Wednesday 30 September 2009

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ***1/2

Book by Jeffrey Lane, Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek, (after the movie by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning) by The Production Company
Where and When: State Theatre, September 30 to  October 4, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: 3 & a half

You’ve got to love the long con. The sheer inventiveness and bravado that allows a con artist to follow his colourful plot through to its bitter, lucrative – albeit criminal – end is deliciously entertaining

And so it goes in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a musical that is the descendant of the 1964 film starring David Niven with Brando in a rare comic turn and a 1988 version with Michael Caine and nutty Steve Martin.

Bille Brown, who wowed audiences as King Arthur in Spamalot, is hilarious as the supremely arrogant and suave poseur, Lawrence Jameson, whose long con involves playing the prince of a non-existent European country suffering a non-existent revolution. “Give them what they want,” he sings. And he does.

On the French Riviera, assisted by the tres-French Chief of Police (Grant Piro), Jameson, with faux-European charm, seduces and fleeces rich women including lonely American heiress, Muriel Eubanks (Marina Prior).

Jameson’s complex game almost collapses with the arrival of low-rent con artist, Freddy Benson, played with relish, slapstick and comical vulgarity by Matt Hetherington. Freddy’s cheap, short cons involve heroic tales of a sick grandmother. All he wants, as he sings greedily, is Great Big Stuff.

The pair is compelled to join forces to con the supposedly rich, small-town Soap Queen, Christine Colgate (Amy Lehpamer). But this cheerful, clumsy gal is not as ingenuous as she appears. Lehpamer’s voice is rich and powerful and her character matches the vigour of the two con artists.

Roger Hodgman sets a rollicking pace, letting Hetherington and Brown off their leads as this odd couple. They find a rhythmic energy and balance with Hetherington as the crass, physical, boyish con and Brown as the sleek, slightly camp aristocrat.

Piro has impeccable comic timing as the gauche, greedy French gendarme while Prior’s bright vocal tones and comic skill bring the passionate Muriel to life. Chelsea Plumley is bold, big-voiced and brassy as loud, Oklahoma oil heiress, Jolene.

In addition to the goofy antics of the leads, huge laughs are found in David Yazbek’s cunning, often insane lyrics and Jeffery Lane’s brazen, comic dialogue. The tight, on-stage band, lead by John Foreman, does justice to Yazbek’s perky and memorable songs that range from funky to latin beats and love ballads. The vivacious chorus dances up a storm, choreographed by Dana Jolly.

“Breeding is important”, quips Jameson, “but lighting is everything.” It’s a very funny night.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 28 September 2009

Tale of the Golden Lease by Vigilantelope ***

Melbourne Fringe Festival
Lithuanian Club, Nth Melbourne,  Sept 27 to Oct 10, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Has anyone noticed that the Fringe Festival is turning by stealth into another comedy festival? Vigilantelope’s comedy show, Tale of the Golden Lease, has the feel and style of sketch comedy but – wonder of wonders – it has a narrative on which to hang all the gags.

The four men who write and perform the show (Tim McDonald, Pat Miller, Vachel Spirason, Joel Tito) are funny, irreverent and pretty smart. It appears that they may be escapees from the Law Revue (and perhaps the Law Faculty) at Monash.

The story is about two blokes, Dwayne and Rupert, who run a fish and chip shop. Jim Courier, Jehovah’s  galactic envoy, enlists them to find the lost golden lease for the earth. Courier left it on the site of the chip shop 600,000 years ago - give or take a millennium. 

Check your religious-purist self at the door. In Heaven, Jehovah, a smug celebrity with a smarmy, marketing executive turn of phrase, convenes the God Convention. Lucifer is a daggy loser trying hard to win the favour of the other gods. When Lucifer returns to his underworld, his irksome and obsequious imps suggest he hunts down the golden lease so he sends his slavering and stupid Hounds of Hell and Filet, his Master of Disguise (Pronounced “Dis-gweez”).

Meanwhile, Dwayne and Rupert go back in time through wormholes, and encounter some Kiwi Oracles (one is a “little person”), a furry Yowie with a romantic needs and Crows’ footballer, Tony Modra, as a sidekick.

Of course, all this is just an excuse for a comical parade of silly characters, endless ridiculous voices, convulsive jazz dance and absurd songs about gods, love and the rest. One hilarious idea is time travel through interpretive dance. The galloping Hounds of Hell are entertaining, dim-witted servants of Lucifer. Other highlights are the devilish Filet, the Kiwi Oracles and the lisping demon who loves Lucifer.

The show is performed inventively with little or no props or set. The four performers wear black jeans and shirts and changed characters swiftly with the addition of a hat, coat or an accent. There are no dull spots and the 60 minutes provide plenty of laughs for an audience craving comedy.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 24 September 2009

A Black Joy by Declan Greene ***

45downstairs, Sept 24 to Oct 4, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

A Black Joy, Declan Greene’s new dark comedy, has plenty in common with Greene’s previous productions with colleague, Ash Flanders, in their wacko company, Sisters Grimm.  This play, directed by Susie Dee, has the same grotesque but comic flavour, vivid style and references to movies and popular culture. It appeals to a young and funky audience – but not exclusively.

The play depicts the collision of the lives of seven self-absorbed individuals all of whom have famous, movie star names and are members of outrageously dysfunctional families. Bette Davis, played with grim relish by Carole Patullo, acts as “feeder” for her morbidly obese and compliant partner, John Candy, played by Tom Considine. He lies in a bed, like a beached whale, being fed cold baked beans, enormous pies and disgusting gruel.

The repellent images continue. Bette Davis’s daughter, Dakota Fanning (Miriam Glaser), is an abrasive, suicidal, child-star brat who has leukaemia (as did the real Fanning in ER), a foul temper and a craving to be a musical theatre star. She meets and falls in teen love with Corey Haim (Ash Flanders), a 14 year-old Neo-Nazi who makes threatening phone calls to his own mother, Diane Keaton (Anne Browning). Browning plays mum’s anxiety disorder and burgeoning fitness obsession with demented delight, popping pills, hoisting barbells and running in frenzied circles around the stage.

Just when you think things can’t get more bizarre, Diane Keaton’s husband, Senator Joseph Cotton (Chris Bunworth), reveals that his desperate quest to save the whales runs parallel to his psychopathic abduction and slow, sadistic starvation and murder of – well – it looks uncannily like Paris Hilton (Megan Twycross).

Greene’s style owes much to high camp, 1960s, schlock-horror and sexploitation movies. He enjoys grossing out his audience with his “trash theatre”. The results are often hilarious and crazy.

Dee directs the play with a deft hand, maintaining the grotesque, comic style and drawing the sometimes scattered threads of Greene’s narrative into a cohesive whole. The script, although not particularly well crafted, is entertaining and the cast give gutsy, credible performances in this flagrantly offensive and absurd play. If you’re not interested, send your kids.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 19 September 2009

Attract/Repel by Melbourne Town Players ***1/2

Store Room, Nth. Fitzroy, Sept 19 to Oct 10, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

The four actors in Attract/Repel have all experienced racism in their lives. We hear their very personal stories in this performance devised with director, Ming-Zhu Hii. They reveal some painful and some hilarious moments and their interaction is warm, honest and natural. The outcome is a charming, moving and challenging show.

The backgrounds of the four are diverse. Jing-Xuan Chan came to live in Australia from Hong Kong as a baby. She does not use an anglicised name but identifies much of the time as an “ABC”, what she calls “Australian Born Chinese”. Terry Yeboah is a tall, elegant, young African-Australian man who immigrated from Ghana in his late primary school years.

Fanny Hanusin is a young, Chinese-Indonesian woman who came to Melbourne University to study Economics and stayed. Hanusin quips that sometimes she feels like a FOB, “Fresh off the Boat”. Georgina Naidu, who has one Indian-Malay parent and one Celtic parent, says wryly that she was born in the Frankston Hospital.

They are all Australian but all have tales to tell about surprising, shocking or watershed moments when they confronted mindless racism. “I don’t want a wog touching my food,” said a bigot to Naidu. “There’s a nigger at the door,” shouted a woman about Yeboah when he was collecting for a charity. Chan’s “white” friends sometimes affectionately but thoughtlessly call her “Little Chink” and she feels that she cannot complain.

Director, Ming-Zhu Hii, keeps the staging simple and intimate. Dramatic moments are accented by Damien McLean’s stark, coloured, fluorescent tube lighting. We are close to the actors. They become our friends in such a small space. They enter carrying a suitcase and introduce themselves. Over the hour, using chalk, they carefully fill the entire wall behind them with lists of racist epithets. Each is like a new poisoned barb.

We, the middle-class, ever-so-slightly smug audience, sympathise and groan at the knuckle-headed ignorance of our fellow countrymen and –women, then wriggle uncomfortably, checking our memories for moments when we, too, have used the wrong language, teased someone or reacted inappropriately.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 10 September 2009

COOK: an exploration ***

Adapted by Peter Finlay
La Mama, Carlton  Sept 9- 20, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If Australian history is your thing, COOK: an exploration is just the ticket. In this solo show, Peter Finlay adapts and dramatises Captain James Cook’s ship’s journal from his 1770 voyage of discovery of the eastern coast.

There is no fiddling with Cook’s words. His journal entries, although edited, are used verbatim. What becomes clear is that exploration is only occasionally exciting and adventurous. Most of the time Cook’s writings concentrate with excruciating detail on the weather, wind direction and sea depth or the safety of The Endeavour.

After months at sea, we meet him in April 1770 travelling along the New South Wales coast, investigating what he called Terra Nullius. Cook charted the coast and, with Joseph Banks and Dr. Solander, investigated the land.

What is shocking is his almost total disregard for the indigenous people. When the few men who approach him at intervals show any signs of aggression, he fires his musket – then wonders why they will not approach him. He is more concerned about their nakedness – especially the women – and their attempts to pilfer his turtles or to light bush fires than about their culture or welfare.

Finlay, with director Laurence Strangio, creates a simple, short performance that highlights the intensity and detail of Cook’s observations and his lack of genuine interest in the people he encounters. Most of the text is presented as a monologue, although some is a voice over.

 Finlay, wearing cream breeches and shirt, stands in front of projections of a barren, pristine coastline where waves crash against a sandy shore, as if watching from his ship’s bridge. Occasionally he dons a captain’s jacket to patrol the shore and attempt contact with the natives or investigate “a smoke”.

The simplicity of the staging is clearly a conscious theatrical choice and it gives us some insight into Cook’s mental processes and concerns. Finlay’s interpretation of Cook is compelling. However, there is room for greater dramatic development. Further dramatisation of the encounters with natives or Finlay shifting character to play Banks or Solander could create another dramatic layer.

The production is the second in Finlay’s trio of monodramas called Australian Global Documents Project. The first, about Ned Kelly, was based on Jerilderee Letter, the third will be The Mabo Judgment.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 3 September 2009

Billy Twinkle – Requiem for a Golden Boy, by Ronnie Burkett

Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Sept 3 to 20, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you hate puppets, go see Ronnie Burkett. He could cure you. Burkett’s marionettes are raunchy, funny, poignant, modern nut cases – and so, it seems, is he. Like his previous shows, Billy Twinkle – Requiem for a Golden Boy, is designed for adults.

The puppet cast includes a titillating, tiny stripper called Rusty (How do you peel clothes off a marionette?), Biddy Bantam Brewster, a drunken, singing, society dame, and the well-meaning but talentless Doreen Gray who tours an excruciating, Christian hand-puppet act.

The content of Billy Twinkle may be less challenging and the narrative less mesmerising than the earlier shows, but Burkett’s parade of tiny people and his manipulation techniques remain exceptional. He breathes life into his characters, conjuring a world of tiny people who weep and laugh, taunt and sigh, harangue and dream.

Burkett creates the entire production including the script and set design. He may be the only human on stage in full view and full man-size, but he is never alone while he manipulates characters and provides a multitude of voices.

He plays the older version of the central character, Billy, a puppeteer who is bored to sobs with his glitzy, cheeky show on a cheesy cruise ship. Just before Billy leaps to his watery grave, the not-quite-dead spirit of Billy’s mentor, Sid Diamond, appears to haunt and taunt Billy, forcing him to relive his crazy life as a puppeteer.

Billy Twinkle does not transport us into another magical world. Rather it replicates the world of a middle-aged man in a mid-life crisis who must seek solace and help from the older man who taught him everything he knows. Can we assume that Burkett had a crisis of faith about his chosen profession and overcame it by making a show about a character who started to resent his art and his audience to the point of despair?

Burkett has a wicked and camp sense of humour that permeates not only his dialogue but that of the parade of puppets who share the stage. Within this story, Billy snipes at arrogant, precious or tacky show people and audience members who annoy him. He parodies Billy’s Canadian small town parents, the geeks who love puppets and the child Billy who wants to dress up in sparkly costumes and be a puppeteer.

The show – which opened in Geelong – rushes headlong through Billy’s colourful and sometimes mad life until he reaches a moment of realisation and acceptance. Did Ronnie Burkett reach some sort of peace too?

By Kate Herbert

God of Carnage, MTC ****1/2

By Yasmina Reza, Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Arts Centre, Sep 3 to Oct 3, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars ****1/2

French playwright, Yasmina Reza, is more famous in America and England than in France. She writes clever, contemporary, social satires. The Broadway production of God of Carnage recently won several Tony Awards whereas in Paris her plays are often dismissed as “theatre de boulevard”, a term applied to 18th century vaudeville. Bad form, Paris! Reza is a jewel.

God of Carnage is an hilarious satire riddled with belly laughs, slapstick and acerbic observations at the expense of modern parenting, marriage and the middle classes. Neat, urban order slides into chaos. Peter Evans’ production boasts an exceptional cast and superb acting. The laughs don’t stop, the direction is slick and Dale Ferguson’s set is stylish and contemporary.

Veronique (Pamela Rabe) and Michel Vallon (Geoff Morrell), parents of 11 year-old Bruno, invite to their home Alain (Hugo Weaving) and Annette Reille (Natasha Herbert), whose son, Ferdinand, struck Bruno in the mouth with a stick. What begins as an attempt at a civil discussion about the incident degenerates by increments into an uncontrollable argument.

Their negotiation deteriorates firstly into veiled criticism and sniping and, eventually, into abuse, personal attacks and even flailing fists and thrown objects. These outwardly cultivated professionals lose their civilised masks and transform into frustrated, angry children – the very thing they are there to discuss. The bad behaviour of the children emerges unedited in their parents who are now ruled by the god of carnage.

Rabe is delectable as Veronique, the controlled, morally superior, lefty, bleeding heart, whose carefully maintained respectability crumbles as she morphs into a screaming harpy. Morrell, as her salesman husband, Michel, begins as hen-pecked, repressed and obliging, later changing into a belligerent, boorish reactionary.

Weaving is suitably smug and arrogant as Alain, the self-centred, criminal lawyer who persists in taking crucial legal calls on his mobile at hilariously inappropriate moments. Herbert charts the decline of the initially timid Annette who lives in the shadow of Alain, her overbearing husband. The lubricating effect of alcohol eventually loosens her tongue. Herbert’s unexpected, explosive incident (let’s not spoil the sight gag) is one of the comic highlights.

Not only is Reza’s dialogue cunningly wrought and funny, it is delivered with impeccable timing by the entire cast who appear to be having the time of their lives. This play is a riot. Your face will ache from laughing.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 2 September 2009

En Trance by Yumi Umiumare ****

Malthouse Theatre
Tower Theatre, Malthouse, until Sept 1 to 13, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Yumi Umiumare is a living treasure, being the only Japanese Butoh dancer resident in Australia. Her solo performance, En Trance, both delights and disturbs with its compelling blend of movement, dialogue, projection and contemporary music. There are moments of joy and comedy that are a counterpoint for the grotesque and more traditional Butoh dance.

The six scenes depict a disturbing collision of life and death, safety and danger, surreal and real, animal and human. Umiumare transforms before our eyes from an engaging, chatty, playful woman in a girlish white frock, into a bare, raw, tormented creature, smeared with white, Butoh body paint. In the final moments, both these personae appear simultaneously when her contorted Butoh figure writhes in front of her girlish image on video.

Maze, the opening vignette, is gentle, poetic and verbal. In Cityscape, Umiumare scurries like a frightened child, through crowded, racing, city streets that are projected on the huge wall behind her (video by Bambang Nurcahyadi). The noise, clutter and speed of urban Asian cities are almost palpable (sound by Ian Kitney).

The versatile fabric installation by Naomi Ota begins as stark, simple, narrow columns of fibre but, with a pull of a string, Umiumare is swallowed by a series of curtains like fine waterfalls of thread. She changes costume before our eyes, dressing in layers of black kimono (designed by David Anderson) and transforming into a dark, rat-like woman-creature scuttling through the drapes with gaping mouth and tortured movement.

Punk Medusa is an inventive and compelling image. Umiumare changes costume again with ritualistic reverence, donning a magical jacket that flickers with pin lights in the darkness. She becomes the multi-headed Medusa by dancing with a video screen bearing multiple images of her own head.

The scene called Tears begins with an intimate, direct address to the audience, describing the numerous and different types of tears of the Japanese. There are traditional tears, a single teardrop, howling grief and soap opera tears. A light-hearted song turns suddenly to a more personal show of grief as Umiumare, carrying a paper umbrella, twirls like a slow Dervish.

En Trance is by turns both anguished and delightful but Umiumare is always entrancing.

By Kate Herbert