Thursday, 20 December 2007

Theatre Wrap Up, 2007

 Theatre Wrap up 2007
By Theatre reviewer, Kate Herbert
Published in Herald Sun, Dec 2007

Well I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired after a big year of theatre. Although some highlights were expensive musicals and esoteric international productions, a swag of miniatures produced on the smell of an oily rag grabbed my eye.

Strangely, the play that keeps resonating with me was intimate and small budget as well as internationally acclaimed. Sizwe Banzi Is Dead featured two exceptional African actors in Athol Fugard’s 1972 play about apartheid in South African. It was poignant, funny and pertinent in today’s political climate – and directed by the god of theatre, Peter Brook.

Some other incomers thrilled me. Seeing Ian McKellan as a tyrannical but vulnerable old King Lear was a gift and his Sorin in The Seagull was equally distinguished and deliciously cheeky while in the mesmerising Butoh production Kagemi even the curtain call was captivating. The hilarious and versatile Darren Gilshenan and William Zappa inhabited a parade of grotesque characters in The Government Inspector.

Large-scale musicals are back to stay. Spamalot is so funny it hurts while Priscilla is as camp as Rosebud in January. We finally saw Miss Saigon to be impressed by the performers but disappointed by the show. On a smaller scale, the locally grown Keating The Musical was vivacious and the tiny cabaret Intimate Apparel satirised contemporary theatre with acerbic songs.

My year would be incomplete without a scathing and comical political diatribe by Rod Quantock - and this year we had two. John Howard’s Farewell Party was prophetic and Court in the Act was an inventive mock court case that put avid audience members in major roles.

I swooned over Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, laughed out loud at La Soiree and at Ying Tong, the play that revived Spike Milligan and the Goons. The two major companies, MTC and Malthouse, did not have much to light my fire but neither were they too disappointing except perhaps for The Glass Soldier.

There were plenty of teensy gems in small venues. Red Stitch had a strong program all year and Theatre@Risk gave us the cunningly written and performed Check List for an Armed Robber. Fully Committed demonstrated the formidable talents of Spencer McLaren and Holiday by Ranters Theatre showed us how doing nothing makes novel entertainment.

The Rap Canterbury Tales was a clever pleasure and Sarah Juli’s Money Conversation challenged our view not only of money of but of performance. I save a special accolade for the simply outrageous Mommie and the Minister by Sisters Grimm and for bold and sexy Jane Nolan in Othello Retold.

There were a few nights I would rather have spent in front of the TV. The Perfume Garden might have been better if the writer/lead actor had focussed more on Bollywood and Eagles Nest’s Hamlet was an arduous three hours.

I asked Santa for a riveting 2008 in theatre and am hoping he and Rudolph will deliver.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 17 December 2007

Influenced, by Rowan Ellis, Dec 16, 2007

by Rowan Ellis
La Mama, until Dec 16, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is a good idea behind Rowan Ellis’s dark comic play, Influenced, but it has not fulfilled its potential. The balance of verbal gags and exploration of the grim underbelly of sexual deviance is uncomfortable.

Ellis plays Nick, a nervous punter who visits Sasha, a funky, young prostitute played by Megan Alston. Nick, the son of a stand-up comic from the north of England, has an annoying habit of making lame jokes out of every confronting situation and visiting a hooker for the first time seems to be top of his list of uncomfortable moments.

The problem is that every time the dramatic tension in the play begins to rise, Nick’s gags undermine the drama and the relationship temperature plummets to zero. Alston drapes herself seductively across the bed pouting and wriggling like a Persian cat wanting strokes but there is really no sexual tension in the room.

The ups and downs of their communication become repetitive and Nick’s gags become irritating – particularly because they are not funny. Of course Nick is supposed to be a socially incompetent ninny but, as an audience, we still need to have some sympathy for his predicament and to have a laugh.

The two actors, directed by Clayton Buffoni, never really connect with the characters and the frequently trite dialogue feels forced and lacks truth. They both look awkward, not with the material with which they are dealing, but rather with the acting process. Ellis’s comic timing needs work and his dialogue is often incomprehensible.

There is some attempt to cross the boundaries of taste and make the audience feel uncomfortable which is always a good way to make an impact. Nick and Sasha’s first interaction is when he discovers she has a condom lodged where the sun don’t shine and they eventually use kitchen tongs to solve the problem.

It is interesting that both the characters have secret sexual obsessions although the details of these are never clarified.  Nick reveals a preoccupation with his parents’ relationship and we assume he wants Sasha to role-play his mother. He also lets slip a history of violence so perhaps he might hurt Sasha. Rather disappointingly, neither of these scenarios comes to fruition.

Sasha has a sexual history with her stepfather and has fantasies of him siting in her “magic chair” watching her with clients.

In the end Influenced is an unsatisfying play that plants a few dramatic options but does not give us the pay off.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Pitch, by Peter Houghton, Dec 11, 2007

The Pitch
by Peter Houghton, Malthouse Theatre
Where and When: Beckett Theatre, Malthouse until Dec 16, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you have seen a Hollywood blockbuster you will recognise the movie cliches satirised by Peter Houghton in The Pitch. 

If you have ever pitched a screenplay to a producer you might feel faint, so carry smelling salts or just close your eyes and think of England – or Hong Kong, Afghanistan or Paris. Houghton’s fictional movie travels to all these exotic locations.

Houghton, directed by Anne Browning, creates a parade of characters beginning with as the wannabe screenwriter, Walter Weinermann. Walter is desperate to complete his script and prepare for his story pitch to three movie producers with absurdly diverse tastes, politics and backgrounds. Simon is a wealthy English dilettante, Syd is a corporate US film distributor and the third is a feminist critical theorist. He can’t please ‘em all.

The Pitch is a frenetic gallop through place and time in Walter’s movie and Houghton switches between characters at will.  As Walter, he paints a vivid screen picture of the English army in the Hindu Kush in 1936 or of a smoky Parisian nightclub. He vocalises an entire soundtrack including an evocative Afghani chant, an Asian musical theme for Hong Kong and sexy blues for Paris.

He hilariously reproduces sound effects: bombs, gunfire, aeroplane, street fights. Watching Walter’s mind in a panic as he struggles to find the perfect story presentation is like witnessing a man fighting an internal war. He looks as if his head will explode any minute.

The panoramic journey is a spy story about Jones, an assassin portrayed by a cool Clint Eastwood (or it might be a bolshie Russell Crowe). Jones is sent by his spy boss, the oily Anthony Hopkins, to meet the seductive Catherine Zeta Jones and must kill Michael Douglas.

Walter attempts to incorporate every formulaic Hollywood element into his character’s journey: be more than you are; overcome a disadvantage (Clint is illiterate); find love; and seek revenge.

Between plot points we see Walter contending with his own demons about his cool as a cucumber ex-girlfriend, also called Catherine, and her Jesus-freak, recovering alcoholic boyfriend who Walter murders in the guise of Michael Douglas. Revenge is sweet – even if it is fictional.

After three seasons, The Pitch is still a very funny ride – even if it does look a little exhausted.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Apples and Ladders, Dec 5, 2007

Apples and Ladders 
created by Sarah Kriegler and Jacob Williams, by Lemony S 
Carlton Courthouse, Dec 5 to Dec 22, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert, on Dec 5 2007

Apples and Ladders, created and performed by Sarah Kriegler and Jacob Williams, is a charming and emotive story that depicts a world in miniature. 

Three diminutive puppets the height of your forearm inhabit a world of tiny houses constructed atop four packing cases. Both puppeteers manipulate them in the style of the Japanese Bun Raku puppets.

Ludvik is a cheerful, round-faced old fella who, each day, collects his mail from the letterbox at his front gate. He strolls creakily down his street to sit playing his accordion. On his return walk, he nods a silent greeting to George, the jaded, lonely old drag queen who swigs booze from the bottle as he waits for the postcard that never arrives.

Each day Ludvik picks an apple from the lush apple tree and delivers it with love to his ailing wife Gertruda who languishes on the sofa.

These frail, old characters are haunted and taunted by a skeletal death figure (called the Knave of Hearts in the program). The menacing skeleton threatens them repeatedly, rattling its nasty, pointing fingers through their windows or leaping upon them without warning from behind the apple tree. He wants to steal not only their lives but also their human warmth, their love, represented in tiny red hearts.

The pint-sized characters come vividly to life with the smallest gestures: a wave of the hand, a tilt of a head, a shiver through the body as Death passes. There is palpable warmth and love in the home of Ludvik and Gertruda that contrasts with the melancholy chill that seeps through the windows of George’s home.

We witness their creeping decrepitude: Ludvik’s stiff and aching back, Gertruda’s lethargy and George’s bitter nostalgia for his days as a chanteuse wrapped in a red boa.

Another whole world appears in shadow puppets inside the boxes on which they stand. When Gertruda dies, taken by the cold hard hands of the Knave, she disappears into this shadowy nether world.

But it is a random act of kindness that chases away the Knave. From his window, George watches Ludvik’s sadness, picks a basket of apples, chases off the Knave’s dangerous advances and delivers the apples to Ludvik.

The evocative music of The Tiger Lilies and atmospheric lighting by Richard Vabre complete this memorable and moving production.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Monty Python's Spamalot, Dec 2, 2007

 Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Dec 2, 2007 until Feb 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Spamalot is achingly funny. The first half is so gut-wrenchingly hilarious it makes your face hurt.

Of course, if you were a Monty Python tragic in your youth (me too) you will be daggily delighted to revisit the mad gags from Monty Python and the Holy Grail from which Spamalot was “lovingly ripped off” by Eric Idle.

We even forgive the second half for rambling around like a lunatic, trying to find its narrative. The show reprises The Knights of Ni (“Bring us a shrubbery”), the taunting Frenchmen (“I fart in your general direction”) and Not Dead Fred (“I’m feeling much better”). But it also blows a raspberry at big music theatre - particularly Phantom – and mocks its earnest predictability.

Bille Brown may not be much of a singer but his demented and grinning King Arthur, the epitome of upper-class twit, is delirious with his divine right to rule and oblivious to the hilarity around him. As in the movie, Arthur gallops horseless across 10th century Britain to the clop of coconut shells played by his mud-spattered servant, Patsy (Derek Metzger).

Idle and John Du Prez’s songs are inspired, Mike Nichols direction is inventive, the orchestra is tight, Tim Hatley’s design is vivid and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is just plain silly. The show is narrated by a smug Historian (Mark Conaghan) and, after a false start in Finland with the Fisch Schlapping Song, Arthur embarks on his hero’s journey seeking Holy Grail. But first he recruits Knights for his Round Table.

The ensemble is impressive. Jason Langley is impish as the cowardly Brave Sir Robin who soils his pants at any hint of danger. Ben Lewis is a riot as Dennis, the revolutionary Communist villager who scrubs up to become the dashing Sir Galahad, golden-haired Brad Pitt of the Britons. David Whitney, after a Pythonesque drag act as Dennis’s Mother, is the portly Sir Bevedere and Stephen Hall is absurdly butch as Homicidally Brave - and latently homosexual - Sir Lancelot.

Conaghan revels in the girlish damsel in distress, Prince Herbert, while Metzger’s exceptional musical comedy technique makes Patsy a highlight. The vivacious and talented Lucinda Shaw, as the Lady in the Lake, grabs the role with both hands. With Lewis, she sings The Song That Goes Like This and returns with The Diva’s Lament, a comical pot shot at big-voiced musical stars. Oh - and John Cleese is God.

Spamalot is a really bonkers, laugh-out-loud romp.

By Kate Herbert