Wednesday 31 January 2007

El Caballo Blanco, Jan 31, 2007

El Caballo Blanco
By Equestrian Entertainment (dinner and show)
 Burnley Oval, Melbourne, from Jan 31, 2007 (no closing date)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse) is a misnomer – not all the Spanish Horses in this show are white although all are magnificent, intelligent and strong. 

The range of horses in Rene Gasser’s equestrian feast includes the white Lippizaners, those spectacular and powerfully built white stallions with impeccable regal bearing and a deeply arched neck. These striking beasts were bred for the Arch-Duke Charles of Austro-Hungary in the 16th century and are a cross breed of the Andalusian, favoured by European royalty, and the descendants of the horses used in Roman chariots.

These snowy beauties share the arena with the pretty, glossy, dark-coated Friesian that shares some Andalusian blood and has an extraordinarily long mane, forelock and tail. The Arabian, also historically mixed with Andalusians, is the final elegant breed and, it is said, was made by God from the wind.

The show is enthralling. The exceptional horse trainer and ringmaster, Rene Gasser, leads a team of riders as he puts the steeds through their astonishing paces on the sand-filled arena. The audience sits on four sides of the purpose-built Palacio Grande, a large marquee, and eats a delectable dinner before witnessing the incredible dexterity and athleticism of these majestic dancing stallions.

An onstage narrator provides us with the history of the stallions and we are treated to a display of training techniques as Gasser imperceptibly encourages the horses to perform complex moves including the Levade, Piaffe, Courbette and the Capriole. The last is a stunningly difficult posture with the horse rampant and kicking out with the hind legs.

These extremely sensitive and intelligent horses were originally bred for the battlefield so the Capriole was designed to scatter enemy horses.

Although the equine beasts are the stars here, the skill of the unobtrusive riders is fascinating and the Flamenco guitarist and two passionate flamenco dancers add a further artistic dimension to the evening.

Gasser’s rapport with and love for the stallions is palpable and compelling for the audience. Even those with no horse knowledge can delight in the intricate, delicate and powerful movements of the equine cast and reminisce about those childhood dreams of owning a pony.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 25 January 2007

Her Aching Heart, Jan 25, 2007

Her Aching Heart 
by Bryony Lavery by Wishing Well Productions
La Mama, Wed to Sun, Jan 25 to Feb 11, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Her Aching Heart, by Bryony Lavery, is an historical bodice-ripper with a twist; the romantic couple, separated by social class, is two women.

 Lady Harriet Helstone (Madeleine Swain) is “wilful, spoiled and impetuous”, a, feisty, unmarried young woman riding her horse, Thunder, to hounds and living on her family property in Cornwall. Lady Harriet bullies her maid, taunts her suitors and treats the peasants as chattels.

Although just as opinionated and stubborn, Molly Penhallow (Helen Katerelos) is a tender-hearted, educated peasant girl who rescues a fox from the hunt, revives a dying bird and resuscitates a battered peasant.

Lavery’s script lacks the complexity and skill of her award-winning play, Frozen, but it is a cheerful parody of Victorian melodrama. Each scene has a title scrawled on a series of flip cards and introduced by the on-stage musician (Ben Kiley). Interwoven with the historical romance is a contemporary love story between a modern couple, also called Harriet and Molly. This story is coloured by modern and original love songs that are generally discordant with the period story.

Swain captures particularly well the histrionic acting style of the melodrama and her peasant Granny and Yokel are very funny. Her Lady Harriet is a strapping young thing and Swain revels in her egotistical posturing and her florid, poetic language.

Katerelos’ strength is in her singing but her Molly Penhallow is an effective combination of sweetness and spitfire. She does a fine rendition of a languorous ballad, Gave It Up Loving.

Director, Sarah McCusker, keeps scene changes swift by having the women changing costumes and characters on stage. The set is minimal: a rack of clothing and a framework that serves as an upright bed, various tapestries and a Christian crucifix.

The main flaw in this production and script is the awkward threading of the modern love story with the historical romance. The two modern women are reading Her Aching Heart, Lady Harriet’s story, and both act as narrators. However, their own meetings, dating, separation, jealousies and love story are not drawn in any detail so we have little attachment to them. The two styles of naturalism and melodrama do not dovetail successfully.

There are some great belly laughs, particularly from Lady Harriet’s snobbish rantings and the parody makes it a fun night’s entertainment.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 24 January 2007

The Object of Desire, Julia Britton, Jan 24, 2007

The Object of Desire by Julia Britton
La Mama,  Wed to  Sun, Jan 24 until Feb 11, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Bloomsbury Group challenged artistic, literary and sexual norms in the early 20th century England. 

Duncan Grant (Gerry Sont), the decorative artist, was purportedly adorable and charming - and homosexual. However, as was the case with many of the Bloomsbury set, he also had heterosexual relationships. He lived for most of his adult life at a country property called Charleston with Vanessa Bell (Fabienne Parr), Virginia Woolf’s (Robynne Kelly) sister, who was his lifelong companion, lover and mother of his child, Angelica.

Julia Britton’s play provides us with plenty of information about Grant’s sex life and describes many of his famous and infamous friends, sexual encounters and passions. This busy, expository style is the main flaw in the script. The characters speak in prose rather than dialogue, much of it being self-narration by Grant or pithy quotes from his associates.

Although the program states that Grant is locked in his room after Vanessa’s death remembering his past, this is unclear in the performance. Grant’s relationship with Vanessa is not the focus of the play, there are too many characters and Grant’s memories of his life are too broad and biographical. Biography rarely makes good theatre unless used selectively; a life does not have a natural dramatic arc.

Director, Robert Chuter, clutters the tiny space unnecessarily with furniture, paintings and the entire cast of eleven who remain on stage throughout. There are far too many characters so we can never attach to any individual. This is not to say that some of the people depicted are not interesting, simply that we see too little of each and too many who are extraneous to the story.

There are several good performances. Sont flutters about prettily as Grant, capturing his effete charm. Kelly is effective in a number of smaller roles, Phil Roberts plays the incorrigible Lytton Strachey with relish and Jonathan Dyer is suitably dignified as the intellectual John Maynard Keynes. Parr’s Vanessa is mild and loving but we crave more of her to understand Grant’s commitment to her and why he grieves her death.

The Object of Desire is an interesting, documentary view of Grant and his loving friends, but lacks theatricality.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 17 January 2007

The Golem of Ruckers Hill, Jan 17 2007

The Golem of Ruckers Hill
written by Michael Camilleri, Bernard Caleo & Daniel Schlusser  
By Platform Youth Theatre
Northcote Town Hall, Wed to Sat,  until Jan  21, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 17 2007

The titular character in The Golem of Ruckers Hill, by Platform Youth Theatre, is based on the Prague Ghetto myth of the Golem, a creature conjured from the clay imbued with death and blood of Jews.

The Northcote Golem is constructed from Merri Creek mud. The play is also inspired by Code Red, the severe risk of attack by terrorists.

The cast of young performers, puppeteers and singers is totally committed to this rather bizarre idea and to the perambulatory nature of the show. We are lead by a town crier to a car park, to the ramp outside the Northcote Town Hall, to the foyer and stairs, a meeting room, through the musty old town hall and into an anteroom for the finale.

There is perhaps too much perambulating for a large audience and the show could be more effective if  30 minutes shorter.

We discover, in a meeting of Northcote’s “spiritual leaders”, that the town faces an imminent terrorist threat. The leaders are asked to offer weapons to defend the community. The Mayor (Francesco Minniti) will not agree to a safe, non-life-threatening weapon called Black Lightning, as it will use all available power and leave the community without electricity or cars.

In order to preserve Northcote’s wealth and lifestyle, the leaders decide to create from the mud a violent, supernatural creature, a Golem. He is a superhero initially, then degenerates into a skyscraper sized thug who eats citizens for breakfast.

The intention and the metaphor are not quite clear. Have we constructed a commercial or a military monster to protect our lifestyle and let it run out of control? Perhaps having three writers caused the lack of clear through line.

The show has some clever puppetry. The Golem (Rennie Watson) is a monster on stilts, wearing mud-like rags. His titanic head swallows people, including the audience. Director, Michael Camilleri, controls the audience viewpoint so that we see Golem devouring the Mayor in an upstairs window and have an eerily interrupted view of the monster being created in a smoke-filled room.

Timothy Camilleri has presence as the Rabbi, Stefania Franja is a compelling narrator and Watson sustains the stilt-walking Golem effectively.

The Golem is a grab bag of styles and concepts but provides a vehicle for young performers to strut their stuff.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 11 January 2007

Don’s Party by David Williamson, MTC, Jan 11, 2007

Don’s Party by David Williamson
Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Jan 11 to Feb 10, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 11

Don’s Party is stuffed with crass, drunken, educated yobs. 

Regrettably, these types are familiar 35 years after Williamson’s premiere in 1972. Don’s 1969 election night party begins as a tentative, chips and Twisties evening then morphs into a booze-fuelled, sex-crazed wake for the Labour Party as hopes are dashed of the Left winning the election after 20 years of Liberal government.

Williamson’s satirical style changed little over the decades and his habit of plundering the idiosyncrasies of a “tribe” for humour and pain is evident in this early play. Although, technically, the script is a bumpy ride and the characters have broad brushstrokes, the play, under Peter Evans’ direction, is outrageously funny.

Don (Steve Le Marquand), a schoolteacher, dumped his aspirations to write the great Aussie novel when he moved to the suburbs with his depressed, dissatisfied wife, Kath (Mandy McElhinney). His best mate, Mal (Christopher Pitman), a sleazy psychologist, sold out his radical politics to work as an executive head-hunter while Mal’s wife, Jenny (Alison Whyte), is jaded and fiercely upwardly mobile.

Kath’s timid, conservative voter friends, pretty Jody (Felicity Price) and her dull, accountant husband, Simon (Glenn Hazeldine), might prefer being fed to the lions to partying with these rabid Labourites.

Kerry (Anita Hegh), a pretentious artist who believes in free love, upsets her bitter and possessive dentist husband, Evan (Colin Lane). Mack (Travis McMahon), a weedy engineer, has a penchant for naughty photography and Cooley (Rhys Muldoon) is a foul-mouthed, promiscuous, boozing, sexist, incorrigible rogue who passes for a lawyer by day. Susan (Jacinta Stapleton), a part-time stripper, is his date.

The entire cast is accomplished. Muldoon is outstanding as Cooley, playing him with a blend of raffish charm and grotesque loutishness. Hazeldine is a highlight, enlivening the dowdy Simon with impeccable comic timing. Price’s flighty Jody is a gem and Whyte’s grim Jenny is a cunning contrast.

Although it looks like a period piece with Dale Ferguson’s naturalistic 60s set and costumes, not a great deal has changed in the behaviour of drunken political zealots in nearly 40 years.  Williamson paints a nasty picture of failing marriages, disappointed lovers, shattered dreams and lost hopes. Strangely, it all adds up to some great gags at the expense of everyone.

This play is from Williamson’s golden period, the early 70s and, as long as you do not crave critical social or political commentary, it is a very funny night in the theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 9 January 2007

The Wind in the Willows, Jan 9 to 27, 2007

The Wind in the Willows
Adapted from Kenneth Grahame
Botanical Gardens, Tues to Sat, Jan 9 to 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Sadly, The Wind in the Willows is no longer played on the banks of the Lake in the Botanical Gardens. 

Ratty used to row to shore and Otter to arrive in a wet suit out of the water. The latest starting location on the Eucalypt lawn is less magical and does not have good acoustics of the unamplified voices. The location of Toad Hall is much more effective.

A jolly Roscoe Mathers is the Head Chief Rabbit who entertains with songs and leads his band of little Rabbits, AKA the children. Kevin Hopkins is gleefully villainous as Weasel but not scary to littlies.

Ezra Bix, returning for the umpteenth time as Ratty, captures the broad comic character of the perky, boat-loving water rat. Peter Hosking plays Badger as a gruff old army General with a sleep disorder and Charlotte Strantzen is the timid Mole who has a compulsion to clean.

With Otter (James Stafford), the animal friends go on an adventure to visit the famous and very conceited Mr. Toad (Shannon Henriksson). Toad, ever the faddist, is obsessed with a stolen “Poop Poop” car the next. While Toad is in jail for stealing the car and abusing a policeman, Toad Hall is overrun by Weasel and his family.

The children, aged from toddlers to 8 or 9 years, are engaged on many levels. They love the cute characters, enjoy Mr Toad’s antics and Weasel’s naughtiness and delight in joining with the songs. They waggle their ears and wiggle their noses and sing “whispering willows”.

There are plenty of songs and silly choreography to entertain. These include The Wind in the Willows Blows, When the Toad Comes Home, the very singable Quack Quack Quackady Quack, Everybody Loves Mr. Toad and others.

Most of the kids raced off  willingly into the Wild Wood with Ratty, Mole and Badger on an energetic hunt for lost Otter, Portly.  While they were running through the trees, Head Chief Rabbit and Weasel entertained the parents with a little participation and plenty of adult gags and contemporary references such as Weasel’s unemployed cousin from Canberra, Kim Bweasley.

The show continues to work for children and the outdoor location makes The Wind in the Willows a unique experience after 20 years.

By Kate Herbert

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Botanical Gardens, Jan 9, 2007

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
by William Shakespeare
Australian Shakespeare Company
Where and When: Botanical Gardens Melbourne, Jan 9 to March 24, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

As happens every year, a very talented bat upstaged all the actors during A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Botanical Gardens. He flew smack dab into the arboreal backdrop of the stage carrying a length of thick rope. Bat bondage perhaps? Lassoing possums?

The idiosyncrasies of outdoor theatre were again revealed and Batboy was incorporated without fuss into the show by the wickedly impish Brendan O’Connor as Puck.

The Dream is always the most successful of Shakespeare’s plays in the Gardens. Its light romance suits the balmy summer evenings, the eerily lit happily replicates foliage the fairy dell and the rough comedy of the Mechanicals allows for playful improvisation and audience participation. I wouldn’t recommend the Scottish Play for the great outdoors.

This season, the hilarious Ross Williams returns as Bottom the egotistical Weaver and unwitting favourite of the Fairy Queen, Titania (Terry Brabon). Phil Cameron Smith, Anthony Rive, Kathryn Tohil and Adrian Dart accompany him in the amateur dramatic antics of the Mechanicals. Their performance for the Duke (Hugh Sexton) and his wife’s (Brabon) wedding is goofy and slapstick and much of their earlier interaction is bawdy with plenty of puns on “bottom”. (“Give it a crack, Bottom!”)

Brabon and Sexton are imposing as the Fairy Queen and King, Titania and Oberon. The interplay of magical lighting on the trees and some vocal distortion as they weave their spells created an ethereal atmosphere. Three acrobatic fairies (O’Connor, Ben Leeks, Josephine Torissi) add a touch of physical enchantment.

The scenes with the lovers lost in the woods are playful but sometimes a little over-embellished with contemporary detail or exposition.

Gemma Bishop is bright and energetic as both Hermia and a wacked out, giggling fairy. Tohil is charming as the klutzy Helena and the dim-witted Snug. Rive and Cameron-Smith make the rivalry between Lysander and Demetrius a blokey battle of fisticuffs rather than wits and Rive’s girlish Thisbe is a funny drag act.

All the actors are miked, overcoming one of the nightmares of outdoor theatre – audibility. The audience is delighted, as ever, with the opportunity to be entertained on a warm night in the beautiful surroundings. It is always fun, particularly with a picnic basket and a bottle of wine.

By Kate Herbert