Thursday 28 May 2009

August: Osage County, May 28, 2009 ***1/2

August: Osage County 
by Tracy Letts, Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Arts Centre, until June 27
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 28, 2009

Tracy Letts’ award-winning American play, August: Osage County, is what could be described as a comedy with tragic undertones. To quote the English comedy playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, “The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter.”

There is plenty of scathing humour in Letts’ play about a bickering, dysfunctional family as they return like homing pigeons to the family home in the barren, hot and soulless Midwestern town of Osage County, Oklahoma. At times, the uproarious laughter Letts’ cunning dialogue elicits undercuts the tragedy, interrupting the dramatic tension he so painstakingly builds.

For this reason, the play cannot compete with the great family dramas of American theatre that include Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Miller’s Death of a Salesman or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Letts’ play has less universal resonance or consistent tragedy. It is more focussed on its entertainment factor – and it is very entertaining for three and a half hours.

This play, with a huge cast of thirteen, is set during a stinking, hot August in the un-airconditioned home of the Westons. The alcoholic poet, Beverly Weston, played with dignity and restrained humour by George Whaley, is the patriarch of the Weston tribe.

The inimitable Robyn Nevin is deliciously wicked as his pill-popping wife, Violet, who is drug-addled from morning to night. Nevin one moment totters around like a dazed child in pyjamas and, the next, snipes at her benighted daughters whom she holds hostage with brittle humour.

When Beverly disappears mysteriously, the three middle-aged daughters arrive en masse to prop up Violet. Long-suffering, divorced Ivy (Rebekah Stone) is the butt of Violet’s constant criticism. Karen (Heidi Arena) is relentlessly cheerful and brings a dubious fiancé (Sean Taylor). Barbara (Jane Menelaus), the sensible daughter, is in the throws of a secret separation from her smug, academic husband (Robert Menzies) and struggles with her rebellious daughter (Kellie Jones).

Violet’s blousey sister (Deidre Rubenstein), her tolerant husband (Roger Oakley) and hapless son (Michael Robinson) make up the rest of the clan. A silent Native American housekeeper (Tess Masters) lurks in the background.

The ensemble is consistently strong and compelling with particularly powerful performances from Nevin, Whaley and Menelaus. Simon Phillips’ production highlights the comedy of the script that he stages on Dale Ferguson’s vast, naturalistic set.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 22 May 2009

Melburnalia No. 2, May 22, 2009 **1/2

Melburnalia No. 2, by White Whale Theatre
fortyfivedownstairs, May 22 to June 6, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 22, 2009
Stars: **1/2

There is certainly potential in the plan to commission and stage a program of short plays based about the suburbs of Melbourne. Several of the five plays in Melburnalia No. 2 have incorporate a coherent style, structure and intention but the program is inconsistent with a couple of plays struggling to find dramatic merit.

One of the more successful pieces is Maribyrnong: I Could Be You, by Hoa Pham (OK), is a telling observation of the despair of three detainees of the Maribyrnong Detention Centre and the diverse reasons for their incarceration. A young Greek man (Grant Foulkes)  who has lived in Australia almost his entire life, is stripped of his residency and deported to Greece because he committed a crime. A Vietnamese student (Fanny Hanusin) worked more hours than her student visa permitted and a disoriented Eastern European woman (Margot Fenley) remains a mystery to us.

Mentone: Song #1 is an almost choral play for voices written by Aidan Fennessy. Five actors create a suburban landscape with snatches of dialogue from multiple characters. We hear families arguing, old friends reminiscing, schoolchildren chattering, footy players training. Finally, the entire chorus of voices makes sense when an old woman emerges, waiting for her husband to return from the war on a train. We have witnessed the scattered scraps of her memories. It is a well-executed and revealing poetic play.

On a lighter note, Danny Katz’s Caulfield: Motherfathers, portrays three couples of parents at a wine-soaked dinner party in middle-class Caulfield. They tease each other, taunt their partners and one wife reveals her husband’s naughty, little secret. Katz’s couples unmask their sulky, inner toddlers as their evening disintegrates.

Less successful is Andrea James’ play, Birrarung: The Forever Zone which muddles two completely different styles. The start is an almost cartoon-like representation of fascistic tram ticket inspectors (Shane Lee, Hanusin) who interrogate an unusual fare evader (Bryan Andy), a silent aboriginal man wearing a possum skin cloak. The angel of tram conductors (Shiralee Morris) appears to remind them of the past and the style shifts to an historical commentary by this modern, aboriginal warrior.

The least effective script is Preston: Porktown, by Kit Lazaroo. It is a very confused allegory about the takeover of the pig farms around Preston by real estate agents over the last century. The language is awkwardly pseudo-poetic, the characters are annoying and unclear in their intentions and there is a baby pig puppet with an illusive metaphorical meaning. I still don’t understand it.

David Mence’s direction is inconsistent and loose but two or three plays make it an entertaining, albeit not theatrically innovative evening.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

About Face, May 19, 2009 **1/2

About Face 
By Tony Perez
La Mama Carlton Courthouse
May 19 to May 30, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

About Face is a peculiar theatrical beast – a series of six, short vignettes for a man and a woman (Bruce Hughes, Karen Lawrence). Each story is about a different couple but has the same premise: a married couple takes a long drive and talks about the marriage and the man’s affair with another woman.

Tony Perez’s script is not particularly insightful about marriage or communication nor does it take theatrical risks. However, it manages to conjure six totally different married couples, five of which seem to be totally dysfunctional and bonkers. This provides some laughs for the audience.

The first story is Tony and Charmaine’s Contract. Tony is almost silent and cowed by his wife’s antics as they drive the highway somewhere outside Melbourne. Charmaine is annoying and pedantic as she demands honesty at all costs. She gets more than she bargains for, but accepts Tony’s choice to maintain his love affair.

In Smaramaloola, Hughes plays a smarmy, lying Latin lover who spends the entire drive talking vivid, poetic drivel in order to convince his childish, weeping and histrionic wife that his affair was a mistake and is his one and only love.

Last Ride is a suicide drive in which the couple, a geek and his over-dressed wife, dress up and drive over a cliff into water at the end. They invite their friends and his lover to watch their end – and film it.

In the crazy dumb show, Roar Hide, the woman taunts her husband as he drives until she finally calls him a two-timer. The two loud, aggressive bogans in Gunbarrel Highway abuse each other with colourful language that is almost grunge poetry.

The final, poignant scene is between Tony and May, the only couple who seem to genuinely love each other and have a positive relationship. He quietly weeps and we slowly realise that May is dying.

Hughes and Lawrence, seated in a cartoon-like car, execute quick costume and character changes between scenes. Hughes is charming and versatile in his six roles and has great comic timing. Lawrence’s performance is strongest in the final, more realistic scene, but seems uncomfortable and forced in earlier scenes.

Friday 8 May 2009

Speed-The-Plow, May 8, 2009 ***1/2

By David Mamet by Human Sacrifice Theatre
Chapel off Chapel, Prahran,  May 8 to 24, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 8, 2009
Stars:  ***1/2

Everyone wants to be a maverick in Hollywood but nobody ever actually risks being a maverick, says the movie producer in Speed-the-Plow. They are too afraid to break the rules, too unwilling to make an arty film with a limited audience and too greedy to make a movie that loses money.

David Mamet’s play is a snapshot of two movie producers as they wrangle over the respective merits of doing good or making money. Bobby Gould (Mark Diaco) is the successful, newly appointed executive producer for a major movie studio. The world is his oyster. He now has licence to “green light” any project under $30 million or to pitch it to his studio boss.

His old pal, Charlie Fox (Colin MacPherson) is not so charmed but he thinks his luck is about to change when he brings to Bobby a sure-fire hit, action-packed, blockbuster script with a major star attached. What Charlie cannot predict is the impact of a pretty woman with a strong view on Bobby’s judgement.

Mamet’s signature of pithy, clipped dialogue, aggressive male characters and themes dealing with the emotional wasteland of our modern world are evident in Speed-The-Plow. The characters argue in short, sharp phrases, interrupting each other and repeating themselves in characteristic Mamet style.

Diaco is a boyish producer, which is probably accurate in the Hollywood world that favours youthfulness. As Bobby, he travels a journey from bravado to vulnerability. MacPherson vibrates with the anxiety of the unsuccessful producer teetering on the brink of disaster. As Bobby’s temporary secretary, Kasia Kaczmarek  balances naivete and manipulation.

The stage is sparsely decorated and the focus is on the actors. What is missing from Matt Emond’s production is the menace and boldness that is inherent in Mamet. Diaco and MacPherson spar with words but only occasionally reach the heightened, bold bullishness and implicit and explicit violence that give Mamet plays their edge.

Charlie says, “Sex, titillation and violence; people want it. No, they require it.” From the huge box office takings and queues outside cinemas, we have to believe he is right – sadly.

Kate Herbert

Thursday 7 May 2009

Optimism , May 27, 2009 ***1/2

Adapted from Voltaire by Tom Wright
Produced by Malthouse Theatre 
Merlin Theatre, Malthouse, until June 13
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 27, 2009
Stars: ***1/2

OPTIMISM is a charming, shambolic and peculiar adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide. Tom Wright extracted and adapted 19 scenes from the book then director, Michael Kantor, tossed them into a blender with pantomime, vaudeville, slapstick and musical comedy. Violent war scenes are juxtaposed against cheerful, contemporary songs about joy. The result is chaotic – in a good way.

Frank Woodley plays the naïve servant, Candide, who is evicted by his master after Candide has a fling with the pretty daughter of the house, Cunegonde (Caroline Craig). Candide embarks on a journey across the globe, remaining relentlessly optimistic in the face of human suffering and violence. This is Voltaire’s satirical attack on the unrealistic and optimistic philosophies of the Enlightenment.

Woodley’s engaging, childlike style brings a whimsical quality to Candide. He looks like a bemused and leggy Harlequin in his polka dot jump suit and clown’s white face. Woodley often addresses the audience directly improvising on both his own thoughts and the musings of Candide. His Candide stumbles like a toddler from one human disaster to the next, seeking advice from mentors and chasing his one true love, Cunagonde.

The madness of Candide’s journey and the silliness of the songs (e.g. Shiny, Shiny, by Haysie Fantazee), highlight the inhumanity and horrors of war, torture, mutilation and rape that he encounters on his epic journey. Kantor sends Candide travelling in aeroplanes. Overhead projections, like huge airport signs, indicate his country of destination: Lisbon, Paraguay, Eldorado, Venice.

The action takes place on Anna Tregloan’s clever design. It is a multi-textured blend of the cold, metallic curves of an aeroplane shell, glittering curtains of the music hall, huge plastic shower curtains and a vivid and anachronistic mix of classical, clown and contemporary costumes. Paul Jackson’s lighting shapes the landscape and boldly conjures jet planes and war zones.

The ensemble is exceptional, employing their impeccable comic timing and characterisation to play multiple roles to create the parade of people in the complex landscape of Candide’s travels. David Woods is versatile playing various roles in his inimitable comic style and Barry Otto uses his “Ottoisms” to create the eccentric Pangloss, Candide’s mentor.

Alison Whyte is delectable as the aristocratic woman with only one buttock and the histrionic actress playing Queen Elizabeth. Francis Greenslade, Hamish Michael, Caroline Craig and Amber McMahon play with pizzazz various cross-dressing air hostesses, lovers, whores, apes, soldiers and villains. Iain Grandage fills the space with his live music.

Optimism reminds us that believing that all will be well if we just stay positive, is foolish in our world.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Haul Away, May 5, 2009 ***1/2

Haul Away by Glynis Angell & Vanessa Chapple
May 5 to 16, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 5, 2009
Stars: 3 1/2

At the end of Haul Away, for a few moments the audience is still, silent and holding its communal breath. The play is comic-tragic and our journey bounces us between the poignant and the hilarious. We know from the beginning that the central character, a 38 year-old mother of two, will die by the end.

Glynis Angell tells the entire story through the eyes of her clownish, eccentric narrator who speaks with a broad Scots accent as he/she relates the tale of Kaye. The bright-eyed and engaging Angell rapidly shifts persona from her capering, gesticulating narrator to the languid figure of Kaye, supine on her bed.

Angell capably plays all the characters that surround Kaye allowing us to witness their pain and grief. Her mother cannot cope so she avoids her daughter’s sickbed, privately mourning and saying that parents should go first.

Kaye’s sister, the Gatekeeper, returns from abroad to take almost total responsibility for her dying sister and two bewildered children. We hear about, but do not see Kaye’s Beloved, her grieving husband. The only person who maintains some coolness is an efficient carer who buzzes about changing Kaye’s socks and incontinence sheets.

Marg Horwell’s set for this revised production, directed by Vanessa Chapple, provides multiple levels and secret compartments representing elements of Kaye’s life.  The idea has potential but the black rostra are bulky and almost dwarf the performer. Richard Vabre’s lighting is dramatic and evocative and establishes location and time more clearly.

Singer and musician, Fiona Roake, perches high above the stage underscoring scenes with electric bass and percussion. Her moving songs are sung simply but are repetitive in style and are sometimes not well integrated into the story. The relationship between musician and performer is not clear and the focus on the characters and action is at times lost.

Haul Away successfully blends a cheerful acceptance of death and dying with a recognition of the aching despair and searching for meaning that surrounds it. It is a gentle but touching experience.

Friday 1 May 2009

Murder By Chocolate, April 1, 2009 **1/2

Murder By Chocolate 
By Phil Ormsby & Alex Ellis
La Mama, Carlton until April 1 to 12, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ** 1/2

There is enough chocolate devoured during Murder By Chocolate to give the entire audience a migraine. During the 80 minute show, Phil Ormsby and Alex Ellis gorge on the dark and the milky, hand-made chocky titbits and rich cakes. How will they survive the nightly caffeine and sugar overdose?

The play, written and performed by the pair from New Zealand, is a comedy murder mystery. Ellis plays acclaimed romantic fiction writer and chocolate addict, Felicia Fargo, who writes under the pseudonym of Dorothy Doyle. She changes literary genres by writing a murder mystery under her real name, but her fictional murder comes true when her grumpy, wheezing, old publisher is murdered with a frozen stick of chocolate. Of course, Felicia is the prime suspect.

The primary vehicle for the comedy is a parade of wacky characters, all played by Ormsby. Dorian is Felicia’s camp and acerbic research assistant and her amateur chocolate addiction counsellor. Margot Fargo is Felicia’s brassy, rude mother who is a celebrity dessert chef and the cause of Felicia’s choco-addiction.

Ormsby also plays Fesley, the grotesque, asthmatic publisher with a secret attachment to Felicia, and Detective Inspector Constable, the aspiring writer and hapless policeman. He performs one really hilarious scene in which he switches rapidly between Madam Mulvania, the blousy TV psychic, and her entourage of spirit guides.

The script has an arch and old-fashioned style that works in part and the acting is sometimes rather tense and awkward and there is a very out of place musical number in the middle.

 Felicia’s crazy chocolate obsession provides some slapstick that involves plenty of rough and tumble as she claws her way over furniture and bodies to get to her chocky treats. The audience enjoyed bodies disappearing mysteriously and were perversely entertained by the actors stuffing chocolates into their mouths.

Murder By Chocolate is certainly a fun idea for a comedy murder mystery.