Thursday 20 May 2010

Silence **

Written by Hoa Pham, by Hungry Ghosts
 La Mama Courthouse,  May 20 to  June 6 then touring Vicoria
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **

Hoa Pham’s play, Silence, directed by Wolf Heidecker, focuses on the stories of three generations of Vietnamese-Australian women: the grandmother, Ba (Gabrielle Chan), her daughter-in-law, Ma (Diana Nguyen), and Ba’s granddaughter, Dao (Ai Diem Le), who is Ma’s teenage daughter. Silence is part of the Theatre For Our Diverse Community program at La Mama and funded by Vic Health.

The Vietnamese family home is represented by the scent of cooked, noodle dishes, a red-glowing, candle-lit Buddhist altar, death anniversary rituals and a song that warns of “hungry ghosts” that refuse to pass into the next world and demand to be fed. These ghosts, one being Ma’s dead husband, are depicted by floating masks and white-robed puppeteers (Bronwen Kamasz, Conor Fox, directed by Penelope Bartlau).

Although the three actors seem a little uncomfortable on stage, their relationship to the Vietnamese culture gives this play credibility. Chan gives the grandmother a fragile, aging beauty and other-worldiness as she struggles with the hungry ghost of her son. Nguyen finds moments of passion when talking about her corrupt, dead husband and, as Dao, Le captures the stroppiness of a resentful teenager.

The naturalism of the script, with its unnecessarily expository dialogue, clashes with the abstract images of the spirit world. Although naturalism and stylisation can work well together, the disparate elements of this production are not cohesive and sit awkwardly. Some fierce editing and restructuring of this script and smoother transitions between scenes would enhance its impact.

246 wds

By Kate Herbert

Urchin **1/2

By Christopher Brown & Rhian Hinkley, by Encyclopaedia of Animals, Full Tilt
Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre,  May 20 to 29, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

The first 30 minutes of Urchin are entertaining and funny, with some visually arresting digital imagery, sound and set design, and comical performances. The problems arise in the second half – but let’s enjoy the beginning firstly.

The opening image is like a moment from a Philippe Genty visual theatre show. Two men (Christopher Brown, David Tredinnick), carrying a desk and chair, walk into the wind, bathed in dramatic lighting (Jenny Hector). They are surrounded and dwarfed by an enormous wall of cardboard boxes (designed by Mark Cuthbertson).

The following slow, sparse dialogue reveals that they are brothers, Martin (Tredinnick) and Damien (Brown), small-time entrepreneurs who are a parody of cheap salesmen engaged in an endless search for the product that will make them millions.

When they find the mysterious Urchin – purportedly a vaccine for fear – in a scrappy sales catalogue, they believe that they have found salesman’s gold. They engage Warren (Merfyn Owen), a plausible, marketing mouthpiece with a dodgy hairpiece and a thoroughly convincing but totally fabricated sales pitch for the Urchin.

The inflatable Urchin makes a dramatic appearance, swelling from a backpack into a plump, over-sized pouffe. The sales pitch says that it eliminates fears when used regularly. The truth is that, when the men crawl inside its puffy tent-like structure, it confronts them with their worst fears that appear as surrealistic film projections.

Although the story is non-naturalistic, it has narrative, characters and themes that combine into a collection of vignettes. These are heightened by the use of video (Rhian Hinkley) and a complex soundscape (Jethro Woodward). There is also a very funny, cowboy song and dance routine by the three actors.

Despite all the complex visual and audio technology, the performers are the highlight. Tredinnick brings wry humour and clever underplaying to Martin. Owen comically captures the unbearable oiliness of Warren, the slick and smug motivational speaker and Brown has an edginess as Damien, the brother who disappears after one too many Urchin experiences.

Although the individual components in isolation are interesting and well executed, they do not form a unified whole, so the show feel dislocated and unfinished. The latter half loses cohesion when it staggers unsuccessfully into existential, philosophical dialogue that is more confusing than funny or illuminating.  Urchin tilts at Absurdism, but Samuel Beckett it ain’t!

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 9 May 2010

Waiting for Godot with Sir Ian McKellen ****

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne,  May 9 to 2, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Waiting for Godot is a play about nothing – and everything. It is heart breaking and hilarious in its impeccable balance of tragedy and comedy. Samuel Beckett changed the face of modern theatre when he wrote it in 1949.

Two vagrants – or clowns – meet daily at dusk to wait for the elusive Godot, their saviour and tormenter who never arrives. It encapsulates the existential dilemma. Two bare, forked, human animals, trapped in an unspecific time and place, wait for an unknown man, desperately filling empty hours until night falls and they can leave. It’s the nightmare version of Groundhog Day.

Sir Ian McKellen is Estragon (Gogo) and Roger Rees plays Vladimir (Didi) in Sean Mathias’s production reflects the daily anguish and mindless distractions of existence. Gogo and Didi wail and rail about their predicament, filling meaningless minutes with mindless banter, arguments and fleeting diversions, even considering hanging themselves from the solitary tree.

McKellen’s Gogo is compelling and detailed. He echoes scruffy derelicts we dodge in alleys with his slow, deliberate Northern accent, forgetfulness, sudden laughter, cheeky looks, vacuous gaze, scrawny legs, flailing arms and tattered clothing. Gogo is playful and delightfully unpredictable, whining about painful feet and cruelly mimicking others.

Roger Rees’ Didi has a faded stateliness reminiscent of a more salubrious past. He is more distressing because of his fraught clutching at reality and frantic attempts to recognise place, time and people. McKellen and Rees revel in Beckett’s blend of Vaudevillian patter, comic business, lyrical, allusive dialogue and philosophical references.

Godot never arrives but two strangers, Pozzo (Matthew Kelly) and Lucky (Brendan O’Hea) appear. Kelly’s Pozzo is mad, belligerent, pompous and cruel. O’Hea is his prefect servant: enslaved, exhausted, obedient and silent until he explodes into a prolonged, gibberish rave.

They all crave peace, oblivion and solitude but cannot do without even the flawed company of their damaged, crazy partners.

Mathias’s production is emotional and psychologically vivid in its colourless, blasted landscape. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is a destroyed theatre, complete with ornate balconies and tattered backdrop with anonymous foreboding. But, when we focus on the actors, the environment disappears; the characters become the landscape.

The actors make the story clear through character and dialogue, listening intently and responding with clarity and simple humanity. No need to muddy the play with added interpretive detail. It tells its own anguished tale.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Richard III ****1/2

Richard III 
By William Shakespeare
Melbourne Theatre Company
Where and When: Sumner Theatre, MTC, until  June 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Shakespeare’s Richard III is a designer villain, fit for a James Bond movie: a powerful, wealthy, ambitious mutant making a backroom grab for power. 

Although there is little historical evidence for this, he is depicted as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm and a dragging limp, and is described as a “bottled spider”, “a bunch-backed toad”, a boar, a dog and other insulting labels. Shakespeare’s Richard is designed to make the opposing Tudor dynasty of Elizabeth 1 feel good.

Simon Phillips’ production is passionate and compelling, surging through the years of Edward IV’s rule and Richard’s own two-year reign. We are perched on the edges of our seats waiting for the next political horror. Ewen Leslie is a charismatic, youthful, villainous and crippled Richard who charms and seduces, manipulates and murders to attain the throne. He is the quintessential Machiavellian Prince.

The world of Richard’s England is transported to a contemporary, political environment resembling modern America or any other hotbed of political intrigue. The clandestine meetings in corridors and the royal factions have echoes of The West Wing. Richard’s murders are modern executions, the invasions and rebellions are like newsflashes and the King’s proclamations are media conferences. This interpretation brings Shakespeare closer to our world. Power never changes. These battles now take place in the White House situation room or corporate boardrooms that are skilfully replicated in Shaun Gurton’s design.

Phillips edits the text to maintain a rocket-like pace and to clarify the story. He even starts the play with a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI to provide us with some back-story – “Previously in the War of the Roses…”

A fine cast supports Leslie’s magnetic performance and brings the poetic text to life. Alison Whyte finds sensitivity and passion in the grief-stricken Queen Elizabeth, mother of the murdered princes while Meredith Penman is moving as Lady Anne who is so cunningly seduced by Richard after he kills her husband.

Humphrey Bower gives the power-hungry Buckingham an edge of ardent playfulness and excitement and Jennifer Hagan’s vengeful, old Queen Margaret is both potent and fragile in her flimsy hospital gown.
Roger Oakley as Hastings and Nicholas Bell as Stanley are both commanding and Paul Ireland is riveting in the small roles of the murderer and Surrey.

The three hours pass rapidly and Shakespeare’s play lives and breathes in this gripping production.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 4 May 2010

[title of show] ***

 [title of show]
Music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen, book by Hunter Bell 
Produced by Magnormos
Theatreworks until May 4 to 15, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The title of this musical is [title of show]. If you ever fill in an arts funding form (don’t bother!) it’s the first line. Creators, Jeff Bowen (David Spencer), and Hunter Bell (Michael Lindner), bent all the guidelines for writing a musical. So successful was their rebellion that they won three OBIE awards and were nominated for a Tony.

The music conforms to recognisable styles but the story, lyrics and dialogue break with tradition. Bowen and Bell, two gay New Yorkers who work in musicals, write a show about two gays guys creating a musical about themselves creating a musical. Get it?

We watch the friends complain about doing crummy jobs, writing a show, casting their friends, Heidi (Lara Thew) and Susan (Laura Fitzpatrick) and musician, Mary (Sophie Thomas), rehearsing songs, sending their application to the New York Music Theatre Festival and waiting for success to hit them like a truck.

The creators played themselves in the original production (there’s even a song called “I Am Playing Me”), but, for this production, director, Aaron Joyner, casts locals. Their four voices blend beautifully in a range of peppy tunes with quirky, funny lyrics.

 The wry, camp often hilarious, dialogue keeps the story romping along. When it stalls, the characters simply say, “This scene’s been going on too long” – black out. No lighting effects, set changes or pyrotechnics. Not until the producers stick their noses in, forcing the creators to argue over script changes. (Change It, Don’t Change It.)

The characterisations are not complex but Spencer has fun as pedantic composer Jeff, while Lindner relishes playing flamboyant, ambitious Hunter. Fitzpatrick is composed as the sardonic Susan and Thew employs her big voice as the colourful Heidi.

The show pokes fun at the expectations, budgets and predictable content of the musical, its producers, casting decisions, cheesy lyrics and awful rhymes. It is constantly self-referential; they talk about themselves, refer to the audience, make jokes about their dialogue and argue about selling out to Broadway. The songs follow the narrative with titles including: Two Nobodies in New York, An Original Musical, The Tony Award Song, Secondary Characters and Awkward Photo Shoot.

The last song says it all; “I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing.” Never sell out. Never surrender.

By Kate Herbert