Wednesday 26 July 2006

Oedipus, Eagles Nest Theatre, ,July 25, 2006

Adapted from Sophocles by Robert Reid
Eagles Nest Theatre
Trades Hall: July 25-29. Williamstown Mechanics Institute: Aug 1-5, 2006
Alternates with Hamlet until Aug 5, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Be prepared for an Oedipus that Sophocles did not write in this hybrid script adapted by Robert Reid. 

The production interpolates snatches of Sophocles’ monologues, dialogues and choruses with invented or borrowed text and a grab bag of styles including slapstick, surrealism, murder mystery and vaudeville.

The Oedipus Complex, as the modern world knows it, is introduced by the character of Sigmund Freud (Phil Roberts) who strolls on occasionally to shed psychoanalytical light on the King of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father then married his mother.

Then we have visits from Sherlock Holmes (Phil Zachariah), chewing a pipe and snorting cocaine, who comments on the complexities of the mystery. I don’t know why.

Some of these additions to the original text do work. Freud and Holmes are more successful than the stylistic changes to the Chorus mainly because the two older actors playing them bring some technical skill to their portrayal.

The idea of a chirping, female cabaret ensemble as the Chorus could work but this group of four young women sporting false beards and moustaches and wearing showgirl fishnets, lacks the requisite vocal and acting technique to carry the vaudeville style or to express the resonance of the text.

Sometimes the insertion of contemporary and popular culture references add a layer but generally they are more annoying that insightful.

The scenes that do resonate are those involving a sassy Felicity Steel as Jocasta and playful Trevor Vaughan as Oedipus. Vaughan, although his voice was often rasping (a cold? Too many shows?) finds an intelligent balance between the classical text and the contemporary style.

Director, Robert Reid, effectively layers Steel’s acrobatic skills over Jocasta’s dialogue to create sensual images and evocative poses.

The eclectic stylistic mix includes the use of a giant head puppet to represent Teiresias, the soothsayer, while the Chorus intoned his prophesies. This has some theatrical potential but the stage is so busy and the puppet head so precarious that it is difficult to listen to the text.

The simple design by Michael Roper provides an abstract red canopy for the action and Anita King’s costumes establish a cabaret atmosphere.

This production is more confusing than enlightening about Oedipus but it certainly breaks the boundaries of expectations of the play.

By Kate Herbert

Three Oaks by Monica Raszewski, July 26, 2006

Three Oaks by Monica Raszewski
La Mama, Carlton,  July 26 to Aug 13, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
It is refreshing to see a production illuminate a story with inventive theatrical conventions rather than drown it in irrelevant imagery. Director, Kimberley Grigg, brings imagination and skill to Three Oaks, by Monica Raszewski.
The audience is seated on opposite sides of the space. The air is redolent with the scent of pine needles, bringing to life the Polish forest of the characters’ childhood.
Actors play accordions and violin on stage, evoking location, period, atmosphere and emotion. The rhythms of the play are subtle and the acting fluid and skilful. Grigg interprets the script seamlessly.
Raszewski weaves layers of a family story, memories of a father, letters and paintings, with Polish folk tales and history.
After the death of her father, Janek (Adam Pierzchalski OK), Margaret (Janine Watson), an artist, wants to retrieve some relics of his life in order to write a book. Janek, a Polish migrant, married to Krystyna (Natalia Novikova), left the family when Margaret and sister, Alex (Emily Taylor), were children. He made a new home with his Australian lover, Alice (Fiona Macys).
Marc Raszewski’s design is compelling. Pierced by a pole are three slabs of a tree standing on the bed of pine needles. Ladders rise out of the pine floor, titling at precarious angles, representing the oak forest, creating an obstacle course for the family and providing seats in scenes.
We are agitated and moved by Margaret’s desperation to know her father after his death when she so diligently avoided him before he died. She hunts for a painting she believes her father did for her but finds only a few letters, some paintings, a battered notebook, a recipe and some photos.
Memories of her childhood collide with the present. We witness the alienation of mother and father, the confusion of the sisters, their resistance to father’s lover, the ordinariness of mother cooking and their Polish children’s songs.
Actors shift effortlessly in the space just as ghostly memories filter in and out of Margaret’s thoughts.
The play is about memory and a search for the truth. How do we reconstruct a person’s life and character from fragments and memory?
Scenes around the fractured tree trunk resonate with the Polish heritage of characters and writer. Images of an old woman trapped in a tree and of Russian Kommisars torturing people intersect the tale of the two children lost in the woods.
Three Oaks is an evocative and theatrically satisfying production.
By Kate Herbert

Thursday 20 July 2006

The Woman in Black, July 20, 2006

 The Woman in Black  
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt
By Newtheatricals, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions & Singapore Repertory Theatre
Comedy Theatre,  July 20 to July 28, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 20, 2006

The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt, is a theatrical phenomenon. It has run for 19 years on the West End. Perhaps its longevity is because it is a ghost story. Audiences love to be scared with the lights out in a safe environment.

The play, directed imaginatively by Robin Herford, is a two-hander (John Waters, Brett Tucker) adapted from Susan Hill’s novel.  Mallatratt employed simple theatrical conventions to solve the telling of a wordy story. Two actors play all characters and lighting, props and sound cunningly evoke atmosphere, landscape and terror.

This production begins slowly but dramatic tension escalates when Arthur Kipps (Waters) reaches Eel Marsh House on the intemperate English coast.

Kipps, an aged lawyer, engages a young Actor (Tucker) to train him in the art of public speaking so that he, Kipps, might tell his account of a terrifying, ghostly encounter in his youth and purge himself of its horrors.

The Actor insists the story be theatricalised. He plays Kipps throughout and Kipps plays all other dramatis personae.

A versatile Waters is compelling, transforming physically and vocally with the change of a coat into the numerous eccentric characters in this cleverly wrought production. Each is a study in Englishness: Kipps’ doddering employer; Daly, a sympathetic local; Kedwick, the taciturn carriage driver; Jerome, the nervous land agent; and the publican.

Tucker, as the Actor and the young Kipps, provides a strong balance for Waters. His Actor is an exuberant, arrogance young artist and he depicts Kipps’ journey into darkness and terror credibly.

Kipps must attend the funeral of Mrs. Alice Dablow, an aged client, and then spend days at her isolated manor, sorting her papers. Kipps realises the locals are reticent to speak of her and only Kedwick will drive him. When he arrives, he confronts terrifying phantoms in the graveyard, house and marshes.

The production uses reliable old conventions to scare the pants off us: the sudden reveal, a scream, doors slamming, suspenseful walks into darkened rooms, sputtering out, unreadable tombstones, impenetrable fogs and animated objects.

Michael Holt‘s dusty, old theatre design is a character in its own right. A rear scrim reveals rooms, tombs and staircase when backlit. Damien Cooper’s lighting and smoky atmosphere portray the dense fogs of the marshlands.

But it is the suspense and sudden reveals of the dark lady that elicit shrieks and starts from the audience.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 19 July 2006

The Pajama Game, Production Company, July 19, 2006

The Pajama Game 
Book by George Abbott & Richard Bissell, Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
By The Production Company
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, July 19 to 23, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 19, 2006

It is a novelty these days, to see a trade union win a pay battle but, in The Pajama Game, the seven and a half cents pay rise is a spectacular victory for the union reps and factory workers of Sleeptite Pajamas, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Terence O’Connell’s concert production is a lively romp with a cast and creative team of exceptional local talent.

Abbott and Bissell’s book is a cheeky, sexy tale, particularly for 1956. Based on Bissell’s novel, 7 1/2 Cents, it depicts not only the union battle but also an pyjama erotic factory landscape of burgeoning sexual affairs.

Ian Stenlake is magnetic and virile as the ambitious factory Superintendent, Sid Sorokin. His rich, powerful baritone pairs well with Pippa Grandison’s gutsy voice, ebullient personality and feisty character, Babe Williams, the Grievance Committee of the union.

Sid and Babe’s passionate love affair comes unstitched when Sid fires Babe during a stop work. Management and Union cannot be friends – or lovers.

Adler and Ross’s music and lyrics explain the enormous early success of the show. the songs are memorable and diverse.  

Steam Heat is delicious and features the inimitable Rachel Beck as Gladys, executing Bob Fosse inspired jazzy choreography. (Alana Scanlan) You With the Stars In Our Eyes is a lyrical love song, Once a Year Day a rousing chorus and the tangoesque Hernando’s Hideaway is sung in a downbeat beatnik club.

What made this musical different from others of the period was its setting in an obscure town, in an unromantic factory, peopled by factory workers and secretaries. It was known as the first left-wing musical. However, Sid and Prez (David Harris), the union president, would be sued for sexual harassment these days for their romantic antics.

There is a delightfully quirky support cast including the delectably funny Julie O’Reilly as the cheeky Mabel and Adam Murphy as time and motion foreman, Hines. Beck is one of our hottest musical properties and Harris plays the geeky, skirt-chasing unionist, Prez, with relish. Peter Hosking gives some gravitas to the union-bashing boss, Hasler.

Although this concert production does not have all the bells and whistles of a full production, Peter Casey’s very tight orchestra rouses cheers from the crowd, Phillip Lethlean’s lighting adds atmosphere, Richard Jeziorny’s design creates location and period.

The Pajama Game is an energetic, spunky and sexy night out.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 12 July 2006

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, MTC, July 12, 2006

 I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright
Melbourne Theatre Company with Delphi Productions
Where and When: Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, July 12 to  Aug 1, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 12, 2006

I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, bears the inimitable stamp of an ideal theatrical collaboration between writer, actor, director and designer.

This production boasts the 2004 Pulitzer for Drama and Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Play. Jefferson Mays is captivating; a consummate actor so in command of his technique that it becomes invisible.

Wright believes in storytelling, an element often ignored in contemporary deconstruction. His play is based on personal research into an eccentric, ageing, East German transvestite and collector of late 19th century furniture. He/she was known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Lottchen).

As Wright investigated Charlotte’s seemingly impossible survival under both Nazis and Communists, he uncovered bravery and layers of secrets and deceptions in her murky past.

Mays conjures Charlotte and delivers her fully formed as if through some magical projection from the past. He captures her tottering gait, slight stoop, light voice, careful, broken English and her caginess about her life.

Dressed in a simple black peasant’s frock, headscarf and boots, Charlotte is an anachronism, a freak, a man living as a woman; not a drag queen but an unglamorous old woman.

Charlotte was irrepressible, outliving regimes and becoming a legend in Berlin. She displayed her collection of Grunderzeit antiques (1890-1900) in her own museum and ran an illegal gay club in her cellar for thirty years. As a teenager, she murdered her father, saving her mother from his violence.

But when her Stasi (Secret Police) file was revealed, her innocence was questioned although she denied betraying friends.

Wright is a character in his own play. Such self-referential writing can fail but, in this case, we need to see Charlotte through Wright’s initially na├»ve eyes to understand that her stories are so well rehearsed and impenetrable that the truth is clouded.

Mays’ performance is just short of miraculous. He not only delivers Lotte with his impeccable characterisation, timing, delivery and a wry humour, but he peoples the stage with a parade of other eccentric characters: a US journalist, Charlotte’s aunt, father and friends, Nazis, Stasi, Siggy, the television host and myriad international reporters.

The sheer theatricality of this production is outstanding. Direction by Moises Kaufman is sleek and seamless. Wright’s dialogue is witty, well observed, respectful and enquiring. The superlative design (Derek McLane) represents Charlotte’s life and museum in a wall of clocks, credenzas and her precious gramophones.

This show will renew your faith in theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Rebel Tour by Stephen Vagg, July 5, 2006

  Rebel Tour by Stephen Vagg
 La Mama at the Courthouse, July 5 to 15, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 5, 2006

Now that the Australians are out of the soccer, there might be some cricket tragics who would like to reminisce about the political debate that surrounded the Australian rebel cricket tour to South Africa from 1985 to 1987.

Stephen Vagg’s play takes place during the secretive negotiation period before the tour. It is a snapshot of the machinations that occurred inside the Australian Cricket Board (ACB), the Australian government and the personal lives of the players concerned although the characters are fictitious.

In this period, the face of Australian cricket changed forever. Players became professional, negotiated contracts, and higher salaries, Kerry Packer introduced “pyjama cricket” - the one-day games, and the ACB introduced trainers, physiotherapists and dieticians to the game.

The production will appeal to those who know recent cricket history. The script is educational and integrates enormous amounts of factual information into the dialogue. At times, the details are overwhelming and the dialogue becomes uncomfortably didactic and expository.

Although there are some monologues directly to audience, most of the play is naturalistic. We watch players, Ken, the Chairman (Ian Rooney) and Ray, the team lawyer (Adam Ford) haggle over contracts in offices, bars and locker rooms.

Taylor is instrumental in the changes taking place in the ACB. He introduces salaries, professionalism and two-year contracts. Ken pines for the amateur days before money ruled the game and Packer had no power.

When Conrad Van Eyck (Andrew S. Gilbert), a South African, secretly signs up several Aussie cricket legends for $200,000 each, the seams begin to split at the ACB.

The politics of the period are effectively embedded in the story. South Africa faced international economic and sporting sanctions until it dismantled Apartheid. The Australian government banned all sporting contact with South Africa. Many Australians believed politics should not interfere with sport.

The acting is uneven and the production, directed by John Brousek, is very static, relying on the torrent of dialogue. It could benefit from some script editing and more physicalisation. Some actors are tripping over their densely written lines.

The characters are recognisable types in the sporting world. Josh Cameron as Chicka is a loutish bowler who blames batsmen for everything. Leo Faust plays Jack, the nice-guy batsman and Matthew Boesenberg is Butch, the unpredictable batsman.

A highlight is Phil Roberts as the cricket-hungry senator who gives an impassioned speech in parliament about sport and Apartheid.

If you are missing the cricket season, Rebel Tour could fill the gap for you.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 4 July 2006

La Douleur by Marguerite Duras, July 4, 2006

La Douleur by Marguerite Duras 
adapted by Laurence Strangio & Caroline Lee 
by Malthouse Theatre
Beckett theatre, Malthouse, July 4 to July 23,  2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 4, 2006

Marguerite Duras has a potent capacity to startle an audience with her simple detail. In this play based on her novella, La Douleur, her language shifts from personal to reportage, from the “I” to the “she” and the observational to the emotional.

The diary notes that comprise La Douleur were written at the end of World War One, forty years before the novella was published.  These writings were adapted for the stage by director, Laurence Strangio, and actor, Caroline Lee.

Lee, as Marguerite, restlessly paces on Anna Tregloan‘s evocative, cage-like set design. As she self-narrates the story, Lee reclines melancholically on the divan, snatches the old telephone from its cradle or paces aimlessly.

But mostly she waits. She waits for news of her husband, Robert L’s return from the German concentration camp or news of his death. Lee and Strangio capture the interminable and unbearable quality of her waiting. Time is elastic. Days stretch into weeks. 

Waiting may not be intrinsically dramatic but Duras’ intense observation of every detail of mind and body is rivetting.

Lee balances Duras’ combative attitude with her girlishness. Her light voice vibrates with fragility and suffering. She vividly creates the spectre of Robert’s emaciated body lying prone on the divan after his shocking return and evokes the shadowy presence of Marguerite’s lover, known only as D.

The emotional gulf she experiences between herself and her wretched, estranged husband and the literal ditch in which she saw a dying German soldier, are represented cunningly by a real breach in the stage.

Strangio’s direction is spare, never interfering with the text and always offering a gently abstracted physicalisation of the action.

David Franzke’s atmospheric soundscape is almost subliminal in its subtlety and Richard Vabre’s dim, smoky lighting reminds us of the half-life of pain and loss in which Marguerite and Robert are living.

The audience peers, like voyeurs, into the space from the two opposite sides of the traverse seating arrangement.

There is no melodrama in the performance, the style or in Duras’ writing. She demands out attention. The dialogue has what Duras’ described as “a tremendous chaos of feeling” that is counterpointed by the simple, plain speaking style of Lee.

In this delicately rendered solo production Duras, through Lee, reveals the atrocities of war, its horrific and unseen aftermath and the people who suffer.

By Kate Herbert