Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Mars Project - WAAPA (26 August 2015)

What would you do to become a pioneer? To have your name recorded in history? What lengths would you take to become truly famous? What would you be prepared to sacrifice? In our efforts to strive for that sort of immortality do we reveal our basest instincts… our most terrible selves?

Those are just some of the questions The Mars Project explores using a recent real life plan to colonise the red planet by 2025 as its foundation. In that instance over 200,000 people applied to become interplanetary travellers. How then to whittle down to the handful of pioneers whose names will be lauded forever?

The answer presented here is a mix of Big Brother reality style social experiment; the sort of manufactured team bonding exercise you find in the corporate world (your plane crashes in sub-Arctic conditions and you can only retrieve 15 items – which ones and why?); and the musings of an inspirational speaker who urges you to become the best version of yourself. Throw in a spin doctor and an eager applicant and all bets are off.

But interestingly there is another layer – our presumptive heroine Wren (Elle Harris) has a twin - autistic brother, Sam (Luke Fewster). We also meet many other autistic characters such as Mars Billy (Seamus Quinn) who is fixated on the neighbouring planet, displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge that he blurts out in rapid fire chunks. Sam, however, is silent as he twirls a red hula hoop around his waist in, if I’m not mistaken, an elliptical orbit. Like Wren and Sam, it’s posited that Earth and Mars are twins of a similar fashion, one alive and vibrant; the other dark and mysterious. There are nice parallels throughout.

Wren desperately wants to go to Mars and seeks out the assistance of PR expert Sparkle (Hoa Xuande) who attempts to spin his candidate into a winning position. Meanwhile others undertake the sub-Arctic selection process while Sam, Mars Billy and other autistic children are being cared for. Then there is the Tony Robbins style Robin (Dacre Montgomery) who entreats everyone to be the agent of their own change. Crucially it’s his oft repeated mantras that inform the drama that slowly unfolds – “glowing, stunning, forceful, dominant and magnetic” being the five principles we all should strive for; and even more salient, “I am not hurting you, I am helping myself.” This has immense significance in the latter stages of the play.

Yes, there is a lot going on which is to be expected with a play written to cater for 17 actors. I was a little lost at first but as writer-director Will O’Mahony said at the Q&A after the show, he had to introduce that many characters in the first 12 minutes and give them all something meaningful to do. However, the main narrative thread of Wren’s journey slowly emerges and we come to learn exactly what she is prepared to do with a turning point that makes the final third riveting drama.  

In this Harris is superb as she skilfully plays out Wren’s complex arc – eager, driven, kind, manipulative, callous and calculating. From crass outbursts of anger when things don’t go her way; to a sweetness dripped in duplicity as she asks if Mars Billy would like to kiss her… but only if he lies on her behalf; to a devastating climax where she is prepared to sacrifice even her own brother to quench the thirst of her ambition; Harris displays great range of emotion.

The other standout is Montgomery as Robin who epitomised the unimpeachable confidence that marks the world renowned life coach (or snake oil salesman), with the American accent, sleek look, the posture, the gestures and vocal rhythms down pat.  
Fewster plays the twin brother with a quiet physical presence as he slowly circles the space, hula hoop always in motion. He excels in the final moments where the stakes are ratcheted up as brother and sister’s different orbits collide.

Others to impress – Lincoln Vickery who gave a memorable rant of a monologue as perhaps the least likeable of all the characters; Quinn who had a dense opening monologue of facts and figures delivered at breakneck speed; Brittany Morel as another autistic character though there were occasional echoes of her character from All My Sons with certain hand movements; Claudia Ware giving her teacher a straightforward quality amongst the spin; and Hoa Xuande handled the patter of Sparkle’s dialogue very well.

Indeed, the construction of the dialogue was, in itself, a standout. There was clearly a love of language here with sly wordplay, a real rhythm to each character’s speech patterns, and a dash of Sorkinese as thoughts were re-ordered and represented in quick succession, noticeably for Sparkle. Those rhythms really played well with such a talented cast.

The presentation itself was stripped back as Rehearsal Room 2 became a surrogate for the Enright Studio – a black box space with good use of lighting and mood music with minimal props and no set to speak of. The actors were front and centre. The only issue I had is that with the seating on all four sides there were times I could not see a performer’s eyes. This was occasionally regrettable in moments of high emotion and drama. 
The play started a little slowly but developed into an intriguing concept that really kicked into something quite special when the turning point comes. This was delivered with clinical precision as Harris’ Wren pivots the stakes into the stratosphere with a simple question with awful ramifications. How that plays out is very well acted and executed and I loved that O’Mahony let the final moments breathe so that it lingers with us long after the lights have faded.

Directed by Will O’Mahony, Written by O’Mahony along with the actors, and starring WAAPA’s third year acting class, The Mars Project is on at Rehearsal Room 2 at the State Theatre Centre but only until Saturday 29 August. Original, thoughtful, complex, it is well worth catching if you can get a ticket.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Carrie the Musical - WAAPA (24 August 2015)

I went along to see the 2015 graduating class’s final musical on Monday night with a mix of curiosity and some trepidation. I was intrigued to see how certain elements, particularly the telekinesis, would be staged as well as the infamous climax. Then there was the knowledge that in its original incarnation Carrie the Musical was a notorious flop. It seemed such an odd choice to close out the year for this group of very talented musical theatre performers.

The results were mixed. The talent on display was in no doubt. This graduating class has swept all before it and has been outstanding in their two previous outings in 2015. The writing and construction of the musical itself, well, that’s a different story. I reminded myself of Stephen King’s tale by watching the remake of Brian De Palma’s classic horror movie starring Chloe Moretz as the bullied teenager with telekinetic powers and Julianne Moore as her fanatically religious mother. It’s quite a slow burn narrative that relentlessly builds towards the bloody finale as Carrie wreaks retribution on those who have humiliated her at the school prom.

It’s here where the musical form and the horror genre seem at odds. Carrie White and her mother are, in many ways, quite impenetrable characters; the former so withdrawn and repressed she doesn’t even know her own body; the latter, gripped by irrational fears and the horror of everyday life. The musical though attempts to do what musicals do so well – give their characters an emotional life and expose their internal monologues through song. In Carrie’s first number she sings about her hopes and dreams; mother and daughter share an early duet where Margaret White expresses her love for her daughter; other characters reveal motivations and fears and feelings in song.

This totally undercuts any tension as, while not sympathetic, they come across as, well, at least understandable. A mother, as misguided as she is, wanting to protect her child; a loner considered a freak who only wants to fit in and be loved. It’s all too explicit whereas in film it’s all in the eyes and facial expressions as we watch the reactions to the unfolding calamity. Here it felt like the typical ugly duckling turning into a beautiful swan story… with a bit of mayhem tacked on at the end.

Of course, the other element a stage musical cannot replicate is the special effects. Carrie’s growing understanding of her powers and the display of that ability is somewhat perfunctory. The songs themselves are not overly memorable and the score feels like it wants to be a rock musical but doesn’t really commit to that goal. But enough of the failings of the Book, Music and Lyrics, let’s talk about the performance itself.

What strikes you above all is the outstanding vocal ability of this class. Heather Manley has a superb voice and is a warm presence as Carrie. That in itself is problematic as she flashes a stunning smile and sings about all the things a normal teenage girl longs for – acceptance, a handsome beau, a special evening at the biggest social event of the year, love. No amount of dowdy costuming can hide that eminently watchable quality so her transformation into the belle of the ball is hardly unexpected. It’s difficult to find the freak here as her featured songs are too revealing and too well sung. There are flashes of steel as the character confronts her mother and occasionally her tormentors before Carrie White’s horrific vengeance is unleashed. Manley makes for a memorable sight after being doused by a bucket of (fake) pig’s blood which was perfectly executed on the night. 

Matilda Moran has perhaps the most difficult role as the devoutly religious mother who has sheltered her daughter so completely that it would make Wendla Bergmann blush. The attempt in Margaret White’s early songs to make her ‘relatable’ works totally against the nominally scary aspects that come later. Moran also has to deal with some overly convoluted lyrics but shows a fine voice when given the chance with more ballad style numbers that aren’t trying to cram a whole lot of exposition into the lyrics. 

Tayla Jarrett plays popular girl Sue Snell who has a change of heart after initially mocking Carrie to be an ally of sorts though Sue’s decisions ultimately lead to the disaster that happens. Jarret also has faux narrator duties as she is ‘interrogated’ periodically in a device designed to get us into the story proper. As the sole survivor she gives a little bit of snark to her unseen questioner and also stands up to Jess Phillippi’s bitchy Chris whose belligerence is another catalyst for the climax.

Phillippi is all attitude and strut as she plots her own vengeance but sadly the character largely vanishes in the second act which robs the show of much needed energy and narrative propulsion. The character’s boyfriend, Billy, played with malevolent charm by Daniel Ridolfi is also unfortunately sidelined for large stretches.

By comparison Sue’s boyfriend Tommy, played by Morgan Palmer, is genuinely charming as he draws Carrie out of herself. Palmer has a showcase moment in what was shaping as quite a corny scene until Tommy’s attempt at poetry bursts into song with a sweet clarity that was as unexpected as it was welcome. Rosabelle Elliott gives the gym teacher Miss Gardner a mix of sternness and concern while Harry Prouse added some goofy humour as the Principal and Reverend Bliss. 

The ensemble, as I’ve come to expect with WAAPA shows, was great and all had small moments to shine but really don’t have that much to do here. Some of the choreography also felt (intentionally?) cheesy at times especially coming from a group that crushed Urinetown and Legally Blonde with such ferocity. As always, the orchestra under David King played well and the staging and lighting was well handled.

It’s an odd show and it often felt as if I was watching a weirdly perverted version of the religious elements of Children of Eden mashed together with the school style hijinks of Legally Blonde. If only the biting satire of Urinetown was part of that concoction. While it doesn’t work as a coherent production it does give us yet another glimpse of the enormous talent in the 2015 class. Speed on Showcase!

Music by Michael Gore, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, Book by Lawrence D. Cohen based on the Stephen King novel, Carrie The Musical is directed by Crispin Taylor with Musical Director David King and stars WAAPA’s third year musical theatre students. It is on at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 29 August.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

City - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (4 August 2015)

Curtin University has been enlisting some very interesting talent to work with their students lately to create original pieces of theatre  - Jeffrey Jay Fowler (director - Escape Goat Utopia), Steve McCall (playwright - Teeth 2 Tail) and now director Joe Lui's City, devised by an ensemble including the cast, set designer and stage manager. Lui is a well-known fixture at The Blue Room and certainly brings great craft and skill to this production and there is much to like about the results.

Foremost among these is a wonderful set that is both highly stylised and extremely functional. Presented in stark white with black trim, everything from a laundromat to toilet cubicles to a train and even an adult store is inventively recreated with great economy. Highly regarded for his lighting designs which are on full display here as well, this is a visually arresting show.

The basic premise is that no one is alone (truly) in a big city and there are all kinds of hidden connections that each of us experience in a day. The cleverness of the set design is that it accentuates that thematic premise as we slide from one scenario to another with ease. The acting is good across the board and there is great use of sly humour throughout which made this very entertaining.

However, I wasn't as convinced about the story elements.

We start on a night time train where we witness the adverse reaction of a young businesswoman (Amy Tamati) to two men kissing. Things quickly get out of hand as other passengers are drawn into the altercation. This is all being narrated by the 8 year old "Ant-girl" (Rhiannon Petersen) who is looking for her mummy. Then, in a structure more reminiscent of fractured timeline narrative movies (think Fight Club for example), the action is paused and we go back to the start of the day to see how these people came to be at this place at this time and act the way they are doing.

We are introduced to a married couple (Jarryd Dobson & Daisy Coyle) whose relationship has grown stale as they argue about putting out the bins on that morning's train. There is a charismatic conman cum petty thief (Jeremy Bunny) who tries to sell items he has stolen off others; a young woman (Madeleine Mullins) whose bag he will steal leaving her stranded until her older brother (George Ashforth) arrives. That brother delivers a package (with a healthy Pulp Fiction glow when opened) to an adult store owner (Terence Smith) who is nervous about a first date he has that night with another man. There is a jilted bride still in her wedding dress (Ashleigh Ryan) and, of course, the businesswoman. They then collide in different ways ultimately leading to the events which will occur on that evening's train. All the while Ant-girl floats through proceedings as only an innocent child can whilst imparting philosophical musings on events (as an innocent child generally can't).

The use of the ant colony analogy is far too blatant and overdone and becomes a little grating after a while. The 'child looking for her mummy' device is really only there to allow for an impartial observer. Though in one of the play's more touching moments Ant-girl does have a genuine interaction with the bride who she mistakes for a princess. I say genuine because a lot of the pairings and connections often felt contrived - characters were forced together to serve the theme and plot.

Characterisations therefore felt inconsistent, for example the adult store owner who is grumpy in one scene then unexpectedly compassionate (to the wife in a showpiece scene for Coyle) in another with no real reason for being so. The petty thief also feels like a completely different character in the evening train scene(s) compared to what we have seen earlier. Even within scenes there were beats where it felt like an action change had been called for to alter the dynamic but without necessarily a logical progression to justify that change in action ie be angry now or aggressive. Some of this therefore simply didn't feel organic. That is perhaps as a result of the devising process itself.

Ultimately when we finally revisit the first scene of the play it is replayed verbatim with no additional information added - unlike a movie that uses this structure to then generally add a twist leading into a climax there is nothing new here. Other than Ant-girl's observations which have already been well established. Also, tellingly for me, not all the characters we have seen are even involved in this moment so the prior interconnections have selective intent (most notably between the husband and the thief even though it is an entertaining strand).

Having said that there are some standout performances - Bunny is an interesting mix of charm and insecurity as the thief while Ashforth plays the bloke who has tickets on himself to amusing effect. I liked Petersen's Ant-girl and she is engaging in a tricky role as 8 year old philosopher-narrator.

While I have reservations about the overall story this is entertaining, well acted, beautifully staged and has genuinely funny moments. Directed by Joe Lui and devised by Joe Lui, the cast and some crew, City stars George Ashforth, Jeremy Bunny, Daisy Coyle, Jarryd Dobson, Madeleine Mullins, Rhiannon Petersen, Ashleigh Ryan, Terence Smith and Amy Tamati and is on at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs until 8 August.