Thursday 31 May 2007

The Mysteries of the Convent by Peepshow Inc. May 31, 2007

The Mysteries of the Convent by Peepshow Inc.
Abbotsford Convent, May 31, 2007 to June 10, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 31, 2007

The Abbotsford Convent, formerly run by the contemplative Good Shepherd Order of nuns, is a sprawling site by the Yarra and is steeped in the history of its original residents.

In The Mysteries of the Convent, Peepshow Inc. incorporates puppetry, visual elements, music and comedy
in this site-specific performance. As we are led on a guided tour, characters, both real and animated, representing the nuns and young women of the convent, appear and disappear mysteriously through doors, stairways and even laundry baskets.

We begin our theatrical tour of the Convent Building in the Bishop’s Parlour, the only room where a man could visit, after an introduction by our hilariously unprepared ring-in guide (Anna Scheer), who, for the entire tour, checks her scribbled notes in an attempt to cobble together some genuine history and amateur art criticism.

An ancient, toothless puppet woman, seated in an armchair and manipulated by an unseen puppeteer (Juanita Pope), recalls her childhood at the convent. Orphans and girls with illegitimate babies were brought here for education or rehabilitation and to work in the industrial laundry. There are frightening echoes of the punishing treatment of girls by the harsh Madgalen Sisters in Ireland.

A silent, pink-haired girl, portrayed by both a puppet and an actor (Fiona Gillies), flits furtively from room to room, appearing surprisingly in different locations. She avoids the stern and frightening Mother Superior  (Angela Orrego) who supervises our walking tour and hides ghostly nuns’ faces inside her habit.

Many of the scenes are accompanied by a sonorous double bass (Delia Poon) with occasional snatches of an Irish ballad, a latin hymn and even four nuns dancing to Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag (Lauren Simmonds, Kris Chainey, Nick Barlow, Poon).

Two lyrical scenes involve washerwomen. In the eerie chill of the basement, four ghostly puppet heads hang sheet upon which images are projected. It is here, in the cellar, that we witness the escape of the pink-haired girl and hope she made it safely to the other side of the river.

There are some charming moments in this performance, directed by Melinda Hetzel. There is certainly some potential for further development of the story and the sense of history in this evocative location.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 30 May 2007

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, Crown Casino, May 30, 2007

 Respect: A Musical Journey of Women
by Dorothy Marcic adapted by Beatrix Christian
Where and When: The Palms at Crown, May 30 to July 15, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 30, 2007

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, by Dorothy Marcic and directed by Roger Hodgman, is less a dramatic piece of music theatre than a good excuse for a bunch of 20th century hit tunes.

The inimitable Rhonda Burchmore plays Dodi Calquhoun, a jaded Broadway star. Dodi is preparing three young hopefuls (Lucy Durack, Belinda Wollaston, Elenoa Rokobaro OK) to audition for a musical inspired by Marcic’s real bestseller, Dorothy’s Story that celebrates the lives of Marcic’s grandmothers and mother.

This backroom musical, set in a rehearsal studio, focuses on the relationships and on Dodi’s encouragement of the youngsters. On arrival, each demonstrates nervousness and is in awe of Dodi’s experience but all evolve as performers under her direction.

The program states that Respect is the story of a Norwegian girl in New York in 1900, and of her female descendants. Intermittent readings from a storybook are scattered amidst the story of the young auditonees. This historical story serves no dramatic purpose, has no narrative development, is too expository, is unengaging and comes to no resolution. It could be omitted so we can concentrate on the on-stage characters.

Burchmore is all long limbs, throaty voice, quivering vibrato and bolshie characterisation, drawing the eye with her eccentric showgirl looks and idiosyncratic delivery. Her experience shines and the trio of young women are a fine supporting cast.

Burchmore’s solos, backed by the trio, are highlights. She is brassy in Bill Bailey, sassy singing These Boots Are Made for Walking in a Barbarella mini-dress and the soul number, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and magnetic prancing across the stage belting out I Will Survive.

Rokobaro, as the painfully shy Grace, has a warm, heartfelt blues voice. Her God Bless the Child and the Black activist song, Ain’ Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around are thrilling.

Durack, playing dizzy Rikki, performs a song as well as she sings it. You Don’t Own Me gives meaning to the lyrics and Someone to Watch Over Me is charming.

Wollaston has a powerful voice but is best when she holds back, maintaining the warmth in her voice. Her opening song, Greatest Love of All, was hilariously overplayed but an occasional harshness or flat note might stem from playing the pushy Miriam.

Some of the best musical moments were when the three girls sang together doing an Andrews Sisters number, Stop In The Name of Love and a rivetting version of Hero, by Mariah Carey.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 24 May 2007

The Pillowman, MTC, May 24, 2007

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh 
Melbourne Theatre Company
 Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, South Melbourne, May 24 to June 23, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 24, 2007

There are certainly echoes of Kafka and Grimms’ Fairytales in The Pillowman by Anglo-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh.

It is a tragicomedy, a peculiar knitting of violence and humour reminiscent of a Tarantino movie. McDonagh razor-sharp dialogue produces outbursts of laughter amidst the horror.

Katurian (Joel Edgerton), a writer of dark tales, is interrogated and tortured by two unpredictable police officers (Kim Gyngell, Greg Stone) of a totalitarian state, about the relationship of his grisly stories to several actual child murders. In an adjoining room, his intellectually disabled brother, Michal (Dan Wyllie), gives his own account.

The interrogation is interlaced with Katurian fairytales that transport us to grim places. In Little Apple Men, a father dies eating apple laced with razor blades and in The Tale of the Town by the River, a passing stranger chops off a little boy’s toes. Apart from the innocuous Little Green Pig, Katurian writes almost exclusively gruesome tales.

McDonagh write very funny, swift-moving dialogue and the three hours are compelling. It is, however, disconcerting that laughter dilutes the gasping horror of the crimes committed against children and diverts us from genuinely feeling the pain or experiencing the tragedy. This is a signature of McDonagh’s style.

Simon Phillips’ direction is stylish and beautifully timed and his cast is exceptional. Edgerton captures a naivete and confusion, making Katurian vulnerable and credible. Wyllie’s depiction of the disabled and abused Michal is uncanny and often hilarious; he finds humour in the pathos of a disabled young man who misinterprets the world and his brother’s stories so tragically.

Gyngell’s playful and quirky portrayal of “good cop”, Tupolski, is totally engaging and impeccably timed and is a perfect foil for Stone’s gruff and vicious “bad cop”, Ariel, who reveals his softer side late in the play.

The bleak, grey set design (Gabriela Tylesova) evokes not only the distressed concrete walls of the interrogation cell but also its transparency allows grotesque fairytales and the boys’ childhood memories to be played out as an eerie half-life. Lighting (Matt Scott) transports us from past to present with evocative and subtle changes while unnerving and ghostly shadows play on the scrim. The production is enhanced by Ian McDonald’s music.

Natasha Herbert and Richard Bligh skilfully portray a range of grotesque characters and Rima Hadchiti is enchanting as the real and the fairytale Child.

The Pillowman is a cunningly wrought and disturbingly comic play.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 17 May 2007

Show Us Your Tiddas! Melbourne Workers Theatre, May 17, 2007

 Show Us Your Tiddas! by Lou Bennett 
 Melbourne Workers Theatre
Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre 
May 17 to June 2, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 17, 2007

Show Us Your Tiddas! is Lou Bennett’s stroll down her own memory lane through song and narration.
It is an autobiographical cabaret that begins with her early childhood in her Indigenous community in Echuca.

 Bennett nursed dreams of joining her Uncles’ band, The Shades. She struggled to learn guitar, without the help of the Uncles, beginning with one single chord but determined to succeed. She finally makes it to the stage to play with their band then moves on, at seventeen, to very nervously start her singer career.

Although the show, directed by Rachael Maza, is to some degree hampered by Bennett’s limited theatrical ability, it is carried by her warmth and commitment to her own stories. The show begins rather clumsily but picks up pace, confidence and interest as Bennett’s story unfolds.

Backed by her drummer, Phil Collings and bassist, Alice Gate-Eastley, Bennett peppers her self-narration with original songs from her ten years with The Tiddas, her extremely popular, Aria Award winning Indigenous trio, in addition to some new songs of her own and a few old standards.

There are several moving moments, the first being her father’s loving and supportive farewell the day she left Echuca to search for a lesbian community that was unavailable to her in Echuca and to pursue a musical career. “Don’t you forget, I’ll always love you – no matter what,” says her dad warmly.

Another compelling story is told about Tiddas’ (which means Sisters) visit to Thursday Island, an occasion when Bennett had an enlightening experience about island culture and her relationship to her totem, the turtle.

A darker story emerges when a yobbo in a remote pub calls out, “Show us your tits”, a taunt that triggers a grim memory of familial abuse when Bennett was a teenager. This incident became a key moment in her evolution because it allowed her to see her abuser as “small and pathetic” and so to move on from the abuse.

Bennett has warmth and a raw charm that was obviously part of her success with The Tiddas from 1990 to 200. Her portrayal of her feisty and argumentative relationship with the other women in Tiddas and her life journey has pathos and a great deal of humour. What this show lacks in style and finesse it gains in truth and honesty.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Macbeth, Bell Shakespeare, May 16, 2007

Macbeth by William Shakespeare 
Bell Shakespeare 
 Clocktower, Moonee Ponds May 16 & 17, Wyndham Cultural Centre, Werribee, May 19, Karralyka Ringwood, May 2, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 16, 2007

John Bell’s production of Macbeth focuses on the relentless repercussions of one horribly wrong decision made by Macbeth (Sean O’Shea), a celebrated general in the wars of Scotland and a favourite of the King, Duncan (Robert Alexander).

As occurs in Ancient Greek tragedies, a fatal flaw and a poor choice lead to Macbeth’s rise and fall. Driven by pure ambition and vanity he heeds the supernatural prophecy of three witches (Linda Cropper, Michelle Doake, Leon Cain) that he will become Thane of Cawdor then King of Scotland. When he and his wife conspire to execute Duncan in their own home, they set in motion a series of bloody events and immoral actions that oppose the natural order.

The soundscape (Phillip Johnston) is ominous and the evocative design (Jacob Nash) is a series of tall panels painted with a muddy river of blood with tributaries trickling across the floor and lit with filtered beams (Matt Scott). Bell seats actors on the sides of the stage amidst a clutter of battle paraphernalia under tall spears-like poles that later double as Burnham Wood.

O’Shea plays Macbeth initially as a louche and friendly fellow who is quickly overtaken by fantasies of kingship triggered by the witches. As he rides the wave of violence and success, he becomes not only crueler but also racked with profound guilt and terror at his own actions.

O’Shea gives this Macbeth, who is now too steeped in blood to retreat, an excitable and threatening edge of mania, a lack of control over his mind and actions. Macbeth cannot live with his own treachery and breaches of duty and honour.

Cropper plays Lady Macbeth, the woman behind the powerful man, with a dark sensuality and a genuinely threatening quality. She is as dangerous to Macbeth as the witches but, like her husband, cannot abide her loss of humanity. Her decline into sleepwalking delirium and her subsequent suicide become credible.

The supporting cast are accomplished. David Whitney is commanding as Macduff and his grief at the murder of his family is palpable. Alexander has dignity as Duncan and Richard Sydenham’s Banquo is imposing.

Bell directs the play with a taut hand and brings the violence to the stage in the stylised battle scenes (Felicity Steel) in an age when CGI usually does all the work for an audience.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 12 May 2007

Checklist for an Armed Robber, Theatre @ Risk, May 12, 2007

 Checklist for an Armed Robber by Vanessa Bates by Theatre@Risk
 Trades Hall, Carlton,  May 12 to 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 12, 2007

Theatre @ Risk’s production of Checklist for an Armed Robber is inspired. Chris Bendall and his cast (Paul Ashcroft, Ryan Gibson, Natalia Novikova, Edwina Wren) interpret with imagination and polish Vanessa Bates’ cunningly wrought documentary-style script.

Bates docu-drama interweaves two stories of violence and invasion taken from actual newspaper articles. One concerns the a Russian journalist who is called to negotiate with Chechen rebels’ during the hostage situation in a theatre in Moscow and the second a young heroin addict who tries to rob a bookstore in Newcastle.

The four actors shift effortlessly between the two stories, playing multiple characters. Bendall seats them in plush, red velvet theatre seats, behind which are tall shelves stacked with books. Within this simple design (Isla Shaw) the two stories bleed together. Whether seated or moving around the chairs, the actors people the stage with a parade of characters, in turn embodying frightened hostages, cynical rebel fighters, foreign journalists, the bookshop owner or customers.

Dramatic and evocative lighting by (Nick Merrilees) and an ominous soundscape (Jethro Woodward) add to the sense of menace and impending doom.

The cast play several roles including various Moscow audience members, and all are three-dimensional and completely believable. In addition, each plays a central character.

Ashcroft captures the vulnerability and panic of the young and disenfranchised armed robber in Newcastle. His Aussie accent is broad and his predicament credible. Gibson, as the grinning and dangerous Rebel Leader, strikes fear into even our own theatre audience. These hostages could be us.

Novikova provides a moving and authentic portrayal of the Russian journalist and Wren’s mature and womanly bookshop owner is sympathetic.

The production is sleek and delicately balanced by director, Bendall who brings clarity and precision to the text. The content of the play subtly investigates the variety of modes in which humans deal with fear and the different manifestations of courage in the face of danger. It also is a study of our willingness to understand the plight of those who take drastic action and how we try to find some manner of communicating with them.

Checklist for an Armed Robber is a thoroughly professional and compelling production on all levels.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 11 May 2007

Hamlet, Eagle’s Nest Theatre, May 11, 2007

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Eagle’s Nest Theatre
Northcote Town Hall, session times alternate with The Birds, until May 20, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 11, 2007

Performing Shakespeare requires considerable skill, insight and creative interpretation in a contemporary world. 

Hamlet is one of the most complex of his plays and needs a deft directorial hand and an exceptional talent in the title role. This production, despite all its best efforts, has neither.

The cast seems to be a mixture of professional and amateur actors, most of whom lack the technique to penetrate the meaning or poetry of the text or to deliver the dialogue convincingly. This is not to say that there is no merit in some of the performances.

James Adler, as Hamlet, is better when on full voice in his more impassioned moments such as in the final scene when he is physically engaged in the sword fight with Laertes (Jude Hansen) and his vocal expression is stronger.

His earlier interpretation of Hamlet’s grief, feigned madness and private moral struggle relies too heavily on an internalised and often inaudible vocal quality - a devoicing. This choice diminishes the intensity of Hamlet’s moral dilemma and reduces him to a muttering and indecisive churl.

Bruce Woolley, as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, finds some emotional range in the character, shifting from strutting and rutting newly crowned King to, as is revealed in his soliloquy, a guilt-ridden, fearful and frightened coward who fears repercussions of his murder of his brother, the former King and Hamlet’s father.

Claudius is recently married to Gertrude. Liz McColl seems under-confident in the role of the passionate older bride. Her voice is weak and the character lacks the requisite dignity and grace. Phil Zachariah captures something of the dottiness of old Polonius, although he overplays his mumbling at times.

Aimee Neistat misses the layers of Ophelia’s ravings and Sam Spalding is miscast and out of his depth in the important role of Horatio. Hansen is suitably vengeful as Laertes but is a little melodramatic.

Director, Janine Cowie, has bitten off more than she can chew with this play and her ensemble is too inexperienced to handle its complexities. The staging is clumsy, the cast stand and deliver far too much and find little layering to the characters or their relationships. It is tempting to stop listening to such beautiful speeches being poorly played.

We commend companies doing the classics – but please, do them well or not at all.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 10 May 2007

Mommie and the Minister by Sisters Grimm, May 10, 2007

Mommie and the Minister by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene
By Sisters Grimm
At La Mama,  May 10 to 20, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 10, 2007

Mommie and the Minister, by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, is a genuinely outrageous and hilarious short play. 

It has overtones of John Waters high camp movies, Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the absurdism of Eugene Ionesco.

Edmund (Flanders) and Harriet Lovely (Gillian Perry) spend their days in the basement of their home playing hide and seek, training a rat circus or confiding in Kitty (Matt Hickey), a painting of a cat that talks only to Edmund. They have been locked in the cellar for twenty years since Mommie decided that they needed to learn to show her a little respect before she would introduce them to her friend, the Minister who visits daily for tea.

In fact, Mommie is simply a vindictive, brutal harridan who lies to, brutalises and starves her lovelies, keeping them obedient and terrified. When this cruel narrative is embedded in high campery, it becomes screamingly funny. The script is clever, cynical and dripping with irony.

Greene directs the show with a deft hand, maintaining a swift pace and dynamic rhythm. The performances by Flanders and Perry are delectable and casting a drag queen, Missfit/Gerard Williams, as Mommie is inspired.

Perry, a compelling clown, plays the dizzy, disturbed Harriet with wicked humour, superb timing and a face that changes in a nanosecond. Covered in filth and wearing a lacy child’s frock, she throws toddler tantrums and seduces her brother with her clumsy suggestive behaviour.

Flanders gives the insipid Edmund a Little Lord Fauntleroy tone. He cunningly balances Edmund’s complete idiocy with his burgeoning awareness of Mommie’s treachery. He minces around his basement, sullenly seeks privacy with his pal, Kitty, or attends meaningless appointments in the corner, by the bicycle wheel.

The “children” lick themselves clean, eat slops that Mommie provides, follow her rules, fear her temper and wait for her unlikely approval.

Missfit, dressed in various tailored women’s outfits, false eye lashes and sporting pancake laid on with a trowel, is truly grotesque. He plays Mommie with an edge of menace and a veneer of gentility that crumbles when her irrational rules are broken or when she is taken hostage by the children. Her final scene is almost Boris Karloff in style and teeters on the brink of Grand Guignol bloodiness.

Funny, funny, funny! Go see it.

By Kate Herbert

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament, Malthouse, May 10, 2007

 OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament by Uncle Semolina (& Friends)
by Malthouse Theatre
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse,  May 10 to 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 10, 2007

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament investigates the myths of the Old Testament without CGI or complex sound technology. 

It intentionally employs low-tech theatrical conventions, toys and game playing to illuminate the biblical stories that shaped the beliefs and behaviour of generations.

Devised and directed by Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe, the concept works in part. A few stories are effectively illustrated while some are glossed over with a line of text or an image and a couple are unintelligible.

The cluttered, almost claustrophobic stage is constructed of huge, scrappy sheets of cardboard and is littered with primary-coloured, plastic nursery chairs and baskets overflowing with toys.

Four young, agile actors, (Luke Ryan, Phillip McInnes, Amelia Best, Katherine Tonkin) enact the stories like children attempting to understand through play a complex, confusing adult world.

A bearded, mute old man (Peter Snow) is Yahweh, God of the Jews. Like a careless, absent father, he sits silently watching the children’s antics, rarely intervening, disappearing intermittently to the distress of his children, through a door ripped in the cardboard.

Samson’s story is a highlight. Ryan self-narrates Samson’s battles, playing Samson as a foul-mouthed yobbo with a grudge and mighty strength. More poignant is the interpretation of the Trials of Job, told as a failed stand-up routine by a comic making bad jokes at the expense of the suffering Job.

Projections provide lyrics for Joseph’s song, Dream Interpreter, that is presented as a garage-band song using trashy home amplification. Lot’s Daughters is a disturbing view of ancient incest and Abraham, his wife, Sarah and servant, Hagar, wear cardboard masks of television stars.

Toys play multiple roles, manipulated by the actors. A bear and a Ken doll play Jacob and Esau and Humphrey Bear and other dolls have sex on the floor.

Despite its shambolic form, this show raises questions about humanity and God. Is Yahweh a vindictive or merciful or jealous God? The Bible is splattered with the blood of violent tribes and human brutality. What is God like if he made us in his own image? How do we understand his message? How do children learn the value of human life if their lessons are in such stories?

Is it any wonder our world is in such a state of chaos and despair?

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Raising the Dead adapted by Humphrey Bower, May 9, 2007

Raising the Dead 
Adapted by Humphrey Bower from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
La Mama,  May 9 to 20, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 9, 2007

Adaptation of any novel for the stage requires extensive editing and an inventive restructuring of the text as dialogue. 

Humphrey Bower takes short excerpts from two novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov) to create his monodrama, Raising the Dead.

Bower, accompanied by haunting vocals and violin by Jess Ipkendanz (OK), addresses the audience directly in a carefully delivered and intimate vocal style that conjures an intense and sinister atmosphere. He lounges on a single chair or perches on a step beside an audience member, engaging us as co-conspirators in this cruel character’s guiltless confessions.

The reflections and reminiscences of this sinister and totally amoral man based on Stavrogin’s Confession from The Devils, are interlaced with extracts from The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.

Bower’s character is both seductive and repellent, his piercing gaze pinning us like a butterfly on a collector’s board. Although the half-whispered tone becomes a little repetitive, it has the effect of heightening the menace of this man.

There is occasional physicalisation of the text with gesture and Bower prowls like a cat around the small stage, immersed in partial darkness and dim evocative lighting (Gwendolyna Holmberg Gilchrist OK). The images are, in the majority, created by Dostoyevsky’s word pictures rather than through any physical or theatrical conventions.

The brazen and arrogant man lives in a boarding house run by a bullying landlady who beats her thin and timid daughter. He incriminates the girl falsely in the theft of his watch then seduces her. This act leads to her suicide callously witnessed by the man then blithely follows up with a jolly drink with his friends.

The man no longer differentiates between good and evil. He asks us, “Do you believe in God?” and suggests that he believes in a devil. Clearly this demon is within him.

In the second narrative, the Spanish Inquisitor in Seville interrogates the Saviour and threatens to kill him. The Inquisitor is as inherently evil as the man in the boarding house and the cold and calculated cruelty of both resonates in the contemporary world.

By Kate Herbert

The Birds, Eagles Nest Theatre, May 9, 2007

The Birds adapted from Aristophanes by Eagles Nest Theatre
Northcote Town Hall, session times alternate with Hamlet, until May 9 to 20, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 9. 2007

Director, Robert Reid, once again takes a classic play, Aristophanes Ancient Greek comedy, The Birds, and tosses it into a blender. 

The original text is edited, cut together with rough, modern dialogue and ad libbing as well as narrated snippets about Alfred Hitchcock and his famous thriller of the same name.

Hitchcock (Craig Hedger) himself introduces the play and sits on stage throughout playing comic snare drum stings to highlight gags.

Aristophanes’ The Birds is virtually unrecognisable in this pastiche of styles including Vaudeville, drag show and Benny Hill amongst others. The story of his poetic play deals with two humans who stumble into a land of birds and convince the creatures not to savage them but to create a great and innovative State for birds to rival those of the hostile humans who treat the birds so disdainfully. The land is called Cuckoo in the Clouds and represents a fictional, political alternative to Athens of the time.

The Gods from Olympus are walled out so no scent of sacrifice to the new bird-gods can reach them. Various adventurous human poets, soothsayers and others visit as well as a delegation of Gods that comes to reassert the power of the Gods.

Euelpides (Elliot Summers) and his fellow traveller, Pithetaerus (Alex Brock) are depicted as Roy Rene style vaudevillians with the white and black make-up of Rene’s character, Mo. Summers and Brock’s grasp of clown and slapstick is amateurish. Their timing is slow, they are inclined to shout for emphasis, particularly Brock who is central to the plot and lacks the requisite skill to carry a role in this style. Pithetaerus begins to look like a peevish adolescent.

Although the ensemble works very hard to make this chaotic production comical, there are really only a few performances that make the grade. Felicity Steel, with her rich voice, clever timing and delivery, makes interesting the pompous Hoopoe, a man-become-bird. Eleri Crowly as the Bird Chorus Leader, is elegant and in control of voice and text while Nathan Godkin has a few marvellously camp cameos as God on roller skates, a soothsayer and an indulgent poet. Hedger’s Hitchcock is a simple and unobtrusive portrayal.

Some scenes are so shabby and slow that you could drive a truck through the gaps. However, there are certainly a few laughs. Even Aristophanes might find it quirky.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Grumpy Old Women, May 8, 2007

Grumpy Old Women by Jenny Éclair and Judith Holder
Princess Theatre, Melbourne, May 8 to 20, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 8, 2007

An admission: I arrived grumpy at this show after an abominable day at work.

Then the publicist was nowhere to be found with a program, the foyer was too crowded and the street smokes fumes were wafting inside. Ready, set, go! Grumpy old woman in seat G31. Shared grumping certainly helped the mood by the end.

The live show, directed by Chris George, should not be compared with the more intimate, edited and personal TV interview version. This is a different animal, simultaneously glossy and shambolic. The stage design (Dora Schweitzer) is as garish as Jenny Éclair’s silly, frilly mini skirt.

Éclair is as wickedly outrageous as she is in her solo stand-up shows. Linda Robson’s cosy, earthy charm translates well to the stage, particularly as she is dressed a pink cotton nightie. Dillie Keane, the more posh-spoken, proper stage actress, has a velvety voice and impeccable timing.

The three women address the audience directly throughout, whining and complaining about – well, everything. They grump about twelve-year old supermarket managers and idiot shopgirls, helpless hubbies, stupid hobbies, dull dinner parties and fateful holidays.

Much of the humour comes from the impact of ageing and the dreadful state of their bodies as gravity takes its toll on bosoms and bums, making them invisible to young men and turning them into their mothers. The audience of mostly women huff, tut and groan in unison at every reference.

There are some significant comic highlights. The series of bizarre handy kitchen items found in the Innovations catalogue was a hit. How useful could a pair of glow-in-the–dark coasters be?

Eclair’s awkward full body massage experience, complete with unwanted gaseous eruptions, is riotous, as is Keane’s peri-menopausal home workout that finishes with attempting to uproot a tree. Éclair’s plans to snog (amongst other things) a geriatric in front of a group of fifteen year olds had the crowd hooting.

We can whinge all we like about everything, but ageing is no fun so we might as well laugh about the aches and pains, the drooping breasts, the need for early nights, the greying, plucking, dying and dressing up as lamb.

These women are really a delight - and the show got out at 9pm so I was home in time for a cuppa and an early night.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 3 May 2007

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, May 3, 2007

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
adapted by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt
The Branch Theatre Co.
Theatreworks,  May3 to 2, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 3, 2007

Henrik Ibsen’s classic, Ghosts, directed by Melanie Beddie, is imbued with a ghastly atmosphere of dread and entrapment. 

From the outset we feel that something is very wrong in this late 19th century Norwegian manor house. Each character is haunted by not merely the dead but by the oppressive ideas, restrictive morality and social obligations of a rigid Norwegian society.

The play was controversial in its time because of its allusions to births out of wedlock, venereal disease and incest.

Mrs. Alving (Andrea Swifte) is about to open an orphanage to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of her husband, Captain Alving’s death. Alving’s philandering and dissolute life was hidden beneath his respectable public reputation. She hopes for a happier future with the long-awaited return from Paris of her son, Osvald (Jay Bowen), an artist who has lost his creative spark.

The formality of the complex relationships in Ghosts is maintained, but this Australian adaptation allows a contemporary audience access to the language, ideas and characters despite its central issues being no longer taboo.

Beddie places the characters in a stark and forbidding set (Emily Barrie), a modern gothic construction of white beams and near-opaque plastic walls smeared with white and evocatively lit (Richard Vabre). The inhospitable room floats in the centre of a cavernous black space, allowing characters to appear from darkened corners or to sit upstage, being barely visible behind transparent walls.

The spectre of Captain Alving looms above them, a projected image of a stern 19th century portrait, a palpable and threatening influence.

The cast is accomplished. Swifte plays Mrs. Alving with tragic dignity and a melancholy resignation. James Wardlaw amuses and irritates in turn as the absurdly supercilious Pastor Manders, the narrow-minded country vicar with rigid morality. Bowen vibrates with despair and frustration as Osvald coping with an insidious disease - his father’s bequest.

Ming-Zhu Hii, plays Regina, Mrs. Alving’s cherished maidservant, with perhaps too much sophistication for such an ingénue but her cheerful youth and sensuality are engaging. Bruce Myles is memorable as the carpenter, Engstrand, Regina’s grimy, self-serving and degenerate father. Myles captures Engstrand’s manipulative and obsequious nature in a masterly, understated style. Engstrand is the only winner in the story.

There is an atmosphere of impending doom and melancholia in Ibsen’s play, a volatility and unpredictability that draws us toward its inevitably tragic finale.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 2 May 2007

A History of Motion Pictures by Frank Bren, May 2, 2007

A History of Motion Pictures 
 by Frank Bren
La Mama, until May 6, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

A History of Motion Pictures, by Frank Bren, derives its style from the Film Noir movies.

In a parody of a detective story, it superficially comments on the Communist hunts in the motion picture industry in Hollywood in the 1950s.

The production is rough around the edges, comically representing movies as shadow play behind a rumpled white screen or in black and white photos. The premise is that Senator Pete Logan (Daniel Oldaker) and his father, the Old Senator (Bren) mount MovieCom, an enquiry into the Communist infiltration into the content of American movies as well as into the affiliations of the artists in the industry.

There are some laughs in both the verbal play and referencing of the Phillip Marlowe style detecting and in the slapstick dumb show. Oldaker is engaging and versatile as Logan and other characters while Bren is suitably gruff as the right-wing Old Senator. Jessica Hackett displays some range playing multiple characters including Lisa, the torch song singer and Lefty, the armless detective.

Olga Makeeva plays Madge Mantan, a Russian film analyst who is called to give evidence against various artists accused of secreting Commie messages in their innocuous films. The absurdity of the accusations is obvious, firstly in Johnnie the Baptist, a silent movie based on the biblical story based on Salome, Herod and the Baptist.

Next movie under the microscope is a documentary about Pancho Villa in Mexico, described as the forerunner of reality television. Then follows indictments of Max Linder and Charlie Chaplin and, finally, the ingenuous Karl Minx, a cowboy movie star with nothing in common with his like-named Karl Marx. This confusion ends in the tragic suicide of Minx.

There is an Australian reference to Pat Sullivan, creator of Felix the Cat, and his successful attempts to regain the copyright to his cartoon character.

The performances are entertaining, Glenn Perry’s direction taking full advantage of the comic style of the dialogue and imagery. Although comic in tone, the play raises the alarming manner in which a person’s life and career can be decimated by a simple accusation, by prejudice, politics and witch hunts.

By Kate Herbert

Roulette by Raimondo Cortese, May 2, 2007

 Roulette by Raimondo Cortese
Carlton Courthouse, Wed to Sun 8pm until May 2 to 19, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 2, 2007

Roulette, written by Raimondo Cortese, is a series of twelve short, two-handers, three of which are performed in this program: Petroleum, Legacy and Hotel. Each play depicts a collision in time and place between two strangers or acquaintances in an intensely personal interaction.

The characters Cortese chooses to depict are ordinary, often damaged, living banal lives and invisible because of their very ordinariness. What they have in common is the need to connect, to be known and understood or to be given a fair go. All are unsuccessful in broad social or economic terms but each has a thoroughly individual life worth knowing and understanding.

Greg Ulfan directs the three plays deftly, concentrating on the often-volatile relationships between the pairs.

In Petroleum, Steve (Louis Milutinovic ), arrives distraught and spattered in dirt and oil at a roadside country garage after crashing his car into a stray wallaby. Young Gordon (Travis Handcock), a gentle country boy, invites Steve to wait for his Uncle, the mechanic, to return. While Gordon tinkers with a lawnmower, Steve’s frustration and rage at his own predicament escalate.

Milutinovic vibrates with unresolved anger making Steve dangerous and intimidating in his unpredictability.
Handcock has charm as the slow-talking and steadfast Gordon.

Legacy sees Theo (Joseph Sherman), an unflappable Greek construction worker, listening to the footy while he takes his lunch break outside his construction site. Sonia (Ella Caldwell), an irate young woman whose street market sales are adversely impacted upon by construction noise, interrupts him. What transpires is an intimate sharing of life stories, dreams, muddled political ramblings and useful advice from Theo as they smokes a couple of joints.

Sherman brings a joyful, laissez-faire attitude to Theo while Caldwell gives Sonia a brittleness and vulnerability.

Tara (Georgina Naidu) in Hotel, a tough and resentful hotel cleaner, rants and rails at her recent demotion. Jane (Gemma O’Connor) listens sympathetically while she changes out of her uniform and dresses for a late night date. Naidu, as Tara, shifts from laconic humour to bursts of rage and is balanced by O’Connor’s girlish restrained and supportive murmurings.

At times, there is a little to much shouting in all three plays but the trio of works makes a fine collection of idiosyncratically Australian characters and relationships.

By Kate Herbert