28 June 2014

27 June 2014

Last chance

What to see on the weekend? Here's Friday, Saturday and Sunday night covered.

The Von Muiznieks Family Hoedown
The Butterfly Club
Last show tonight

The Melbourne Cabaret Festival is in it's second week and The Butterfly Club is always a favourite place for a show and a drink at the hoarders-dream bar; clutter can be art.

Karin, Simon and Emma (von) Muiznieks are from Essendon, the heart of bluegrass. And as Lativan sibling bluegrass and country pop-cover bands go, there's no one like them.

If you missed that, they're a Lativan sibling bluegrass and country pop-cover band from Essendon. For reals. Beat that von Trapps, Osmonds, Jacksons and von Brady Bunch singers, who aren't real siblings so they don't count.

Singing bluegrass and country classics by the likes of Lorde, Brittney, Adele, Rhianna and Tom (Jones) with mandolin, autoharp and bass ukulele, their hoedown is so much more fun than prancing around a fountain in clothes made from curtains.  Yee-ha!

The von Muiznieks have created a niche that only they can fill and are filling it with great singing, terrific playing and stories that I'd never imagined.

There's development to go but the von Muiznieks are on their way to being something that will sell out Spiegeltents. I loved them so much that I'm ready to chew me some hay, call myself a hoe and wear gingham.

Q44 theatre in Burnley
Last show on Sunday

Q44 are a new company working in an amazing converted warehouse in Richmond, which is also home to visual artists and a very old white cat.

Like Red Stitch the early years, they are an ensemble of actors working to produce the plays they want to perform.

Their second production is the 1983 play Orphans by American playwright/director/actor Lyle Kessler. The orphans are adult brothers, Phillip and Treat, living in an abandoned council flat in Philadelphia. Treat is a petty criminal and Phillip is housebound due to allergies and trusting that his brother. The fairy Godfather is Harold, a drunk with a briefcase full of stocks and bonds, who's kidnapped by Treat.

It's a bit Freud 101, but the three characters make up for any obviousness in the plot. And see it for the exceptional performances.

With a realism technique that fits the work, Ashley McKenzie (Treat), Mark Davis (Phillip) and Gareth Reeves (Harold) immerse themselves so deeply in the characters that the technique all but disappears. Engaging and real, they each create genuine fear for their character and overcome the awareness of being watched.

Keep an eye on this company.

Kevin Turner's review.

Hypertxt Festival
On the grace of officials
The defence
Sugar, sugar
Thank you, thank you love
The Tuxedo Cat
last shows on Saturday

Maverick favourites MKA have taken over the Tuxedo Cat in the city and four new shows finish on Saturday.

All are a bit angry and are preaching to the converted, but if you're not angry about how we're treating refugees, how women are portrayed on stage and screen, and how young women can't see their own beauty then you need to see more theatre made by people who are.

I haven't seen Thank you, thank you yet, but will take an hour off from a party on Saturday night to see it.

James Jackson's reviews.

Review: Grounded

Red Stitch Actors Theatre
15 June 2014
Red Stitch
to 12 July

See Grounded for Kate Cole's performance or for the writing or to be reminded how theatre can creep into your heart with a mixture of hurt and happiness that makes you feel a little bit more alive.

Grounded is a monologue about an American fighter pilot who is already far away and thinking about drinking with the boys when the bombs she drops explode. For her it's about the speed and the blue, and when pregnancy, love and marriage intervene, she isn't put back in the sky and her blue is replaced by the grey of a screen as she flies a drone from a box in a desert base not far from Las Vegas.

George Brant’s script was first seen in 2013 in Scotland and by 2015 will have had 22 productions in the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. It’s won awards and generally been raved about. And rightly so. It’s an astonishing piece of writing that successfully questions the political, moral and global by telling a personal story.

I want to say it’s heartbreaking, but if it were told from a different angle, we might celebrate its ending. What’s so powerful is how it personalises modern warfare so much that it’s impossible to distance ourselves from it. And it’s beautiful writing that takes us from endless blue to empty Pepsi cans on an dark desert road as its strands reach and curl back to their starting point like a spirograph.

And it’s performed by Kate Cole.

Under Kirsten Von Bibra’s direction, she stands in a khaki flight suit in a box design (Matthew Adey) that curves its concrete and hides its secret in the open. Cole’s performance is so grippingly real that the actor disappears.

In a stage world that’s all technique, lighting and manipulation, she takes us into the sky and desert and even though they are never described, the audience can see her husband and child and those in the grey on the screen. It’s a performance that has so much supporting it that it looks easy and natural. She lets the pilot be unlikable and do the unthinkable, while letting us understand and love her so much that the audience is almost breathing in time with her by the final moments.

It’s on until mid-July, but the space is small so it’s best to book and be safe.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: But wait ... there's more

But wait ... there's more
Circus Oz
19 June 2014
Circus Oz Big Top, Birrarung Marr
to 13 July, then touring

It's impossible not to love a night in the heated Circus Oz tent, and if seeing them in winter in Melbourne with a bag of hot doughnuts isn't a tradition for your family and friends, start it now.

The Melbourne-based, world-adored company have a new permanent home in Collingwood and But wait ... there's more is the first show created in the space.

With the ever-lovely hip-hopping Candy Bowers as MC, this year's mob are a mix of new and old(er) faces who all start with their own skills, bring new twists to some favourite tricks and ensure that expectations and assumptions about the likes of gender, attitude, background and ability are always challenged.

And remember that there never has and never will be any non-human animals in a Circus Oz show. But there's always a live band.

Founding member and costume designer Laurel Frank has created barcode costumes for the clowning, and with velvet, tartan and sequins, every vaudeville-inspired costume is an extension of the performer's personality.

So with positive politics and love to share, the show's about how we want stuff that we don't need, how we want to be things (like rich and thin) that we're not, and how we judge without seeing the whole picture.

As it's the first time out for But wait ... there's more, it's still a bit raw but nothing can take away from the passion that's created Circus Oz shows for the last 36 years and will hopefully continue to do so until we're not around to see them.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

24 June 2014

Review: The King and I

The King and I
Opera Australia and John Frost
12 June 2014
Princess Theatre
to August 2014

Photo by Oliver Toth
This production of The King and I was first seen in 1991 in Adelaide. It toured Australia and found its way to New York in 1996, where it won some Tonys, and to London in 2000. It was a lavish, extravagant re-working of the Rogers and Hammerstein's 1950s Broadway hit – and still is.

There's not much that hasn't been said about the Brian Thomson's set and Roger Kirk's costumes, which won a couple of those Tonys. The Thai-influenced, outrageously sparklie, elephants-on-the-stage, hoop-skirted, bare-chested, gold, gold and gold stage is magnificent. It's an impression of 1860s Bangkok that could only exist on a music theatre stage.

As this story might only be able to exist on a music theatre stage. Based on a book that's based on a semblance of truth, the "I" is a colonial English woman (Anna) brought to Bangkok by the King of Siam (Thailand)) to teach English to his many wives and children. She's very fish-out-of-water in her massively-hooped frocks and educated ways, but loves the bare-footed women and children she teaches and somehow earns the respect of the King, who is determined to bring his country into the Western world without sacrificing his absolute power.

Jason Scott Lee joyfully embraces the clown and the confused heart of the King, if not the fear connected to his power, and Lisa McCune ensures that Mrs Anna is his match and equal. McCune brings a subtlety and contemporary understanding that creates depth to the more thinly-written moments and her scenes with Shu-Cheen Yu (first wife, Lady Thiang), especially, acknowledge and challenge the perception of the world that created this work.

No matter how exquisite the design, talented the cast or adorable the children, it's impossible not to look at this The King and I from a 2014 Australian perspective and ask the unavoidable: "Why here, why now?".

The work still presents the Thai people with a 1950s mix of exoticism and barbarism; the dialogue's still generic Asian, can't-pronounce-R, broken English; and the laughs come from the Thai people mis-understanding the British/American culture. Despite its intent, The King and I still has some awkward moments that feel a bit like politely listening to Grandpa tell an off joke because he doesn't know better.

If the book and story were presented without the song and dance, would it be applauded or even accepted? And could this production tour to South East Asia and open in Bangkok? I think no and no. So, of all the works that could have been produced, why this one?

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

21 June 2014

Review: Resplendence

Angus Cerini/Doubletap
13 June 2014
The Lawler
to 22 June

Photo by Sebastian Bourges  
Angus Cerini scares me.

In a good way.

In a way that I know his work is likely to disturb and confront me and make me want a glass of wine and some alone time after a show.

His company, Doubletap, are next in this year's NEON Festival of Independent Theatre with a piece written and performed by Cereni, with dramturgy by Susie Dee, where it's impossible to take you're eyes away from him.

Resplendence is ostensibly about a man who goes down to the shops for something to eat and sees an accident. But its story, although powerful, is only there to show us the man.

Cereni's work shows me parts of the male psyche that I don't understand; those parts that I see and want to run from rather than try to understand.

He's supported by a design so integral to the experience that the work couldn't exist if one element were missing. Marg Horwell's design, Jethro Woodward's sound and Andy Turner's lighting put him on a raised catwalk where his walk and turn take us into his thoughts and away from a performer  on a stage.

The language of the text is so inner voice that it's easy to forget when it's recorded sound or live voice. He's never speaking to us, always to himself in his re-telling of his story. And in doing so, his language has found a space that's neither poetic nor natural, but something that shows us his thoughts in ways that language sometimes misses because we censor and control thoughts when we make them words.

And this language is connected to a physicality that's so linked to the psyche that it almost doesn't need the words.

Resplendence is a man who's impotent anger and fear comes from a loneliness that comes from an impotent anger and fear that craves violence or connection or understanding or just a shared laugh from a world that he's already too lost to. It's extraordinary theatre.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

19 June 2014

Mini review: May and Alia do Pirates

May and Alia do Pirates (of Penzance)
La Mama
18 June 2014
La Mama Courthouse
to 29 June

It's taken me three seasons to finally see May and Alia do Pirates (of Penzance). And now that the La Mama Courthouse is in cabaret setting with tables and drinks, it's a perfect time for G&S fans to take heart and tarantara along.

The premise is simple: the only people who turn up to perform Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance are best friends May Jasper (from Not a very good story) and Alia Vryens. They decide to do the show anyway.

Well, most of it. The bits they can sing anyway (Mabel has to be played by a ladle because they can't reach those high notes). And they have to do the fun songs that involve moustaches, pirate hats and boaters. And the songs that can be played by sock puppets. And, naturally, some of those songs are begging to be sung in a very non-Sullivan way.

Mabel the ladle and sock puppets; what could possibly go wrong?

Nothing really. Apart from Alia busting the best boom box ever seen on a stage.

With Eva Johansen (Caravan of Love) directing, the comedy is tight and the clowning is allowed to reveal some heart.

It's assumed that the audience known their Pirates – which is a pretty safe assumption – but there's room to share more of the story, and maybe make their own stage story run parallel to a ridiculous Gilbert plot or tell us more about why they love G&S. And they don't need to be scared about filling the room with sound; those Courtroom rafters can suck away a lot of voice.

It's a hoot for G&S fans (yes, there's a sing-along bit), but fun enough for those who don't get the paradox joke. (Although, "pair of Docs" was pretty funny.)

10 June 2014

Review: Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons
Little Ones Theatre
30 May 2014
Lawler Studio
to 8 June

Photo by Sarah Walker
The second NEON Festival of Independent Theatre opens with the dazzling high-camp, glitter-bright, subversion of Stephen Nicolazzo's Little Ones Theatre.

Dangerous Liaisons is a 1985 play (which won lots of awards) by Christopher Hampton that's based on Pierre Choderlos De Lacos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a late-18th century novel consisting of letters between the characters. Being a story about the perverse sexual and moral corruption of the decadent French aristocracy, it never has problems being transported out of its context.

Marquise de Merteuil (Alexandra Aldrich) and Vicomte de Valmont (Janine Watson; it wouldn't be a Nicolazzo play if gender wasn't questioned) were once lovers, but prefer being BFFs. As Merteuil was dumped by a lover – for the first time – she enlists Valmont to seduce the dumper's virgin bride-to-be (Amanda McGregor), who happens to be the daughter of another of Merteuil's friends (Zoe Boesen). Valmont thinks a convent virgin seduction is too easy and sets himself a worthier target (Brigid Gallacher) and then it begins to get complicated (with Catherine Davies, Tom Dent and Joanne Sutton).

Eugyeene Teh's set is a sunglasses-reaching explosion of gold luxury. This world is so rich that the curtains and floor are gold; until you look closely and see it's paper-faux. Into this comes the outrageously lush French court costumes by Tessa Leigh Wolffenbuttel Pitt that are pink, hot-pink rose pink, magenta, glittery pink, see-through pink with bonus pinked-up nipples and sequins.

The stylised acting style is close-to-but-not-totally-over-the top and is as controlled-camp as the design. This heightens the language of the script and highlights its look at the power that women have in societies that still categorises women as respectfully married, convent-worthy virgins or worthless whores. From the magnificent pink to its all-but-one female cast, this Liaisons is all about the women's sides of the arrangements.

But at over two hours (plus interval), its consistent style lets the exquisite pretty distract from the emotional connection to the story. Even with the incomparable Aldrich, it's hard to feel for a women who's on the verge of middle age and about to lose the only thing that gave her power when we're waiting for the next marvellous line and guaranteed laugh.

While all of the delicious cast have unforgettable moments (really, they are all wonderful), Gallacher finds the most in her character and lets Madame de Tourvel's heart meld with the style. The rest are nearly there and I think that week-two audiences will see the extra guts that was hinted at on opening night.

Little One's influences and inspirations are clear on the stage, but they make work that couldn't be re-created by anyone else. Nicolazzo has found artists who understand and share his vision and together they are one of the most authentic theatre voices around.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: S

Darebin Arts Speakeasy
27 May 2014
Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre
to 29 May 2014

I've seen a lot of circus and a lot of contemporary dance, but I've never seen anything like Circa's S.

Premiered at the Brisbane Festival in 2012, S has toured Australia and the world, and tonight is the last chance to see it in Melbourne. It's on at the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre (corner of St Georges and Bell streets, plenty of parking or on the 112 tram line).

Breathtaking is a go-to word for describing great work, but watching S is so sensually encompassing that remembering to breath may be the only thing you're physically capable of.

Circa are based in Brisbane and with a full-time ensemble of performers, artistic director, Yaron Lifschiz, continues to re-define circus as an art form that's undismissable and unmissable.

This piece is inspired by the shape, sound and function of the letter S, but is all about the astonishing physical ability of the performers (Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Casey Douglas, Daniel O'Brien, Brittannie Portelli, Kimberley Rossi and Duncan West). As much dance as acrobatics (and hoops and ariel), it starts by defining the limits of a human strength and flexibility and proceeds to extend and smash its own definitions until you believe that humans can fly.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

01 June 2014

May review previews

Review: La traviata

La traviata
Victorian Opera in association with Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini
17 May 2014
Her Majesty's Theatre
to 29 May

Photo by Jeff Busby
Victorian Opera's much-anticipated La traviata is presented in association with Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini (the Pergolesi Spontini Foundataion) who run an opera house in Jesi, Italy, that was built in the late 1700s. You can imagine how much the original 1992 production oozed with connection to place and time and culture, but I'm not sure why Victorian Opera transported it to Australia.

La traviata is the opera non-opera fans know. It's the story of courtesan Violetta who gives up the life of sexy whoring and lavish parties for lover Alfredo and a quiet life the country. Alfie's dad isn't impressed, especially as his daughter is trying to be respectable and having a brother associated an un-unmarried prossie is a problem. But Violetta is all heart and gives up her love and has plot-convenienet consumption.

With the original director, Henning Brockhaus, and the famous – extraordinarily beautiful angled mirror with painted floor clothes – design by the late Czech designer Josef Svoboda, it's the Italian production with an Australian cast.

And the cast are stunning.

Australian Soprano Jessica Pratt is best known in Europe and her Australian debut as Violetta is astonishing. This is singing that stops you dead and dares you not to listen. With clarity like an untouched mountain spring, she finds the emotion in the music and lets it float into our hearts.

Italian tenor Alessandro Scotto di Luzio captures the appeal of Alfredo and he and Pratt sound like they were meant to sing together. But they rely on the music to show their love and haven't been directed to show their unstoppable passion, leaving them looking awkward rather then lovers who are prepared to give up everything to be together.

Much better in this respect is Jose Carbo as Alfredo's father, who show the unbearable loss in Act III.
And Kirilie Blythman, as servant Annina, and Dimity Shepherd, as courtesan Flora, bring more than wonderful voices to the stage.

The sound of this opera is what makes it so worth seeing. Richard Mills's conducting and musical direction brings out the best in all the voices and the chorus, and he ensures that the full orchestra supports and never overwhelms the singers. It's a production you want a recording of.

What's disappointing is that this production never feels or looks like it was made for this cast. There are unflattering costumes made to fit rather than designed for the performers, and ridiculous false beards; the chorus sound magnificent but look uncomfortable and seem unsure of their role on the stage, as do the dancers who swirl around them with little connection to the story; and even when the design reveals visual treats like its stunning lawn of flowers, the connection between design and production gets lost.

As a whole, I saw nothing in this Traviata that I haven't seen before and wonder what we'd have got if an Australian director had been given the freedom to create a production hat resonates in the here and now.

But go to hear Jessica Pratt.

This was in AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Ghosts

22 May 2014
The Sumner
to 21 June

Photo by Jeff Busby
Overwrought and underwhelming, the MTC's Ghosts is as haunting as the Luna Park ghost train, but not as fun.

The 1880s critics generally despised Henrik Ibsen's play for being a pit of degenerate ickiness that dared to talk about nice middle class people knowing about syphilis, sex and incest.

Widowed 40-something Helene Alving (Linda Cropper) is thrilled to have her 20-something son, Oswald (Ben Pfeiffer), back home from Paris and is excited that her old crush, Pastor Manders (Philip Quast), is visiting to bless and open the orphanage she built in honour of her late husband. Meanwhile her maid, Regina (Pip Edwards), is leaning fran├žais to impress Oswald and Regina's dad, Jacob (Richard Piper), wants Regina to work at his new house for wandering seamen.

Gale Edwards's translation so simplifies (and Aussifies) the script that the seamen pun is a highlight in a tale that now states the obvious, explains it a bit more and yells it again. And it's directed by Edwards to focus on that translated script.

In performances described to me as "a bit shouty" (I said over played and under felt, but shouty is better), it relies on its words to tell the story. Words tell a story in a novel, on a stage they are the base to start from.

To find the emotional connection with the world and its characters, there has to be a belief and understanding on the stage that sex outside of a good-god sanctified marriage is unforgivable. Unless we can understand and feel that, all that's left is a "so what?". Even the final scene between breaking mother and broken son are close to dull because there was no relationship in the space between the actors.

At least Shaun Gurton's striking design of rain and fog creates some mood and sense of place with Paul Jackson's lighting.

Perhaps the 1880s critics might have liked it.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.