Wednesday 31 May 2000

Believe Me, Oscar Wilde, May 31, 2000

by Barry Dickins
La Mama, From May 31, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Believe me, Oscar Wilde had a helluva life and a hellish ending. Barry Dickins' play, Believe Me, Oscar Wilde, tears at the scab which thinly covers the horror of Wilde's last days.

Dickins himself, like Wilde, was born a writer and an eccentric, so who better to write about his exploits, his world, his mind, art and his pain?

Dickins wordplay differs from Wilde's, but it is complementary. His teasing of language and his poignant, poetic Australianisms are cosy mates for Wilde's "bob mots" and "epigrams". They act as a perfect vehicle for Wilde to take flight anew.

The 65-minute solo play is performed by Sam Sejavka, himself a playwright, and directed with great flair by Lynne Ellis. Lighting (Adam J Howie) and sound design (Nadav Rayman, Boyd Korab) create the complex noise in Oscar's head.

The script is a composite of Oscar and seven characters who were instrumental in his later life. These include his loyal friend Robbie Ross, righteous wife Constance, the magistrate who condemned him, a youthful rent boy, his son Vivien, Bosie his lover and his Paris landlord.

Sejavka as Wilde, is entrapped in Christina Smith's design of a cell-like space, littered with notepaper, old burnt furniture and the odd piece of frippery. We witness the last of his two years hard labour in Reading Gaol after he was convicted, to his amazement, for sodomy.

Wilde believed his life was charmed right up until his conviction when he was abandoned by wife, lover, street boys, London society and his adoring audience.

This is a well-structured and sensitively written homage to Wilde. His pain cries out through Dickins' own words while his abandonment and ostracism are visible through the other characters.

Wilde's genius is referred to but, in this period of grief, his wit causes him excruciating pain. It too has abandoned him.

This is a very challenging piece for an actor alone on stage with nothing but a sea of lively and colourful words for company. Sejavka hits the mark with the rent boy and he certainly imbues Oscar with a contemporary, witty, camp humour.

However, he is not able successfully to transform into so many characters. He seems uncomfortable and lacks the necessary range.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 28 May 2000

The Watch in the Window, May 28, 2000

By Darren Markey
at Chapel off Chapel until June 11, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Some nights in the theatre seem like an eternity. The Watch in the Window is one of those nights. This play begins by being incomprehensible and continues so for at least the first forty minutes.

Two men (Christopher Kirby, David Berman) stand on an elevated stage draped in white curtaining. Their conversation is obscure not because it is absurd, nor because it is poetic. It is simply so purposefully obtuse that it is incoherent.

After far too long, we discover that these men, and another (Daniel McGough) who is roaming about downstage around a park bench, are gods. They are gods whose existences are totally meaningless evidently.

The premise of the story has potential. Gods watch through a window from on high, craving a taste of life on earth. When they fall to earth, they are incapacitated, frightened, despairing.

The problem is that this issue arises only in the last half of the play. These gods are idiots. They may have been watching earth for eons but they have seen nothing. We might hope our gods were more omniscient or, at the very least, sensible.

The cavernous space of the Chapel off Chapel is too large for this production which is also directed by the writer, Darren Markey. Markey has created three mini-sets: Godsville, an earthly penthouse and the park bench.

His direction is clumsy. Actors wander about in the dark waiting for a light to go up on their next scene. All this achieves is to distract us from the on-stage action.

The performances are limited and the acting style so laboured it is an interminable wait for them to find the motivation to speak at all. There is the odd moment, joke or story that grabs the attention towards the end of the two hours. Aris Gounaris has some amusing banter as Chris, the ex-Arcadian landlord.

However, most of the night is garbled, amateurish and excruciatingly slow. It is a surprise that this play is having a return season after a few years break.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 27 May 2000

Thy Kingdom Come, Daniel Lillford, May 27, 2000

By Daniel Lillford
La Mama at the Courthouse May 27 until June 10, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The opening scene of Thy Kingdom Come is exceptionally well written. In fact, it was originally a discrete short play until writer, Daniel Lillford, developed it into the script we see today.

Two young Belfast men stand enshrouded in mist on a muddy field they remember from childhood. One (Ezra Bix) believes he is to be knee-capped for sleeping with the daughter of an IRA leader. He has no idea of the actual punishment awaiting him at the hands of his childhood friend, Brian. (Joe Clements)

Lillford writes striking dialogue. It ducks and weaves, surprising us with its truth and metaphor. He captures the Northern Irish idiom impeccably, as do Clements and Bix.

What follows the opening is almost a series of playlets with common on- and off-stage characters threaded through them. Two women (Helen Hopkins, Carolyn Bock OK) talk in a pub. One is the lover of the doomed man in scene one. She too is fated.

Two republicans (Justin Foster & Bix) hold and torture a hostage but are caught in a British attack. A young woman (Bock) awaits a friend at a bus-stop cafe with a love-starved boy (Foster) and a canny old Irishwoman (Maureen Hartley). An older journalist (Jim Shaw) writes a book about The Troubles, to the chagrin of his young lover. (Bock)

The vignettes are hooked together with patriotic monologues from IRA soldiers, funeral speeches and outpourings of grief, rage and loss from ordinary citizens.

The play highlights "the politics of hate" which rule and ruin the face of Ireland. In this play, an irrational, clannish, primitive, superstitious and parochial Ireland is eating itself from the inside as much as it is lashing out at England.

The dialogue, characters and relationships are Lillford's strength in this text. The narrative and structure need some re-jigging. Performances are all very good although a couple of accents need some attention.

Direction by Kevin Hopkins and Greg Carroll is sleek, swift and innovative. It is enhanced by dramatic lighting (Ian Patching) and a throbbing sound design. (John Scott)

The opening scene is re-incorporated at the end when the assassin (Clements) seeks absolution from a priest. (Shaw) Is there any such thing for sins against one's own people?

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 25 May 2000

Ostinato, Born In A Taxi, May 25, 2000

Ostinato by Born in a Taxi
at Theatreworks; May 25 until June,  2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Ostinato is one of my most satisfying and joyful nights in the theatre recently. It is improvised (don't squeal!) movement performance that creates some beautiful random choreography and hilarious accidental comedy.

Born in a Taxi has the best name in the business for an improvisation group. It captures the spontaneity and sheer astonishment we experience at unexpected moments in our lives.

That's how improvisation on stage works for an audience. It makes us gasp with child-like pleasure at the confluence of ideas, the synchronicity of thought and the mathematical order of patterns on the floor.

This kind of performance relies upon the four artists (Penny Baron, David Wells, Nick Papas, Carolyn Hanna) rehearsing form and style rather than content. It is a highly skilled technique that applies to dance, acting and music alike. It is a return to that place of innocence and play that allows the artist, like the child, to truly create the product during the process.

The stage is bare and black. The costumes are stylish and white. The flow is strewn with talcum powder that, with the swishing of improvising feet, creates a mandala in the centre of the space.

We see emerging, the physical motifs that will permeate the evening's performance : sprinkling hands, rubbing necks, grasping heads, fingers crossed, backs crushed. We watch patterns repeat and echo and images collide to create random choreography. We see images and actions reincorporated to the immense satisfaction of the audience.

We are meaning makers. For this reason, stories and characters relationships and conflicts emerge from what could be chaos. The performers react and respond to impulses, listen and feel each other shift in the space. It is imperceptible to us but they are tuned together like an instrument.

There are honestly some hilarious and spontaneous pure clown moments, many of which are initiated by one of my favourite Melbourne clowns, Penny Baron.

The piano music by Simeon Hen Holt has the persistent rhythmic beat of its title, Ostinato, which means "persistent". It is mesmerising. Lighting operator, Nick Pajanti is improvising with the rest of 'em.

This is a profoundly enjoyable night - and it will be different every performance. Believe me. It really is improvised.

 By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 24 May 2000

Carmen May 24, 2000

By La Cuadra di Sevilla
State Theatre, Arts Centre, May 23-28, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Spanish director, Salvator Tavora, is obviously passionate about rescuing the myth of Carmen from the romantic opera traditions of Bizet and other writers.

In fact, as an Andalusian, he sees his revitalisation of the story as not merely a theatrical challenge, but a social and political one. He remembers his grandmother telling the tale of the original model for this feisty "cigarrera" (cigar maker) called Carmen.

Tavora creates a dance theatre production that integrates flamenco dancers and singers, dialect, guitarists, a bugle and drum band and a spare stage design.

The piece has the fire of the flamenco on stage but it left me astonishingly unmoved. The formalism of the flamenco style of dance removes the story from the real and present. It employs a mimetic style that seems related to classical ballet and equally unmoving

The singing of two women, (Ana Pena, Nuria del Rocio) and one man (Manuel Parrilla Vera) on stage, has more emotional power than the skillful but conventional dancing. Their voices echo the Islamic, Jewish and Christian musical history of Andalusia.

As Carmen, Lalo Tejada is exotic, lean powerful and sensual. She glides and stamps her way through the life of this firebrand who was, according to Tavora, an advocate for women workers' rights despite her own poverty and disenfranchisement.

Marco Vargas, playing her soldier lover, Don Jose Lizarrabengoa, has a princely stature and great physical prowess.

The love scenes between them are so stylised, however, that there is little of the vivid passion that Tavora claims to bring to the stage.

The music is mostly played by the buglers and drummers of the Banda de Cornetas y Tamores Santisimo Cristo de Las Tres Caidas. conducted by Julio Vera. It has a gypsy flavour but is much more militaristic and less dramatically  interesting than the provocative gypsy music of Eastern Europe we hear in Kustirica's film, Underground.

There are several memorable moments in the production, not the least being the appearance of a highly trained horse carrying the picador (Jaime de la Puerta) with whom Carmen is enamoured. Other memorable scenes are Carmen's death and the execution of a dissenter.

Tavora's direction is click and seamless with crisp lighting and fine design. It does not, however, challenge our preconceptions of Carmen. It is a very conventional production that obscures, in its formalism, its political intent.

By Kate Herbert

The Goldberg Variation, May 24, 2000

Written by Ron Elisha by Playbox Theatre
 at Beckett Theatre until June ?  2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Families can be fraught with emotional blackmail, madness, anger and misunderstanding. They are also the people we rely on in a crisis.

Ron Elisha's play, The Goldberg Variations, examines twenty years in the life of the Goldberg family. He chooses to do so through the eyes of a blind man, an outsider.

Sol Goldberg - no relation - makes his living as a speechwriter for Jewish family occasions. Over the twenty years, the Goldbergs come to him to discuss speeches for Nina's 21st birthday, (Christen O'Leary) and engagement party, her parents' 25th wedding anniversary, (John Wood, Catherine Wilkin) the opening of her sculpture exhibition,  her son's barmitzvah and Lev's 56th birthday.

Elisha uses each visit to Sol to reveal a little more about the characters and the family dynamic.

Sol is almost a blank slate for them. He lives alone, isolated in darkness but creates speeches for them out of their own thoughts, comments and feelings.

He is asked to write speeches that will manipulate other members of the family: make mum and dad stay together or force Nina to take her boring optometrist husband's name.

Elisha writes a good gag in the off-hand, cynical style of Woody Allen and Seinfeld. But he also writes some good monologues. His best work is in the second half which is much more substantial and successful.

The finest monologue in the play is from mad Uncle Zev played by Brian Lipson  He speaks to the UN about the state of the Jewish nation and the impact of the Holocaust. Lipson's performance is poignant and beautifully executed.

John Wood is also particularly strong as Lev while Christen O'Leary and Catherine Wilkin are warm and lively presences. .
Unfortunately, the pivotal role of Sol is weakened by Pip Mushin's performance. He is vocally limited, particularly in Act One and misses some fine opportunities to milk the humour and pathos.

Director, Max Gillies,  could have enlivened the stage with more engaging interaction between characters. The design by Shaun Gurton although representing an authentic hermit's cell for Sol, does not enhance the piece.

The Goldberg Variations is a mixed bag, but quite an entertaining evening

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 17 May 2000

Piaf, May 17, 2000

By Pam Gems; Melbourne Theatre Company
at Playhouse, Arts Centre, May 17 until June 17, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is no one like Caroline O'Connor. There is no-one like Piaf. 

Casting the former as the latter was a stroke of genius. O'Connor is vivid, vibrating with joy and anguish as she sings and swears her way through the "little sparrow's" roller coaster life from street waif to drugged-out superstar chanteuse.

Evidently, O'Connor's chose the role and, with director Adam Cook, approached Sydney Theatre Company to create Pam Gems play about Piaf's life.

There is an uncanny resemblance between the two women. O'Connor is a tiny, peculiar urchin with a mobile face, great passion and exceptional vocal skill. She is magnetic as the wild, exotic, brassy working class girl, who cannot live without "l'amour".

The play itself travels through Piaf's entire life. It is lest successful in its opening ten minutes that are awkwardly written and uncomfortable for the actors.

Act One traces Piaf's grubby, poverty-stricken, early life in short episodes. Act two lingers on scenes in her later life when she fights morphine and alcohol addiction, injuries from numerous car accidents and a broken heart.

O'Connor is supported by an excellent cast. Simon Wilton, Michael Carman, Vince Colosimo and Mitchell Butel play all the men in her life: waiters, lovers, bosses, agents, criminals. Butel even does a charming and credible Dietrich impersonation.

Genevieve Lemon is a warm, honest and hilarious presence as Toine, Edith's only friend from her youth, who weaves in and out of Piaf's life.

In spite of all the company she keeps, Piaf is desperately lonely. In spit of her wealth she cannot "hold on to anything". Her street roots never leave her.

O'Connor croons and belts out Piaf's tunes, her heart in her mouth, leaving one breathless. Piaf lived her life as if peeled. She was totally exposed and in the final two songs, La Vie en Rose and No, je ne regrette rien, O'Connor captures her soul.

The play itself is not as good as its subject or its actors. However, it is witty and, strangely, the transposition into rough cockney allows we English speakers to understand the history of Piaf.

 Dale Ferguson's design is subtle and shimmering with a huge half image of Piaf suspended above it. The band, under musical director Ian McDonald, is a gift.

This is a fine production and a perfect vehicle for our finest musical theatre star.
By Kate Herbert

Monday 15 May 2000

Off The Point, May 15, 2000

by Michele Davis
La Mama at Trades Hall, May 15 until May 28, 2000
Bookings: 9347 6142
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Mental illness is less of a taboo subject these days but it still engenders fear in the broader community and confusion despair in the families of sufferers.

Directed by David Symons, Michele Davis's play, Off The Point, plots the lives of a three children as their mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenic episodes. At first the children are frightened and uncomprehending of mum's peculiar bouts of raving about rays from the television stealing al the oxygen and the fact that potatoes are the cure.

Time passes and they are faced with continuing hospitalisation for mum who now thinks she can create peace and protect herself from bad energies with Shakespeare's verse.

 Performances by Amanda Douge, Nathan Bocskay and Michele Williams as mum have potential but the direction is uncomfortable and the play unfinished.

This play deals with important issues and has some good ideas and affecting moments. The problem is that the writer lacks the skill to handle dramatically such complex themes.

The play does not know whose story it is telling. It begins with mum, shifts from the eldest daughter Emma, (Douge) to the younger daughter, Jane (Kestie Morassi) then ends with Sam, the son (Bocskay). It needs some ruthless editing and dramaturgical advice to find its core. It wanders aimlessly, neither serving the themes of mental illness nor creating dramatic tension.

The short episodic scenes interrupt the action, leap through time without establishing the narrative. The clumsy structure does not provide a journey.  Early scenes do not explore sufficiently the mother's illness or her relationship with her children, before it tries to analyse the impact of her disease on her children.

There is an unfortunate moment in Off the Point when it sounds as if the onset of schizophrenia is being blamed on a bad marriage.

Mental illness has its funny side too but it is unwise to get laughs from a woman's pain. It takes a great deal of skill to manipulate anguish and humour in such a context as this.

by Kate Herbert

Wednesday 10 May 2000

Orpheus: An Australian Tragedy, May 10, 2000

by Moira McAuliffe
 La Mama at Carlton Courthouse until May 20, 2000
Bookings: 9347 6142
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Ancient Greek theatre was a poetic form. In fact theatre was written as poetry until quite recently when naturalism took a leap into the foreground.

Director, Peter Green has successfully adapted Moira McAuliffe's poem, Orpheus, for theatre. The piece had a former life outdoors under the trees in Ringwood that would be an idyllic locale for this evocative, pastoral imagery.

This production is inside but Green's design transforms the often atmosphere-free Courthouse into another world. The floor is inches deep with sand and bolts of unbleached calico are stretched from floor to ceiling creating a woodland of fabric. In this environment, Orpheus and the rustic women deal with his grief at the loss of his wife, Eurydice to The Underworld God, Dis.

The poem, on the page, is written for four women (Helen Hopkins, Mary Helen Pirola, Lynda Joyce. Maria Papastamtopoulos). The quality of voices is paramount in this production. McAuliffe's lyrical and imagistic text highlights the unevenness in the performers' skills.

The maturity and richness of Hopkins' vocal  quality is evident and Papastamtopoulos finds resonance and weight as Diana the Huntress. Joyce lacks the power required for this style of work. Pirola is at her best vocally when singing with Luke Sheehy who is Orpheus.

Sheehy has a fine sweet tenor which soars when he is not playing his flute. Music was Orpheus's mode of communication or, as McAuliffe says, "Orpheus called the world together with music". Sheehy captures his passion, grief and beauty.

The text speaks in sounds -"desolation like the sound of an axe"- and Green integrates the hacking sound of the axe on wood. McAuliffe colours the air with potent and poignant lines such as, "the rivers were still branches of stone and the sea was bitten metal".

The piece has a innovative form. It would be enhanced by some more experienced actors but is a strong exploration of text, voice a and sound.

by Kate Herbert

Sunday 7 May 2000

The Chairs, MTC, May 7, 2000

 by Eugene Ionesco, by MTC
 at Fairfax Studio May 7 until June 3, 2000
Bookings: 136166
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

A comic routine often works on repetition

In his 1951 play, The Chairs, Romanian playwright, Eugene Ionesco, pushes repetition to its farcical extreme. By the end of the play, the stage is so jam-packed with chairs of all shapes and sizes, that the ancient couple cannot reach or even see each other.

Ionesco is a master of the Absurd. Although a Romanian, he wrote in French and was part of a coterie of intellectual and artists who challenged conventional forms after the Second World War in Europe.

The Chairs is gloriously anarchic and director, Douglas Horton leaps bravely into the chaos, revealing some surprising and refreshingly new interpretations of this poignant clown tale.

The Old Man and Old Woman (Paul Blackwell, Julie Forsyth), living in confusion and despair on an isolated island, are visited by an enormous crowd of dignitaries who come to hear the Old Man's message about philosophy, existence, the whole damn thing.

His message is to be delivered, not by himself, but by a celebrated Orator. The tragedy is that, when the Orator (Marg Downey) finally arrives, she speaks gibberish and the old couple have leapt to their deaths into the sea.

The pace is relentless. One hilarious moment occurs in the frantic chair moving when three versions of the old woman appear simultaneously. Another inspired choice is the brief appearance of Downey as Orator. Suffice to say, think of SBS without subtitles.

This play can only work with a clutter of detailed comic action and perfect timing. Fortunately, both actors are superbly cast as the two eccentric centenarians and both have the unmistakable look of a clown.

 Forsyth scuttles and twitches as she cossets, admires him. She calls him "poppet" and, like an indulgent mother, believes he is a genius who could have achieved anything - had he bothered.

Blackwell makes the inner world of the Old Man visible as he whines about his missed calling and fawns over his famous guests.

The excellent translation by English playwright, Martin Crimp,  maintains the comic rhythm and wordplay of the original French. Designer,  Dale Ferguson's design - a wall of doors bleeding rust, captures the seediness the farce beautifully. The production is lit stylishly by David Murray and has an unobtrusive, effective soundscape by David Chesworth.

by Kate Herbert

Friday 5 May 2000

Suburban Riot, April 5, 2000

 by Denise Scott, at Cloak Room Melbourne Town Hall until April 23, 2000
Melbourne International Comedy Festival 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Reviewed on same night as Wil Anderson. KH'

Denise Scott is a very different kettle of jokes (...from Wil Anderson. See previous review done on same night.) 

She is unconcerned looking pretty on stage but is absolutely adorable. She appears, tossed like a rag doll into a battered armchair, with her face and clothing smeared with bush-fire ash,

This is a theatrical comedy show. Although Scottie presents as herself, she takes us no a journey through her childhood in daggy Greensborough where nothing ever happens until the bushfires in 1964.

She sings catholic hymns, shows us slides or her childhood achievements and strips to her sequined green callisthenics outfit for a demo of her prowess.

She is comfortable with her audience who feel like old friends by the end of the slide show. Suburban Riot is just that: a riot.

by Kate Herbert

Thursday 4 May 2000

Goodbye Mrs. Blore , May 4, 2000

by Robert Hewett
HIT Productions at Darebin Arts Centre until May 4, 2000
Whitehorse Centre May 5 & 6 then regional centres until June 2000
Bookings: 9416 8933
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Robert Hewett's play, Goodbye Mrs. Blore, is blessed with two very fine actors: Carole Burns and Ailsa Piper. For a couple of hours these two women chase each other around a doctor's surgery and a park bench.

They bicker, protest and care for each other until life cheats them of their relationship. What draws these two unlikely women together into a friendship which survives 27 years?

Kathleen "Kelly" Blore (Burns) is a nuggetty middle-aged women who arrives at Dr. Julia Lewis's (Piper) surgery looking for a discreet "normal" (ie male) doctor. She wants someone who will not make a fuss about the fact she cannot read or that her dull husband in Hurstbridge is not the father of her twins.

We follow their fraught relationship that is initially based on Kelly's irregular visits, bouts of illness and eventually a chance a jaunt together to a film.

The story travels from their meeting in 1964 to their parting in 1991. Hewett writes an episodic play that leaps sometimes four or more years in their lives. The two are at first insufferable to each other but, finally, indispensable.

It is warm and funny with some very well observed dialogue drawn straight from the suburbs of old Australia. There are, however, moments when it is over-written and becomes sentimental. I do not refer to the loving response of the women to each other's illnesses.

The two actors manage to maintain the truth of the relationship throughout, in spite of the odd purple passage. Burns is an actor with impeccable comic timing and a charm and magnetism that leaves one grinning. Piper is a fine foil as the driven young doctor who is part of the new age of feminist thinking.

Their final scenes together are moving and sweet. It makes one want to go home and hug a friend before they are gone.

Director, Babs McMillan keeps the pace swift and the laughs frequent. The design by Anna French remains the same throughout the 27 years, making the latter years resonate with the past.

This play will appeal to a crowd that does not like its theatre too scruffy, too rude, too grim or too arty. It is a strong, conventional work which will do well in a regional tour.
by Kate Herbert