Thursday 28 February 2008

Sanctuary, Feb 27, 2008

by Amedeo Astorino
 La Mama, Feb 27 to March 9, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Terminus and The Resort, two short plays by Amedeo Astorino directed by Bruce Langdon, deal with mental illness and marginalised persons seeking solace or escape from the big, bad world.

Astorino incorporates well-observed characters and edgy dialogue. The longer play, The Resort, has the more menacing scenario and stronger performances. Valerie (Jae Dee Scott), a returning resident at the ironically titled “resort”, a psychiatric clinic, re-encounters Cliff (Glen Hancox), a vulnerable patient, and Kyle (Doru Surcel), a smarmy, intimidating nurse.

The play depicts the prolonged hours between treatments when psychiatric patients fend for themselves, dealing their own demons.

Scott is capable and credible as the wry Valerie, playing her with cool control that masks her inner turmoil and Hancox captures the naive confusion of the closeted homosexual Cliff. Surcel sets the tone with his threatening portrayal of religious fanatic Kyle who wears a constant, almost imperceptible sneer.

Kyle is a manipulating meddler who clearly suffers an undiagnosed mental illness – perhaps religious mania. He reveals that he read Valerie’s file and uses her violent secrets as emotional and sexual blackmail. Knowing that Cliff’s mother is domineering and conservative, he informs her of her son’s homosexuality and causes Cliff to attempt suicide.

Terminus is a two-hander about Jack (Ian Rooney), an unstable older man inhabiting a decrepit room near a train line. He left his comfortable life and wife and now struggles to maintain his sanity while her drinks himself into an early grave. His only company is a bottle (or two) of Johnny Walker and a young prostitute (Karla Silvey) who follows him home after he comes to her rescue on a train.

The dialogue is well written and the drama could be compelling, but sluggish cueing slows the pace and interrupts the rhythm of Astorino’s play. Rooney captures the nervy despair of Jack but needs to be on voice rather than using his breathy whisper and Silvey has a bright youthfulness that could to be dirtied up for the hooker.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Rock and Roll, Feb 27, 2008

 Rock and Roll 
by Tom Stoppard, Melbourne Theatre Company 
Playhouse, Vic Arts Centre, Feb 27 tol March 29, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, hidden within political diatribes about Communism is a story of love unrequited. 

After arguments about revolutions, the failure of socialism, abuse of dissidents and the pursuit of freedom, what we may remember is the reunion of two people separated after Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.

We will also remember the rock music: Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground and the obscure Czech band, Plastic People of the Universe (PPU). As Czechoslovakia struggles after the Prague Spring of 1968, PPU come to represent freedom and an infant revolution that succumbs to further oppression.  Rock music symbolises all that is new, revolutionary and anti-Soviet. Strangely, old rock musicians of the East and West eventually sold out for cash or fame. Is revolution always doomed?

We hear Stoppard’s political arguments and refutations through Max Morrow (William Zappa), an ardent Communist and Professor of Politics at Cambridge, and his ex-Ph. D. student Jan (Matthew Newton), a reluctant Czech spy and, later, a dissident, who is obsessed with Western rock music.

Stoppard is both accused of and praised for being an intellectual playwright. His earlier plays were constructed on witty badinage, wordplay and philosophical argument. In Rock ‘n’ Roll, humour takes a back seat to complex political debate and dense dialogue peppered with historical facts.

The exposition sometimes becomes repetitive or tiring. The various components: rock music, death of communism, Sappho’s poetry and Syd Barrett (drug-damaged ex-Pink Floyd guitarist) do not fully form into a coherent whole by the end but Stoppard takes us on a challenging intellectual, if not emotional, journey.

Simon Phillips’ production sets domestic scenes inside the vast scaffolding of a rock concert venue (Stephen Curtis), complete with giant screen showing political news and footage of rock artists. The cast is impressive with compelling performances from Zappa as the zealous professor, Newton as the hapless, workless Jan, and a fine emotional performance from Genevieve Picot as Morrow’s dying academic wife.

Stoppard, an immigrant to England from Czechoslovakia, developed a powerful relationship with Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel that is at the base of this play. There is no doubting Stoppard’s skill as a playwright but this personal-political story could give the play more heart.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Asylum, Feb 20, 2008

Asylum by Kit Lazaroo
La Mama, Feb 20 to March 5, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is an hysterical and uncontrolled edge to Kit Lazaroo’s play, Asylum, which deals with a Chinese refugee in Australia and her desperate struggle with bureaucracy in order to avoid deportation.

The style of the script and production is abstract but it is intermittently incomprehensible and makes the central issues more confusing than illuminating. The play blurs the boundary between reality and the confused inner worlds of the characters and focuses on the lack of logic and compassion of government policy and the half-truths and misinterpretations that interfere with the treatment of refugees.

The four characters are broad caricatures, each with a pathological behavioural disorder. Yu Siying (Fanny Hanusin), a young Chinese refugee, is characterised as paranoid, violent and manipulative. Her family is persecuted in China and she contracts HIV while in Australia.

The rigid Immigration representative, Turlough Dando (Tom Considine), rejects her refugee status so, to assist her application, Siying demands a positive psychiatric assessment from Dr. Lally Black (Glynis Angell). Meanwhile Lally’s brother, Smudge (Tim Stitz), a prison guard, suffers deafness caused by trauma after shooting an escaping prisoner.

The issues regarding treatment of refugees are significant, vexed and continuing in our community. Lazaroo and director Jane Woollard present notions of our government’s lack of sympathy to refugees, their ignoring of inconvenient details in their stories and our willingness to believe misinformation.

Unfortunately these issues take second place to the awkward form and the stylistic choices that are laid over the story and characters. The absurdist elements and the introduction of puppets to depict the story of Siying’s Chinese family provide so much visual information that it becomes difficult to follow the plot.

Amanda Johnston’s set design, ingeniously constructed from stacks of filing cabinets, opens to provide tiny rooms within rooms. The puppet stage appears inside a cabinet door and Siying is secreted inside the cabinets when she hides from Immigration officers.

The four capable actors work hard and create some comic moments. However, the heightened clown-like characterisations do not permit any depth of analysis or time for reflection.

Despite this play winning the 2005 Wal Cherry Play of the Year, Asylum has some significant theatrical flaws.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Arcadia, PMD Productions, Feb 13, 2008

by Tom Stoppard by PMD Productions
Chapel off Chapel, Feb 13 until March 1, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Et in Arcadia ego (And I am in Arcadia). The characters in Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia, seem to live in some earthly purgatory rather than in Arcadian bliss.

Stoppard weaves a gloriously complex tapestry from mathematics, gardening, literature and philosophy. His play takes place at the stately English manor house, Sidley Park of Lord Croom, but shifts in time between its residents of 1809 and those of the present.

Arcadia is a period mystery with echoes of Agatha Christie without the murder. Paul Knox’s production is conventional and competent, relying on character and relationship rather than glossy production values. It is contained in a small stage area very close to the audience, making it an intimate theatrical experience.

With a period play there is always the risk of sliding into melodrama and Jane Austenisms. There is some of this in the less experienced actors but there are several charming and capable performers.

Septimus Hodge (Matthew Kenny) is a promiscuous, classics educated Renaissance Man and tutor to the precocious and clever young Thomasina (Kellie Tori) in 1809. Kenny has great comic timing and is delightfully arch and loose-limbed as Hodge, playing him with a wry tone and louche demeanour. Tori has a golden glow as Thomasina, giving her a vivid playfulness to complement her intellect. Their relationship is central to the story, and they engage us at every turn.

 Brenda McGinty brings a suitably brusque determination to Hannah, the 20th century researcher investigating the shadowy Hermit of Sidley Park. As Valentine, son of the current Lord Croom, Luke Lennox has an easy charm and finds emotional range in his character. Jennifer Innes captures the 19th century period in Lady Croom.

Stoppard’s script is inventive and challenging, incorporating his signature wordplay, intellectualism and also draws on scientific theory: Newtonian physics, iterated equations and algorithms. It sets the brain in a whirl. Stoppard cunningly crafts notions of Romanticism and Byronic poetry, Rationalism and the thriving 19th century business of designing gardens into a dense and compelling historical mystery.

By Kate Herbert

Keating! The Musical, Feb 13, 2008

 Keating! The Musical
music and lyrics by Casey Bennetto

Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, Feb 14 to March 8, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Seeing Keating! The Musical for the third time is still an invigorating theatrical experience. 

For my guest, Casey Bennetto’s dazzlingly clever musical evocation of Keating’s (Mike McLeish) rise to the Prime Ministership was all new, glossy and surprising. Meanwhile, I was anticipating my favourite songs, laughing at caricatures and political references and singing along (embarrassingly) as if it were a Wiggles concert.

In the week of Rudd’s parliamentary apology, the songs about Mabo and Keating’s 1992 Redfern speech about historical injustices against aborigines, assume a celebratory quality.

Bennetto writes both a farce and a scathing political satire about the period from 1990 when Hawke (Terry Serio) won his fourth term, until Keating’s unwinnable victory in 1993. Bennetto writes songs in eclectic styles ranging from reggae to bossa nova, sultry blues to cool jazz, and the on-stage band, under musical director Enio Pozzebon, is deliciously versatile.

But it is Bennetto’s hilariously incisive lyrics and inventive rhymes that captivate us. On The Floor depicts the parliamentary face-off between Keating and John Hewson (Brendan Coustley). It is a rap littered with Keating’s infamous verbal gymnastics and vitriolic attacks on opponents. Hewson collapses under such inspired insults as “like being flogged with warm lettuce” and is decimated in the ensuing slow, suggestive love duet, I Want to Do You Slowly.

McLeish is almost edible as Keating: sleek, smug, stylish, snake-hipped and seductive. His reggae vanity song, I Am the Ruler of the Land (“Who Da Man? You da man, Yes I am.”), sends the crowd wild.

Terry Serio is super in several roles, capturing both Hawkie’s blokey appeal and Howard’s 100-pound weakling facade and cunning political manipulation. Howard’s song, The Mateship, is achingly funny as Serio dons the ex-PM’s gold and green tracksuit. New cast member, Coustley, in fishnets and corset, eats up the role of Alexander Downer singing, “I’m so freaky.”

Keating! is such a witty and rollicking ride that it deserves a fourth viewing.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 7 February 2008

Coop by Black Hole Theatre, Feb 7, 2008

 Coop by Black Hole Theatre
 At fortyfivedownstairs,  Feb 7 to 17, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

 A demented old man living in a chicken-coop with his son and daughter sounds like a bleak scenario but Coop is both grim and comical. 

The collaborative production, devised by the ensemble of Black Hole Theatre, inventively incorporates actors, visual imagery and a range of puppetry forms.

Nancy Black (director) and Rod Primrose’s (actor/puppeteer) initial inspiration was Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicting Adam and Eve, naked humans cavorting with giant birds and fruits and the descent into corruption and Hell.

Coop focuses on mankind’s descent into sinfulness. The old man (Primrose) appears to be, or to believe that he is God and his children (Conor Fox, Tamara Rewse) represent Adam and Eve. Their rough humpy, constructed of old wood, canvas and hay bails, (Ben Cobham) houses his family and his chicken. Images of birds and eggs recur throughout, emphasising the notion of genesis, birth, evolution and corruption.

There is whimsy and humour but the sense of menace is pervasive. The old man is volatile and violent, unpredictable and merciless with his children, just like the God of the Old Testament. The children cower or furtively ravish one another with Bosch-like lust. Intermittently the family plays games. Father makes an egg disappear from an eggcup and the children make tiny fluffy chicks dance in a chorus line. Meanwhile Beulah the live chook ambles around pecking.

One truly inspired moment is when they convert a chicken carcass into an hilarious marionette. It wears tiny gumboots and its wings flap hopefully as it dances like a ballerina over the sleeping old man’s chest until eventually it flies. Another is the luminous and disturbingly disembodied babies’ heads that crawl menacingly over the children’s bodies.

Black allows the piece to develop an almost musical rhythm as the old man’s moods ebb and flow. There is little or no dialogue. The characters grunt and sigh, shout or groan expressively making words redundant.

The dim lighting (Cobham) accentuates the threatening mood with smoky atmosphere and occasional glaring blasts of light. Kelly Ryall’s complex and evocative sound design incorporates haunting bells and whistles with brighter sounds, music and distorted voices.

Coop is eccentric and unpredictable – and it gives poultry a new and inventive role in theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 6 February 2008

D.E.A.D: The Department of Existence and Death, Feb 6, 2008

 D.E.A.D: The Department of Existence and Death, by Company 13
Where and When: Carlton Courthouse, from Feb 6, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Clowns and death are an unlikely coupling but D.E.A.D.: The Department of Existence and Death effectively blends the two seemingly incompatible elements.

Six peculiarly rabbity characters are a motley bureaucratic mob with the unsavoury job of shepherding us into the afterlife. Their antics are chaotic, comical and incomprehensible as they assess the mode of death and apply due process to every human case.

All goes awry when one recently dead soul refuses to give up her darkest secret and is unable to cross into the next life. The band of nutty, after-life conductors are confounded. D.E.A.D. sounds grim but it incorporates classic clown moments and poignant scenes about death.

The show was devised with director James Pratt, and demonstrates the assets and some disadvantages of devising. It has energy and commitment, a strong ensemble feel, individual characters and quirky plot. It also has some unevenness in the level of performers’ skill, some bumpy transitions and missed opportunities for comic business.

What makes the actors look so demented is an elastic strap wrapped around their heads creating buck-toothed, plump-cheeked squirrelly critters. The beauty of clowns doing death is that they can do outrageous things to dead bodies, smack each other with large foam bats and make awful mistakes, but they look like confused children so we laugh and forgive them.

Comic routines are repeated, exaggerated and become more urgent and ridiculous as they contend with their recalcitrant dead person and fail to discover why she just won’t die properly. The God-like head bureaucrat – AKA Nanna – phones persistently, issuing instructions and admonitions to this motley bureaucratic crew.

Meanwhile, the poor lost soul (Kate Hunter) sits at her desk filling out a life questionnaire the size of two phone books. The bonkers bureaucrats mutter in groups, search for a solution or sing idiotic ditties to send her on her way.

No matter how much clown technique others may have, some people are just natural clowns. Kristzian Bagin
is magnetic. Even when doing very little his every glance, flinch and pose is inspired. Glynis Angell creates a poignant moment when she pummels the dead gal and John Forman booms and blusters with style.

There could be a little tweeking of this show but it is a deliciously silly clown’s eye view of the afterlife.

By Kate Herbert