, depression, suicide, religious hypocrisy and adults’ failure to educate, love and look after the children in their care. It's also known because of the Tony-winning 2006 musical adaption (Stage Art's production begins on 19 May).

Lammin has removed some characters and, with a cast of six, focuses on the stories of 14-year-old Wendla and Melchior. Sharing the roles – the three women play Wendla and the three men play Melchior – takes away the easy-to-distance focus of one character's decisions and lets us see, and feel, far more complex points of view.

It also lets us get closer to the cast: Nicola Dupree, Samantha Hafey-Bagg, Eamonn Johnson, James Malcher, Sam Porter and Imogen Walsh. Each had moments that broke my heart and each find the emotional truth in all the characters they play, often showing a side of the story that's easy to reject or forget, or too painful to confront.

The first half remains in the 1890s and while it reaches to now with music and experience, its story of sexual repression is so infuriatingly familiar that it's impossible to dismiss the fear that we're not getting better as a society.

After the gut-punch anger of Act 1, the second half does bring the story into now and confronts our complicity of living in a world that still allows children and teenagers to be so hurt.

Lammin and his cast were developing the piece when Safe Schools was being attacked last year. I don't have the words to describe the unthinkable selfish ignorance of anyone who wants to shame a child, and to see children being shamed by our government, media, schools and community leaders is the shame my generation of adults will have to live with. It's almost a follow up to Hannah Gadsby's astonishing Nanette at MICF. It's easy to talk about protecting children, but these are the children and they are still hurting and being hurt in ways that are unacceptable.

While the last scenes are relentless in their pain and their search for hope and explanation, the story doesn't end with shame and anger. The original ending is easy to predict because young men still take their own lives and it's a standard story move to remove a young woman who is raped and inconveniences everyone around her.

This Awakening rejects that and changes Wendla's story. It gives her power and strength and everything that is taken away from her in the emotive and too-often-repeated story.

It still left me with a ball of pain under my heart, but as long as we keep telling stories like this, we will overcome the ignorance and we will get better as a society.

13 May 2017

Review: Cabaret

David M Hawkins
1 May 2017
The Athenaeum
to 27 May

David M Hawkins's production of Cabaret may be as pretty as Sally Bowles's green nail polish, but the only person who loved the green was Sally* and we know her manicure was cheap and chipped.

After a mixed reaction to the Sydney season (now referred to as the preview season), Hawkins brought in director Gale Edwards to sort out the Melbourne run. With Paul Capsis as the Emcee, Kate Fitzpatrick as Fraulein Schneider and Chelsea Gibb as Sally, hopes were high.

Based on a short story Christopher Isherwood wrote in Berlin in the 1930s, Cabaret is seen through the eyes of American Clifford Bradshaw who arrives in Berlin and meets English cabaret singer Sally. The stage version surprises those who expect the 1972 film adaption by Bob Fosse, but the different characters and songs are always a welcome surprise.

Set in and around the seedy Kit Kat Klub as the truth of the Nazi's power is being realised, any new Cabaret defines itself with its design. And while the stage design with a wooden floor with footlights suggests a trip to Weimar Berlin – and is gorgeously accentuated by the plush velvet and fading decadence of the nineteenth-century Athenaeum theatre – the costume design doesn't declare a time or place. Spotlessly clean and very sequinny (and, oddly, not sexy), they don't seem to have been developed from or for character and stress that the approaching hell, that we know this world is about to descend into, is a facade that's as authentic as a Cabaret-themed dinner party.

The likes of a giant Hitler mask, some slick swastikas and goose-stepping chorey (which might be trying to be a nod to Fosse) remove the strength of the work's moral ambiguity and the direction doesn't let the dramatic tension of the loss of hope lead the story.

The direction seems focussed on scenes rather than the bigger picture and story. Choices like bringing Cliff into Kit Kat Klub numbers take away his strength as the observer who can see that it's about to collapse and that he has to leave. Making Jewish shop keeper Herr Shultz the Jewish gorilla in "If you could see her" takes away any hope for his fate. And giving Sally an "I will listen" line in Frauline Schneider's "What would you do" diminishes the older woman's desperate plea to find any way to let herself marry and be happy – let alone that Sally's story is that she doesn't listen.

Capsis is, of course, the ideal choice as the Emcee, but his role on the stage is confusing. Neither benevolent or indulgent, he's left side stage as observer more than a participant. Gibb lets Sally's fear and vulnerability show but, like Capsis, is restricted by the production that doesn't seem to want to be more than pretty. I'd love to see them both – and the rest of the cast – in a different production.

And enough has already been said about the technical difficulties on opening night.

* and me; I still wear emerald green nail polish thanks to Liza.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.