Thursday, 7 May 2009

Optimism , May 27, 2009 ***1/2

Adapted from Voltaire by Tom Wright
Produced by Malthouse Theatre 
Merlin Theatre, Malthouse, until June 13
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 27, 2009
Stars: ***1/2

OPTIMISM is a charming, shambolic and peculiar adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide. Tom Wright extracted and adapted 19 scenes from the book then director, Michael Kantor, tossed them into a blender with pantomime, vaudeville, slapstick and musical comedy. Violent war scenes are juxtaposed against cheerful, contemporary songs about joy. The result is chaotic – in a good way.

Frank Woodley plays the na├»ve servant, Candide, who is evicted by his master after Candide has a fling with the pretty daughter of the house, Cunegonde (Caroline Craig). Candide embarks on a journey across the globe, remaining relentlessly optimistic in the face of human suffering and violence. This is Voltaire’s satirical attack on the unrealistic and optimistic philosophies of the Enlightenment.

Woodley’s engaging, childlike style brings a whimsical quality to Candide. He looks like a bemused and leggy Harlequin in his polka dot jump suit and clown’s white face. Woodley often addresses the audience directly improvising on both his own thoughts and the musings of Candide. His Candide stumbles like a toddler from one human disaster to the next, seeking advice from mentors and chasing his one true love, Cunagonde.

The madness of Candide’s journey and the silliness of the songs (e.g. Shiny, Shiny, by Haysie Fantazee), highlight the inhumanity and horrors of war, torture, mutilation and rape that he encounters on his epic journey. Kantor sends Candide travelling in aeroplanes. Overhead projections, like huge airport signs, indicate his country of destination: Lisbon, Paraguay, Eldorado, Venice.

The action takes place on Anna Tregloan’s clever design. It is a multi-textured blend of the cold, metallic curves of an aeroplane shell, glittering curtains of the music hall, huge plastic shower curtains and a vivid and anachronistic mix of classical, clown and contemporary costumes. Paul Jackson’s lighting shapes the landscape and boldly conjures jet planes and war zones.

The ensemble is exceptional, employing their impeccable comic timing and characterisation to play multiple roles to create the parade of people in the complex landscape of Candide’s travels. David Woods is versatile playing various roles in his inimitable comic style and Barry Otto uses his “Ottoisms” to create the eccentric Pangloss, Candide’s mentor.

Alison Whyte is delectable as the aristocratic woman with only one buttock and the histrionic actress playing Queen Elizabeth. Francis Greenslade, Hamish Michael, Caroline Craig and Amber McMahon play with pizzazz various cross-dressing air hostesses, lovers, whores, apes, soldiers and villains. Iain Grandage fills the space with his live music.

Optimism reminds us that believing that all will be well if we just stay positive, is foolish in our world.

By Kate Herbert

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