Thursday 27 July 2000

Reserved Seating Only; and Misdirected, July 27, 2000

Best and Fairest (2 plays):
Reserved Seating Only by Peter B Sonenstein, adapted by David Paterson;
Misdirected by Joe Borini;
By Boxing Day Productions
Where and When: Trades Hall July 20 - August 19, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Whether you are married to Aussie Rules or you are a football widow who loathes the grip the game has on your spouse, you will enjoy Best and Fairest.

There are two short plays in the program. The first and perhaps the stronger of the pair, is Reserved Seating Only by American playwright, Peter B. Sonenstein directed by Richard Sarell. David Paterson, co-founder of Boxing Day Productions, adapted the play expertly to the Australian context.

He plays Al, a fanatical Essendon support who attends the first game of the season only to find his usual neighbour in the members reserved seating replaced by his missing mate's anti-football wife, Trina (Cecelia Specht). She divorced her husband and took his most treasured possession: his reserved seat ticket. Al is appalled.

Paterson's localisation of the script is intelligent, topical and hilarious. References to Ducklands Stadium's falling metal, crummy turf and bad ticketing are plentiful. He integrates bucket loads of crowd-pleasing epithets, abuse and colloquialisms. "White maggot" is only one.

The beauty of the piece is in the burgeoning relationship between these two undeclared lonely people who find they quite like each other's company.

Al teaches Trina the finer points of the game: commitment, teamwork, sacrifice, elegance. She shows him its incongruities. There is pathos in Trina's need to understand why her husband loved the game more than he loved her.

Both performances are focussed and funny as they are in the second play, Misdirected, written by another American, Joe Borini, and directed by John Higginson. This play does not translate to Australia as successfully as the first.

It is a smart and funny piece about a mail-order bride late in the 19th century, arriving in the remote Victorian Highlands from California to marry an Australian landowner. She arrives at the wrong house in the wrong town with the wrong man.

The humour resides in the miscommunication and mishaps in Misdirected. She is Miss Prim with "the warmth of a lizard and the tact of a hyena" . He is rough and misanthropic. They end up in love of course but it feels a bit like a comic version of Little House on the Prairie.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 26 July 2000

The Eskimo by Matt Cameron, July 26, 2000

Where and when: Beckett Theatre until August 12, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"They want love," says Enid. "I can't give it to them," replies Pedro.

In Matt Cameron's latest play, The Eskimo, Pedro (Peter Houghton) is a pedlar of emotions. He travels over the ice and snow to villages near the northern polar icecap, with his hawker's case filled with medicinal bottles filled with emotions, performing and selling the A to Z of emotion.

"I bottle up emotions," he says. However, love is not one of them. It is the only sentiment he is unable to store or perform for his audience in the streets.

The eskimo of the title is actually a breath-takingly beautiful  catalogue model (Anne Browning) who, like a siren, lures delivery men to her polar home, seduces them then literally takes their breath away, cutting their throats.

But it is Pedro, the cheerful, naive pedlar, who is the real emotional eskimo. He cares for Enid (Christen O'Leary) but cannot feel it or even demonstrate it. He is drawn to the model only to try to break the spell of his lack of real sentiment.

The play, like Cameron's previous works, is non-naturalistic with an absurdist edge. His sketch comedy writing skills are apparent throughout. The dialogue is swift and funny, although the pace and wit sometimes undercut the emotional layering of the narrative and disallow the characters being fully developed.

Enid, the 'widow' of one of the delivery men who disappeared, (Ian Scott) is the repository of real emotion. She suffers grief, love, pain and loss. The others are cool, remote and untouchable, particularly the photographer. (David Tredinnick)

The male gaze on the female is focal. Men lust after the catalogue model as if her photo is pornography for their titillation.

The performances are strong in this production directed by Aidan Fennessy. Houghton's pedlar is a fine study in clown. His comic business and delivery are detailed and hilarious.

The design is stark, (Christina Smith) with only a hole in the ice and a fridge in the space. The horizon features a tiny landscape of houses and the whole is lit with an evocative and striking design by Philip Lethlean.

This is a witty piece by Cameron's new company, Neonheart. What it lacks in depth it makes up in comedy.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 23 July 2000

Macbeth, by The Old Van, July 23, 2000

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, by The Old Van
at Daylesford Convent Gallery Chapel Fri-Sun until August 6, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It was peculiarly appropriate staying at Abergeldie B & B before seeing Macbeth. Abergeldie is named after a Scottish Highlands castle.

Driving from there, through wintry verdant fields to Daylesford Convent to eat a lord's banquet prior to seeing Macbeth, all lent authenticity to the performance in the small and austere blond-wood chapel.

Director, Fiona Blair and The Old Van, have created an abridged and very atmospheric Macbeth with only six actors doubling in roles.

Wrapped in blankets, we huddle on hard wooden pews, as the bloody horrors of Macbeth (Richard Bligh) and Lady Macbeth (Jane Nolan) are revisited.

Macbeth, obsessed with the prophesies of the witches that he will be king, assassinates his admirable king, Duncan, (David Adamson). To maintain his newly-won kingship, he succumbs to his "vaulting ambition" and murders his kinsman, Banquo (Stewart Morritt) and the family of loyalist, Macduff (Adamson)

By this stage, Macbeth is "in blood stepped in so far" that he cannot go back.

This production strips away secondary characters to concentrate on the Macbeths. Apart from forcing Macbeth's murderous actions to occur a little to quickly, this emphasis is successful.

What is lacking is Macbeth's identity as a man of great military prowess. Bligh captures his desperation, weakness and decline very well, but not his strength.

Jane Nolan is superb as Lady Macbeth, whose overweening devotion to her husband's career drives her to suicide. Nolan portrays her as both vulnerable and domineering. Her sleep-walking speech is filled with despair and pain and her passionate demands to her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking place" are compelling.

Morritt's vocal and physical power make a bold and magnetic Banquo. Bagryana Popov is a fine Lady Macduff and a funny Porter. Adamson is kingly and composed as Duncan but needs to differentiate for Macduff.

The spiritual and mystical that pervade the space. Actors are entombed in the misty highland gloom of Rob Irwin's atmospheric lighting. They intone in a manner evocative of both pagan and Christian rites. Pin-lights enclosed in the witches' palms transform the hands into lanterns while candles spill eerie light across walls and a smoke machine spews fog into Birnam Wood.

Make a wintry weekend of it in Daylesford.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 22 July 2000

Virtual Humanoids , July 22, 2000

 by The Men Who Knew Too Much
At Planetarium until 30 July, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Virtual Humanoids is an LSD trip without the paranoia, technology without the expense, comedy without the smoky venue. This is high-tech theatre for the new millenium.

If your last visit to the planetarium was at age eight, go again. The Men Who Knew Too Much perform inside the dome of the Planetarium and take us into theatrical cyberspace.

They tell the story of one night in cyberworld with a disillusioned, lovelorn hacker, Setarcos (Adam Nash). This theatrical conceit is merely a hook on which to hang heaps of cute and funny techno-babble, website gags, peculiar characters and wild images.

The collision of their absurd humour and advanced technology is like The Goons meeting Bladerunner. There are some achingly funny moments, many being visual jokes about the internet. If you have never logged on, do so before the show - or get the kids to fill you in on cyber talk.

The Men use their inimitable vocal style that is reminiscent of Japanese theatre: slow, resonant, deep and atonal. Music (Adam Nash) fills the space and thrums to the insane chorus of four robotic humanoids singing bizarre lyrics. (Patrick Cronin, Simon Hill, Louis Dingemans, Richard Gray)

They appear both live on the stage and in various virtual manifestations on the domed ceiling.

There are special effects to make Hollywood weep. Theatre can transform and transport an audience. This show succeeds. We travel into Ozone City as if in a video game. A member of the audience is hauled onstage, photographed digitally and transposed into the virtual world.

Setarcos keeps appearing as a huge image of a depressive. He seeks his  ideal lover in cyberspace but she is a virtual idol. On his journey, he defers to the Virtual Philosopher (Peter Eckersall) and battles a vulgar laptop.

VH is written and designed by Simon Hill with music and virtual reality by Adam Nash. Susie Dee, director of performance, keeps the action slick and tight. It is a visual and comic treat but it could benefit from a trim and some clarification of the narrative.

VH is not a profound critique of the internet world but it turns an ironic eye onto the madness of cyberspace and extrapolates on what goes on in one man's cyber-mind. Lie back and count the stars.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 20 July 2000

Death of a Salesman, MTC, 20 July 2000

 by Arthur Miller
MTC at Fairfax Studio until August 26, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Watching Willy Loman's deterioration in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is like having emotional sandpaper dragged across one's nerves. It is excruciating.

The tragedy inherent in the play resides in the ordinariness of the characters. Willy (Frank Gallacher) is no hero. He is not even a success in his chosen profession as a salesman. He spent his entire life puffing himself up and raising expectations about his prospects. If tragedy is "a man in a mess", then Willy is its personification.

As Willy, Gallacher is flinty, patriarchal, irrational but still able to evoke our sympathy. He is a disillusioned and broken man with shattered dreams about himself and his sons. His pride is his demise.

  He appeared to be an honourable man to his sons and wife. In fact, he was deceitful, unfaithful and overbearing. Now he simply fabricates stories about himself to bolster his fading self-esteem and relives the glory days of his youth.

In his older age, we witness Willy's failing mental and physical health. He cannot sell. He is on commission. He finally loses his job and, in 1949 when the play premiered, there were no redundancy packages, no unfair dismissal laws and no unemployment benefits in the US.

The scenario is frighteningly relevant to our contemporary world. We still value people according to their earning power, their work history and their public achievements.

Sue Jones is exceptional as Willy's loyal and obliging wife, Linda. She finds a secret strength in her acquiescence to this domineering man.

Matthew Dyktynski portrays the journey of the older son, Biff , with great subtlety. He moves from bravado to self-awareness, anger to confession. His final plea to his father is moving. Luke Elliot is a charming counterpoint as Biff's philandering and superficial brother, Happy.

A collection of roles are played with great finesse by Terry Norris, Rhys McConnochie, Ben Harkin, Amanda Douge and Marco Chiappi (all)

Director, Kate Cherry keeps the focus on the relationships and maintains and intensity that leaves one gasping for breath. She sets the play in a stark, autumnal design (Richard Roberts), the scattered leaves and bare branches being symbolic of Willy's lost years and faded dreams.

Even in his final moment of self-sacrifice, Willy is unable to tell the truth. He dies in a tissue of lies and deceit.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 14 July 2000

Every Perfect Gift by Michael Richards, July 14, 2000

La Mama at the Courthouse until July 16, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is unusual to see a good crime thriller in the theatre. They are usually the property of the small screen. Every Perfect Gift, by Michael Richards, is a good example of the genre, and is particularly entertaining if one has a penchant for the psycho-thriller. Hands up comrades in crime!

Richards is a screen writer which it is evident in the structure and style of his writing. Where is differs from screen, however, is in the staging and some of the content. The space at the Courthouse is almost empty. In fact, the voices bounce a little too much in such a resonant space.

The cavernous stage enables director Phil Roberts to suspend the actors in time and space. Tegan, the protagonist, floats in a blue pool of light centre-stage as if she is an another world. Another three characters are dead, murdered it seems. We see them living in flashbacks.

Tegan (Lisa Angove) is a vague and confused New Age mother of a 13 year old girl. She is taken hostage by Stan, (Jamie Unicomb) a slow-witted bank robber who bungled the robbery, forcing his thuggish half-brother, Arnie (Joe Clements) to kill a copper.
Stan has no plan but he hauls Tegan off to Poppy's (Peita Collard) house where the journey into chaos begins.

The narrative explores the fine line between madness and sanity, elation and depression, piety and sin. Tegan's life is a murky pond when we look into her past. She teeters on the edge of breakdown as she confronts imprisonment and violence at the hands of the men and friendship and support from the hapless crime moll and junkie, Poppy.

Roberts keeps the pace swift and action tight. At times, the lighting design (Julian Firminger) could have focused the action more effectively. Angove finds some very moving moments in the very challenging role of Tegan. Clements is the strength in this production. His portrayal of Arnie is terrifyingly real. He walks the edge of psychotic behaviour almost too credibly.

Richards’ structure is complex. He revisits scenes in the recent past, unpeeling layers of the story for us so we are tantalised by each morsel. Some of the revelations are too slow and some information is repeated too often but generally the slow reveal works like a theatrical strip tease.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 12 July 2000

Exile in Jerusalem, July 12, 2000

 by Motti Lerner
Saltpillar Theatre
at St Martins Theatre until July 30, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The fate of Jews in exile is well documented. Many sought a safe haven and a new home during or after World War Two. According to Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner's Exile in Jerusalem, European Jews who found themselves in Palestine were often treated as aliens in a land called their Homeland.

The dreadful and ironic truth for Werner Hermann (Daniel Dinnen) is that he feel more a German than a Jew. He identifies with his birthplace, his oppressor's nation, not with his cultural and religious group, the Jews.

Else is ostracised for writing her poems in German, her first language, but also the language of the murderous Hitler. Arriving in Palestine in her 70's, she spoke no Hebrew. The artist is alienated in every culture in the end.

Werner harshly describes people in the streets of Jerusalem as "narrow-minded Jews". There is a double edge of racial prejudice visible in this play; the European and Levantine Jews are at loggerheads.

The story is based on the six years spent in Palestine by Else Lasker- Shüler, a German poet, from 1939 to her death in 1945. There she re-encounters  a fellow Berliner, Werner, a younger academic, critic and fan of her poetry. He left his Aryan wife and two daughters in Berlin.

Else (Donna Cohen) is a bright, colourful gipsy creature who lives in a fuzzy fantasy world between reality and fiction. She is demented but writes tiny jewel-like poems. However, these do not translate well into English.

The play raises some intelligent and challenging issues about race and cultural identity but it is inclined to be repetitive and too  long. Danny Gesundheit's direction is pedestrian, slowing the pace with unnecessarily long and complicated scene transitions, too much naturalistic detail. Tightening it up could take off 30 minutes.

Dinnen is charming and eccentric as Werner and finds a range of moods and colour in an essentially dull character. Cohen makes a good attempt at Else but never fully inhabits the character.

Songs from the Yiddish language as well as those of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are injected into the play but could have been more effectively integrated to enhance scene changes.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 9 July 2000

A Beautiful Life, July 9, 2000

 By Michael Futcher and Helen Howard,  Matrix Theatre
 At Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until July 15, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Good theatre moves, transforms and transports an audience. A Beautiful Life does all this, forcing us to assess our views, question our society and shift uncomfortably in our seats.

Writer/directors, Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, took the story of an Iranian immigrant, a musician in their Brisbane company, and created political theatre that challenges our often prejudiced and unfeeling treatment of refugees.

It would be difficult to state a revolution in Australia because of our "no worries" attitude. We live in a country sharing no borders and have never suffered a civil war or oppression as a nation on our own turf.

However, some of our migrants have suffered such horrors. Hamid (Eugene Gilfedder), his wife Jhila (Doris Younane), son Amir (Yalin Ozucelik) and friend Kamran (Errol O'Neill) were sponsored to come to Australia to escape persecution in Iran.

Hamid suffered three years imprisonment without trial for harbouring his friend, Masud (Sandro Colarelli), a member of the Mujahadin.

An even greater horror arises when Hamid, Jhila and Kamran are arrested for a protest that goes wrong at the Iranian Embassy in Canberra in 1992.

The Iranian government under the Ayatollah, was clearly corrupt and oppressive but the Australian government bowed under diplomatic and trade pressure.

Futcher and Howard weave past and present in the narrative. The space is uncluttered and they use theatrical conventions to create location, character and time shifts. It is a joy to watch the stage world transformed by actors with few props and little technology apart form compelling Middle Eastern music and evocative lighting.

The ensemble is excellent. Gilfedder is riveting as the complex and driven Hamid. Younane finds strength and warmth in Jhila and O'Neill demands our compassion for the damaged Kamran. Damien Garvey is frightening as the smiling villain, Ahmad.

We are confronted by the apathy and prejudice of the Australian justice system. The law is uninterested in the past suffering of these people. It cares only about evidence, facts presented by brazen lawyers.

My one criticism is the two-dimensional characterisation in writing and presentation of the Australians. If there is subtlety and range in the character of the Iranians, so is there in us

This weekend, students rioted during a protest in Teheran.  The regime continues in Iran.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 July 2000

Lavender Bags by Jack Hibberd, July 5, 2000

Lavender Bags by Jack Hibberd
At Chapel off Chapel until July 30, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Playwright, Jack Hibberd, is a master of language. Actor, Evelyn Krape, is a human dynamo. Their collaboration in Lavender Bags is a splendid and chaotic confectionary.

Hibberd's script is a delicious collision of the suburban, the lyrical and the vulgar. He marries literary allusions with local references, artistic concepts with banal Australianisms to create hilarious and resonant phrases such as "a surrealist from Sassaffras."

The play is a one hour monodrama, performed by Krape, about Desdemona Jones, a woman well past her prime who is late for her wedding to her Othello; "My Romeo from Omeo," as she describes him.

The play teeters between tragedy and hilarity, Hibberd's trademark. Desdemona prepares for her doomed marriage. She arrives on stage, bursting naked through mirrored doors wearing only a tiny towel over her shoulders and a floral shower cap on her matted Medusa locks. "Delectable?", she pleads.

Krape is exceptional in this role and it appears that she and Hibberd, who directed her, have had a barrel of laughs creating this grotesque and poignant little clown, Desdemona. Krape's performance is abandoned, skilful and wildly funny .

She is vulnerable and crude, sucking on a glue bottle filled with pink gin. " I'm blotto Otto," she quips.

Hibberd's dialogue is a tap turned on full, running like a stream-of-consciousness with wordplays and word associations.

Des dresses progressively in white: French knickers, strapless bra, chemise, gown and veil. She gambols and cavorts in crazy choreography "by Martha Graham Murphy", raving about age, beauty, fashion, love, sex and her parents' creaky marriage.

Mother is an irritating hypochondriac lying abed upstairs. Dad is in an urn in Desdemona's glory box.  Des's own wedding preparations are a bevy of premonitions about the horror and depression that are to be her life.

In order to hide those lavender bags under the eyes, she slathers moisturiser, foundation, even spak-filla onto her face. The lippy makes a drunken clown's mouth, the eye-liner lifts her brows in a perpetual look of astonishment at her life.

Lavender Bags is part of Hibberd's 30-play cycle. We have seen Krape in several including another monodrama, Long Time No See, and in Legacy, about a family wake, both in 1997.

"Life is unreal - unlike the theatre," says Desdemona. We can only agree.

By Kate Herbert

Trelawny of the Wells, July 5, 2000

By Arthur Wing Pinero
Melbourne Theatre Company
At Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 29, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Melbourne has seen very little of Arthur Wing Pinero since 1968. Perhaps we should see more. Trelawny of the Wells is a fine, broad comic production of a bright, clever play from London in 1898.

Period pieces and costume dramas are often best left to the screen, but director, Simon Phillips, keeps it animated, vivid and engaging throughout while Dale Ferguson's lavish design provides the appropriate environment.

Pinero wrote witty dialogue, colourful characters within an intelligent satire of both the bold theatricals and the self-absorbed, arrogant Victorian aristocracy.

Rose Trelawny, (Justine Clarke), leading ingénue at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in the 1860s, is to marry Arthur Gower (Christopher Gabardi). She leaves her plum acting job and gyps actor friends to live temporarily with Arthur's grandfather, Sir William (Bob Hornery) and his great-aunt, Trafalgar (Sue Ingleton) before her marriage.

When she confronts the boredom of an evening 'at home' with the family, she relinquishes her hopes of pleasing her dead mother's wishes to make a good marriage, and returns to Sadler's Wells only to find she has lost her histrionic gifts.

Pinero wrote in a period when serious drama was being accepted in London, a town in love with melodrama, farce and spectacle. Although Pinero's dramas were influenced by Heinrich Ibsen's plays about human dilemmas, his leaning towards naturalism and an ensemble without stars is also demonstrated in this comedy.

This ensemble is exceptionally strong. Clarke is delightfully cheeky with a broad range as Rose. Gabardi cleverly creates a stammering milk-sop in Arthur and Hornery as Sir William is gruff, grotesque and funny.

Greg Stone provides two broadly comic characterisations: one is a vain and histrionic actor, the other a lisping aristocrat. Ernie Bourne, Sue Ingleton, Patrick Blackwell, Rachael Tidd, Richard Piper, Joan Sydney and Tanja Bulatovic must be mentioned for a parade of eccentric characters.

Travis McMahon as actor/writer Tom Wrench, allows the emotional layer of the work to penetrate the surface with great skill. His is the character closest to Pinero himself , although based on an earlier playwright, T.S. Robertson who challenged the theatre with naturalism.

"Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs. Worthington", sang Noel Coward. Pinero cocks a snoot at that saying.

By Kate Herbert