Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The List - Fragmented Artists (27 January 2015)

I didn’t lay a finger on her. I didn’t hire anyone to sneak in and murder her. And yet it’s as if I killed her.

The opening lines of this one woman performance that immediately grab your attention. But this is no remorseful Antonio Salieri, rather a Canadian housewife lost in guilt in a small village in Quebec. The ‘her’ in question is a friendly neighbour who died after giving birth to her fifth child. The woman, played by Gemma Cavoli in a tour de force performance, then recounts their friendship and the events that are the cause of that guilt, all the while composing To Do lists, themselves complicit in her fragile emotional state.

This is a combination of wonderful writing (the original French text by Jennifer Tremblay translated into English by Shelley Tepperman) and impressive acting from Cavoli. She inhabits multiple characters including young children and even grandparents with such an expressive face and great skill that by the time the story comes to its devastating conclusion you are totally immersed in this wintry microcosm. There is a real connection between actor and audience enhanced by the intimate setting at The Guild Studio.

The lists themselves and the ritual of making them are a barometer of the woman’s emotional wellbeing. They give solace and certainty in routine but ultimately are the very thing that proves the woman’s undoing. There is a rhythm in their construction, like a metronome, and when things get out of whack that metronome oscillates out of control as the woman becomes more frantic. But in making the lists has she overlooked the very essence of what makes a friendship, a marriage, a life really work?

There is such attention to detail here in the descriptions of this woman’s day-to-day life, her thoughts, her reactions, the sense of isolation and emotional decay. The story unfolds with great skill as we are drawn more and more into this relationship between the woman and her neighbour. Gentle humour is used throughout and many of the situations will be instantly familiar from managing a ‘brood of children’ to trying to make friends in a new place to those craved for moments alone to indulge yourself away from parenthood and responsibilities if but briefly. Sprinkle this with a poetic sensibility to the language being used and there is an honesty and insight that is compelling.

Director Suzanne Ingelbrecht allows Cavoli to make full use of the small performance space and she takes full advantage, roaming across the stage. The set itself is simple with a desk, coat stand and a small child’s chair. A note pad on the desk takes on increasing significance. On the back wall are white curtains where ‘windows’ are projected and there is lovely use of lighting to convey different moods and to denote change of setting.  
This really is a wonderful piece of theatre and a quite demanding monologue that has so many textures and hues. Cavoli is outstanding and received well deserved applause with many people staying behind with one main question to ask – how long did it take you to learn all those lines? That she did and delivered them so expertly is a testament to her skill.

The List, tucked away in The Guild Studio in East Perth, may not be in the hubbub of the Cultural Centre or Pleasure Gardens but it is definitely worth the effort to discover as a gem of this year’s Fringe World. It runs until 1 February and bookings can be made here.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Threepenny Opera - Queens Hall Music (25 January 2015)

Ah, jolly old Victorian London. It’s a wholesome place full of cutthroats, thieves, prostitutes and all manner of unsavoury characters including such luminaries as Jack the Ripper and, in this instance, MacHeath (Caleb Robinson-Cook), better known as Mack the Knife.  

Mack and his gang (Jaxon George, Emerson Brophy, Sven Ironside and Ben Adcock) are always looking for an easy mark and what better opportunity for some thieving than a royal coronation? A similar thought occurs to underworld crook Mr Peachum (Brett Peart) who, with the assistance of his stern wife (Hannah Kay), schools a bunch of misfits (including Clare Thomson, Elise Giaimo and Claire Thomas) to be beggars on the street. Problem is their daughter Polly (Tania Morrow) has secretly married Mack. The reality of this union doesn’t sit well with the Peachum’s who take all kinds of measures to see Mack captured and hanged. Police Commissioner Tiger Brown (Rod Worth) is an unwilling accomplice in this as his daughter Lucy (Emma-Marie Davis) is, ahem, also married to Mack.

It’s a fairly straight-forward tale with a ‘ticking clock’ of sorts in the second half as the hanging must occur at a specific time lest it distract from the impending coronation. Mack is ultimately undone by the betrayal of his ‘Thursday regular’, the beautiful Jenny Diver (Meg McKibbin). Our hero is quite the ladies’ man. Ultimately he is saved from the hangman’s noose by a little ‘Deus Ex Regina’ – a messenger (Claire Thomas) from Queen Victoria herself reads the pardon that saves the day. Happy endings are enforced by no less than royal decree!

Staged upstairs at the Perth Town Hall (in what I’m assuming is usually a ballroom) the acoustics were a little tricky with the high ceilings imparting a lot of echo. Given that, I thought the singing throughout was generally good but with the band being located immediately to stage left and incorporating a trumpet and trombone there were times the performers were overwhelmed by the volume of the music. The band itself under Musical Director David Hicks played well but that balance was problematic more often than not.

In terms of performance I really liked Peart and Kay as the Peachum’s both vocally and as the main adversaries to Mack. Robinson-Cook gives a forceful and charismatic turn as MacHeath, at times admonishing and cajoling his men; at others wheeling and dealing his way out of all the trouble his romantic and constabulary predicaments bring. I found Morrow’s dialogue a little hard to follow and while the main performers were mic’d up projection was still a problem with the echo. She also had a tendency in the first half to play to the audience while in scenes (as distinct from the stylistic choice where a solitary character would address the audience from time to time) which I found distracting.

Worth gives an excellent over-the-top performance as Tiger Brown and you could almost feel the hand wringing of despair as events don’t go his way. A most unusual police commissioner! Davis has a lovely cameo as Lucy and her one big number Barbara Song was well delivered as she effectively battled the band for aural supremacy. McKibben nicely underplays the moments leading up to her betrayal of Mack while Ironside is the second comic foil with a mischievous turn as both a gang member and police officer. A quiet standout for me was Jaxon George as Matt. He had a cockiness and surety that worked really well when needling Mack. Thomas has fun playing a boy who’s a newcomer to the begging game and the remaining cast all provide good support.

I wasn’t a fan of the set itself which was a series of some four folding panels that were moved to loosely interconnect to depict various locations. They had a real slipshod air about them and made the transitions quite clunky. Given that their only functional purpose was to provide doorways I think they possibly could have been done away with as the lack of quality was another distraction.

Finally, the staging itself was a little static for mine with more of a stand and deliver approach to the numbers. The show hit its straps in moments like Army Song where the energy and movement went up another gear and there was similar potential in Tango Ballad as Mack and Jenny dance. I did, however, like the black humour that was bubbling throughout this.

Directed by David Hardie with Music by Kurt Weill and Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera had three performances as part of Fringe World.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon The Ocean Floor - Fringe World (24 January 2015)

In the opening of – let’s call it Anchors for ease of reference – Ben Mortley addresses the audience in character as a Parisian watchmaker and gives a charming monologue about the significance of time and how it is malleable. How it can be manipulated by clumsy hands… and love. How that moment you first see someone can stretch on forever; how looking for that someone may seem like forever… but isn’t. In essence, how time slows down or speeds up depending on our memories and our emotions. It is thematic intent front and centre that sets the table for everything we are about to experience.

I would add another great manipulator of time. A well written and well performed piece of theatre such as this one can cut through time effortlessly. A poorly written and performed show can stretch time almost to infinity. It is a malleable beast indeed.

What follows is a seemingly disconnected set of stories with the three actors – Mortley, Jo Morris, and Renee Newman-Storen – playing multiple characters in multiple accents from French to Russian to a distinctive American dialect (Appalachian English). What I liked is the choice of settings to explore a much travelled theme. A Parisian street is perhaps the most obvious but a Russian submarine trapped in the paradigm of the Cold War; two mates hunting for rabbits in the Appalachian Mountains; a man who was married for 18 years going on his first date; and a female office worker essentially stalking her female boss; were all uniquely presented. That they all loosely tie together towards the end in echoes of dialogue and circumstance was a nice touch that was subtly delivered.

The other element that was impressive is the amount of humour here. In fact you could categorise this as a comedy which I did not expect. Importantly, it is good-natured humour which I very much appreciated with wonderful comic timing by all three actors. The highlights were Mortley and Morris’ work as the two Americans hunting rabbits, the highly idiosyncratic accent and phrasing adding to our enjoyment of their discomfit in the snow; and Mortley and Newman-Storen’s characters’ first date set up by a friend. This was deliciously weird and awkward with a lovely payoff.

All three actors were excellent in their roles and had good chemistry. Other highlights were Mortley’s heartfelt monologue as the character Brian explains why he had never been on a date before which flipped the earlier comedy on its head. Newman-Storen’s reaction both during the telling and her response were fine moments of acting. Morris made for an hilariously feisty rabbit killer but it was the longing of her office worker character that was writ large as she watched the object of her desire before finally summoning the courage to take matters further. Anchors is as much about supressed emotions as it is about love. The submarine strand provided a very interesting counterpoint as it became quite dark with the Captain taking drastic action to spite the burgeoning love of his two female crew members.

The solution to so many quick scene changes was a rotating piece of set that represented the watchmaker’s shop, the submarine, first date restaurant, apartment, and the vantage point in the snow. This meant that transitions were economically done and quite slick. This was added to by a wonderful soundscape that again was subtle but immediately placed us under the sea or on a busy French street etc.

I can see why Anchors did so well at last year’s Blue Room awards and I am glad I had a chance to see it after missing out on its 2014 run. It has an evocative and poetic script by Finegan Kruckemeyer that was well directed by Adam Mitchell and superbly handled by its cast. Highly recommended during its Fringe World run which goes until 31 January at the PICA Performance Space. 

Sixty - Umbrellaco Theatre Company (24 January 2015)

The synopsis for this play states that it “follows the lives of four friends for the hour following a failed dinner party. It explores the idea of boredom and just how much can happen in an hour if you let it.”

The problem is that boredom isn’t an idea it is a state of being and not a dramatically interesting one. It’s difficult on stage (or in film) to play boredom with any sort of compelling momentum for an audience… by definition. Here the problem is exacerbated by glacial pacing. This had to be much tighter to keep the audience engaged. The long pauses throughout were deadly as were the slow transitions from one scene to another. The danger is that by attempting to represent boredom you induce it.

The set-up is that four friends return to their respective homes after a dinner party. Jess (Sarsi Elsberry) is drunk and amuses herself by taking a bath and ignoring her boyfriend Aaron (Jack Kennare) who tries to call her from his bedroom to apologise for something he said. Meanwhile, housemates Marley (Tahlia Norrish) and Casey (Tanna Wheildon) talk over wine and nibbles, mainly about Marley’s boyfriend Jason who’s in Melbourne and eventually a surprise revelation by Casey.

The stage is split into thirds with the bath in the centre, Aaron’s room stage right, and Casey and Marley’s living room stage left. The set is well presented with an authentic bathtub (bubbles and all), couch and bedroom. I wasn’t sure, however, what the linkage was between the Jess-Aaron non communication and the Marley-Casey discussions other than we are told they are friends but never see this and there is no narrative or dramatic overlap.

Another issue was that each third of the stage represented a different tone – Aaron was all emotional angst and turmoil; Jess was straight up physical comedy; with Marley and Casey more a drama of sorts as they chat. This became highly problematic as there was no tonal cohesion as we moved from one scene to another which in itself was an issue as at times it felt like a performer was waiting for their ‘turn’ to be featured.

At one point an Adele song was played on an iPod and we literally watch the four performers for some 3+ minutes doing essentially nothing. Might be great for a montage in a movie but here it was simply death. One sided conversations on mobiles are also hard to pull off on stage especially when we know so little about the characters as is the case with Jess and Aaron. What did he say that he had to apologise for? What are his issues? Who is Jess when she’s not drunk? Why do I care?

I had little to no emotional investment in the characters therefore when the Casey revelation comes it was hard to be moved by it, the same as Aaron’s big monologue that strangely ended the play.

For me, this needs to be far pacier and the Jess and Aaron characters in particular needed to show more emotional range other than ‘drunk’ and ‘angst-ridden’ respectively. Mix it up and make them three dimensional. I know Tahlia Norrish as a fine short film actress but she has little to work with here and Wheildon’s outbursts as Casey needed to be built up to rather than feeling like random actions as the script demanded. Kudos though to Elsberry for the physical shtick in the bathtub and Kennare did have an intensity that was good though his character didn’t earn the big monologue at the end. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t for me.

Written and Directed by Adelaide Buchanan, Sixty is on at Teatro 1 in the Perth Cultural Centre until 28 January as part of Fringe World. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Death Stole My Dad - Chaos Ensemble (23 January 2015)

A 12 year old boy (Jordan Holloway) who has lost his father in a plane crash runs away from home to play with his beloved Lego in the deserted house down the street. Yet he is not alone. His Shadow (Daley King) follows his every move and two siblings, guitar-wielding brother (Sam Stopforth) and forthright sister (Violette Ayad), have broken into the house where they offer to help bring the boy’s father back but only if he wins two out of three games.

This is an odd mix of elements – part experimental, part audience participation, part shadow play – that seeks to illuminate the grief and trauma such a loss causes and the extent you would go to wish you could have that person back.

The father’s death is well conveyed by the Shadow using a Lego plane that crashes to suitable sound effects and lighting. But then there is a long lull where I was a little disoriented as the boy soundlessly explores this space by torchlight, seemingly playing with the Lego scattered about and encountering what we later learn is his Shadow self. It’s only when the siblings arrive that we begin to get any dialogue and a sense of who these characters are. Even that is a little misleading as I never quite nailed down exactly what the brother and sister represent – they begin as potential squatters but then seem to have a more divine or supernatural aspect (depending on your point of view).

The Shadow gets up to early mischief and is regarded as a potential ghost before quite casually being outed as a shadow representation with nary a second thought to the implications of this. It was just accepted. There was great potential here and as someone in the audience said after, they thought maybe the Shadow was in fact the boy’s dad which is an interesting notion if he had been ‘there’ all along. So there needed to be more clarity as to the ‘otherworldly’ elements.

The deal between the boy and the sister is also rife with potential. The traumatised kid wants his dad back and latches onto, on the surface, this outlandish prospect that could achieve such an outcome. But Death chooses not to play Chess, instead Hangman, Twenty Questions and a game of Guess Who I Am? This felt kind of awkward. A gentleman is picked from the audience for the game of Hangman after the sister breaks the fourth wall and addresses us as lost souls in some kind of limbo. 

The other games are conducted between the characters but it felt like there needed to either be a full-throated commitment to drawing the audience into participating and, more importantly, caring about the result, or perhaps not calling such obvious attention to our presence. That tended to trade off the intimacy between the characters especially in the tricky realm of grief and loss for a stab at a more kinetic energy. It fell a little flat, however, and the play did tend to bog down in “Why are you here?”, “We’re here to help you?” repetition in the middle section that didn’t provide clear answers or narrative momentum.

Ayad has a strong stage presence and does her best to involve the audience. I wasn’t convinced, however, that she had ‘spoken’ to the boy’s father – I was more inclined to believe it was all a con rather than an actual ‘intervention’, supernatural or otherwise. Likewise, I wasn’t convinced by Holloway’s portrayal as a 12 year old but they may be more to do with the dialogue that felt better suited to an older teen. King gets to prowl around in a jet black body suit and adds some levity but this shadow representation could have embraced far more symbolic significance. Stopforth provides live music and some laid-back coolness but at times I found it hard to understand his dialogue.  

The premise that two mismatched ‘entities’ come to help a boy lost in grief is solid but I wasn’t quite convinced of the execution here.

Death Stole My Dad is directed by Daley King and was devised by and stars Violette Ayad, Jordan Holloway, Daley King and Sam Stopforth. There are two more shows at the Blue Room Theatre on Saturday and Sunday the 24-25th of January as part of the Fringe World Festival.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Venus in Fur - Black Swan State Theatre Company (15 January 2015)

Power. Control. Domination. Subjugation. Mistress. Slave. Goddess. Mortal. Director. Actress. Ambivalent. Ambiguous. Explicable. Extricable. A potent stew of taboos and desires mixed with a healthy serving of word play, sly humour, and top notch performances.

Who really is in control – the one who dominates or the one who craves domination thus seeking to set the terms of the relationship? How easily can those lines be blurred? In real life, in fiction, in the creative process? How easily can they be reversed?

Venus in Fur is a wonderfully layered ‘play within a play’ that seeks to explore these issues under the tantalising banner of sex and masochism. But that’s only the pretext for 90 minutes of sparring between two actors who inhabit multiple roles and changing perspective as the balance of power shifts and mutates in riveting fashion.

A playwright/director, Thomas (Adam Booth), is at the end of a fruitless day auditioning actresses for his latest play based on an 1870s masochistic novel. In storms an actress, Vanda (Felicity McKay), hours late, who coincidentally has the same first name as the character in the adaptation. Seemingly coarse and unsuitable she convinces Thomas to allow her to audition with a level of preparation and insight that intrigues and impresses him. As they read scenes together his play comes to life in ways Thomas never bargained for. Indeed, Vanda proves adept at taking control of not only the creative process but Thomas’ own latent desires.

Booth is good as Thomas – from frustrated director to eager supplicant, he is challenged by Vanda the actress and Vanda the character of his adaptation with even the goddess Aphrodite making an appearance. There is an earnestness and belief in Booth’s portrayal that acts as the bedrock for the assault to come - on Thomas’ motives for adapting the play, to his interpretation of its meaning and, ultimately, who and what he really is. Highlights come in an early monologue from the play reading where the fascination with fur (and pain through submission) is revealed – a Countess Aunt who beat the character with a birch switch while he was prone on her fur coat. 

Booth also has a well-judged outburst where he turns verbally nasty after Vanda pushes him too far and he tries to reassert control as snarling director over the ‘stupid actress’. Then there is a sense of eagerness and desperation as the character plummets further down the rabbit hole and begs to subjugate his very identity to be nothing more than property. The scene where Thomas is commanded to change Vanda’s footwear to knee-high boots is languid sensuality and desire writ large.

Felicity McKay is simply outstanding as Vanda. Her accent work is excellent and she slides in and out of various characters with astonishing ease, each one of them utterly distinctive so there is no prospect of confusion. She runs the gamut from playful, sexy, sensuous, commanding, dismissive, brash and refined but always with an underlying air of intrigue about who this person really is. There are explanations given that seem plausible enough but still left me in doubt as to their veracity. It’s the far showier part but handled superbly in McKay’s professional debut. Above all, the sense of playfulness here is a joy to watch as is a compelling stage presence even when not featured in any given scene. A striking figure, especially in an array of memorable costumes, McKay is eminently watchable because she is always in the moment.

The set is quite simple with a divan the centrepiece. A storm rages “outside” (which pales in comparison to the tempest on stage) and the lighting handled this effectively. I wasn’t a fan of the incidental music that was intermittent and barely audible which made it more a distraction than an asset. Part of the ‘power struggle’ is who controls the blocking in the play within the play and there is a nice sense of movement throughout as a result. 

The writing is smart and it is genuinely funny though the humour is sometimes a little off-kilter given the context but I loved it for being as brash and unapologetic as its leading lady. There are also lots of theatre in-jokes (where is stage left again?) that amusingly bolster the creative battleground for supremacy between director and actress. The last stanza took an interesting turn as events fold in on themselves and roles are reversed but on first viewing I found that a little hard to follow. It certainly sponsors further thought and debate and this is a play that will linger with you long after the final whip crack.

Venus in Fur is a cleverly written play that allows two talented actors to inhabit multiple personas in a provocative, insightful and funny exploration of a subject matter many consider taboo. It is a great start to the theatre season and the upcoming Fringe Festival of which it’s a part.

Written by David Ives, Directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait and starring Adam Booth and Felicity McKay, the play is at the Studio Underground in the State Theatre Centre and opens Saturday 17th January and runs until Sunday the 8th February.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Les Miserables - Crown Theatre, Perth (10 January 2015)

The iconic musical officially opened in Perth last Wednesday and the reviews have been nothing short of spectacular. I had seen the show last year during its Melbourne run but couldn’t resist experiencing it again. Firstly, the music and songs are wonderful and I’ve had the Original Broadway Cast Recording on high rotation since that Melbourne trip; and secondly, I noticed a person who teaches at WAAPA exhort his students ‘past and present’ to see the Perth production calling it exceptional. Of course, there is a strong local connection with almost half the cast having trained at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. There was something to be said therefore about seeing this incarnation in WAAPA’s own backyard. Besides, I was really impressed with the Melbourne production at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

I admit I haven’t been to what is now known as Crown Perth (it was still Burswood Casino last time I was there!) for quite some time. The previous event I had seen at the theatre was a Pink Floyd cover band re-enacting The Wall (I unsuccessfully tried to tunnel my way to sonic freedom). Putting aside such traumas, the Les Miserables behemoth has transferred nicely into its new digs. Initially though the vocals didn’t sound quite as rich to me, no doubt due to the different acoustics in the new venue. That settled down pretty quickly so maybe it was just me ‘getting my ear in’. The orchestra, however, as was the case in Melbourne, was terrific from the very first stirring notes. It is such a potent score and so much of the power and emotion comes from the music. Very well played and conducted.

There is much to like about this latest interpretation of Les Miserables, the storyline of which most people will have a passing familiarity with and doesn’t bear repeating here. I will list my personal highlights in no particular order, most being confirmation of my initial thoughts from last year.

Simon Gleeson is superb as Jean Valjean and for me the highlight remains his rendition of Bring Him Home which I don’t mind confessing had me a little teary-eyed this time around. The ageing process both in makeup and performance is also very impressive.

What struck me even more so today is how Hayden Tee’s Javert goes toe to toe with Valjean and is truly a formidable adversary. Having that balance right is critical for the main narrative through line in what ultimately is a very episodic story. Tee doesn’t take a backward step and is compelling as the dogged Inspector.

Kerrie Anne Greenland is a revelation as Eponine. In what will become a storied ascent, this is Greenland’s ‘professional musical theatre debut’ straight out of WAAPA. And what a debut it is. On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain are standouts as is her acting where we feel every inch of the wrenching dagger of unrequited love.

Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley threaten to steal proceedings as the Thenardier’s every time they’re on stage with a wonderful sense of comic flair and chemistry. The bawdy Master of the House is followed by The Bargain in a sequence that allows the audience to laugh and ‘breathe’ after the trials and tribulations of Valjean and Fantine up to that point. Essential and bloody well executed.

Patrice Tipoki plays a character, Fantine, who falls so far so quickly that it’s a volatile arc condensed into a very short period of stage time. It therefore requires maximum emotional impact with I Dreamed A Dream the early crowd pleaser but Lovely Ladies is also a harrowing sequence under all the false bravado. Tipoki does this well and I especially liked her angelic turn at the end as Valjean finally finds peace.

Speaking of Lovely Ladies, the ensemble is so good throughout – adding vocal punch, colour and movement in other numbers such as At The End of The Day, Master of the House, The People’s Song, One Day More and Drink With Me.

Euan Doidge and Emily Langridge make for an engaging couple whose sweetness and naivety acts as another necessary counterpoint to the more bleak aspects of the story (and there’s a few!). Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is well handled by Doidge as is A Heart Full of Love with Greenland joining Doidge and Langridge as the romantic entanglements of the story come to full light.

The fine performances and musicianship is matched by inventive staging – from the sets that unfold to fill the space, to the use of projections (most notably the sewers under Paris and for Javert’s death), and the lighting and other effects that enhance the doomed fate of those on the barricades.

For rousing songs and sheer theatrical spectacle Les Miserables is hard to beat and this production has quality in every department. Having seen quite a few shows at WAAPA last year it is also exciting to see the path that many of those talented performers who have now graduated might follow given the number of alumni here. This is Australian musical theatre at its pinnacle so get along to see it if you can.