Thursday, 21 September 2017

Black Rider, Sept 20, 2017 ***1/2

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Original music & lyrics by Tom Waits, text by William S. Burroughs
Produced by Malthouse Theatre & Victorian Opera
Melbourne Festival
At Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Oct 8, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Art online on Thurs Sept 21, 2017, and later in print. This show is an early opener for the 2017 Melbourne Festival. KH
Dimity Shepherd, Kanen Breen_c Pia Johnson
Meow Meow is captivating as the seductive devil, Pegleg, stealing the stage in Tom Waits’ and William S. Burroughs’ eccentric music theatre work, Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets.

American director, Robert Wilson based his 1990 production on the German folktale, The Fatal Marksman, about a young clerk (Kanen Breen) who falls in love with a hunter’s daughter (Dimity Shepherd) whose father (Richard Piper) demands the young man be a crack marksman.

The clerk makes a pact with the devil who guarantees the magic bullets will always hit their target, but it all goes terribly wrong when the final bullet hits his bride.

Waits’ music quirkily merges opera with German cabaret and vaudeville then veers into gospel, jazz and rock influences, all played with zest by the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra led by Phoebe Briggs.

Burroughs’ poetic text uses rhyme, repetition, vivid imagery and references to heroin addiction to illustrate this insidious bargain with the devil.

Performed on a compelling, abstract design (Zoë Atkinson), Matthew Lutton’s stylised production parodies the grand gestures of operatic melodrama, and his characters move with halting, puppet-like movements that are initially interesting but become awkward, repetitive and distracting.

As Pegleg, Meow Meow is sultry and sexy while also being demented, dangerous and despairing as she prowls the stage, perches atop a soaring white wall, reaches clawing arms through crannies and sings raunchy or vengeful German cabaret songs.

Breen is a fine singer playing the young huntsman, a tough role that challenges his voice and contorts his body when the tormented youth collapses into madness.

Shepherd has a rich, poignant voice and a highlight is her lament, I’ll Shoot the Moon, as the young bride writhes on her chair waiting for her love to return.

Paul Capsis effectively uses his brash style and shrill falsetto, while Piper and Jacqueline Dark play the bride’s parents, and Winston Hillyer and Le Gateau Chocolat fulfil additional roles.

This daring production of Black Rider has some fine performances, eclectic music and compelling imagery although at times its style overwhelms the content.

By Kate Herbert
Black Rider _Ensemble_c Pia Johnson
Kanen Breen, Paul Capsis, Jacqueline Dark, Winston Hillyer, Le Gateau Chocolat, Meow Meow, Richard Piper & Dimity Shepherd
DIRECTOR/ Matthew Lutton
 Zoe Atkinson  
SCENIC ARTIST / Patrick Jones
SOUND DESIGN / Jim Atkins  
SOUNDSCAPE DESIGN / Jethro Woodward  
CHOREOGRAPHER / Stephanie Lake

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Pike St. by Nilaja Sun, Sept 12, 2017 ****1/2

Written & performed by Nilaja Sun 
At Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne, until Sep 17, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed Sept 12 2017, & later in print. KH 
 Nilaja Sun

Magnetic solo performer, Nilaja Sun, populates the stage with eccentric characters in Pike St., leaving the audience gaping and cheering her consummate performance of multiple roles.

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Evelyn prepares her American-Puerto Rican family’s rundown apartment for a hurricane’s onslaught, and this fictional situation comes into sharp relief while parts of real world USA currently face hurricane devastation.

Evelyn, a former Transit Authority worker, now studies ‘energy healing’ in a valiant effort to heal her severely disabled daughter, Candace/Candy, who is immobilised and cannot breathe without a respirator.

Sun combines bold comedy with incisive social observation, empathy and her signature open hearted, engaging style, and we forget that one person plays every role as Sun transports us to Pike St. with rapid dialogue and deft changes of voice, physicality and attitude.

With impeccable technique and split-second timing, Sun transforms from able-bodied Evelyn to the crooked body of Candy, then to Manny, Evelyn’s muscular but war-damaged brother.

Manny’s cheerful bravado and heroic, medal-winning achievements mask deep trauma and flashbacks to horrific episodes during his recent army service.

A comic highlight is Evelyn’s saucy but stiff-limbed father, Poppy, but his audacity is tempered by grief and humiliation stemming from his Vietnam War service.

Visitors to Evelyn’s apartment include ancient Mrs. Appelbaum whose memory fluctuates, seductive and selfish Migdalia, Poppy’s latest flame, and Manny’s old pal, Tykeen, who prattles and skips as he tempts the clean-living Manny with dope, caffeine and fast food.

Separate from, but intrinsic to the story is Lola, Evelyn’s late mother who was a renowned healer and who cheerfully leads the audience in ritualistic breathing techniques that expel sickness and ill-feeling – and, yes, we really feel better!

The rhythm and pace are frantic as the family members race to storm-proof their world, but one has the impression that their lives are always teetering on the brink of disaster, even without the storm.

This comedy-tragedy is surprising, compelling and moving – but the tragedy is not where we expect it in Pike St.  

By Kate Herbert
  Nilaja Sun

Anno Zombie, Sept 7, 2017 **

Written by Brigitte Burton, by Baggage Productions 
At Chapel off Chapel, until Sept 16, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: **
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print only, I believe. KH

Dan Walls, Lauren Bailey, Glenn van Oosterom, Taylor Smith-Morvell, Tiffany Davis, Kelly Nash, Bruce Langdon. Seated-Matthew Dorning_pic by Michael Foxington

Anno Zombie resembles the cult, zombie-horror series, The Walking Dead, but with added jokes and a backing track by Wham!

After the zombie apocalypse in Melbourne (don’t panic, people, it’s fictional), seven incompatible humans take refuge in David Jones’ city store where they live on Food Hall products and dress in designer gear.

The play, directed by Natasha Broadstock, is billed as a ‘zom-com’, and Bridgette Burton’s premise has promise as a quirky monster-comedy-romance that could potentially follow the style of The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors.

There are certainly some laughs during the 100 minutes, with many generated by the effusively camp 17-year old, Lee (Taylor Smith-Morvell), who has a penchant for Wham! tunes and garish outfits from the men’s clothing department – and the women’s.

More laughs come courtesy of Vera (Kelly Nash) and Freddie (Bruce Langdon), the well-heeled couple with affected accents, who choose to pretend that level five is Brighton.

The remaining comic characters include Harl (Glenn van Oosterom), the hipster poser with his beard, man-bun and ethically sourced coffee, and Lizzie (Tiffany Davis), the glamorous but shallow personal shopper with whom Harl hope to repopulate the planet.

Dan Walls does plenty of comical commando rolls as Ray, the former loans broker who’s found his mojo as a gun-totin’ zombie killer, while his wife, Philly (Lauren Bailey), is a guilt-ridden geneticist, and everyone avoids the drooling, brain-chomping zombie, ‘The Undude’ (Matthew Dorning).

Despite its laughs and light-hearted goofiness, the production is shambolic, the script too long with repetitive dialogue, the acting uneven, the multi-level set (Alice Bishop) awkward and noisy underfoot, while scene transitions are patchy.

This production might benefit from some savage editing and tightening of the staging but, in its present form, it relies too heavily on predictable gags and nods to the horror genre.

By Kate Herbert

 Cast: Lauren Bailey, Tiffany Davis, Matthew Dorning, Bruce Langdon, Kelly Nash, Taylor Smith-Morvell, Glenn van Oosterom & Dan Walls
Written by Bridgette Burton
Directed by Natasha Broadstock
Set Design: Alice Bishop
Lighting Design: Matthew Barber
Sound Design: Bartholomew Heeren
Special FX Make-Up: Ali Rae
Costume Design: Romy Sweetnam

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Way Out, Aug 30, 2017 ***

Written by Josephine Collins, by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
At Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, until Sept 24, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 30, 2017 
This review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs Aug 31 2017, and later in print (probably Fri Sept 1 2017). KH
Brigid Gallacher, Dion Mills_photo by Teresa Nobile Photography

From the perspective of a contemporary world threatened by conflict, tainted by pollution and mismanaged by corrupt governments or powerful corporations, it is not impossible to imagine the grim, dystopian future depicted in Josephine Collins’ play, The Way Out.

Helen (Brigid Gallacher) runs a bar with her father, Stewart (Dion Mills), in a north-western Victorian country town some time in the near future after a civil war has decimated the region’s food production and air quality and damaged the residents’ health.

Since ‘pacification’ 14 years earlier, a government body called ARC has controlled citizens’ lives with a style reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother, and Stewart, Helen and their friends Claire (Olga Makeeva) and Ryan (Kevin Hofbauer) quietly resist such oppression.

When a smiling, youthful but insidious government inspector (Rory Kelly) arrives to monitor Stewart and Helen’s business, his visit overlaps with that of a black marketeer (Sahil Saluja) and the locals’ illegal activities and resistance to the government risk being unmasked.

Although the narrative is sometimes confusing, Penny Harpham’s production is effectively unsettling with its menacing world of spies, rationing, hazard masks, totalitarian government, privileged groups and quarantine zones.

Charlotte Lane’s realistic set design conjures a dank, dingy bar with grimy, glass doors that look out on a perilously smoky and impenetrable world, while blaring sirens, flashing hazard lights and intrusive public announcements intensify the alarming atmosphere.

Gallacher is warm and sympathetic as young Helen who hopes for a better world and secretly grows one tiny seedling that could change their lives.

Mills is suitably tough but damaged as Stewart, the angry, old warrior who makes and sells illegal booze and craves the freedom of the pre-war years.

The characters’ desire for a safer and more equitable world is tinged with a sense of danger and hopelessness that is magnified by an undercurrent of seething resentment and rage.

The Way Out provides a disturbing glimpse into a plausible, not-too-distant future that we desperately need to avoid.

By Kate Herbert
Brigid Gallacher, Kevin Hofbauer__photo by Teresa Nobile Photography
Kevin Hofbauer - Ryan
Rory Kelly - Fyfe
Brigid Gallacher - Helen
Dion Mills - Stewart
Olga Makeeva - Claire
Sahil Saluja - Harry
Khrisraw Jones-Shukoor – Ryan (alternate)

Director - Penny Harpham
Dramaturg -Jane Bodie
Set and Costume Design -Charlotte Lane
Lighting Design -Clare Springett & Michael Robinson
Sound Design Daniel Nixon
Stage Manager- Liberty Gilbert
Assistant Stage Manager -Natalie Lim
Dion Mills, Brigid Gallacher, Kevin Hofbauer, Olga Makeeva_photo by Teresa Nobile Photography

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Bodyguard (The Musical), Aug 29, 2017 ***1/2

Book by Alexander Dinelaris; based on Warner Bros film & screenplay by Lawrence Kasden
Produced by John Frost, Michael Harrison & David Lynn (with others)
At Regent Theatre, Melbourne, until October 29, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2
This review is NOT published in Herald Sun Arts & was not commissioned by Herald Sun. It is published only here on this blog. KH

Paulini Curuenavuli certainly has the powerhouse voice capable of delivering Whitney Houston’s distinctive and wildly successful hits but, disappointingly, The Bodyguard remains a series of great songs in search of a musical.

Fans of Houston will not be disappointed by Curuenavuli’s performance of the power ballads, catchy dance tunes and bold anthems. The repertoire of songs is extensive, including How Will I Know, Queen of the Night, One Moment in Time, Run to You, I’m Every Woman, Greatest Love of All and Saving All My Love.

In this musical with book by Alexander Dinelaris (based on the 1992 movie starring Houston and Kevin Costner), Curuenavuli plays Rachel Marron, a pop diva whose life is threatened by a Stalker (Brendan Irving) thereby forcing her manager, Bill (Patrick Williams), to employ bodyguard, Frank Farmer (Kip Gamblin), to protect her.

The show doesn’t take off until the end of Act One when three goofy, tipsy gals perform a hilarious karaoke version of Where Do Broken Hearts Go that is followed by Curuenavuli’s bold and moving delivery of the power ballad, I Have Nothing.

The highlight in this production is the finale of I Will Always Love You followed by a kicker encore of I Wanna Dance With Somebody during which Curuenavuli comes to life as herself and urges the opening night audience to stand and dance in their seats.

At this final point in the show, after the curtain call, Curuenavuli morphs into a pop singer effectively working the crowd in a way that she cannot do while in the character of Rachel, inside a story, in a musical.

The problem with this show is that the adaptation from screen does not work for the stage.

Yes, this is a jukebox musical, but the scene structure is bumpy, the songs are not contextualised, they do not advance the story and do not illuminate the characters’ journeys as they should or can do in a musical, so the tunes seem to be strung together as if on a musical washing line.

This show, directed by Thea Sharrock, focuses on one character, Rachel, and is a vehicle for the lead performer. It therefore relies almost totally on only one singing voice and, although Curuenavuli’s voice is often thrilling, the show cries out for some dynamic range, a few duets or a layering or variety of voices.

Another issue is that Curuenavuli is a singer but not a skilled actor and dancer, so the character of Rachel lacks the charisma required for such a role, and the choreography (Karen Bruce) generally masks her limited dance skill by surrounding her with a sassy and talented dance ensemble.

The songs eclipse the paper-thin story about Rachel’s quest for an Oscar, her pursuit by a menacing Stalker and the side-plot about Rachel’s sister’s jealousy (Prinnie Stevens).

The Bodyguard is really a concert with a bit of a story between songs, but it is a fine tribute to Houston’s stellar but too-short career.

By Kate Herbert

Director – Thea Sharrock
Choreographer – Karen Bruce
Set & Costume Design ­– Tim Hatley
Lighting Design - Mark Henderson

Paulini Curuenavuli -Rachel Marron
Kip Gamblin- Frank Farmer
Prinnie Stevens- Nicki Marron
Glaston Toft -Ray Court
Andrew Hazzard -Sy Spector
Brendan Irving- The Stalker
Patrick Williams -Bill Devaney
Damien Bermingham -Tony
Aston Droomer - Fletcher (on opening night)

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Guru of Chai, Aug 22, 2017 ****

Written by Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis, Indian Ink (NZ)
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Aug 27, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 22, 2017
Stars: ****

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed Aug 23, 2017, and later in print. (probably Fri Aug 25, 2017)
Jacob Rajan

Jacob Rajan weaves a spell over the audience with his masterful storytelling, impeccable comic timing and charismatic performance in the funny and moving production, The Guru of Chai.

In this one-man performance inspired by the Indian fairy tale, Punchkin, Rajan plays narrator, Kutisar, an impoverished, cheerfully philosophical chai-seller, but he also populates the stage with a parade of 16 other beautifully and simply wrought characters.

When the buck-toothed Kutisar encounters seven, parentless sisters in the bustling Bangalore railway station, he encourages them to sing for their keep and enlists Punchkin, the rotund and benevolent policeman, to protect the girls.

With consummate skill and minimal props, Rajan transforms himself with the flick of a scarf, the tilt of his head or a lilt in his voice, and transports us to Bangalore station and the lanes of New Delhi, conjuring the colours of India and the aroma of chai and fumes.

Rajan balances broad comedy with poignant, romantic storytelling and pathos tinged with Kutisar’s gentle cynicism and yearning for a better life.

By addressing the audience directly, Rajan flirts, teases and gently draws individual audience members into Kutisar’s vivid world and responds with lightning speed to surprises and interruptions, including a rogue, ringing mobile phone.

The production, directed and co-written by Julian Lewis, blends Western and Indian theatrical traditions, and the live music, played by Adam Ogle and composed by David Ward, echoes Indian sitar and chants.

Kutisar assures us at the start that he will improve our sad, little lives with his tale of romantic heroes and dangerous villains, but his story has the same mix of romance and tragedy that is evident in Western fairy tales.

It is a delight to witness the theatrical enchantment and accomplished performance of Rajan as The Guru of Chai.

By Kate Herbert

 Writers Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis
Director Justin Lewis
Dramaturg Murray Edmond
Lighting Designer Cathy Knowsley
Composer & Sound Designer David Ward
Set & Costume Design Concept John Verryt
Musician Adam Ogle

Friday, 18 August 2017

Di and Viv and Rose, Aug 17, 2017 ***1/2

Written by Amelia Bullmore, Melbourne Theatre Company
At Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until Sept 16, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 17, 2017
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Friday, Aug 18, 2017 & in print on Tues Aug 22.
  Mandy McElhinney, Nadine Garner, Belinda McClory -photo-Jeff-Busby

It is a joy to witness such entertaining, nuanced and credible performances as those of the three women playing the mismatched trio in Di and Viv and Rose by UK writer and actor, Amelia Bullmore.

Bullmore’s play depicts the evolution of a quirky but enduring friendship that begins in the 1980s when three seemingly incompatible first year university students, Di (Nadine Garner), Viv (Belinda McClory) and Rose (Mandy McElhinney), share a flat, negotiate their many differences, support each other in crises and form a lasting bond.

This portrayal of their early years is the most successful part of Bullmore’s play and Marion Potts’ production, with its witty dialogue, playful performances and dramatic action that focuses exclusively on the characters’ relationships.

The later snapshots of this odd trio’s meetings are less satisfying, lacking the detailed character and relationship development and energy of the earlier years.

  Mandy McElhinney, Nadine Garner, Belinda McClory -photo-Jeff-Busby
As Rose, the sweet natured and promiscuous art history student, McElhinney portrays a spirited bounciness in her early years that transforms into resilience when Rose faces disappointment in later life.

Garner brings vivacity and vulnerability to Di, the sporty lesbian who studies Business and still hides her sexuality from her parents.

McClory gives sensitivity and emotional complexity to Viv, the bolshy, pompous academic who shakes off her working class roots, studies the sociology of women’s fashion and achieves her career ambitions.

The trio’s comfortable intimacy is hilariously evident in an unforgettable scene when they dance with drunken abandon to 99 Luftballons by German artist, Nena.

This exuberant energy excuses some script and production problems, such as two sudden and arbitrary plot turning points and some rather clunky scene changes that involve opening and closing of enormous sliding panels.

This play will resonate with audiences, particularly women, and it boasts three of Australia’s best actors so perhaps we can forgive its flaws and the frustratingly unsatisfying plot development.

By Kate Herbert

Marion Potts - director
Paul Jackson - lighting
Dale Ferguson - design
Kelly Ryall - composer/sound
  Mandy McElhinney, Nadine Garner, Belinda McClory -photo-Jeff-Busby

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Real & Imagined History of the Elephant Man, Aug 9, 2017 ***1/2

Written by Tom Wright
Produced by Malthouse Theatre
At Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Aug 27, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts on Friday Aug 10, 2017, and later in print. KH
Daniel Monks & Julia Forsyth - photo Pia Johnson
 During his short life in the late 19th century, Joseph Merrick suffered an unnamed and profoundly disfiguring condition that led to him suffering the indignity of being dubbed the Elephant Man in a London freak show.

This haunting production of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, written by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton, re-imagines Merrick’s life in a series of atmospheric snapshots.

Daniel Monks’ impressive depiction of Merrick is key in this production and his sympathetic, feisty and, at times, deeply moving portrayal is made more compelling because Monks, in addition to being a fine actor, has a physical disability that affects the right side of his body.

Wright’s poetic dialogue lends the play an other-worldliness that Lutton amplifies by evoking the smoggy, mysterious and dangerous streets of Leicester and London where Monks’ Merrick faces abuse, assault, pursuit, ridicule and fear – both his own and that of others.

With its sparse stage design (Marg Horwell), jarring soundscape (Jethro Woodward), and forbidding
lighting (Paul Jackson), the stage looks and sounds like an industrial tornado until Merrick reaches the safety of London Hospital where he spent his last days. 

The first half of the production is the stronger, with poignant vignettes of the child Merrick with his mother (Julie Forsyth), followed by alarming scenes of a world redolent with the stench of London streets that are populated by a parade of eccentrics, scruffy thugs and gentlefolk played by a versatile cast (Forsyth, Sophie Ross, Paula Arundell, Emma J Hawkins).

When the relative peace of the hospital replaces the horrors of the streets, the production loses some power, although the scene in which doctors catalogue Merrick’s deformities is disturbingly and the scenes between Monks’ Merrick and Forsyth’s cheeky nurse, Agnes, are witty and charming.

Despite the loss of momentum in the second half, Wright and Lutton’s evocative interpretation and Monks’ distinctive performance focus the play on Merrick’s desire to be treated as a man, not a monster, and highlight the melancholy half-life that he lives, lurking on the murky boundary between normal life and the world of the ‘other’.

By Kate Herbert 

Cast: Daniel Monks, Julie Forsyth, Sophie Ross, Paula Arundell, Emma J Hawkins

Matthew Lutton - director
Marg Horwell - stage design
Jethro Woodward – sound /composition
Paul Jackson - lighting

Daniel Monks -  photo Pia Johnson
Sophie Ross, Daniel Monks, Julia Forsyth, Paula Arundell & Emma j Hawkins -  photo Pia Johnson