Thursday 27 August 2009

Oedipus – A Poetic Requiem. Liminal Theatre ***

Adapted from Ted Hughes, by Liminal Theatre
 J-Studios, Barkly St Nth Fitzroy, Aug 27 to Sept 14, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Ted Hughes’ version of Oedipus is a visceral text that accentuates the horror of the Ancient Greek legend of Oedipus the king, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Yes, the Greeks beat modern movie-makers when it comes to violence and gore.

Mary Sitarenos’ award-winning production is an adaptation of Hughes’ text performed by four women (Ivanka Sokol, Jo Smith, Georgina Durham, Claire Nicholls) wearing black gowns. This chorus of writhing creatures narrates the tale and speaks as Oedipus, his wife and mother, Jocasta, her brother, Creon, Teiresias, the prophet, and the Oracle of Delphi. Sometimes huge, stark, white masks (designed by James McAllister) represent the characters.

Oedipus is also present in the resonant and haunting, recorded voice of Peter Finlay, which resounds in the tiny theatre. The bodies and voices, combined with a pervasive, throbbing soundscape (Chris Wenn) and evocative lighting (Damian “Mimmo” Lentini) and projections is atmospheric, intense and often gruesome. Sex and death, blood, dirt and “black, bitter gall” are the images created.

We witness the demise of King Oedipus as he slowly and painfully recognises that he has brought the curse upon the city of Thebes, that he is the plague that afflicts his people. “I am not fit for the light”, he cries. The light is fading on him, his city and his family and it finally blinks out as he gouges out his own eyes.

This entire, abstract production has an ominous feeling as we peer into the world of Oedipus. The combination of moving bodies, portentous soundscape, dim lighting and restrained voices intoning the horrific and graphic imagery of Hughes’ poetic words creates a grim and chilling theatrical experience.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 20 August 2009

Chicago ***1/2

Lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander, book by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
Her Majesty’s Theatre, from August 20, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

Shimmy those shoulders and shake that ass – Chicago is here. It is a lusty, energetic production based on the New York concert version directed by Walter Bobbie. The score echoes the sounds of the razzamatazz, jazz era of the 20s, the band is tight as a drum and the costumes even tighter. The dancing is hot and sexy and the leads, Caroline O’Connor and Sharon Millerchip, are vivacious.

Ann Reinking’s choreography incorporates Bob Fosse-inspired moves: thrusting pelvises, swivelling hips, tilted bowler hats and staccato changes.

The band perches on a huge, tiered area that looks like a courtroom. This focuses attention on the musicians and Vanessa Scammell even conducts from the judge’s box and participates in the narrative occasionally –and awkwardly. The dance and character action is confined to a narrow, downstage apron that is too restrictive and too much black in the set swallows the actors.

O’Connor and Millerchip are physically like matching tiny, impish moppets. So alike are they, that the usual contrast between number one murderess, Velma, and her new competition, Roxie, gets a little lost although this does not detract from either performance.

O’Connor boasts a bold, distinctive voice, superlative dancing and hilarious clowning. Her opening number, All That Jazz, is raunchy and commanding and her comic skills are highlighted in I Can’t Do It Alone.

Millerchip is a pert and cheeky Roxie. In her song, Roxie, she captures the ditzy, murdering bimbo whose ambition to be famous drives her to extremes, and she fires on all cylinders dancing with Roxie’s boys in Me and My Baby.

Class, the duet O’Connor sings with Gina Riley as Mama Moreton, is classy. Their voices blend perfectly and they don’t mess with the song but allow the witty lyrics to do their work. Riley’s rich, resonant voice fills the theatre in When You’re Good to Mama.

Cell Block Tango is a tasty scene featuring Velma and five other murderesses declaring their innocence while singing, “He had it coming”. Damien Bermingham is charming as Amos, Roxie’s simple, loyal husband. Craig McLachlan underplays Billy Flynn, the attractive, oily defence lawyer who lines his pocket while promising innocent verdicts. McLachlan’s vocal style is not a good fit and Razzle Dazzle, Billy’s big number, lacks the spectacle and pizzazz it needs.

This production needs more space for the action and the rhythm of the show falters occasionally, perhaps because it has been running interstate for months. But the music and the two leads carry us on a wild and sassy ride.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Rockabye, MTC, August 12, 2011 ***

By Joanna Murray-Smith, Melbourne Theatre Company
Sumner Theatre, MTC, until Sept 20, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 12, 2009
 Published in Herald Sun on Aug 18, 2009

ROCKABYE, by Joanna Murray-Smith, bounds on stage as a broad comedy about a pop diva whose career stalled after her number one album in the 80s. Now she is only a star in Minsk but her new album may relaunch her career.

The laughs come thick and fast in the first half in Simon Phillips’ slick and peppy production. Murray-Smith’s rapid dialogue is peppered with gags, social commentary and pop culture references. She creates vivid, hilarious parodies of Sidney, the insecure, ageing rock star (Nicki Wendt), her trashy, Cockney agent (Richard Piper) and her drug-addled, ex-rocker boyfriend (Daniel Frederiksen).

Sidney harangues her patient, young assistant, Julia (Kate Atkinson). She anxiously meets with Layla, her African adoption agent (Zahra Newman), then faces Tobias (Pacharo Mzembe) a brash, young, successful African-English rock journalist who interviews her on his TV show.

About 75 minutes into her rowdy story, the tone becomes darker after Sidney’s plans to adopt an African baby go awry. This gear change jars. After establishing the rollicking comedy, it is difficult to view these caricatures as fully rounded characters and to sympathise with their emotional challenges in the second half. The jokes undercut the issues.

The narrative feels contrived and the political debate between Zahra and Tobias is didactic although the story and themes are certainly relevant in our world. Sidney’s biological clock is a ticking time bomb. As a public personality, her private life can never be private. Murray-Smith addresses the desperate craving of a 40-something woman for a child but confronts us with the socio-political complexities of foreign adoptions.

What right does the wealthy West have to commandeer a nation’s children and remove them from their culture? On the other hand, will these children have a better life with a loving family and opportunities? The references to Angelina Jolie and Madonna are obvious.

Wendt embodies the vibrating anxiety and self-centredness of Sidney and effectively balances comedy and drama. Atkinson is charming as Julia providing stillness in this stormy world. Piper and Frederiksen create very funny characters and Mzembe and Newman are capable as vehicles for the social argument.

Brian Thomson’s design of massive, Warhol-style images of Sidney’s face creates a dramatic, colourful stage and Philip Lethlean’s lighting is strong and evocative. Peter Farnan’s original music channels Chrissie Amphlett from the 80s.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Quartet: The Razor by Heiner Muller, by A Is For Atlas ***

100 Barkly St, Fitzroy, until Aug 12 to 29, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Innovative theatre demands imaginative vision. In Quartet: The Razor director, Xan Coleman, takes risks and pushes theatrical boundaries to create an intimate production that challenges and surprises its audience with the collision of Heiner Muller’s script, Annie Hsieh’s string duet and a fascinating design by Grant Cooper.

 If you are a fan of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos – or the Malkovich movie version – this script by provocative, German playwright, Heiner Muller, may titillate you.

We perch on a balcony surrounding the small performance space, peering down into a claustrophobic room imprisons the actors, Andrew Gray and Felicity Steel. The pair prowls like caged lions, stalking, taunting and manipulating each other. They play a range of characters, swapping roles and crossing genders and dressed in layers of slightly distressed period costume (by Julie Renton) constructed from brocades and silken fabrics. A layer is removed at each character change.

Gray plays Vicomte de Valmont, the amoral seducer, while Steel is the Marquise de Merteuil, his demanding, vengeful, long-time lover and partner in crimes of passion. The couple’s spiteful taunts and competitive love play provide the landscape for a nasty and ultimately lethal game.

Muller cunningly structures their relationship as a dangerous tournament of resentment, revenge, decadence and unrequited lust. The pair entertains one another by acting out various scenarios of seduction. Valmont plays his major conquest, the chaste and inaccessible Mme. de Tourvel, while the Marquise pretends to be the lusty Valmont who seduces her.  She then plays the naïve schoolgirl, Cecile de Volanges, who succumbs to the Vicomte.

The jangling dissonance of Hsieh’s music on cello (Jonathan Tosio) and violin (Larissa Weller) underscores the barely submerged violence of the couple. Hidden cameras film the characters, projecting their image like portraits onto screens embedded in the walls.

There could be some development of the rhythm of the characters, a balancing of their passion and coolness, more variation in the dynamic and dramatic range, but this is a compelling production.

By Kate Herbert

The Boy Friend, The Production Company, Aug 12, 2009 ***1/2

Book, lyrics and music by Sandy Wilson
Produced by The Production Company
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre,  Aug 12 to 16, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
 Published in Herald Sun

THE BOY FRIEND, by Sandy Wilson, is a playful musical set in the 1920s but written in the 1950s, when it was enormously popular in England and Australia. It was called “a disarming mish mash” but continued to enchant audiences. It is much performed these days by amateur companies but rarely receives a professional production.

At a finishing school for young ladies on the French Riviera, Polly Browne (Esther Hannaford), an English heiress, falls for Tony (Alex Rathgeber), who Polly believes to be a messenger boy but is really the runaway son of an English lord. It is the meeting of minds and money. The peculiar structure of the script explains why it was called a mish mash. It would probably work better concentrating on the “on-stage” story of the finishing school and omitting the thin, backstage story.

Gary Young’s production is energetic and fun. It is astonishing how far The Production Company shows can develop in only two weeks of company rehearsal. The inimitable Rhonda Burchmore, who knows how to command the stage, plays the seductive, French finishing school headmistress, Madame Dubonnet. Burchmore’s fruity vocal tones fill the theatre and she brings elegance and pizzazz to the role.

Grant Smith’s rich baritone blends well with Burchmore and he brings both dignity and comedy to the role of millionaire, Percival, who is Madame’s long lost love and Polly’s father. Robert Grubb is hilariously sleazy as Lord Brockhurst and Robyn Arthur embodies his long-suffering wife.

Hannaford has a pretty voice and is suitably naïve and confused as Polly. Rathgeber has a simple charm as Tony and Christie Whelan is perky as Polly’s frisky pal, Maisie. Kellie Rode is deliciously pert and petite as Hortense, the cheeky French maid. She has that magical quality that lights up a stage, can sing and dance and is totally immersed in her comic role. Other principals provide a spirited group of Polly’s friends.

The orchestra executes Wilson’s music beautifully under the direction of David Piper.  The reeds and strings are featured in much of the arrangements and the music echoes the style of the 1920s. There are plenty of singable tunes in The Boy Friend including the chirpy title song and the cheerful duet, I Could Be Happy With You. Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography channels the flappers of the 20s as do Kim Bishop’s costumes while Richard Jeziorny’s design sets the period stylishly and simply.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 7 August 2009

Pericles, Bell Shakespeare, Aug 7, 2011 ****

By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre until August 7 to 22, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Published in Herald Sun 

DIRECTOR AND ACTOR, JOHN BELL, has a special gift to illuminate the plays and language of Shakespeare for a modern audience. He enlightens us about their meaning, poetry, story, comedy, violence and mostly, to their humanity. May the Bard bless him.

Bell’s production of Pericles is dynamic, passionate, funny and inventively staged and designed.  Bell makes it a spectacle, a pageant, a mythical, ocean-going journey with multi-cultural choreography (Gavin Robins), vivid costumes and evocative percussion and bamboo flute music by TaikOz. The stage design (Julie Lynch) echoes Japanese Noh Theatre, the backdrop bears an enormous, luminous moon to remind us of the goddess, Diana, and massive colourful drapes provide changes of location.

Any flaws in the structure, narrative and poetry of the text are explained by scholarly arguments that its first three acts were probably not written by Shakespeare. The narrative is episodic and lacks the usual classical unity of time, place and action of a Shakespeare although it embodies some of his themes.

Marcus Graham is magnetic and transformational as Pericles, the King of Tyre, who roams the oceans, suffering the storms of Neptune and the loss of his kingdom, wife and daughter. Graham makes sense of, and finds comedy and tragedy in the epic journey of this tormented man.

Mediaeval poet, John Gower wrote the legend upon which Pericles is based and Gower (John Gaden) is the narrator for the play. Gaden is wry and engaging as he delivers Gower’s galloping and often child-like rhymes. Gaden brings dignity and humour to his multiple roles as Gower, Cerimon, the wise healer and  King Simonides.

The first half is a deliciously eclectic blend of choreographic storytelling, ethereal music, storms at sea, comedy and pageantry. Graham and Gaden shine and are supported by a large ensemble. Philip Dodd is strong as Pericles’ loyal lord, Helicanus.

After interval the raunchy, modern brothel-keepers entertain the audience. The most moving moment of the play is the reunion of Pericles and his long-lost daughter, Marina (Andrea Demetriades). Graham rivets the eye even when silent and shrouded in Pericles’ rags and Demetriades combines girlish coyness with ardent commitment.

My one quibble is that some actors’ voices sounded unsupported and lacked the technique to fill the theatre. This was particularly evident with Julie Goss as Dionyza and Lexi Freiman as Thaisa.

Pericles is a marvellous, fantastical trip and John Bell’s production captivates with its mix of contemporary with ancient and comedy with tragedy.

By Kate Herbert