30 December 2008

Melbourne 2008 - What I Liked

The 2008 AussieTheatre Melbourne Awards

There are no shiny trophies, no need to frock up and no one semi-famous to read out the nominations. In fact, there’s no prize at all, except knowing that this is the remarkable work that has inspired me over the last 12 months.

Theatre in Melbourne: even if I could go out every night, I would still miss something worth seeing.

Overall, I wish I wasn’t disappointed by so many commercial productions and wish that people who see commercial shows would also take a chance on the small, independent productions. It’s always going to be hit and miss, but this is where the best theatre continues to be created and it hurts knowing that it’s only seen by a lucky few.

That’s not to say it’s all been good, but it isn’t hard to remember the great stuff. These artists and companies challenge with their content, re-invent form, respect the intelligence of their audiences, and refuse to be bland. Some of them were visiting us from interstate and overseas, but most of this incredible theatre has been created here in Melbourne.

Before the drum roll, let me thank Jo, David, Laura, Karla, Kim and John (the wonderful team of Melbourne reviewers for Aussie Theatre) for their knowledge, their passion, their style and their from-the-heart opinions.

And thank you to everyone who lets us know that you appreciate reading what we have to say.

Outstanding Artists 2008

Adam Cass for Oasis Oasis
Sarah Collins for Nothing Extraordinary Ever Happens in Toowoomba. (Ever)

Benedict Andrews for Moving Target, Malthouse Theatre
Yvonne Virsik for Nothing Extraordinary Ever Happens in Toowoomba. (Ever)

Anna Tregloan for Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre

David Franzke for Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre

Paul Jackson for Moving Target, Malthouse Theatre

Melissa Madden Grey,  Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre and Vamp, Malthouse Theatre

Daniel Kitson, The Ballad of Roger and Grace  and The Impotent Fury of the Privileged

Kristy Edmunds for her final, unforgettable Melbourne International Arts Festivals.

Outstanding Productions 2008

Reuben Krum's Naughty Show, Reuben Krum
A Suicide for Winter , The Tiger Lillies
Lea Delaria is Naked, Lea Delaria

Spontaneous Broadway

Blackbird, Melbourne Theatre Company

Three, Batsheva Dance Company

Sammy J In The Forest Of Dreams
Cell Block Booty, Sisters Grimm

Ollie and the Minotaur, foogle and 9minds
An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch/Melbourne International Arts Festival
Romeo and Juliet, OKT/ Melbourne International Arts Festival

The show that will stay with me from 2008 is:

The Ballad of Roger and Grace, Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn

(2012 update: Buy the ballad here.)

This story originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

20 December 2008

This is set in the future

This is set in the future
La Mama
December 2008

This is set in the future is a traditional Christmas tale of blood, cum and karma, complete with a pseudo Santa resplendent in a tight frock contemplating an even tighter noose. The publicity did say it was more festy than festive…

Glyn Roberts’s not-so-cheery tale explores the not-too-distant future where we could live forever. Will folk get up to acts of selfless good and create heartfelt joy? Not with Robert Reid directing.

As always, director Reid (theatre in decay) hides his hope behind a large wall of cynicism. He despairs in his program notes that Melbourne theatre has “gotten ever so samey”. Melbourne’s independent theatre would be a duller place without Reid and I’m not alone in my gladness that he is determined to produce original work.

With Sayraphim Lothian’s spot-on design and a cast of competitive alphas (Scott Gooding, Rachel Baring, Hayley Butcher, Joshua Cameron and writer Glyn Roberts), Reid guides the delightfully-dark script into a place where even the Christmas-cracker jokes would need a PGR rating.

There’s not much left in this future world beyond “fuck or punch”. It sets out to shock and this is where I think it just missed the mark. There were some moments where it could have gone somewhere very nasty and interesting, or somewhere even more outrageously, hilariously obscene – but I felt that the brakes were applied and what could have been jaw-dropping black was simply taken back to joke. They were good jokes, but didn’t have the expected effect.

It might have just been final night excitement, but the cast were enjoying the fun a little bit too much. The impact of having the crap beaten out of you is dulled if the actors make it clear that it’s meant to be funny. There’s no shock in “incest is the new gay” if it’s being said to create a nervous audience titter. The comic book style of performance was perfect for the script, but we needed to see more of the fascinating characters, rather than the terrific actors, because the telling of their story was lost. We were watching to see what the performers would do next, rather than what would happen next.

Reid declares that we shouldn’t “expect meaning from people paid to fake it”. It was clear that everyone involved in This is set in the future understood every nuance of meaning, but they could have shared their meaning just a little bit more with the audience.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Short and Sweet 08 Week 3 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 3 Wildcards
20 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The final ten Short and Sweet Wildcards concluded the annual three-week 10 minute theatre fest. As with week three’s Top 20, they were undercooked and left a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Unready scripts aside, relationship is my issue de jour. To some extent, every piece suffered from this fundamental problem. In his must-read book 'Audition' Michael Shurtleff says, “Creating relationship is the heart of acting. It is basic. It is essential.” Relationship is also the heart of great writing. If there is no emotional, meaningful relationship with the people on the stage, the scene will always feel false and fall flat. Too many times, I had no idea what the relationships were between the characters. Without a sense of relationship, there’s no reason for characters to talk to each other, let alone a reason for us to care what happens to them. It doesn’t need to be explicit on the stage, but it needs to be in the writing and in the performances.

The Bullfrog was one of the better pieces, with a terrific ending, but needed to develop the characters further and develop a relationship between them. Did she fancy him? Did he fancy her? Did they even know the others names?

Little Star, Ticking Clock, Thankyou My Pongpat, Facing Away and even To Let all suffered from the same problem. These were all plays about couples, so there was plenty of material to work with.

The Russian Bride told an exposition story well, but I think it would have been more powerful if the guard had his own journey and character arc within the piece. As it was, it may have worked better as a monologue.

Genre Bender must have started life as an impro exercise and didn’t develop much further. Funny costumes do not create purpose or character.

The Mercy Kitchen was written well, but let down with the direction. We all know that if a gun appears on a stage, it’s going to be shot. Well, this is a play about swallowing poison and there were many props and a lot of action about cups of tea... We knew what was going to happen far too early, and it was too easy to predict the cup swapping.

The Cellar Children started life at the 48 Hour Play Generator and is still delightfully creepy.

Maybe Short and Sweet needs a year off to re-invigorate. The independent companies were fabulous, but the competition didn’t do justice to the theatrical talent of this town.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

17 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 3 Top 20

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 3 Top 20
17 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The opportunity and support given to theatre makers by the Short and Sweet festival is incomparable and over the last four years, the festival has offered some of the most memorable moments on the Fairfax stage. So I’m not sure what’s going on this year.

With the exception of the independent companies last week, it’s clear that the more experienced level of local writers, actors and directors aren’t involved to the extent they have been in the past. This is opening the door for many people, but the lack of experience is really showing, and I really don’t understand how nine out of the ten short plays presented this week made it to the top 20.

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Too many of these works felt like first drafts. The ideas were great, their synopses were tempting, and the words-in-a-good-order writing was there, but they didn’t tell engaging, authentic stories. They just weren’t ready. It felt like a painting by numbers, but half of the colours were missing in the pallet and replaced with beige.

A script (short, long, stage or screen) isn’t an opportunity for a writer to rant or detail their opinion. It’s up to a writer to demonstrate their views by showing us what complex characters do when their world changes.

A character who is just expressing the writer’s opinion sounds like a badly written pamphlet. Black Eyed Susan was an exceptionally well directed and original breast cancer brochure, but it didn’t sound or feel like a story.

Some began or ended in the wrong spot. Falling, Praying would have been fabulous if it started as they jumped; the back story wasn’t necessary. Blue was beautifully structured and had a moment where it could have ended with emotion and left us wondering, but it kept going. Audiences are clever beasts who don’t need to be led to the very end.

Birdmonster and Permanently Engaged were tight and hilarious short sketches that were stretched out to ten minutes without adding more to the joke.

Legends and the Fall needed some sense of legend/myth/hero to give it the oomph and complexity it seemed to be aiming for. As Love and Light could have followed through with its metaphysical themes and used the ideas of ‘love’ and ‘light’ as more than just a joke.

Prime Angus Buttock and Alchemy relied on funny performances, rather than funny situations. A silly walk or a kooky voice only works when you’re a master of your craft and genre.

Luckily, Religion Shop saved the night. It began as a racially offensive and disrespectful piece of crap (and was I ready to rant myself) – then it turned on itself brilliantly. (And it included a metatheatre joke that made sense.) This is the kind of theatre that we expect from Short and Sweet.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 December 2008

Shane Warne: The Musical

Shane Warne: The Musical
Token Events and TrafficLight
11 December 2008
Athenaeum Theatre

I didn’t care for or about Shane Warne before the musical, and I still don’t, but Eddie Perfect can SMS me any time.

Perfect wrote this great Aussie musical and stars as its fallen hero. Being as Aussie as beetroot on a burger, Shane Warne: The Musical might not make a Broadway away tour, and it’s no good taking it to the West End, cos the poms will just whinge about it – but every Australian state, city and medium-sized country town deserves a leg of the tour.

We all know Warnie – he’s either the greatest spin bowler Australia’s yet to produce (don’t worry if you’re cricket illiterate, there’s a scene that explains that stuff) or he’s that twat who cheated on his missus, couldn’t give up smoking and was tempted by Indian bribes. Shane eventually grasps that these two parts of himself are connected, and is forced to accept, “I’ll never be captain, so I guess that’s that then”. He helped bring back the ashes, but his personal life ruined any chance he had of being a real hero.

Warnie’s the archetypal anti-hero, with his larrikin faults and inability to say no to temptation.  If Perfect and Co had pulverised him, it wouldn’t be fair to Shane; if they’d ignored his foibles, it wouldn’t be fair to us. Shane Warne: The Musical keeps hitting sixes with a remarkable balance of satire and celebration.

And, to be fair, it also takes the piss out of musical theatre, with numbers reminiscent of stage and screen favourites from Fame to Godspell to Sweeney Todd (it was “fucking beautiful” ) – and who knew AIS was even more fan to dance-spell than YMCA.

Warnie in song works so well because ultimately the jokes on us. Perfect makes us look at ourselves and how we all supported and created the spin around the spin. As the marketing chorus sing, “Everyone’s a little bit like Shane”. We can’t blame him for being just like us.

With a such an impressive creative team around Perfect – director Neil Armfield (demi-god of Australian directing), dramaturge Casey Benneto (Keating), choreographer Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move) and designer Brian Thomson (shows too numerous to mention, but this the design is reminiscent of his original Rocky Horror set) –  it would have been disappointing if Shane Warne: The Musical wasn’t this good. It proves that sometimes it’s a damn good idea to let those arty-farty types loose on a commercial show.

Perfect lives up to his name as Warne and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when he’s had enough, as the show is very dependent on his appeal. The rest of the on-stage team are bonza, with Rosemarie Harris a standout as Simone.

Shane Warne: The Musical will become as legendary as its namesake. It’s not a celebration of Warne the cricketer or a gut-punch to Shane the man. It lets you laugh at him, laugh with him and ultimately cack yourself because his ridiculous, media-controlled, fame-driven life led to a Melbourne-based cabaret performer writing a musical all about it.

A note for patrons more used to stadiums
Last night there were a number of Warnie fans in the audience who didn’t get the concept of live theatre. It’s not like the MCG. Getting up in the middle of the first half (or “act”) and coming back into the theatre with beer for your mates isn’t acceptable “theatre” behaviour – and it just encouraged other blokes to do the same. Please wait for half time (or “interval”) and don’t do it again in the second half. Or, at least, come back with enough beers for the people sitting near you!

 This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

10 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 2 Indepedendent Theatre Ensembles

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 2 Indepedendent Theatre Ensembles
10 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

After a week of stewed tea and too much supermarket White Christmas, Short and Sweet Week Two is like a fresh espresso and a homemade chocolate ganache tart.
There’s a rumour floating around that the Independent Theatre section of Short and Sweet is going to be removed. NO! This week’s selection sent the program flying back up to inspiring, dizzying heights.
This selection of short plays was not about writers proving their vocab, but about using theatre to tell us wonderful tales. They filled the whole space with movement, dance, music, sound and design to tell their dramatic, intriguing and unique stories. Words are one of the greatest things ever invented, but theatre is not just about words.
After the Tower
The Town Bikes are always super-fab, and it would seem that they’ve found the ideal director in Maude Davey. From their arse-talking entry to the collapsing of the Rapunzel’s long hair, the Brothers Grimm would be thrilled to see such a delightfully-dark telling of this story.
The brothers G may well be dancing an after-life jig, because Company 13 were also inspired by a fairy tale - the one about Snow White and her mum. With pig noses, an accordion and song, this was a most original telling and interpretation.
The afterlife is always a very popular Short and Sweet theme. Itch Productions explored the celebrity death, with Marilyn Monroe visiting a nearly-famous actor who is “dying to be an icon”. Does he choose a posthumous Oscar or a sad career?
Last Drinks
Telia Neville (interior theatre) continues her fascinating exploration of the everyday. Without words or sound, five characters repeat what looks like a meeting at a bar. As the audience find their own meaning in the repetition, words and sound are added to give us a better picture - but all we hear are their thoughts. Telling it from a different perspective makes the most mundane situation an irresistible tale.
Morbid Porn
Sexy and just a little bit morbid, Skite Vikingr tell a story of love, lust, desire and rejection that fluidly links performer and puppet.
6 Hours Later
Hilarious, engaging, beautiful - watching Born in a Taxi is as wonderful as watching a litter of excited kittens explore a new room.
Tinsel Town
Split Second’s murder, mystery and horror story started funny and got funnier. From the Shelley’s chatting after dinner to Dracula floating on skates - and all with live sound FX. Why use a digital file when you can have a bloke breaking plates and blowing bubbles in a glass.
Tea for Two
Dislocate’s story is black, funny and brilliant. From stillness to did-they-really-just-do-that acrobatics, this is the kind of theatre you can’t look away from.
Finding Your Place
The Hounds kept us laughing (so that’s how a dishwasher moves), but the telling wasn’t clear. Now I’ve read the program, I see that it’s about Alzheimer’s – which I didn’t get when I watching it. I thought it was about writers who love the safety of their own fiction.
Penelope Bartlau’s Barking Spider Visual Theatre wonderfully and literally construct a malleable universe. The two characters try to sort out their own relationship, while creating a small and messy parallel world from lumps of clay. This is great stuff.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.

07 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 1 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 1 Wildcards
7  December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The hit and miss nature of the Short and Sweet wildcards is always their appeal. This week presented a couple of beautifully written stories about dying, too many that started and ended with stereotypes and, for the first time ever, one that I found offensive.

Generally, there was a concentration on form, forsaking the joy of story. I have a sticky note on my desk that reads, “Drama is conflict and change”. It’s what I look for in a story. Too many of these plays ended exactly where they started, even if they managed some conflict.

It is petty thing to mention, but too many of these afternoon delights were directed to the centre seats. The Fairfax space lacks any proscenium pretention, so you have to direct to the whole room. I was sitting on the side and could barely see the action in half of the offerings.

Job Specs
It appears that women with great breasts will always be the secretary in office sketches. We knew the entire story from the start and the telling was an office jargon email list and a couple of good jokes – but they were good jokes. It was a tale about cock-sure gen Ys. Well I may be just a cunt-unsure not-quite-gen-X, but I wouldn’t have hired either of them.

Nightmares and Daydreams
Delightfully performed, original and well written, but why did the director have to scream the ending to us so early? If she’s in heels and a frock, and rubber gloves and a pinny, we know she’s cleaning up a big mess. The script might also benefit from developing the dream lover character more – let us know why he’s so great.

A Time For Everything
A delicately written and moving piece played with a balance of love and humour, with a story that flowed at the right pace and ended at the perfect moment. The direction and performances could have come down a level but they would have settled had there been more than one performance.

The Park
Original and fun, with a promising premise about waking up in a dream and meeting some dream critters. However, I don’t know why they were animals – were they allegorical, metaphorical, archetypal, symbolic or just there so the actors could use their “be an animal” acting class skills?

Pinot Noir Noir
There isn’t an award for best title, but there should be! Some terrific jokes and slick telling hid the lack of story well.

The Dinner
It would have been worse being stuck next to these people at a restaurant, but it would also be easier to leave. Clich├ęs, stereotypes and only-seen-on-US-made-for-tv-movies-about-oztrailia accents. Oh, and I’d almost forgotten how offensive it is to see a women presented like that. Seriously – it might have worked if they’d brought a blow up doll onto the stage – because at least it might have resembled irony.

Quality Control
Making fun of bogans at yoga is always fun. It was a cool sketch with lots of laughs, but I’m not sure what their story was.

Love Your Poison
Another well written work that told a complete story, developed complex characters, went beyond the obvious, kept some mystery and ended at the right time.

Prisoners’ Dilemma
It ended with the same question it began with, but it did make the audience try to answer the question for themselves. The direction needed to decide if it was comedy or drama though, as some actors played for the angst and others just for the giggles. The result was murky grey, rather than black.

Trevor’s Epiphany
If Trevor had an epiphany, I missed it.

This review originally apearred on AussieTheatre.com.

05 December 2008

The Santaland Diaries

The Santaland Diaries
Auspicious Arts Incubator
5 December 2008

Wikipedia says that David Sedaris has sold over 7 million books. More impressively, he’s number 25 at stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. White people love Sedaris. “They” also love plays, coffee, sushi, microbreweries, writing workshops, non-profit organisations, breakfast places, apple products, famers markets, organic food, apologies and irony. So it’s safe to say that Melbourne theatre goers will love The Santaland Diaries.

Before being embraced by white folk, Sedaris was poor and pathetic enough to be a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. The bloke with the big white beard must have been paying attention because David wrote an essay about his experience, and reading it on the radio in 1992 lead to that elusive break that so many of his fellow acting/dancing/prancing elves had hoped for.  Never say the American Dream isn’t alive, kicking and wrapped in a big red ironic bow!

In 1996 Joe Mantello adapted The Santaland Diaries into a one act play, which the Auspicious Arts Incubator team are presenting to Melbourne. It doesn’t take long to translate the American store to our own Magic Cave and Myers windows. And we know that Santa’s real name is Father Christmas.

Russell Fletcher (host of Spontaneous Broadway) is Crumpet. Fortunately, he doesn’t mimic Sedaris, but gives us the delightfully-fruity Fletcher version of the dismayed elf. However, I wonder why director John Paul Fischbach gave Crumpet an American accent, as it added unnecessary distance between the story and the audience. The tale is so middle-class universal that it doesn’t need a voice to place it in US culture. It’s loved because the Macy’s experience is the same as sitting on Father Christmas’s knee at Fountain Gate.

The Santaland Diaries is a must if your Christmas spirit is refusing to hang its stockings with care and considering conversion to any faith or culture that doesn’t force you to purchase secret-santa gifts, be polite to distant relatives or look thrilled when you open your fifth box of Roses chocolates.

After I saw the play, I enjoyed a Little Creatures ale, and went home early so I could be up in time for my pick of the organic food at the St Kilda Farmers Market before enjoying a coffee at a really nice breakfast place, while listening to my iPod. I’m also sorry if I’ve offended anyone.

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com

03 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 1 Top 20

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 1 Top 20
3 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

It must be nearly Christmas - there’s reindeer shaped chocolate at the supermarket, fizz on special at the bottle-o and the Short and Sweet festival is on at the Fairfax.

Now in its fourth year, Short and Sweet continues to unearth unforgettable, damn good and not bad playwrights; whilst harnessing the wild herds of actors and directors that flock to the fertile theatrical plains of Melbourne.

Week one varied, with scripts generally seeming to grab one good idea and extending it to ten minutes of dialogue. The most memorable past entrants were those that told complex tales in their allotted time. There can be a lot of change, conflict and good old story in ten minutes.

Six Minutes and Counting - we knew the set up, the telling and punch line before the first minute was up, so everything in between was lost.

Tumbletots is an honest observation of contrasting new mums. There wasn’t any change or much of a story, but it came to life through lovely performances and included a very "special” joke. I would have liked to see the posh mum directed with a bit more love though, rather than having us always laugh at her. Surely, it’s a good thing that she loves her child.

Mandragora won my vote of the night. The character was immediately engaging and empathetic, and the story used mystery and tension to go to a completely different place from where it started. Great scripts aside, moving up the stairs “quietly” is just as distracting as tap dancing up them in a spotlight.

Drive is beautifully written, powerfully directed and lovingly performed. It would have been the stand out of the night, if we didn’t figure out what happened so early. In order to have the heartbreaking final impact, we need to think it’s about their relationship, not what happened to the child. The “subtle” clues in the script became bold, underlined, and highlighted on stage.

Kanat and the Red Army will come close in the audience’s pick of the season. Original, funny, poignant and epic; it covers 20 years, without missing any vital thread. The combination of direct to the audience and “live” action is a treat, and I even liked the turning point event happening off stage. Although the Beatles music is familiar to most audiences, the emotional impact on stage would benefit from more music, rather than discussion.

Cheesebuger and Fries used mystery so well that I still have no idea where they were, who they were or why we were watching them.

The Celine Dion Scrapbook should win something for original direction. I’m guessing that the author didn’t see the script in quite this way, but the outrageous style took what could have been quite a mundane story to somewhere unique and engaging – without losing its emotional intent.

Tipping Point is a gorgeous analysis of a break up from the perspectives of each lover. This type of story is always popular at Short and Sweet because, for all out arty pretentiousness, we really are big romantic softies at heart. And how could anyone resist the metaphor of a man trying to understand a woman’s feelings being like a dog trying to use the internet.

Bliss went somewhere very interesting by the end, but was so caught up in trying to be funny and clever that the story became irrelevant. We needed to know more about both of them, and why she made the decision to act.

Polygamy was well performed and well written, but was just one joke. A bit of research about the various forms of multiple relationships (polyamory or polyandry, in this case) would also help get the title and expectations out of a Utah compound.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.