Monday, 29 September 2014

Dramafest - Session 7 (28 September 2014)

The last session of Dramafest! What a ride. Well done Festival Director Emma Davis, ITA President Paul Treasure and his committee, host club Playlovers, all the volunteer front of house and bar staff, the technical staff, and the Adjudicator Adam T Perkins.

This session was a mixed bag of different styles which is to be applauded. It began with a farce called Hotel L’Amour by Playlovers. This was a curious beast that I didn’t really get. A businessman in the cattle trade is forced to share a hotel room with two female ‘fantasy tourists’ in a French themed establishment in the middle of a country town. From a writing pointing of view that’s a hell of a lot going on to explain for a one act play. I didn’t quite understand all those separate working parts so together it was as busy as the cluttered stage. I would suggest stripping this back to only one quirky element and build the farce from there, for example a French themed hotel in a country town. I didn’t get who or what the women were and references to one of them being a slave was confusing. They came across as sex-starved yet were chaste enough to ask him to leave the room when changing.

I found male lead David Cosgrove’s delivery very rushed so had trouble following an already problematic script. One of the female ‘tourists’ was quite softly spoken which didn’t help. Ze ‘eavily accented French innkeepair ‘ad a nice showee part and I liked a couple of her in-the-moment adjustments – kicking the roll of carpet back down after a corner had been tripped up, and working with the broken curtain without breaking character. There was surprisingly quite a lot of mugging to the audience but this whole production needed to be simplified and the writing really sharpened to earn that sort of stylistic choice. Written by Peter Bibby and directed by John Senczuk this starred David Cosgrove, Anne Speicher, Vickie Billingham, and Olivia Colja.

From farce to stand-up, the next act was a ten minute spotlight by Adrian Smith called The Cost of Living. An observational routine covering traffic snarls and childcare issues to politicians in general, the performer didn’t really attack it and his lack of confidence left the material flat. A learning experience in front of a good sized but friendly audience, Smith will need to sharpen both his material and delivery.

Then we had our first performance and movement piece, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream focussing on the fairies in the woods called Sleepless. Predominantly movement with some dance to a contemporary selection of music, this featured a large ensemble of young performers and was very stylised, nicely costumed and looked great with simple lighting effects. There were occasional dialogue excerpts from the source material, notably the lovers who were all played by female performers. Some familiarity with Shakespeare’s comedy would have been handy but the use of flowers to symbolise the fairies magic as characters fell in and out of love was well done. This was a lovely change of pace for the festival and was a great inclusion. Directed by Josh Walker and presented by Stirling Players Youth and the Shadowlight Darkly Theatre Company, Sleepless featured Matt Randall, Angela Donlan, Steve Anderson, Kylie Webb, Ellie Prober, Keren Schlink, Tahlia McQuade, Michael Moshos, Mia Robertson, Brendan Ellis, Benjamin Costantin, Shannon Berry, Alana McKenzie, Sarah Cubbage, and Jessie Williams.

Lastly, and fittingly, the final production of Dramafest was Noel O’Neill’s superb Under Any Old Gum Tree. Beautifully written and brilliantly performed by Kieran Garvey (with Rex Gray in support), this was powerful, moving, insightful, occasionally funny and a blistering exploration of the devastation the Great War caused on those who survived No Man’s Land. Garvey plays real life Martin O’Meara VC who came to Collie from Ireland then went to the trenches of France where he survived that most brutal of wars only to end up in a mental institution. This is a powerhouse 50 minute monologue that was emotionally-affecting such was the craft on display in all facets. Simply staged, well-paced, with Garvey truly outstanding, this will no doubt rightfully feature in next year’s 100 year ANZAC commemoration. A highlight of the festival written and directed by Noel O’Neill for the Old Mill Theatre and in association with the Australian-Irish Heritage Association.

Now, I did not see all seven sessions and the official awards have already been handed out but these are my selections from the six sessions I did attend:

Best Production: Under Any Old Gum Tree

Special Mention: Picasso’s Women and Mag and Bag

Best Actor: Kieran Garvey (Under Any Old Gum Tree)

Best Actress: Sharnya Thompson (Picasso’s Women)

Best Writing: Noel O’Neill (Under Any Old Gum Tree)

Best Directing: Christine Ellis (Picasso’s Women)

Best Comedy: Love and Other Flushes

Best Ensemble: 4AM

Best 10 Minute Spotlight: Judgement Call

Best Youth Production: Sleepless

Most Disappointing Performance: The insipid Sydney Swans who didn’t use the front half of the stage at all, didn’t commit to an opinion at any point, and had no sense of play. Suggest they not be invited back next year.

That’s it for my first Dramafest. Hope you’ve enjoyed the reviews and see you next year!

Richard Hyde  

Dramafest - Session 6 (28 September 2014)

10am. In the morning. On a Sunday. Talk about my own personal afterlife. Yet there I was in the front row, my usual spot A8, in the grey limbo world between sleep and disbelief. The dulcet tones of Paul Treasure drew me back to the light and BAM suddenly there were people on stage entertaining me.

These poor souls were trapped in a lift stuck on the 12th floor of some medical facility that would require at least three gulps of air to recite. Yes, Level 12 was a very amusing beginning to a daylong celebration of independent theatre. In said lift is a guy late for his first day at a new job (Ben Costantin) and, let’s face it, pretty obnoxious about it; a heavily pregnant American woman (Natalie Baggen); and what turns out to be a drug dealer (Nichola Chapman) who’s been ‘restocking’ her supplies. 

What I liked about this is that there was a ticking clock and stakes for each character and these competed to create real obstacles and conflict. This, coupled with the close proximity of the characters in the lift setting, generated some really funny moments though some of the plotting was a bit ropey (pun fully intended). For example, the rope and handcuffs in the guy’s bag were there more for (odd) plot purposes than any real character reason. There was some wonderful physical comedy as well, particularly Baggen’s pregnant Florinda, and all three actors did a great job. The only thing I didn’t like is that Chapman’s character was totally ignored in the opening salvos as if she was invisible. Her presence is a given circumstance that has to be at least acknowledged. Written by Kate Beck and Directed by Sophie Prober for Blak Yak Theatre.

Now, I wouldn’t say I am a Major League Baseball fan but I know enough to get by and Field of Dreams is one on my all-time favourite movies. So the ten minute spotlight, Judgement Call, was an unexpected delight. Three baseball umpires are preparing for the new season – head of the crew Harvey is proud of his number 2 ranking and determined to be the #1 umpire in the American League. Rookie Joe idolises him but the other member of the crew, Frank, seems lackadaisical at best. 

We soon discover that Frank blames himself for the suicide of a player who took his life after losing a critical playoff game on a missed call. A call Frank made. I loved the physicality of this piece as the actors warm up and practice their calls. This also has all the trimmings of ‘baseball as a metaphor for life’ which is a peculiar American cultural quirk. Here the umpires represent truth and certainty in a world full of chaos. The only thing that didn’t quite ring true (but was absolutely in line with the idealism that comes with all that cultural weight) is that Frank is turned around by Harvey far too quickly at the end. A wry ending would much better suit an Australian sensibility. Produced by the Actors' Hub.

Then it was on to Laughing Horse’s production of Cut It Out, directed by Adam Salathiel and featuring three sisters – Jamie, Emmalee and Phillippa Bialas. Claire is a self-harmer, racked by guilt over the suicide of her twin sister, Clarice. Her older sister also feels guilt about this tragedy as she should have been home to potentially save Clarice but instead was engaging in an affair with an older, married man. 

A recurring issue throughout Dramafest has been doing justice to the unbelievably weighty issues of suicide and death. In other examples it has been the writing that has let these types of pieces down but here the writing is generally good, especially the snappy back and forth in all the two-hander exchanges. However, the young actors didn’t have the rhythm and pacing right for this type of, what I call, “banter dialogue”. The delivery was too one paced, monotone and measured. A master of this type of writing is Aaron Sorkin and I would recommend getting out Season One of The West Wing and watch how rhythm in delivery is absolutely crucial and when done well is like music. 

I was a little confused about who the older sister was delivering her monologues to – the audience, a psychiatrist, or some other party. There appeared to be flashbacks here as well and I didn’t see any change in the delivery style when the twins were playing younger characters. There needed to be delineation vocally and in physical movement to sell those moments. This was an incredibly difficult and ambitious piece especially when I was told later that the twin sisters playing Claire and Clarice were only 14.   

The session ended with the very funny Love and Other Flushes where a plumber pretends to be the husband of a well-heeled marriage counsellor whose actual spouse has left only hours before they were due to assist a young couple with their marital problems. Peter Neaves gives a great performance as the plumber cum de facto counsellor who imparts wisdom from his toolkit of common sense. Gael Campbell-Young plays the straight woman role as the very proper lady of the house who espouses HALO – humility, attentive listening and something starting with O that I have forgotten right now! The young couple are played by Sam Barnett and, in her second appearance for the session, Nichola Chapman. This was smartly written, genuinely funny, didn’t overstay its welcome, and had a sweet ending. Directed by Kelly van Geest, written by Hugh O'Brien and produced by Laughing Horse.

A short break loomed before it was onto the home stretch and the last session of Dramafest…

A retraction - I am reliably informed that Emma Davis is a Fremantle Dockers fan who only supports Sydney when Freo isn’t playing. Apologies for any confusion, Emma’s mum.

A clarification - My statement about purple, however, stands! 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dramafest - Session 5 (27 September 2014)

Apologies to Session 4 but you were up against some three decades of tradition when it comes to watching VFL/AFL Grand Finals, a battle you were never going to win. It was a cracking game… for all of ten minutes. Props to Festival Director and Sydney Swans fan Emma Davis for subtly sporting her team’s colours into the evening. At least it wasn’t purple.

To Session 5 and the Goldfields Repertory Club won the toss and elected to perform to the Subiaco end with a good crowd in attendance. They kicked away early with Meg Lefroy and Shaun Fessey starring in I Dream Before I Take The Stand. Lefroy is the victim of a crime; Fessey the defence lawyer who forensically and callously cross-examines her. This was unsettling and powerful but a little frustrating as well. The pattern of questioning immediately intrigued me but kept going along similar lines without any revelation or twists to ratchet up the tension. The repetition started to become a little tedious until finally we get to crux of the matter – a man that said hello to Lefroy’s character as she walked to work through a park had followed her, the rest left unsaid but the implication was clear.

The lawyer’s insistence of knowing every detail including exactly how she was dressed down to what type of underwear made me squirm. I wanted her to show moments of defiance or to fight back as the brutal badgering was unrelenting. Differences in his tact of questioning would have helped with the repetition of so-called facts. This was well performed by both actors and certainly confronting. Simply staged by director Aaron Pendlebury it was a good start to the evening and I loved that it fades out right at the point where she begins to describe the crime. We know what happens next and the unstated nightmare is left to fester in our imagination.

Up next was The Drive, a 10 minute spotlight directed and produced by Clare Talbot and starring Katrina Johnston and Cassee Lazic. Again, thoughts of mortality emerge as one of the recurring themes of this year’s Dramafest. A girl (Johnston) races to find help for ‘Tom’, her vehicle swerving and skidding through the countryside only for him to abandon her as he dies. Lazic narrates the action as (presumably) the girl’s conscience. I particularly liked her intoning the speed of the vehicle as it accelerates and decelerates on this mercy dash. I was a little confused when the two actors directly interacted with each other as I had assumed they were aspects of one and the same character. I liked that device but the overall impact was undercut by having no real idea who Tom was.

The Goldfields Repertory Club kicked further away as halftime approached with the profanity laden and wonderfully performed Mag and Bag. Alana Saint and Karen Gurry were fabulous as two elderly bag ladies who ‘barney’ amongst the clutter and detritus of their lives. The foul-mouthed exchanges were inventive and funny but what was most impressive is that there’s something totally endearing about these two characters that makes us care. There are political references along the way and it was hard to pinpoint an exact time period as we get nods to historical figures from Menzies to Howard, Wran and Fraser. Yes, when the most insulting curse of all is ‘Liberal’ (“I’d rather you call me a c***!”) and delivered by two of life’s unfortunates you know exactly the political sympathies at play. But this never overshadowed the chemistry between Saint and Gurry who relished the verbal and occasional physical stoushes and made excellent use of the space and a wide range of props. 

Oftentimes swearing is used merely to be ‘edgy’ or ‘shocking’ but here it was utterly in character and delivered with such style and energy that it was truly a highlight. The only downside was when parts of the dialogue were drowned out by over exuberant use of the Benny Hill theme tune, itself a curious choice for such an identifiably Australian piece. This was a real crowd favourite.

After halftime, producer-director Alison Seiler presented The Perfect Heart written by John de Beaux. This play deals with the weighty issues of religious persecution, illegal organ farming, heart transplants and another of Dramafest’s thematic pillars, the afterlife.  A young girl’s parents take her to China to get a heart transplant, the organ in question forcibly removed from a Falun Gong practitioner. She wakes to meet “John” (her ‘donor’) in that grey limbo between life and death to discover the cost of such an action. This turned out to be very much a message play and while I don’t doubt it seeks to shine a light on the persecution of Falun Gong in China and the heinous practice of systematic organ harvesting it was too heavy-handed in its approach. At times it felt more like a lecture than a piece of dramatic theatre and while clearly heartfelt this meant it was dry and unconvincing.

I needed to see and feel the issues being dealt with not be told about them in what was a recitation of researched facts. We see the girl only after her parents have whisked her away to China and had the operation, awakening in the limbo world. It would have been so much more effective if we had met her beforehand and she had to make a decision about whether to go to China to accept a transplant most likely from a tainted donation process or by refusing, die. Give her real stakes – it’s easy to be principled when nothing is being risked. Then you could have explored the reactions of family, friends and colleagues to whatever decision she made and how they influenced that decision. Make her agonise over it, not merely deal with the ramifications after the deed is taken out of her hands.

Also, a tip when writing dialogue – any time a character starts a line of dialogue with “As you know…” or “Do you remember when…?” they are immediately talking directly to the audience. This kind of writing was rife in the script. If both characters already know the information about to be imparted it is straight exposition and on the nose. Put a red line through every instance of this and work out how to show the audience the information rather than a stand and deliver telling of it.

As always, Adam T Perkins’ adjudicator feedback – or in keeping with today’s loose football metaphor, after match press conference - was informative and entertaining. I am really enjoying his insights into stagecraft and how to enliven scenes by exploring different choices and ‘playing’ with the material at hand.

The final two Dramafest sessions are on Sunday at 10am and 2pm at Hackett Hall in Floreat. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Dramafest - Session 3 (26 September 2014)

Session three and some common themes are beginning to emerge to join the monsters of Wednesday night. Seems auditioning and the afterlife hold great sway over our theatrical youth… perhaps the fear of facing both is a driving motivation?

We start with another Youthfest wildcard entry, this time St Norberts’s College with a completely different play called The Audition. Here a large ensemble is auditioning for a musical with the initially unseen director calling the shots aided by a stage manager played with great verve. My apology as no cast was listed in the programme so I am unable to identify individual actors by name. There are the usual suspects including - the actress with an overinflated ego, the hyperkinetic dancer, some who just want one line, others happy to be an extra, an actor who will even do a decent Hungarian accent if required. These are all handled with a light touch as the director becomes increasingly frustrated – no one apparently can sing – and the stage manager competently goes about his business.

The play then breaks away from the audition process itself to explore other characters in more detail – a mother and her actress-daughter at odds; an actress recounting the joy in her first performance only to be dejected to discover her mother never turned up to the show; and most effectively, the ‘freak’ who was bullied because she was different yet finds solace on the stage. We also see the father of the egotistical actress threaten the director when he dares not cast her.

This was an interesting play because the tone oscillates wildly from comedy to moments of great drama and poignancy to almost slapstick with the sequence involving the father. Additionally, it seemed to break the storytelling framework it initially set to explore events outside the realm of the audition itself. It was well performed – in particular the stage manager and the ‘freak’, with the ‘Hungarian guy’ a notable secondary role – and had great energy but the tonal shifts were a little problematic for me.

Then it was time for the 10 minute spotlight featuring none other than ITA President Paul Treasure himself as a man in search of class and culture who discovers beer instead. Titled Two and a Half Pints I can attest to the fact that Mister Treasure did indeed impressively imbibe two and a half cans of what appeared to be Guinness of some sort. He started a little nervously but soon was in full swing as a man mocked by the Picasso’s and Dali’s of the world as the grog decimated whatever talent and ambitions he might have had.

Next up was Comatose, directed by Gail Lusted and written by Brittany Isaia for Garrick Theatre.  Here a 17 year old girl – Skye - is involved in a car accident killing her younger brother and sister and leaving herself and her boyfriend in a coma. In hospital she is visited by her mother, sister, best friend and another school friend. While fully observant she is unable to communicate with anyone other than her dead siblings and comatose boyfriend as she hovers precariously in the limbo between life and death. The doctor in charge turns out to be, rather improbably, the father of Skye’s boyfriend who blames her for his son’s condition. Meanwhile, Skye’s sister finds love in the hospital ward with a guy who only later reveals himself to be a cancer patient.

This play deals with very serious themes – terminal illness, euthanasia, guilt, blame, attitudes towards death, ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately the writing lacks the subtext and subtlety required to explore such weighty matters effectively. Everyone speaks exactly what’s on their mind and the emotional responses simply didn’t ring true. For example, the sister goes from horror that Skye may be disconnected from life support to elation that her new boyfriend is cured of cancer within a heartbeat, her comatose sibling totally forgotten as celebrations are planned. Similarly, the doctor at one point screams at his son to ‘wake up’. With dialogue so direct the upping of emotional stakes in the acting only came across as overwrought.

The actress playing Skye was good but was sidelined as an observer for much of the play. There was an interesting beat when Skye meets her dead brother and sister who entice her to ‘let go’ with the promise of delights the afterlife will bring. This had the potential to be a strong dilemma for the character – whether to fight for life or slip away to join her siblings – but that decision was invested in others, diluting her potency in the story. Another angle partially set-up was that Skye could have been the catalyst for other characters to confess their secrets and fears to but we didn’t know them well enough to care, none more so than the friend who declares she is gay. I had no idea who this was as she appears from nowhere so I had no empathy or connection to her plight.

With more work on the script to pull back on the expository dialogue and invest the central character with more agency this could be a strong piece of theatre. The play starred Brittany Isaia, Shannen Precious, Sam Dunlop, Briony Kennedy, Elizabeth Offer, Nicola D Kinnane, Deakhan Lowrie, Shelly Miller, and Luke Miller.

Lastly, we revisited the afterlife with Garrick Theatre’s After Life: The Essential Handbook. This was a curious hybrid, starting off as a tongue-in-cheek description of the rules of the afterlife delivered by deceased author Amber Jennings but then following the actual story of Amber’s arrival in the hereafter and her struggles with an evil leader of nomad ghosts. I initially thought this was going to be a series of amusing vignettes as chapter headings were announced. Those headings proved to be signposts, however, for a self-contained story that I found a little muddled but ultimately suggested that evil isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The standout here was the actress playing Amber’s sister who is silently (though notable) in the background for most of the play until giving a lovely monologue late in the piece. Directed by Emily Theseira, the play featured Georgia Rodgers, Ben Adcock, Liam Longley, Chelsea Gibson, Daniel Slee, Natalie Cox, Madeleine Shaw, Kieran Theseira, James Riseborough, Ferida Mousavi, Chantelle Schuurmans, and Alison Seiler.

Dramafest continues with two sessions on Saturday at Hackett Hall in Floreat – 2pm and 7.30pm.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Dramafest - Session 2 (24 September 2014)

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes - the ones under the bed; the gremlins of self-doubt and fear that whisper in our ear; and real monsters that abuse and mistreat others while covered in a veil of celebrity and genius. Yes, the second session of Dramafest had some serious themes on its mind even when the delivery was light and comic…

My Socks Stay On

You know that little voice in your head, the interior monologue of your life, the one that encourages, nags, distracts, inspires, and occasionally cripples you? Well here that voice is represented in the flesh in all its insistence. Two people meet on a dinner date each with their “little voice” tagging along to provide witty commentary, insight or horror at how the evening is going. He is a school teacher who is a serial first time dater yet can’t remember the bemused waitress’ name. She is the older sister of one of his students. They share all the awkward moments such meetings usually entail until, decorum be damned, they declare that they like each other before amusingly listing all their bad traits and foibles. It’s a fun premise and quite sweet in its execution and resolution. I thought more could have been made of the actors playing the ‘voices’ to really make this playful and the sister-set-me-up-with-her-schoolteacher exposition was a little laboured. Other than that this was a charming start to the evening. Directed by Matthew Randall and I believe written by the actors, this starred Hannah Moran, Annabel Maclean, Josh Lang, Brendan Ellis… and the uncredited waitress, for Stirling Players Youth.

Flop Cop (10 minute spotlight)

Is there anything potentially more monstrous than a tortured artistic soul allowed to vent his misunderstood genius on an unsuspecting public? Yes, that was a rhetorical question - well spotted! Thankfully, a special theatre division of the police force has been created to tackle such heinous crimes. This was a short two-hander that plays directly to a theatre crowd – a tight-lipped officer confronts a flamboyantly over-the-top playwright who threatens to inflict his latest monologue on the world. Full of sly in-jokes and two very contrasting acting styles this worked well though it could have been tightened even further by taking out some repetition in the dialogue especially by the playwright. Unfortunately the actors weren’t named in the programme but this was produced by the Actors' Hub.

Picasso’s Women

An excerpt from the full show that featured several different women and their stories (played over multiple nights) this was an impressive piece of theatre. The first thing that struck me is how precise and dense the writing was - poetic, beautifully descriptive, and highly stylised. It also incorporated French and Spanish as well as the breadth of English firepower on display. The actresses Sharnya Thompson and Nadia Collins didn’t miss a beat with the exacting requirements of the writing. Fairly quickly I suspected that this was actually a monologue that had been assigned to two actors to highlight the different ‘aspects’ of the one person (artist/photographer Dora Maar), a suspicion confirmed afterwards by director Christine Ellis. This worked well with Thompson the cool, still and in many ways sensuous side while Collins was the more emotional and physically energetic of the two. This was reflected in their costumes to give a literal representation of the ‘light and shade’ at work here. Both actresses used the full space available to them and the piece was very fluid with Thomson at times seeming to glide across the space such was her measured pace. Yes, Picasso was a monster to this woman (and others) as the confronting electro-shock therapy and “… then he hit me” sequence clearly illustrated. Sad, powerful and oddly sensual this was mesmerising work. Directed by Christine Ellis, it starred Sharnya Thompson and Nadia Collins and was produced by Blak Yak Theatre Company.

4AM

The final production of the night was an ensemble piece directed by Rebecca Cole and produced by Rupert Williamson, with ten young actors on display. We meet all of the characters on stage at the beginning as an early morning radio DJ reaches out to an audience that may not even be there. After the opening introductions there are vignettes that cover: a lone jogger, two girls having a sleepover, two guys doing likewise while playing word association games, a modern day Romeo & Juliet who wonder whether to contact each other to declare their undying love, a teen who is afraid of the monster under the bed, and a girl who writes to a knife company complaining about the quality of their product as she slowly bleeds out from slashing her wrists. All of this taking place at 4am. These vignettes are loosely linked by the DJ’s on air presence and cover loneliness, fear and the monsters we all sometimes have to deal with.

There were some interesting choices but the balance doesn’t quite work as the suicide strand, while well performed, seemed too clever for its own good given the weight of the topic at hand. It also tended to overwhelm the lighter vignettes though the Romeo and Juliet antics did provide welcome comic relief. The monsters under the bed strand was the none-too-subtle thematic message as the teen eventually protects his monster from the cops amusingly brought in to evict it (in an almost A Clockwork Orange style parody) declaring that its existence confirms that he has survived yet another day. Yes, we should embrace our monsters and not seek to destroy them as they are a part of us. The DJ storyline was well handled and I particularly liked how the actors all filtered back to their starting positions to give a nice symmetry to the piece. Indeed, there was a lot to like here and it did give an interesting insight into the issues our youth have to face. The young actors in question were Rebecca Cole, Jenna Verryn, Luke Wilson, Harry McGrath, Dani Fynn, Harry Sanderson, Lara Borshoff, Tashi Stewart, Elise Wilson, and Nick Morlet.

Adjudicator Adam T Perkins gave excellent and constructive notes for all four productions and one point he highlighted across the board was pacing and ‘earn your pauses’. Finally, it was very pleasing to see a really good crowd in for this session. I was so busy chatting I left half a cider behind the bar at intermission and by the time I finished discussing the evening the bar was closed! Sacrificed for a good cause methinks…

Dramafest continues Friday night, 7.30pm at Hackett Hall in Floreat.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Dramafest - Session 1 (22 September 2014)

The weeklong Dramafest opened at Playlovers in Floreat on Monday night with a welcoming introduction by an erudite man with a beard who was eventually revealed to be Paul Treasure, President of the Independent Theatre Association. The adjudicator for the one act drama festival is none other than reigning Performing Arts WA (PAWA) Best Actor, Adam T Perkins who is also a director and producer of theatre. Festival Director Emma Davis was in attendance to greet the small but enthusiastic audience.

There were three one act productions on the night with the performer for the 10 minute spotlight unfortunately unable to participate due to illness. At the end of the evening Perkins gave his feedback which was instructive as he was coming at it very much from an acting/directing perspective. For me, however, the first session highlighted how important good writing is, without which you’re behind the proverbial from the get go.

The night began with what proved to be quite an inspired choice – a wildcard entry from the barely concluded Youthfest. Simply titled The Audition from SPY (which I assume is Stirling Players Youth) this was a cleverly written script that was enthusiastically and well performed. There were numerous theatre in-jokes and there is a certain joy to watching a young teenage actor deadpan a Beckett or Sam Shepard reference. The names of the performers weren’t listed but they played: the impatient and harried stage manager conducting the auditions; the nervous female auditionee; the ebullient actress well under the imaginary show’s minimum age of 15; an enthusiastic mime; and the pompous actor who thought nothing of improving Medea by adding a little Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Finally, there was the underappreciated assistant who had a vent about her lot in theatre life. It was a clever script that was lapped up by both the young actors and the audience.

The next production was a locally written piece called Flight of Fancy by Garrick Theatre. The premise of which was that a husband and wife both end up booking competing holidays because he thinks she is unhappy and she thinks he’s having an affair (after overhearing him talking to the female travel consultant on the phone). A promising enough set-up but this needed to be fast-paced and witty. Unfortunately the writing just wasn’t there and it ended up being more awkward and stilted as the actors battled valiantly but didn’t have the ammunition that a cracking script could have given this. Flight of Fancy was written and directed by Luke Heath and starred Luke Miller, Shelly Miller, Claudia Lloyd and Charles Pratt.

By comparison, the final piece, At Home With The Herringbones by Stirling Theatre did have a strong script and an excellent cast that gave it real justice. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of wordplay so being playful with language is right in my wheelhouse – dangling modifiers, incorrect word usage, ending sentences with prepositions, all that sort of wonderful Grammar Nazi stuff that can make people’s head explode. What made this even more satisfying is that the pompous Lord Herringbone’s pedantic correction of language and grammar was an important character trait not merely the writer showing off. The story slowly revealed itself to be somewhat of a mystery with a cheeky bent and a few late twists along the way. There were some nice sight gags as well. Economically staged and slickly performed this was well received by the audience. Written and Directed by Bob Charteris, the play starred Fran Gordon, Paul Anderson, Peter Flanigan, Alexandra D’Ulisse, and Georgi Ivers.

Dramafest continues 7.30pm Wednesday 24 September at Hackett Hall in Floreat.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Brain From Planet X - Dark Psychic Productions (21 September 2014)

Newsflash!

A group of marauding performers have invaded Perth and set up camp at the Phoenix Theatre in Hamilton Hill. They are armed with an impressive lighting array, colourful costumes, tap shoes and a storyline straight out of 1950s B grade science fiction films. But that’s okay because the brains of the operation Ryan McNally says it’s all a spoof and good old fashioned fun. Audience members are advised to abandon all caution and rush to check out the final week of shows. Be warned though, the weak among you may not be able to resist the devilish alien brain tap, or their leader’s seductive hand gestures, or even a skin tight jumpsuit that would make Olivia Newton-John at the end of Grease blush!

Yes, there are aliens among us. Well, if we were in the San Fernando Valley back in 1958 that is. They have evolved to an advanced state where human trifles such as love, emotion, and the family unit are not only redundant but signs of weakness. Their leader, a walking, talking brain (Cody Fullbrook) and his two alien henchmen, the bickering Zubrick (Glenn Wallis) and Yoni (Kate Lloyd) set out to dominate the Earth by destroying such traits in humans. They will achieve this by use of the mind bender which, um, bends minds. This ingenious plot is known as Plan 10 (from Outer Space) as aliens are clearly the only creatures in the universe to appreciate the talents of Ed Wood.

The target of their dastardly plot is the Bunson family, headed up by inventor-dad Fred (Gary Devries), his wife Joyce (Sylvia Mellor) and wilful teenage daughter Donna (Mikaela Innes) who is enamoured of wannabe beatnik poet Rod (Krispin Maesalu). Fred’s father-in-law Professor Leder urges the career minded General Mills (Mario Piccoli) to show caution as there might be many things we could learn from our extra-terrestrial guests. But the one star General, assisted by Private Parts (Jordan Norrish), only has one thing on his mind – to add more stars to his chest… oh, and save the world.

It’s a pretty thin plot but that’s part of the gag. All the bad science fiction tropes are in there with mind control, evil aliens, an incompetent military, an obligatory twist (that was obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity to such tales), the salt-of-the-earth family under threat, and futuristic technology like the kooky force field that protects the alien spacecraft. A Narrator (Shaun Griffin) sets the scene which in and of itself is a parody of the sort of exposition usually doled out in movie voiceover. The fourth wall is constantly broken and there is even audience participation! Alas, The Brain deemed me “too old” to undergo the brain tap which was unfortunate as man, that Yoni may be an alien hell-bent on world domination but she was incandescent.

Oddly for a musical the singing was uneven with greater emphasis seemingly given to the comic performances. In the singing stakes, however, Mellor (recently seen in Xanadu as a pit singer) as Joyce and young Innes as Donna were the standouts. Devries was corny fun as the Dad and largely carries the first act but mostly disappears in the second due to the inevitable demands of plot machinations. Fullbrook is a playful Brain and his hand gestures are truly mesmerising (the man must have wrists of steel!). That’s without even mentioning the wonderful prosthetic brain he sports. The costuming and makeup throughout is colourful and inventive.

Wallis plays the obsequious Zubrick with amusing snark and has a late second act transformation that had echoes of Sir Lancelot from Spamalot. Lloyd is mischievous and sassy as all get out as the man hungry alien Yoni and looks fabulous in a selection of figure hugging outfits. These aliens are all tall and far too damn attractive!

There is a supporting ensemble of some 20 performers so it’s a big cast for a community theatre show. The lighting was especially impressive though there were times in the second act that shining it into the eyes of the audience at key moments was a little overused. The four piece band at the front of the stage (right) were well led by Josh Haines and didn’t overpower the singers who were a tad low on volume to begin with for my tastes.

Highlights included Innes’ Good Girl/Bad Girl; Joyce’s refusal to be the subservient wife after her mind had been bent (Things Are Going To Change Around Here); The Brain Tap where audience member Ryan revealed, admittedly against his will, the stupidity of the human race; a very sexy I Need An Earthman by Lloyd; and Wallis’ complementary, surprise revelation, All About Men. The Brain’s Song was also a hoot with Fullbrook a most endearing villain. The tap dance in the second act with Fullbrook, Lloyd, Wallis and 6 members of the ensemble was excellent.

Directed by Ryan McNally with Musical Direction by Krispin Maesalu and Choreography by Jayde Clark, The Brain From Planet X was a real lark. The cast were all having fun as was the audience with no better example than when an enthusiastic person in the front row ‘stole’ a line from a mid-pause Fullbrook. He played along to create one of those wonderfully spontaneous moments in the theatre you couldn’t recreate if you tried. 

If you’re wondering whether to go see this then the time is nigh (yes, nigh!) – there are only three more performances left, 8pm 25-27 September at the Phoenix Theatre in Hamilton Hill.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Choice Cuts - WAAPA (20 September 2014)

Let’s begin at the ending, shall we…?

Far, far away in a magical land called Mountlawleycampus there was a good witch who was no doubt popular (Jane Watt) and a green-faced, masculine witch with a black witch’s hat and caked on face paint (Joel Horwood) who was clearly evil (the grin gave it away!).  Yet despite their differences and Elphaba-Joel making Glinda-Jane crack up during their number, they came through three years of trials and tribulations stronger and yes, changed for good. 
   
When the massed company of WAAPA’s graduating acting class joined Horwood and Watt in singing Wicked’s For Good in Choice Cut’s finale it was funny but also strangely moving as the sentiment of the lyrics was appropriate and heartfelt. It capped off a couple of hours of entertainment from the third year students whose thoughts will now wander towards showcase tours and life beyond WAAPA.

What an eclectic mix this show presented from three years of productions and study! There were the obligatory scenes from a selection of Shakespeare’s greatest works - Macbeth, As You Like It, and Othello; the last played out with murderous intensity only inches from me in the wonderfully compact Roundhouse Theatre. Interspersed throughout were monologues and self-devised pieces including Harriet Davies lamenting her ISS or Irritable Singing Syndrome which saw her amusingly burst into song at any moment.

In fact there was far more singing than I expected with several strong voices on display such as Henry Hammersla (I Believe) and Alex Malone (Maybe This Time). Indeed the first half ended in raucous fashion as ‘The Girls’ of the class presented their Protest Song that challenged, far more indelicately than I will describe it, certain, ahem, expectations of female grooming. It had the small but appreciative audience chuckling their way to the bake sale in the foyer. An aside: damn nice homemade cookies and cake!

There was a lot of accent work on display and clearly this is a focus over the journey. It featured as the group revisited productions such as The Golden Age, Speaking in Tongues/No Worries and Chekhov in Yalta where, damn it, Felicity McKay will create Magic If! There were two specific Accent and Dialect Monologues as well, by Julio Cesar and Kirsty Marillier.

Physicality was highlighted with a mix of fight sequences and the inhabiting of everything from animals to the poor, twisted creatures of The Golden Age to Toddlers. The last I had seen conducted as an exercise by Angela Punch-McGregor during Open Day so I was delighted to watch Adam Sollis and Jane Watt channel their inner child with such abandon. 

The humour here was more of the sly variety, for example Joel Horwood and Jonny Hawkins having fun in an excerpt from Waiting for Godot where the worst possible insult, far above moron or sewer rat, was musical theatre student! The transitions worked better in the second half but there were times the audience was unsure when to clap so some ‘acts’ didn’t get their just applause as they bled into the next. This certainly wasn’t the case after Hawkin’s Tribute to Stritch, a statuesque performance in stockings, heels, wig and a dress.

All the third year shows were reprised with the sequence from Festen giving me the same uncomfortable feeling as when I first saw it, a testament to that production’s power and to the skill of this class. Realism revisited some brave moments with Liam Maguire, Harriet Davies and Alexis Lane featuring while Great Expectations had a quick whip around by the chorus. I was intrigued by the glimpses of shows I hadn’t seen, namely The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Hour of the Wolf (second year production).

It was an engaging tour of three years of hard work and talent with the dramatic highlight being the work of Holly Dryoff, Aleks Mikic, Emma Diaz and Henry Hammersla in the Othello scene which had great intensity particularly from Diaz and Mikic. The Protest Song was an unexpected treat and the understated humour throughout worked well. Not everyone had a featured moment but all worked well in the various ensembles including Steph Tsindos and Alexander Frank. I’ve only just realised one person was missing, Harry Richardson whose Herbert I quite enjoyed in Great Expectations.

Well done one and all and thank you for a great year. Thank you also to the second year students who were on front of house and bake sale duty. It was great to chat with some of you and I look forward to seeing Blood Wedding and hearing what your third year shows will be.

Now, as mentioned, the audience wasn’t that large for a Saturday matinee on the first hot day of the impending summer. But there is one more show left, Sunday at 5pm and the money collected from ticket sales, the raffle and bake sale help get these talented actors over east for their showcase tour. It’s going to be stormy and awful outside so go and see some theatrical magic instead!   

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

You've Got That Thing! - Melbourne Fringe (16 September 2014)

I had to fly to Melbourne for an all day training course on the Wednesday which meant an evening arrival the day before. I checked into the hotel, had a quick dinner with a work colleague at a nice steakhouse then it was on the tram and into the city for a show. I mean, ‘when in Rome go to the theatre’ as the old saying doesn’t go. Tuesday was the opening of Melbourne’s Fringe festival so it couldn’t have timed out better.

The show in question was the preview of a cabaret celebrating the life and music of Cole Porter featuring a plethora of Western Australian talent. The venue was the very funky Butterfly Club off Little Collins Street. The stage was possibly smaller than my lounge room but sufficient enough to fit a piano played with fierce concentration by Mia Brine and the musical theatre talents of Mitch Roberts as Edward, Brianna Williams as Linda Porter and Annalisa Bell as Porter’s ‘voice’, Ethel Merman.

Yes, the great conceit for a show about Cole Porter is that Cole Porter doesn’t appear at all... if you discount the framed photo of him on the piano. But, oh, his songs certainly do and what a roster of numbers we have here - from ‘Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love’ to ‘Night and Day’ and ‘It's De-Lovely’ to numbers from the musicals Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate among others. They were beautifully sung by all three performers with songs assigned to each character dependent on the emotional beats of the story.

This is what really elevated the show – the story wasn’t just filler to get us to the next song but a nice arc on its own that carefully illuminated Porter’s life and achievements while precluding the need for his involvement. It also gave a balanced portrayal - Porter ‘wrote the songs, wrote the music, and wrote his own press releases’ - especially when it came to criticism of the whitewashed movie of his life.

Roberts’ Edward is our narrator as he goes from the young songwriter eager to meet Porter to his lover and ultimately carer in the last years of the legendary composer/songwriter’s life. The central conflict then is with William’s Linda Porter, Cole’s wife who was his great love and prime inspiration. Bell adds the zing factor as the larger than life Merman with the big personality and even bigger voice. This all works well and the acting is good, especially when Linda and Edward confront each other over the fallout of Cole’s accident that eventually saw him lose a leg.    

Co-written by Izaak Tze Yup and Nick Maclaine this was slickly presented and well performed. At one hour in length it is the perfect type of show for Fringe. It is a great introduction to Porter’s work for those unfamiliar with his brilliance, and a wonderful reminder to those who are. You’ve Got That Thing! is on at The Butterfly Club in Carson Place until Sunday 21 September.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sunday Night Theatre - Hayman Theatre Company (14 September 2014)

One of the pleasant discoveries of my theatre going year has been the regular staging of a tandem of one act plays at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs on the Curtin University campus. This gives the students an opportunity to produce a mix of theatre from well-known plays like one of tonight’s offerings to self-devised pieces to, occasionally, originally written work. The students also rotate directing, acting, and off-stage duties to give them a full appreciation of every department.

This Sunday’s programme definitely had laughs on its mind with the cleverly written comedy of errors, Albert, and the always entertaining The Real Inspector Hound by one of my favourite writers, the great Tom Stoppard.

Albert

A Finnish au pair, an Italian soccer fan, and an amorous Englishman walk onto a stage…The set up for a gag? Sure. But it’s a pretty good one as this production plays with miscommunication, stereotypes and ‘bloody foreigners’ to amusing effect.

Karin (Michelle Endersbee) is looking after a baby in an English household where the parents have left for the evening to go to the cinema… or bicycle riding depending on your language of choice. She is interrupted by Nico (Jeremy Bunny) who is there to visit his sister, the mother of said newborn. They in turn are interrupted by Albert (Caleb Robinson-Cook), eager to declare his love for the previous au pair who has only recently left. None of them speak or understand each other’s language so miscomprehension escalates amusingly as identities and agendas are hilariously misconstrued.
  
Endersbee plays it straight as the new nanny increasingly bewildered by events. Her Finnish accent never strays into caricature and she grounds proceedings with an air of Scandinavian innocence. Bunny is very good as the charismatic Italian who becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to communicate with the other two… and the perplexing issue of the lavatory which (he thinks) he’s been told is the well-worn armchair. Yes, it’s that kind of humour. Robinson-Cook gives a knee-slapping, earnest portrayal which spirals out of control as he eventually comes to believe he is the father of the baby. 

Directed by Ariel Tresham and Written by Richard Harris, this had good timing and was very amusing. It was a perfect companion piece for Hound which also features misunderstandings and mistaken identities galore…

The Real Inspector Hound

Nobody panic but theatre critics are murdered in this production. I mean, in the play, not in the audience… though… 

No, let’s not entertain that thoug—would someone answer that damn phone?!

The stage is set in an upstairs theatre cut off from the ground floor by a winding staircase surrounded by, um, marshes and, oh yes, a cliff. The chances of front of house staff arriving in time to thwart a madman are slim to none. I eyeball my fellow audience members cautiously.

Of course, Stoppard is having enormous fun taking the piss out of Agatha Christie style murder mysteries with their contrived, inaccessible settings and abundance of exposition. The great conceit is that two theatre critics are commenting in the wings and eventually get drawn into the drama on stage as the dead body (played with commendable stillness by Charlie Darlington) is finally revealed to be…

The first of those two critics is Birdboot (Monty Sallur) who fancies himself a ladies man and maker of (female) stars. His fellow critic is second stringer Moon sitting in for head critic Higgs who is indisposed for the night. In a slight departure from the norm, Moon here is played by a woman, Felicity Meath. On stage, in the rooms of Muldoon Manor, newcomer Simon Gascoyne (Kane Parker) arrives causing much consternation for the lady of the house, the widow Cynthia Muldoon (Emily Matthews), her guests Felicity Cunningham (Ashleigh Morris) and Major Magnus Muldoon (Tristan McInnes), and the ever present maid, Mrs Drudge (Annika-Jane).

The radio announces that a madman has escaped and Inspector Hound (Jack Middleton) soon arrives to assist. Birdboot and Moon will ultimately take centre stage as the whole thing folds in on itself with devilish glee. Who indeed is the real Inspector Hound? Who is the killer? Who is the dead body? Why are fiends murdering theatre critics? We actually are nice people… no, really!

The cast tackled this with a real exuberance that mostly works though sometimes chunks of trademark witty Stoppard dialogue were delivered at breakneck speed. A breath and a touch more measured pace would have been better suited to let the words weave their magic. They are all solid with Middleton a quirky Hound, McInnes a cartoonish Major, and Matthews a glamorous Lady Muldoon. It’s Meath and Sallur though who get to play the showpiece roles and they do well with the only reservation being the overly rapid dialogue at times. It’s a fun production and always entertaining to witness the reaction of newcomers to the play as the absurd yet clever revelations mount. 

Directed by George Ashforth and Written by Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound received enthusiastic applause and ended a fun night out at Curtin.

Improvisation Performance - Perth PlayBack Theatre Company (14 September 2014)

I was invited along to the Chrysalis Montessori School in Glendalough to witness an improvised performance held after a daylong introductory workshop to Playback, a form of improvisational theatre. The performance featured actors well versed in this process and proved to be a fascinating experience as both an audience member and as a writer.

The audience was made up of people who had attended the workshop and members of the general public either interested in acting or there to watch family or friends who were participants. The atmosphere was very supportive which was important not only for the performers but also, as I was about to find out, those of us who supplied real life stories as the catalyst for the improvisations.

Actor Zane Alexander (who I had recently seen in Romeo and Juliet) conducted proceedings and started by giving a brief explanation of Playback and the importance of empathy in the process. The theme of the day was “What if…?” which is, of course, a question all writers ask when creating a new work but had even more resonance here as we were encouraged to apply it to our own lives. Zane was very good at teasing out the threads of a variety of real life stories, himself showing great empathy as he gently probed for, not so much details, as emotional signposts. “How did you feel about…?” was an important question throughout.

While this was going on there would be four actors ‘on stage’ at any one time out of a roster of 8-9 performers and it was interesting watching them. One of the hallmarks of a good actor is the ability to listen and they did so with utmost attentiveness. After the story or scenario had been offered and discussed with Zane he would nominate, in effect, a technique. The actors would then take the information they had gleaned to ‘playback’ that story in improvised form. For example, I offered the moment in my life when I resigned from a managerial job in Sydney to come home to Perth to be a writer and the feelings associated with that – fear, relief, concern I’d be seen as a failure etc. That translated into a physical interpretation of literally breaking free.

The techniques used (and my most likely inadequate descriptions) were:

Pairs - where tandems of two actors would represent opposing internal viewpoints suggested by the story.

Fluid – which seemed to be the four actors working together to present a continuous flow.

Chorus – the actors mirroring each other to reinforce the emotional and story beats.

Comic Strip – where we were asked to close our eyes then open them to a still moment of the story, repeated 3-4 times with different poses by the actors.

Story – where the 4 actors performed a more traditional though truncated set of scenes.

Transformation – a technique that was mentioned but not utilised on the day.

The actors would rotate on and off “the bench” (to use a sporting term) so that there were always different combinations. The only props used were four milk crates, two blue, two green; and a selection of long, coloured strips of fabric. Music was improvised on the spot in the wings with a mix of - a bell, keyboards, saxophone, flute, occasionally vocals and sound effects. Talking to one of the actors afterwards, Nichola Renton (who was wonderful recently in Concussion), this added to the emotional depth and provided cues as well, notably action changes and end points to ‘scenes’. It was clear there was a great sense of craft and trust at play here with the group working seamlessly together.

I won’t go into details of the stories graciously offered but they ranged from the personal to the light-hearted and gave the actors plenty to work with. I do, however, now know about the importance of hydration at sporting carnivals and the dangers of bedbugs on romantic holidays! Indeed, humour and a sense of play were important aspects of the performance but always with that sense of empathy shining through as justice was done to each story.  

Thank you to the director of the Perth Playback Theatre Company, Chloe King, who asked me along but also was a performer (as actor and musician) and even ‘conducted’ one of the story sessions. The afternoon was well received and on the basis of this glimpse into the process is a valuable tool for any performer to acquire within a supportive and friendly environment.

For more details of the Perth Playback Theatre Company go to their facebook page here

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Laughter on the 23rd Floor - Black Swan State Theatre Company (13 September 2014)

Hot on the heels of Greg Fleet’s auspicious playwriting debut at The Blue Room, another well-known comedian features in a play, this time Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. 

In this, Peter Rowsthorn, he of the rubbery contortions, plays the titular star of 50’s television smash, The Max Prince Show. Staged at the Heath Ledger Theatre by Black Swan this is a funny play indeed. Yet Rowsthorn doesn’t dominate in a measured performance where he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.

There are plenty of laughs to go around which is appropriate as the play is set in the writing room of said show. Given that the legendary Simon worked in television at the beginning of his career, part of the joy is in spotting the famous people who have inspired this roster of writers. Max Prince himself is based on Sid Caesar and Ira Stone is more than channeling Mel Brooks, for example.

Beneath the one-liners, the wordplay and bouts of physical comedy, there is an undertow of serious subject matters on Simon’s mind. Senator McCarthy’s tentacles are felt as the fear of being Blacklisted is ever present; and there is not-so-subtle commentary about the dumbing down of television as the network demands more ‘shit’ so they can sell more ‘shit’. Both of these threats present the characters with the dilemma of self-censorship, acquiescence, possible unemployment or even worse with McCarthyism running amok. What then the responsibility of the writer to stand up to the perversion of democratic process and rights? As Russian-American Val Skolsky (Igor Sas) states, first they go after the politicians then they go after the writers.

Predominantly though this is a witty exploration of a group of quirky characters who, let’s face it, do a pretty quirky job – making people laugh. Humphrey Bower plays the colourful Milt Fields who dresses in style to be ‘somebody’. Bower is very convincing and contributes many droll asides as we discover how competitive this room is. Sas is a standout as Skolsky, all angst and anguish with a thick Russian accent that was never hard to follow. James Sweeny, the cipher for Simon himself as Lucas Brinkman, is all fresh-faced earnestness and our narrator. He plays the shy, sweet newcomer well and is a nice counterpoint to the more cynical veterans of the writing staff.

Stuart Halusz is the voice of reason as Kenny Franks and it’s interesting watching the dynamics of the group as they all vie for Max’s attention and, more importantly, get their lines in the show. Damon Lockwood arrives late in the first act but then his character, the hypochondriac Ira Stone, is always late. Lockwood gives a funny performance as the whining, anxiety-crippled Stone who is certain of his pre-eminence as the best writer. Jo Morris plays the only female writer on staff, Carol Wyman, and she does so with spunk and intelligence. It’s telling when Wyman demands to be treated and regarded as a good writer not merely a female writer given the cutthroat nature of the business, especially when one member of the staff has to be let go.

Ben Mortley sports an Irish accent as Brian Doyle who is always signing a deal to go to Hollywood with his latest screenplay. His character has a prickly relationship with Stone which gives Mortley licence to land some verbal jabs as one of the blunter characters. Lara Schwerdt is the secretary Helen who is competent officiousness but, perhaps unfortunately, is played for laughs as an aspiring comedy writer herself late in proceedings. That she comes across as ditzy here undercuts the stance taken with Carol.

Then there is Mister Rowsthorn himself. He is good as Max Prince – paranoid the network is out to get him, forgetful, occasionally lost in a daze of pills, impulsive, good-natured and ultimately protective of his troops even though there are moments of spite. There is a memorable sequence as he plays Julius Caesar (in a sketch they are writing) where Rowsthorn gives full rein to his signature brand of physical humour but other than some wall punching he is quite restrained which makes this truly an ensemble piece.

The set is astonishingly good with the New York skyline as the backdrop through large windows and the writers’ room beautifully furnished and appointed. The final scene is so beautifully lit with the inclusion of a surprise prop that looked wonderful as snow falls ‘outside’ that I almost forgave the play lingering a little long and ending on too sentimental a note. Otherwise, this is tremendous entertainment with snappy writing and a great cast working on a wonderful set.

Directed by Kate Cherry, Written by Neil Simon and starring Humphrey Bower, Stuart Halusz, Damon Lockwood, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley, Peter Rowsthorn, Igor Sas, Lara Schwerdt and James Sweeny, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 21 September.

Friday, 12 September 2014

What Do They Call Me? - The Blue Room Theatre (10 September 2014)

If theatre can transport you to different places and/or periods in time it also facilitates insight into different voices and points of view. Points of view shaped by experiences that may be completely foreign to the audience member. This is definitely the case with What Do They Call Me? as questions of identity, sexuality, and belonging are tackled through the prism of indigenous culture. It is part confronting, part illuminating and definitely thought provoking.

Here, director Eva Grace Mullaley has split the original one woman piece into three monologues performed by Amy Smith, Ebony McGuire and Alyssa Thompson. Smith leads off with an angry tale set in a police lockup as her character Connie demands to know why she is there and berates her jailer for the circumstances. Thompson follows with an exploration of how being raised white in an adopted household has affected her character’s perception of self and own worth. McGuire ends the 45 minute performance as an indigenous lesbian activist who struggles with these diverse aspects of who she is. The main linking device is that Connie is the mother of both Regina and Alison (Thompson and McGuire) who were taken from her.

It is a simple set with a bench in the middle of the stage, a desk at one end, and images that are occasionally projected on each far wall. Unfortunately, the seating configuration was in the wings so the audience is perpendicular to the main performance space. This meant that for the first monologue the actor’s back was largely to me and while I could hear the anger I could not see it. I wanted to witness the visceral emotion that the words and performance demanded. The second monologue was at the other end of the axis so it felt a little removed as well. The third was at my end of the space which meant I had full access to the expressions and emotions which is perhaps why it was my preferred monologue of the night.

Afterwards at the bar, the director and actors were graciously thanking people for coming to the performance. A work colleague from over east and I subsequently had a good conversation with Mullaley and one of her actors. Feedback was sought and given and we talked about issues the play raised. It’s one of the great strengths of the Blue Room environment that it sponsors such genuine and frank discussion. There’s an immediacy that adds to the experience so thank you to Mullaley and Smith for being so generous with their time and remarks. The play and discussion made a real impact on my colleague who is involved in negotiations regarding greater opportunities for indigenous employment in the industry we work in. Serendipity indeed as he’d only arrived in Perth the day before and the decision to attend the play was purely spontaneous.

What Do They Call Me? shines a spotlight on aspects of indigenous culture that are raw and moving. It does so with an honesty and authenticity that demands respect. The play is on at the Blue Room until 27 September and is written by Eva Johnson, Directed by Eva Grace Mullaley and stars Amy Smith, Ebony McGuire and Alyssa Thompson. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Distance From Here - Endless Theatre Company (8 September 2014)

I’m standing in the downstairs section of the State Theatre after the show lamenting the fact that the bar is closed at such an unseemly early hour. There are conversations to be had, the kind best enjoyed over a quiet drink as opinions and thoughts are bandied about. The usual opening show congratulations are shared as the cast emerge from the bowels of Rehearsal Room 1. Out of the corner of my eye I see the director approach. We shake hands then there is the inevitable, “so what did you think?”

Blink.

“I don’t know. I need to think about it.”

To his credit director Garreth Bradshaw immediately came back with, “good, I prefer that to you saying it was ‘alright’”.

Most times I pretty much know immediately what my reaction to a show is. Here, at that moment in time, I had no clue. What did I think indeed? I could have bullshitted or offered some limp platitude but what’s the point? I hate it when people comment on my own work that way and I’m not going to disrespect a fellow creative in similar fashion. Then there’s this:

I genuinely had to think about it.

I was very high on this company’s previous production, The Pillowman, which was deliciously dark, subversive and right in my wheelhouse. By comparison, Neil LaBute’s examination of disaffected American youth is the sort of ‘slice of life’ tale that I seldom respond to but yet…

The play opens with two youths mocking monkeys at the zoo. “Primates, they just don’t get it.” Bradshaw then drapes his actors on (movable) scaffolding whenever they are not required in a scene to watch the drama that is unfolding below them. Yes, those actors and the audience become observers of ‘primates’ of a different kind who truly don’t get it as we watch the troubled Darrell (Jordan Gallagher) interact with his dysfunctional family and friends.

And what a lot they are – the immature, put upon Tim (Nic Doig) who is Darrell’s best friend and target of his mockery; his mother Cammie (Jess Stenglein) who is shacked up with boyfriend Rich (Patrick Downes); and Darrell’s step-sister Shari (Katie Rose Spence) and her constantly crying baby. Then there’s his girlfriend Jenn (Rebecca Virginia Williams) whose sexual ‘transgression’ two years prior will ultimately ignite Darrell’s short fuse; and ‘the mysterious girl’ (Madelaine Page) who reveals Jenn’s secret to tragic consequences.

None of them are particularly likeable… but that’s the point. The neglect within the family unit has seeped into every generation from Cammie’s lack of warmth to Shari’s disregard for her baby to Darrell’s violent temper. What was fascinating was the hierarchical nature of this male driven world – while Darrell may boss Tim around, Rich treats his girlfriend’s son with equal contempt.

Gallagher is riveting as Darrell. He is a physical presence who plays the teenager with petulance, impulsiveness and a sense of ever present rage. When that anger finally boils over he is devastating in his retribution. We need this to even remotely comprehend the heinous act the character commits in the final moments. Doig’s Tim is initially the goofy one who is no match for his friend’s intensity and cruel jibes. But as we get to the business end of proceedings the character is portrayed with a quiet strength and decency that almost redeems this sorry lot. Kudos also to Doig who closes the play with an act that is totally true to the moment and revealing in more ways than one.

Downes is the singlet clad, macho dude who is instantly familiar in any setting. He plays rough with Darrell and even rougher in his affections for Cammie who Rich betrays as a typically testosterone driven arsehole. It’s a strong performance all the more so because it is such a loathsome character on many levels. Stenglein is good in a difficult role as her character has affection for Rich but is seemingly disinterested in her son’s emotional wellbeing and her step-daughter’s predicament. The baby doesn’t have a chance in this household, its cries a trigger for lethargy rather than caring.

Spence exudes a languid sexuality that comes into play later but gives Shari a self-centred, bored air as well. Even to the extent of propositioning her step-brother, anything for relief in this self-constructed cage. Williams adds a little spunk to Jenn as she stands up to Darrell but her ‘betrayal’ renders the character impotent in the face of his anger. She has nice moments with Doig as those two characters bond dealing with the fallout of Darrell’s antics. Page has a featured scene as ‘the secret’ is revealed.

The acting is strong, the last third compelling as Darrell takes drastic action, the ending memorable. The mood is enhanced by the use of guitarist Darryn Santana in the wings. The movable scaffolding meant the scene transitions were a little clunky and the naming of each setting projected on a white backdrop at the back of the stage felt redundant. Bradshaw also mentioned (before I could say it) that the seats have to be moved forward as there was indeed a distance to the action in the cavernous space.

Why did I have to think? 

I liked the acting, I didn’t like the characters. I liked the drama at the end but I didn’t like the world they inhabited. I liked the courage to tackle edgy material but the rawness was uncomfortable and, at times, confronting. To that end the play is a tremendous success. I don’t think LaBute wants me to like it. I think he wants me to be unsettled and to think. By that measure Bradshaw and his cast and crew have done an excellent job.

The Distance From Here is on at the State Theatre’s Rehearsal Room 1, every night until 13 September at 7pm.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Best Bits - WAAPA (7 September 2014)

This isn’t going to be so much a review as it will be a celebration.

WAAPA’s graduating musical theatre students capped off an outstanding year and the culmination of three years hard work with four shows over two days at The Roundhouse Theatre. All twenty of these talented performers were given a highlight moment as well as jointly reminding us of the featured productions they have starred in over the journey. It was a very relaxed, funny, and entertaining couple of hours that more than ably demonstrated their abilities as they prepare for the showcase tour of Sydney and Melbourne. Agents and stardom beckon.

Simply accompanied by Tim How on piano, this was more than just a ‘greatest hits’ concert. The parodies of the four major musicals – Merrily We Roll Along, West Side Story, Hair and Reefer Madness were inventive and hilarious. From lampooning the complexities of Merrily We Roll Along’s reverse timeline narrative to sending up Hair’s famous nude scene to an unconventional (to say the least!) interpretation of West Side Story, the 2014 graduating class were clearly enjoying themselves and the audience went along for the crazy ride. The chemistry within the group was palpable.

They also cheekily borrowed the central conceit of the Sondheim musical to tell their own story backwards - from 2014 all the way back to arriving at the acclaimed Academy for the very first time. It was a nice linking device. That they ended the show all with suitcase in hand was an apt image – it’s time to depart for their next journey as a bright future and professional careers await.  

Between the set-piece parodies was a mix of performances – from musical numbers, to dance routines, to monologues to show off acting chops. I really liked the balance as it reinforced the fact that WAAPA trains these wonderfully gifted performers to be triple threats – singing, dancing and acting. There were plenty of witty transitions as well and the show was nothing less than downright mischievous at times. I loved the overall vibe that all these elements achieved - a celebration indeed.

I don’t intend to go through individual performances other than to say there were so many highlights in all three of those disciplines. It was a really fun afternoon with a receptive audience, some of whom will be featuring in this very spot next year. 

Unfortunately I arrived late to the party with this class having only seen their 2014 performances (Reefer Madness looks like it would have been a scream). Two things to come out of today though: a sense of excitement to see what happens next with the individuals in this group; and a real expectation for the second years as they step up to take their place. Already a strong roster of productions has been announced for 2015 – Urinetown, Legally Blonde, and Carrie.

Finally, thank you to the 2014 graduating class of Jess Voivenel, Shannen Alyce, Miranda Macpherson, Suzie Melloy, Daniel Berini, Patrick Whitbread, Sophie Cheeseman, Lyndon Watts, Ben Adams, Sophie Stokes, Will Groucutt, Stephen Madsen, Ashleigh Rubenach, Chloe Wilson, Jack Van Staveren, Eloise Cassidy, Nick Eynaud, Max Bimbi, Rebecca Hetherington and Du Toit Bredenkamp for providing such excellent entertainment over the year. Every show, including this one, has been entertaining, enthralling and a sheer delight.

All the best for showcase and the future!

Romeo and Juliet - Class Act Theatre (6 September 2014)

This show marks the end of a twenty year association between Perth and Class Act Theatre, founder and driving force Angelique Malcolm deciding to head eastwards at the end of the year. Class Act has always been notable for making the great Bard’s works accessible to a wider audience and this is no exception.

Here, Will.i.am Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is given a re-imagining with a decidedly hip hop flavour which will no doubt catch the attention of a younger audience. It’s an interesting stylistic choice and one that infuses the play with an energy and playfulness that works surprisingly well in the first act before largely disappearing in the second. As it must as the tragedy unfolds. I’m still undecided about this as I enjoyed the first half so much and missed the unusual flourishes as a more traditional rendering occurs in the second act.

The set is littered with milk crates, a shopping trolley, and refuse as two homeless people watch the action (Malcolm and Stephen Lee, both of whom also play the Sister and, most amusingly, the Nurse respectively). The Capulets and Montagues loiter in the wings. At the rear of the stage is a torn white sheet where the occasional narration of (Perth based lyricist) Ryan ‘Trooth’ Samuels is projected. The upper tear in the sheet will provide the setting for the iconic balcony scene.

What follows is the use of certain passages of text performed as rap with recorded musical support by the aforementioned Trooth and Loftee Beats who are co-musical directors.  Lucas Marie adds impressive interludes of breakdancing or 'bboying' as it’s referred to in the program. The cast are attired in modern clothing that reflects the hip hop aesthetic.

The standouts in the early going are Daniel Buckle as Mercutio who adds a real sense of mischief while Jessica Messenger is a feisty Benvolio. Lee initially provides comic relief as the Nurse and his song and dance number was all kinds of brave and funny.

Nick Pages-Oliver plays Romeo with a twinkle in the eye and there is a lot of sly humour here. The well-built Rubeun Yorkshire makes for a menacing Tybalt and the rap-style fight between the two works well. Our Juliet is Maja Liwszyc who was excellent in the last Class Act production I saw (Frames) and excels again here. She conveys strength in opposition to her mother and father’s wishes (Katya Shevtsov and Zane Alexander) while displaying a real sweetness and joy in her love for Romeo. The cast is rounded out by Josh Walker as the rival suitor, Paris.

What adds to the first act working so well is that the actors are never off stage and add spontaneous laughter and catcalls from the wings that enhanced the sense of play. The company had genuine chemistry with ‘in the moment’ interactions. I was really enjoying the humour and fresh take on such well known material. Again, by necessity, the chorus falls silent after the intermission.

I confess I enjoyed Act One more then the second and this is a long play. The fusion of the classical text with rap and hip hop was an interesting one and I thought worked well. Its absence was all the more notable because of its uniqueness. That’s not to say the second half isn’t without its moments with Liwszyc in particular strong.

Directed by Helen Doig, hopefully this production will attract a new generation of young audience members who will become acquainted with one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. I also wish Angelique Malcolm all the best as she braves new frontiers in Melbourne.

Romeo and Juliet is on at the Subiaco Arts Centre until 13 September and then down at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 18-19 September.