Wednesday 31 March 1999

BLOODY YANKS, 31 March 1999

 Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Reviewer: KATE HERBERT on 31 March 1999

Australians seem to accept racism towards only one nationality: America. Surely being guilty of a yen for world domination cannot excuse prejudice. Bloody Yanks is a clever comic solo show written and performed by Yankie, Bill Ten Eyck. It is a collection of comic-tragic Americans, some more dislikeable than others.

Ten Eyck, with minimal costume change and maximum acting skill, peoples the stage with five individual on-stage characters and several more off-stage. They are all visitors or residents of Vin's, a Los Angeles cafe run by the unseen Vin, a migrant who 'comes from the 80's".

Ten Eyck  introduces the show in a sharp, rapid-fire comic routine as a cleaning guy who praises and teases us about the exorbitant hidden costs of a night at the theatre. We next meet an out-of-work actor ( is there any other kind in LA?) who awaits his agent's call for his big break in a movie as a guy who gets his head blown off during the opening credits.

An anxiety-ridden, forty-year-old Ad Man who is mounting a campaign to sell God to America follows him. All he needs is the approval of the Archbishop for his pitch to rename the commandments "Handy Hints" and God Cliff New-man. The priest buys it! Only in America!

The 52 year old, Hispanic busboy at Vin's, drags on a fag as he fantasises about being a millionaire with a roll-a-door. Our final guest is an older veteran of Korea, drunk from his reunion with his army buddies. He has no resentment of his millionaire pal who has a 14 year-old model girlfriend.

Ten Eyck is a performer who deserves noticing during this Comedy Festival. His vivid, broad characterisations are exceptional and his dialogue well observed and detailed. His comic delivery is impeccable and he knows how to work an audience.

The hour passes effortlessly with economical direction by Christine Sinclair. Monologues are seamlessly linked by simple lighting changes, swift vocal adjustments, American songs and voice overs of other characters. The voice-over characterisation of a Republican Senate candidate from Wisconsin with the big mouth is hilarious.

In fact, the whole show is really funny and very charming. Ten Eyck manages to give each a sympathetic edge that makes this more than just a comedy show. I would gladly have watched more than an hour.
K Herbert

Tuesday 30 March 1999

Born Yesterday, MTC, 30 March 1999

by Garson Kanin
Melbourne Theatre Company at Playhouse
 to May 1, 1999
Reviewer: KATE HERBERT on 30 March, 1999

Think of a really long blonde joke blended with Pigmalion and Citizen Kane, add some Al Capone overtones and you have a snapshot of the style of Born Yesterday, the 1949 play written by Garson Kanin.

Yes, it is the same as the Judy Holliday movie with William Holden and Broderick Crawford made in 1950. Some snazzy bits were added for the screenplay but the meat and potatoes are still there in Kanin's pithy script: witty dialogue, broad characterisations, light political commentary and early feminism.

Knowledge is power, democracy is sacred and love cannot be bought: these epithets are the foundation of Kanin's philosophy.

Harry Brock (John Wood) is a self-made, self-centred junk-yard millionaire, a thug "who has always lived at the top of his voice." He made his money by stealing, cheating and, now, in Washington, he proposes to bribe a senator to ensure the passing of an amendment to Brock's own advantage.

The weak link is his cheap, dumb, ex-show-girl girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Alison Whyte). He 'buys' a bleeding heart, intellectual journalist, Paul Vernell, (Greg Stone) to educate her so she will not embarrass him in capital city drawing rooms. Inconveniently, the showgirl and the journo fall for each other. She begins by using her looks -her only asset so far in her life- to seduce him, but ends up in love.

Bruce Myles direction is swift, slick, detailed and well-paced taking advantage of a skilful and evenly matched cast. Whyte, playing the blonde with red hair, is quirky, brassy with superb comic timing and resonant in all ways of Holliday. Wood remains likeable as the brawny, sometimes violent Mr. Big and is well-supported by John McTernan as his corrupt lawyer and Gil Tucker as his weedy lackey.

Terence Donavan is suitably oily as the obsequious senator. Amongst the cameo roles, Katerina Kotsonis as chief maid is a treat.

Tony Tripp's design of luxurious hotel suite of blonde (how apt) wood parquetry and sweeping stir, lit with flair by Jamieson Lewis, sets the scene for graft and corruption.

This show is entertaining but is an unusual choice for a contemporary Australian company. Kanin may have been ahead of his own time with movie scripts such as Adam's Rib written with his wife, Ruth Gordon, but Born Yesterday remains a clever period piece.

K Herbert

Sunday 28 March 1999

The Swan, 28 March 1999

 by Elizabeth Egloff
The Old Van at The Pavillion, Central Springs Reserve,  Daylesford Lake
to April 10, 1999
Reviewer: KATE HERBERT on 28 March, 1999

See The Old Van's production of The Swan at Daylesford Lake but take a hot water bottle as your guest. Autumn can be icy in Daylesford and there are no real walls to protect you from the chill wind blustering around The Pavillion. This extraordinary location, with its accompanying waterbird cries, reinforces the company's policy to mark the passing of the seasons

The Old Van was nominated for four Green Room Fringe Theatre awards for its winter production of Brian Friel's Faith Healer in 1998 and company member, Jane Nolan, won Best Female Performer award. Director, Fiona Blair, has chosen another challenging and evocative script: American playwright, Elizabeth Egloff's dream-like, The Swan which owes something to Leda and The Swan for its violent love themes.

"The Bird is the symbol of the soul's release from bondage to the earth," wrote Joseph Campbell, Jungian interpreter of myths. Egloff's fable trips boundaries between reality and myth, opens doors between human and creature worlds, blurs lines around acceptable love and challenges our view of ourselves and relationships.

Lolita has nothing on a play about a woman with a swan lover. Dora (Jane Nolan) lives alone in quiet despair after two husbands abandoned her and another shot himself. She tolerates her present married lover, Kevin, (Richard Bligh) but awaits her great love.

It arrives in the form of a wild swan (Rohan Jones) that slams into her window and lies unconscious until it awakens in her home, a fully formed, beautiful, awkward, naked and unquestionably male. Dora stops working to tend the injured bird that slowly begins to walk, talk, respond, philosophise and to adore her with a wild, undaunted passion. Swans mate for life, don't they?

Nolan's pivotal performance as Dora is compelling. She captures her vulnerability, despair and passion and delivers both comic and poetic lines with impeccable timing and intelligence. Bligh is suitably gauche and intrusive as the oafish Kevin who contrasts with the elegance and initial silence of Bill.

Jones' first appearance as the Swan is riveting and his physical manifestation of the bird is powerful but his attempts to interpret Egloff's more poetic text are clumsy and diminish the magical quality of the character. There are some awkward and unclear scene changes but Blair's actor-centred directorial style is successful.

Make a night of it with dinner at the Lake Restaurant as a compulsory part of your treat.

K Herbert

Friday 26 March 1999

Il Trovatore , Opera Australia, 26 March 1999

by Giuseppe Verdi  Opera Australia at State Theatre  March 26, 29, 31 April 6, 9, 21, 25 (matinee), 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on 26 March

“A silly lot of nonsense”: This was a recent description of Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) by a reputable Australian conductor and it echoes much of the criticism of the narrative of the opera. Much of its music, however, is glorious, particularly the tenor and soprano arias, “Ah, si, ben mio” and “D’amor sull’ali rosee”.

It’s rickety plot, derived from El Trovador, a 14th century play by 23 year old Spanish playwright, Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, is riddled with gothic violence and reflects Verdi’s own dark pessimism and has all the bleakness of the Spanish Revenge Tragedies of the 17th century. It was written between Verdi’s masterpieces, Rigoletto and La Traviata and first performed in 1853 in Rome.

American tenor, Antonio Nagore, is spectacular as Manrico, with a fine, bright, bell-like tenor and a sexy, passionate stage presence. As Leonora, Maria Pollicina’s soprano was uneven initially but her nerves settled later. Elizabeth Campbell’s warm, rich contralto is perfect for Azucena and Michael Lewis is in fine voice as Count di Luna. Arend Baumann’s uses his dark honey tones as Ferrando.

Verdi’s operas were always tragic and, around this period, his mother and his lyricist died and he had lost two children. Any wonder he wrote an opera with no hope; fortune frowns on al characters, good or evil. There is a civil war, witch burnings, murdered children, executions, a poisoning, a duel and jousting is the only entertainment apart from the troubadour’s song.

Fifteen years earlier, the Count’s baby brother was kidnapped by a gypsy, Azucena, and tossed into the fire that killed the gypsy’s mother. Lady Leonora is in love with an anonymous Black Knight who re-appears as a gypsy troubadour, Manrico. The Count di Luna, obsessed with Leonora, seeks the death of his rival, Manrico .

In the fourth act, the most interesting both musically and dramatically, all our heroes die. Leonora suicides to save her lover but Manrico is executed and Azucena reveals that he is the Count’s brother who she kidnapped after hurling her own baby into the fire in her delirium. Gothic? Melodramatic? That’s opera folks!


Wednesday 24 March 1999

Grandma's Dancing Class, 24 March 1999

 by Ian de Lacy at La Mama until April 11, 199
Reviewer: KATE HERBERT on 24 March 1999

The first production of a writer's first play is always going to be a risky affair. The ones that work best are often closest to the writer's own experience. This may account for some of the problems in Ian De Lacy's play, Grandma's Dancing Class, directed by Karen Wakeham.

DeLacy's story is about women exclusively. Grandma, (Esme Melville) her two middle-aged daughters, (Sharon Kershaw, Kate Feldmann), and her teenage granddaughter (Catherine Ryan) are all awaiting the arrival of a young man who may or may not be the grandson. He never arrives so the play is focussed on the women exclusively.

This is the point at which I suspect DeLacy departs from his immediate experience. No women I know behave like this with friends or family. These four bicker, taunt, berate, shame, abuse, yell at each other in a childish and undignified way. They are all intensely dislikeable which does not make good comedy. We must care about them in some way.

I suspect the script is a little better than Wakeham's direction allows it to be It may have been the director's intention to play it as a series of kindergarten squabbles and playground spats between adults to highlight the fact that they have never grown up. Kari Morseth's simple lollypop-coloured design suggests this.

However, the broad style does not work as comedy or clown, it ends up as merely over-acting and face pulling. The characters are already two-dimensional and the performances do not add any depth.

There are gaping pauses and slow cues that do not assist comic timing. DeLacy's dialogue is riddled with platitudes, odd and uncomfortable quotes from famous texts and obvious statements about male-female relationships.

The idea is not a bad one. Theatricalising relationships between women in a family and their perpetual dance of attendance could make good material for a play. It is just that this does not penetrate the drama, the absurdity or the tragedy of such themes.

The title provides us with the best moment of the play. Grandma gets the girls drunk then teaches them to boot-scoot. They are having so much fun together that they do not hear the prodigal son ringing at the door. It is the first time the four actors look comfortable in the space.

K Herbert

Wednesday 17 March 1999

Centrestage With Your Arms Up, 17 March 1999

by Charmaine Gorman at Courthouse Theatre until March 27, 1999
Reviewer: KATE HERBERT on 17 March 1999

A show-biz family is a strange creature. Growing up with parents who did the Tivoli must have been a peculiar environment. Choosing to continue the tradition is even stranger, considering the vaudeville form is virtually dead these days.

Sisters, Charmaine and Kate Gorman, are the children of Tiv performers, Reg Gorman and Judith Roberts. Charmain wrote Centrestage with Your Arms Up. She sings, dances and acts in it with her sister Kate and their parents are also present in video sketches and in slides and photos of their past glory in song and comedy.

It is a weird experience watching this show. Charmaine's play, her first, deals with two show-biz sisters who are still performing songs from the 40's, reminiscing about their parent's former glory and a childhood standing backstage at the Tiv and hoping for a break. It seems to be taken directly from their lives, except that the characters' parents are dead and the girls have no brother in the play.

These two young women are warm on stage but the most successful component of the show is the songs. The pair have a fine accompanist in Will Conyers who plays a grand piano onstage and is also the musical director. The numbers have a very 40's feel and it seem as though these two were born too late for their time.

The repertoire includes songs such as Little Rock, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, and a song about getting your man which could only have been written in the 40's - we hope -called Find Out What They Like and How They Like It a and Give it To Them.

The problems with this play are myriad. The direction is pedestrian, scene changes are interminable, the stage looks uninteresting and nothing happens. There is no substantial narrative development. The dramatic tension of the first act, in which Chris (Kate Gorman) suspects she is pregnant to her unpleasant ex-boyfriend, is diffused completely at the top of the second act.

Ther rest of the play is explication or rather banal dialogue between the two about food, virginity, sex, songs, jobs, boys and their parents. There is far too much description of the parents' vaudeville act. A twenty-minute scene discussing a photo album of Tivoli actors cannot replace dramatic dialogue.

This script lacks craft and needs dramaturgy. It would be a much better show if it was halved. An hour of songs and reminiscences could work.
K Herbert

Friday 12 March 1999

I Love You. You're Perfect. Now Change.

Book and Lyrics by Joe Di Pietro; Music by Jimmy Roberts
 Atheneaum Theatre 1 from March 12, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

I Love You. You're Perfect. Now Change has something in common with Mum's the Word which grabbed enormous, mostly female, generally non-theatre-going audiences Both are identification theatre: shows which reflect the viewers' own lives in a light-hearted way.

While Mum's the Word mirrored motherhood, I Love You satirises modern relationships. It is by far the better written of the two, having witty, catchy lyrics (Joe Di Pietro) and snappy, singable show tunes (Jimmy Roberts).

The show is essentially like a washing line of funny, clever songs interspersed with sketches of variable comic quality. There no narrative and no consistent characters but the series of sketches evolve from dating and singledom through to marriage, parenthood and, finally and least successfully, to divorce and widowhood.

Dags date, new parents bore friends with baby-speak and husbands wait while wives shop. Wives wait while husbands watch footy. Single women put up with boring dates, guys cry in 'chick flicks', an exhausted married couple plan to have sex, widowed oldies pick up dates at funerals. A couple avoid dating jitters and sexual tension, skipping straight to the break-up.

The cast of four, directed economically by Andy Gale, includes Julia Morris, Matt Hetherington, Elizabeth O'Hanlon, Tim Wood. They are a joyful, energetic, if motley, crew who sing best in a quartet. The solo numbers, apart from O'Hanlon's, highlight their limited vocal skill.

The songs pass the Old Grey Whistle Test (ie Can you whistle the tune later?) and the lyrics are hilarious. Morris, as a recidivist bridesmaid wearing the ubiquitous awful taffeta dress, sings, "All the husbands are gone, but those dresses live on." Other listenable songs are, The Single Man Drought, Why? Cause I'm a Guy, Tear Jerk, Cantata for a First Date.

Morris's broad comic style is better suited to musical comedy than television. She manages to make even some of the less funny sketches work. Wood and Hetherington make a meal of the comic stereotypical males: dag, goofy new dad, fraught father who dreams of being Elvis.

The audience of mostly couples identified with the joys and horrors of relationships. This is an insubstantial show but, despite its Americanisms, it may hit a similar nerve with Australian audiences. It's been running three years on Broadway.

K Herbert

Wednesday 10 March 1999

The Sick Room, 10 March 1999

by Stephen Sewell
at Playbox at Merlin Theatre from March 9, 1999
Bookings: 9685 5111
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There are better plays in Stephen Sewell's repertoire than his most recent work for Playbox, The Sick Room: The Blind Giant is Dancing, Dreams in an Empty City, Hate and his screen adaptation of The Boys which won an AFI award.

So what went wrong with The Sick Room? The story is viable. 17 year-old Kate (Asher Keddie) who is dying with cancer, is removed by her mother (Celia de Burgh) and father (Peter Curtin) from her family home to live out her last days at the coastal home of her grandfather, (Rhys McConnochie).

Strangely, the play never adequately addresses the family's grief. There is scant evidence that Sewell understands living with a dying family member. Individuals react to death and myriad ways. Even the most insensitive people do not shout all day when someone is dying upstairs. Some may choose to avoid it but surely one might choose to face the dying and act unselfishly for at least a moment.

The problems with this production are certainly not the fault of the actors who struggle to make Sewell's clumsy dialogue credible. Nor are they the fault of Kate Cherry's direction. Cherry has created a poetic, visual environment to help counteract the rather stolid speechifying, the lack of logic in the narrative and the complete lack of sympathy we feel for the characters.

Cherry keeps the series of too-short scenes moving swiftly across the starkly designed and evocatively lit space, (Richard Roberts, Matt Scott) dovetailing them together so that the awkwardness of their endings is less evident. She has worked to create relationships between characters when none are developed within the text.

The actors are not assisted by this lack of relationship between family members. There is too much shouting because every relationship is built on constant conflict that has been a fault in previous Sewell plays.

Keddie's Kate is a potent still point in this chaos. The most compelling, sustained and contained scene was between her and the housekeeper, played by the engaging Beverly Dunn, during which these two strangers discuss death and unfulfilled life.

The intention may have been to raise political issues about the ignorance and selfishness of the monied class or the inability of family's to communicate when most needed, but Sewell fails to penetrate any issue. The play simply peters out in the final moments.
K Herbert

Thursday 4 March 1999

The Terms and Grammar of Creation, 4 Mar 1999

 by Bill Garner and Sue Gore 
at the Domed Reading Room, State Library until March 13, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is nothing new to be shafted by a co-worker or a boss. Evidently it was common practice in the Victorian Public Service even at the turn of the century and, more distressingly, in the hallowed halls of the State Library. Is nothing sacred?

There were not merely shaftings but bun-fights, tantrums, factions, playground squabbles, political manipulations, jobs for the boys, subversion and all other Macchiavellian activity. The comic-tragic truth is that they drew blood over the American Dewey decimal system.

Astoundingly, the two main players in the Library power struggle, Amos Brazier, Sub Librarian (Ian Scott) and Edmund La Touche Armstrong, Chief Librarian (Ernie Gray), were grown men with Masters degrees, educated at Scotch and Melbourne Grammar. Graduates from these schools still behave like head prefect bullies.

Directed humorously by Humphrey Bower in the gloriously opulent and inspiring Domed Reading Room of the State Library, Bill Garner and Sue Gore's play, The Terms and Grammar of Creation, retrieves and revives the fiercely nationalistic, profoundly committed literary soul of Brazier, Armstrong's antagonist who was virtually expunged from library history.

Brazier, played with great dignity and relish by Scott, is a philosopher and literary aficionado whose life work leads to his publication, The Terms and the Grammar of Creation. In this, he describes the principle of creation as, "Will, in and from love, proceeds to life." He is accompanied by a mysterious ethereal singing Muse (Ruth Schoenheimer).

On the other hand, accountant, Robert Boys (Ben Rogan)shadows the lawyer, Armstrong. We are confronted with the battle between a man who values literature, philosophy and Australian classification (Dewey put Australian Literature with Ceylon) and another who values a beautiful building and a scientific classification system. Science and economic rationalism won - although Armstrong got shafted too, finally.

The script is witty, engaging and thoroughly entertaining, informative.without being didactic or dull although it could lose a few scenes in the second half. Gray is hilarious as the limp and ambitious Armstrong for whom his Chief Librarian's hat represents ultimate power. Rogan plays several roles with distinction and hilarity and Schoenheimer is at her best as the voice of the muse reverberating around the dome.

Armstrong may have been a jerk, but at least he left us the Reading Room.

K Herbert

Monday 1 March 1999

The Judas Kiss, Feb-Mar 1999

by David Hare
MTC at Playhouse until March 20, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Recently we have been swamped with versions of Oscar Wilde's story: Wilde, the film starring Stephen Fry, Abbey Theatre's Secret Fall of Constance Wilde and now David Hare's The Judas Kiss. We crave a new angle on Wilde and his dissolute life but, in the re-telling, his story is no less tragic.

Bille Brown is majestic in his portrayal of Wilde. Brown is little known in Melbourne but has a substantial reputation after ten years with the RSC at Stratford and with QTC in Brisbane.

As Wilde, Brown is the pivot of The Judas Kiss which focuses on two narrow corridors of time in Wilde's deteriorating circumstances. Act one occurs in 1895 in the hours prior to his arrest when he might still have escaped to France avoiding imprisonment.

In act two, 1897 in Naples, Wilde is in diminished fiscal and physical condition after two years hard labour in Reading Gaol. He faces abandonment by his lover Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas (Malcolm Kennard).

Hare highlights the personal and intimate rather than the public, theatrical Wilde. Wilde's creative vision, wit and social position cannot save him from public and judicial vilification.

Discreet homosexuality was tolerated but Wilde was never discreet. His maddening vanity and impracticality did not anticipate public condemnation. He inhabited a fantasy world of happy families, rich lovers, successful theatrical ventures and witty conversation. He was doomed.

Hare's microscopic view of Wilde in two profoundly distressing situations left me oddly unmoved apart from a poignant moment when he weeps over his lobster lunch. Brown is compellingly honest and rich in his portrayal of Wilde's suffering but Hare's text lack surprises - apart from the lobster tears.

This is a clever but wordy naturalistic play which breaks no new ground theatrically or historically. Surprisingly in a play about a notorious homosexual, the hottest scene is a very heterosexual sex scene which opens the play leaving director Neil Armfield with a high excitement level to maintain.

As Bosie, Kennard is suitably petulant and spoiled rich kid-ish. It may be a problem with the text but we need to see his charm and love. How else can we believe in Wilde's passion and commitment to him for so many years?

Glenn Hazeldine as Robbie Ross, Wilde's closest friend, is warm and truthful but his character is thinly drawn. There is a charming cameo as the maid from Felicity Price.