22 December 2007

Short and Sweet 07 Week 3 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 3 Wildcards
22 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

Short and Sweet 2007 finished with an afternoon of Wildcards that surpassed Week Three’s Top 10.
Mr and Mrs Metcalf Enjoy the Music of Elton John
Frank Legget’s work moved perfectly from excellent character portraits to well written action and poignant conclusion. It could have been much blacker with a couple of different choices, but still worked well as a relatively straight drama.
Break Up
Too often directors make a choice that distracts from the story. Nicola Fearn’s choice to perform the script in the audience gave the performers, and the audience, a much broader scope to explore. Steve Wheat’s script about a break up sex contract would have been just as funny and original on the stage, but no where near as fun.
Sorry, but we’ve heard it before. This story is regularly told on the 6.30 current affairs shows and in grade seven essays. Yes, women have issues with their body image. Yes, it’s hard to be fat and, yes, thin people also have trouble buying clothes. Issues need stories to make good and engaging theatre. The costumes were fun, but I didn’t know what they were trying to mean. Finally Dew Chaiyanara’s work came alive and interesting in the last moments. This is where it should have started.
The Knitting Circle
Another piece based on a well explored issue. This time it’s abortion. However, Susan Pellegrino’s piece approached it with originality and Brenda Addie directed it with a theatricality that made it fascinating, beautiful and strong. The choir like presentation of the dialogue, the costumes and tight staging showed that issue based scripts can make excellent theatre.
In the Closet with Pamela Anderson
Natalie Faulkner’s piece had the most original concept of the season. It opens in the dark and stays that way, as we discover our characters are shut in a closet. Fairy lights and shadows let the characters communicate and let the audience listen.
Of Art and Artifice
Christian Price and Megan Price write witty work. But wit alone doesn’t sustain. This was about a meeting between Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Florence. Google told me she eventually became Florence Stoker. I think I understood most of the jokes (You’re such a blood sucker Bram), but so much of the humour relied upon the audience’s knowledge of these characters are and their future life story. If they were called Fred, Barney and Wilma – it wouldn’t have worked. And, I have to wonder why any author would try and pit themselves against the wit of Wilde. It’s setting up a comparison that is never going to work in your favour.
668: The Neighbour of the Beast
I love the 668 joke. So does Andy Piper. So much that the whole work is just a variation on one joke. At times it’s very funny, but why give away the joke in the title and opening of the play? Once we know the punch line, re-telling and re-telling the joke just gets tedious.
Andy Keegan’s took a confronting sexual encounter into the world of the ordinary. This is what made it so very interesting. It took us where we didn’t expect to go. To make the change and truth of the work more powerful, I would have liked to see the first half more confronting and more dangerous.
The Gravediggers
I don’t know what Angus Grant’s play was about. There was no action and two pretty standard characters who were gravediggers. There were some nicely written rants – but that’s all they were.
Wayne Tunks has written a delightfully satirical and nostalgic work that opens the snap tight Tupperware lid on its (still fresh) characters. Filled with the unexpected and the expected, Daniel Lammin’s direction sustained a perfect final play for the 2007 competition.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

19 December 2007

Short and Sweet 07 Week 3 Top 10

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 3 Top 10
19 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

I wasn’t blown away by Short and Sweet’s Week Three Top 10. There was a lot of issue writing and point making this week and content seemed more important than story. Theatre can tell us about issues so powerfully, but when it becomes preachy it so often falls flat.

Brocade Sonata
The complex staging of Machination Theatre’s piece overwhelmed the writing and the story. What was the narrator’s story? She could have been reciting the alphabet. The direction was more interested in showing off the contorting and twisting bodies of its cast than telling a story. It was meant to be erotic and seductive. It came across as naughty (not even funny) innuendo. And “He is erect. She is moist.” Dull writing or was it describing that he was standing and she was a bit sweaty under the lights, because they certainly didn’t seem interested in each other.

Bomb Disposal
Kate Toon knows how to write a short play. She deftly combined past tense description with present action, balanced the authentic characters well, gave an original plot that surprised and maintained interest and actually gave her characters problems that resulted in definitive action. Supported by engaging performances and well paced direction, this was my favourite of the night.

Uncontrollable Performance Art Moments
Nothing like a few funny costumes and wacky dance moves to get an audience laughing. Simon Brook has written a cute story about the absurdity and passion of the performance artist. As everyone was caricatures, I would have liked to see them more absurd and outrageous.

The Gentleman Had an Axe
David Astle’s ambitious script about football, fatherhood and the white settlement of Melbourne suffered with its direction. The complex structure and multi-time plot became confusing and the decision to have black playing white and white playing black sometimes seemed contrived, rather than powerful. It’s of those pieces where the structure and writing were so good that they overtook the story telling. Show more, tell less and work on gaining audience empathy for the characters.

Word Space
I liked the kerning joke. I don’t know if it did anything for the characters or the story, but it was a nice joke for anyone who deals with printed text. Elizabeth Bennett really seemed to want to write about the “No War” protest painted on the Sydney Opera House. Shame, because somewhere in the story is a very funny character and situation that didn’t get the chance to be appear. A graffiti artist who corrects the grammar of other street artists. That’s a brilliant start to a piece. The two kids on the opera house wondering if they were going to get shot and debating the value of protest was a bit dull. Please write something else about the grammar corrector.

You Me and Desiree Potato
Lovely, gentle performances sustained Lachlan Philpott’s piece. The writing was poetic and would be beautiful to read, but it didn’t work as a play. This would be a stunning short story.

Blindingly Obvious Facts
It’s great to see a Ben Ellis piece again. The writing was complex, but clear, yet it suffered, like many others tonight, by having the content dominate the story. I liked hearing the different opinions as I am interested in the content. However I needed to see the play give the audience a reason to watch these people and listen. They were directed as disjointed voices and opinions, not as people who we were interested in and wanted to listen to. The final moment with the silent Rachel was nonetheless stunning.

No it wasn’t. It was OK. It was nicely written and structured by Aaron Scully and well performed. The direction was based on one idea and a bit stilted. There wasn’t a moment when we didn’t know every single thing that was going to happen to these two people. Please do something nasty or funny or absurd or surprising to these soap worthy characters. Cute, romantic, happy ending stories are perfect dinner table conversations – this is theatre, you can do so much more.

I almost really loved Krista Dalby’s piece, until the conclusion. It deftly explored the different perspectives of the same relationship. The office romance story can so easily be boring, but this was told with a freshness that overcame any issues of predictability. We cared about these people and understood why they acted liked they did. Then their skyscraper building exploded (or perhaps a plane flew into it……) I’m guessing it was meant to be sobering and poignant. Sometimes the brilliant idea you have when you start writing becomes the thing that should get cut.

A Dish Best Served Cold
Frank Otis wrote some very, very, very angry hurt women. This play went in hard and tried to shock. It's an angry, rape revenge piece. The content was far more important than the characters who become stereotyped revenge filled anger demons. Each woman needed to be much broader to become real on that stage. Some of what they said was superb – but got lost in the anger. Maybe it would have worked as a series of monologues without the actual presence of the rapist. Then we could hear their stories, rather than waiting for them to sodomise him with the large stick.

15 December 2007

iOTA and The Beauty Queens

iOTA and The Beauty Queens
15 December 2007
The Famous Spiegeltent

What do you do when you have a full Spiegeltent full of devoted fans, a show dependant upon the sound you’ve spent weeks perfecting on the computer and the gods of technology decide to curse you? You do the show anyway – of course.
iOTA and the Beauty Queens (Sharpy & Timmy) didn’t expect to be doing a semi-acoustic show with lots of bass and drum. They did describe the sound they created and it sounded like it would have been amazing. But I didn’t really care and neither did anyone else there.
I wanted to see iOTA perform. I’m still chastising myself for missing the Melbourne season of Hedwig and now know that I will need a trip to Sydney to see him as Frank.
iOTA is a rare genuine mix of rock, punk, gender bending and pure charisma. You don’t want to take your eyes off him. Combine that with a well trained, honeyesque voice that lovingly embraces the harshness of rock without losing any tone or control. It must be scary to be called enigmatic, but IOTA lives up to his reputation.
I don’t know his original music enough to comment on the effect of the technical problem, but I was mesmerised and would have bought a CD if they’d been selling them. I’ll go and find myself one this week.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Short and Sweet 07 Week 2 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 2 Wildcards
15 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

Short and Sweet Week Two Wildcards exposed a lot of lovely writing, but not enough stories. And there was a general imbalance between direction and writing.

Keeping Annabelle
Rachel Welch’s script is a very satisfying dark grey. The plot twists and heads in unexpected directions and she never reveals all the information. Keeping Annabel and the reason for her kidnap a secret, ensures that the story is always about the people actually on the stage.

All The Way To The Top
There were some terrific comic performances in this offering from Pregnant Goldfish productions. It was tightly directed and a lot of fun, but there was no story. It was a great sketch though. Some work on the individual stories of the characters would take it a step further.

4 Seconds
Leon Foo’s protagonist is scared of clichés, but Foo has written a short play full of clichés. The lover’s story was told in a very interesting, original and potentially engaging fashion, but every moment of their courtship and relationship was as predictable as a Home and Away episode. Too much focus on agenda, rather than character and story.

The Anniversary
No where is safe. Two Brooklyn women have found themselves in Siberia. We assume because New York isn’t the safe place it used to be. Drew Larimore’s script combines good characters with mystery, tension and comedy. Nicely paced direction and performances.

Just Another Tuesday Night
Natalie Lopes’ script is one of the best written pieces I’ve seen this festival. It gently unfolds a complex and authentic story without ever letting any one character dominate or distract. Unfortunately the direction of this piece dominated. The choice to double cast may have been fun, but I never saw a reason for it. It didn’t add to the story. It did distract from the story. Uneven performances from the large cast added to the distraction. We were watching how it was told, not what was being told. The best direction goes unnoticed.

Sally’s Choice
Cerise de Gelder’s created authentic characters and gave them a funny, original story and a divine dilemma. This should have been a laugh ‘til it hurts farce. The ingredients were perfect. It became a bit of a girls “why doesn’t me love me” ho-hum whine. Then it got good again. A much faster pace, a couple more twists and getting rid of the relationship speeches would turn this into a total winner.

The Pursuit of Happiness
Who knew life as a suffix could be so complicated? Michael McManus loves his metaphors and his complex nouns. It all works pretty well on the stage. The direction needed to be tighter and a few bits can easily be cut, but the concept was original. Nice to see language literally playing on the stage.

…I AM…
Julianne Donavan’s performance was stunning. Without doubt the most engaging and emotionally real performance of the afternoon. Mary Ann Butler’s script would have been so much more powerful with more work on story. Give this woman something to motivate her thoughts and actions. Give her a problem that leads to this exploration of herself. I kept expecting her to reveal that she’d had sex with her son’s friend or something along those lines. The sentiment was superb and let’s see more writing for women who do have grey pubes.

Notes of State
I wonder how much of the staging and direction came from Felcity Decker’s script. This was another play where the direction was so distracting that the story became secondary. What was the point of the upstage action when the character was narrating it anyway? The drunk/sober personalities didn’t even resemble each other and there were no consequences for his actions. Give him a tragic or a funny consequence to motivate his change. I’m not sure how the standard getting a bit pissed at work drinks scenario led to his actions.

Let’s hope that the sentiment of Darinka Kralj’s script becomes more and more historical everyday. Very funny and perfect snapshot of the unAustralian Howard years, complete with sorry jokes, clever country jokes and the inevitable map of tassie reference. My pick of the afternoon.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

12 December 2007

Short and Sweet 07 Week 2 Top 10

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 2 Top 10
12 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

Short and Sweet’s Week Two Top 10 were a mixed bag. There were the expected mix of enjoyable, but tasteless jubes, overly sweet clinkers and rubber band textured snakes - but every now and then a delicious hand crafted dark chocolate appeared, filled with a bitter marzipan or creamy ganache.

The Replacement Son
The program blurb gave away the plot. Actually the title gave away the one sustaining joke. Steven Hounsome structures well and the joke was a good one, but he gave limited, almost stereotyped characters. There’s dumb Aussie sheila, dumb country farmer and angry young art student with red hair - with offstage good boy geek thrown in for balance. The characters need to be fleshed out and made real if we are to care about them and their fate. It was never clear why the parents rejected their son. And why do poor struggling artists write about poor struggling, talentless artists? Why not give Shaun an original and interesting reason to go to the big smoke.

The Critics
Another serve of bland “seen it all before” character. This time – it’s a critic. Do you really take what we say seriously? Ian Grody has actually written a bloody funny piece about actors and their egos, but hidden it behind a buffoonish critic. It plays with form and is full of in jokes. The staging needs some tightening and it would have been nice to see the direction explore the works inherent theatricality. But, of course, I’m one of that breed of semi-evil, talentless wanna bes - who “obviously don’t know one thing about who does what in the theatre.”

Lobster Tales
This was physical, fun, theatrical and took us into the expected and the totally unexpected. It’s about belief and faith and short memories and what blokes talk about when they’re alone. Michael A Strang knows his lobsters (and his blokes).

It’s hard to cut your writing. But sometimes you have to lose good stuff to give a piece strength and impact. The metaphors in Mark Andrews piece got in the way of the story – like a cat (who got out of the fridge) and a dog (with bared teeth) running in front of the television. There were some powerful and incredibly moving images in this work, but one would have had more impact than the many. The direction and ultimate performance started too intensely, giving it no where to go emotionally and I did not believe that this person was suffering from post traumatic stress. Perhaps a little bit more research would have helped.

Cable Car of Death
This is the kind of fabulous original writing that appears in this festival. Nathan Curnow had me from the opening moment. Development at Crash Test Drama has obviously tightened and perfected the humour, the drama and the characters in this piece. Who would have thought some facts about Houdini’s death would lead to a work set high above the Alps? Each character has their own problems to face and resolve, there are great one liners hidden in the dialogue and no one is predictable.

49 Stories about Brian MacKenzie
I loved this play. It was sweet, emotionally real and poignant. The actor never said a word. We watched slides and listened to a perfect soundtrack. James Henderson’s music reminded me of Hal Hartley’s first films. Alix Stirling gently directed Gregory Hardigan’s unique script to its moving climax. Nicholas Bendall’s non-performance was the most generous and moving performance of the night.

And we’re back to our list of well known characters. This time it’s angry young woman at protest and young cop rethinking his career. Tom Taylor wrote a great ending, but his characters spent too much time mouthing statements rather than telling us about themselves. The dialogue never sounded authentic and I didn’t care what happened to either of them.

On the Cards
Scott McAteer always surprises with his plots. He never lets the audience get ahead of him. What do you do if your drunk psychic has predicted the love of your life will break your heart? Do you still meet them? Good characters, original plot and a damn good laugh. The direction could be a bit tighter and the author could research tarot and divination a bit more to create greater authenticity.

The Neils
Meet Neil, Neil, Neil, Neil, Neil and Patrick. Miles Blackford’s script is bizarre, surprising and one of the night’s favourites. Shiralee Hood’s direction used movement superbly and let the work build to its inevitable violence. The performers may need to step away from their characters for a bit though. It was coming across a bit too much like a competition to see who could be the funniest Neil.

The Lobotomist
If this doesn’t win the People’s Choice award, I’ll be surprised. When theatre in decay get it right – they get it right. Robert Reid writes damn fine satirical musical theatre. The music is spot on, the content perfect (lobotomy is usually treated far too seriously) and there’s a mad doctor to balance out the straight love interests. Robert Lloyd has found the character he has was meant to play and Ben MacKenzie lets him revel in the madness. Unfortunately Madeline Asbry gets lost amongst these two. Her character may need to be strengthened to perfect the work. Just remember that “a dream can only hurt you if you let it get away.”
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

08 December 2007

Short and Sweet 07 Week 1 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 1 Wildcards 8 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The first of the Short and Sweet 07 Wildcard sessions offered a diverse group of plays in terms of content and quality. The focus was on works developing from different processes; including group devised, group written, the winner of the Short and Sweet schools’ program and a selection from the Monday night Crash Test season at Dantes.

Patricia Corneulis’ play was all about being good, whether it was playing football or simply being a good fuck. The direction was uneven and stilted and the cross between narrative and action wasn’t clean or clear. I have no idea why characters were left on the stage “watching” action that didn’t relate to their story. By standing around like shag on a rock, they drew attention away from the action. Sylvie was the only character who really came to life and was interesting. I really think this would have worked better if it was a monologue by Doug. His story is great, but the telling may be better in a different form.

Sage and Maximillian
Brooke Fairly’s piece combined narrative and action very well. The complex plot was sometimes dense and difficult to follow, but the telling was poetic and Terri Brabon directed it with a gentle and beautiful theatricality. Nonetheless I was left wondering how she leant her curse was a gift.

The Empty Space
Chris Dickens directed his own work. The writing itself is poetic and beautiful, but the telling was confusing and the plot didn’t come together until the last moments. It may have benefited from the impartial eye of another director. Penelope Jade Philippiadis’ performance was one of the best of the afternoon.

The Jumping Play
Every time I see Angus Cerini on stage, he’s in underwear. This time he jumps. Even if it’s more a sketch that a play, it was still very funny, original and engaging. It played with form and performance and was of my favourites.

Sweet’n’Sour Circus presented a sweet ‘n’ cute shadow puppet story, but I was waiting for something to happen. I kept thinking that the puppet story was an introduction to the real play – but it wasn’t. The final joke when the real pirates appear ended with them bowing, not carrying on with the story. Turns out this is the opening scene of a longer work. This explains a lot. I suspect the full work will be very good. But if it isn’t a stand alone short piece, why was it in this festival?

Good characters, good performances and lots and lots SMS jokes. Sometimes the jokes got in the way of the story, but it was still engaging and fun. Having three writers helped to create very different voices for the characters, which was tightly directed to create a smooth final piece.

The Salsa Slur
This was a group devised piece created to deal with the fact that there STILL aren’t enough good roles being written for women. This process also allowed authentic and real characters to be created by the actors (I am of the school that calls male and female performers actors. We don’t have directresses, playwrightesses, designeresses and journalistesses). My mini-rant aside, this process developed an engaging and funny work. I would have really liked to see some use of the Salsa though. As it stood, it could just have easily have been set in a pilates or a pottery class.

Double Dana
Christina Costigan’s script focussed too much on the writing. We were listening to the very clever writing, rather than being immersed into the lives of the characters. Serial monogamy is a common theme. Perhaps Dana needed to come across something unexpected?

This was the winner of the Fast and Fresh program run in high schools. Melbourne Girls College deservedly won with this satirical and fun piece, which stood equally with all the other Wildcards. The imagery was sometimes obvious and the characters fell into stereotypes, but it presented a very clear voice and message about the teen view of technology and resources.

Death by 1000 cuts
In a program of this quality I don’t expect to use the word overacted. I don’t know if it was the direction or the excitement of the performance, but neither character seem authentic or believable. I didn’t believe for a minute that Josh wanted to kill himself and the change in Ang was too sudden and not consistent with her earlier character. Mika Tsio’s script is well written and well structured, but needs a bit of work on the characters and would have benefited from clearer and firmer direction.

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com.

05 December 2007

Short and Sweet 07 Week 1 Top 10

Short and Sweet 2007 Week 1 Top 10
5 December 2007
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

‘Tis the season to watch many short plays. Short and Sweet 07 had 1141 script entries this year. 60 were chosen and the absolute best of this group will win a share of the $30 000 prize pool. Short and Sweet is addictive. One you’ve seen one night, you just can’t stop yourself coming back for more.

There are three weeks to the competition. Each week sees 10 of the Top 30 and 10 Wildcard performances. Scripts were entered from all over Australia and playwrights from 12 other countries also wanted to be involved in this fabulous program. The selected scripts are presented by some of Melbourne’s best independent directors and performers.

Week One’s Top 30 group willingly experimented with form and structure. Some succeeded in breaking new ground, while others could benefit from less focus on the brilliance of the writing and more on the telling of the story. Even in such a short format, a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

Sleeping Leeches
Liza Dezfouli explores love and dating when your nearly 40. Is it any different or do we start making choices that we would have rejected in our earlier years? There is some very beautiful, funny and emotionally honest writing in this work, but it needs something more to happen in the telling. A bit more action or a twist in the plot would help these excellent characters to tell a great story.

It’s an old story that can, and should, be told and retold. Why don’t we act when our friends are attacked and disappear? Sarah Giles directs Steven Hopley’s script with a highly effective theatricality. The characters are dressed in blueprints and pattens, but can’t see the obvious pattern appearing before them. The heightened performances support the comedy and keep us interested, even though we know what will happen.

Thrilling Hostage Melodrama at High Speeds With Pineapple
The title says it all. Reservoir Dogs with chicks. Adam Hadley’s script is a great contrast of characters and energy that is supported by good direction and good performances. It’s well paced, very funny and throws in a good mix of surprises.

The Gap
OK, I have to admit that I may really have been the most stupid person in the audience that night. I didn’t immediately realise that the people stuck in a glass round room, dressed in orange and called Nemo and Fishie were fish. I look so hard for the subtle, that I miss the bloody obvious! However, I thought it was a great piece of writing no matter what. Phoebe Harley directed her own script. At times it focused too much on the writing, but the repetition and the structure create good tension, good pace and lead to a suspenseful and perfect ending.

Hope Fades But The Duck Never Dies
Jane Miller’s script is emotionally real and engaging. She presents two very different perspectives of the same relationship and questions why we want to keep a relationship that we know is already destroyed. Her metaphors are sometimes a bit forced, but original and totally in accord with her style. This work may struggle against the funnier pieces and needs some more focussed direction, but I think it was the best written piece of the night.

Bury Your Goldfish
I knew that this one really had fish in it. Michelle Wallace has written a very original and engaging piece that compares a mother’s perspective of her teenage daughter to the perspective of the same daughter though the eyes of her goldfish. Using puppets and a delightful cardboard set, this work uses the visual as a vital part of the story telling. It should have worked better than it did. Form was distracting from story and the decision to have the mother reading from a lectern never made sense.

a ramble through the wooded glen
Neighbours meets Deliverance. Thomas Henning already knows that his piece will be remembered for a very, very long time by anyone who sees it. I’m still not 100% sure what it was about, but it was dark and absurd and combined violence with slapstick and was prepared to go places that many would dare not venture.

Michael Goes Home
Bridgette Burton has written a very clever and well structured piece. It tells its story well and reveals information gently and powerfully. It was directed in a way that focussed a bit too much on the form and structure, which lessened the impact of the characters and their story. A better balance is needed between the four characters to lift its emotional impact.

Love Story 2007
I’m afraid that too many people sniggered simply because a young man fancied an older woman. Why is this still the case? I’m pretty sure the giggles would never have surfaced if the gender of the characters was reversed. Anna Lall’s premise and plot are very good. Her dialogue needs some work and the characters need some fleshing out. As an audience we needed to see a genuine and sexual connection between these two to make us really want them to be together.

Carnal Pseudo-Skewered Pig
Jane E Thomson is one of the few writers who really let her characters change and created the action for changes and surprises. Director Yvonne Virsik keeps the action lively, funny and paces it perfectly to an excellent ending

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com.

01 December 2007

The Choir of Hard Knocks

The Choir of Hard Knocks
1 December 2007
Vodaphone Arena

The Choir of Hard Knocks recently performed to 2700 people at the Sydney Opera House. Over 5000 Melbournians lined up to see them last weekend at the less posh, but just as welcoming Vodaphone Arena. Jonathon Welch ended the evening with the hope that the night left us all “with a bucket load of hope and inspiration”. There’s no denying that seeing this choir perform is one of the most inspiring and humbling ways to spend an evening, but should the concert be reviewed on its musical merits?
It definitely should. The choir was formed in 2006 by Rec Link and consists of 50 homeless and disadvantaged men and women. There are some rough voices in the choir, but they sound amazing.

Under the very firm guidance of Welch, this choir produces a sound that is so emotionally real that an occasional flat tone is irrelevant. Welch’s arrangements allow for every voice to join in and be heard. It’s not about proving who sounds the best; it’s about making a diverse group of voices sound spectacular.

The first standing ovation and wiping away of tears came when a group of young women sang “Beautiful”. How many young women today are able to have their beauty and worth affirmed by a cheering crowd? Holly told the audience that she couldn’t believe she was standing there with her family watching. She has been in recovery for four years and told us,”I’m clean and sober today”.

If you watched the ABC television series - Hank and Allan were both 118 days sober. Simon’s going to spend Christmas with his father and brothers and Belinda was eight weeks clean. Belinda isn’t in the choir right now due to her recovery, but she came and sang “The Special Two”. She said it was the first time she had sung without anything mind altering in her system. She sang like an angel – a confident, strong angel who I hope we will be listening to for many years to come.

We also met some new members. Teenage Nettie is a pianist and recovering from a severe eating disorder and compulsions that left her hands so cracked from constant washing that she couldn’t play. She said she had to find something to work towards to begin to take control. The huge audience were thrilled that she is playing again. Gina Marie is also a new choir member. Her presence is immediately noticeable as she almost shines. 12 months ago she began to go blind, then she discovered she had a brain tumour. She sings with a joy that affirms her hope that she has many tomorrows ahead of her.

The choir were joined by a notable series of special guests including Karen Knowles, Judith Durham and the phenomenal Tim McCallum (who sang the best “Love Changes Everything” with the choir that I’ve heard). It is a joy to see these singers, but this choir doesn’t need the crutch of celebrities. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t want to hear Judith Durham sing “Georgie Girl”, because I wanted to hear more and more of The Choir of Hard Knocks.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

27 November 2007


29 November2007
Her Majesty’s Theatre

If your aunt eats elderberries and you giggle at every shrubbery you see… well you know how much you will love Spamalot. This musical won the Best Musical Tony in 1995 because it’s damn good. The Australian production lives up to all expectations and should be farting in Melbourne’s general direction for a long while.
Spamalot was written by Eric Idle and is as good as everything else he wrote for Python. It’s “lovingly ripped off” from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Idle has left in the best bits, removed the bits that would be boring on stage and got rid of the bits that made us cringe (sorry lads – there’s no spanking – but there is a reference). He’s melded characters to create much more of a journey and story for the knights. For example after Dennis is found by Arthur in the mud, he is convinced to join the quest. “Kneel Galahad” “It’s Dennis”. Idle satirises and references all of Monty Python from Finland to suspenders and a bra, and Patsy gets to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” - without having to be crucified.

If you love Python, you’ll get every joke. But don’t worry if you don’t. The reason Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become one of the most quoted films, is because it’s one of the most original and inspired comedies ever written. “I’m not dead yet” is now a song, but remains one of the best jokes ever written. The French taunting is even funny when performed by drunk engineer undergraduates in the uni bar; so its side splitting when performed by professionals. Jokes like the cute little rabbit and the cow are still absurdly ridiculous, even if their success is based on knowledge of the film.

The stroke of genius was letting Mike Nichols direct. He certainly knows how to direct film and television (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Working Girl, Regarding Henry, Angels in America to name a few). Nichols gift as a director is to totally emerge the viewer into the world and lives of his characters. He takes the very, very funny Idle script and fleshes out the knights, so we come to love them as more than just “the bloke playing Michael Palin”. I suspect it’s Nichols who also brought in the abundance of musical theatre references. In his hands Spamalot has become a lampoon of all musicals - not just a hilarious musical.

Most of the new jokes are based on musicals. Phantom, West Side Story, Fiddler, Funny Girl, Rocky Horror, Boy From Oz, Les Mis (Eponine appears as a French person) are all there. And there’s more than one Aussie reference for our version. “You Won’t Succeed” is written just for Broadway. It’s about not being able to put on a musical without Jews. This kills every performance in Manhattan, but the Australian audience were not as comfortable laughing at the Jew jokes as they were at the French.

The Australian cast are all pretty close to perfect. Lucinda Shaw is the stand out as The Lady of the Lake. It’s a tough role. It was written to include a female in the all male story and much of the musical theatre satire rests with her. Lucinda excels. Her comic timing is only matched by her voice. Mark Conaghan (Prince Herbert), Jason Langley (brave Sir Robin), Ben Lewis (Dennis Galahad) and Derek Metzger (Patsy) are all memorable and have taken the roles beyond the film characters. Stephen Hall is wonderful as Lancelot, but has to stop pretending to be John Cleese. Billie Brown leads the knights as Arthur. Billie doesn’t match the vocal ability of the rest of the cast, which is especially noticeable in the duets, and he hasn’t completely embraced the character yet. Arthur is the serious one. Billie plays it like he’s the one in on the whole joke. We need to laugh more AT Arthur, rather than with him.

Spamalot already has repeat visitors and groupies at the theatre each night. (Idle spotting was very popular this week.) It’s going to settle for a long sold out run. There’s at least one seat that is sold out every performance until February. You’ll have to ask someone who has seen the show, as I don’t dare say anything more in print.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

14 November 2007

OK, So That Bit Was Easy

Tonight I watched the new great Aussie quiz show - “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”. Turns out I am. I knew what word is an amalgamation of web and log. I just don’t do it. (The contestant was a 20 something student welfare officer. He had no idea what a blog was and was rightly beaten by a group of far-too-cheery nine year olds.)

Feelings of intellectual superiority aside, it prompted me to finally get around to this. I write. I study writing. I sometimes get published. So, it's blog time.

I read some, envy some, ignore most, but it’s time to stake out my own little patch of cyber space. Ten minutes ago I was among the blogless. Fifteen minutes ago I wasn't sure where to start. Turns out this blog thing is really quite easy.

How To Have Your Own Blog 1. Go to blogs you read and use the same site they do.
Seriously - that's how easy it is. I’m here -that's how easy it is. And no longer can I scoff at the geekiness of those who type their lives into the web.

OK, now what………….. Perhaps I was still on a high from realising that I was way smarter than a fifth grader. And I do have a chapter of a novel I’m dying to re-write. And I did write nearly 800 words of a review tonight. So lets save the creativity for times when there is anyone other than me reading this.

10 November 2007

Spontaneous Broadway

Spontaneous Broadway
10 November 2007
The Speigeltent

The plots, characters and tunes improvised in Spontaneous Broadway are more engaging, original and downright hilarious than most popular musicals.
I’ve been singing “Chickens Dream Too” all weekend. It was an unknown ballad until Saturday afternoon - when Dame Helen Highwater created it. Spontaneous Broadway is improvised musical theatre.
Thank God You’re Here gives telly fans an idea of what impro is about. But compared to Spontaneous Broadway, the TV impro is like paddling in a pool with floaties compared to a swimming Bass Straight in a winter storm, tied to five other people. There are no costumes, supporting cast or film editor to make you look clever on stage.
Spontaneous Broadway are the totally fabulous Genevieve Morris, Geoff Paine, Julia Zemiro, Ross Daniels, Russell Fletcher and pianist extraordinaire John Thorn. They play characters plucked from every community musical group – each aspiring to me so much more than they ever will be. In character, they work with audience suggestions and improvise a song from the potential musical.
The audience vote for their favourite and then the whole cast improvise the entire musical. “Port Phillip: the Musical” won, due to its unforgettable romantic duet “Dredge My Bay”. Ok - “Port Phillip: the Musical” won, due to the innuendo as its lesbian leads sang “Dredge My Bay”. Relevant, local, environmental and sexual politics – what more could you possibly want!
This is an absolute must for musical fans. Parody only succeeds when the performers intimately know and love a genre. This group know their musicals, but its appeal is much broader. See it for the skill of the impro or just because you will be assured an afternoon of non-stop laughter.
Spontaneous Broadway is at The Famous Spiegeltent on Saturday 17 and 24 November. As it was standing room only this week, booking is recommended.
PS – I have to mention Chad Bradley, just so he gets a mention in at least one review.
This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

09 November 2007


White Whale Theatre
9 November 2007

White Whale Theatre commissioned three of our best playwrights and two of our most outstanding new fiction writers to each write a short play about Melbourne. White Whale is independent, unfunded and with a creative core not even thinking about turning 30 for while. Why can’t our flagship companies think of (or support) such a brilliant and obvious idea as Melburnalia?

One of the many joys of this city is the subtle and obvious cultural differences between our suburbs. White Whale’s production explores this through ordinary lives. “Bohemians to bogans” – that’s our Melbourne. A couple of the works captured the essence of place perfectly, while others fell into stereotypes. But the journey was better than what you could do on a two zone daily Metlink ticket.

Tee O’Neil starts our trip with The Queen of Ringwood. If we don’t already know, it’s made clear that Ringwood is full of bogans. (That’s westies to anyone from NSW). They are bogans with ambition though. Gary wants to eat at the local Italian restaurant and pay, instead of doing a runner. Terry wants to eat in Italy. Engaging and original, but could have been any outer 'burb.

Many, many people are currently reading Kate Holden’s novel In My Skin: a Memoir. Waiting It Out is her first work for the stage. She portrays the feel of lost bohemian St Kilda beautifully. It was almost like having a cappuccino and spanikopita in The Galleon - before the new owners. However, what is irresistible in a novel, doesn’t always work on a stage. With some work on dialogue and creating action, I’m sure Holden will create some unforgettable theatre in the future. The charters and concept are there, but nothing seems to actually happen to them.

The Fag from Zagrab is Lally Katz’s contribution about Far Kew. She nails Kew. Jeremy couldn’t have be from Toorak or Camberwell or even mid Hawthorn. He is Kew – obnoxious, polite, demanding and unsure of what life is like a tram stop or two down the line. He dreams of being a guest on Rove and Jonathan Wood’s performance is the best of the evening. As this is a Katz work, the other character is The Apocalypse Bear (Gareth Yuen’s performance is also a delight). I wouldn’t be surprised if the end of the world does begin in Kew. It may be the least obvious piece of the night, but it’s the most balanced, the most interesting and would easily stand alone outside of its contex

From Kew to Footscary. There’s no direct and easy route by public transport and driving is annoying, unless you take Citylink. So Kew residents just go to Richmond for their Asian takeaway. However Alice Pung is clearly the writer to take us to Footscray. Her first novel, Unpolished Gem, is making many 2007 best seller lists. She doesn’t take us to the markets, train station or two dollar stores – but to the Footscray library. Gretchen, a Melbourne Uni arts student, comes to help Riah with her homework - so she can lean about a side of life she doesn’t know about. As with Holden, Pung needs to work on her dialogue and action, but she created authentic characters and let one of them make a decision.

Ross Mueller takes us to an inner city laneway for a latte in (Becoming) Greg Stone. Last week I reviewed a Mueller play and pretentiously wrote about pretentious references and bizarre self-referencing. Let me just say “ditto”. This time I had to Google Greg Stone. And yes I have seen him perform – but nothing in this play jogged my memory. This was also the one work that doesn’t reflect the essence of the area or the people who frequent it. Robyn is Windsor trying to be South Yarra. Natasha is Clifton Hill trying to be Fitzroy. Neither are inner city Melbourne. And Greg Stone, the waiter, would be serving coffee on High St – not on our beloved Degraves St. It is, nonetheless, very funny and original. It’s not Muller at his best, but I’ll keep seeing his works until I start loving them again.

I had very high expectations of Melburnalia and was a bit disappointed. The scripts feel like the stuff you write in writer’s class to impress your class mates with your wit. They all need another draft. The direction needs a much more varied pace and there’s a tendency to present the characters as types, rather than individuals. The cross overs are absolutely fabulous though.

At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters that my expectations weren’t met. This young company are producing original, inventive and intelligent theatre, and they have the support of our best writers. So let’s hope we see more and more of them.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

06 November 2007

The Wau Wau Sisters

The Wau Wau Sisters in
12 Steps to Redemption!!
Or God Save The Wau Wau Sisters!!
6 November 2007
The Famous Spiegeltent

The Wau Wau Sisters are truly at home in the Spiegeltent. The Wau Wau Sisters in 12 Steps to Redemption!! Or God Save The Wau Wau Sisters!! parody all things circus, cabaret and burlesque; whilst embracing each genre in their taught, tight and totally to die for thighs.
They open with an acrobalance/strip to the 70s soft rock anthem “Sister Christian”. It’s sublime in its blasphemy. Character, content and superior skill combines to create superb burlesque. I was ready for something as good as our own The Burlesque Hour.

The Wau Wau’s are astonishingly awesome acrobats and brilliantly bawdy burlesque beauties. But their comedy writing isn’t ready for alliteration. It’s by no means bad. It’s just not as good as the other elements of the show. Lyrics like “I’ll cut the cocaine if you cut the cheese” aren’t as compelling as catholic school girls with stigmata.

I thought they were different characters from scene to scene – until they pointed out it was a through narrative of their life. The characters are original and very funny, but not consistent and are regularly visited by the performers own characters. The “real” Tanya and Adrienne that appear are actually more intriguing and interesting than their fictional selves. I would have liked to see more of them.

Part of their act is being the ditzy girls who don’t understand all that “bullshit” about transitions and timing. Nonetheless their transitions are original, fun and a little bit frightening for audiences who fear participation. And their bad timing is simply perfect.

Their transition from born again country singers (and yes there was the expected “count” joke) to 80s coke fed popsters is wonderful. As is the Duran Duran “Rio” routine which follows. Is there anything better than black humour in bright spotted bikinis? Like the opening, this routine was so much more powerful than their comedy interactions.

See the Wau Wau Sisters just for the opening, Rio and their amazing double trapeze routine. It’s a lot of fun, but it is a series of characters and routines that is developing into a show. It may need a director and a writer to tone the narrative and the characters as tight as their biceps, and make the comedy/skill balance as steady as their one minute handstands.

Photo by Sara Brown

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com and on GayDestination.net.au.

04 November 2007

Topping and Butch

Topping and Butch
4 November 2007
The Famous Spiegeltent

Sadly, Melbourne only had a two night stand with Topping and Butch, but they will be defiling Adelaide for a couple of weeks at the Feast Festival. I laughed ‘til I cried and left feeling so much better than when I went in. This is bloody good stuff. No wonder they sold out at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Michael Topping and Andrew Simmons are Topping and Butch. Simmons has a singing voice as delectable and smooth as his body. Topping is a fat old queen.

This comic duo doesn’t need a straight man. Barely clad in red leather, they carry on the British tradition of high camp and combine it with immediate satire, sharp observation, a touch of innuendo and a bucket load of good old fashioned smut. Alright, there’s a lot of innuendo and double entendre. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of single entendre - and let’s hear it for the return of the beaver joke.

But “clip your nails” and frottage jokes are not going to sustain a show. Their material is so up to date - if you missed today’s news you might not understand it. They only arrived in Melbourne yesterday and have already mastered an Elsternwick Jewish joke. Kerry Ann gets a look in, as do Ben Cousins and Cameron. Their Johnny and Kevin material is as observant as any local comedian and - please - a bottle of champagne for pulling off a Julia Gillard wanking joke.

For the less politically interested, they play with pop hits and, what gay cabaret is complete without, musical theatre satire. Pull down the barricades to hear Les Vegetables - about Aubergine the fat and Courgette the slim - and Chess is so much better with "I Know Him Too Well" – where Topping plays a predatory old queen and Butch takes the part of a young straight male. Straight men, if you want to see how straight women really see you - watch a gay man satirising you.

Yes, us girls love Topping and Butch and they love us right back. They embrace the well known fact that the natural accompaniment to a straight woman is a gay man. "Fag Hag" (think "Down Town") may well be my favourite song of the year.

Their material is very good, but they are not master satirists. The strength of this show is the genuine lovability of the characters. They make their audience feel totally comfortable. Even the self confessed Liberal voters were made to feel welcome as the lesbians, straight men, gay men and the one bi-sexual asylum seeker.

Topping and Butch are inoffensive in their outrageousness, but they never tone down their material to create comfort. They are always embracing diversity and ensure that their outrageousness is always a celebration.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com and appeared on GayDestination.net.au

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.