Sunday, September 17, 2017

Diving for Pearls


Griffin Theatre Company presents, DIVING FOR PEARLS, by Katherine Thomson, in the SBW Stables Theatre Kings, Cross. 8 September - 28 October.

DIVING FOR PEARLS, is an Australian play by Katherine Thomson, first performed in 1991 - a play, then, some 26 years old. However, this production, Directed by, Darren Yap, gives this play an energy and clarity that makes it resonate and feel as if it were written today, in 2017. This is a state-of-the-nation play delivered with confidence by all concerned.

A good play - vivid, individual characters in wonderfully observed scenes, with dialogue that crackles and caresses with authenticity, both comic and dramatic, with a distinct ethical contemplation of urgent concern at its centre (even if, for today, the narrative may appear to be, for some, a trifle slow moving); wonderful casting - not a single weakness in this company of 5 actors revealing imagination and courage, utilising their considerable craft skills to deliver Ms Thomson's concerns; an astute Director (not least, in finding the right cast) solving the many location demands of the story with a Costume, but especially, Set Design, by James Browne; with an atmospherically rich, complex Lighting Design, by Benjamin Brockman, that helps propel the dynamics of the action forward, supported by the joint Composition and Sound Design, of Max Lambert and Roger Lock. The majority of this team collaborating familiarly with Mr Yap.

On morning radio (Radio National- RN) one heard a Union representative (Sally McManus - Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary ?) disputing the present policies of Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Employment, for the ex-businessman/banker, multi-millionaire, Prime Minister's government of 2017, and its pro-industry and anti-workers stances (attacks). DIVING FOR PEARLS, seen that evening, although, written some 26 years ago, jumped out to one with even more pertinence than ever before, a mere 9 hours later.

Says Den - a worker - in the penultimate scene of the play, standing on the fabrication shop floor of his factory:
I'm not just some mad bastard who cracked up. But I have just formally refused the retrenchment package. And I will be heard. [...] Because I will have my say. Because this will keep happening. Because we're one more thing that gets disposed of - and I keep thinking, what do they think I am? And the point is, there were people who were paid to plan, to win contracts, to stop the rust. If the writing was on the wall, why wasn't it read out loud? Look, I know I'm thick, but this accountancy, all this accountancy - where are the people in their equations? It's all rates of return [...] We're not stupid - we could be told the truth. But its just deceit and - The money this region's produced - and it doesn't seem to get back here. All around us these companies - making these profits, but it all gets spent in Chile or North Sea oil or one bad year and they go. And we - we put up with it. We're like some cargo cult, all of us in this city. Sitting on the floor of a quarry, lighting fires and hoping someone'll come down and save us. Then you wonder - well, what if no-one does? If they think we'll just ... disappear ... 

Den, in 1991, speaks as a blue collar worker and no-one, apparently, has listened, these pearls fell on swinish ears - no-one listened and the poor became poorer and the rich have become richer. A glaring contemporary (universal) political issue, in 2017, so that the remaining blue collar worker does still protest, and in the computer/internet/'robot' world, the white collar worker, too now, is looking for its 'Den' to enjoin a chorus of protest to draw regard to the 'people' in the all powerful Corporations equations for cash. (Is there some poetic-literary irony in the Minister of Employment's name Michaelia CASH, intended by this Government, in her appointment?)

This play is concerned in giving the honest working poor a spot-light, a voice, so as to be seen and heard. At the centre of Ms Thomson's concern is Den - late 40's (Steve Rodgers) and Barbara, nearly 40 (Ursula Yovich). Den is a shy loner with a big, if, simple heart, still living in his dead parents house, having worked doggedly in the near-by factory, and having never lived or worked anywhere else. He has never felt the need to do or live any other way - he has, relative, contentment. He has a toy train network hobby. He once had a love for Barbara, and has never worked out what went wrong. Barbabra, has worked hard all of her life in an industry of disposable 'goods'- a clothing factory -has had a child with disabilities, Verge (Ebony Vagulans), which she has disposed to her older sister Marj (Michelle Doake), and is now living in a run-down boarding house. Den and Barbara's paths cross again, and, advantageously, Barbara accepts refuge and a relationship with Den as she, aspirationally, seeks to find employment in the hospitality industry with a newly constructed International chain hotel development, on the beach front, nearby. Den lovingly facilitates all her needs, even to taking in her 'surprise' child as his own.

Barbara, is played relentlessly, and at some noisome (crushing?) pitch, by Ms Yovich, with remarkable courage, to give us a portrait of a woman driven to a last defence, a fierce narcissistic core by her 'gathering' circumstances, blaming all others, except herself, for her failings, and having no rescuing sensibility to hear those about her who want to love and protect her. Barbara's 'mania', as played by Ms Yovich, is dreadful in its emotional confrontation and is only relieved by the aspect that Den has for her - one of devoted love-sickness - that permits us, as we watch him grow happy with her, to develop an empathy for her - we, nearly, see her through his eyes. It is a scarifying character observed with, it seems to me, a kind of admiring grief by Ms Thomson, and a deep seated knowledge by Ms Yovich.

Steve Rodgers is a remarkable actor who draws, it seems to me, from his inner organic centre as a human, to create with simple gesture of action and, especially, thought, the whole of a character's life, his, in this case of Den, Den's simple past, his honest present and his loving aspiration for the future, who grows, belatedly, but inevitably, because of his purity of heart, sensible, to the injustices of his and his fellow workers lives and has the spine of an ethical consciousness to stand up for what is right against the expediency of money - a corrupter of human values. The tragic flaw in Den and Barbara's relationship is the recognition that their difference is one of moral principle - even though they, probably, could not say what it is, in so many words. Barbara wants him to give into the advantage of the money of the redundancy offered by the Corporation, Den can't, ethically, do so. Mr Rodgers gives a great performance to put in one's theatrical memories.

Jack Finsterer, as Ron, is a man who began on the factory floor with Den, but who took advantage of his opportunities to become an industrial consultant, and incidentally, Den's brother-in-law, brought in to be one of the many hatchet-men to undo the local factory/industry. Mr Finsterer draws not a knowing 'villain' but an empathetic and compromised man of practical survival. It is a sensitively observed performance of some moving dilemmas.

 Newcomer, Ebony Vagulans, creates Verge, the mildly intellectually disabled, physically handicapped and abandoned daughter of Barbara's, with a keen eye for detail and insight to the frustrations of Verge's world, blossoming under the care of Den and protesting for him with loving but devastating consequences.

Finally, one welcomes back Michelle Doake to the stage, as Marj, the misunderstood and awkward sister of Barbara who only has good intentions but no educated finesse to articulate them in any socially acceptable manner. Her performance is an exquisite one of comic and pathetic dimension - sometimes both at the same time - it is remarkable to watch the 'technique' of this actor with its second-by-second development of surface and character depth. Ms Doake's Marj is not simply, the comic relief function of this play's construct, but part of this play's human tragedy.

A good play with great characters and a 'thumping' moral heart. The acting from this ensemble  is much to be admired and not to be missed. Direction from Darren Yap, including all of the necessary Design supporting elements of his collaborators, make this Australian play of the past, shine with meticulous study and execution.

One hopes that the Emerging Playwright's of the newly announced coming season are able to watch this classic play construction, character realisations and story, with a moral heart (a philosophy), by Katherine Thomson - for to stand on the shoulders of greatness, to learn from observing, can be an advantage.

Recommended, highly.

Moth

Photo by Rupert Reid Photography

Millstone Productions presents MOTH, by Declan Greene, in the ATYP Theatre, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 6 September - 16 September.

MOTH is a one act play by Australian writer, Declan Greene. It is a very early example of his work and the 'promise' that this text predicts has been continually advanced upon with project following project: e.g. LITTLE MERCY; EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY and more recently, THE HOMOSEXUALS OR 'FAGGOTS'.

Two young teenagers, Claryssa (Ruby O'Kelly) - a self-declared emo, Wiccan art-freak, and Sebastian (Jeremi Campese) - an underdeveloped, sickly 15 year old with a fantasy life chock full of anime robot scenarios, have found a bonding as the school weirdo outsiders. The bullies of the school find them an easy target. It is their imaginative wit and super-human resilience that keeps them going. Inevitably, one them begins to unwind and their friendship undergoes severe pressure and possible tragedy.

The play is essentially overwritten and in the event of it in this production, by Rachel Chant, it appears overwrought. Ms O'Kelly gives an obvious leaning to melodramatic (pushed) choices from no organic 'core' of identification (acting rather than 'existing', 'being'), which highlights the brilliant restraint (naturalism) and ease that Mr Campese brings to the highs and lows of his character's journey. It is a very creditable performance and appears to be more so beside the less truthful performance one of his partner. Mr Campese, is, I suspect, someone to look out for.

The Set and Costume Design is by Tyler Hawkins and is made more 'handsome' in its concrete spareness through the Lighting of Alexander Berlage, whilst the atmosphere of the narrative is supported and further created by the Composition of Chrysoulla Markoulli and the Sound Design of Tom Hogan.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where The Streets Had A Name

Photo by Michael Bourchier

Monkey Baa Theatre Company presents, WHERE THE STREETS HAD A NAME, by Eva Di Cesare, adapted from the novel of the same name by Randa Abdel-Fattah at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Darling Harbour Precinct. 5 - 7 September.

WHERE THE STREETS HAD A NAME, is a play adapted from the novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah. It reveals the experience of how ordinary Palestinians negotiate violence and injustice while going about their mundane, everyday lives, as two children go on a quest to fulfil the dying wish of one of their beloved. Says Ms Abdel-Fattah:
Monkey Baa's production beautifully captures how Israel's occupation machinery and policies affect the everyday spaces of people's lives - especially children.
I beg to differ about the production but not with its social convictions.

Monkey Baa aims its work at young children of all ages. The audience I saw this production with were a mixture of ages. Their reaction to the material was attentive and in some cases, from specifically Palestinian refugees, and other nation refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan, now living in Fairfield, some tears and identification was made evident.

Playing out the family and other characters of the environment are Mansoor Noor, Dina Gillespie, Alissar Gazal Sitti Zeynab, Aanisa Vylet Hayaat and Sal Sharar. The biggest problem, at the moment, with the play is its fairly perfunctory adaptation by the Writer/Director Eva Di Cesare. For the play, in this production has, mostly, representational caricatures of a mother, father, grandparent and children of either sex, to facilitate the narrative of the difficulties it is to be Palestinian in an occupied military territory, so it can facilitate the apparent novel's social situation, which is of a grossly inhumane proportion. One wishes the writing was better and/or that the acting was better -  for the experience to be more than two-dimensional.

The Design, by Antoinette Barboutis, with a back panel of grey cement blocks to represent The Wall, with transparent screens to re-produce the AV Design, by Jerome Pearce, of real images of location, has good 'ideas' but they are not explored with enough scrutiny, by the Director, to contribute to the drama of the story.

This work is clearly, at core, a relevant experience and encounter for the young audience. It could be for a general audience as well - but it can't be in its present dedicated by lack-lustre production.

Hir

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, HIR, by Taylor Mac, in the Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills. August 16 - September 10.

HIR is a play by the American artist, cult figure -"A critical darling of the New York scene" -  Taylor Mac (also, referred too as, 'judy' - as in Judy Garland - as a gender pronoun).

In the Writer's Note in the program:
I'm a lover and maker of the alternative, underground, and radical movements, and basically every work I've made is somehow rooted in a subculture. HIR, however, is a new kind of play for me, as it's dealing with the mainstream; rather the remnants of the former body politic and the rise of a new progressive body politic.

Issac (Michael Whalley), a recently dishonourably discharged soldier (for drug problems) returns to the lower middle-class suburban home of his family. Since he was last there much has changed. Arnold (Greg Stone), the patriarch of the family has had a disabling heart stroke and his wife, Paige (Helen Thomson) has, at last, found herself liberated from the physical and psychological abuse of her world and has begun a revolution of a new behavioural mode that is beyond gender, beyond materialism, even beyond the past (history). She has dressed her husband in a dress and elaborate make-up and has decided the order of the house is not her responsibility or high on her new agenda. Included in her new agenda, way of life, is an active embracement and support of the transition of her daughter, Max (Kurt Pimblett) to another sexual identity. On the refrigerator door are some alphabet  magnetic letters that spells out LGBTTSQQIAAC and the new gender pronoun and its origin: Him and Her that has become Hir; He and She that has become Ze. This new world order in this suburban home with this family is a radical re-imagining of possibilities.

Writes Taylor Mac:
In my time since I left home (25 years), its been thrilling to notice how many of those queer refugees, along with the straight radicals (and even progressives), are exploding the oppressive traditions, dictates, laws, and culture we've inherited and are creating a new world order in our new homes. Sure it's taking time, it should have happened long ago, and isn't even close to actually being what it needs to be (in terms of dealing with inequality, climate change, and economic disparity), but it's happening. There is tangible progress.

The two hours (including the interval) passes swiftly. The politics are sharp and are pleasantly funny (more often, hilariously so) and this is principally because the play has no anger, no self righteousness, no text book, academic blah, blah, blahing no pedagogic preaching, rather, it brings a modern, an ordinary family coping with the evolution of a more sophisticated world. I felt the world of the play was similar to Sam Shepard's, THE CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1978) and its family, each with the same economic struggle but in HIR has the addition of a skilful focus shift to the sexual paradigm of today.

On a scarily recognisable, and cleverly detailed Set Design, by Michael Hankin, in both acts where a transformation takes place, Director, Anthea Williams, manages her actors through the chaos of the space. She is blessed with a wonderful full-bore characterisation from Helen Thomson, who has not been so good since her stand-out work on Shaw's MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, a few years ago. When given a character that is a challenge for her, the courage and skill of this artist comes to the fore - Ms Thomson is always a reliable comic but, it seems to me, when given more than that, transforms into a remarkable force of complex motivation. Her Paige is an unforgettable creation - the engine thrust of the play. Too, Kurt Pimblett, is arresting in the advocacy of Max and the transformative growth of the character. Mr Whalley and Mr Stone are suitably bewildered in the world that their Issac and Arnold find themselves in.

With this radical shift in the politics and order of this family there is, as Taylor Mac admits, 'collateral damage' which the two men of the play must bear - who are simply 'two people who are in the world regardless.' The violence of the last beats of the play, I assumed, after conversation with my friends after the show, was a statement by Mac, that it is the combative instinct of our species that will continue to undo us, prevent that evolutionary process from moving forward without bloodshed and exile - there will be a cost which must be, inevitably, paid. It is here that the Director, Ms Williams, fails to reveal what is happening in those final beats to clarify what we are meant to read from the stage offers. At the moment the production seems to finish precipitously in an opaque confusion.

HIR, is a highly recommended night in the theatre: Entertainment, Enlightenment, and for some of us, results in a state of Ecstasy. There is hope for a more enlightened way of living beyond the usual binaries. This production at Belvoir is as timely as our present political debate around Same Sex Marriage is.

N.B. Taylor Mac presents A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC as part of the upcoming Melbourne Festival in October.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

American Beauty Shop


Some Company and Oleg Pupovac in association with bAKEHOUSE present
AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, by Dana Lynn Formby, in the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), at the Kings Cross Hotel. August 31 - September 16.

AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, is an American play, by Dana Lynn Formby, written 2015.

It begins in the dark with a radio news bulletin reporting on the culpability of the Lehman Brothers and the resultant Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008. We are then brought to Cortez, Colorado, into the basement Beauty Shop belonging to Sue (Amanda Stephens Lee), where she's re-located from main street, as a result of that crisis. Sue is a struggling business woman with a fading traffic of old customers, like Helen (Jill McKay), with a stand-by loyal help-mate, Meg (Charmaine Bingwa). She has two things going for her, she believes: a hair product which she has invented and is going to patent to make her fortune, having saved a $1000 to do just that, and Judy (Caitlin Burley), a bright daughter who is possibly going to win a scholarship for Berkeley University to study Chemical Engineering that may lead to an upwardly mobile trajectory for the family. Judy's future is what Sue has 'slaved' for.

Sue is a single mum, having got pregnant, with Judy, without a man to take some responsibility with her. Her sister, Doll (Janine Watson), too, got pregnant and had a child, which died. The cycle of the struggle against poverty and the frustrated hopes of aspiration, especially for single women, are what this play is all about. (There are no men in this play). So, when Judy reveals that she is pregnant, to a local boy, the dilemma of whether she ought to abort the child (with mum's saved money) or possibly thwart her university study and future by keeping it, becomes the grist of this drama.

There is some good, if predictable, writing, though,the situation and the characters are tiresomely familiar which makes the first act a very long exposition and set-up for a much more interesting second act of confrontations. And it is then that the actors pull out some strong offers to keep this play alive for a patient audience.

In trying to puzzle the problems of the production - its relative inertia - as the narrative is so familiar, I wondered if the production had to be more of a character study opportunity, that might have made it  a more engaging dramatic entanglement. For, under the Direction of Anna McGrath, none of these actors have developed their women beyond what the action dictates and one wishes that there was more insight into the frustrations, eccentricities and needs that drive these women - I kept thinking of the characters in plays like STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1987), CRIMES OF THE HEART (1979), and , even further, of the recent GFC themed recovery films and the characters drawn in them: HELL AND HIGH WATER (2016) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017) - though these films deal with mostly men at the centre of the work.

This naturalistic play is Designed by Ellen Stanistreet for the KXT traverse space and the difficulties for that illusion, e.g. of the need for running water etc, provides some obstacle, whilst Liam O'Keefe lights the staging competently and the Sound Design, by Ellen Griffin, creates some atmosphere.

AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, is well done, (if, on my night,  a little 'wobbly' in its performance security) and that the play itself is a little underwhelming in narrative, character and content thematics. It is, however, an easy night out, to be sure.

N.B. This production set of companies have forgotten to give any biographical information about the writer. This is not unusual for productions in Sydney where the writer is sometimes disregarded. It is particularly distressing to see that the primary artist, Dana Lynn Formby, the writer, and the reason why, how, this work is being engaged, has no place in the program information.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Father


The Sydney Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present a Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company production of THE FATHER, by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. August 24 - October 21.

THE FATHER, is a play written in 2012, by French playwright and novelist, Florian Zeller. It won the Moliere Award for Best Play in 2016 and has had an international life of some reputation. It has been translated into English, by Christopher Hampton - his play, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (1985) being his best remembered work.

From the Program notes from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) the synopsis:
Andre (John Bell) was once an engineer. He lives in Paris, in an apartment he bought 30 years earlier. Or perhaps he lives with his daughter, Anne, and her husband, Antoine. Or was he a tap dancer whose daughter Anne, lives in London with her lover, Pierre? Whatever the living arrangements, he's still wearing his pyjamas and he can't find his watch.
Reading, that information, the idea that we are about to see a play that may be a psychological thriller, or, possibly an inheritor of the conundrum of the French absurdest play tradition, say, Ionesco's THE CHAIRS (1952), rises in one's consciousness. Both of the above might be the truth of the experience in the theatre.

For from the beginning, the offers of the Set Design, by Alicia Clements, of a middle-class Parisian apartment are slightly askew. Subtly, but askew. There is something just a little odd about the look, the furnishings. One has, after all many memory references from recent French cinema of the middle class Parisian apartment: ELLE (2016), THINGS TO COME (2016), AMOUR (2012), CACHE (2005).

THE FATHER, is made up of some fifteen scenes of various lengths and after the darkness between each, accompanied by an eerie Sound Design (Steve Francis), subtle shifts of organisation of the rooms has happened. It is subtly disconcerting and it undermines one's confidence of what one has seen previously, of what is true, what is real, of what usually has helped, to make secure, to build a belief system to enter the world of the play, the usual 'rules' of the normal game of make-believe in the theatre.

Andre, a retired engineer, is looking for his watch. He is urgently in search of it for he tells us that he had always had two watches, the one on his wrist and the one in his head - he always knew the time, the 'when' of his life. As this play unrolls one is not so sure that he has that grip on both his 'watches' anymore. He, we, meet his caring daughter, Anne (Anita Hegh), her partner, Pierre (Marco Chiappi), his carer, Laura (Faustina Agolley) and two others, Glenn Hazeldine and Natasha Herbert, who may not be who they say, and/or Andre believes they are.

This is a play about the experience of dementia. For those of us living with it through the health of parents and friends, and the personal fear that it might be happening to one self.  THE FATHER, can be, is a very difficult, confronting time. For what Florian Zeller manages is to place one in the mind (head) of Andre. The gathering accumulative journey that one has, as an audience, is the feeling of losing one's mind where the reality we are watching is not consistent and so is distractingly frustrating and panic inducing. It is a marvelous piece of writing. Listen carefully to the dialogue repetitions, and their subtle changes. Christopher Hampton, translates the 'tricks' the verbal constructs of Florian Zeller with wonderful skill - all is not secure.

John Bell, playing Andre, creates a man of masculine aggression, a man not, necessarily easy to like, a man whose difficult personality traits become magnified as he flounders in a bewildered whirl to find an equilibrium to his waking moments that ultimately dwindles into a pathetic (empathetic) figure of need and child-like wanting. It is a performance that keeps one at a distance, and whether it is one of 'logical' rejection or simple fear of the future, that position cannot but be challenged with the final moments of the production. One can be moved to tears. Whether it is one of empathetic embrace or fear, will be an individual choice.

The company of actors are uniform in their simple and straight-forward tasks that present the world of the scenes of the play with naturalistic clarity - no comment, no 'flourish', little to no sub-text, and Director, Damian Ryan trusts that the writing embodied by his actors will create the affect of the play's intentions, balanced by a subtle Lighting Design, by Rachel Burke, creating a visual offer that can create a sense of unease and doubt.

At 90 minutes with no interval this is a play of enormous skill that can shatter one's confidence about the future - indeed, one's own in a very visceral way. The production serves the writer with a bleak hand of consistent restraint.

N.B.: There is a twined play by Mr Zeller, called THE MOTHER (2015), which, too, examines a contemporary social issue of a commonly experienced confrontation. It is worth reading (or, perhaps seeing).

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lip Service

The Ensemble Theatre presents LIP SERVICE, by John Misto, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 17 August - 30 September.

Photo by Prudence Upton

LIP SERVICE, is a new Australian play, that premiered in a separate production in London, earlier this year, with the title: MADAME RUBINSTEIN with the indomitable Miriam Margolyes, as Rubinstein and Frances Barber, as Elizabeth Arden.

In Kirribilli, at the Ensemble we have Amanda Muggelton playing Madame Rubinstein, and it is a performance that I loved a lot. A performance of comic skill and emotional truth, when required, bringing to bear a technical bravura from an actor that knows her theatrical 'onions'. I was full of 'wonder'. It could be described by some as 'old-fashioned'. I could describe it as 'old fashioned' but it has a full heart, soul and set of exquisite theatrical 'brains' - technique - and is, therefore, glorious, because of it. I was full of warm admiration for her magnificent 'managing' of what Mr Misto gave her to work with. The emotional arc that she drew was breathtaking in its conviction and expression. I reckon, younger actors could learn a lot from what they will see if they go. A lesson in 'grand' acting technique.

For, what Mr Misto has given Ms Muggleton, and the other actors: Linden Wilkinson (Elizabeth Arden) and Tim Draxl (Patrick O'Higgins) is not much more than a lot of 'lip'. These cardboard characters, on the page (I have read the play), fortunately, have a real-life biography to help the actors to flesh out what is not much more than lippy, campy grotesques, engaged in a battle of verbal one-upmanship that wallows in Jewish, Catholic, Irish and Homosexual/Gay put-downs of a voluminous number of a kind that may have been funny in a time and place past, but today, feels like a step back into a less nuanced social era - one that I am glad I, rarely, experience anymore. There is no doubt that Mr Misto has the gift for comedy and knows how to write, construct it, it's just that LIP SERVICE, is a two hour play and not just a comic sketch, which except for moments when death treads the boards with his people, is all you get.

It is, cumulatively, tiring to sit through. A comedy of caricatures can't hold for an entire evening without a story to build it from. It is the lesson that George F. Kaufman gave Moss Hart when they were writing their first play together ONCE IN A LIFETIME (1930). One longs for some more substance and considering the lives of his two principal figures, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, there is substance to be mined, a story to build from.

After the show I googled Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. My gosh, here are two women who created business EMPIRES of some note over a very long time. Helena Rubinstein was born in 1872 lived until she was 92! Elizabeth Arden was born in 1878 and died at the age of 87! Some world history these women lived through and had the know-how -chutzpah - to build a business. Worth investigating what they did to achieve that in their time era don't you think? (and, by the way, these women never met in life, and interestingly, Rubinstein, a Polish immigrant, began it all in Australia). Making them 'monsters' of cruel wit, alone, and that is the dominant impression of the characters in this play, is not respectful enough, I reckon. A question momentarily raised towards the end of the play of whether these Titans of the cosmetic industry 'empowered' or 'exploited' their customers seemed to be an interesting angle to base a play around. Earlier this year, there was a version of these two women in a new Broadway musical: WAR PAINT,  starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, that, it seems, did just that.

Linden Wilkinson slouches through her character's combativeness, heavily costumed which is all Mr Misto asks her to do, while Tim Draxl as the Irish, ex-soldier, gay assistant to Rubinstein responds as only a verbal punching-bag can do: with a submissive empathy that descends to a musical bathos at its end on her death bed - this is the second time this year that we have seen Mr Draxl naked on stage - sexual objectification come full circle, I guess.

Director, Nicole Buffoni, manages with Designer, Anna Gardiner, the many set changes in this small space and keeps it all cracking along, assisted by the Lighting of Christopher Page. Daryl Wallis mixes the Sound Design with period memories to help us sit in the world past.

To see Ms Muggleton give a performance of some grace and judgement is a fair reason to see this production but go forewarned about the exhausting and disappointing formula of the writing. It is less lip service and more lip surface.

The Gulf


Lume Productions presents THE GULF, by Audrey Cefaly, at the FLOW Warehouse, 59 Denison St., Camperdown. 24 August - 5 September.

THE GULF, is by a young American (Southern) writer, Audrey Cefaly. It first appeared in 2016, and has two female characters - intimates - drifting in a boat in the Alabama Delta, part of the Gulf of Mexico, fishing and confronting the coming changes in their lives. Betty (Brenna Harding) is preparing to go to college and leaving town, while Kendra (Diana Popovska) from a different class (background) ponders her own more simple needs to have a future.

The play is delicately written full of pregnant pause and poetic metaphor that is not uneventful in the location of the small boat and the lapping water. The gulf between the two widens and narrows, as time moves through them as the inevitable shifts in their lives begins to relieve them of their close relationship - a relationship that in its intensity, they may have believed would last forever.

Both performers in a simply and beautifully designed setting on a traverse stage arrangement are directed attentively by Mia Lethbridge, sharing the story with their audience gently. They both deliver a sympatico relationship, with Ms Popovska especially impressive with a simple and truthful response to the writing she has to deal with, and the offers of her partner, in a nearly lived-in existence, pared back from being a performance to that of just 'being' - it is mesmeric - still waters in this gulf run deep!

To meet a new writer and to see a new all female company of artists at work with such naive (new, learning) but passionate creative energies in a warehouse space in the inner Western suburbs of Sydney is quite re-assuring about the possible future of the performing arts landscape. As it was, last year, when attending a one act opera, IL TABARRO, in the warehouse for Alfie's Kitchen in the backstreets of Enmore, this experience can be exhilarating for more reasons than just the performance.

THE GULF is only 60 minutes long and worth a visit if you are free. Raw but impassioned.

I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch


Theatre Eccentrique with the Old 505 presents the Australian Premiere of I'D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH, by Rodrigo Garcia, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown. 22 August - 2 September.

I'D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH, is a fifty minute monologue by Argentinian-Spanish artist, Rodrigo Garcia, in a translation commissioned by Cartwright Productions.

Directed by Anna Jahjah, Gerry Sont gives us a monologue from a dissolute father who attempts to re-direct his two young sons (the youngest is a feisty six year old) away from the capitalistic lures of Disneyland Paris and have them smash a window into the Prada, with him, to see, at night, Goya's Black paintings.

Commerce versus High Art.

Accompanied by Sister Ursuline, a vocalist with an electric cello, Mr Sont leads us into what feels like a very European experience in its writing and subject matter.

While not altogether whole as yet it was a very interesting time spent in the theatre to meet a new voice, Rodrigo Garcia. He runs a theatre company of his own in Spain: La Carniceria Teatro and has a prolific output. The title of the piece is arresting enough to attract attention to further work by this writer.

Melba

Photo by Clare Hawley

MELBA, A New Musical, Book and Lyrics by Nicholas Christo. Music by Johannes Luebbers, Adapted from the book "Marvelous Melba" by Ann Blainey. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 15 August - 9 September.

MELBA, is a new Australian Musical. It has been nurtured through the New Musical Australia, Hayes Theatre Co's musical theatre development program. In 2014 TRUTH, BEAUTY AND A PICTURE OF YOU, by Tim Freedman and Alex Broun was presented by the company. THE DETECTIVES HANDBOOK, by Ian Ferrington and Olga Solar was presented in 2016 and now MELBA, by Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers is on show.

Johannes Luebbers and Nicholas Christo in their program notes tell us of their fascination with the great Australian opera star of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, who became 'our first, great, international presence.' A woman who, defying the conventions of her period, gifted with one of the great singing voices of her time, carved out a spectacular career and lived a personal life of some event. 'We were fascinated by the woman behind these exploits after reading Anne Blainey's I AM MELBA (2009), (and, as well, MARVELOUS MELBA - 2008). We have spent the past eight years and countless drafts creating this, our first, large scale music work.'

It is important to have this offer taken from the page to the stage. The difficulties and the labour of love in developing any new work has to be experienced for it to be appreciated, let alone the courage and altruism that needs to be invested in the preparing of a musical work which has so many other technicalities and obstacles (the financial commitment being a major one) than the so called 'straight play', to expect fruition.

So, it is great to see this work with a set of Directorial and Production commitments up in front of us to be able to truly evaluate what is there in this new inspiration to tell the story of Dame Nellie Melba, and to understand why we in 2017 should become acquainted with her. At this stage of development/nurturing at the Hayes Theatre one anticipates that what we are witnessing is what was known in the 'old' days (these days) of the Broadway musical as a 'try out'. In my experience of the contemporary musical development in the US of A (mostly while working through my time at the American Conservatory Theatre [ACT] in San Francisco), any musical that reaches the Great White Way in New York, has had many productions and the scrutiny of many audiences across a wide spectrum. Australia with an industry and population much smaller does not have that multi-resource which highlights the importance of the New Musical Hayes Theatre Co's venture and courage.

What one comes away with about Melba in this iteration of her life is the understanding of her great gift, as impersonated and sung, in operatic terms by Emma Matthews (herself, contemporaneously 'Australia's most highly acclaimed and awarded soprano'). Too, we are told the story of the carving out of a career to perform in all the premiere opera houses around the world and to become Australia's first self-made business woman, managing her career impeccably, whilst also having to commit to the ups-and-downs - travails - of a personal life, a family, and all its incumbent difficulties and pleasures in a time of prejudicial expectations of what a woman's responsibilities should be.

The book, by Nicholas Christo, at the moment, is a relatively conventional telling - adaptation from the biographical book sources - of Melba's life: This happened, then this, she met so-and-so and that lead to that, to this etc etc., with the sprinkle of appearances of some major figures that proved to be defining influences on the way Melba embarked and conducted her life, her unconventional, 'revolutonary' path: her father, David Mitchell (Michael Beckley); her Australian husband, Charles Armstrong (Andrew Cutcliffe); her son, George (Samuel Skuthorp); her European singing teacher, the famous, Madame Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon); some of her European 'patrons' that facilitated vital contacts, Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry), Frederick de Grey (Blake Erickson) and 'lover' Philippe D'Orleans (Adam Rennie).

It makes for a predictable and, when measured against modern musical theatre storytelling techniques, more than a little dull. My mind travelled to an upcoming (revival) musical telling of another woman's life, that of Evita Peron, and wished that the Australian writer's in this case had taken a more powerful contemporary (political?) point-of-view, as that team (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) had done, even controversially, way back in 1978. For me, this iteration of the work of these artists now can be seen, both its undoubted strengths and obvious weaknesses, so that one can now, begin again. Bring in the 'axe' and hew anew. The task to bring the achievements of Melba to the stage for a thrilling and relevant modern meaningful experience has just begun. It is a laborious commitment (it has already taken eight years!), but in this case, I believe worth pursuing.

This is true of the music written by Johannes Luebbers, as well. Within the limitations of the orchestration possibilities at the Hayes Theatre, led skilfully by Michael Tyack, I took no musical phrase or lyric home, away, from the evening, nothing really sticks in memory to hum or 'sing'. The work is voluminous but not as yet memorable. It is the Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Rossini Puccini and, especially, Verdi, that one remembers and hums.

The decision to give us two Melba's, playing side -by-side is the biggest 'risk' and 'inspiration' of the production: the young journeywoman, Melba, created by Annie Aitken, who carries most of the book and contemporary music demands - not always convincing in the acting schematics - alongside Emma Matthews who, mostly, takes on the mature singing of Melba's repertoire.

The most impressive work comes from Caitlin Berry, creating three personas, and singing with real clarity of intention; Samuel Skuthorp, as George, totally disarming, despite the puppet-persona he carries for most of the show; Andrew Cutcliffe as Charles (latterly, in the work); and especially Genevieve Lemon, in her expert (and unintentional) scene stealing bravura (what a year we are having with her gifted offers - THE HOMOSEXUALS OR 'FAGGOTS, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and now Madame Marchesi!).

Wayne Harrison, as Director, manages all the demands of the book with aplomb, although the design by Mark Thompson, provides him with some challenges, as it squashes the already tiny space of the Hayes Theatre into a relatively 'ugly' solution for movement and aesthetic pleasure. One should acknowledge the Sound Design by Caitlin Porter as she balances the back-stage orchestration with and against the micro-phoned performers with some skill for this intimate space.

MELBA - A New Musical, is in embryonic form, and one hopes that it has a life to develop further its potential as a story of a woman of extraordinary achievement. It is a necessary experience for all of us who have an interest in new Australian work, and especially in the New Australian Musical. In 2018, New Musical Australia will present EVIE MAY A TIVOLI STORY, by Naomi Livingstone and Hugo Chiarella, at the Hayes Theatre.

Parsifal


Opera Australia present PARSIFAL, an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner, Libretto by the composer, in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. August 9,12 (matinee), 14 August.

Leading the Opera Australia Orchestra, Pinchas Steinberg, as Conductor, harnessed an impressive cast of performers to give a concert version of this work of real beauty. Jonas Kaufmann sensitively (carefully) sang the leading role of Parsifal, supported by Michelle De Young, as Kundry; supported by an impressively powerful Kwangchul Youn, as Gurnemantz; Michael Honeyman, as Amfortas; and Warwick Fyfe, as Kilngsor (his physical inhabiting of the character and his function a theatrical wonder). In fact, all of the singing offers from this large company were of a uniform quality, including the Opera Australia Chorus and the Children's Chorus.

Wagner (1813-1883) saw opera as 'Gesamtkunstwerk' - the total work of art. For Wagner, the orchestra should have as many colours and textures as the singing, the drama should be paramount, and the stagecraft, including scenery and costumes, should have equal weight to the music.

I have seen this opera in performance once before at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Kurt Moll, James Morris and Ekkehard Wlaschiha in the early 1990's. One would have to agree that the work in the theatre is a powerful ritualistic experience resonant with a religiosity of deep feeling. In concert, the lack of the visual staging, the scenery and the action of the characters (in mime with orchestral 'speaking'), can hamper the full appreciation of what Wagner had envisioned. Much of the religious impact is diminished because of the lack of the visualisation in the staging. Still, though, the music from the singers and the orchestra gives one an experience of wonder and appreciation. Wagner is a unique artist.

PARSIFAL, a live concert experience of a memorable kind.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Photo by by Marnya Rothe
Sport For Jove and the Seymour Centre present, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale. August 3 - 19, 2017.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is best known as the Academy Award laden Milos Forman film, made in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The essential core of the work is the battle between the Dionysian spirit with the formally controlled world that permits it to function for the supposed 'greater good'. Knowing that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer's 1964 film) the metaphor of having this 'battle' take place in an asylum seems reasonable - after all, this literary view of the world goes as far back as Thomas Middleton's Jacobean comedy/drama A MAD, MAD WORLD performed in 1605, and even before, perhaps, to Euripides and his THE BACCHAE, written in C.405BC.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST began as a novel written in 1962 by counter culture 'warrior' Ken Kesey, who saw himself as a conduit of revolution against the confines of the values of Eisenhower America, beginning with the 50's beat generation-beatniks to the 60's hippie sex, drugs and rock 'n roll culture. The novel was then, contextually, a necessary cultural hit and was adapted for the theatre in 1963 by Dale Wasserman and, too, became a success for Broadway audiences. The message of the play struck the bells of alarum for the awakened to rise up and set the spirit free - they tried. That they have failed and passed the 'torch' to the next generation even to our children's generation and our social media infested correctness, is why this play is still a relevant archaeological wonder. That the original stage McMurphy was Kirk Douglas and that it followed his rebel Spartacus attempting to counter the Roman cultural straight-jacket, in the Kubrick film, tells us that this figure of counter culture was, is, and always will be a re-generating icon.

Kim Hardwick, the Director, has given the play a production of some respectful gravitas and, mostly, circumvents the now dated conventions of the writing. There is always a delicate path that artists must take when creating 'mad' people in a 'madhouse' and this company of actors have found a level of restraint that keeps the focus of the thesis of the writing free and clear. It is not a comic 'grotesque' of zoological - Charenton (MARAT/SADE) - watching.

Anthony Gooley, as McMurphy, gives a performance of surety of character and of a knowledgeable storytelling arc development and is matched by the subtle drawing of Nurse Ratched by Di Smith, who creates a woman of deep belief in what she is doing without stepping into the emasculating terror that we recall from the Forman film - these two performances gives some balance to the two positions of the protagonists with graduating intensity and focus.

There is good support work from Travis Jeffery (Billy Bibbit), Laurence Coy (Scanlon) and Wendy Strehlow (Cheswick). Staged with care the 'choreography' of the work is masterfully managed by Ms Hardwick, but it is in the 'orchestration' of the voices, the music of the writing - the pitch, volume and especially energy of the vocal work - where the production more often than it should drifts into theatrical doldrums. A large ensemble of 15 actors still have not all found the right performance orchestration entries to keep the work in developing momentum to quicken the pulse of the audience to a delirious immersion. This is where the innate sensibility of Mr Gooley comes, especially, to the fore, but he cannot drag the whole shebang forward by himself, nor can the other few tuned instruments cover with him - all the 15 must be attentive and alert to the music of the Wasserman storytelling. This may right itself as the season proceeds.

True to her usual aesthetic sensibilities, Ms Hardwick has created with Set Designer, Isabel Hudson, a 'beautiful' contemporary solution for the play. A raised, slightly raked stage of large blocks of white toned floor, surrounded by opaque plastic sheets, that fall to reveal a mirrored back wall at the play's end is spectacularly lit by Martin Kinnane in a Lighting Design of much complexity and theatrical intelligence. Too, Steve Francis with his Sound Design and Composition creates tension and a magical 'envelope' to serve the drama of the spiritual elements of the story.

This production of ONCE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is a curate's egg - an event that is good and bad in parts, and may leave you with mixed feelings of satisfaction. I was surprised that I had found the play still interesting and recognised the age old but true statement of the play, importantly appealing (I never liked the film much), or was it the performance of Mr Gooley that kept me in the work, it is certainly, for me, the best work he has given since his famous turn in THE LIBERTINE of a few years ago - though he is never less than good in whatever he tackles.

N.B. That Sport For Jove did not acknowledge the playwright, Dale Wasserman, ANYWHERE in their program. An oversight, that I believe was corrected when informed, but that the Writer's history is not presented in the program, is a, relatively, consistent Sydney Theatre  'habit'. Without the writer there is no play, no nothing in the theatre! And after all, Dale Wasserman, is no slouch in Broadway history, it was he who wrote the Book for the musical, THE MAN OF LA MANCHA, in 1966.