Wednesday, 31 July 1996

Sextet by Leonard Radic, July 31, 1996

At  Napier St Theatre until August 18, 1996
Reviewed by kate Herbert around July 31, 1996

The phenomenon of a critic writing a play is sufficiently unusual. What are the odds on a critic-playwright reviewing a play by another critic-playwright who recently reviewed the first critic's play. Here goes!

Leonard Radic's Sextet, which he vows is not autobiographical, draws on years of experience as The Age critic and observations of the theatre industry and its creatures. It is directed by Malcolm Robertson in a traverse stage which seats audience on two sides of the action.

A new play is being staged with a critic (William Gluth) in a leading role and his wife (Jane Badler), her lover (John Higginson) and the critic's potential lover (Penelope Hanby) also acting. It is wickedly entertaining to see Radic's composite characters based in real people we love to hate. 

Ralph Tomasetti (Damien Richardson) is a fine satirical portrait of every pompous, jumped-up young director who ever deigned to grace our stages with productions of classics with bastardised text, set in mud with hessian costumes. His tour de force was Macbeth set in the Mekong Delta.

Actors whimper and quibble, writer chucks tantrums about his adulterated text, director wants total control. It is an unbridled attack on the pretentious in theatre. It's probably still funny even if you do not work in the theatre.

Radic has tampered with narrative form, blurring boundaries between rehearsal and performance, writing and improvisation and, most significantly, between reality and fiction. The actors live out their tangled real life relationships as the writer (James Benedict) tapes them to use, verbatim, in scenes.

The director is dragged into the action, initially to narrate then, later, as a character in the play within a play. There are direct references to audience, the stage manager, stolen lines and mixed up names. There is something of Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound without all the deaths and much less complex.

All this works better in the first act where the dialogue is brisk and the humour acid. Richardson is breezy and charmingly smug as the arrogant director and Benedict is appropriately precious and earnest as the writer. 

There seems to be some miscasting elsewhere in the production and the second half, particularly, suffers from some rather mannered acting as well as some repetitive dialogue. Richardson's lesser presence after interval leaves the piece taking itself a little too seriously. But is all, nonetheless, a bit of a hoot.


Monday, 29 July 1996

Road Movie, July 29, 1996

Written  by Melissa Reeves
Back to Back & Melbourne Workers' Theatre
Lonsdale St. Power Station until August 10, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert round July 28, 1996

The road movie genre is a modern version of the mythic "Hero's Journey" where the hero leaves a secure environment, takes a journey, makes mistakes, pays the price, seeks a mentor, endures hardship and tests of personal strength. They do not always end happily. Think of Thelma and Louise.

Such is the plot of Road Movie. Two workers from a sheltered workshop in Melbourne are involved unwittingly in a violent payroll robbery and become fugitives from justice. What enhances this production is that its protagonists are played by actors who themselves have some intellectual disability. Both have been members of Back to Back Theatre for some years.

These actors are committed to representing the way the world treats those with disabilities and to tackling issues arising from living with disability. This in no way suggests that they are token members of this production.  Sonia Teuben as Karen who goes in search of her long-lost parents, gives a gripping, unaffected and passionate performance and Mark Deans (Louie), with his cheeky, mobile face and snappy moves, remains one of my favourite local clowns.

The play begins dramatically with the narrative's ending. The audience, as is common in non-traditional industrial venues, move from location to location within the Lonsdale Street Power Station. The whole takes full advantage of the stark concrete environment and its potential for vivid and dramatic lighting (Ben Cobham).

The script by Melissa Reeves, regular writer for Melbourne Workers' Theatre, is simple and direct in its narrative and dialogue and includes a range of quirky and effective comic characters played by Kate Gillick and Tim Aris. The naive errors of judgement by Karen and Louie are both funny and dangerous.  The play has an emotional edge which could have been further developed. One concern was that the ending remained unclear.

Director Bruce Gladwin has worked boldly with huge slide projection, mechanical devices, broad characterisation and a further layer of pumping rock music by Hugh Covill. This is a charming and entertaining production.
Kate Herbert

Sunday, 28 July 1996

Kafka's Dick, July 28, 1996

Kafka's Dick by Alan Bennett
At Athenauem II until August, 1996
 Reviewed by Kate Herbert around July 27, 1996

Alan Bennett's play, Kafka's Dick, is not a euphemism. It really refers to Czech novelist Franz Kafka's penis. An odd topic for a play? Evidently Kafka's member was tiny and for a man with an almost psychotically distorted body image, this was disastrous.

Although the Kafka of this production (Mark Butler) is more rigidly dignified than charming, Bennett's Kafka is a charming, neurotic artist whom women find irresistible. Do we have no taste? He hates his name (Kaka plus "F"), fusses about food, lives with his parents, obsesses over detail and demands attention for his depressive behaviour.

Is it any wonder that he has become the darling of the angst-ridden moderns. His eerie, desolate images of Joseph K. arrested for no reason (The Trial) and Gregor Samsa transforming into a dung beetle (Metamorphosis) parallel our obsessions with a meaninglessness and uncontrollable world.

Bennett, who wrote the screenplay for The Madness of King George and tele-series Talking Heads, is a comic writer of great skill although this script has far too much explicatory dialogue.

Kafka and his friend, Max Brod (Peter Rowley), appear to dreary Kafka buff, Sydney (Ian Toyne), and his wife Linda (Meridy Eastman) sixty years after Kafka's death. Sydney is, laughably, writing an article on Kafka for an insurance journal. Like Kafka, he hates his name, works in an insurance office and craves recognition.

Brod admits that not only did he not burn all Kafka's works after his death as directed, but that he published the lot and made a career out of Kafka who is, to say the least, displeased. He prefers wallowing in misery and self-loathing and suffering in ignominious anonymity. Aah, the inverted vanity of the garret artist.

Bennett's style is farce-meeting-psychology. The thematic core of his story is Kafka's relationship with his oppressive father, Hermann (Dennis Moore) and here Kafka's dick becomes relevant. Papa was a rambunctious button-seller who harassed his indulgent, narcissistic and annoying son. Hermann also appears in Sydney's house to attempt to redeem his appalling reputation but realises, on seeing Sydney's old dad ignored, that "a good father is a father you forget. Bad fathers are never forgotten." Great artists are rarely the product of secure, normal and happy families.

The second half is the stronger in this co-operative production. There is greater dynamism and dramatic tension after Hermann arrives which is assisted by a vibrant performance by Dennis Moore. Performances are uneven with a few breathless one-note characters but Bob Hornery's cameo as Sydney's abandoned father is well placed and hilarious and Eastman's Linda is an engaging sketch of a mistreated wife. 

The direction is competent but lacks some inventiveness and comic sensibility which leaves the production reliant on Bennett's glib dialogue and rather arch and contrived narrative.


Thursday, 18 July 1996

Brand New Ford, July 18,1996

The Brand New Ford by Ian Scott
La Mama until August 4, 1996 Wed to Sat 8pm, Sun 6pm
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around July 17, 1996

The language of theatre is a cosmopolitan one and Ian Scott, writer-director of The Brand New Ford, is well versed in all its dialects, both linguistic and physical. The four members of this eccentric stage family prattle and prate at each other in rich, complex and allusive phrases.

The starting gate for the content of this play is cars: grotesque V8's and other revving, noisy, petrol-guzzling motors. Dad (the inimical Jim Daly) talks like a Fairlane manual. He rants about the bloke over the road, about his bedraggled dropout son's (Mark Pegler) choice of vehicle. His wife and daughter (Melanie Beddie, Maria Theodorakis) are uncomprehending in the face of alternators, carburettors and drive shafts.

The language drives the play. It bubbles and gushes hilariously or it vaporises absurdly, almost incomprehensibly. It rushed by so quickly at the start, I wanted to hear it all over again.

The first half is the more successful. It is crisply constructed, swift-moving dramatically and clearly bedded in its absurdist style. It surprises and satisfies and it is extremely funny in its observations of modern living and our mad family miscommunications. All four performances are colourful and skilled.

The second half is less coherent but perhaps I missed a beat. It leaps from the absurd into the bizarre; Japanese mass-produced baby makers, male pregnancy, rapid aging, sudden death. Modern technology goes berserk. It was confusing but nonetheless entertaining. However, after accepting that I had no idea where this vehicle was carrying me, I still craved a resolution to the car theme. Perhaps I was just being too linear in my narrative needs.

The cosy, toasty-warm space at La Mama is always a tight squeeze and this show almost bursts out the doors as it fills with huge cartons and scattered bodies. The space is framed effectively, if enigmatically, with an array of umbrellas (Louise McCarthy) and is lit subtly and evocatively in darkly moody colours (Daniel Zika).

This piece leaps at the audience and gob-smacks us with its provocative, naughty wit. Catch a look.

Kate Herbert

Monday, 8 July 1996

Easy To Say, July 8, 1996

Easy to Say by Kevin Nemeth
At  La Mama until June 25, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around July 8, 1996

An ordinary life can be so strange if examined too closely. Kevin Nemeth 's latest play, Easy to Say, staged at La Mama draws us into the orbit of several people related by family or friendship. Both the naturalistic style and the intimate La Mama staging force us to peer up the noses of the characters and observe their aching confusion about their sleeping and waking lives.

Nemeth's dialogue is swift and intelligent with well-observed characterisations. The superb quality of this script is its understatement. It speaks volumes through its speechless characters. Howard Stanley as the reticent middle-aged Mark, creates a whole sub-text through listening and reacting to his sister and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Gary (Matthew Green) reveals more by refusing to explain his eight-year absence.

There is a Pinteresque quality in the sense of menace and emotional danger on stage which is a result of Nemeth's fine writing and Paul Hampton's inspired simplicity of direction. The realism combines with such intensity of performance and edgy writing gives a surreal feeling to the play.

The play is comprised of short, crisp scenes between intimates: a marriage ends, a friend returns, a silent man speaks, a relationship is remembered. There is one prolonged scene involving a card game with much quipping and prying. Although the scene is a little too long, between the lines spoken and tricks won, are yards of layered meaning.

These people are enmeshed in worlds of their own making, pasts which they do not understand, families which spin out of their control. They are helplessly pushing their faces up against the mesh trying to peer out.

The performances are often exceptional and all eccentric. The inimitable Howard Stanley is riveting as Mark, his first role after a six-year absence. Linda Gibson is witty and detailed as Liz, the almost non-smoker. Caroline Lee is quirky as her brittle friend, Maree and as Maree's blabbermouth husband, Russell Fletcher taps an uncanny quality of ageing party boy or child-man. 

There is a great deal remaining unresolved at the end. What happened to the settlement of father's will? Did Gary stay? Do Maree and Geoff continue their petty marital bickering? But this is the way of an ordinary life. It goes on and on and on without resolution - doesn't it?

By Kate Herbert

Kevin Nemeth writer
Paul Hampton idrector
Howard Stanley 
Linda Gibson
 Nancy Black 
Caroline Lee 
Russell Fletcher
Matthew Green