Friday, 18 March 2016

Three Sisters - WAAPA (17 March 2016)

It’s fitting this play ends with the three sisters, Olga (Natasha Vickery), Masha (Laura McDonald), and Irina (Rhianna McCourt) grouped closely together, two in tears, the oldest searching for hope in their predicament. All three actresses give wonderfully assured and nuanced performances in a debut that bodes very well for the next two years.

Vickery plays the de facto mother figure not only with an air of practicality but a sense that there is such generosity of spirit in Olga especially when defending Anifisa (Stephanie Somerville) against the vindictive Natalia (Sasha Simon). 

McDonald whose character is described as “stunning and magnificent” is all that but it’s the contrasts in her portrayal of Masha, from melancholy to barely suppressed happiness on entering an illicit affair to utter devastation at the loss of her lover, that impresses. Her emotional breakdown in the fourth act is as gut-wrenching as it is removed from all ego. The barely concealed contempt of Natalia is Arctic cold; her smile vibrant when she’s with Vershinin (Mitchell Bourke).

Then there’s McCourt as the youngest sister, Irina, who longs to go back to Moscow even to the extent of marrying someone she does not love in Baron Tuzenbach (Jake Fryer-Hornsby). With an expressiveness that belies her age, McCourt lets Irina’s emotion flicker across her face to stunning effect – her reaction to firstly the abrupt Solyony (Charles Alexander) and later the Baron himself in courting her is sublime. Shock, horror, loathing, resignation, desperate attempts to convince herself of the possibility of happiness, an abject longing to travel to Moscow, the love for her sisters and fondness for Ivan Chebutykin (Frazer Lee) are all communicated throughout the play without a word. The realisation at the fate of her betrothed leading to Irina’s own descent into tears is powerfully moving.

Around this excellent core are many fine performances. Raj Joseph presents Masha’s husband, Kulygin, as fastidious and almost comical at first but becomes far more sympathetic in how he deals with his wife’s betrayal. Elliot Giarola’s Andrey, the brother, begins with high and lofty aspirations but his marriage to Natalia precipitates a descent into debt and self-doubt until he is as trapped as everyone else, through circumstance or geography or in carefully constructed emotional prisons.

Simon effectively swings between two extremes as Andrey’s wife – the doting mother or demanding harridan who cuckolds Andrey and alienates the sisters whose house she takes over. Lee is a warm and likable presence in the early going as the 62 year old doctor Ivan Chebutykin but even this jovial character succumbs to doubt and is left in resigned lethargy as tragedy strikes.    

Alexander is a little one note as the aggressive Solyony who promises to deny the claims of any other suitor after being turned down by Irina. He does this well, however, with a physically imposing presence and this attitude is essential to the development that cruels Irina’s chance of escape. His rival, the Baron, is portrayed with straightforward earnestness by Fryer-Hornsby as he extols the virtue of work and engages in philosophising about the future.

I enjoyed Bourke’s turn as the army colonel in his mid-40s who is married to a woman who constantly threatens to poison herself but he doesn’t quite have the authority or gravitas yet to completely inhabit the middle-aged officer. He does give Vershinin a poetic idealism that attracts Masha’s attention and captivates her to the point where they begin an affair. McDonald and Bourke have lovely moments together as this relationship blossoms from tentative beginnings.

It is a most handsome production to look at - excellent costumes with the men in their bold military uniforms, the sisters in full length attire with flowing skirts; a detailed and well-furnished set that captures the mood and period of a well off family in a provincial military town; and there is an excellent aural landscape enhanced by the cast singing a variety of Russian songs.

Usually the Enright Studio is my least favourite venue on the ECU campus but director Bagryana Popov has removed a side of seating giving more space to the actors while conversely making this feel far more intimate as a result. I particularly liked how we often heard characters off stage before they made their entrances from various spots in the black box studio.  This added to the sense of a fully realised world outside the confines of the house.

Written by Anton Chekhov and directed by Popov, Three Sisters featured the 2nd year acting students with alternating actors playing the Prozorov family and Kulygin. I saw the Family One cast.

A Midsummer Night's Dream - WAAPA (16 March 2016)

What better way to be introduced in your first public production at WAAPA than under the stars performing an enduring classic written by The Bard himself? As is the Academy’s tradition the first show for the 2nd year musical theatre students is always a non-musical and here they get to sink their teeth into Shakespeare’s oft performed and beloved comedy.

The venue was the Amphitheatre which put the focus squarely on the performers with only an empty stage and minimalist lighting and sound design to recreate the mood of the enchanted woods. Striking costuming and interesting choices in interpretation, some more successful than others, added to the world in which both humans and fairies frolicked.

The fairies were given a distinct Nordic flavour, in accent, costume, makeup and attitude. Nick Errol’s Oberon was presented as a powerful, warlike figure while Jenna Curran’s Titania had a proud, regal air. Occasionally the language didn’t sit well with the thick accents especially early on with Curran but this was a proud couple of equal footing.

Not so the status of women in the Athenian Court. The opening scene featured Hippolyta (Lucy Ross) and Hermia (Kelsi Boyden) treated like playthings to be manhandled by the men. It was quite unsettling watching Ross restrained with a stout stick across her throat while Boyden was grasped and grabbed at as ownership was discussed between Theseus (Joshua White) and Hermia’s father Egeus (Benjamin Colley).

The costuming was also in direct contrast to the fairies with the four lovers, Boyden, Monique Warren (Helena), David Cuny (Lysander), and Tom Gustard (Demetrius) given the preppy attire of a Hollywood high school comedy. They worked well together though Gustard’s Demetrius seemed overmatched in the manly stakes by Cuny’s Lysander which tended to unbalance the quartet.

The four fairies, played with relish by Mackenzie Dunn, Meg McKibbin, Laura Jackson, and Chloe Bremner, were sleekness personified in skin tight black outfits. They oscillated between being lascivious, notably when Titania seduces Bottom, to adopting the stern visage and posture of warriors within the Fairy kingdom.

Then there were the Mechanicals led by Peter Quince (Tom New) but dominated by the vainglorious Nick Bottom (Cameron Steens) and, of course, the mischievous Puck (Bailey Dunnage) whose slipups drive much of the mayhem as potent magic ensorcells Titania, Lysander and Demetrius to amusing effect.

Standouts for me were Warren who gave a Helena an exaggerated comic bent in her pursuit of Lysander and total disbelief when both he and Demetrius are compelled to pursue her. Steens plays up to the ego of Bottom with suitable flourishes while two of the Mechanicals, Finn Alexander (Francis Flute) and Daisy Valerio (Snug) have highlight moments during the play within a play. The former as he laments the death of Pyramus in dramatic counterpoint to his earlier flouncing as Thisbe; the latter with a Lion’s roar of such understatement that the audience cracked up at the delightful absurdity of it all. Luke Haberecht (Tom Snout) and Sarah Brideson (Robin Starveling) add to the mirth as Wall and Moon respectively.

Dunnage had a funny sequence as Puck scampers through the audience attempting to hide from Oberon’s wrath as things go pear shaped. He had cheekily drunk from a lady’s can of soft drink earlier and here was fascinated with random objects amongst the crowd. In fact the cast was impressive in reacting to the audience as they cavorted along the tiered seating. At one point Errol caught the magic flower thrown by Puck with some style which elicited a chuckle of approval from my good self. He turned toward me and nodded as if to say, “pretty good, hey” which was in character and a confident example of being in the moment as the cast often broke the fourth wall.  
I don’t know if I was as enamoured with the use of Nutbush City Limits in the finale. I understand the notion of updating the music to more modern times but this song with its patented dance routine seemed dated (and probably twice as old as most of the cast). The use of a track that was more recent, vital and immediate would have worked better.

Overall this was a most pleasant evening even with me making a complete ass of myself as I was dragged on stage to the strains of Tina Turner… or maybe I was simply dreaming all along.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by William Shakespeare, directed by Trent Baker, and featured the second year musical theatre students in their inaugural public outing. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Coriolanus - WAAPA (15 March 2016)

The balance between those who seek to rule and the people whose name they rule in has always been a fine one. Occasionally it tips violently one way or another – into dictatorship or open revolt – as that balance is disturbed. What is the responsibility of the politician versus the people in this regard? Do political leaders tell the people what they want to hear to gain their trust and more importantly their endorsement whether through formal vote or fealty; or do they stick to their beliefs and principles removed from such populist notions? And what of the people - is that trust and support given only through self-interest or for a higher purpose such as the sanctity of the nation when it is under threat, real or imagined?

These were some of the questions mulling through my mind as I watched one of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies, Coriolanus. The political intrigue is as potent today as when the play was written, now in the shadow of what might yet prove to be the most contentious and divisive US Presidential race in history.

At the centre of all this intrigue is Caius Martius (Angus McLaren) who is named Coriolanus for his deeds as a Roman General in defeating the hated Volsces. His domineering mother Volumnia (Anneliese Apps) pushes for him to become Consul but it’s not in Coriolanus’ nature to humble himself as is expected before the stratified Roman society of Senators, Citizens and Tribunes, instead rebuking them. Two Tribunes (Kate Betcher and Lukas Radovich) move popular opinion against him until he is pronounced banished. Coriolanus leaves the city to seek out his former enemy led by Aufidius (Alexander Daly) and together they march on Rome where Volumnia, his wife (Sarah Greenwood), young son Martius, and family friend Valeria (Emma O’Sullivan) wait to greet him in a desperate bid to save Rome from impending doom. Coriolanus relents but in doing so is proclaimed traitor by Aufidius and brutally slain.

I admit it took me a while to get into the story as I slowly found my feet with the language, the roster of characters and opposing forces. It was when Coriolanus, barefoot and dressed only in a robe, delivers himself to the people in an attempt at humility that things clicked into place. Until that point the proud soldier had been a physically stout presence and suitably adorned with sword, shield and chainmail. To cast aside the proud and brutish nature that had won him acclaim in order to become Consul was an intriguing dilemma. To watch him reluctantly entertain this conceit before indulging in mockery and then reject the people out of hand was fascinating. McLaren is terrific in this sequence as he projects a slow burn of conflicting emotions at the humiliating trial of approval until releasing Coriolanus’ complete disdain and hubris. From then on I was hooked.

There is no doubt that McLaren is the driving force in a terrific performance giving an ostensibly ‘unlikeable’ protagonist so many wrinkles and contradictions. That the character’s undoing comes from betraying his own nature in being persuaded to relent at the gates of Rome and that this is induced by his mother is at the heart of the tragedy. McLaren gives Coriolanus the air of a man supremely confident in his abilities, who doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and who is quick to action with a sword the mostly likely weapon of choice. His look of incredulity as the people demand the prospective Consul’s banishment is matched by the contempt McLaren gives full throated voice to as Coriolanus banishes Rome itself... from him. But there are also glimpses of the good father and loving husband that round out a portrait of a complicated man unwilling to bend to convention or expediency.

Apps proves to be a worthy match especially in the scene where Volumnia beseeches Coriolanus not to sack the city. To watch such a headstrong character subjugate herself, on her knees no less, was the parallel to Coriolanus prostrating himself before Aufidius at the Volscian city. Daly’s response to that moment was excellent in surprisingly embracing his hated foe with genuine fervour. Betcher and Radovich play the Tribunes not so much as conniving but totally naive to the ripple effects their machinations will cause. The crumbling of their safe and confident attitudes on hearing of an army headed by Coriolanus marching on Rome was writ large on their faces as was the back peddling of the people as if trying to abrogate themselves of responsibility.

Kieran Clancy-Lowe added an assured presence with a light comic touch as Senator and friend to Coriolanus while there are colourful flourishes by O’Sullivan as the kind-hearted family friend and Elle Mickel as a comical servant in the Aufidius household.

The hardworking ensemble represented a variety of layers in this fractious society – soldiers, the starving citizenry, servants and the like. Director Michael Jenn gives them free rein in ramping up the pressure on Coriolanus with raucous condemnation and occasional comic relief. The costuming effectively recreates such a hierarchical and militaristic world while the drum infused live music performed by Amelia Jutilane-Maynard and Arund Pearce provides the piece with a ‘heartbeat’ as one actor commented at the Q&A afterwards. The use of a vibraphone also added emotional depth to the more personal scenes notably involving family members and loved ones. Then there are the swords fight coordinated by Fight Director Andy Fraser that are boisterous and brutal. The split lip McLaren was sporting after the show was testament to their energetic rendering. 

It all ends with Coriolanus’ son (rotating between Darcy Stokes and Oliver Haluszkiewicz on different nights) contemplatively swinging his dead father’s sword. As one audience member remarked, we truly don’t learn from history.   

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Michael Jenn, and featuring the third year graduating class, Coriolanus is on at The Roundhouse Theatre until 17 March.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Drowsy Chaperone - WAAPA (14 March 2016)

One of the highlights of the Perth theatrical calendar is undoubtedly WAAPA’s mid-year musical extravaganza at the Regal Theatre. Increasingly though I would argue that the first performance slot of a musical theatre graduating class is the one to watch with Hair (2014), Urinetown (2015) and now this stunning production of The Drowsy Chaperone in the Geoff Gibbs Theatre.

The show ticks all the boxes – gorgeous production values, a witty script, fabulous performances across the board, a fun score, and above all it is consistently laugh out loud funny. At a brisk 100 minutes with no interval it is utterly infectious and a complete triumph. It’s not hard to see why it won Best Original Score and Best Book at the 2006 Tony Awards and this class does that pedigree justice with a thoroughly entertaining outing.

The story itself is a parody of all the tropes of the musical comedy genre as a theatre lover listens to one of his favourite recordings, the fictional 1928 production of The Drowsy Chaperone. On a vinyl record no less! The show comes to life in his living room as the ‘Man in Chair’ (Ashley Roussety) forgets all about his troubles and provides witty and arch commentary about the performers, the plot, and reveals more than a little of his own back story.

The story itself swirls around the impending marriage of starlet Janet Van De Graaff (Stephanie Wall) and Robert Martin (Matthew Manahan) while a collection of characters as diverse as gastronomic gangsters, a desperate producer, a ditzy wannabe starlet, a Latin lothario, and, of course, an increasingly inebriated chaperone provide a variety of hilarious obstacles and hijinks. It catapults towards a happy ending... it is, after all, a musical... and is in the finest tradition of good old-fashioned Broadway entertainment.   

Roussety is superb as our narrator. The show starts in darkness as he expresses the fears of many an audience member – will the show be short, entertaining, and not have actors entering the stalls. His tone is conversational and I immediately relaxed into the opening number as he demonstrated excellent comic timing and warmth in addressing and responding to the audience. It’s a nicely judged performance as Roussety imbues the character with enthusiasm, passion, some snark sure but also tinged with an underlying sadness or being ‘blue’ as Man in Chair would put it. He totally grounds the production and makes the narrative device work so effectively that all the gags relating to the turntable and the vagaries of a stylus on vinyl... on vinyl... on vinyl... ahem, sorry... work a treat.

But excellent performances abound and it’s interesting that the story is constructed in such a way that there are several distinct comic pairings and every principal cast member gets a showpiece moment. Man in Chair effectively is the narrative device that links one great number after another.

The hostess for the wedding, Mrs Tottendale, is played by Melissa Russo as a somewhat dotty matriarch with an outlandishly odd accent to say the least. Her comic pair is the servant simply known as Underling who is given an amusing air of English fortitude and thinly veiled disapproval by Jens Radda. Russo and Radda work beautifully together with one of the highlights involving a glass of “iced water” that is gloriously funny in its silliness.

The producer Feldzieg (Andre Drysdale) and his potential new ingĂ©nue Kitty (Christina Odam) are irresistible as another comic pairing; the former being pressured to stop the wedding so he doesn’t lose his star; the latter exuberant in her claim to be a perfect replacement. Drysdale is in full on Groucho Marx mode as he chomps on the scenery like a not so cheap cigar while Odam impresses with an adorably ditzy characterisation of the not so bright but eager wannabe star. Both deploy exaggerated accents to good effect while Odam bounces around the set on the balls of her feet as if exploding with excitement at the prospect of being the next Janet Van De Graaff.    

Janet herself is given haughtiness and glamour by Stephanie Wall who looks stunning, sings beautifully, and sells the conceit that she is the world’s biggest and most desirable star. The song Show Off is a highlight as Wall proves adept at doing exactly that, showing off in a number of ways while feigning modesty. It’s the sort of set piece that brings all elements together – singing, choreography, direction, music, and sheer verve – to stunning effect.

That it comes immediately after another eye opening sequence – the tap dance routine of Cold Feets – by Manahan’s debonair groom and his fretting best man George (Mikey Halcrow) with a killer cameo by Radda – is testament to how wonderfully entertaining this all is.

Then there’s the drowsy chaperone herself, Stefanie Caccamo, who plays the role with such casual insouciance that her every appearance on stage is compelling. Displaying a powerful voice that she uses tellingly in her “rousing anthem” As We Stumble Along there is real swagger here and not only as the character becomes increasingly tipsy. Her comic pairing comes in the form of Jason Arrow’s amorous Aldolpho who is tasked by Feldzieg to stop the wedding by sleeping with the bride. Mistaken identities dot the story in the best Shakespearean comic tradition and Arrow laps up the over-exaggerated Latin lover stereotype with Freddy Mercury style strut and vocal dexterity.  

Samuel Welsh and Hayden Baum are the two gangsters who have their own shtick going on with bad culinary puns as they heavy Feldzieg to save Janet from wedding induced retirement. That they are pressed into service as Kitty’s backup dancers during Toledo Surprise is another comic highlight. I must also mention the ‘false start’ of the faux second act opener that is such a brilliantly pointed slap at Rodgers and Hammerstein that I was gasping at the audacity of it all.

Finally we have the deus ex machina literally swooping down from the clouds in Trix the Aviatrix (Embla Bishop) who saves the day as all the complications collide. It’s a stirring finale as Bishop leads the company in belting out I Do, I Do In The Sky with a surprising twist that involves more than the hand cranked propeller she wields on her bi-plane.

This show really is outstanding – the ensemble added vibrancy and colour; the choreography of different dance styles from the twenties is outstanding; it truly looks sumptuous with the period costuming, clever set design, and is the most startlingly lit show I’ve seen at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre; the orchestra under Musical Director David King was exemplary, and it is flat out funny. I can’t remember having a better time in a theatre in quite a while. 

Surprisingly there were a few vacant seats at the Monday evening show. I don’t expect that to last long as word of mouth already has this as one of the best shows at WAAPA in years. Sure, you can wait for the cast recording on vinyl (good luck!)... but I suggest you book yourself a ticket as this is a terrific way to start WAAPA’s 2016 performance programme.

Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; directed with flair by Crispin Taylor; with choreography by Bernie Bernard and Musical Direction by David King, The Drowsy Chaperone is on at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 19 March.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Love and Information - Hayman Theatre Company (1 March 2016)

I was talking to Director Teresa Izzard after the play and she gave me an insight into the particular challenges in presenting celebrated playwright Caryl Churchill’s script. No character names; a cavalcade of vignettes with no settings, no stage directions, no through line; and a rough structure of seven headings where individual scenes could be slotted into any order. It sounded like a Theatre Makers Do-It-Yourself Kit. Here’s a box of pieces with no instructions for assembly, now go make something.

This, of course, gives the director, actors, and the design team a great deal of freedom in how to present and interpret this mass of information. It also makes things a little problematic from an audience perspective. You quickly come to realise that there isn’t going to be any kind of traditional narrative. I could sit here and try and draw thematic threads out of it all and certainly there are touchstones such as fidelity, memory, childhood and the like. But really, for me, this was like a collection of audition scenes or, perhaps more aptly, a Showcase on Speed.

Once I realised this I settled into enjoying the production for what it was instead of trying to analyse it to determine what it might have been. The Showcase analogy seems most appropriate and certainly this was an excellent introduction into the performance and technical capabilities of this year’s Curtin University students. Izzard keeps things rattling along as scenes follow each other in rapid succession or even overlap briefly as the actors rotate through scenarios and personas with alacrity.

For the first time that I have seen, the black box space of the Hayman Theatre Upstairs was transformed with a built in set – white flats on three sides with three doors that were used with dizzying frequency. There were also white blocks that increased in number throughout the performance until there were fully a dozen on stage. The actors added to and changed their configuration to provide the basic setting of whatever situation they found themselves in. This was enhanced by use of projected images and the title of the scene. Those titles most often than not were a single word. The lighting and sound design added the final layer with the impressive use of lasers at one point and everything from pumping dance music to static as transitions took place.

This all created a vibrant space for the actors to work in and they used it to maximum effect. Those eight actors are Lauren Beeton, Declan Brown, Eloise Carter, Chelsea Gibson, Anna Lindstedt, Holly Mason, Nelson Mondlane, and Jess Nyanda Moyle. It was a very good ensemble with each actor having to inhabit a range of vastly different characters and make them believable in very short time spans. I also appreciated the physicality involved as different combinations of actors clambered over each other and those blocks or were dancing, at times full tilt. One of the standout scenes simply called Wife involved Moyle and Brown in a ballet like sequence of intense emotion and intimacy that utilised all of the stage to stunning effect.

That, however, is where the success or otherwise of the play as a collection of fractured parts rests. Scenes work better than others to highlight the talents on display. Some are no more than brief interludes that whizz by before the next vignette begins. Like any audition piece it’s the selection of the material that goes a long way to determining the outcome. Every actor has a chance to shine and it’s very much an equal opportunity piece from that regard.

From an audience viewpoint it probably ended at about the right time as I was beginning to weary of the conceit. There was no connective tissue and no one thread or character I could hang my hat on. As a true showcase of acting and technical ability, however, it certainly set the scene nicely for what should be another strong season for Curtin’s Hayman Theatre Company.  

Love and Information is being performed at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs on the Curtin University campus until Saturday 5th March.