Thursday 19 November 2009

Life is a Dream at Storeroom ***

 Adapted from Pedro Calderon de la Barca
 Storeroom, November 19 to  29, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Expect violence, chaos and filth in Daniel Schlusser’s version of Calderon’s 17th century Spanish play, Life is a Dream.  In this interpretation, life is a nightmare. If you want a classical production you will not get it here. Schlusser uses some of Calderon’s language, translated by Beatrix Christian, but he deconstructs the original play until it is almost unrecognisable.

His production interweaves scenes involving the actors as themselves, with speeches from Calderon’s play that is set in the royal court of Poland. The power struggles, brutal acts of vengeance and unprovoked violence of Calderon’s characters are echoed in the actors’ unpredictable interactions, status games, imaginative play, story-telling and verbal and physical abuse.

It is a potentially compelling mix. The parallels in the relationships between the actors themselves and their characters create another theatrical layer. Of course, the intention is to deconstruct and create a new piece of theatre but this device does not always illuminate the themes and characters, and causes the narrative to lose clarity.

The stage is a dangerous place in this production. The actors’ violence is very close to the audience and feels very real. They torment each other and it is uncomfortable for us, as if we are witnessing the persecution and abuse first-hand, and are unable to take action to stop it. The actors crawl and fight in what looks like a filthy squat (design by Marg Horwell) scattered with the detritus of years of unwholesome living.

The deconstructed form almost entirely obscures the interesting complexities of the original plot and its characters. There is also a conflict between the two styles of language: the contemporary-casual versus the classical-poetic. About half way through the show, Calderon’s characters start to take over from the workshop experimentation of the actors.

The original mythical story goes: King Basilio (Andrew Dunn) imprisoned his baby son, Segismundo (Johnny Carr), because his horoscope predicted that he would bring dishonour on Poland.  Years later, Basilio releases his son and convinces him that it was all a dream. Segismundo falls in love with his cousin, Estrella (Sophie Mathisen) but his years of incarceration made him vengeful and he attacks the king.

There is certainly something gripping in this production. However, it feels busy and sometimes lacks cohesion of all its disparate elements.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 13 November 2009

David Strassman: Teddy’s Farewell Tour ***

Atheneaum Theatre, Nov 13 to Dec 6, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

David Strassman, American comic ventriloquist, has a fiercely loyal fan base in Melbourne for his characters, Ted E. Bare and Chuck Wood. He brings his show to the Athenaeum Theatre almost annually and his followers carry teddies and wear his T-shirts with the ardent commitment of AFL fans.

The sentimental audience favourite of Strassman’s characters is the charming Ted E. Bare who is a na├»ve, slow-talking, goofy and over-sized teddy. Strassman manages to give the inanimate puppet soulful eyes and a cuteness factor of 100.  This show is billed as “Ted E’s Farewell Tour” and Ted milks the audience’s empathy for all he is worth.

Ted E’s primary antagonist, and the audience’s other favourite, is Chuck Wood, the puppet world’s answer to villains. He is cunning, lying, conceited, foul-mouthed, sexist and intolerant of everyone and everything. He taunts Ted E, Strassman and us – and we love him for it. Chuck is the classic ventriloquist doll with a cheeky, wooden head. (Anyone remember Gerry Gee and Ron Blaskett?)

When Ted E. announces he is leaving the show, it draws gasps and howls of “Don’t go, Ted E!” from the crowd and “Good riddance” from Chuck and the other characters. Strassman’s cast includes Sid the Beaver, a crass stand-up comedian, Grandpa Fred, a forgetful old teddy with a penchant for hookers, and Kevin, the kooky Alien.

Strassman’s technique is impeccable and, when ventriloquism errors occur, he makes them into gags. His comedy relies on classic, verbal and often vulgar stand-up routines as well as his cleverly created puppet characters.

Strassman’s newest creations are electronic puppets that he calls puppetronics. These include some marvellous inventions such as a very talented and acrobatic 20cm robot that almost steals the show and an electronic chorus of dinosaurs that sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in perfect harmony. The remote electronic controls trigger a head-scratching, how-did-he-do-that reaction from the audience.

All that being said, the show feels a little tired, too long, and the style, at times, feels a bit dated. The fans, however, seemed to be delighted to witness the reprise of all their old favourite gags and characters.

By Kate Herbert