Wednesday 28 November 2001

Alias Grace, Nov 28, 2001

Adapted by Laurence Strangio  from the novel by Margaret Atwood at The Annexe Trades Hall, Nov 28 to Dec 9, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

A fine collaboration between actor, director and designer is always a treat. When combined with a wonderful stage adaptation of an award-winning novelist, we have a special night.

Alias Grace is such a theatrical experience. The script adaptation by director, Laurence Strangio, is from the novel by Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood.

The versatile actor is Caroline Lee who developed the production with Strangio for its first season in 1999. It attracted two Green Room Award nominations.

Lee performs solo on a promenade stage. The audience is seated along one side as she prowls up and down on Anna Tregloan's evocative and prison-like angular set that is lit subtly by Bronwyn Pringle.

Lee is Grace Marks, the notorious 16 year old Canadian housemaid  gaoled in the 1840's for murdering her master, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy.

Alias Grace is a well-crafted script with a compelling performance by Lee. She effortlessly tells Grace's life story and that of the murders in ninety minutes alone on stage. She plays the outwardly foolish maidservant as well as representing the knowing inner life of this disturbed but misunderstood girl.

Her performance has a strange and luminous quality. She crawls inside the peculiar, addled mind of Grace as she narrates and enacts her own story.

There is a wry humour to Lee's interpretation of Grace. Her delivery and timing are impeccable and the complexity of the performance is admirable.

Strangio allows the text and the actor to tell the story by leaving the narration uncluttered. He strips the novel back to the relationship between Dr. Jordan and Grace. We are in suspense until the final scene, waiting to discover the truth of her crime.

The denouement is more disturbing than we expect. Grace is not lying about her innocence. She merely has no knowledge of her guilt.

Scenes are defined by titles announced by Grace: Puss in the Corner, The Tree of Paradise. She introduces us to her doctor, Simon Jordan. Lee then shifts between Irish-accented Grace and Canadian Jordan.

Lee also plays Mary, Grace's murdered friend, her co-accused, McDermott who was hanged for their crimes, Nancy and Kinnear and sundry others.

Alias Grace is riveting theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 27 November 2001

Marcel Marceau , Nov 28 to Dec 5, 2001

produced by Andrew McKinnon Presentations  
 at Playhouse Victorian Arts Centre, Nov 27 until December 5, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There was a mood of anticipation before the curtain rose on Marcel Marceau. We were in the presence of a theatrical legend. We hoped his 78 years had not lessened his genius.

The master did not disappoint. He is impish, impertinent, skilful and relaxed. His performance demands the avid attention and complicity of his audience and is challenging and rewarding.

As is to be expected with age, Marceau has a little less physical control and strength now. However, he is still a master of mimetic illusion. He creates objects out of thin air, vivid locations in an empty space, and peoples the stage with countless quirky characters.

He creates emotional atmosphere from minimal gesture or a shift in expression. The universality of his characters and their simple human stories allows us to identify with their predicaments.

The first half comprises a selection - different each evening - of his best-loved scenarios. On opening night, we were treated to: The Creation of the World, The Public Garden, the Bird Keeper, The Trial The Hands and, lastly, Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death.

After interval, Marceau returns as his popular clown, the sweet and tragic character, Bip, in a series of scenes; Bip as a Street Musician, Bip and the Dating Service, and The Mask Maker.

It is The Mask Maker, which prompted the audience to stand and cheer. It is a classic yet simple mime scenario. The crown is delighted like children by the swift and flawless changes of 'masked' expression by this consummate mime.

Another crowd-pleaser (and my favourite) was the old woman, knitting and gossiping at speed in The Public Garden.

The legal eagles in The Trial are uncannily recognisable: flamboyant and arrogant prosecutor, sympathy-seeking defence lawyer, hapless defendant and stately old judge.

On board ship in Bip at Sea, he convinces us of rising seas, rocking ship and surging seasickness. His poignant expectation of his ideal date in The Dating Service, is hilarious, charming and romantic. The tango with his monstrously tall nightmare date, is riotous.

The show is exceptionally well paced. He intersperses long and short, tragic and comic pieces. It is a fine night 's entertainment and, we can assume, we will never see him again in this country.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 23 November 2001

Paul Jackson - Lighting designer, Nov 23, 2001

Paul Jackson - Lighting designer
by Kate Herbert , Nov 23, 2001

Paul Jackson prefers to sit in the dark at the back of the theatre on opening nights of his shows. Ironically, he is a lighting designer.

You may not be conscious of the stage lighting in a show, particularly if a designer has a subtle touch.  You would, however, sit up like Jackie and complain if there were no lights.

Jackson describes lighting design as being "about building images and articulating space." He selects and emphasise certain things on stage over others, he says.

The designer is not the technical operator twiddling dials up in the bio-box (that little glassed in room up the back of the theatre.) He is a member of the creative team.

The job involves consultation with the director and set designer in order to create an atmosphere through choice of colour, angle of light, type of lamp plus a whole lot of pure inspiration.

For Jackson, it satisfies his "creative, conceptual need and the need to be technical and practical."

Hi most recent design is on stage until December at the Playbox in This Way Up.  Prior to that he designed City of Life for Oz Opera, Teorama for Chamber Made Opera, a double bill of Jack Hibberd and Barry Dickins at Playbox, Hit and Run at La Mama  and Shimmer  at Darebin.

He had a busy 2001 with seven lighting designs as well as production management for Not Yet It's Difficult (NYID)  and for Arena Theatre's tour to Taiwan.

In addition, he is completing a Masters in Australian Poetry and works as a set designer. Thank God for multi-skilling!

"I have my own look," says Jackson. " A series of motifs. A fascination with windows. Like Phil (designer, Phillip Lethlean OK ) I am fascinated with blue as a colour. Like Nathan, (designer, Nathan Thomson OK) I use open white light."

How visible the lighting is varies from show to show says Jackson. " If people come out saying, 'Wow! Green lighting!' then they didn't like the show."

He prefers the lighting to be integral to the production. "It is great if it has a dominant, foreground role but I am not interested in doing a light show".

"To me," he says, "Theatre is about more than just effects. Theatre is primarily a spatial art all about being physically present."

He finds it frustrating when "people who should know better" don't notice lights. "Reviewers often don't notice light although it has been better in recent years. They often don't notice sound or set design either."

Jackson says, "Although my strongest stuff is in intimate spaces, I am very interested in bigger spaces where the project is primarily visual."

The international companies and lighting designs he most admires include Hotel Pro Forma, Copenhagen and the Gate Theatre, Dublin.

Jackson had a Work Study Grant from the Australia Council in 2000 to study lighting design in Banff Canada with mentor, Harry Frehner.

He believes that, "ongoing creative relationships are vitally important." He has continuing collaborations with directors David Pledger (NYID), Daniel Schlusser and Peter Houghton.

They share common goals, a desire for exploration and a strong level of friendship. The work is as much about the people, a need for a sense of community, the constant exchange of ideas, he says.

2002 is already booking up. After a well-earned trip to New York and Canada in December, Jackson will return to design for Peter Houghton in an MTC show at the Fairfax Studio and will do two NYID shows during the year.

Go and see the light!

By Kate Herbert

William 37 by Adam J A Cass, Nov 23, 2001

by Adam J A Cass at La Mama, Nov 23 until December 2, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is puzzling why playwright/director, Adam Cass, chose to write this play based on Shakespeare's thirty-seven plays - puzzling mainly because it struggles to work as a piece of theatre.

Seven actors appear in Cass's ninety-minute narrative that involves numerous pseudo-Shakespearean themes including family, lovers, betrayal, patricide and some unseen terrorists.

The problem is that the narrative is incoherent and the form awkward.  The style keeps changing and the titles of scenes interrupt the flow of story.

The performers and director confuse shouting with passion. The actors do not lack commitment. All seven give the play their best shot.

However, characters are two-dimensional and display no genuine emotion. The actors are not connected to the text so they look uncomfortable and tense most of the time.

The story goes like this. Henry, a father and King (Ian DeLacy) is wounded but was evidently saved by Julia (Hayley Butcher) whose sister, Rebecca, (Vicky Fifis), is a prophetess of sorts.

William, Henry's son, (Lucas Wilson) craves the crown, marries Elizabeth (Justine Beltrame) and suffers the indignity of his father seducing her.

Confused yet? I still am. This is a valiant effort to create a new work that incorporates ideas and incidents from all the plays in chronological order. Each play warranted a two or three minute scene and was announced by the Prologue (Noni Bousfield) and Epilogue (Chris Molyneux).

It is a tall order to attempt to write a script that meets the level of its subject, the greatest English language playwright. Snippets of Shakespeare's own dialogue and poetry peep out of the play and shine. The audience clearly enjoys these references and quotations.

The design, by Paula Levis, is a clever and effective wallpapering of La Mama with enormous black and white printed text from Shakespeare's plays.

The soundscape, (Jeremy Collings) Anthony Pateras) it has some appropriate and interesting moments but is often too loud, intrusive and poorly placed.
More concentration on the central plot line before trying to feed the Shakespearean references into it might have helped the narrative but, as it stands, William 37 is convoluted and confusing.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 14 November 2001

Inside Out, Brunswick Women's Theatre, Nov 14, 2001

Inside Out Brunswick Women's Theatre Brunswick Mechanics' Institute
Nov 14 until December 1 , 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The development of new theatrical work with inexperienced actors can be magical. Inside Out, Brunswick Women's Theatre, is a work that resonates with personal stories of the eighteen performers. 

 Director, Nadja Kostich, makes a moving and provocative work with this group of local women, most of whom have never been on stage before.

This is not a narrative based play. It does not have a linear story. There are threads of the lives of Australian women from all parts of the globe: South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia.

The thematic link is the home. The evocative design by Nina Sanadze incorporates countless window frames and a tiny doll's house floating downstage.

We hear snatches about family, childhood, love and child bearing. Some stories are melancholy, even tragic. Others are bright and hopeful. A Muslim woman, who appears only on video, proclaims in her broken but poetic English, " I can't believe I am freedom."

Kostich is masterly in her direction and nurturing of these women's input. She takes raw material and weaves a spell with it. The women trusted her with sensitive moments and personal revelations.

The form is abstract. The language is at times literal, at others lyrical.

Kostich employs a gestural language that takes advantage of repetition and symbolism to highlight moments in each woman's life. By creating a universal language and stylised representations of stories, we are able to see the threads that bind us rather than those that separate.

A moving monologue is from Maria Cabello talks about her epileptic, disabled son who only speaks to her through a hand puppet. A young woman talks about depression and suicide, a third (Lina Hassan) about escape from a violent regime. There is an eccentric and colourful scene by Julia Jeong who sings and gyrates as if in an Asian brothel.

The scene depicting a cluster of refugees knocking at our continental door is chastening given our recent experiences with boat arrivals.

Music is an intrinsic component of this production. Irene Vela, performs on guitar with the golden-voiced Linda Laasi and cellist Amanda Rowarth. The entire company of women sings but Sarah Clemens is one sweet voice amongst them.

The show has perhaps too many stories to tell and runs a little long. However, Inside Out is a fine example of community, devised theatre. Nadja Kostich must be commended for this sensitive and delightful work.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 13 November 2001

Stones in his Pockets , Nov 13, 2001

By  Marie Jones
 Melbourne Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company 
at Fairfax Studio,  Arts Centre,  until 15 December, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

So often, the Irish are represented on screen as eccentric, cute and quirky. They must be bored to tears with it.

The desire to challenge these stereotypes may have been the motivation for Belfast playwright, Marie Jones, to write Stones in his Pockets.

Strangely, her characters are almost as stereotypical as those in the American 'fillums' that she parodies. It looks as if she wrote it to cater to the US thirst for Irish theatre, not to challenge it. This does not make it any less entertaining.

The residents of a village in County Kerry on the Atlantic coast of Ireland are paid forty quid as extras to add local colour to a movie. The Americans are vain, superficial and self-interested and the film seems comically reminiscent of the awful  Ryan's Daughter.

In this co-production with Sydney Theatre Company, actor, Garry McDonald makes his directorial debut. He keeps the pace swift, the laughs frequent and the stage almost empty.

Richard Roberts spare design hints at location with a slide of the Irish coastline and several film camera cases.

Actors, Greg Stone and Philip Dodd, play multiple characters and are successful in the greater part.

Their central characters, Jake ( Stone) and Charlie ( Dodd) are new to film. Both are losers who fantasise about making it in the movies and with the leading lady.

The movie system conspires to keep them in their places - at the bottom of the food chain and the food queue.

Stone and Dodd make a good comic duo, being physical opposites.  They people the stage with quaint characters, shifting gears in a beat, to change characters.

McDonald directs them as if in a dance as they weave a path from one personality to another.

Stone is delightful as the drunken old villager, Mickey, " 'last remaining extra from 'The Quiet Man.' " As Jake, he is the voice of the disenfranchised Irish. His spritely playing of Sean Harkin offsets the boy's tragedy.

Dodd, as Charlie, elicits our sympathy when he reveals his past and his dreams and his security guard, Jack, is a hoot.

There is some lack of definition in characterisation. Transitions between characters are sometimes blurry. Characters are generally  two-dimensional which is ironic given Jones' apparent intention to break the pattern of Irish representation.
Stones is a warm, amusing and charming play. However, its argument about the exploitation of the Irish is laboured by the end.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 7 November 2001

Beyond the Gate of Heavenly Peace , NOV 7, 2001

by John Ashton and Jian Guo Wu
La Mama at Carlton Courthouse until November 24, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The image of a Chinese student standing vulnerable and resolute in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square is indelibly printed on our common psyche. We are chillingly reminded of this event by video footage in this play.

The immigration to Australia of young people from Mainland China after the massacre is the theme of Beyond the Heavenly Gate, by John Ashton and Jian Guo Wu.

Four young Chinese arrive in Australia on student visas. Their fates and backgrounds comprise the spine of the narrative. 

In the capable hands of director, David Branson four actors, originally from China, Singapore and Indonesia, play the lives of immigrants in this timely story.

There are some problems to be ironed out in the form and structure of the play and in the performances, but its themes are compelling. When the emotional level of the acting deepens, the play is at its best. 

Zu Jihong's ( David Lih) rage at seeing his friend shot and Lu's (Fanny Hanusin) loathing of Australian hypocrisy are passionate moments.

Branson successfully edited the script from three hours to ninety minutes. The play is built on Wu's own experience as an immigrant and in the student uprising at Tiananmen where he was injured.

Ashton's performance poet background gives the script a lyrical and atmospheric language. This is enhanced by the traditional Chinese poems spoken by a Chinese 'coolie' from the 19th century goldfields. (Ron Morales)

The live, original music by Kelvin Tan, Nick Craft and Melissa Compagnoni  is evocative as is the video footage.

Wang Jun ( Warwick Yuen)plays a former soldier who shot  students at Tiananmen. His regret and shame bring him to Australia to find a new life. His friend, Zu Jihong, is an unrealistic, impractical  gambler. His sad fate is sealed. 

The frightening thread of the narrative involves Judy (Hanusin), the daughter of an influential Beijing family. She rips off new Chinese immigrants and uses her timid flatmate (Lorraine Lim) as her puppet. She despises Australians and capitalism. Ironically, she ends up a flourishing business manager. Her refugee application was a tissue of lies. 

The tragedy of the story is palpable. The struggle to survive and overcome adversity is strong. However, Wu does not stint on his criticism of those immigrants who manipulate and abuse their countrymen for their own gain.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 4 November 2001

A Midsummer Night's Dream , VCA Drama, Nov 4, 2001

by William Shakespeare 
VCA Drama School, Studio 45, 45 Sturt St Southbank until November 18, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The austere Victorian College of the Arts Drama School Studio 45, is transformed into a fairy forest at present.

The entry space, contrived as the Duke Theseus' palace, is rich, scarlet and gold. After the opening scene, the audience is moved to seats around the usually cavernous warehouse. The magic of theatrical illusion and design begins to weave its spell.

Set "realiser", Paula Levis, creates an ethereal wood with glittering, fairy-lit trees, falling leaves, rope swings and woody bowers. Sally Hitchcock's sheer cobweb fairy costumes are very sexy and apt. Sound designer (Lydia Teychenne) creates an evocative atmosphere and professional lighting designer, David Murray, lights the woods spectacularly.

Director of the show and Dean of the Drama School, Lindy Davies, secretes, under leaves, flimsily clad fairies brandishing torches in this magical space.

Davies keeps this romantic comedy moving at a swift pace. Each of twelve actors has a substantial role to showcase talents at this exit point from their three years of training.

As Fairy King, Oberon, Angus Grant is passionate and has a clear sense of Shakespeare's language. Alice McConnell plays a luscious Titania and is supported by a sexy, writhing band of fairies (Simon Aylott, Patrick Brammall, Jodie Harris, Rita Kalnejais, Catherine Moore, Peter Cook).

The much-loved wicked fairy, Puck, generally played by a male actor, is played by not one, but two women. (Kalnejais & Harris) They are both cheeky and impish in the role.

This doubling device is most successful in the scene where Puck must fool the two lovers, Lysander) (Aaron Halstead) and Demetrius. (Luke Mullins) who seek their lovers, Helena ( Luisa Hastings Edge) and Hermia. (Amanda Falson)

The production is charming and beautiful to watch. These students make Shakespeare accessible and comprehensible. Performances are particularly strong from Grant, Moore and Edge.

There are a few problems. Some characterisations bleed into others.

And the tradesmen, rehearsing their play for the Duke and his bride, are disappointing clowns. Much of the laughing arose from two actors (Aylott & Moore) simultaneously playing royals and clowns.

This VCA graduation production has one of the great assets of an acting school show: a large available cast, plenty of designers, production crew and fine staff to direct.

Company 2001 comprises twelve acting graduates: six men and six women. All display the burgeoning qualities of the well-trained pre-professional actor. Some are more compelling than others.

By Kate Herbert