Friday 29 November 1996

Mr. Melancholy, Nov 29, 1996

Written by Matt Cameron
Chameleon Theatre
Beckett Theatre until Dec 14, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Nov 30, 1996

A Hermitage a' Trois is one description of the characters in Mr. Melancholy by Matt Cameron and Chameleon Theatre. To be more precise, “three's company, four's a crowd" in this absurd comedy about love, loss and isolation.

It is essentially a long, very funny comedy sketch with a poignant ending. Three hermits suffering from varying degrees of sociability, live together in a lighthouse sans light. They all seem to have fallen out of society, or a passing ship, purposely or not we do not know. They struggle with their existential dilemma. Their routine is settled.

Ollie, (Wayne Hope) the light-housekeeper, no longer bothers to watch for ships. He collects flotsam luggage and steals a beachful of sand. Meanwhile the maudlin, hapless bride, Margot, (Maud Davey) steals it all back after burying another cold fish which has died in her care.

 Silly, naive, blathering Enzo, (Ernie Grey) the caretaker, bemoans his mute ventriloquist doll  and studies meaning in the dictionary. Shades of Samuel Beckett without the bleak existentialism.

The routine is settled; until Dolores, (Suzie Doherty) a clown escapee from the circus, arrives in a trunk and we all know that new blood unsettles the old. Everyone wants change and fears it except Dolores who will risk everything, transform herself for love.

Mr. Melancholy is entertainingly crammed with terrific groan-wrenching puns and gags but the first half feels unsatisfyingly insubstantial. The dialogue becomes glib and any flow or depth in characters or relationship is constantly undercut by one-liners. After interval the drama checks in, the emotional stakes are raised and the text comes closer to the examination of the human condition promised in the first half.

Performances are uniformly strong. Hope 's impeccable comic timing and Grey's quirky clown are excellent while Davey's acerbic gloom is an appropriate foil to Doherty's child-like peppiness. Anna Tregloan's design of enormous rickety piles of lost luggage and an encompassing ring of rocks/sandbags provides accentuates the isolation and containment for the characters. The evocative, dislocated circus calliope music, composed by Johna Doty and is effective while remaining unobtrusive.

Melancholy is the natural state. People stay too long in unhealthy relationships. Whichever way you slice it, all human activity is an exercise in futility.


Thursday 28 November 1996

Mind's Eye, Nov 28, 2017

by Handspan & Back to Back
Lonsdale St Power Station until Dec 7, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Nov 28, 1996

Theatrical collaborations can be a breeding ground for new and wonderful ideas in the land of the unpredictable or they may breed only conflict. Back to Back meeting Handspan Theatre is a successful example of the former.

Mind's Eye is weird in every sense of the word.  It is riddled with rich and disturbing Jungian imagery. One character's 'female parts' argue with her and represent her uncontrollable sexuality. It mews like a kitten and is attacked by a mangy mongrel which is in turn thrown ruthlessly into a furnace by the witch.

The character is played by Sonia Teuben, an experienced actor from Back to Back, a company for intellectually disabled actors.  Her provocative 'pussy' raises awareness about social repression of sexuality in disabled people.

The plot of Mind's Eye is simple. It is a fairy tale about a bored witch-mermaid who sends several messages in bottles inviting strangers to her birthday party on her island home.  Her invitation reads peremptorily, "Bring a present" and she is none too gracious if she does not like the gift. In fact, put a foot wrong and you're likely to be chained, burned or bewitched.

The company has a charming and disarming style. Mark Deans once again performs his inimitable natural clown and Rita Halabarec as the witch is both menacing and cute. Tom Lycos accompanies Back to back actors with a terrific physical presence naive clown.

Puppeteers (John Rogers, Liss Gabb, Megan Cameron) are, as is often the case in Handspan's black theatre, visible and active as characters who not only manipulate the puppets but who interact with them and with the actors. The mechanics of the theatrical form: lighting, musicians, movable sets, the creatures which droop before life is breathed into them, are all revealed in an almost Brechtian way. The process is demystified without destroying the magic of visual theatre.

Design by Cliff Dolliver includes a couple of mad cartoon-like critters: a huge " stupid jungle animal" and an animated drawing which scuttle about then go to sea together. ˆThe haunting live music is played by Helen Mountford and Hope Csutoros with recorded music by My Friend the Chocolate Cake. It provides an emotional layer for the piece.

There are messy bits, slow sections and some incomprehensible images but the whole is so entertaining it doesn't matter a jot. The crowd cheered and stamped at the curtain call – and Mark Deans did his cartwheels to steal the limelight.

Wednesday 27 November 1996

Tristan and Yseult, Nov 27, 1996

Tristan & Yseult by Peter Jetnikoff & Stephen Joyce
 La Mama at Lonsdale St Power Station until Dec 12, 1996

In the end, Tristan and Yseult die the death they should have died in the beginning: suicide for lost love. Truth and passion don't rule the world but power, history and comfort.

Yes, comfort. People choose the comfortable worn armchair. Even Yseult returns to her royal husband and abode after three years desperate exile and scrounging in the forest with her lover. Living hand to mouth with a loved one is not much fun as anyone on the dole can vouch.

This non-Wagnerian Tristan & Yseult, written by Peter Jetnikoff & Stephen Joyce is performed at the Lonsdale St Power Station. It is produced by La Mama which now has tentacles reaching right out into every available small theatre venue.

The disused warehouse contrasts the concrete industrial location with the delightfully classical style of the text. The poetic almost Elizabethan form of the dialogue and narration is coupled with stylised action and compelling performances by the entire ensemble.

The audience, after initially standing around uncomfortably, is seated around a manually revolving "Wooden 'O' " to witness the unfolding of the poignant tale of passion, besmirched honour and betrayal. One never tires of these such human frailties. The two are star-crossed, like Romeo and Juliet, coming from warring kingdoms of Cornwall and Ireland. As he escorts Yseult to marry King of Cornwall and end the conflict, Tristan (Luke Elliot) falls in love with his Queen-to-be (Vanessa O'Neill) and here begins their tale of doom and destiny.

The poetic, almost Elizabethan, form of the dialogue and narration is coupled with stylised action and compelling performances by the entire ensemble. There is a warmth and richness in the storytelling and a tautness in Bruce Naylor's direction which holds us for three hours. The recipe of tragedy with a tincture of irony which is inherent in the text, is heightened by Drew Tingwell's dwarf-narrator and Bruce Kerr's King. Alex Pinder provides the weight of experience and rationality in his Governal.

Luke Elliot's complex and driven Tristan is layered with the naivete and lust of youth and Vanessa O'Neill portrayal of Yseult is intelligent and detailed. The two create exciting and credible lovers. The whole piece is coloured and supported by subtle lighting and live music by Nick Papas and Caroline Lee.

The very opening fifteen minutes were slow with narration over dumb show but the piece flies for the remaining hours. This is really gripping myth-telling See it!.ˆ


Friday 22 November 1996

The Mysteries of Rufus Bummings, Nov 22, 1996

by Chris Dickins
 Spirit Theatre.
At Polyglot Theatre 14 -30 November, 1996
Reviewed by KH around 22 Nov 1996

'Ruffhouse Burminglsey Manufacturings. Drop a few dozen letters of the manufacturer written on his back and you are left with 'Rufus Bummings'.

Rufus, the title character of Chris Dickins' play the Mysteries of Rufus Bummings, is a wooden carnival soldier who hangs from a child's mobile. The child is the warm, vibrant but severely intellectually disabled Ruth.

This is her story told through the eyes of Rufus, her loyal soldier, friend and historian. Rufus awaits his fate in Ruth's parents' garage sale, along with his brothers Ricco, Ricco, Ricco and Keith.

Dickins candid, poetic and poignant writing is evident in this monodrama performed by Bradley Hulme and directed by Dickins himself. Hulme presents the story sympathetically with an engaging directness as he gambols about on stage, shifting between Rufus and Ruth, her parents and friends at her special school where she paints everything made of paper.

It is a bitter-sweet tragedy. Ruth is shocked to realise she is "a creature". Rufus is aware before she is that she is stared at and scares others. Her home is with the other special kids. "Last one in the bus is normal!"

She finally declares to her remote parents that she has ten wishes before she dies which include a new dress, going to the ballet ("I didn't think they could kick you out just for laughing.") and Scienceworks and putting Rufus's letters back on his coat.

The life-size carnival carousel dolls and horses, designed by Artery, are delightful amongst the garage detritus of Ruth's family's life. The fragmented structure is initially confusing but the second half clarifies much of the narrative. There are some awkward moments theatrically but the emotional tale eventually takes over and leads us gently to its conclusion.


VCA Theatre Makers 1996 Nov 22, 1996

 Theatre Makers - Two plays
Victorian College of the Arts Drama School
The Great Divide by Tony Reck
 Old People by Alex Green
 VCA Drama School

The aged are often believed to live in their pasts in a non-sexual haze of heart drugs, tea and toast. The two oldies in Alex Green's short work, Old People, are no exception to this myth.

This black-comic masked piece is located in the rough, concrete back space of the Drama School building of VCA. The location provided the perfect setting for a cyclone wire enclosed rubbish dump. Do the old couple live on a tip? Is it a metaphor for their dislocated lives? Either way, the design serves the narrative.

These two, who appear to be Eastern European post-war immigrants who have not done to well financially in the land of milk and honey, pine for their pasts, their secrets, imagined or long-lost friends, their almost forgotten sexuality. They play games, taunt and dress up in giant teddy costumes. The past is a place of joy and sadness. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, "It's rosemary." "That's for remembrance." It seems to be all they have, apart from each other.

Tony Reck's play script was workshopped at the Playwrights' conference this year but it required a full production to realise its predominantly visual and physical emphasis. David Symons, himself a VCA graduate, has scattered the sparse dialogue amidst multi-media imagery provided by multiple slide screens, film projector, soundscape and recorded voice. It is primarily a conceptual piece of theatre, influenced by the abstraction of performance art.

The juxtaposition of imagery is effective at times but most often it remains bewildering or overstated. The hour long piece takes off fifteen minutes in when the actual narrative about a family is clarified to some degree. To suggest that there is a coherent narrative thread is to undermine the style and concept of Reck's work and Symon's direction.

The characters are representative of the family of parents and two sons. The jump-cut physical movement style fragments moments of their lives and the shifts in relationships. The dislocation of people in suburbia is accented and the dysfunction of families in the modern world is heightened by the abstraction.

The work of the VCA Theatremakers (writers, directors and animateurs) is showcased this week in various college venues.


Saturday 16 November 1996

Thumbul, Nov 16, 1996

By Tom E Lewis & Mac Gudgeon
At Gasworks until Dec 1996
Reviewed by KH around Nov 15, 1996

There's no denying it. Tom E. Lewis is charming. His autobiographical show, Thumbul, is a perfect vehicle for his entertaining and often poignant solo journey through his 40-odd years on this planet as a bicultural Australian.

Lewis straddles the twin worlds of remote Arnhem Land and urban /urbane St. Kilda. More precisely, he has spent his years tumbling backwards and forwards from his tribal home in the far north and the strange, artsy-fartsy world of film and theatre.

The pivotal point both theatrically and in his personal Road Well Travelled was the moment, at age seventeen, he was discovered at an airport by Fred Schepsi and tossed headlong into playing the title role in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith Lewis, in a darker moment, muses that he may have been Jimmy reincarnated. As he re-enacts Jimmy's gruesome slaughter of the white women, he seems to be purging all his childhood abuse at the hands of the white church, schools, red-necks and the Welsh father who abandoned him.

John Bolton's direction is brisk and often physical representation of Tom's story. Lewis speaks directly to us. We are part of his trip. He engages us with his quips, anecdotes and songs and his warm, amiable, vigorous and, above all, totally natural persona. It is a joy to be with him.

The text, developed with writer Mac Gudgeon, is light and funny and is coloured by Lewis's constant improvising as he stumbles over a word, hears a digital watch in the audience or plays with toy farm animals in the red sand covered floor. His comic timing is impeccable and the audience roared at his jokes and stood to cheer at his curtain call.

It is the sheer simplicity of the piece and its delivery which is its greatest asset. In combination with Lewis's natural charm and the dark underbelly of his story of cultural dichotomy, this makes a compelling 90 minutes in the theatre.


Thursday 14 November 1996

Snorkel, Nov 14, 1996

by Richard Bladel
At La Mama until December 1, 1996
Reviewed by KH around Nov 13, 1996

Incest, patricide, fratricide ­– not a very cheery piece is Richard Bladel's Snorkel. However it is briskly directed by Ariette Taylor and stylishly performed by Belinda McClory and David Pidd.

The small space at La Mama becomes dangerous and the emotional and physical violations perpetrated by the two characters re intimidatingly close to us. McClory and Pidd's portrayal of adult siblings, Snorkel and Sis, shifts in a complex emotional dance from child-like to adult, lovers to loathers.

During what begins as an eerie wake for their murdered father, they taunt, tease, attack, withhold and terrify each other with threats of abandonment, revelation and escape. They fear aloneness but Sis fears Snorkel, drunk on metho and milk, will turn into her abusive father. Their chequered past is slowly revealed.

McClory gives a magnetic, fluid and often beautifully realised performance of the fraught and terrified Sis. Pidd's Snorkel is perilously close to the edge of insanity as he literally climbs the walls and leaps across tables. They work hard and fast, providing the text with layers of subtext with a glance, a pause, a tear.

The mutton bird, on which they are about to dine, is a pivotal metaphor. "These plain little grey birds returns to the same burrow every year." Sis is a mutton bird. She has never been able to escape father or brother. Perhaps tonight.

Director and actors have given a flawed script a new and successful fourth dimension. Adrienne Chisholm's set design of totally bleached grey removes any touch of naturalism in combination with the abstract, heightened performance style.

The script wanders a little, is unclear in style, repeats itself and reveals too much too early, reducing its dramatic tension.  There is a flat patch in the middle but the actors kick it up into top gear for a swift and furious finale.


Tuesday 12 November 1996

Monash Schools Drama Competition, Nov 12, 1006

At Monash Performing Arts Theatre
November 12-16, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on Nov 12, 1996

Perhaps it's time to hand over the theatre industry to the teenagers when one of the most compelling pieces of theatre I’ve seen recently was written, directed and performed by 15-16 year olds.

The Schools Drama Festival sponsored by Monash University Arts Precinct and adjudicated by professionals in the theatre field, was a week long series of heats with sixteen participating schools, both private and government.

Students were required to develop their own work with only supervision by teachers. They were judged on their creative conception, use of the theatre space and facilities and the quality of their final production on the night.

Drama teachers, in spite of cuts to arts education programs in recent years, are providing kids with sound skills to express opinions by making their own theatre. Issues arising in the five finalists' shows ranged from social and parental control and expectations,  identity, peer pressure and fashion (particularly amongst the girls), sport and competition (for the boys!) and the struggle with change.

One Day at a Time by year ten boys from St. Bede's, was streets ahead in its level of skill, perception is a moving 25 minute sustained naturalistic play with twin narrative threads. Rob (Daniel Robinson) discovers, at sixteen, that he is adopted. His mate, Johnno, (Brayden Haynes) is faced with his girlfriend being pregnant.

These adolescent fears are not simplistically handled but tackled with emotional and philosophical maturity and sophisticated dramatic form. Major and minor characters are credible, three-dimensional and totally inhabited by the actors. The artistic voice behind this play is Daniel Robinson who has a formidable talent and energy. His script was "80-90%" of the project and others wrote additional scenes. He is a talent to watch in the future.

BeaconHills Christian College took second place with a series of vignettes relating to social control. Methodist Ladies' College created a choreographic piece about the tyranny of fashion. Sandringham Secondary College investigated, in short scenes, changing relationships, sudden life-changing situations and our ability to cope.

Haileybury devised a slick, seamlessly directed collage of images about boys, men and sport. It was a knockout and would have been my choice for second place. This was a night worth visiting.


Wednesday 6 November 1996

Sanctus by Chris Dickins, Nov 6, 1996

At Merlyn Theatre
Performed by Ballarat University
Until November 9, 1996
Reviewed by KH round Nov 5, 1996

Chris Dickins is a gem of a playwright whose plays continue to appear in productions from country Victoria. Sanctus is the latest and has arrived as the graduate production for Performing Arts students from Ballarat University.

The core narrative of Sanctus is the convergence of two stories based in a church on the Murray River. One begins in 1900 when the church was constructed, the other in 1996 when it is to be demolished. They collide during the war in 1940.

Dickins has always been interested in challenging dramatic structure and Sanctus does so with a cocked eye. It is a brain teaser to follow the story both backward and forward through discrete episodes, but Dickins' writing has such a lively lyrical quality and his characters are so quirky and colourful that it a joy to watch and listen to his ramblings. A priest's nightly "midnight moan", a swaggie's broad Aussie lingo, a novice's existential dilemma, a madwoman's dislocated ravings: all fill the broad stage at the Merlyn.

Director, Peter Tulloch's production showcases students' acquired skills in an entertaining and coherent piece which has a fluid choreographic style. Although actors shifting character was at times difficult to follow, the story rolled on like the Murray alongside which it resided. Tulloch has developed a delightful, live vocal soundscape with actors out of scenes but visible evoking creatures, elements and Gregorian chants.

The students must be commended for have found funding, designed, produced and mounted the production, in line with much of the fringe theatre industry in Victoria.

Although, for some of the actors, the emotional layering of Dickins writing is out of reach, there are several strong performances within the ensemble: Kylie Lockwood's cameo as the madwoman, John Bolger's Father Brendan and Renee Willner as the 60's hippy, "Jesus H Christ'.

However, for this audient, Damien Muller's exceptional design was the star of this production with its extraordinary flexibility and swift scene changes creating evocative spaces.