Friday 28 March 2003

Jeff Green, March 28, 2003

 Jeff Green
Melbourne Comedy Festival
Lower Melbourne Town Hall, March 28 to April 20, 2003 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

English comedian Jeff Green is a very naughty rascal but the audience gives him heaps of licence. He gets away with plenty of overtly rude material because he is just so damned charming and cute - and he damn well knows it too.

Green is visiting the Melbourne Comedy Festival for the fourth time. Evidently we love him. This year he seems more relaxed, less driven on stage. this does not mean he is any less funny. 

His material is impeccably crafted. His gags run in groups and he keeps topping them until we are exhausted with laughter. His mum gets a lashing this year. Mum and food, mum and comfy beds, mum and kissing, mum not letting you be an adult. Everybody has a mum so he works on identification comedy.

He segues into holiday madness - British holidays. We can justify any stupid action if we are on hols: camping, fishing, boating even going to Adelaide.

Relationships between women and men come in for a bashing again. This seems to be one of his favourite topics. God help his partner who seems to the stimulus for much of the material.

He focuses on the glaring differences of domestic behaviour between men and women. His observations are scarily accurate: hair loss, bikini waxing, doona thieves, loo paper. By the time he finishes we wonder how any heterosexual couples survive.

Dad comes in for a tongue lashing too. Anyone who had a hyper-critical dad will cringe at Green's stories. Finally he reveals what an awful child he was. It seems the wicked pixie eyed adult was just that as a child: wicked and elusive, always winning the charming game with mum.

Green's technique is impeccable. He shifts between topics seamlessly and charms us when he thinks he might have crossed a rudeness line. This is a cunningly crafted hour of comedy by a skilful comedian with a wicked mind. 

By Kate Herbert

Men in Coats, Mick Dow & Maddy Sparham, March 28, 2003

Men in Coats  by Mick Dow & Maddy Sparham 
Melbourne Comedy Festival
Capitol  Theatre , March 28 to April 20, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you prefer a quirky visual gag to a glib line, Men in Coats are your cup of tea. 

This UK duo (Mick Dow and Maddy Sparham) is all slapstick and low budget illusion. They blend material from the old knockabout duos such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello.

They do not speak. They let the visual gags do the talking for them. The audience laughs like children. In fact. this is one show in the Comedy Festival to which you could bring the family and not risk naughty words or deeds on stage.

The difference between this pair of clowns and the old comic double acts is that Men in coats use popular culture images and characters. Superman, Jaws and Six Million Dollar Man and the music from Hawaii 50 and Mission Impossible all make an appearance.

The best clowns look funny before doing a thing. Dow and Sparham look peculiar and hilarious from the moment they appear peering out from deep inside their snorkel faced Eskimo parkas.

They look like cartoon characters.  One is tall, wiry, white-haired and rubber-faced. The other is short, and stocky, wearing huge, goofy, black spectacles.

They are complete dags so they can get away with anything by being charming and low status. They may play at being incompetent, but this is a slick and intelligent hour of physical comedy.

The show has a neat rhythm and the duo slide from one sketch to another effortlessly. It is jammed with clever, brief sight gags which means there is an enormous amount of material burnt up in sixty minutes.

They bring to the physical comedy elements of magicians' shows. We see trashy levitation, balloon tricks, sword swallowing, appearances and disappearances. All these illusions finish with an ironic twist. They even pull a hat out of a rabbit.

The stage has two windows upstage right and left and a curtained change room centre. The restrictions of space allow them to shift swiftly from place to place backstage and create illusions. The windows house shadow screens to create more illusions, finger shadows and even mini men in coats.

Men in Coats is a genuinely clever and hilarious ride through a land of illusion and slapstick.

By Kate Herbert

Daniel Kitson - Something, March 28, 2003

Daniel Kitson   - Something  
Melbourne Comedy Festival

Lower Melbourne Town Hall, March 28 to April 20, 2003 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Daniel Kitson looks like an unmade bed. He is an old doona with a messy haircut. If you like a shambling, recalcitrant, young maverick, he's your guy.

Kitson makes a feast of his own flaws. He has a stammer, a lisp, he's chubby and short, asthmatic and myopic. It's a good bet he avoided beatings by school bullies by being funny as all get out.

He also has, as he describes it, a potty mouth. Kitson is not afraid to use words that are only allowed on tele after 9pm. His presence and style are initially disconcerting. He rarely looks directly at the audience from behind his goggle-eyed spectacles.

He strolls about the stage, head down, taking his time getting to the joke but all the time being pretty damned funny.
 He has a lazy manner that allows him to lull us into complacency. Suddenly his sharp mind, quick wit and obvious intellect and education leap at us. He slips literary and political references in under out guard.

Much of his material is based around his droll Northern English family. More particularly he focuses on his grandmother who died recently. She was rude, short, fat and unbridled. Even her funeral was funny. Kitson jokes about  his Downes Syndrome aunt, feisty uncle and dry-witted dad.

His self-deprecation is intrinsic to his appeal. He hits his sensitive spots before we can. Echoes of the school ground and bully avoidance again. He challenges his own views on love and his fantasies about romance. He has not found his perfect partner because he's too bloody picky - or she's hiding in a bomb shelter being anti-social.

He talks a lot about sex and makes all the men in the audience nervous by talking about occasional impotence. His references to the armed forces are frequent. One whole routine is based around a belligerent audience member - a drunken young soldier who took a dislike to Kitson's criticism of the army.

You need to be resilient to be a comic. Kitson, despite his nerdy appearance, is a potent character with a strange blend of filth and intellect.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 27 March 2003

Chocolate Monkey, John-Paul Hussey , March 27, 2003

 Chocolate Monkey by John-Paul Hussey 
 fortyfivedownstairs, March 27 to April 1, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

John-Paul Hussey is an Eveready bunny, a human dynamo. From the moment he enters the space, he is on like an electric grid.

Chocolate Monkey is a self-narrated, comic, solo performance about a recent period of Hussey's life. The individual story elements are not earth shattering but his execution of them is a theatrical trip.

Hussey is compelling as a performer. He writhes and sways as if possessed. He switches effortlessly between accents and characters. His own natural Irish accent, now slightly Australianised, is the voice of the core character.

As he gambols about in the tiny space at fortyfivedownstairs  he transforms instantly from a surly Russian, a Chinese cook, a provocative Frenchman and a toffy nosed English git.

Amongst these for no apparent reason apart from the fact that it is hilarious, he does an impeccable impersonation of Sean Connery. Another fine character is Peter, the Greek rail worker who has pure Preston Greek-Australian dialect.

One completely disconnected but laugh-out-loud funny moment is his opening representation of how to speak and sound Japanese. Put together freezing, constipation and memory loss and Hussey has a perfect cultural impersonation.

The story is about Hussey's failed attempt to mount his show in an illegal Collingwood space. His anecdotes about local fringe theatre identities, the Irish funeral director and Smith Street junkies are achingly funny. But Chocolate Monkey is not merely a string of jokey characters.

Hussey, with director Lucien Savron holds the series of scenes together with seamless scene changes, sound bites and evocative and intelligent visual imagery.

Classical images, designed by Natalie Lowrey,  appear and mutate before our eyes. Scene titles give us a hint of the story to come.

Kelly Ryall's sound design is an intrinsic component in the performance while the lighting design ( Mark Benson OK  Remo Vallance  creates atmosphere and physical boundaries.

My one concern was the sight lines in the space. When Hussey hits the floor, we want to know what he is doing because everything he does is rivetting.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 26 March 2003

Picking Up Daisies & Plucking Out Pubic Hairs, March 26, 2003

Picking Up Daisies and Plucking Out Pubic Hairs  
By Ian Selvarajoo  
Melbourne Comedy Festival
La Mama, March 26 to April 13, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Picking Up Daisies and Plucking Out Pubic Hairs is a rough, rowdy play about two men and a dead body. Correction - apparently dead body.

It is a black comedy about brothers, Burt   (Damien Richardson)  and Draven  (Michael Burkett)  trying to dispose of the body of a schoolgirl (Geire Kami)  Burt hit with his car outside his front door. Writer, Ian Selvarajoo, creates enormous problems for this pair of rough-head buffoons. How doe Burt clean the blood stained floor?

What does Draven cope with the hidden body falling out of the closet? Do they call an ambulance when she moans and twitches? But their major problem is with Ishikawa,  (Adam Cass)  a childhood friend with a nasty disposition. He was to provide them with a body bag but they reneged on the deal and Ishi is not happy. In fact, Ishi is violent and psychopathic.

Richardson and Burkett make a delightful double act of boofhead clowns. There is menace in big Burt's treatment of his little brother and yet they always seem loving.

Richardson plays the thuggish Burt with relish. His comic timing is impeccable. Burkett plays Draven as a frustratingly fey and intermittently poetic dill. As Ishikawa, Cass finds a mad Mafioso style that works in part.

Director, Peta Hanrahan, maintains a cracking pace and elevates the sense of urgency and danger on the stage. The energy is almost hysterical at the opening as Burt tries to clean his already filthy flat.

This is the first of the La Mama Comedy Festival season. It is not all laughs because Selvarajoo intercuts the comedy with some rather scary and all too real violence. The narrative moves quickly like a Fawlty Towers plot in which the incompetent protagonists make bizarre and maddening choices.

The play falters sometimes. Selvarajoo's dialogue is sometimes out of character for Draven. The scene breaks are awkward and the violence becomes difficult to watch toward the end. We hope the knife is blunted.

Picking Up Daisies and Plucking Out Pubic Hairs is just what the title indicates: rude, rough, funny and naughty.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 20 March 2003

A Different Sky by Caroline Moore , March 20, 2003

A Different Sky  by Caroline Moore
 Chapel off Chapel, March 20 to 30, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

As we face a period of war and insecurity, the issues in Caroline Moore's play, A Different Sky,  become even more relevant.

The play is a short, touching, naturalistic piece about a Dutch Jewish family that migrates to Australia in 1957. The story, based on Moore's own experience, deals with Ronnie,  (Aimee Chapman) an eleven year old boy in a migrant camp.

Chapman plays the young boy with great sympathy and accuracy. Her portrayal of his gawky, pre-pubescent confusion is delightful. It is a rites of passage story. The core of it is Ronnie's discovery that he is Jewish after eleven years of total ignorance of his cultural identity.

His relationship with his mother, Tonya,  (Rashelle McHugh) is the focus of the play. We are aware of his father's presence but never see him. Ronnie's newfound friend, Saskia,  (Suzi Alexopoulos) is the catalyst for Ronnie's awakening.

Ronnie's eyes are opened to his past, his Jewishness, his mother's prejudices and fear and to the differences between nationalities. With whom is he allowed to play? Not Frederick, the German boy, it seems.

Tonya and her husband survived the death camps of the holocaust. Like Moore's own parents, they left Holland when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1957. Ronnie's family seeks a new, safer life in a country that has space, mountains and a different kind of sky. Sadly, Tonya finds that even in this new land, the enemy follows.

Moore cleverly reveals in one moving scene, Tonya's torment. She describes two German women in the laundry talking about their husbands' Nazi activities during the war.

Director, Nic Velissaris,  concentrates appropriately on the story and characters in this production. The relationships are strong and Moore's dialogue is understated and warm.
  There could be some neatening up of the scene changes that are often slow. The set design (Danielle Harrison) is a little awkward and the lighting (Michael Parry) does not give the piece the atmosphere it requires.

Moore's play might be developed further into a larger play. There are parts of the story about which we want to know more.  We are fascinated by Saskia's kleptomaniac mother. And want to meet Ronnie's dad's and the distressing German women.  All these wonderful off-stage characters could fill a bigger play.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 14 March 2003

Ghosts Women's Circus , March 14, 2003

Ghosts  Women's Circus  Shed 14 Victoria Dock, March 14 to April, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Women's Circus' latest production, Ghosts, is directed by Andrea Lemon, the new Artistic Director of the company.  

It is, to some extent, a departure in style from previous shows. There are fewer circus stunts and more movement based chorus scenes. There is no narrative but rather a series of loosely connected vignettes that reflect upon the plight of female refugees.

With about forty performers, this is a huge task and the project succeeds in part. The series of metaphorical episodes represents moments of arrival, escape, rioting, hunger and death. The problem is that the metaphors are not clearly defined. It is often unclear what is the intention or meaning of a scene.

The performance is staged on a stark and evocative set designed by Trina Parker. . Cyclone wire fencing cages the women inside the cavernous space. Rough camp beds line the fences in rigid rows. Huge shipping containers provide the backdrop. The shipping metaphor links these boat refugees to cargo.

One very successful element of the show is the music composed and directed by Andrea  rieniets (OK lower case) Her soundscape and songs are compelling and atmospheric. Lighting design by Gina Gascoigne  provides some dramatic as well as delicate imagery.

Ghosts reflects, through physical imagery, upon those who suffer in our refugee camps. The through line of the show is not clear. However, the performance experience is obviously strong for community of mostly non-professional performers.

The women's training under trainer Andrea Ousley  is evident in the work. They train in acrobatics, acrobalance , dance and for some, shadow puppetry. There is work on the trapeze, cloud swing, the cloth rope called the tissue amongst other work.

It is a delight to see their joy in the work even when there are some chinks in the theatrical elements of the show.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 13 March 2003

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman , March 13, 2003

Death and the Maiden  by Ariel Dorfman 
Chapel off Chapel, until March 16, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Death and the Maiden is a fine piece of writing by Ariel Dorfman. This production, directed by Anthony Georgio goes some way to fulfilling the potential of the script.

Dorfman's play deals with the aftermath of a despotic regime in Latin America. It is a claustrophobic story set in an isolated beach house where Paulina  (Brenda McKinty) lives with her politician husband, Gerardo  (Justin Bechtold)

Paulina wakes one night to find that her husband's house guest is the man she believes to be her former torturer. She wreaks her own vengeance on him by beating him unconscious then gagging and tying him. Her aim is not to kill him but to put him on trial with her husband's assistance.

Issues of justice and democracy are challenged in this play. What do we do when we meet the perpetrators of violence? Do we kill them, punish them, judge or forgive them?

Georgio focuses appropriately on the relationships between the three characters. The alliances and conflicts shift constantly in Dorfman's dialogue.

At times the pace of the production flags, particularly between scenes. However, there is some merit in this production. McKinty gives a passionate performance as the damaged victim. She is vulnerable and powerful in turn.

There are some vocal weaknesses in the male performers. As Gerardo, Bechtold is competent but lacks the power of a man who is now a radical politician. Michael Collins plays the unwitting visitor as a colourless and weak man, which works to some degree.

The set design is simple and naturalistic. Lighting is dim and shadowy which is evocative at times and annoyingly dark at others.

The show is compelling because of Dorfman's cunning plot.

By Kate Herbert

Howard Slowly Does His Man Part, March 13, 2003

Howard Slowly Does His Man Part  by Howard Stanley
 La Mama, March 13 to 23, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

How do we describe Howard Stanley's  alter-ego, Howard Slowly?  About ten years ago, he was known in the comedy clubs as 'the comedian's comedian.'

He might be called a performance artist, a performance poet, a spoken word artist or an eccentric theatrical performer.  The point is it is almost impossible to describe the work.

The publicity says, "This cumulative, evolving, life-event contains words, low level rudeness, infrequent nudity, pointing, one joke, a chair, a plastic fish, a soft toy,(cute blue monkey), a flag (Australian), a frankfurt, scissors and no proselytising."

All this is true. But this is a non-narrative performance with a series of vignettes, raves, poems and silly business that defy definition. It has always been so with Howard Slowly.

The fifty minute show is introduced by a red based plastic goblet that sits in state in a glowing light. Yes, the cup speaks, excited to be on stage for its debut.

Howard Slowly appears with a paper bag over his head. Silently, he weaves his quivering path to the stage. For ten minutes he is silent. The bag is removed. He wears a white neutral mask. When he rips off the mask the grotesquery begins.

What follows is a series of naughty bits. We have several minutes of face pulling and escaping body gases, shall we say. Then come personal raves to the audience about school days.

 The piece is becoming like the French Dada artists of the 1920s. Abstract, irreverent, metaphorical and wicked. There are poems about being a sperm, erections or having sex for the first time. There is a poem about seduction spoken as he massages a wooden chair,

This leads to an hilarious scene with a one-eyes trouser snake that looks like a child's snakey puppet emerging from his trousers.

The material is risky and out on the edge for an audience. and the sexual references go on and on. Armed with scissors, he snips bits from a frankfurter tucked into his zipper. The finale is two pieces from Howard Slowly's latter days. My favourite was always, 'I Am the Acrobat of Love'.

Suffice to say he does extraordinary things with Baci chocolates.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 12 March 2003

Macbeth, Company X , march 7, 2003

Macbeth  by William Shakespeare  Company X
Athenaeum II, March 12 to 23, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Scottish Play, as Shakespeare's Macbeth is known, is not an easy play to stage. There are battle scenes, murders by the cartload and a forest that walks. Company X, under the direction of Simon Piening,  takes on the play with gusto and some success.

One asset of this production is that Piening edits it to two hours and keeps it moving swiftly. The play, if you do not know it, tells of Macbeth (Trent Baker ) who desires the crown. Compelled by his wife (Geraldine Quinn) he kills all and sundry to get and keep it.

Baker has some strength as Macbeth. He captures the usurper's thirst for power, his weakness and obsession. This is a role made famous by the best actors in the world and comparison is inevitable. Macbeth's journey from loyal subject to murdering traitor requires great skill to execute credibly under out contemporary gaze.

Similarly with Lady Macbeth,  Quinn's performance might suffer under scrutiny. She finds passion and the woman's harsh ambition but the character lacks layers. Tom Coulson as Macduff , has a strong vocal quality and finds genuine passion in Macduff's grief and passion for revenge.

The stage is simply designed but the noisy wooden floor is distracting at times. Tim Blundell's  lighting design is evocative and murky. Sound design by Chris Milne  is effective at times.

There are some problems with double casting women as soldiers, boys, murderers and witches. The male doubled roles need some clearer differentiation. Some of the fight scenes are poorly choreographed and guns do not work in this context particularly when they put aside for a fist fight.

Playing witches believably in the 21st century is difficult. The trio  (Quinn, Janine Wilson,  Georgina Durham ) has some impact but their scenes lack real potency and spookiness.

This company is worth watching. It is newly formed and ambitious - like Macbeth.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 6 March 2003

Svila/Mr. Phase/ Bumping Heads , March 6, 2003

 Svila,  Mr. Phase  and Bumping Heads
North Melbourne Town Hall, 6 to 15 March, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Svila, Mr. Phase and Bumping Heads comprises three short pieces that had success during the 2002 Next Wave Festival. The evening is eclectic because each employs a different form of contemporary performance.

In Svila, (meaning 'silk') Anna Liebzeit  creates a sound collage combining spoken word, sound design and song. The story is based on Liebzeit's journey to Novi Sad  in former Yugoslavia, to investigate the past of her father and grandmother.

The performer stands at a microphone like a singer fronting a band. She speaks snatches of poetic narrative, describes her visit and creates an abstract picture of her family's experience in war and immigration.

Liebzeit's own vocal voice and abstract movement is underlaid with a musical and vocal soundscape designed with Steven Adam. This piece in interesting for its content although it is so fragmented the story cannot be clear. Liebzeit is at her best when singing.

Mr. Phase provides performer, Christopher Brown,  with a vehicle to show his skill. He is a compelling and talented performer.  Margaret Cameron's  stylish direction allows him to slide and leap between character, by modulating voice and physicality.

The piece, written by Brown with Thomas Howie,  with sound design by David Franzke,  is clever and funny .
However, its content is hackneyed. It is another parody of television shows and advertising.

Mr. Phase is a man bred without human contact. His only character modelling was through television images, roles and slogans. The piece is relentlessly physical and the torrent of language becomes difficult to absorb finally.

Bumping Heads is performed by Brandan Shelper,  with Claire Byrne. This is an almost totally physical piece of theatre.

It is a series of vignettes about relationship. The form crosses acrobatics and contemporary dance. The least effective scenes are those with dialogue. Both performers are charming and skillful. The collisions of body and personality evoke human relationships through the body rather than dialogue.

The program of three works is worth a look.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 March 2003

Inheritance by Hannie Rayson MTC,

Inheritance by Hannie Rayson 
Melbourne Theatre Company  
Playhouse, Arts Centre, March 5 to April 5, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Life on the land is difficult enough without adversity within a farming family.Hannie Rayson's play, Inheritance, depicts two families warring over a Mallee  property. 

The play is funny, distinctively Australian, with believable characters, emotional layering and a socio-political intention. "It engages with the political and ethical forest in which we lead our lives," to quote Rayson.

Inheritance is based on intensive research into farming communities in the Mallee. The density of the research is both the asset and burden of Rayson's script. On the positive side, family members of the Delaneys  and Hamiltons  are thoroughly credible Aussie battlers. Out of their mouths comes authentic, often hilarious, Australian vernacular.

On the negative side, the play becomes expository. The weight of the research causes mounds of information to be included in narrations and dialogue. That said, Inheritance is a fine fictional representation of a family in crisis.

Eighty year old sisters, Dibs Hamilton  (Monica Maughan ) and Girlie Delaney  (Lois Ramsay ) still live on their family farm. Dibs inherited it on a toss of a coin and her husband, Farley,  (Ronald Falk ) was mater of the land.

On their eightieth birthday, things begin to go awry. Who inherits the farm? This is evidently a burning issue in farming families. Secrecy, deception, self-interest, rights of ownership and an undisclosed will are fuel for an emotionally volatile battle to rival the Ancient Greeks.

Simon Phillips  direction is slick and lively on Shaun Gurton's design, reminiscent of a huge barn.  It is lit evocatively by Nick Schlieper.  and the religious rivalry is captured in Ian McDonald's  music.

Maughan effectively portrays both Dibs' warmth and her latent strength. As Girlie, Ramsay has the funniest lines and makes a meal of them. Falk plays Farley, the senile but still tyrannical old patriarch with sympathy.

As Lyle,  one of the second generation, Steve Bisley   captures the bluster, panic and idealism of the failed but dogged farmer. Wayne Blair  plays Nugget,  the adopted aboriginal son of Dibs and Farley, with compassion and intensity.

Geraldine Turner plays the dislikeable Maureen Delaney  with relish. Suffice to say Maureen is Pauline Hanson  revisited.
 ther recognisable types are city dwellers: the older gay son, (Rhys McConnochie ), the lefty daughter, (Julie Nihill ) and her teenage, vegan son, (Gareth Ellis )

The play is absorbing, funny and reveals issues of rural life we might never consider in our city abodes.

By Kate Herbert