Thursday, 24 September 2015

Memento Mori - University Dramatic Society (23 September 2015)

I had a brief conversation at the interval that continued after the show about science fiction in the theatre. This was after I had remarked online how rare it was to see this genre on stage in reference to Between Solar Systems at The Blue Room. The person enthused, “Well, that’s two in a week.” In some ways he is right about Memento Mori – it does have that classic “scientist goes mad in pursuit of revolutionary discovery/invention that he cannot control” story arc that powers everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to movies like The Fly. In this case not the elixir of immortality but manipulating human DNA (I think) to double humankind’s lifespan. However, writer and lead actor Rupert Williamson appeared to have a much more mythic spin in mind.   

The title itself is taken from an ancient Roman tradition and the multitude of references to the first great literary epic, Gilgamesh, and indeed the name of one of the characters (Ninsun - Gilgamesh’s mother) laid out the framework for the story.

Williamson’s scientist Leo is driven to crack the secret to enhancing the human lifespan. In this he is assisted by fellow scientist Damian (Ritwik Ballal) and research assistant Zoe (Kate Hotchkin) with another scientist Thomas (Giacomo Groppoli) seemingly more interested in partying than actual scientific breakthroughs. But progress has been slow and their benefactor has recently passed away meaning the program comes under the razor gang gaze of Jade (Sally Clune) who demands results or she will shut them down.

Meanwhile Leo’s partner, a doctor, Claire (Nina Heymanson) helps her father Harold (Tim Lorian) move into a retirement home while struggling with Leo’s growing obsession with work. A colleague of Leo’s, an esteemed academic (Xavier Sweeney), deteriorates before our eyes as his brain becomes enfeebled by an unnamed condition.

Then there’s the robed Ninsun (Allegra Di Francesco) - beautiful, ethereal and disquieting - who periodically comes to Leo and talks to him of time and death. Leo becomes more frantic as his arc moves from driven to obsessive to, ultimately, madness and desperation.

There was much to like about this play – the scope of the ambition in the script; solid acting; and it was well-staged and presented within the large space. Sweeney and Lorian excel playing significantly older characters as both exhibit the signs of ‘decay’ that comes from old age or disease. Heymanson provides a grounded foil - a voice of reason - as Leo’s behaviour spirals out of control while Hotchkin added a little sparkle as the research assistant.  

The play didn’t quite work for me, however, and this centres predominantly around two characters – Leo and Ninsun.

Williamson’s Leo is problematic because I never understood the drive that blossomed into fully blown obsession and worse. Leo quotes the fact that man is the only animal that knows it will die and this becomes his motivation to create a serum to increase the human lifespan. It’s a little abstract and more of an intellectual position than a compelling reason for a protagonist to act so brazenly. This meant I struggled to find an emotional connection to the character and Williamson plays him in the first act as closely guarded and aloof. Yes, he conveys the physical and mental deterioration with increasing force during the second act but in many ways this is an impenetrable character positioned as the modern embodiment of Gilgamesh, a myth. Indeed it’s Claire who brings a richer emotional landscape especially in the scenes she has with her father. I needed a better catalyst for Leo’s quest. I needed something tangible.

Which brings us to Ninsun - I thought I had found that catalyst towards the end of the first act when she comes to Leo like a spectre of impending death. Ah, he is in some way afflicted and this is the cause of his urgency I assumed. Yet we soon discover that the silent spirit is something else (though I was never sure exactly what) as she is given voice in the second act and is either – his presumably deceased mother (who removed all the clocks when he was young); Gilgamesh’s actual mother as she hints at an inhuman lifespan; or simply a voice in his head that reinforces his fear of death. This lack of clarity about whom and what Ninsun was robbed the character of potency. There was even a false beat in hindsight when she appeared briefly in a scene without Leo present (the academic’s faltering lecture) that contradicts subsequent interpretations of her nature.

Those issues aside this was an ambitious production and first time script by Williamson as playwright. Director Ben Thomas makes full use of the deep Dolphin Theatre stage though it did feel a little one paced. Perhaps the second act needed to accelerate and get a little crazier as Leo’s descent into physical and mental torment deepened. This UWA arts student dropout found some of the technical jargon a little highfalutin’ but the gist of what was being attempted was easy to follow. The play had a clear thematic intent and was thoughtful in how it tackled the issues of mortality and the elusive nature of time as our lives progress.

Directed by Ben Thomas, Written by Rupert Williamson, and starring Williamson, Nina Heymanson, Ritwik Ballal, Kate Hotchkin, Giacomo Groppoli, Xavier Sweeney, Sally Clune, Tim Lorian, Allegra Di Francesco, Clare McMath and Jess Baldock, Memento Mori is on at the Dolphin Theatre, UWA until 26 September

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Extinction - Black Swan State Theatre Company (21 September 2015)

The head of a mining company (Matt Dyktynski) hits a rare tiger quoll on a country road near where he grew up. Understanding the magnitude of the tragedy – the tiger quoll hasn’t been spotted in over a decade – he takes the injured animal to the vet where he initially meets a young zoologist (Hannah Day) and eventually her partner, the vet himself (Myles Pollard). So starts his quest to save the species using $2 million of his company’s mining profits to convince the vet’s sister, the academic head of a research institute (Sarah McNeill), to assist. The dilemma is obvious – big business versus the environment writ large in the academic’s compromised position. There are various romantic entanglements along the way and a subplot involving one of the character’s own physical demise.

Such is the story at the second preview of this world premiere Hannie Rayson play.

Let me say first up that I thought the cast was very good. Hannah Day was excellent as the spunky American zoologist who is idealistic, compassionate and motivated by her love of animals and the environment. Dyktynski gave the mining head a larrikin, knockabout sort of quality that was engaging and provided most of the sporadic humour. Pollard is such a strong physical presence that it’s interesting when his character’s body betrays him, bringing an anger and rage that was believable. McNeill gives the somewhat uptight and vaguely superior academic a few wrinkles of self-doubt mainly to do with her own personal situation.

It’s a pity then that the material doesn’t give them much to work with. Everyone talks in exposition – within a couple of minutes of meeting the mining head and zoologist are exchanging detailed aspects of their backstories – and when they’re not doing that they are merely archetypes for arguments about the environment versus big business. It made it difficult to have any emotional connection with any of the characters as they spewed forth facts, figures, positions, arguments and detailed personal resumes.

Sarah McNeill & Hannah Day. Picture by Gary Marsh Photography
The most egregious example of this was early in the second act when brother and sister are arguing about her decision to take the ‘dirty money’ to help save the quolls. During this the brother drops a box because he is physically incapable of holding it. She continues the argument with not even a pause as we witness the first serious sign of his decline. I was gobsmacked. It’s your brother! No reaction. No response. Nothing!

Later the scene changes so that he verbally assaults her for not understanding his condition and fearful of her pity. Putting aside the fact he clutches at his sister with enough strength to hurt her whereas moments before he could barely hold anything, this actually showed a moment of real conflict and rage on his part. He tells his sister that her decision to take the mining money is what will end their relationship and that he will oppose her at every turn. If only this had been much earlier and actually formed the spine of the narrative.

Instead we get a series of increasingly convoluted relationship dilemmas that felt forced to service an underwhelming climax. One decision by the mining head, in particular, struck me as quite inexplicable given what had come before and led to a long scene between himself and the academic that belonged to another play. It, however, was a necessary plot point for where the play ends up. Which is some tonally jarring shtick as the relationship dilemmas turn into farce and all is saved by an unlikely antagonist and some IT magic I was struggling to find credible.

While the sound design was excellent with the aural representation of the bush and its inhabitants nicely rendered, the set itself was a major disappointment. Perhaps I have been spoilt by some truly wonderful sets at previous Black Swan productions like Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the real estate office from Glengarry Glen Ross, and especially Blithe Spirit but this was sparse to say the least. It is a very big space with a small cast so the bunker style approach with lots of scrims and back projections and minimal trappings was bleak indeed.

Hannah Day & Matt Dyktynski. Picture by Gary Marsh Photography
The only time the set impressed was at the start of the second act when we are in the bush and the representation was wonderfully done. The technical feat of dismantling that brief mirage and re-establishing the bunker was fascinating but quickly plummeted me back into monolithic gloom.

The play clocked in at well over two hours and with the lack of a clear through line or rising stakes it felt overly long and flat. Plot machinations come late and feel contrived after putting so many balls in the air early. Yes, there are some interesting arguments presented and the mining position is given fair representation but this felt more debate than drama. It was a strong debut by Day in her first Black Swan production, however, the script needed a lot more punch to make this engaging.

Written by Hannie Rayson, Directed by Stuart Halusz, and starring Hannah Day, Matt Dyktynski, Sarah McNeill and Myles Pollard, Extinction opens on Wednesday night and plays until 4 October at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Choice Cuts - WAAPA (19 September 2015)

I talked briefly to Andrew Lewis (Associate Professor and Associate Head of School for Performance at WAAPA) in the glorious Spring sunshine after this compact one hour show by the graduating acting class. A couple of key topics emerged - the emphasis on accent work which was clearly apparent during this retrospective; and how each class, be it musical theatre or acting cohort, has its own collective personality.

When you see Australian actors getting roles overseas in both movies and increasingly in high end US drama, they are universally praised for their ability to seamlessly adopt (predominantly) American accents. That is no doubt in large part to the excellent training in this area at world class academies like WAAPA. But there was a range of accents on display this afternoon and that was, in itself, a feature.

The second point was forming in my mind as I watched Choice Cuts. This is only the second year I have attended WAAPA productions in large numbers, mainly the acting and musical theatre streams. Each of those groups, of course, have their individual personalities, but it strikes me that as a collective there is a distinct dynamic and group personality that is unique to each year. It's difficult to explain but it seems clear in the way they interact both on and off the stage and every year and course is different. A kind of hive entity if you will with its own sense of humour, style and outlook. However, I hadn't quite grasped what that was for this year's acting class until only recently with the excellent The Mars Project and this very show today. It took me a while but I finally got there which was kind of exciting.

To the show itself and this fairly hummed along at a brisk one hour running time. There were snippets of past shows - Columbinus, Blood Wedding, Punk Rock, Grapes of Wrath, All My Sons, Measure for Measure, Thezmophoriazusae, Pride and Prejudice, The Playboy of the Western World, and The Mars Project -  and even a theatrical 'trailer' of sorts for the upcoming Macbeth, recreated here as 'Macbeth in a Minute'. Spoiler alert, everyone dies... hilariously.

Some of the other highlights:

A chilling moment from Punk Rock especially a visceral beat between Harriet Gordon-Anderson and Bevan Pfeiffer;

Rian Howlett's rapid fire, tongue twisting alliteration of Someone Spoke to Me;

Dacre Montgomery getting his Shelley Levene and American accent on with a profanity laced tirade at Hoa Xuande in a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross;

The company getting loose and funky in several moments: Stephanie Panozzo's amusing mangling of Aretha's Respect with the others in coordinated support; the abrogation of self in the Animals & Toddlers exercise; and the hilarious recreation of The Fellowship scene from Lord of the Rings (the first one) that had everyone in stitches;

Lincoln Vickery's abuse of poor Rebecca Gulia in a memorable monologue from The Mars Project;

Elle Harris and Megan Wilding both so good in a mesmerising scene from the Grapes of Wrath;

Luke Fewster and Lincoln Vickery likewise in a scene from The Judas Kiss;

Stephanie Panozzo and Ben Kindon crushing a very funny scene A Stud & A Babe which showcased their singing ability as well as their comic timing; and

Rebecca Gulia singing a song I absolutely adore to close the show - Sondheim's glorious No One Is Alone from Into The Woods - which she did so beautifully before the rest of the group joined in as they said their final farewells.

And then they were gone.

It was sharp, short and almost too perfect. I wanted more. I wanted my customary intermission cider in the lobby before the second half. But in many ways it was fitting. There will be more - much more - once this group move into their professional careers and we see them on screens, large and small, and on the stage again.

There are only two more shows, tonight at 7.30pm and tomorrow at 5pm. An hour of your time to see another great graduating class. All of them were terrific. Go see it!

Choice Cuts starred the graduating class of Rebecca Gulia, Claudia Ware, Dacre Montgomery, Elle Harris, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Hoa Xuande, Jessica Paterson, Ben Kindon, Bevan Pfeiffer, Brittany Morel, Lincoln Vickery, Luke Fewster, Megan Wilding, Rian Howlett, Seamus Quinn, Shalom Brune-Franklin, and Stephanie Panozzo (with Andrew Creer).

Oklahoma! - The Music Theatre Company of WA (18 September 2015)

I had seen a production of Oklahoma back in the mid-90s when I was working in Sydney and an aspect I had forgotten is how dark Oscar Hammerstein’s Book is. The journey from optimistic opener Oh What A Beautiful Morning and the infectiously catchy The Surrey With The Fringe On Top (yes, I’ve been humming it all morning!) to the truly disturbing Pore Jud is Dead, Lonely Room and Act One closing Dream Sequence is quite fascinating.

Underneath the froth and delightful Richard Rodgers score you essentially have Curly goading such a wounded character as Jud to hang himself while the object of their mutual affection, Laurey, dreams of what horrible things might happen should she be left alone with Jud. I deliberately say ‘object’ as the gender politics in this 70+ year old story are jarring to modern sensibilities – for $50 you can buy and own the woman of your dreams (Ado Annie) from her father! Then there’s the eventual fate of Jud in Act Two which is really quite ambiguous in its – and his - execution.

I suspect that these swirling undercurrents were more evident due to a terrific performance by Ian Cross as Jud. He embraced the damaged nature of the character and was a menacing presence whenever he was anywhere near Emma Pettemerides’ Laurey. But we also had a sense of the cause of this dysfunction as he played Jud like a wounded animal that when confronted would bite and bite hard.

Of course, on the surface, Oklahoma is a bubbly romantic comedy as Curly pursues Laurey and Will does likewise with the flirtatious Ado Annie. There are charming songs and plenty of laughs as these respective courtships play out with a rousing, happy conclusion. The tonal shifts as all this intersects with the complication of Jud gives Oklahoma an unexpected edginess.

Brendan Hanson is charming and poised as Curly and sang well throughout. Pettemerides undoubtedly has a strong, classically trained voice but it seemed a little out of place here and her Laurey was too brittle for mine. Alinta Carroll was excellent as Aunt Ella giving a feisty performance and providing a strong female character amongst some of the more questionable gender representations. Her Ella stood up for herself and was more than a match for the boys.

Phoebe Jackson was a likeable and flirty Ado Annie and played well off both Igor Sas (as Ali Hakim) and Lauchlan Edward Bain (as Will Parker), her rival suitors. Sas gave a scene stealing, comic performance as Hakim though he perhaps gilded the lily towards the end with his overly enthusiastic “Persian Goodbye”. I really enjoyed Bain as Will with his ‘aw shucks’ charm and accent, giving an endearing naivety to the lovelorn farmhand.     

The singing was generally very good with all the classic songs given their due including People Will Say We’re In Love. The show at times felt very static but this picked up in Act Two where there were more ensemble numbers and scenes which allowed for greater energy and vigorous choreography. This might be a function of the musical’s age as I felt the same about The King and I last year in Melbourne. They may be classics but in many ways feel dated and quaint compared to the hyper-kinetic modern musical. The orchestra was excellent under Musical Director Ian Westrip. 

One aspect that was a major disappointment, however, was the set. This was basically a whole lot of wood panelling on the back wall and in both wings where two large barns were represented. There was a small, manually operated revolve centre-stage and some obligatory bales of hay. On the back wall was featured a large disc which initially represented the glorious morning sun but then was ever present throughout and constantly changing colours which I initially thought signified differences in time but ultimately became confusing and a distraction. Fair play though for how Jud’s lair-like smokehouse was represented and lit with chains hanging down and an ominous piece of rope.

Overall this is a solid production which will have you humming along to some memorable tunes, laughing at the various antics of especially Will and Ali Hakim, and occasionally bracing yourself as Ian Cross’ Jud threatens to explode into action.

Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; Music by Richard Rodgers; Directed by Adam Mitchell; Musical Direction by Ian Westrip; and starring Brendan Hanson, Emma Pettemerides, Alinta Carroll, Phoebe Jackson, Igor Sas, Ian Cross, Lauchlan Edward Bain, Martyn Churcher, Charlotte Westrip and Neil Munyard, Oklahoma! is on at The Regal Theatre in Subiaco until 26 September.  

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Best Bits - WAAPA (5 September 2015)

Almost 18 months ago I went along to the Enright Studio to see the first public performance of the then second year musical theatre class. As is the WAAPA way this inaugural outing isn’t a musical at all. In this case it was an abridged version of the sprawling Australian play Beach. Twenty brand new faces. Twenty performers you’ll slowly get to know as you watch their potential blossom over the coming months. It’s an exciting time as the next crop of talent is unveiled. From my review at the time:

“Talking to the director afterwards, this was the acting debut of many of the students in front of a paying audience. There is some singing – enough to be excited for future musical productions – but this is mainly a mix of comedy, drama, and skits. I’m not sure it entirely worked for me as a coherent play but it did showcase the talent of the second year musical theatre class. Everyone had an opportunity to shine and the production went without a hitch.”

Fast forward to today where that excitement and talent has developed into a stellar graduating class. Best Bits is a fun show because it celebrates their joint achievements, lampooning the four musicals they go on to perform after that initial introduction. It also gives us a glimpse into the enormous amount of work and training they undertake outside of the public eye. Each performer - now 19 in total - has a featured moment and the vocal talent across the board is superlative. Above all it’s funny, entertaining, and has a looser, raw feeling that is very engaging. The latter is by necessity as their final musical finished only a week ago – spontaneity breeds creativity.

Appropriately, the show opens in homage to Beach as the group takes to the stage in bathers before each individual gives us a snippet of a song I’m assuming they performed in their very first week on campus (“O-Week Audition Medley”). Chris Wilcox and Taryn Ryan, reprising their roles as Officer Lockstock and Little Sally from Urinetown, act as hosts of sorts as they guide us through a selection of songs interspersed with mischievously condensed versions of Children of Eden, Urinetown, Legally Blonde and Carrie the Musical. In comparison to last year's show there isn’t as much focus on dancing but, as mentioned, the singing ability reverberates around the intimate Roundhouse Theatre as do the acting chops in the more interactive numbers.

Sondheim was certainly a popular source of songs with Joel Granger and Rosabelle Elliott performing Kiss Me; Morgan Palmer taking on Not While I’m Around; while Daniel Ridolfi excelled with Epiphany (all from Sweeney Todd); with Taryn Ryan tackling Getting Married Today from Company with aplomb. A special mention to Timothy How who accompanied the group on piano and only received the sheet music the day before. “Too much Sweeney Todd” he lamented afterwards but his playing was a highlight.

A few of the other highlights (among many) for me were: Kate Thomas reminding us how good she was as Elle Woods with the title number from Legally Blonde; Tayla Jarrett (who also showed a deft comic touch throughout) on piano singing The Hill from Once; two beautifully sung numbers by Harry Prouse (I, Who Have Nothing) and Callum Sandercock (Music of the Night); the original crowd pleasing cabaret piece Bath by Matthew Hyde; and a sultry Call From The Vatican by Baylie Carson.

I also enjoyed Matilda Moran's Maybe I Like It This Way; Heather Manley's Papa Can You Hear Me?; and Alex Thompson's How Glory Goes. Chris Wilcox continues to exhibit a sly sense of humour that is captivating (as well as getting his U2 on) and I really like Joel Granger's and Taryn Ryan's stage presence from an acting perspective.

Megan Kozak showed off some fine yodeling talent with Roll in the Hay and Jess Phillippi had me tapping my feet along happily to I Can Do Better Than That from The Last Five Years. Jacob Dibb gave a playful rendition of Rosemary and Joe Meldrum cut a fine figure during Easy Street from Annie. 
It's safe to say everyone was impressive and the sheer talent across this group is a delight. As is their obvious chemistry with, I have to say, a lot of snogging going on and great comic timing. Look out for a very funny running gag in the Carrie sequence.

It all ends with the entire class singing In The Beginning from Children of Eden, a fine dropping off point as thoughts turn towards Showcase, graduation, and a professional career in musical theatre. That’s all still to come, however. For now though, this was a relaxed, funny, and entertaining look back at the last three years for an exceptionally talented group of young performers. I wish them all the very best and look forward to seeing them on stages across the country in the near future.

Best Bits starred the 2015 graduating class of Alex Thompson, Baylie Carson, Callum Sandercock, Chris Wilcox, Daniel Ridolfi, Harry Prouse, Heather Manley, Jacob Dibb, Jess Phillippi, Joe Meldrum, Joel Granger, Kate Thomas, Matilda Moran, Matthew Hyde, Megan Kozak, Morgan Palmer, Rosabelle Elliott, Taryn Ryan and Tayla Jarrett with Timothy How on piano.

There are two more shows - Sunday 6 September at 2pm and 6pm. Ticket sales at the venue.