Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Kraken - Cody Fullbrook (16 June 2016)

This 40 minute play staged at the Phoenix Theatre in Hamilton Hill was directed and adapted by Cody Fullbrook who most memorably played the titular character in The Brain From Planet X a couple of years ago. I was not familiar with the source material, a children’s book by Gary Crew. The story focuses on a seaside family where blind boy Christopher (James Matthews) appears to summon characters from the depths of the ocean which is an apt analogy for his imagination, troubled by thoughts of monsters and darkness. I wasn’t quite clear as to what the ramifications of this were as the stakes weren’t readily apparent nor was there a definitive ending for mine. This felt more like an introduction to a world, the family and a story premise and it would have been interesting to see where the narrative might have led in a longer treatment of the material.

My confusion was unfortunately not helped by varying levels of performance on the night. Matthews was solid as the blind boy who loves sitting on the end of the jetty near his home. He worked well with Simonne Matthews who plays his protective older sister who has troubles of her own as indicated by a call she receives as they sit side by side as night falls by the waterside. Rachel Bartlett plays the worried Mum and Matthew Sullivan in his inaugural production, the Dad. A case of opening night nerves cruelled Sullivan’s debut as he faced that most terrifying of ordeals for an actor, forgetting lines and breaking character briefly as a result. With greater experience he’ll develop the tools to help get out of that sort of trouble more seamlessly.

There was also a problem with variations in pacing and tone. The opening scene with the younger actors was a credible moment between siblings but there was a flatness to the scene at the train station and an awkwardness outside the family home. Adrian Alajbeg as The Fisherman and Ethan Dixon as The Boy, both of whom I took to be creations of Christopher’s imagination, added much needed flair and range to their delivery though ultimately to little payoff. The rhythm of the play was too measured and the same throughout.

Other elements didn’t quite gel. The mother, on being confronted by The Fisherman outside her home, seemed far too trusting, especially when he pulls out a knife to fillet the fish he offers her. Then there was the puzzling issue with the door knob. It was played as if she had locked herself out which could have really ramped up the tension in the scene but when it ended she simply opened the door and went inside.

There was a similar incongruity at the train station after The Old Woman (also blind) played by Samantha Coad-Ward walks offstage after delivering some mirroring dialogue with the Father about “not seeing”. Yet the character had indicated she was waiting for a train as well. Where was she going? They’re small things but they pulled me out of the world of the story.

Little moments such as when the sister says “take my hand” to her brother… whose hand she is already holding. There was also a line from The Boy to Christopher about closing his eyes which were already closed. Careful with the eye lines as well when playing a blind character as he looked directly at specific spots such as an item in The Boy’s hand from time to time. 

There was good use of originally composed music by Miro Kepinski to set mood and establish an eerie soundscape and I did like the jetty being represented as a thrust from the main stage towards the audience. This made the opening scene quite intimate.

Overall all though this needed to focus more on setting up and paying off what is an intriguing premise, a boy whose imagination can bring nightmares to life. For an already short play too much stage time was spent on the father’s interaction with a Homeless Man (Ron Arthurs) and especially an Employee (Zachary Inglis). Stay with the children and especially the boy as this is where the real pearls are.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Victory - WAAPA (13 June 2016)

Without letting the head completely out of the bag this a fascinating production by the 2nd year acting students.

Howard Barker's play set in Restoration England seems to deliberately go out of its way at the start to alienate the audience with obscene language and provocatively staged sexual acts. Then it eases into the bleakest of possible black comedies culminating in two truly intense and disturbing scenes at the end of each act that would sit comfortably in any Game of Thrones compendium of perversity. Its humour is uncomfortable, its essential tragic nature compelling.

It also reminded me a little of the sort of attention to detail and scope David Simon deploys in his television writing, notably The Wire. Here we see points of view from the people, the monarchy, the bureacracy represented by the newly formed Bank of England, and the arts represented by Clegg and the great John Milton. It creates a fully realised world with competing perspectives and desires.

What I really liked is that the stage, essentially a perfectly raked sand pit on the Enright Studio floor, ends up littered with props, items of costuming, fake blood, and any manner of detritus as the actors cavort and contort in the space. It's messy and ugly and real.

Stand out performances - Stephanie Somerville covers a wide range of emotions as the widowed Bradshaw whose husband's body she sets out to retrieve and is excellent in the lead role; Jack Scott projects Droog like menace as Nodd; Kingsley O'Connor's Charles II is a more conflicted Joffrey style monarch who both chills and cajoles; while Jake Fryer-Horsby is amusing and later affecting as the pragmatic McConnochie. A mention as well to Mitchell Bourke who plays the tragi-comic fool Ball with a swagger that is cruelly cut down.

Commendations though to the entire cast for attacking such a difficult play with inhibition-free exuberance. No easy thing given some of its content.

I really enjoyed this but it's not for the faint-hearted as exemplified by eleven audience members not returning after intermission. But if theatre is there to provoke thought and reaction, and if dark humour is your thing, then this is the type of play you're not likely to see too often outside the walls of WAAPA.

Written by Howard Barker, Directed by Glenn Hayden and starring the second year acting students, Victory is at the Enright Studio until 16 June

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Bring It On The Musical - WAAPA (11 June 2016)

It’s coming up to mid-June which means it’s time to talk about WAAPA’s latest mid-year musical spectacular at the Regal Theatre. Here are some thoughts in random order.

As I parked and walked to the theatre I could hear all the sounds associated with the big football game at Subiaco Oval; the roar as a goal was kicked, the echo of the stadium announcer. There were 44 supremely fit young athletes battling it out in front of a big crowd. Inside the Regal, Act 1 bursts into life with What I Was Born To Do and it immediately strikes me I am watching 39 supremely fit young performers bursting out of their skins to entertain a packed house. The comparison is not lost on me as I marvel at the sheer energy levels and fitness of these students. They look amazing in their cheerleading uniforms, all sleek, toned and terrific. Like the footballers this isn’t by chance. Such peak conditioning demands hard work, discipline and total commitment. The results are spectacular.

Then they start to move and the choreography is astonishing. From the traditional forms of cheerleading with its drilled precision, human pyramids and tosses to the more primal moves of the hip hop crew from the rival school, the dance sequences are mesmerising. This production takes the ferocity of 2015’s Urinetown and ramps it up a notch to fill the much bigger stage area.  Is there anything more thrilling than seeing a massed group of performers absolutely crush the big set piece dance routines?

By the time you read this it is possible musical theatre’s man of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda will be basking in the glow of a record Tony Awards haul for the musical Hamilton. His contributions to Bring It On are unmistakeable. While this may not be duelling founding fathers immersed in revolutionary war and its aftermath, there are two distinct tribes engaging in their own battle here. The rhythms and language of grungy Jackson High School are perfectly captured by Miranda. It’s a crystal clear stylistic difference to the peppy Truman High School sound written by Tom Kitt (Lyrics) and Amanda Green (Music). The performers struggled a little with the rap where diction and enunciation is critical to carry Miranda’s rapid fire verbiage but the down and dirty hip hop vibe is tremendous fun.  

It also means the orchestra gets to play in various styles encompassing the gamut from rock musical to hip hop. It occurs to me that every year the musicians in the pit under the baton of conductor David King are the unsung heroes of these productions. They always acquit themselves in exemplary fashion and tonight was no different. Props then to Mister King and his musicians Tim How, Ben Hogan, Josh Webb, Jack Maher, Nathan Straker, Chris Bye, Brad Forbes, Amberlie Boyd and Ben Albert.

WAAPA has clearly decided to leverage off the success of last year’s monster hit Legally Blonde by choosing another age appropriate musical for the cast and, again, turning up the dial on all the surrounding elements. The audience was encouraged to post selfies to Instagram using the hashtag #bringitonwaapa which were then flashed up on the big screen before the show. There was a 2 minute countdown clock to announce the beginning of the production accompanied by upbeat music normally associated with major sporting events. The rear projection imagery on that big screen was excellent, outdoing last year’s attempt with live video feeds. This was a musical about young people for young people so the social media strategy was right on point. The young girls behind me squealed in delight when their picture flashed up on the screen.

There was also a sense of bigger, brighter, and better with the set, costume and lighting design. This was a pulsating show that matched the energy of its performers, was a visual feast, and sounded great. In many ways all these elements elevated what is really a paper thin plot and made it compelling.

Then there are the performances.

Hannah Burridge! What I love about the mid-year show is the ‘discovery’ of a talent who might not have been previously featured. Hannah has always been a vibrant presence in the ensemble or supporting roles in previous shows but she takes front and centre stage here and is terrific. Displaying true triple threat ability it’s her acting that maybe impresses the most as she plays the newly elected squad captain who is redistricted to another school and learns that lying and manipulating people to win a cheerleading competition comes at too high a price. It’s such a confident and engaging performance.

In this she is not alone. Rebecca Cullinan plays the biatch to perfection; Stefanie Caccamo follows up her role as the drowsy chaperone with another fabulous turn as the faithful friend and comic foil Bridget; Melissa Russo brings the attitude and sass as Danielle; while Hayden Baum threatens to steal the show with his La Cienega a total scream. Christina Odam continues to display a light touch as the unassuming tyro before morphing into the ultra-competitive villain of the piece.

In a nice reversal, it’s Joshua Firman’s Steven who is the unaware and schmaltzy partner. The women rule the roost in the world of competitive cheerleading. Jason Arrow plays Randall with understated sensitivity and Enjoy The Trip with Hannah is a lovely moment both in acting and in song.

Other highlights for me – Do Your Own Thing introduces us to the crew at Jackson High with some serious attitude; Hannah’s early ballad One Perfect Moment sets the scene for the character’s initial motivations and showcases her voice; It’s All Happening kick starts the second act with a bang while It Ain’t No Thing is another sequence that lets Stef, Hayden, and Stephanie Wall (Nautica) get a little funky; Legendary is going to be the most audacious thing you see at the Regal all year; with We’re Not Done fittingly a key moment between Melissa and Hannah that is well acted and sung with flair.
As I was leaving the theatre I saw Ben Elton in the crowd. He must be licking his lips in anticipation at what the third year students will bring to The Beautiful Game, his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, in August.

Then it was all over and I was outside mingling with disappointed Eagles fans with their scarves and paraphernalia. At that moment I wish I had a Jackson High baseball cap…

Directed by Jay James-Moody with Musical Direction by David King, Choreography by Michael Ralph and starring WAAPA’s third year musical theatre students ably supported by their second year colleagues, Bring It On runs until 18 June at the Regal Theatre in Subiaco

Women - Black Martini Theatre (10 June 2016)

Inject modern day attitude and vernacular into a period setting and you get a funny reimagining of the novel Little Women. Set at the end of the American Civil War this iteration of the March family isn’t quite as genteel as one might expect. Of course, the conceit of transporting a sitcom style quartet of sisters to the past is the wellspring for the humour.

At its best this production honours that premise as the sisters played by Shannen Precious (Jo), Cat Perez (Meg), Claire Tebbutt (Amy) and Virginia Cole (Beth) crackle and fizz off each other to amusing effect. When they are separated through (did they have spoiler alerts in the 19th century?) death and the lure of prospects further afield from dreary Concord, Massachusetts, the play loses a lot of its driving force until the surviving members are reunited at the end. That is more a testament to the chemistry of the core foursome than a reflection of the supporting cast who have important roles in creating the context of the world our heroines have stumbled into.

In essence the play revolves around which sister will become the pre-eminent member of the family and achieve their dreams once Marmee has left to be by their ailing father’s side. Perez brings tremendous sass to her role as Meg with plenty of razor sharp quips and asides. Occasionally though she would appear to address her remarks to the audience with very specific eye contact. That breaking of the fourth wall felt more unintentional rather than a stylistic choice and something to be mindful of. Her main ‘rival’ for ascendancy, Jo, is drolly portrayed by Precious and the contrast in styles worked well. Jo dreams of becoming a writer and her attempts at cajoling her siblings into impromptu performances of original plays sets the tone early.

Tebbutt’s ditzy Amy is played with affectionate naivety in another clearly delineated role. The mock concern for Beth’s fading health is wonderfully zany as she lurks on the fringes of the stage unwilling to come any closer. Cole is all tragic beauty and fragility as Beth succumbs to her fate. It is, by necessity, the most muted role with the exception of a cheeky moment as coughs turn into a beatbox jam.

Surrounding this core are characters that are far more grounded which allows room for the zaniness to work. Notable amongst these are Maddy Jolly Fuentes whose Marmee is maternal concern writ large in a turn that does fit the period in question. Matthew Abercromby is an earnest, kind-hearted Mister Brooke who suffers the moods of the hyper-kinetic Meg in essentially a straight man role. Will Moriarty also lends a certain solemnity as Professor Bhaer. Michael Casas, however, tackles his various characters as if he was indeed in a sitcom and they tended to slide into caricature, given away by an impish grin.

Which leaves Hock Edwards as Laurie to provide the main object of attention as the other great conceit of the play is that none of the sisters has ever met a man before, no, not even a cousin. His is a character that is oddly caught between the archetypal period love interest and a more modern, conflicted interpretation. Edwards has a strong moment when romantic desire turns to humiliation as Laurie is rebuffed by Jo causing the character to flee the country. As you do.

Director Jessica Serio keeps the pace humming along as befits the style of humour. Scene transitions are quick with the stagehands adeptly redressing the set to represent the March household and a few other key locations. The various Perez monologues as Meg ‘reads’ letters to her sisters are more effectively staged when we see the other characters acting out what she imagines is happening in places like New York.

Overall this was a funny production that worked best when the four sisters were together with the banter running thick and fast. This is Black Martini Theatre’s second comedy for the year and it is a niche they are comfortably occupying in the Murdoch theatre firmament.  

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Crave - WA Youth Theatre Company (3 June 2016)

The West Australian Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) plays a pivotal role in fostering the State’s young talent not only in performance but in commissioning new work such as On The Face of Things recently seen at Fringe World. Checking the programme for Crave, its members also fill the key crew positions under director Renato Fabretti. It’s a great opportunity for the next generation of actors and theatre makers to tackle challenging works and present them in quality venues such as the State Theatre Centre. Interestingly, there is an influx of students from Curtin University, another great hub of burgeoning theatrical endeavour.

Previous WAYTCo productions of note in the last few years include Mine, the self-devised Wind, Another Twin, the explosive Punk Rock, and Hellie Turner’s ANZAC themed The Dreaming Hill. All have introduced exciting new talent while presenting productions incorporating themes that resonant with their key demographic.

Crave is perhaps the most complex iteration of this intent. Playwright Sarah Kane’s storytelling, while rhythmic and lyrical, is oblique and confronting. Its content touches on our darker impulses while exploring isolation, loss, obsessive love and how traits handed down from generation to generation cripple and empower us. Four characters, assigned only a letter, present their stories and occasionally interact with each other verbally. There is almost no movement other than a turned head, the odd hand gesture. Each actor faces the audience on a slightly raised platform rooted to the spot. They are exposed, vulnerable, having only their voice, their eyes, and complete trust in their fellow actors as rhythm and cadence here is everything. A dropped line, an unintentional pause would act like a domino effect to ruin the symphony of cascading thoughts. There is one lengthy monologue delivered by A that would otherwise mark him as the main character. But this play is the sum of all its fractured parts.

I was fortunate enough to briefly witness a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. What impressed was the focus on those rhythms in the writing. On imparting emphasis and meaning in the generally short, sharp exchanges that bounce off each other. There is a lot of point and counterpoint; opposing declarations and thought bubbles; unexpected confessions. It is precise and exacting.

For the run Fabretti has chosen to have alternating casts. Ally Harris doubled up as C due to the other actress being unavailable for reasons that highlight the quality of young performers amongst their ranks. On opening night Harris was joined by Luke Binetti as A, George Ashforth as B and Megan Hollier as M. The other cast features Declan Brown (A), Odne Stenseth (B) and Daisy Coyle (M).

How then to review a show that is unique in writing, style and presentation? Where the actors do not move, where their characters have no names, and their stories are fragmented and tenuously intertwined. A matter further complicated by a lighting design that for a large portion of the opening night production saw the actors’ eyes cast in shadow. This surely was unintentional and will be corrected during the rest of the run as it robbed the audience of a key weapon in the actors’ arsenal.

Given its construction this is a hive organism and the four actors worked well as a unit. The rhythm and pace was quickly established and never faltered. The diction and enunciation was clear. Luke Binetti is a fine young actor who burst onto the scene with Punk Rock and consolidated his presence in The Dreaming Hill. George Ashforth has emerged as a key player at the Hayman Upstairs at Curtin with his recently penned Everyone Is Gone Except Me adding another string to his artistic bow. Crave served as an introduction to Ally Harris and Megan Hollier and on the strength of this I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Of the alternate cast, Declan Brown excelled in Punk Rock and 2015 Fringe World production Metalhead and is another actor with a bright future. Daisy Coyle continues to do good work at Curtin and I was encouraged to see her involved with WAYTCo. I am not familiar with Odne Stenseth but given the pedigree of his fellow performers and Fabretti’s track record I have no doubt he will hit the mark here.

This is the second time I have seen Crave as Curtin actually did it a couple of years ago. I can’t say it’s a play I particularly warm to but as a showcase for the discipline and precision required by the actors it is a worthy addition to WAYTCo’s canon.

Written by Sarah Kane, directed by Renato Fabretti and starring Declan Brown, Odne Stenseth, Ally Harris, Daisy Coyle, Luke Binetti, George Ashforth, and Megan Hollier, Crave is on at State Theatre Centre until 11 June.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches - Black Swan State Theatre Company (30 May 2016)

There are many things other than angels hovering over Tony Kushner’s generally recognised modern master work – Reagan’s America, the impending turn of the century, fear and prejudice as the AIDS virus takes hold, a sense of mortality as we are buffeted by politics, religion, disease, and our own weaknesses. It is gloriously theatrical, brutal, funny, confronting, compassionate, but above all else human. It deals with the inner turmoil of failing to cope with a loved one who is dying under terrible circumstances or mentally decaying before your eyes; the denial of one’s own sexuality through either expediency or guilt; the yearning for connection and love even in the most terrible of circumstances. Within those dilemmas and human interactions is a precise sense of time and place. The coming end of the millennium is truly an earth shattering event.

Black Swan’s production is a finely acted and stylish piece of theatre that befits the rightly lauded writing. The first half of this preview flew by in a dazzling 90 minutes. The second half gets a little funky as the hallucinations and visitations become bolder until it all ends in a crescendo that has you wishing Part Two was but a dinner break away.

The stage is flanked by impressive lighting rigs that are utilised in style by lighting designer Matt Scott from the stark whiteness of Antarctica to night time interludes in Central Park to the announcement of a divine messenger. There is judicious use of music by Ash Gibson Greig including a gorgeous version of Moon River on only violin and piano in a moment that is both joyous and heartbreaking as AIDS ravaged Prior Walter (Adam Booth) dances with his estranged lover Louis Ironson (Will O’Mahony).   

The set takes full advantage of the technical wizardry available at the Heath Ledger Theatre. Director Kate Cherry and Set Designer Christina Smith have wisely gone for a minimalist look with settings represented only by a key piece of furniture – Ray Cohn’s desk, a wash basin, a settee, a hospital bed etc that all effortlessly glide into place. The transitions are slick and the focus is on the performances and Kushner’s prose that is, at turns, poetic, cruel, dagger sharp or slyly funny. And make no mistake there is great humour to be found here amongst the emotional tumult. The climactic ending summons the full arsenal of lighting, sound, costuming, and set design as the world literally falls in on Prior.

The standout performance of the first half belongs to Jo Morris who plays Harper, a woman struggling to deal with her own demons including fear of climate change and the strange noises coming from the bedroom. Reliant on Valium, Harper conjures imaginary friends and hallucinations with a self-awareness that is funny but laced with poignancy. Morris displays wonderful comic timing especially in the hallucination sequences which she tackles with relish. But the irrational fears and reliance on pills are given harrowing treatment as well. The second half suffers a little from her lessened presence except for the bravura Antarctica sequence that is a highlight for Morris.

The other standouts are Adam Booth as Prior who gives an emotionally truthful performance as a man not only dying from AIDS but devastated at Louis’ withdrawal; and O’Mahony as Louis who has a complex arc as he seeks solace in his ‘betrayal’ by engaging in acts of cold, random sex while striking up an unlikely friendship with Harper’s husband Joseph Porter Pitt (Stuart Halusz). Joe has denied his sexuality until finally confessing he is a homosexual over the phone to his mother in an all too real awkward moment of self-loathing and revelation. Prior and Louis coming to terms with their relationship and Prior’s imminent death is the backbone of the second half with Booth and O'Mahony compelling.

John Stanton plays the loathsome lawyer and power broker Ray Cohn with expletive laden relish but it’s in the quieter moments where he excels – the scene with Joe at a bar and his confrontation with a ghost from the past are memorable. The rationalisation Cohn gives on learning of his medical condition is delivered with chilling pragmatism by Stanton – status and power are the only language the character understands and deals in. Halusz in many ways has the trickiest role as his Joe is an earnest character who denies his true self and remains principled in the face of Cohn’s temptations and his wife’s descent into fantasy. He plays the Mormon lawyer with a straight forwardness that works in contrast to the showier roles around him and acts as a foundation of sorts for the audience.

The only weakness is Kenneth Ransom’s dual roles of Harper’s imaginary friend Mr Lies and the gay drag queen Belize. The latter simply isn’t flamboyant enough and the former lacks any flair. Both are opportunities to ‘go large’ but ended up being flat portrayals barely differentiated from each other. Felicity Mckay and Toni Scanlon round out the cast with Scanlon especially engaging as the Rabbi.

I enjoyed the superb first half more than the second which had some odd scenes that seemed somewhat extraneous (largely revolving around Joe’s mother coming to New York) or verging into Pythonesque territory (Prior’s ancestors visiting his sick bed). Otherwise this was an excellent production that showcased Black Swan’s considerable technical and performance capabilities.

Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Kate Cherry and starring Adam Booth, Stuart Halusz, Felicity Mckay, Jo Morris, Will O’Mahony, Kenneth Ransom, Toni Scanlon, and John Stanton, Angels in America, Part One is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 19 June.   

*photos by Daniel James Grant