Thursday 21 December 2006

2006 Theatre Wrap Up, Melbourne, Dec 21, 2006

Theatre Wrap up 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

2006 was a patchy year but small shows, solos and new musicals win the accolades.

The exceptional solo performance was Jeffferson Mayes in I Am My Own Wife, playing an aged, East Berlin drag queen who survived Nazism and Stalin.

On the other end of the budget spectrum, Peter Houghton performed a parade of characters in The Pitch at La Mama. Houghton featured again as the incapacitated despot, Hamm, opposite David Tredinnick, in a grim but comical Endgame by 11th Hour.

Tragedia Endogonidia, from Italy, was a fascinating theatrical investigation of the fragility of human existence and violence but the two productions I missed were the top of the pops for many: I La Galigo by Robert Wilson and Festen. Pity!

The Commonwealth Games Festival was a huge hit. Two compelling companies demonstrated that circus is now indistinguishable from theatre: Les Septs Doigts de la Main (Montreal) and Cirque Eloize (Paris) who poured their Rain over the Casino stage.

I missed Honour Bound about David Hicks, but two political shows grabbed me. Wages of Spin was a cunning multimedia take on Australian politics but it was Catch a Star…Falling that stole my heart. Ex-junkies, prisoners and homeless rural teens performed a musical based on their lives at risk.

Musicals made a splash and the inspired Keating - The Opera was the leader. Hugh Jackman displayed his star quality in Boy from Oz and the bold, androgenous Iota inhabited Hedwig, the transsexual drag queen in a raunchy rock musical. City of Angels, the Film Noir musical, was a happy surprise as was Women With Standards, a cabaret quartet. Tomfoolery featured the hilarious, laconic songs of Tom Lehrer but overdressed them.

Stephen Sewell’s It Just Stopped was overrated as was Tony McNamara’s The Give and Take and Melbourne Workers’ Theatre remounting of Yanagai Yanagai.

The clangers were many and varied but the Melbourne Festival dropped its bundle with dumb type, an overwhelmingly loud, pretty but emotionally bereft Japanese performance and Now That Communism is Dead… was mostly incomprehensible, loud and punishing theatrical chaos. 

But taking the cake for theatrical disaster was Vignettes and Reminiscences; if only it had called itself a parody we could have roared laughing.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 20 December 2006

Let’s Do It! Women With Standards, Crown Casino, Dec 19, 2006

 Let’s Do It! by Women With Standards
The Palms at Crown, Tues to Sun, Dec 19 to Dec 24, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Take a night off from late night Christmas shopping and parties to see Women With Standards before they close on Christmas Eve. They are worth the trip. 

These four talented professional singers offer a startlingly entertaining and slick jazz cabaret show. Their voices blend deliciously in complex, four-part harmonies that will make your hair stand on end.

The quartet introduces innovative vocal arrangements enhanced by a tight and understated jazz trio of double bass, drums and piano. They sing jazz standards, soul numbers, medleys of sappy love ballads and the odd original song or rewritten lyrics. All are accompanied by stylish yet simple choreography.

They are good-looking, sleek, sophisticated and sassy, each having an individual style, character and personal story to tell. In the first half, they are garbed in eye-catching, jewel-coloured gowns and they open with dreamy harmonies in My Mamma Done Told Me, I’m Every Woman and Girl Talk.

They tease us with cheeky patter; “ I bet you think you’ve got us tabbed: the lesbian, the mum, the bitch and the air-head.” Well, two of these are true but these women are much more than stereotypes. I called them The Mum, The Blonde, Skinny and Spike (Naomi Eyers, Lee McAlistair, Melissa McCraig, Libby O’Donovan).

They do an exciting scat version of I Got The World On A String, a slow and sultry Che Sera Sera then a comical series of lyrics for women to live by, including Keep Young And Beautiful and Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

McCraig and Eyers do a cute medley of duets such as Baby It’s Cold Outside and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. McAlistair sings a smoky-voiced Saving All My Love For You and O’Donovan belts a hot Gospel song, Are You Ready For A Miracle.

Eyers set our spines tingling with her soaring vocals in Aretha Franklin’s Respect and McCraig croons the sad ballad, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life.

These women have super singing credentials, coming from The Fabulous Singlettes and other cabaret groups. The voices are phenomenally powerful and versatile and each woman is engaging. Their comic patter could do with some editing or directing but Let’s Do It! is a happy Christmas surprise package.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Requiem for the 20th Century–Volume One, Nov 20 2006

Requiem for the 20th Century – Volume One 
By Tee O’Neill & Theatre@Risk 
New Ballroom, Trades Hall, Carlton, Nov 20 until Dec 3, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Requiem for the 20th Century is an ambitious project by Theatre@Risk and Tee O’Neill and it succeeds in part. However, one cannot help thinking that it bit off more than it could chew.

The project proposes “to capture the spirit of the 20th century” in two parts. Volume 1 spans the first 45 years and runs for three hours. It sets the story of star-crossed lovers, Red (Angus Grant) and Cassandra (Isabella Dunwill) against the background of the struggles and achievements of 1900 to 1945.

Red grows up in Melbourne then, with his brother, Gerry, (Andre Jewson) enlists in 1914. Meanwhile Cassandra, child of an English diplomat (Alex Pinder) and a Russian aristocrat (Odette Joannidis), arrives in Cairo where she falls in love with Red.

Despite Cassandra’s father’s aim to keep Red safely ensconced in a desk job, Red goes to Gallipoli where he witnesses horrors. Cassandra and Red are parted indefinitely when he returns to Melbourne too late to nurse his mother or shell-shocked brother. Being of noble heart, Red marries his dead brother’s pregnant fiancĂ©e, Alice (Jude Beaumont), and he and Cassandra embark on separate, loveless lives on opposite sides of the globe.

The performances are strong. Durwill is feisty and sympathetic as Cassie and Grant balances Red’s early boyishness with his more mature dignity and bookishness. The supporting cast play multiple roles with alacrity and their chorus work is engaging.

Director, Chris Bendall, keeps the pace swift, wasting no time between the perhaps too numerous scenes.
He composes attractive stage pictures and imbues each scene with energy.

The play begins well but it is simply too long and has too many ideas. O’Neill aims to write an epic play but, although individual scenes are entertaining, the structure is rambling and the script lacks a clear theme or through line. Some dialogue becomes expository with too much historical information.

At times it feels like a lesson in 20th century theatre styles as we visit the Weimar Republic cabaret in Berlin, Meyerhold’s theatre in Moscow and Fernando Arrabal’s play, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War.

Cassandra spends her time with Picasso, Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Lorca, Meyerhold and Brecht. We witness real and fictional scenes about Chaplin, Einstein, Chamberlain and Hitler. We travel to Cairo, Gallipoli, London, Moscow, Spain, Berlin and more.

Despite such weighty material we are left unmoved by any one character or story line. Writing and staging an epic is no picnic and Requiem, although it definitely has merit, needs some retouching – and editing.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 7 December 2006

Vignettes & Reminiscences, Daniel Kahans, Dec 6, 2006

Vignettes and Reminiscences by Daniel Kahans
La Mama, Wed & Sun 6.30pm, Thurs to Sat 8pm until Dec 17, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Daniel Kahans’ Vignettes and Reminiscences, directed by Jill Kahans, is an odd collection of writings. It comprises twenty pieces, all only minutes in duration, but the evening does not make a theatrical whole.

Many pieces are snippets of Kahan’s poetic writings presented in a superficially theatrical mode, that is, they are spoken, sung or danced. Kahans is a retired psychiatrist and his themes range from the more serious topics of depression (Frozen and Seized, Severe Endogenous Depression), Jewish orthodoxy (Talmudist) and Islamic martyrdom (Suicide Bomber) to simple domestic or pastoral themes (Lullaby, Warrandyte, Pied Butcher Bird).

Although most are densely worded and earnest there are some that are quirky and two that rely on dance or movement (Tango with Two Women, Sorrow in Spanish).

Kahans’ poetry is often so florid and cryptic that the meaning is impenetrable and we find ourselves floundering in a sea of complex language and images. Warrandyte is perhaps the most accessible piece with its gentle musings on semi-rural landscape.

Other vignettes are more successful by being sung, allowing the words to become musical and the meaning to be less central to the performance. Julian Wilson, in his rich bass baritone, intones Elegie while dressed as a priest who bemoans his guilty sins and mortifies his flesh with words. David Lawson-Smith hums Lullaby to a baby and Rosalynd Smith imitates, rather awkwardly, a butcherbird’s call.

In a dialogue-based scene, a young woman (Sarah Hamilton) shrieks and writhes her way through an actor’s nightmare audition. The wild overacting became comical here – perhaps unintentionally.

The acting is very uneven and the direction unimaginative. With such short pieces, the scene changes need to be crisp, theatrical and efficient but they are often clumsy. The actors look uncomfortable and members of the ensemble are either underacting or grossly overacting.

Alicia Benn-Lawler’s dance in Sorrow in Spanish seems out of context in this show but it is has some interesting movement. The final tirade, called Funding Cuts to a Throbbing Theatre (Emily Nisman), is a speech about saving La Mama from its Australia Council funding review. Preaching to the audience of converted may not be the most useful political action.

This show lacks a consistent style or form and the writing and direction lack theatricality.

By Kate Herbert

City of Angels, Dec 7, 2006

City of Angels
Music by Cy Coleman, Book by Larry Gelbart, Lyrics by David Zippel
fortyfivedownstairs, Wed to Sat 8pm,  Dec 7 to 16, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

City of Angels is a Film Noir musical set in the 1940s but written in the late 80s. It has a stellar pedigree of writers (Cy Coleman, Larry Gelbart, David Zippel), won six Tony Awards in 1990 and the Edgar Award for Best Play.

Coleman’s score is steeped in the jazz of the 40s and is complemented by Zippel’s complex lyrics that reflect the rhythms and rhymes of the period.

Gelbart constructs a cunning dual plotline. Hero number one is Stine (Mark Doggett) who is writing screenplay of his own detective novel for Buddy (Chris Watkins), the fast-talking Hollywood studio boss. Buddy controls both the script and Stine’s career.

Meanwhile, Stine’s characters come to life in a parallel tale inside the movie script. Stine’s hard-nosed gumshoe, Stone (Tom Stringer), assisted by his loyal secretary, Oolie (Nicolette Minster), struggles to solve the mystery of a missing girl, to resist the wily femme fatale, Alaura (Jane Harber), and to avoid being beaten, shot and arrested.

Gelbart’s script is homage to Raymond Chandler. “She was a handful - maybe two if you played your cards right,” quips Stone. The dialogue is colourful and witty and the twin stories are woven together with characters having counterparts in each story.

Commonly, the movie scenes are played in black and white and the Hollywood writer’s scenes are in colour. This production uses a clever, cartoon-like Noir backdrop (Sahr Willis) for both realities.

Doggett is compelling as Stine, with a rich, soaring voice. His rendition of Double Talk and of Stine’s solo, Funny, were rivetting and his duo with Stringer, You’re Nothing Without Me, was exhilarating and impassioned.

Stringer plays Stone with a laconic ease although his character is more downbeat than suave and sexy. Harber has a feline seductive quality in her twin sex-kitten roles while Minster sings the lament of the secretaries, You Can Always Count on Me, with great conviction.

There is a good support cast in Sarah Louise Younger, Paul Gartside, Margaret Paul and Jeremy Hopkins. The Angel City quartet, singing the quirky chorus numbers, is to be commended for its truth to the 40s style and the seven-piece band, under Adrian Portell, was tight and polished.

Although some of the acting and voices are uneven, director, Peter Mattessi, has created a charming show.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 6 December 2006

Killing Jeremy by Bridgette Burton, Dec 6, 2006

 Killing Jeremy by Bridgette Burton
Hoy Polloy and Baggage Productions
Courthouse Theatre, Wed to Sun 8.15pm,  6 to 16, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Killing Jeremy, by Bridgette Burton, is a two-hander about a young woman coming to terms with her boyfriend being in a coma after a serious car accident.

Director, Wayne Pearn, leaves the stage clinically empty apart from a single hospital bed and a chair. The play begins with Madeleine (Burton) seated by Jeremy’s (Fabian Kahwati) bed, chatting to his lifeless body about their lives, her dreams, his family and avoiding the pressing issue of turning off his ventilator. As his girlfriend, she has no power in the decision, but Jeremy’s family are waiting until she is ready to say goodbye.

Initially, it seems that we are watching a solo show, with Jeremy merely a silent receptacle of Madeleine’s musings. Burton plays not only Madeleine, but her own mother, sister and father, a businesslike nurse, Jeremy’s cool mother and pleasant father. Rather suddenly, Jeremy begins to respond to Madeleine’s chatter, as if he were still alive. Madeleine’s secret, inner dialogue with him becomes real – at least to her.

The pair revisit their first encounter, Jeremy’s love of Heavy Metal music, their dinners with his parents, playful times at home in bed and, most importantly, the fatal drive that led to the car crash. Each time we see the couple in the car, a little more information is revealed. Jeremy wants to marry, Madeleine refuses him, he suggests she is not committed, she says she loves him but was never the marrying kind, she drives erratically and he panics.

The first half provides background to the story but the latter half of the play is the more successful as it concentrates on the relationship between the pair rather than on the other factors and characters in their lives and Jeremy’s death. Madeleine’s obsessive drive to hold on to Jeremy and prove her commitment to him is moving and the denouement tragic.

Burton and Kahwati are playful and engaging performers and Pearn’s concentration on the intimacy of the relationship is effective.

There may be a few sections to iron out in this script but it is certainly a potent vision of one woman’s journey to deal with loss.

By Kate Herbert