Wednesday 26 February 1997

Petroleum, Feb 26, 1997

 by Raimondo Cortese
 La Mama until March 9, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 26, 1997

God bless the short play. Or should I say, God bless the well-written short play. Petroleum by Raimondo Cortese is such an animal.

It is extraordinary how intimately we can get to know complete strangers on an aeroplane. We commune with the most unlikely bods. Perhaps the confined space reduces personal boundaries or is it theır sense of liberation travelling provides? Our identities are flexible, we have no history, no context from which to judge each other so we can be whatever we want, reveal whatever we choose and walk away totally uncommitted after the baggage collection.

Two women strike up a conversation en route from Asia. The older, more conservative (Heather Bolton) is bemused by the inquisitiveness and youthful, hippy exuberance of the younger (Kelly Tracey). Cortese captures the unpredictability of a new relationship. The women edge and shift toward each other, checking each other's reality, testing the water, making assumptions and often errors and shifting away.

Cortese's skill is evident in his well-observed dialogue. The two speak in parentheses, re-incorporating thoughts, rambling and misunderstanding. Each has a distinctive rhythm and it takes time for the two tempos to come into sync. Finally it feels like a fine two-step.

Bolton is wonderfully intense and eerily dislocated as the older woman who purports to be a psychotherapist. She slips from introspection to curiosity, suspicion to a gin-soaked melancholy. All is played with Bolton's eccentric and effective brand of wry humour. As her travel companion, Tracey is at once naive and watchful which all makes sense in the end. We do not know what to believe of either by landing time.

The excellent light-handed direction by Adriano Cortese (Yes, brothers) has sensitively concentrated on this emotional journey and the idiosyncrasies and humanity of the pair. The two remain seated on a row of plane seats centre stage but the piece is by no means static or restricted. The tiny details of their behaviour, their deceptions, truths and mutual vulnerability are riveting. Ordinary lives really are fascinating.

Cortese's script is written with irony, wit and a healthy cynicism. The dialogue provides the actors with subtleties and nuances to explore. Both characters have a past and a future. The ending is not finite but flies on ahead to the next episode. It is always a good sign when one leaves the theatre wanting more.


Friday 21 February 1997

Dust: A Clown Adventue, Feb 21,1997

Dust: A Clown Adventure by Brenda Waite & Sue Arnold
 Theatreworks until March 2, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 21, 1997

Forget Marcel Marceau. All too rarely do we get a genuine clown show. The last we saw here, it seems, was a year ago and was the prequel to Dust and, please, do not think of klutzy clown make-up or romantic mime routines about love lost and wilting flowers.

Like last year's Happy as Laundry, Dust is unremittingly cute in the best possible way and never sentimental. Brenda Waite joins her new partner Sue Arnold in this duo and their two dusty innocents seem to be linked by an invisible thread.

They are child-like friends, playmates. At times they are two old-timers, at others a doting pup (Waite) and her opera-warbling mistress (Arnold). Director John Bolton, himself a clown king, has skilfully and sensitively woven together a charming, hilarious domestic clown adventure. The piece is tautly structured and the clown detail is fascinating to watch. There is only one flat spot quite late in the piece.

There is no linear narrative, simply a series of games, and familiar actions. The characters seem to dust off their favourite fun things to do together and run them over and over until they deteriorate into dusty clown chaos.

They allow each other space to obsess, one about her doggie bones and silly dancing, the other about her romantic dream of being Nellie Melba and her sweet ukulele song. All this is done with little or no dialogue, two chairs, a chest of drawers and a tricky cupboard.

There are some delightful repeated vignettes. They regularly sit down to a flask of tea -or is it brandy- spilling, splashing, tricking each other into swapping cups and they still end up friends. The charm of real clowns lies in their innocence and complete lack of vindictiveness in response to being duped. They smile and move on. A lesson?

play dusty harmonicas, salute dead friends with The Last Post, do their own sound effects, purposely out of time. There is definitely a harking back to silent movies and the hilarious chases of Keystone Kops and the sad-sack gaze of Buster Keaton with a little of Monty Python-esque Silly Fish Dancing tossed in.

This show is truly a joy. It is simple fun performed with honesty by seriously talented performers who are just adorable. Go see!


Self, Feb 21, 1997

 by Drew Tingwell
 at La Mama until March 9, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 21, 1997

Writer's Block is an extremely serious business -for a writer that is. So it is for the desperate title character of Drew Tingwell's play, Self, directed by John Higginson.  Self is a mentally ill isolate who sits faced with his ancient Remington, fists clenched trying to tap out some of the genuinely magical phrases unable to escape onto the page from his image-filled mind. Writer's Hell.

Tingwell has written a well-structured narrative containing some affecting and lyrical prose.  Self's ramblings about falling through water and his fable about the man who loses his skin like a snake are lovely imagistic pieces of writing performed with great sensitivity by Don Bridges.

Bridges portrays a tortured but naive soul, a man who has lost his self only to be confronted by the man who, nine years earlier, stole it. This famous novelist, Randall (Ross Thompson) has made a fortune from Self's stolen novel having literally left Self for dead.

The cast of this production is excellent. Thompson's almost brutal demeanour and bluff edginess are the perfect counterpoint to Bridges' fragile and sympathetic persona. They are well supported by Bruce Kerr as a bristly beggar and Judith Roberts as a blousy meals-on-wheels woman. There is also a surprise cameo appearance by newsreader David Johnstone.

La Mama is a tight space at the best of times but filling it with a set can jam the actors into corners. In this production there is simply too much stuff on stage. Even St. Kilda pier makes an appearance. All this leaves the actors confined to a space the size of a sixpence but they do a sterling job in spite of this.

The play has a strong narrative with a touch of mystery. Essentially, the trips inside Self's mind are the most interesting. Some slightly laboured direction pushes the angst too far and drags out moments. Neither of these serve the text or its central plot well. A lighter touch and a little strategic editing might make the piece flow more easily.

However it is a good night at the theatre.


Saturday 15 February 1997

Is That You Nancy? Feb 15, 1997

 Is That You Nancy? by Sandra Shotlander
 Courthouse until March 29, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 15, 1997

An inordinate amount of Melbourne theatre at present is written by, about and for the Gay and Lesbian community and part of the trend is the play, Is That You Nancy? by Sandra Shotlander. The play was commissioned in Sydney for the 1991 Mardi Gras and performed at Belvoir Street Theatre.

This is less a play than a series of comic character sketches and vignettes loosely linked by the theme of lesbian relationships and women's phone calls. Scenes, perky 30's love songs and disconnected pairs of characters are pegged together on a theatrical washing line by repeated stream-of-consciousness raves by the inimitable Miss Gertrude Stein.

From the vantage point of her 1920's Paris salon and her successful relationship with Alice B. Toklas, Stein serves as long-distance commentator and, finally, adviser to the lonely hearts of the 90's. She chats to women "out of power": Nancy Reagan and Benazir Butto to name some.

The piece, directed by Wayne Pearn, may not be slick but it is entertaining and often funny. Performers Kath Gordon and Paula McDonald create matched sets of characters. The New York, New Age psycho-babblers Shelley and Barbie, have an exclusively answer-phone relationship because they are too busy doing relationship workshops.

Lovesick Patsy waits for her ex to call, the promiscuous Sally is dumped by her up-market lover and sad-sack, down-market Susie Cambio, smokes hard, drinks even harder and continues to try on different identities, including celibacy.

Shotlander's dialogue is often quick and peppered with gags and clever social observations. A distracted Patsy quips, "I could become a socialist feminist and give up emotion altogether". However, some over-written one-sided phone dialogue and Stein's word associative babble become annoying.

In the end it is unclear what is the intention of this piece but it is a hoot.

Wednesday 12 February 1997

New Short Works, Feb 12, 1997

St Kilda Writers' Festival
Theatreworks 12-16 Feb, 1997
When the Day is Done by Daniel Lillford; Valediction by Graham Henderson;
Diplomacy on Coconut Island by Adam May; Poison Heart by Johann McIntyre
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on Feb 12, 1997

How short is a short work? Twenty, thirty minutes tops? A couple of the "New Short Works" in the St. Kilda Writers' Festival program were forty and sixty minutes long. This did not make them bad, it simply made the program of four plays too long.

The two pieces in the first half were more successful than the second pair. Graham Henderson's poignant poem of despair, Valediction, is performed with great sensitivity by Ian Scott and subtly directed by Wayne Macauley.

Scott is alone on stage for nearly an hour with a very dense, often untheatrical text that challenges the attention span of both actor and audience. The suicidal character's farewell words are recorded on cassette as he speaks in the style of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tapes.

Daniel Lillford's 15-minute piece sparkles with witty dialogue, vivid characters, a satisfying denouement and ending and is crisply directed by Lillford. In When the Day is Done, Christopher Davis and Greg Saunders play two Belfast childhood pals, one of whom is still a foot soldier for the IRA Cause.

Their isolated moment together takes a nasty turn and reveals the horror of the personal crashing into the political. Think of Michael Collins. Saunders' performance is the highlight of the evening.

Both pieces in the second half had serious flaws. Diplomacy on Coconut Island by Adam May confuses Absurdism with silliness and incomprehensibility. It simply made no sense and its final statement said it all, "I don't expect people like you to understand."

Equally problematic but more entertaining for the audience, was Johann McIntyre's gothic grotesquery, Poison Heart. It is riddled with high campery. A foppish Lord (Brandon Ah Chong) who resembles Prince minces about plotting to poison his wife who, in turn plots to poison him. It uses a florid blend of modernisms and pseudo-Elizabethan language that only occasionally works. It is over-written, lacks content and the outcome is crass and celebrates Sado-Masochism in a discomfiting way. 

It is a pity that fifty per-cent of a Writers' Festival program fell so short of the mark.

Monday 10 February 1997

The Art of Being Still, Feb 10, 1997

The Art of Being Still by Steve Dawson
Guild Theatre Melbourne University until Feb 22, 1997
Reviewed b y Kate Herbrt around Feb 9, 1997

According to the program notes, writer-director Steve Dawson's mum suggested the collective title for his two plays: The Poofta Plays.ˇ Good title mum!

The first of the pair, The Art of Being Still, is a study in male group behaviour. Never having been a fly on the wall in a wholly male group, I am always astonished by their representation on stage or film. This group of "friends" is the gay counterpart to a bunch of yobs at a barbie drinking beer, ribbing each other and talking about sex. Their humour is cruelly insensitive, crude and almost adolescent. To quote Alan, (Christopher White) the central and most sympathetic character, "With friends like these...?"

If the entire piece had continued relentlessly in this vein it would have been irredeemably offensive and pointless. However Dawson, at the eleventh hour, challenges the pack mentality of the is group and develops an emotional layer to the play which had been lacking.

 After six months of grieving at home after the death of Michael (Evan Higgins) his adored lover, the conservative and likeable Alan, is back for the Monday night rage. Dougie, or Dorothy as he is known in high-camp style, has a new date, Colin, who resembles the dead Michael. Colin is a recently 'out' country boy who, commendably, dumps this nasty clutch of roosters.

Alan, after being offended by revelations about his dead lover, finally challenges them. They ask themselves, "Why do we behave like piranha stuck in a big barrel, trying to tear each other to pieces?" "Because we're good at it?" Perhaps there is hope for some to develop more sensitive relationships.

The script avoids earlier opportunities to explore some real drama to balance the raw comedy: Danny arriving beaten up, Gerald 's pain about being called stupid, Dougie's non-sexual relationship with Colin and Colin's resemblance to Michael. Much of the acting lacks credibility and characters two-dimensional with the exception of Alan and, finally, his closest and most sarcastic friend, Phillip (Iain Murton).

The audience seemed to enjoy the piece but I reached saturation point with the campery and bitching. However, it finally grabs some genuinely dramatic elements. The second play, The Gathering of Vampires, may continue the trend.


Tango, Feb 10, 1997

Written by Slawomir Mrozeck
 La Mama at Napier St. Theatre until Feb 23, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 10, 1997

A Polish play from the naughty 60's on a 40 degree evening in a theatre with a single fan: well might one call it "absurdist". Slawomir Mrozek is a living Polish playwright who writes in the style of the absurdist school of Beckett and Ionesco and Tango is his best-known work.

 The Tango family comprises a father (Jim Daly) who is an experimental theatre artist, a mother (Elizabeth Thompson) who sleeps openly with the help (Charlie Powles) and a son (Humphrey Bower) who is studying medicine and craves "world order". Ain't it always the way? The sons of the hippies grow up to be accountants.  Whatever the norm, rebellion is rebellion.

This production is at its best when it is at its silliest. Slipping into banal action is ineffective with the absurd. Jim Daly, as mad old dad, provides a dynamic range and his usual unpredictable and quirky style of comedy. Charlie Powles as Eddie, the cheery thug, is both funny and threatening.

The play seems a little dated. It begins as a metaphysical-philosophical debate and finishes as a political comment. See it on a cool evening to enjoy it better.

The fact that it was written in 1964, prior to Mrozek's departure for Paris, is evident in the content. The artists, the unconventionality and sexual freedom are accompanied by some brutal but veiled social and political commentary. The pompous son wants ideas not physicality. In order to alter the values and behaviour of his embarrassingly modern family, he aligns first with the secretly conservative uncle, then with the brutish servant and finally is overthrown by said servant.

See this in the context of Eastern Europe where political comment was for so long verboten. A weak but obsessive fascist leader controls group with help of weasel. Fascist uses threat of martial thuggery to control society. Thug eliminates fascist and oppresses people through violence.

It is a simple parallel but effective. Much of Tom Stoppard's translation of the play retains the bizarre quality in the dialogue. There is some unevenness in the acting with some of the performances missing the comedy and unfortunately giving rather uncomfortable, mannered or stilted performances that were not merely due to the heat of the night.

Kate Herbert

Friday 7 February 1997

Kissing Frogs , Feb 7, 1997

Kissing Frogs by Glynn Nicholas

Comedy Theatre throughout  February, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 7, 1997

No worries! She'll be right! Glynn Nicholas is really bloody charming - and he gets away with murder on stage because of it. He does sentimental old love songs, Hollywood-schlock romantic narrative and he sneaks in some of the tackiest bottom gags in the known universe. But he looks like a naughty toddler afterwards so we let him.

Kissing Frogs returns after a four-year spell in comedy mothballs and it is Nicholas's best live show. Goofy Geoff's romance with cabaret singer, Gloria (Kim Deacon) gives a sound narrative on which to base silly stand-up routines about the great Aussie Dream, the Great Aussie, a great dream about rain. He laces the social commentary with schmaltz and naughtiness. In fact, the whole show is stuffed full of pathos and jokes, cliches and songs.

Still a masterly grotesque parody is Nicholas's old familiar, Sergeant Smith, who mixes his cliches and swears like a trouper. The central Frog who turns into the proverbial Prince is Geoff, a country yokel who has fashioned his own encyclopaedia and his own particular grammatical chaos. Geoff secretly writes romantic poetry for Gloria who scoffs cynically - until she falls in love with him. They share an interest in frogs, you see.

Nicholas's humour is old-fashioned warm and comfortable. The audience are putty in his hands. He is well supported on stage by musician and ‘atmos-man’, Ross Nobel and by Kim Deacon and her sassy jazz vocals.

But we must not forget Clive, the aforementioned Frog or Boofy, Geoff's bitzer hunting dog. These two, in addition to a stage full of invisible objects and walk-on characters such as the club bouncer and the Kenworth driver, are created through the "magic of mime". It is all so effortless it is easy to forget how difficult it is to make something out of nothing.
The show, at nearly two and a half hours, is too long, but in spite of the cornball jokes, the Las Vegas lurex curtains and sometimes gushing sentimentality, this is a really entertaining show.


Sunday 2 February 1997

The Last Blue Ange, Feb 2, 1997

l by Alex Prior
At  Courthouse Theatre until Feb 8 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Feb 2, 1997

It is 1939 in Australia. Heine Leibowitz is German. No wonder he was interned. Ah, but he was Jewish. He was still interned. He was also homosexual. No hope for Heine. Nobody loves a triple minority.

The Last Blue Angel by Alex Prior, has taken a scrap of historical fact about such a man and developed a political piece of theatre.  It is a snappy burlesque that, ironically, blends Berlin Cabaret of the 1920's with Britain's Second World War Concert Parties.

Subject number 162 , as he was recorded for history, was grabbed in King's Cross. The rest of Heine's story is extrapolated by Prior from an informed understanding of the social and political attitudes of the period. The Dunera Boys suffered similar treatment during internment. Poor Heine was to be victimised by everybody: the Nazis, the Orthodox and the Aussies were all hostile. And to cap it all off, after the war his Europe would be unrecognisable.

Prior, with director Kim Baston (also on piano and accordion) have not allowed such difficult and painful material interfere with some really entertaining content. Songs, both original and from Kurt Weill and other German cabaret artists, are woven into Heine's narration Charles Barry plays him with relish as a Joel Grey-style show host.

The barber's quartet (there are three of 'em) of singin', dancin' soldiers are a hearty and vigorous ensemble and Luke Gallagher gives a moving rendition of Weill's Surabaja Johnny.

The piece does not become sentimental. It is firmly in the tradition of didactic, Agit-Prop (agitational-propaganda) theatre and Brecht. A cheery Bavarian slap-dance becomes an allegory for oppression. Comic slaps turn into punches, dance steps into kicks.

In the end, looking at history, has anything really changed? Homosexuals in the nineties are still feared and castigated by many. But even more insidiously, they are often patronised by those who merely imitate their culture or describe them as "artistic and interesting". To quote the play, "We do for the past what we cannot agree to do for the future," i.e. we change it to suit ourselves.

Saturday 1 February 1997

No Man's Island by Ross Mueller. La Mama, until Feb 16, 1997

 No Man's Island by Ross Mueller
At La Mama until Feb 16, 1997

 NB This review was published in The Melbourne Times in Feb 1997

In crisis or in pain sometimes only a companion, a partner, a comrade can shift us out of depression or away from madness. It doesn't even seem to matter who the companion is. It is simply the sharing of the problem, the caring of another human, the warmth of another body or the sound of a voice which breaks the terrible spell of loneliness, loss and anguish.

In No Man's Island by Ross Mueller, two men are incarcerated and indeed isolated in a cell. Rob (Aidan Fennessy) is an uncomplicated, uneducated, child-like soul who prays secretly for his dead father and reads letters from a non-existent big brother. Tim (John F. Howard) teeters on the brink of sanity, screaming in his nightmare-filled sleep, pining for a lost child.

Initially, the two have clear roles: Tim is father, Rob is child. But as their drama evolves the boundaries become muddied. Their shared confusion and vulnerability, their social and psychological incompetence, their incomprehension of their human plight are the very elements which may save them. They are helpless victims in an irrational world but maybe, just maybe, their companionship may take them through.

Fennessy gives a compelling performance as the naive man-child, Rob. His is a moving emotional journey from playful, unthinking boy to shattered young man. Howard is edgy and unpredictable as Tim, always appearing to be on the brink of some wild and unexpected response. The two work superbly together. Their rampantly blokey indoor footy match is a highlight.

The piece is deftly directed by Peter Houghton with great sensitivity to the nuances of Mueller's script. Paul Jackson's simple scaffold design effectively contracts the space visually but allows plenty of room to move in the tiny La Mama space. The ladder up to the golden glow of the ceiling trap door is a constant reminder of the impossible dream of escape and the Heaven for which Rob wishes.

This piece is not all dark tragedy. It is a celebration of companionship with some very funny and truthful moments between men that reveals their weakness and their combined strength.


Esso Concert in the Bowl, Feb 1, 1997

Myer Music Bowl Saturday Feb 1, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on Feb 1, 1997

Only in Australian would you see a bloke in shorts armed with a hamper laden with stubbies and ham sangers at a classical concert. So it was under the cloud-covered stars at the free Esso Concert in the Bowl.  And an outdoor family event would not be the same without the threat of rain. Brollies and champers at the ready, team!

Joyfully, the clouds held their burden and the audience in the "outer" remained dry listening to our exceptional State Orchestra of Victoria and a program ranging from Tchaikovski (Romeo & Juliet) and Khachaturian (Love Theme from Spartacus) to Rogers and Hammerstein (Some Enchanted Evening, If I loved You). Something for everyone: at least, everyone who doesn't live on a diet of Nirvana.

The pas de deux from "Manon" (Lisa Bolte & Stephen Heathcote) and from "Coppelia" (Vicki Attard & David McAllister) were favourites among ballet lovers and there is no doubt that they were technically excellent. It is, however, extraordinary how classical ballet can strip any sensuousness or sexuality from love scenes. Of course ballet is renowned for creating females who are either mechanical dolls, birds or child brides. But I am showing my bias.

The program was a sublime showcase for the versatility and finesse of our fine Orchestra. It is a joy to be able to see the orchestra rather than merely the tips of their bows or the conductor's fluffy mop bobbing over the pit's edge.

The star of this evening must be visiting Scottish conductor, Christopher Bell. Not only is he a gifted and sensitive conductor, but he is a compelling presence. He bounces onstage grinning and proceeds to display a rare level of infectious delight in his work, the music, the orchestra and the audience. His wit and generosity were enchanting. More of Kermit the Conductor please.

Soprano Leanne Kenneally sang two sweet arias from "Romeo & Juliet" and  "Louise". Baritone John Antoniou performed "Song to the Evening Star" (Tannhauser) but the announcement of his second solo, "Some Enchanted Evening", drew an audible "Aaaah" from this romantic crowd. The couple's duets were technically excellent but lacked passion. The fact that, during two love duets, they never made eye contact tells all.

This was a charming and entertaining evening under the summer sky and the enormous crowd tottered home happy after a rousing encore from the Orchestra and our fave, Mr. Bell. Think I'll start a fan club.