Thursday, 29 May 2008

Yes by OpticNerve, May 29, 2008 ****

Yes by OpticNerve
adapted from film by Sally Potter

Where and When: fortyfivedownstairs, May 29 to June 8, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: 4

Yes, directed by Tanya Gerstle, makes the stage sexy and dangerous. 

It is a beautifully wrought, physical adaptation of Sally Potter’s post-September 11 film about a passionate love affair between a very blonde, 40ish, white Irish-American woman (Meredith Penman) and a Lebanese immigrant (Grant Cartwright).

The performance style is non-naturalistic but the narrative of this clandestine sexual relationship is always clear. The space is open and empty, the characters surrounded by huge calico drapes that become part of the action.

The lithe and youthful ensemble - all graduates of VCA, Melbourne - appear in black underwear, dressing and undressing as they transform into character. Penman has a luminous quality and she captures the sense of a woman who surrenders control as she is freed from frustrated desire. As her lover, Cartwright is seductive and fervent, although his fair colouring is not quite credible as a Middle Eastern man.

Public and private places, exotic or homely locations are all created impressionistically rather than realistically. A metal hospital gurney carries the woman’s dying aunt. War torn Lebanon is evoked when the Man – who was a surgeon in Lebanon – recalls the execution of one of his patients. The couple’s ardent lovemaking is like a dance as they roll, entwined on every available surface.

Although the focus is on the secret lovers, others are affected. The woman’s relationship with her husband (Gary Abrahams) is distant and cold. She betrays him but he too is having an affair – with his wife’s best friend (Anne-Louise Sarks). Meanwhile, the Lebanese lover struggles with the prejudices of his co-workers and his lover deals with the death of her beloved Irish aunt (Penman).

A Cleaner (Ella Watson-Russell,) like a Greek Chorus, comments upon the action, drawing parallels between the dirt in our homes and the secrets and lies in our messy lives. She and others surprise us by speaking in rhyming couplets, particularly during the most passionate and angry exchanges.

The unfolding of the affair reveals more global issues about religion, politics and sexuality. The culture clash between the liberal West and the Islamic East is epitomised in this meeting of two people.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Neighbours Choice: An interview with Ian Smith, May 24, 2008

Neighbours Choice 
An interview with Ian Smith who performs in Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse
By Kate Herbert

Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse is at Chapel off Chapel from May 29 to June 12, 2008

Ian Smith, the dignified and skilful actor who plays dotty, old Harold in Neighbours, describes the theatre as his first love. Many years ago he performed in theatre and musical comedy but now, because he was a smoker for many years, he laughs, “I sing with a vibrato you could drive a truck through.”

Many screen actors return to the stage and Smith is treading the boards playing He plays Dr. McFarlane, a dour Scot, in Hobson’s Choice.

“His entire life has been frustration with human beings who won’t do what he tells them to do,” says Smith. “He loves medicine. The only problem is, it involves human beings.”

Smith is retiring from Neighbours in August after his final six episodes are recorded. “I’ve been an actor for 50 years and the last 21 it’s been Harold. That’s a big slice of your life.”

Smith sees differences between television and stage acting. In theatre, he says, “You plot your character, you talk your character over with the director and, sometimes, the writer. After much discussion and much rehearsal, it’s set in cement.” However, he believes that, in theatre, one can be more adventurous and take more risks.

In the theatre, he says, “You have to lie well enough for those people sitting out the front to believe you. Because it’s all about lying, isn’t it?”  Perhaps theatre is simply advanced deception.

Peter McTighe works on Neighbours as a script editor and writer but leads a double life as an actor. In Hobson’s Choice he plays Willy, the illiterate bootmaker who builds a successful business. McTighe prefers screen acting to stage because he likes “the challenge of the stop-start and piecing together the sequence.” He is usually cast as a bad guy so he says he enjoys the journey of this dynamic character.

Director Richard Sarell, another Neighbours veteran, met Smith in the 1970s on the set of the popular ABC series, Bellbird. He admired Bellbird’s excellent actors who all came from live theatre and recalls that actors learned on the job in those days both in front of the camera and by watching their performances on videotape.

Sarell, who runs an acting studio, believes that the fundamentals of acting are the same for stage and screen. He says he looks for people who are listening and likes to work with actors who can “stay on the story; move the story forward.” Young actors, he says, want to focus on emotion in their character but Sarell wants actors to explore the difficulties that characters experience in the story.

This play was written in 1916 but is set in the late 1800s. Sarell says that he selected it, “Because it is a lovely story about a strong woman and a man who doesn’t trust himself.”  He thought it was an optimistic story and “we need a bit of optimism.”

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Richard III Unhinged, May 21, 2008 ***

Richard III Unhinged
By William Shakespeare, Australian Shakespeare Company
Athenaeum Theatre, May 21 to June 1, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Shakespeare’s representation of Richard III was designed to please Queen Elizabeth Tudor who had no love for Richard’s Plantagenet lineage that usurped the throne during the War of the Roses. 

Richard is depicted with a withered arm, a limp and a hunchback and is described caustically as “deformed, unfinished” and “a bunch-backed toad”.

Brendan O’Connor captures the manipulative charm of this bloodthirsty tyrant. His leg may be in a brace and his arm deformed, but this Richard is as nimble as a spider as he capers about his newly acquired kingdom. O’Connor’s portrayal allows us to understand the devastating seductiveness of this smiling villain. Richard is vicious and malicious but disguises his evil intent with flattery and dissembling.

This is certainly Richard’s play but some fine actors support O’Connor. Kevin Hopkins is a dignified Buckingham, Ross Williams a stalwart Stanley, Mike Bishop is stately as Hastings and Dennis Coard plays a sympathetic Clarence, the murdered brother of Richard.

Glenn Elston’s production focuses on Richard, as it should. However, other elements are less successful than this potent character at its centre. Queen Margaret (Lisa Angove), whose venomous curses are visited upon Richard and his cronies, is inappropriately portrayed as a crazy bag lady while Lady Anne (Hannah Norris) pushes to find the requisite strength and complexity when Richard seduces her. Glenn van Oosterom (OK) lacks the power required of Richmond and this weakens a normally powerful ending.

The pace and rhythm of the production are uncertain at times and the final battle has some peculiar, raggy costuming that makes it less than credible. It is the vivid and malevolent Richard that makes this production.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 17 May 2008

My Fair Lady, May 17, 2008

My Fair Lady
By Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Opera Australia
State Theatre, May 17 to  May 31, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

One can’t go wrong with a musical as successful as My Fair Lady and Stuart Maunder’s extravagant, entertaining production for Opera Australia casts performers from both opera and music theatre to great effect. 

This famous story of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation from street urchin to lady originated in Shaw’s Pygmalion then evolved into the stage musical with Julie Andrews and the Audrey Hepburn film.

Taryn Fiebig (OK) plays a pert Eliza. Although her Cockney accent sometimes has echoes of Australia, her bright voice gives warmth and energy to the character. Wouldn’t It Be Loverly establishes Eliza’s credentials as a London flower seller and the ensemble provides an excellent chorus of street peddlers.

Fiebig’s vivacity adds sparkle when she sings I Could Have Danced All Night and Eliza’s growing excitement at her achievements is palpable in The Rain In Spain. In her simple and stately silence, Fiebig is also able to capture Eliza’s melancholy during Pickering (Rhys McConnochie) and Higgins’ (Reg Livermore) celebratory song, You Did It.

Livermore is very funny as the cynical misogynist, Henry Higgins, playing him as an ageing brat of the first order. He sing-speaks many of his songs, as did Rex Harrison. Livermore’s rendition of Hymn to Him (“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”) is a tease while I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face gives more light and shade to Henry’s character.

Nancye Hayes, stalwart of the musical stage, is delightfully acerbic and elegant as Henry’s mother and she wears a gown with regal grace. McConnochie brings dignity, charm and credibility to Colonel Pickering and even gets away without a singing voice in You Did It!

Robert Grubb is simply delicious as Eliza’s ne’er-do-well dad, Alfred P. Doolittle. Supported by the fine chorus, he embodies Alfred’s mischievousness and good humour in both With A Little Bit of Luck and Get Me To The Church. Matthew Robinson is an appealing and lively as Freddy, singing On The Street Where You Live.

Richard Roberts’ sumptuous set design, incorporating refined Georgian architecture and realistic interiors, becomes a lead character and the lavish costumes by Roger Kirk are almost mouth-watering. The Ascot Gavotte provides a splendid parade of gorgeous gowns in peach, grey and white while the Ambassador’s Ball is so spectacularly luxurious it is difficult to breathe.

This is an exuberant production with fine performances and voices as well as opulent design.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Hedda Gabler, May 15, 2008

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen, PMD Productions

Chapel off Chapel,  May 15 to 31, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen is a seminal play for its time and boasts productions starring Cate Blanchett and, in years gone by, Diana Rigg.

To risk such comparisons, a new company should be confident that they got it right. Unfortunately, this PMD production gets too many things wrong.

Although director Paul Knox modernises the context and content of Ibsen’s 1890 play, this is not the main problem with the production. His editing of the script omits much needed detail that contributes to Hedda’s story and causes dramatic action to leap forward clumsily.

Hedda (Miranda McGee) returns from a six-month honeymoon in Florence with Jorgen Tesman (Tyson White), her rather dull but ambitious academic husband. She despairs of a future of boredom, living in a house she loathes with a husband she neither respects nor loves and an interfering aunt (Brenda McKinty). When Lovborg, her former lover, returns, Hedda’s irrational quest for a beautiful and romantic end spirals out of control.

What is missing in this lacklustre production is Hedda’s inner turmoil, the Freudian complexity of her psychological landscape that made this play controversial in its time and allows it to survive over a century of reinterpretation and criticism.

Miranda McGee captures only one side of this dark and complicated character.
Her Hedda is relentlessly angry, nasty and manipulative but any sense of motivation, confusion, despair or alienation is sadly lacking. Her persistent hand wringing and surliness do not provide sufficient detail to a woman who should be a magnificent thoroughbred.

The director and most of his cast are out of their depth. A significant exception is Matthew Kenny as the troubled but brilliant academic, Elliott (Ejlert) Lovborg. The moment Kenny walks on stage he brings energy, commitment and truth. The inner chaos of this recovering alcoholic who struggles with his demons is palpable. Unfortunately, he is unsupported by the rest of the cast apart from McKinty who brings some dignity to Aunt Julia.

Knox’s interpretation of Ibsen is simplistic and a clumsy set does not assist this production. Hedda and Jorgen’s grand home looks like a shabby flat filled with bad furniture. A more abstract and atmospheric set design, lighting and sound might create a more evocative environment and mood.

When a group of teenagers laugh at Hedda shooting herself off stage, it is evident that this tragedy has lost its way.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Cellblock Booty, Preview article, May 1, 2008

Cellblock Booty
by Ash Flanders & Declan Greene, Sisters Grimm
Collingwood Underground Arts Park, May 1 to May 11, 2008
Article by: Kate Herbert

Sisters Grimm co-creators, the bright-faced and deliciously boyish Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, are hell bent on reinventing theatre by genetically crossing it with trash cinema, drag acts and farce. The latest hybrid, Cellblock Booty, sees a French-Dominican nun incarcerated in a tough women’s prison with a sadistic lesbian matron. There is torture, murder, knife-fights, sexploitation and everything else gratuitous, cheesy and hilarious.

“We’ve been wanting to do a women-in-prison play for two years but we didn’t know how it would look,” says Flanders. When they saw B-grade movie director, Roger Corman’s Women in Cages, the style for their new show was born: sexy, sleazy, exploitative, ridiculous and high camp. The show is an homage to Corman, the creator of The Little Shop of Horrors and other trashy horror movies.

“Our aim is to bring liveness back into theatre,” says Flanders. “Gore, nudity, swearing - anything that engages the audience and brings the fun back. To see someone stab themselves and blood pour everywhere – it’s good in a movie but you’ve seen it a hundred times. On stage it’s amazing.”

Sisters Grimm choose archetypal stories: a prison breakout (Cellblock Booty), a revolution in a hobo village  (Bumtown) or children locked in a basement (Mommie and the Minister).

The style of performance – grotesque, vivid and stylised – is epitomised in the 8-foot drag queen prison matron played by Simon Morrison Baldwin.  “She’s huge. She’s terrifying. The sight of him as a woman is one of the best sight gags because he’s so tall and imposing,” says Flanders.

This big, bad, bold work appeals to a new audience that does not normally attend theatre. Sisters Grimm aim to provide “independent raw theatre” as an alternative to major theatre companies, in the same way that the music and movie industries provide choices ranging downward from Hollywood blockbusters and big-budget commercial music.

Their unconventional choice of venue – the Collingwood Underground Arts Park – has added appeal for their alternative, young, non-theatre-going audience. It is a scruffy, disused parking lot. “This space is a huge concrete block which is great for a cell block,” says Flanders.

Cellblock Booty promises to push the boundaries of good taste with its impudence and wicked sense of humour. You have been warned!

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Big Business by the Business, May 8, 2008

Big Business by the Business
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, May 8 to May 17, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you don’t get to see clowns – good clowns – often, Big Business, directed by Ian Pidd, is the show for you. 

These four eccentrics come from the heritage of French clowns and The Marx Brothers. They create an entire, idiosyncratic world full of prat falls and sight gags. Ironically four women wearing bad suits, absurd wigs, caterpillar moustaches and spectacles play these four idiotic businessmen

As in any clown show, the narrative is minimal. The jokes arise from the status games between the four characters, their complex and silly rituals, failures and successes. The four live together. Each day they perform their breakfast ritual, prepare their thermos flasks and toddle off to work at their peculiar business. At work they engage in a bizarre production line of mad professor gadgets that produce – well, you’ll have to see the product.

At the top of this pecking order is Pierre (Clare Bartholomew). A plump gourmand (or glutton) who hogs space on the couch and in the bed they all share. Number Two seems to be Barry (Penny Baron) a nimble fellow and sharp dresser who cuts a caper and moons over his golden Sheriff’s badge.

Paul (Kate Kantor) is a cheerful sporty type who adores his gold Nike running shoe (one shoe only) and poor dowdy little Ray (Glynis Angell) who looks like a public servant from the 1950s is the submissive and bullied Number Four in this crazy troupe.

There are some delightful moments between the four clowns. Their manipulation of their contraptions makes some very funny routines. Their celebratory party is a grotesque and hilarious parody of high flyers who use cocaine, fly helicopters and dress to the nines. Their antics are enhanced by playful sound effects and live music (Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey).

In this world madness rules instead of our social norms. It is the detail of the characters, their weird relationships and comic business that makes this show delectable. There are a few false endings and plenty of repetition (that’s clowns for you!) but it is a fabulous romp in the theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Soldiers Tale, April 30 to May 10, 2008

 The Soldiers Tale 
by Igor Stravinsky & CF Ramuz, by Hayloft Project
Abbottsford Convent, 8pm Wed to Sat, April 30 to May 10, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Igor Stravinsky might not recognise his 1918 version of The Soldier’s Tale in Michael Robinson’s interpretation for The Hayloft Project.  

He stages this Faustian myth in a seedy bar constructed inside an abandoned church during World War One. Aptly, the venue is the disused Sacred Heart Chapel, Abbottsford Convent.

“The music is played exactly as it was written but the context is different,” says Robinson. He wanted a more visceral aesthetic than the original version of this Faustian tale. Composed by Stravinsky with verse by Swiss poet C.F. Ramuz, it was read, not performed, by actors standing at lecterns before a chamber orchestra.

Robinson’s concept, which had its first life in a Carlton bar, takes advantage of every arch and apse in the unconventional Chapel space. The characters become part of the action in this roughhouse bar.

The Devil is a collaborator, wartime scrounger and profiteer (David Whiteley) who established the cabaret bar in the church. “He buys sausage from the Germans, to trade for wine from the French, to buy bullets from the English, to sell back to the Germans.”

The Narrator (Frank Gallacher) is the barman and the Dancer (Bonnie Paskas), who originally appeared only at the end, is the barman’s moll. Even the seven-piece orchestra, usually separate from the drama, is integrated as the burlesque-cabaret band.

The unwitting Soldier, (Mark Winter) is under siege. This unholy trio launches a three-pronged attack, tempting him to gamble his soul in exchange for a book that can bring him wealth.

“He walks off the battlefield into this place but he doesn’t know what it is. It is a Purgatory. These people connive to take his soul away…lead the soldier into fantasies and use this to bend him to their will.”

Stravinsky’s music, played by The Orchestra Project, is eclectic and evocative of happier times, says Robinson, incorporating contentious contemporary music of 1918 including the salacious tango and popular ragtime. Stravinsky chose the haunting strains of the violin to represent the Soldier’s soul.

After the Great War, says Robinson, “They were without concert halls, without orchestras and money. (Stravinsky) could not do the shows that he did with Diaghelev - ballets with 110-piece orchestras.” So he wrote for seven instruments: double bass, violin, trumpet, trombone, bassoon, clarinet and percussion. 

Given Stravinsky’s progressiveness, he would be thrilled by this innovative contemporary interpretation of The Soldier’s Tale.

By Kate Herbert  

Venus in Furs, May 4, 2008

Venus in Furs 
by Neal Harvey, by Elbow Room
Theatreworks, May 4 to 18, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you do not recognise the name Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, you will probably know the psychosexual condition that was coined for him: masochism. 

In his 1870 book, Venus in Furs, the character of Severin (Angus Grant) craves domination by his objet d’amour, Wanda (Karen Roberts), and his desires are eventually fulfilled.

Severin is initially in love with a statue of “Venus in Furs” but his attentions turn to the sophisticated and aloof Wanda, a real woman in furs to whom he pledges lifelong submission. Wanda is slow to participate in his sexual games but eventually she compels Severin, who she insists on calling Gregor, to sign a contract to be her slave. What follows should be dangerous and lusty but is more frequently tepid and sometimes ridiculous, as we can discern from the audience laughter.

Theatrical adaptations from literary sources almost invariably suffer from the too much problem: too much exposition, too much talk, too much prose that does not translate into dialogue. Neal Harvey’s adaptation suffers from this malady.

Director Marcel Dorney makes some peculiar choices, allowing too many long speeches and too little stage action – apart from some half-hearted flagellation.  He also mixes his theatrical conventions by using both mimed and real objects – invisible then real rope and a real easel used to hold mimed painting.

This is not to say that there is not some merit in the production. The simple but classical design by Lucie Sprague is evocative and the two actors clearly bring some skill to the performances. Grant has an engaging quality and Roberts is elegant although she plays Wanda within a narrow range, inexplicably avoiding the peaks of dominatrix behaviour. The two sometimes appear to want to swap roles.

However, the play is repetitive and, particularly for the first 30 minutes, very slow to progress. The script lacks a clear dramatic arc and the production is surprisingly lacking in sensuality or sexual titillation for a play about sadomasochism.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Cinderella, May to October, 2008


by Gioachino Rossini, adapted by Elizabeth Hill & Christopher van Tuinen
by Oz Opera Schools Company
Touring Victorian Schools, May to October, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 1

Forty little children from two primary schools, one a school for hearing-impaired children, were enthralled by this abridged version by Oz Opera of Rossini’s Cinderella. 

This tasty morsel is forty-five minutes long, features four singers, two puppets, colourful costumes and a transformational set that packs into a van for school touring.

Rossini’s comic opera is still recognisable in this adaptation devised by director Elizabeth Hill and Christopher van Tuinen. Sue Goessling accompanies on piano and the capable, young cast sing excerpts from Rossini’s score while portraying the story in a more child-friendly form.

Cinderella is sung by pretty and vivacious soprano, Alexandra Hutton, who also deals exceptionally well with children’s incisive post-show questions. Emily Uhlrich not only sings with warmth and energy but she is hilarious playing both Ugly Stepsisters: the shrill, temperamental Clorinda and her gruff, puppet-sized sister Tisbe.

Some of the edited story is included in narration by Rupert the Mouse, a tubby puppet manipulated and voiced by Jon Bode. He also portrays Cinders’ Fairy Godfather (Yes, it was a Godfather in Rossini) and he incorporates some basic magic to demonstrate the Godfather’s conjuring skills. Chris Busietta steps into drag as the Wicked Stepmother then, more glamorously, returns to sing the role of the Prince with his bright tenor.

Although the show looks traditional, the dialogue incorporates modern references and dance moves that have the children giggling. The production has some bumpy timing and awkward set changes but the children forgive it all for a good story.

By Kate Herbert