Thursday 31 August 2000

The Victor by Adam May, Aug 31, 2000

La Mama at The Courthouse until September 16, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert , 3 Aug 2000

The Victor is actually a play about a Victa lawn mower, circa 1952, which became an Aussie icon along with the Hill's Hoist.

The title refers not only to the pet name given to the mower by Jack (John Flaus) and his family, but to a battle of ownership over the mower. The victor gets the mower.

Jack treats his Victa like a member of the family. He generally gives more attention to Victor than he does to either his wife, Alma (Maureen Hartley) or his adolescent daughter, Kathy. (Donna Matthews)

Jack is retired from his job with a lawn mowing franchise, Autosmooth, but he still mows his neighbour, Mrs. Crimmins lawn on Sunday. Until she dies and her estranged American son arrives for the funeral and to claim the mower his mother lent to Jack 30 years ago.

Victor resides in the living room, is treated fondly, talked to, given a paint job and a lube and finally is hidden in Jack and Alma's bedroom to avoid being taken by his proclaimed real owner, Mal. (Chris Fortuna)

The family is quite mad. The play is absurd in style and all five characters are broad clown-like caricatures rather than three-dimensional personalities.

May, who also directed the play, draws on Australian stereotypes. Mum is church-going, ironing her tea towels and smoothing any ruffled tempers in the home. 

She craves travel away from this suburban nightmare so she obsessively buys boxes of breakfast cereal in order to win a trip to Europe, the second prize in a competition. First prize is a trip to Asia. Alma's nose crinkles with distaste at the thought of Puket and Malaysia in the best racist Aussie way.

The premise has comic potential, but May's script is not a complete  success. It circles around, hunting for a centre. Characters repeat themselves, and the laughs are more commonly from the actors quirky interpretations of character than from jokes in the dialogue.

The actors work hard but it looks like too much effort and they seem uncomfortable much of the time. They are most effective when they drop inside these weird characters rather than demonstrating and shouting to make them work.

May's direction leaves them clattering around on stage in a big empty space and he needs to find an effective comic style. Several more performances might allow the piece to relax a little.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 30 August 2000

BATS in the Belfry in San Francisco, Aug 30, 2000

BATS in the Belfry in San Francisco
Writer: Kate Herbert
Aug 30, 2000

Improvising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. We play games, make up stories and pretend to be other people. Doctors might call this mental illness. For improvisors, it's a lifestyle.

When we collected Keith Johnstone from San Francisco airport, he didn't look like an improvisation guru. The masterly theatre improvisation teacher, writer of 'Impro' and inventor of Theatresports had trouble staying awake. 

Not because we, his impro students, bored him, but because of some soporific medication.
Johnstone travelled Europe with his impro troupe, Theatre Machine, then settled in the town least likely: Calgary, Canada, known for cowboys not comedy.

His comedy improvisation invention, Theatresports, mutated over the Pacific en route to Australia. Calgary provided no show format to Sydney producer, Dennis Watkins at Belvoir Street Theatre, so he improvised. 

Two teams became eight, scenes had time limits, a comedian hosted and tossed Minties, judges were ruthless, teams gladiatorial, fighting tooth and nail for a finals cup. It was AFL with jokes but no firm bums in shorts.

In Melbourne, the furore died down after the late 80s when 2000 people attended grand finals. The format and objectives of Theatresports Melbourne are now closer to Johnstone's original vision. Two of us even travelled 12,000 kilometres to attend a week-long workshop with Keith in August.
 Bay Area Theatresports, (BATS) San Francisco runs an Improv Summer School each year since 1993. Week one is a six day intensive with Keith for experienced players. Week Two, taught by BATS coaches, covers improvised Shakespeare, song, mask and story-telling.

'Be ordinary," says Keith at the school. "Don't be creative." It sounds simple but it is difficult not to want to be clever on stage. Cleverness may make you funny or popular but does not necessarily make a good scene.

"It was very entertaining but I only saw a couple of good scenes tonight," said Johnstone. He dislikes the show-business, gaggy quality that typifies our shows.

"Don't try to improvise. Pay attention to what is happening," he says.  "Try to think, 'What does the audience want?' and give it to them." 

Keith likes naughty, relaxed improvisors. "Don't be well-behaved, Be good-natured and michievous and make my life difficult." 

BATS founder and company member, William Hall, calls Keith a theatrical treasure. "His books and pamphlets have the most practical advice about improvisation that anyone has written."
Dean of the BATS Improv School, Rebbecca Stockley,  started working with Keith in 1985 in Seattle before moving to San Francisco to help set up BATS. 

She says, "Keith's work moves improvisational theatre from the realm of light entertainment to powerful theatre. His theories and approach make good improvisors great improvisors. Keith's style makes it possible to create stories on stage collaboratively in real time."

What we lack in Melbourne is the coherent and stable environment of a theatre company that can support its improvisors as BATS does. 

BATS is improvisor's heaven. They have their own theatre at the Marina overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Shows run Thursday to Sunday and classes most days. 

The company is rigorous and expects its members to participate fully in all aspects of BATS: performing, teaching, skills development, corporate work, development of new work.

The core company comprises 23 players who also teach. There are also intermediate and novice groups. Those accepted into the novices must attend a minimum 72 hours of classes and even then there is no guarantee of passing onto stage. 

Shades of Johnstone and BATS are seeping into Melbourne Theatresports shows. Who knows what you might see in the Grand Final this week.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 27 August 2000

Jumping Mouse, Aug 27, 2000

By John Bolton Trades Hall until September 3, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is nothing more satisfying than a single actor in an empty space weaving a spell using only his physical and vocal skill to create characters and tell a story. Such is John Bolton's Jumping Mouse.

This solo show, directed by Neil Cameron,was first performed in Edinburgh in 1980. After touring internationally throughout the 80s, it is enjoying a revival.

Jumping Mouse is based on a NavajoIndian myth about a myopic mouse that leaves his fearful mouse family to find the great river and finally the Sacred Mountain.

He is helped in his epic quest by a territorial raccoon, a wise frog, a galloping buffalo and a lisping wolf. This story follows the classic hero's journey format of so many tribal myths. The mouse meets creatures who are his mentors, he confronts trials and monsters only to face his fate in the final scene.

It is a story of a simple creature seeking knowledge, experience and change in his life journey. The raccoon teaches him that the noise in his head is the mighty river. the frog send shim to the mountain and the buffalo carries him to his destination.

Through his willingness, generosity and naivete being transformed into one of the majestic eagles who terrified his mousy family.

Bolton first appears as a derelict traveller, wheeling his worldly goods in a battered pram. The character is eccentric, dignified and tells the Jumping Mouse story amongst various diversions into songs, poems, spoon playing and ritual brewing of tea.

Bolton is a consummate performer. His physical and vocal control is impeccable and his comic timing and character detail are both faultless. His relationship with the audience is intimate and his stage persona both charming and disarming.

He shifts effortlessly between characters in a split second and makes a complex acting process appear simple.

Cameron's direction in conjunction with Bolton's performance demystifies the theatrical process, allowing us intermittently to see the mechanics of the show when he comments on the actor's process and relationship to the viewer.

This is accessible and skilful theatre suitable for, although not designed for, families. It is a poignant parable for life told by an idiot.

By Kate Herbert

The River Project, Aug 27, 2000

By John Britton & Hilary Elliott
 La Mama, Carlton until  September 3, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The River Project is the second show this week about a life's journey performed by a solo male actor in a virtually empty space. He tells the story of Jake, an Australian farmer born in 1901 who turned beatnik, hippy and, finally, gypsy.

Britton narrates Jake's life in both first and third person using poetic narrative and wry observation. He adds to the mix a subtle and simple movement vocabulary and a single musician, Dan Witton on double bass, who improvises throughout the show. Each night a different musician plays with Britton. Each night the show is changed.

There is nothing on stage with the actor apart form a series of grotesque white masks dangling like dead men from the ceiling. The actor and the character are constantly surrounded by death masks somehow representing the rambling path of Jake's life scattered with people lost in his past.

Britton is a relaxed and warm presence in the tiny La Mama space. When his CD of ambient river sounds malfunctioned, he continued without it with a gentle quip to the audience. The silence worked. Who knows how the river would add to the atmosphere.

Of course, the show is called The River Project so we can only assume that the river soundscape creates a sense of Jake's long and circuitous journey from 1901 away from the Murray River where he grew up.

Britton conceived and devised the project with Hilary Elliott. It peers into the life of an ordinary man whose life went unnoticed for 90 years as he wandered from his farm life to the city, from war in the Pacific to underground Melbourne in 1956, from Berkeley in 1967 to Byron Bay in the 90s where he meets the ocean and his death.

He conjures with small gestures, the titanic stature of Jake,  a muscular man of six foot four. His characterisations are not detailed but mere suggestions of persons unknown. He accompanies the story-telling with repetitive movement that echoes or pre-empts the action. At times it is mesmerising.

Jake's life is like a meandering river. From its gushing forth at its source, it rushes and slows, bends and finally finds its oceanic end. Such is life.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 3 August 2000

Sweet Road by Debra Oswald, Aug 3, 2000

by Debra Oswald Playbox at Merlin Theatre until August... 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In our wide brown land, we understand 'being on the road'. We travel vast distances on straight roads between towns separated by hundreds of empty kilometres.

There is a sense of liberation is such journeys and Debra Oswald's bitter-sweet, episodic play, Sweet Road, interweaves several such stories.

Director, Aubrey Mellor, with designer, Kathryn Sproul, keeps the stage open and spacious like the desert roads. Vehicles are wheeled on and characters talk directly to us from behind the wheel, on the roadside, at 'servos' or caravan parks.

The road symbolises escape and fantasy. Each character leaves something behind and looks for fulfilment in an unknown place.

Some follow their dreams. Andy (Steve Greig) is child-like, loving and optimistic to a fault. This engaging, eccentric young man, is crossing the desert with his dog, kids and frustrated wife, Carla (Michaela Cantwell).

He chases a good life and a lucrative racing tip on the road to Merwillumbah. Carla seeks a safety for her children and an end to Andy's unpredictable, unwitting betrayals.

In a caravan park, they meet Frank, (Don Barker) an old bloke who is on a trip helping him escape his wife's sudden death.

Bouncy Yasmin (Elizabeth Friels) pursues the tingling sensations of love. Michael (Dominique Sweeney) escapes the accidental death of his child and the pain in his wife's eyes.

The play starts with Jo, (Victoria Eagger) who hits the road when discovering her husband's infidelity. She obsessively drives north to dispose of his husband's sailing trophy, a poignant act of revenge.

The performances are strong, particularly from Greig who portrays with great details and sympathy, the eccentric Andy. Barker's Frank is warm and truthful while Eagger finds an appropriate hysterical quality in Jo. "Looking for love? It's between 'lying' and 'lust' in the dictionary."

The script is stronger in the second half when it uses less monologue and exposition. Dramatic tension increases with dialogue and crisis. The strongest scene is Frank telling Andy about his wife's death. The play craves moments of silence and stillness.

People seek solace in strangers, find humanity and find themselves away from home. Space open road gives us time to think - unless we're Andy who will never change.

By Kate Herbert

The Importance of Being Earnest, Aug 3, 2000

 By Oscar Wilde
 Princess Theatre from August 24, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is a very funny play and this Anglo-Australian production boasts a very fine performance from English actress, Patricia Routledge, as the inimitable and legendary Lady Bracknell. Routledge commands attention and has impeccable comic timing.

The play must be presented as a period costume drama but this production is a little dusty. It is inappropriate to update a Wilde play but a production can take some risks.  In this Chichester Festival version, English director, Christopher Morahan, maintains a conservative line throughout.

The Importance of Being Earnest was Wilde's last performed play before he was gaoled on charges related to homosexuality. It is the epitome of Wilde's style. Upper class snobs of the late 19th century compete for the wittiest quips and most foolish behaviour.

Oscar Wilde whimsically noted  his idea of happiness as "absolute power over men's minds, even if accompanied by toothache." His idea of misery was, "living a poor and respectable life in an obscure village."

Indeed, his initially charmed life fulfilled his aspirations. His comedies were popular, he commanded enormous public and private attention with his wit and intellect, he was affluent and acceptably naughty - until his imprisonment.

John Worthing  (Alistair Petrie), posing as a man called Earnest, visits his friend, Algernon (Theo Fraser Steele) and proposes to Gwendolen (Essie Davis). Gwendolen believes she can love only a man called Earnest.

Cecily (Sarah Kants) also wants a husband called Earnest. "There's something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence."

The script is riddled with arch dialogue and memorable Wildean epithets. Lady Bracknell: "Never speak disrespectfully of  society. Only people who can't get into it do that."

Wilde mocks the inanities of his own class in the same way Moliere did earlier in France.  His characters are self-centred, acquisitive, conceited, foolish and shallow.  As Gwendolen says, "I never change, except in my affections."

As Gwendolen, Davis is pert and versatile and Kants is credible as the country lass.  Steele is foppish and quirky as Algie, milking the gags mercilessly and Petrie, as Worthing, is a good comic counterpart. Beverley Dunn makes a swift but memorable appearance as the governess, Miss Prism.

This production will succeed because it moves swiftly and makes us laugh. It could, however, do with some loosening of the bolts.

By Kate Herbert