Tuesday 23 March 2010

Cosi by Louis Nowra, HIT ***

By Louis Nowra, HIT Productions
Touring country Victoria until May 3, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Cosi is clearly on the VCE syllabus this year because the audience was packed with groups of 17 year olds –and they enjoyed this production of Louis Nowra’s play immensely. Teachers love it too because it is riddled with themes that include Vietnam War, love and infidelity, drugs, mental illness power and difference.

The play was first staged in 1992 but is set in 1971 in Melbourne in the period of the Vietnam Moratorium. Nowra’s comedy is broad in this play and director Denis Moore take advantage of the slapstick and big, bold characterisations.

The story is based on an experience of Nowra’s own as a graduate. The lead character, Lewis (Michael Wahr), in a fit of his own madness, volunteers to direct a show with a group of mentally ill patients in an institution.
To make things madder, one particularly bolshie patient, Roy (Don Bridges), bullies the malleable Lewis into staging Cosi Fan Tutte, a Mozart opera sung in Italian. Of course his cast can’t sing, act or speak Italian,  – and not one has stable behaviour.

Of course, the comedy and the pathos arise out of the six actors various obsessions, disorders and compulsions that include nymphomania, pyromania, Compulsive-Obsessive Disorder, heroin addiction and others. 

Outside the institution, the real world carries on with protests about Vietnam, Free Love and political activism being the focus of Lewis’s girlfriend and best mate’s lives. Lewis realises that providing a positive experience for his cast is more important than global politics and war.

Jim Daly straddles that fine line of pathos and hilarity with his portrayal of Henry, the near-catatonic war obsessive. He breaks our hearts with his stammering speech about his father and the war. Wahr is suitably vulnerable and indecisive as Lewis. Bridges plays his antagonist, Roy, with manic energy and bravado. As the food-obsessed erotomaniac Cherry, Bessie Holland is hilariously domineering, loud and sassy and elicited roars of laughter from the audience.

Caroline Lee is compellingly accurate as the compulsive Ruth who counts her steps on stage and learns everybody’s role. Katie-Jean Harding captures an air of fragility in Julie the addict. Jacob Allan is bold and riotous as the rough-nut pyromaniac, Doug. Adrian Auld plays multiple roles but is best as the doped up musician, Zac.

Cosi is a funny, messy play that raises issues suitable for VCE study and makes us laugh a lot and weep a little.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Little Mercy ***

Little Mercy 
By Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, by Sisters Grimm
Where and When: Collingwood Underground Arts Park  March 17 to 27, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Deep in the bowels of an underground car park in Collingwood is the venue for Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s parody of a trashy, cult, horror movie. Think of Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist; then picture Mercy, (Susie Dee), a smiling, demonic, adult-sized child in a pretty, white dress and hair ribbons. Now be afraid.

The first half of this tribute to evil children is laugh-out-loud funny. Ash Flanders, co-writer, is outstanding as Virginia Summers, the delicate, almost-recovering alcoholic, New England housewife who longs for a child of her own. Her husband, Roger (Sean James Murphy), is a musical theatre director. (Now, that could be a horror show in itself.).

The Summers live a life of quiet comfort and luxury until – surprise, surprise! – little, 8-year old Mercy arrives, unannounced, on their doorstep, saying that she is their long-awaited, adoptive daughter from a suspiciously obscure orphanage.

Of course, Mercy is the child of Satan – literally – and Virginia’s life goes to hell in a hand basket very rapidly. Her precious kitty is killed, Mercy’s teacher (Cara Mitchell) is blinded, and there are stories about a mysterious fire that killed all the teachers at Mercy’s previous school.

The script, written by Flanders with director, Declan Greene, is riddled with satirical allusions to all the visual and verbal signatures of horror flicks and 1940s movies, their characters, plots, dialogue, and even their musical scores.

Flanders plays Virginia with an absolute commitment to truthfulness, playing it straight – if that is possible when wearing a red, velvet gown. Murphy captures the smug superiority of a 40s romantic lead, with his resonant voice and relentless smirk, while Dee revels in the grinning wickedness and sly asides of Mercy.

Mitchell works hard as the stitched up school ma’am but seems miscast in the role. One can’t help imagining it played by a huge drag queen or, well, Bette Davis. Her sexy nun was very funny though.

Little Mercy is a madly entertaining ride, although it needs some editing in the second half – and perhaps some exit doors and safety features.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 7 March 2010

Cats ***1/2

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics based on T.S. Eliot, Old Possums Book of Practical Cats, produced by Lunchbox, David Atkins and Really Useful Group.
Where and When: Regent Theatre, until March 28
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

While the appeal of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats, is unquestioned, we can ask how its flaws manage to outweigh its successes. 

The feline choreography is spectacular, the junkyard design, costumes and make-up are impressive, a couple of songs – especially Memory – are outstanding, the diverse characters echo the human world, and the lyrics and narrative are based around T.S. Eliot’s poems for children from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939.

On the other side of the balance sheet there are irritations: the poetic meter doesn’t scan well with the music, most of which is predictable, the narrative is flimsy, the villain, Macavity, is much anticipated but hardly seen, and Growltiger’s Last Stand is too long.

Ultimately, the flaws don’t affect its success. If you’ve been living underground for 30 years without musical theatre news, Cats opened to acclaim in 1981 in London, won endless awards and still runs worldwide. Who can argue with that?

The vivacity and relentless energy of this youthful chorus are highlights. Like their animal counterparts, these felines are alert, constantly moving. Gillian Lynne’s choreography successfully blends classical ballet with sassy jazz moves. The original direction by Trevor Nunn, creates vivid, recognisable catty characters that leap from the stage and Eliot’s page.

Eliot’s poems are strung like a washing line, one kitty character following another, linked by a fine narrative thread. We witness the Jellicle Cats in a rubbish yard celebrating their annual Jellicle Ball, a boisterous, outstanding choreographic feast after which the sage, Old Deuteronomy (John Ellis), announces which lucky cat will be awarded a tenth life. The tattered and outcast Grizabella, played with a warm voice and sensitivity by Delia Hannah, gives the production its heart. Memory remains the only song that lingers in our memories.

Memorable cats include the titillating Rum Tum Tugger, played with Frank’n’furter seductiveness by John O’Hara. Adrian Ricks’ balletic pirouetting as Mr. Mistoffelees is staggering and Laura McCulloch is charming as ginger cat, Jennyanydots. Michael-John Hurney’s big voice provides several characters.

We may not have the in-the-round staging of the original show, but these sensual kitties romp through the Regent, prowling between seats, mewing and purring and tickling audience members. We still get some of the sensurround of that original London production.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Hazel Curtis: Fear Doctor***

Hazel Curtis: Fear Doctor
by Petra Kalive and Melissa Bubnic
Where and When: Mark St. Hall, Nth Fitzroy until March 14
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Hazel Curtis (Petra Kalive) strikes terror into the hearts of every audience member – and that’s scary when she’s a “fear doctor”. Hazel is a super parody of one of those appallingly over-confident, 70s, self-help gurus who invite you to a seminar, behave as if they are changing your life and making it more fulfilling, when they are really only filling their own pockets.

Hazel is built like a puffy sofa and wears leopard print leggings and sparkly tops that cling a little too closely to her voluminous curves. She grins like a Cheshire cat and is relentlessly cheerful – until somebody crosses her or touches her inner, wounded self. She is outrageous and funny, but she’s scary too. Her seminar on overcoming your fears is too close to the truth about those smarmy facilitators who preach change.

No one is safe in this audience. Hazel talks directly to each and every one of us. She assails us, regales us with her stories, wheedles secrets out of us, drags reluctant participants up on stage to force them to perform her three H’s, “Hear your fear; help your fear; hiss your fear.” She is the consummate bully who ridicules people into believing they need her help and pursues them until they take out a restraining order.

We chant along with her idiotic sayings, “The rage inside you burns”, or, as she calls it, RIYB. Her sidekick and technician, Jimmy, handles the cheesy muzac and the excruciatingly simplistic PowerPoint diagrams and photos. “See a door, open it and walk through,” she urges us. “Unlock the back door to your happiness.” Do you recognise the shiny glint of a fake?

But under the surface of this narcissistic, social-working nazi, is a tragic, lonely heart who masks her own pain with superficial chanting and catchphrases. Hazel struggles with some bad news that almost derails her entire seminar. What could be just a clever and funny caricature ,straddles the boundary between humour and poignancy, truth and parody.

Hazel’s bull-headedness is counterpointed by Jimmy’s inadequacy and simple, unrequited love. She demeans him and he bounces back like a puppy. Jason Geary directs the show with a lively hand, ensuring that the jokes and the confrontations keep coming.

By Kate Herbert