Friday, February 27, 2009

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!

TRIPTYCH THEATRE presents the Australian Premiere of THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS:THE MUSICAL! at the Parade Studio at the Parade Theatres, NIDA.

When I was a school boy and then a University student, I would read of performances at the old Menzies Hotel of “potted” musicals. When I try to remember the stars who presented them, Nancye Hayes, Hayes Gordon, Jill Perryman and was it possible, June Bronhill(?) seem to pop up. Others I’m sure will come to me. I never went, sadly for reasons of finance and callow youth….. but I remember lingering over the possibility of going. It was at a time when the other major entertainment were musicals presented by J.C. Williamson’s company. The press was always temptingly excited and supportive in their reviews that I drank up avidly, desirously. It seemed here was a place of excitement and pleasure.

So, when I read the notes in the program for this new company, TRIPTYCH THEATRE, made up of three of Sydney’s exciting Musical theatre artists: Avigail Herman, Nigel Ubrihien and Jane Miskovic, that “their first production, the Australian Premiere of “THE MUSICAL of MUSICALS: THE MUSICAL! ”was what these artists believe “is a show (about) what musical theatre is truly about; fabulous original music and intelligent witty dialogue (lyrics) performed by four of the industries most talented and versatile performers “ and that they see this production as a pre-cursor to the “countless brilliantly written and easy to produce small ensembles that have never had the opportunity to be seen in this country, and so many wonderfully seasoned performers who we don’t get to see on stage.” it was a signal for the hope of some fun. With the demise of the misguided KOOKABURRA company here is another way of supplying Sydney with a way to present this much loved genre of entertainment: the musical theatre. From my personal experience of just New York and San Francisco there is an enormous amount of material out there to see and enjoy.

This is a black-box production, meaning that the budget causes the design element to be minimal. The costumes are “blacks“ as well except for character signifiers and props. There is no stinting in other areas in this comfortably small venue. The Lighting Design by Matthew Tunchon is not only practical but often very effective to the genre needs. A wonderful creative and colourful support. All the performers are "miked" and Felix Kulakowski as Sound Designer/Operator creates a clear and pleasant communication. - I’m sure the pressures of time and budget did not make it easy - it’s terrific.

The performers are very expert and exciting to watch especially as we are so close to them. The space in which they work in is none to capacious and there is nowhere to hide. Everything they present is up for close scrutiny. Shaun Rennie is outstanding, in all of what the musical theatre call the triple threat of the Musical performer. He can sing (like a dream), he can move and dance (like an angel), and act fairly well within the limitations of the material. Ms Elise McCann is not far behind him in my genuine admiration of her offerings. Warwick Allsopp is very good but sometimes looks a little overtaxed and as yet is not as completely free in his performance as he will become. Ms Herman sings beautifully, dances well but needs some direction with her acting. It is sometimes too cod and a bit too superficial. Telegraphed, in an old fashioned style/manner. Maybe she is wearing too many hats. Ms Herman is also one of the producers and is co-director.

The choreography by Jane Miskovic is wonderfully inventive and a miracle of cleverness when executed so well by Mr Rennie and McCann, specifically, in such a small space. The dancing is one of two of the major element that lifts this evening into a place of real enjoyment.

The material that is the show, Music & Book by Eric Rockwell; Lyrics & Book by Joanne Bogart takes the hoary stand-by of melodrama, throughout theatrical history, of the villainous landlord, the female renter who can’t pay the rent, the young man who finds a way of helping said helpless young heroine with the sage advice of an older character. Then “take five writers and writing teams that have shaped the modern musical: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander & Ebb” and parody their Musical and lyric styles to create five mini tellings of the above story. The titles of the pieces will give you a clue to the deliriously silly nonsense you will partake in.

"CORN" in the style of Rogers & Hammerstein.

"A LITTLE COMPLEX" in the style of Stephen Sondheim.

"DEAR ABBY" in the style of Jerry Herman.

"ASPECTS OFJUNITA" in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"SPEAKEASY" in the style of Kander & Ebb.

Both in the lyrics and in the musical motifs, the musical theatre buff will have a heaven of a time picking out and sorting all the references. But even if you are not as familiar with the genre inheritance, the joie de vivre and the energy exploded by this group of performers will blow you away.

Which brings one to the last but most important element of the show. Nigel Ubrihien, the Accompanist & Repetiteur, is magnificent in his professionalism and most importantly his loving contribution and support to the originators of this work and the artists who he has prepared and supports magically every vibrant second of the show. I forgot there was only a piano, it had orchestral impact. His Program titles: Accompanist & Repetiteur are far too formal a way to describe his contribution: Genius, Lover, Genius. May be nearer the mark.

Send the word out to all your musical theatre friends and to young people who have never been to the theatre before, this intimate, silly piece will sustain you until the next one. This is what Sydney needs to counterbalance the drama of our theatre spaces and give us regular and alternative ways to choose to be abandoned and relatively care free. I hope the TRIPTYCH THEATRE continue to choose their repertory with consistent skill and variety for I know there is a lot of it out there to be seen and heard. A debut of some fun and promise. Silly stuff, but, jolly good stuff and nonsense.

Playing now until 7 March. Book online or call 1300 364 001.

Sydney Symphony: A Midsummer Night's Dream

SYDNEY SYMPHONY 2009 Season. ENERGY AUSTRALIA MASTER SERIES: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Overture and incidental music for Shakespeare’s play by Felix Mendelssohn. Text abridged by Tim Carroll.

This concert is a celebration of “the opening of the concert season for 2009… the beginning of the formal relationship between Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Symphony” and the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, two hundred years ago, in 1809.

In the Introductory notes to the performance we are told "the program we’ve devised for tonight speaks to the power of music - not just its power to move our emotions and stimulate our minds, but its mystery, its magic and, yes, its power to entertain. It’s an ambitious collaboration that brings together the works of two great creators and embraces theatre and music. Performances of Mendelssohn’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM music with Shakespeare’s text have been given before in this country but not, we think, in quite the dramatic and surprising way that director Tim Carroll and Ashkenazy have planned for their concert.”

This is certainly a gentle novelty, wafting Mr Ashkenazy delightfully into his new role for the Sydney Symphony and his and their audiences at the end of summer in 2009.

Tim Carroll has abridged and directed this great play and cast it with 8 actors playing multiple roles, cleverly moving the actors through the orchestra floor plan, utilizing the choir stalls and interpolating the conductor himself into a speaking role. (Respectably amusing!!) The actor’s voices are “miked“ and there is quite an initial adjustment to hearing needed in the early part of the performance, as the technical engineers attempted to find a balance for the textual work. I may be wrong, but either I got used to it or else it was manipulated to a better quality as the evening went on.

Most of the actors are well cast. Heather Mitchell especially beautiful and moving as Titania. The level of the sexuality and heat of the Fairy Queen’s personality through the skillful use of vocal range and tempo management in her handling of Shakespeare’s poetry was thrilling in that big space, the Concert Hall. Matthew Walker in a delightful double-contrast as the fresh and passionate lover, Lysander and then the deeply restrained and then moving rendition of Flute, particularly as Thisbe in the mechanical's hilarious play at the end. Nathan Lovejoy doubling as Demetrius similarly brings passionate earnestness to his role as a lover, and then a contrasting restlessly wicked and inventive sense of humour to his Starveling - (Never for me was the “This is my dog” more cunningly conceived to evoke laughter.) The comic boon in the play, is, of course, Bottom, and Alan Dukes scores impressively with a delicately wise reading of the role. He is very satisfying and genuinely funny in what often can tip into vulgar coarseness. The other performers, Pip Miller, Elena Pavli, Ryan Hayward and Annie Maynard are all clear in their text work although sometimes there was an overcareful enunciation of the language for clarity’s sake at the expense of transporting ownership. Ms Maynard especially had a sound that was not useful to the "beauty" of the text.

The witty costumes and economical adjustments to facilitate the multiple role play changes deserves mention. Hence: Costume design, Jenny Tiramani.

Vladimir Ashkenazy seemed comfortable and genuinely at home with the relative secondary role of conductor to his orchestra at this event. Similarly the orchestra members were in pleasant good humour to the usurping of their platform to the actors. Certainly there was an end of holiday feel about the temperament of the playing. It was warm and affectionate as well as attentive. The two soloists, Penelope Mills and Sian Pendry and the Ladies of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs were pertinently attractive to the aural gifts of the piece.

Felix Mendelssohn wrote the famous Overture at the age of seventeen and then reworked the material and extended it to incidental music “for a royal command performance of the play in Potsdam, which was premiered on 18th October 1843.” Directed by Ludwick Tieck (a famous German translator of the English texts, in the Romantic German tradition, along with Schegel). The overture is probably as familiar to the great general public as “the path of true love never did run smooth” is familiar as an oft-used vernacular quote from the play. The Wedding March, of course, even more embedded in our cultural baggage.

It was, it seemed to me, for the audience, a surprising entry to their concert season, but one, which by the applause at the end of the concert, that was well appreciated. Gently permissive.

Next week back to real business with the Shostakovitch and Dvorak Concert. My appetite has been whetted.

Playing now until 28 February. Book online or call 02 8215 4600.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009



When we climb up to the performance space at the SBW Stables you find that the whole of the interior has been painted white. (Set design: Anna Trelogan) Stage floor and walls, auditorium walls and even the further steps into the seating banks. The whiteness is quite a visual shock. Instead of the usual masking black paint there is the nakedness of the white that emphasises all the ugly blemishes of every surface. The production has been showing for several weeks, when I attend, so that there are also scuffs and blemishes on the floor surface. The lighting (Design: Niklas Pajanti) is very bright and is enhanced with party festooning of alternate naked white and blue bulbs. On the floor of the performing space is an inflated, circular, blue child’s wading pool with water and two inflated plastic balls, one purple the other clear with orange polka dots and a little further orange decoration, floating above the patterned floor of the pool. Two metal, maybe seventies, bar stools, one with an ancient beach like towel, folded and hung over the back, and an incongruous piece of furniture: a chaise lounge. On it is another old nondescript towel, it, too, neatly folded. While we sit in this slightly uncomfortable glare of white, the air-conditioning draughts, (blowing an Antarctic gale down my T-shirted neck) also pushes the plastic balls around the surface of the pool in a little ballet of movement. It is a necessary distraction of focus for we also can also “clock” the opposite bank of audience; most of them, in this unsympathetic light, revealing all their human blemishes, age being clearly shown at different stages of attack on their faces and decaying bodies, except for the horribly perkily fleshed youths, who in time I have to contemplate (and that should count the full running time (90 minutes) of the play, because they are fully visible during the performance), will swiftly succumb to time for “rosy lips and cheeks / Within it’s bending sickle’s compass (will) come”. I feebly imagine what I must look like to them(!!!), feeling my vulnerability more and more.

The lights go to a definite black out (after all that white, the contrast couldn’t be more noticeable) and when the blare of lighting returns on stage there are two people. Both embracing physically, middle age. One more advanced then the other. The actor playing Arno (Patrick Moffatt) is the more experienced liver of life, is wearing and old faded green t-shirt over his rotundity, and black, boxer like shorts cum swimmers, and sandals. The other actor playing Paul (Paul Lum ) is wearing a dark front patterned old T-shirt that really has shrunk over time and a pair of ragged jeans. The knee space on one leg is raggedly torn, the hems frayed and dragging on the floor. Later Paul strips down to “budgie” swimmers and both eventually become more vulnerable by sitting and splashing in the pool. All their body journeys revealed. Arno is clean shaven with neatly combed vanishing, greying hair. Paul has longer and abundant but unkempt hair, a patchy beard and stubble. He looks like what my mother would call “an unmade bed.” These are very unprepossessing characters to look at. Too much like real life, no effort has been made to present themselves well. These are truly two ordinary blokes - no actor glamour here. The first beat of the play is the two of them standing there looking out, unfortunately not at us but seemingly at an unfocused theatrical distance. (The writer Mr Cortese in his direction at the start of the play tells us that “the actors have full awareness of the audience." I felt that these actors, tonight, squibbed this and played in a theatre convention and did not actually see or use us, bar once when one of the balls, the orange one, was thrown into the audience (it was returned.)) After a minute or two, one of the actors sang a cappella, not too tunefully, a bit of a baroque song “My Heart Ne’er Leaps with Gladness”. (A few other snippets of similar songs are sprinkled throughout the piece, maybe to counterpoint the beauty of the poetry to the ordinary words of conversation.) There begins a conversation:

ARNO: My mum sent me this parcel the other day.
PAUL: What’s that?

: My mum sent me this parcel the other day.
PAUL: In the mail?

: Yeah.

The conversation and the rest of the text of the play continues in a similar fashion. Conversations that are random in their connection. Non-sequential. Subject matter that has no real dramatic connection. We, randomly, get to hear about ordinary things in what might be ordinary everyday orders. Silences etc. We go briefly to a lot of subjects, interrupted by song and silences: the moon and telescopes..... the Himalayas and Nepal..... playgrounds and noise and “being able to be as silly as you like”.... imagining Mozart and Chopin.... confession and the priest... a baroque song is sung.... honesty and cowardice.... Mexican cinema.... Sufi poets.... Shakespeare and Dante.... The MAHABHARATA..... just making stuff up... I often lie about myself.... Harry Potter... another baroque song is sung...... ”So the work is captured? Put it into perspective?..... ”But are they really not aware of performing?”…. ”they’re not really trying to be interesting”… Chinese cosmology…. SILENCE. ”What are you looking at?” ”Just your face.”… SILENCE… Bruce Springsteen…. hands, spiders, hair… another song…shedding things… ”Have you been suicidal?” “No not at all.” “Depressed?” “No not at all.”…an AV (audio visual moving image) is shown, one of the actors leaves the stage, the other watches with us: a cargo ship moves across the horizon while birds wheel across and up and down the fore-front of the captured image. The other actor returns at the end of the screening with a can of Sunkist orange sparkly for himself and a Bounty bar (in a purple/blue wrapper for the other actor) they eat and drink……. ”You look tired” “ I haven’t been dreaming.” … SILENCE….

ARNO: You have a remarkable posture.
PAUL: You think?

: Yes. Perfectly straight back.
PAUL: Thank you.

HE SITS UP STRAIGHT. (The character’s posture is ridiculously not straight.)


There are enough subjects (I Have barely covered the cultural and social references mentioned) to trigger for most audiences, recognition and a sense “Oh I’ve thought that” or “I’ve said that” or “Isn’t that interesting.” Nothing is ever discussed in any depth. The conversation between Arno and Paul is totally superficial and uncluttered with any learning dramatic curves. There are no philosophical profundities made. The randomness and the multiplicity of references is what is presented. These people could be on holiday in a run down resort or suburban backyard. They are just being, living their lives, and the banality and superficiality of their conversation could suggest that they are actually permanently on holiday, from the world. The well spring of this work for Mr Cortese was “some kind of cultural investigation into holidaymaking inspired by the images of Western tourists sunning themselves amidst the carnage of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.” ( Ahhh!!)

This play and production was first presented in Melbourne in August, 2007. Eighteen months ago. It was winter in Melbourne. I imagine it was a cold set of nights and the audiences that attended were grateful to be in a warm space and wishing that they were on holiday. (Maybe on a Sydney Winter holiday.) This production and play “won five Green Room Awards for theatre, HOLIDAY is the acclaimed and enchanting production from Ranters.” The note from the back of the published Program/text talks about how “Spontaneous, unaffected and thrillingly real, innocent discussion becomes an exploration of private fantasy, hidden anxiety, personal mythology, and the most inexplicable behaviour...” “HOLIDAY is theatre at its most inspirational.” The critic from The Age describes it “-funny and light as air on the surface, with philosophical depths that will niggle you long after you leave.” Another critic: “HOLIDAY is a devastatingly elegant show.” Well, I guess you had to be there, then, to get that response.” In the Blog of SYDNEY ARTS JOURNO there is an interesting compared experience review of the two seasons. One in Melbourne and the other In Sydney, Summer in 2009. He notes the different responses to the piece. I thought it was very pertinent.

My response to the production was initially disappointing. I had read Mr Cortese’s notes on the exploration he and the RANTERS THEATRE had been making over the past few years which resulted in 12 short plays under the title of ROULETTE. “My intention was to keep the writer’s voice absent in dialogue that focused on intimacy and the nuances of everyday speech. The dialogue is generated by unconscious action, from vital needs that overwhelm during silence and without overt intrusions on the part of the characters….. I wanted to create a sense of language being ‘live’ , energised and improvisational in feel.” From the Director’s Note (Adriano Cortese) to the published text of HOLIDAY, “we wanted to challenge our own theatre practice. We did not want to create an obvious fictional demonstration to illustrate our concerns. We were interested in a documentary approach to performance.” Maybe this production has been too long in performance but my sense of what was happening in front of me was of very calculated and theatrically poised performances. Rather than the dialogue, songs and silences appearing to be spontaneous there was a decided sense that the actors were completely aware of the manipulation of the intentions of the writing and production and the affect they were to have on, us, the well lit audience, – a deliberate artificiality. There was never any sense of being anywhere else but in the theatre. I wished that the “documentary” feel had gone further than it did. I wished the actors had really being aware of their audience and engaged and used us. I wished that the silences were longer, maybe taken to more excruciating reality lengths. I felt that the performance may have backed away from it’s pursuant idealistic objectives. I wished that the production had gone further to the repetitions and observations of real silences that Pina Bausch does with movement. John Cage with music.

The music score / sound design by David Franzke was sometimes too self consciously drawing attention to itself and to the “hidden” agenda thematics of the philosophies of the creators. I personally was longing for less concrete offers. I was wanting Muzak. Something more real or “bland’. Instead I got involved in to trying to identify the marvellous range of sourced material. It was as if, sometimes that there were two plays going on: the text and the sound design.

Rather than revealing anything in me that may have had a profound resonance so that it became “inspirational”, or experiencing “philosophical depths” I became becalmed then contemplative. I couldn’t help, (probably in my Sydney smugness) to begin to think that the winter months in Melbourne must give them just too much time to contemplate their navels in warm communal spaces. Maybe it is not a good idea for Sydney to follow the example of the social gathering places of Melbourne’s wine bars and good coffee shops. It just gives too much opportunity to dream, sleep and/or see profundities where there are none, in a need to feel, that the time has been well spent in these collective gatherings. In a hot and humid summer city like Sydney the play felt silly and maybe boring. Let’s get out to the Harbour or an outdoor bar or restaurant. But, as the play wore on I shifted out of bemusement and began to find the banalities and mundanities, amusing, ridiculous. I began to comment to my friends sitting beside me and we laughed. What between the play and our collective response and watching some of the opposite audience-bank’s responses, which also seemed to warm up as we came to the latter part of the performance, we had a good time. After we had tumbled downstairs we stood in the foyer and talked about what we had just experienced.

In the intervening time between the August 2007 premiere of this work in Melbourne we in Sydney, we discussed, had seen the Ridiculusmus production of TOUGH TIME, NICE TIME, two men sitting in a sauna bath talking of the banalities of the world. Different stylistic approaches but with a similar theatrical objective. But even more pertinent to our response to this work was the memory of the NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA‘s production of NO DICE. It’s examination of the verbatim conversations and silences of real people was devastatingly investigated (It was my favourite Sydney Festival Experience.) In the course of it’s three and half hour performance, it stripped back the silliness of it all to a profound and humanly humbling respect for the ordinary. Ordinary conversation and the ordinary person. So somehow this production of this play, HOLIDAY, had come too late to us in Sydney to have the impact it must have had 18 months ago.

Still after this conversation I walked down Nimrod St to the Cross on my way to my Bondi train to get home and I was wonderfully elated. The world looked OK. I felt life was good to have. So, all in all my evening at Ranters Theatre HOLIDAY had the affect that a good holiday can give you.

How interesting! This is the fourth production, and it has been consecutively attended, that have had Melbournian origins.

Playing now until 28 February. Book online or call 02 8002 4772.

Venus & Adonis

Sydney Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare present VENUS & ADONIS by William Shakespeare. A Bell Shakespeare and Malthouse Melbourne co-production developed through Mind’s Eye.

From Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being: “By the time (Shakespeare) emerged into history... he had written the Henry VI trilogy, Titus Andronicus and two or three successful comedies. His foothold on the stage, as can be seen in hindsight was firm. But he must have been aware that at any moment the stage itself could founder... In the Autumn of 1592, when an unusually severe outbreak of plague had closed all theatres since summer, it could well have seemed they might never open again.

During these times of plague, it was customary for the lordly patrons to carry their poets off to their country houses. On this occasion, perhaps, the precocious young Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southhampton, seized the opportunity to carry off Shakespeare. However it happened, by April 1593 Wriothesley had become Shakespeare’s patron. VENUS and ADONIS, which was registered for publication in April 1593 (just before Christopher Marlowe was murdered), is prefaced by a letter dedicating it to the powerful 3rd Earl of Southhampton, Henry Wriothesley. At this time Wriothesley was nineteen years old and Shakespeare had just turned twenty-nine.”

The god Adonis is wooed passionately by the Goddess Venus, and when he rejects her love, calling it lust, she accuses him - at great length and with great eloquence - of self-love. Preferring his solitary hunting to dalliance with Venus, Adonis is killed by a boar, whereupon he is transformed by Venus into a flower. (From Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES.)

There followed from Shakespeare the major body of the sonnets and the other long poem THE RAPE OF LUCRECE. Then, the theatres were re-opened and the playwriting recommenced.

As part of the Bell Shakespeare’s new work development, Mind’s Eye, VENUS & ADONIS was, with the Malthouse Melbourne developmental wing, grown. Mind’s Eye is Bell Shakespeare’s development arm: ”Work developed within the Mind’s Eye programme can be initiated by writers, designers, directors, composers, choreographers or performers. These can be cross art-form, hybrid works, and not strictly text based.” It hopes “to demonstrate a commitment to innovation, recognising that creative risk is at the heart of our practice. It will allow artists to push the boundaries of their form, explore their connection to the contemporary world and enrich their work with ambitious ideas.” (Those of you interested in new writing and form exploration should check out SYDNEY ARTS JOURNO who has put up a very informative and important page about organisations providing resource for the development of new work, prepared by Bec Clarke.)

The Artistic team led by Marion Potts has created from the source material of Shakespeare’s poem, VENUS AND ADONIS, a Music theatre piece, a play called VENUS & ADONIS. (Notice the subtle difference to the title of the poem: & for and). The original poem has three voices, that of the poet-narrator, then Adonis and mostly Venus. The adapters have cast the audience as Adonis, so that his voice and that of the narrator is subsumed, Venus is then represented by two voices, two women. The idea “became clear that if Venus the Immortal had double the power, two voices with which to harmonise, twice as many limbs to twine, the brain power and seductive potential of two (double the ammunition, as it were) we could allude to a goddess of infinite being…” It also gave the composer two female voices to compose for.

This, then is an adaptation of the text. Converting a poem to performance art. Ms Potts along with her composer Andree Greenwell have concocted a vision of the piece for two female voices. The performers being, Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior. The scoring of the music is subtle in its compositional details in attempting to keep the historic Elizabethan lineage and yet being grittily contemporary. Ms Greenwell hopes “the end result is something strange and beautiful.” The sound is quasi-Elizabethan, for the most part, and the employment of instruments like the recorder is cunningly intertwined with more contemporary instruments to achieve that. The sound and the setting of the songs have an aural concoction that are sometimes haunting and beautiful. There are however occasions when the music and the passions of the singing dominate and obliterate the text and one feels lost in the narrative advance of the accompanied lyric adaptation.

The selected verse stanzas are when spoken are compellingly delivered and always the stronger poetic tool. Ms Prior having the emotional context of a desperate and disappointed Venus, plumbing a sensitive depth of pain, whilst Ms Madden mostly performs the outward show of the lustful and showy external of the Goddess. The two Venus complimenting each other.

The text is often surprisingly erotic:

“...I’ll be park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

"Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and rain:
Then be my deer, since I am thy park;
No dog shall rouse thee, tho’ a thousand bark.“

There is much scholarly debate has to how the poem came to be approved and licensed by one of the most severe theological censors of the age, Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some say that Lord Burghley, the guardian to the young Lord of Southhampton had ulterior motives to allow its publication to persuade the young Wriothesley to reconsider his actions in rejecting his proposed bride and to check his heedlessly preferred sexual liberties. In the poem Shakespeare represents Venus as lust and Adonis‘s self love not an erotic self-indulgence but a devotion to an ideal of true love, i.e. the chaste and faithful love of marriage.

There is in this production a clear sense of the lustiness of Venus but not always the clarity of the position of Adonis, and if the lustiness of Venus was all I was meant to absorb then the work was a success but if it also had the sense of a devotion to an ideal of love represented by Adonis and his idealism of the chaste and faithful love of marriage I never heard, saw or felt any compelling reason to experience it. And since I and my fellow audience were the Adonis that was being seduced I was unsure of my reasons for staying in the hotel room.

It was the Designer’s notes in the program that tweaked my perceptions. Anna Trelogan talks of the artistic choices of setting the poem in a hotel room that “is itself of an ambiguous time, it is not modern, but it may simply have been a long time since redecoration. The hotel room does not become a specific setting but the FRAME, the conduit through which the epic can be viewed.” And yet more, ”The costuming is neither modern nor strictly of another period and the hair (i.e. the wigs: a long five foot horse mane of hair) is of another world entirely.”

The hotel room design reminded me of the Budget Motel chain called Best Western. Cheap and flimsy dressings with a superficial sense of luxury. The uncarpeted floor, the hard uncomfortable looking bed, the wall paper and lighting fixtures all had the sense for me of a dodgy “bordello”. When the curtain revealed the patently artificial tropical frippery outside the window in its tacky red and green lighting (Paul Jackson) (where the band was seen to be playing) I remembered the accommodation that I suffered with, in San Francisco, less than salubrious, district hotel, many years ago now.

The costumes of the two Venus’, two tightly fitting skirts, one grey the other black, one with gashed seams up one side of the skirt to reveal the black lingerie, the other not quite so raunchily cut, but both with a very low cut jacket that shelved and propped the mature bosoms forward at us. The make–ups that were more than slightly over stated or over painted all signifying to me a Venus of “harlotry” predilections. Certainly the physicality reminded one of the possibility of being caught in a room with some “crack addicted“ whores. (My romantic and perhaps naive vision of Venus is that of Botticelli’s “Venus Rising”. The modern sensibility and respect for the Immortals certainly has been tainted. “What an ugly world we live in“, I lament.)

So, it was for me, when the “frame” of the design and the “frame” of the pulse and volume and the heavy rock sensation of the music dominated the poetry and what the language was wanting to communicate, that I got lost. The Style of the production in it’s collective power derailed me from the clarity of the narrative. It was most clear in the relative quietudes of the spoken verse and the calmer offers of the physical lives. The hectic energies of a Rock musical furore did not always work, for me, to give me clarity as to what was happening.

This is not to say that I was not impressed or excited by the whole of this brave or innovatively committed approach to the poem of Shakespeare. How could one not admire the all out, passionate performances or not embrace the abundant skills of the two artists - one could not ask for more resolution of skill. It was just that that passion and resolution sometimes overruled the substance of what the text had been adapted to say. The design excitements dominated the sensibilities and gave little pause or rest for contrasted apprehensions. (The musicians were Felicity Clark, Michael Sheridan, Bree Van Reyk.)

The piece finished, and I was partly left bewildered about what the work was attempting to communicate. But such was my curiosity that I went home and read the poem. For the first time in my life. I quite liked it. (You must also understand that poetry was the strand that I elected not to study in the final exams of high school because I hated it. Poetry has always been a trial for me.) So the Bell Shakespeare Company had got me to expand my knowledge of Shakespeare as a result of a lack of clarity of the performance experience.

Balance needs to occupy the production a little more to move it to what I think is brilliant potential. But it is still mostly potential. It is not yet complete in it’s exploration of communication. It is too noisy in every way, for my comprehension, at the moment.

As a product of the development arm of Mind’s Eye this is a very arresting and promising work. It is only part way there, in this production, at the moment.

By the way, it was this piece of the work, declared by the grieving Venus, that caused me to read the work as Shakespeare had presented it to his patron Henry Writriothesley. Except in my book at home, of course.

“Since thou art dead, lo! Here I prophesy,
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend;
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning but unsavoury end;
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low;
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe.

“It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud;
Bud and be blasted in a breathing while;
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstrawed
With sweets that shall be truest sight beguile:
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak.

It shall be sparing, and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures;
The staring ruffian shall keep it quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures:
It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.

It shall suspect where is no cause of fear;
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful, and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward.

It shall be cause of war and dire events,
And set dissention ’twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustious matter is to fire;
Sith in his prime death my love destroy,
They that love best their love shall not enjoy.”

Oh, one hears the future: OTHELLO, THE WINTER’S TALE… And much else. To have heard this, is a reward enough to take from this VENUS & ADONIS.

Playing now until 28 February. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

Monday, February 23, 2009



"MONUMENTAL is Roz Warby's critically acclaimed solo dance work, developed in collaboration with her long standing artistic team, designer Margie Medlin and composer Helen Mountford. It premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in October 2006 and received the Age Critics Commendation Award, Greenroom Awards for Best Female Dancer and Best Composition, and the Robert Helpmann Award for Best Female Dancer in a Ballet or Dance Work."

On a screen are projected pre-existing vintage film images of bird life intermixed with motion graphics of the dancer herself. Accompanied by a beautifully apt musical design, Ros Warby appears in a white body suit/feathered tutu/white cap. In beautiful, gently calibrated body/dance movements from simple eye to ultimately full body engagement, the dancer's expressions are juxtaposed in front of the projected images. In later sequences Ms Warby is dressed in black pants and long sleeved jacket, edged with a white trimming, and black helmet-like cap. The body expressions are principally upper torso and arms. Later a black tutu is added to the suit.

The combination of the lighting and image (Margie Medlin) the music design (Helen Mountford) along with the dancer produce a totally engrossing experience. I sat there believing in witnessing a "high art" experience. It seemed I was watching an Artist who with every gesture was so completely intent and informed with objective that I was compelled to a state of absorption. "MONUMENTAL draws from the iconic symbols of classical ballet, the swan and the soldier." Ms Warby gives us wonder, humour and deeply affecting images. The meaning of my experience in the theatre seems to be unimportant to the experiential transportation that I had. It was a kind of "rapture" and all the artists had a significant input to the success of the piece. Nevertheless, the extraordinary focus and energy of Ms Warby is especially marvellous. Alongside Peter Fraser's recent work: TARKOVSKY'S HORSE, this work forms a feminine counterbalance to that recent dance experience at Performance space. Both highly memorable.

This work is about to commence an international tour in the US.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bison / Natural Born Hooker

FOCUS THEATRE present BISON by Lachlan Philpott and NATURAL BORN HOOKER by Konrad Product at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre. (It is part of The Sydney Gay Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009.)

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009 logo stands beside the FOCUS THEATRE logo at the top of the program. BE WARNED then, that, these two plays, as performance pieces, have a very specific audience target in mind. Both plays are examples of extreme verbal voyeurism. Both plays have what seems to be a recent Hallmark of Focus Theatre performances, a de rigueur requirement of including “male striptease” and full frontal nakedness, a titillating element of soft porn. (Witness BLOWING WHISTLES and it’s soft porn memories.) I guess if Channel 9 can score audience targets with similar tactics in both series of UNDERBELLY, let’s go one step further and give the nudity to them: Live! LIVE!!! LIVE!!!!!! Live simulated sex acts on stage!!! (There are various ticket prices available and at $48 dollars for the double bill, $30 a single, you may or may not feel you have got value for money - entirely dependent on what you go to the theatre for.) Definitely the ordinary audience might find the material both confronting and maybe informative. Even certain factions of a Gay audience may find a lot of the material confronting and maybe uncomfortable to watch. (There is very little in this material to excite a Lesbian audience, it is entirely concerned with the male experience.) These plays in my estimation are of interest to a very small cognoscenti of the public.

BISON by Lachlan Philpott is an Australian play. Originally written for a Melbourne Theatre space, the Builder’s Arms Hotel, in 1999, Mr Philpott and the production company Focus, have reworked the material to bring “it up to date”. In this work one can see the origins of what I think is a very exciting writer, based on my memory of his later play COLDER. But this play reveals a writer at a much earlier time in his career, still finding his voice, no matter how much recent adaptation has gone on. The play begins with what is fashionable in some areas of theatre writing at the moment, Chorus Speak: shared lines that give us direct information without the pretence of character. Four actors take on the responsibility of character and ensemble in different parts of the script. They are ensemble to the featured characters story. Primarily we meet Jase (Stephen Multari), Simon (Christopher Tomkinson), Tom (Quinn Gibbes) and Dick (John Turnbull).

The text has been adapted to the Sydney Gay scene and there are many laughs of recognition from the knowledgeable in the audience (Maybe FOCUS could get funding for location placement). Each story covers different areas of the gay experience: a coming out for a young (17 year old) guy and subsequent gay lifestyle journey; a man with a penchant for "sex-pig" experiences i.e extreme sex, (we are in there with a video camera with him); a man on an odyssey of searching the world for a real connection, (and like Peer Gynt finding it was at home all along); and finally, a modern fable of an older man finding the threshold of a loving but bored relationship and moving into a space where some solace on the internet and beat sex provides distraction. There are great familiarities with most of this play but there are also some, occasionally, interesting insights into the peculiar predicaments of being gay at all different points of “being Gay”: Age, appetites, fantasies and practices. What this play lacks, which is not the case with the later play COLDER, is a “bigger picture”. It is to narrow in it’s pre-occupations and sometimes errs into salaciousness for its own sake.

The acting is, above all else, courageous. The experience of the performers is very obviously varied and the work is mostly only adequate. The real problem is in the direction in this space. (Pete Nettell) It seemed the actors had not had enough time to work out the dynamics of the space, especially vocally. Each member of this quartet had their “musical notes” down but not their tones or harmonies. The sounds they were making were not connected to each other and as the writing format requires a Chorus like energy and “sound “ it was too loud, combative and disassociated from each other, so that it was mostly a cacophonous jangle of noise. The instruments were mostly out of tune with each other and so the communication was relatively disjointed. More familiarity in the space may ease this problem.

NATURAL BORN HOOKER by Konrad Product, was, the writer facetiously tells us, found in "China" after much digging. And although it has been "polished" into what Mr Product regards "as a diamond-in-the-rough" to a state of "perfection" by Alice Livingstone & Pete Nettell it probably should have stayed buried. This is a bio-graphical telling of an American sex worker of his often rough and savage experiences from his early abuse as a child to a kind of resurrection at the end of the narrative. It is, still, a textually time jumping jumble, and is oh so familiar that boredom is a very possible experience for some of the audience (Of course there is the gratuitous strip tease and full frontal nudity to keep you hooked, if you last the distance).

A very good reason to last the distance is a very mature and creditable performance by Daniel Scott as Konrad, who reveals a powerhouse mental stamina and theatrical commitment to the task of breathing life into this text and keeping it afloat. Physically he is very adept and, unlike the other company in BISON, has a masterly sense of the best way to use his vocal instrument in this space to keep us attending to the play. But in the end the play feels foreign, too familiar and out of date. This actor should find better material to reveal his talent as an actor. It is obviously burgeoning and has benefited from the long stint as "Felicia/Adam" in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. One looks forward to seeing Mr Scott playing other, worthier material, to match his potential.

The Set and Costume Design (Newman Cobar); Lighting (Verity Hampson, the design as beautiful as ever, clever within the confines of the space) and Sound, also Composition,(Sarah de Jong) have great style. But it is no matter how stylish it may be, within the budget constraints, it is no substitute for substance.

A note in the program tells us that “All proceeds from the sale of programs will be donated to SWOP (Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) , an initiative of ACON.” I felt this slightly cynical considering the cost of the tickets, either separately or as a double bill and that some percentage of the Box Office might have been a more realistic gesture to make to that organization. The proceeds from the Program Sales!!!! Oh, Come On. Certainly the URBAN THEATRE production of THE LAST HIGHWAY for the Sydney Festival last year, a devised work about sex workers in the outer suburbs of Sydney had more relevance and impact then this oddly chosen piece. If the plight and life experience of the Sex Worker is a concern for this Company than perhaps a commissioning of a play from Mr Philpott would be more relevant for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian audience. It probably would be of interest to the wider community too, based on the reception that The Urban Theatre project had.

This production of these two plays seem oddly ill chosen to celebrate the Gay and Lesbian MARDI GRAS 2009. The tone of the material is oddly out of tune with a season of celebration. It felt tawdry and left a bored and bad taste to the time that I had given up to be there and supportive.

Playing now until 15 March. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Baghdad Wedding

Company B presents BAGHDAD WEDDING written by Hassan Abdulrazzak at the Belvoir St Theatre.

BAGHDAD WEDING is Hassan Abdulrazzak’s first play and it was first performed at Soho Theatre, London, in June 2007. Mr Abdulrazzak holds a PhD in Molecular Biology and works as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College. He has, since this play, also worked for the Royal Court in translation of an Israeli play (603 by Imad Farajin) and is on attachment with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). I mention Mr Abdulrazzak’s background because part of the fascination of this text and production, for me, is the biographical authenticities that are reflected in the characters he has written and the casual but insightful cultural details and insights that are anthropologically intriguing for someone fairly ignorant of the country in which the play is set. (For example the ablution ritual around the reading of the Qur’an, in the latter half of the play.) Apparently the writer has been present at the rehearsals, and there has also been a Cultural Consultant, Layla Naji. All these details are apparent in the niceties of the direction.

In the writer’s notes in the program, Mr Abdulrazzak talks of the genealogical maps he has made of his own family and, sadly, despite the fact that most of his relatives were born in Baghdad none of them (over 1,000) live there now. A diaspora of Iraqis refugees or immigrants all over the world. He goes on to lament that most of the West only know the Iraqi people from the nightly news “that hardly paints a flattering picture: looters, suicide bombers, religious fundamentalists and angry victims.... (and) yet there is much (else) to celebrate in Iraqi culture. Iraq has produced some wonderful scientists, doctors, academics, architects, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and writers.... In BAGHDAD WEDDING, they get centre stage.”

As in the ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, we have a Narrator, Marwan (Yalin Ozucelik), who tells us the story of himself and contemporary friends and of events that swing between London in 1998 and Baghdad in 2004. As in the stories of Scherazade, stories open into stories, time and locations shift along a fascinating spine of, in this instance, the journey of Salim, a medical student and novelist, and his adventures between weddings in Baghdad.

It is the world and the life styles of these, admittedly privileged Iraqis, that surprised and normalised the world for me. Normal in that I recognised the human aspirations and ambitions of the individuals we meet, they are much like my own and just as sophisticated, bourgeois and humanly complicated in the soap opera of real emotional needs, and yet contextualised in an extraordinary world for me, a war zone, a country occupied by a foreign power and at the mercy of internecine warring parties. In a world of dangerous circumstances where the ordinary biological urges, sanctified by the traditions of cultural rituals, still persistently go on: A wedding. (Just as it does in Sydney: a safe zone. "How much more privilege do I experience? What luck to be born here", I breathe as I watch the world of the play.) Like the recent film from Iran, PERSEPOLIS, it takes me to a place where I can partly identify and yet have a great learning curve of understanding of daily life in this far away country, that the nightly news does not give me. It gives it all a human face, not just the political arguments and results. It does hit home.

The play for all of its serious intent is also amusing and wryly beguiling in its hold on you. It is not just dramatic hard realities telling us of desperate experiences, for at the centre of this story are characters that have a broader and full sense of irony and there is a constant mordant humour that keeps a perspective on the human dilemmas and tragedies that unfurl - a triumph of the indomitable human spirit. “In Iraq, a wedding is not a wedding unless shots get fired. It’s like in England where a wedding is not a wedding unless someone pukes or tries to fuck one of the bridesmaids. That’s just the way it goes.”

The play is directed by a very promising younger artist, Geordie Brookman. I was eager to see this work as a result of the very exacting and rewarding production of TENDER at the Stables Theatre last year. Working with the Set Designer (Robert Kemp) we see a desert floor and a high wall of concrete, of what look like, barriers. (This confused me as the visual reference reminded me of the Israeli/Palestinian separation wall rather than any visual memory of my encounters to bombed out Baghdad.) An upholstered chair and later a carpet, reminded me of the looting of the museums and buildings of the city. Milk crates serve as furniture for most of the locations. The aesthetic problem for me with this design, besides the wall connotations, is that, unfortunately, it drew for me, many references to the Company B production of SCORCHED in the same space. It is unfortunate because it alerted me to the differences to the skills of the two productions. SCORCHED was directed by the esteemed veteran of this space, Neil Armfield. Mr Brookman examples very promising tastes into the work but reveals in contrast the anticipatory excesses of the younger artist. For instance the Lighting Design (Niklas Pajanti) while often beautiful, was seemingly over fussy and often erred on creating startling images and atmospherics but failed to literally illuminate the action. ( Sometimes it was very difficult to see the faces of the actors to read their offers. Without clear sight of the face it also reduces the ability for us to always hear what is been said, as we also unconsciously read the lips of the actors to discern the text.) The Sound Design (Jeremy Silver) is also overused and although it is generally accurate in underlining the narrative and creating the right atmosphere it was too much like a film score and too present to just support the activity on the stage. These are quibbles but the remembered contrasts to the judgements in the production of SCORCHED, prompted by the echo of the Set Designs were interesting to compare.

Certainly the Costume Design (Pip Runciman) was detailed and not distracting (NB the length of the trousers for the character of Yasser - wonderfully illustrative of character.). The choice of using an accented dialect for the world of the play also gave an entrance for real believability in the world we were watching and yet provided the right distancing affect to absorb the social and political parallels of the play.

There are three outstanding performances in this production. Yalin Ozucelik as Marwan is marvellous in both his tasks as a “brechtian” narrator to the whole of the story and as a moving key participant in the action. His last speech is indicative of his fine judgement: “A country found, and lost again. / When I remember it, my mind is sent reeling, / Falling through space like a stone /And my heart aches / My heart catches.” Truly my heart caught in the emotionalism of that speech. It highlighted the delicacy of the tracing of a set of choices made by this actor in the creation of a consummate story teller and character.

Ben Winspear as Salim, the protagonist is wonderfully louche and yet keenly alert as a novelist / sensationalist caught in the two worlds of the West and The East, wallowing in both their possibilities and treading in both, and suffering, therefore, the consequences of a life that is alive and combative rather than submissive to the systems. The casual dandy of London to the captured and wounded aesthete in the Iraqi war field and the American interrogation prison is beautifully delineated and experienced.

Arky Michael as Kathum, the wily and clever survivor in war torn Baghdad is amusing and detailed in the plots he is forced to negotiate. The actor’s intelligence expressed through a restless energy in the vocal and physical choices are indeed rewarding for us as an audience.

Unfortunately the key role of Luma (Melanie Vallejo), the only major female character in the play, does not have an equal impact. Ms Vallejo, while looking right and having a capacity "to walk and talk" the role convincingly, lacks the ability to give us depth or sophisticated insights into Luma’s predicament. Luma is a powerfully integral part of the cultural and human dilemmas of the world of the play. When reading the play her shadow hangs over the life choices of the two principal men. It is especially obvious as the above three actors are often directly engaged with her and the contrasts of observation and skill are too clear. This is, relatively, an essential weakness in the production. The other actors are engaged in playing multiple roles and generally succeed. Sometimes the relative failure for me to believe in them is gauged by the accuracy or not of the dialect work. When I don’t notice it I’m with them, when I do, I’m not. I’m brought back to the reality of the theatre space. (It is merely a skill task: mechanistic to solve. Time consuming but essential and part of the tool kit of the actor’s craft, surely?) My suspension of belief is breached. I especially was arrested by Robert Mammone in his doubling.

This is a very good beginning to the Company B year. Geordie Brookman registers his wonderful potential as a director. The play is an interesting insight into the world of some Iraqis and of the war and its after affects on a nation. The re-enforcement of the importance of the instinctual needs of being at Home and in Country are part of the lasting insights for me.

(It was also wonderful to see Australian actors on the Upstairs stage after a three month absence(!) except Sean Taylor as commentator in THE PIANIST.)

Playing now until 22 March. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

Monday, February 16, 2009

ACO: Tour One - Dawn Upshaw


Attending music is a pleasure for my own spoilt self. It is outside my expertise but it is part of my diet in the Arts. So let me plagiarise from the program notes.

"Dawn Upshaw is simply one of those performers that anyone serious about the state of music today must see. Combining intelligence, artistry and a seriously gorgeous voice, everything she sings turns to gold. The music she’s chosen spans the globe and crosses cultures: from folksong to the works of an Eastern European Jewish composer whose Argentine upbringing exposed him to tango, klezmer and chamber music, though his music is always more than the sum of these parts.

If all music aspires to the quality of song, all Mozart’s concertos and symphonies aspire to the condition of opera. How else to explain the consummate theatricality of the Symphony No 29 and especially the Sinfonia Concertante? It’s a drama in three scenes: majestic, tragic and comic, and the perfect foil for two ACO principals with a lot of character. The curtain rises with a brand new work by Perth composer James Ledger, the first of our celebratory commissions for the year."

RESTLESS NIGHT is a World Premiere, commissioned to celebrate Richard Tognetti’s 20th anniversary as Leader of the ACO by James Ledger. In it’s brief time duration of 5 minutes it was a delightfully cheeky and witty piece. Mr Ledger "impressed and inspired by the energy of the ACO's playing" has created what he calls "a ‘hyper – nocturne’ – a stream of unconscious thoughts that come and go in the solo violin pitted against a flurry of nervous activity in the string orchestra." The devilment of the scoring and the apparent precision of the timing of the piece revealed a concentrated camaraderie that is, as always with this orchestra, a theatrical excitement to behold and hear.

The fun of the relationships within the orchestra were observable in both the Mozart Pieces. The, to me, familiar Symphony No 29 in A major, K.201, was enriched by the visible exuberant joy of the playing. And in the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat Major, K.364, the concentration to the music making was enhanced by the obvious pleasure that Richard Tognetti on his violin and Christopher Moore on his viola had in intertwining the sounds that Mozart had scored in such devoted and witty rivalry. (Mr Tognetti told us of the special tuning for these pieces. Firstly the strings were sheep gut and not the usual contemporary steel and secondarily the A was tuned to "a slightly lower pitch than usual." The string orchestra was also accompanied by replicas of 18th-century woodwind instruments, including a horn that was last played in concert in 1806!!! )

The guest for the concert was Dawn Upshaw and her first set of songs were by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Noe Golijov. The first song NIGHT OF THE FLYING HORSES began with Ms Upshaw launching herself in an unaccompanied opening verse. What followed was a blissful and breathtaking joy. Four songs from Bartok and a song from Richard Strauss followed. Ms Upshaw sings in a completely embodied way. The whole instrument is alert to the sensations of the music and there is a sinuosity to the body movements that theatrically took me to meet her on a spiritual plain. She sang as if each piece was a spiritual gift. It was a truly exhilarating performance. The first Golijov a special memory to be closely followed by the Stauss: Morgen! I loved it.

As usual this concert by this orchestra, a great balm in troubled times.

War Of The Roses - Another point of view

Alison Croggon has posted a very exciting review of WAR OF THE ROSES including her thoughts on the existence of the Actors Company. It's a great read.

War Of The Roses - Another point of view

Alison Croggon has posted a detailed response to WAR OF THE ROSES and comments on the existence of the Actors Company in the last three years.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cherry Smoke

Glass Umbrella Creative with Tamarama Rock Surfers in association with Samuel French inc NY present CHERRY SMOKE by James McManus at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

CHERRY SMOKE written by a relatively new American writer, James McManus, is a play set in a closed down steel works town near Pittsburg, about four neglected and abused young people. It is despondent and tough and finishes in scarifying tragedy with a tiny glimmer of hope. These are characters that from both our theatre and film and television going, we have met many times before, the story is horribly familiar. So, although the characters are "goldmines" for the actors and director to mine for acting opportunities there is no new point of view explored by the writer and although there is a time shift, (The actors play themselves as kids in one scene and then again as older versions of themselves in others) there is not even any “form” experimentation. But what is promising is the sometimes poetic riffs of the writer that are memorable and seductive …."she keeps telling me that one day we’re gonna walk to where the dirt meets the sky and when there ain’t no more dirt we’ll step on top of the moon and cover each other in white dust. Girl like that, I’d light myself on fire for her.” The poetry is what is promising and has a point of view. The first act is dramatically inert and the second act reveals a plot that is too familiar and melodramatic in its incidents - too ordinary.

But what makes this production worth seeing is the Acting. Although on the opening night it was sometimes too overwrought and slightly pushed (maybe nerves) and could use a little more shading in contrasts in all of its mechanisms, it is volatile with passion and insight. The actors have a real sense of who they are playing and invest great credibility and personalisation in realising them. They palpably love their characters. The director, Michael Dahlstrom, has guided and elicited good work from these actors. The contrasting tempos and temperaments that the writer has observed is beautifully elicited, if a little hysterically played at my performance. Mr Dahlstrom has also worked with the designer, Jessie Giraud, to a simple and very effective design solution The Lighting (Deidre Math) and especially the Sound design (Michael Dahlstrom & Mike Smith) is very well integrated to the narrative points.

John Shrimpton as a “crazy boxer”, Fish, is particularly arresting in his physical dynamics and complete ownership of his characters journey. Emily Rose Brennan has a complete identification of the abused and neglected young woman, Cherry (although sometimes a little harsh on her vocal effort on opening night). In the writer’s contrasted other couple, (that is, more grounded but less driven) Ivan Donato as Duffy, is deeply complex in his inner life and spectacularly simple in his verbal communication of it. Julia Ohannessian (Bug) has a truly moving internal pathos as the unhappy mother that cannot be. With ensemble restraint and a more delicate treading of the shifts in the plays possible contrasts, this work from this team would be even better.

In summary, a familiar tale, promisingly told by a very engaged creative team. I understand this play will have an Off-Broadway opening next week. Sydney is sometimes in the zeitgeist, UH?

Playing now until 28 February. Book online or call
1300 GET TIX (438 849).

The Servant Of Two Masters

Crowne Plaza COOGEE ARTS FESTIVAL, Feb 09 present THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS by Carlo Goldoni at Grant Reserve Amphitheater, Beach St Coogee.

Sydney Festival finishes and a week later Coogee Arts Festival begins a month long festival of arts for the Randwick Coucil Area. This is the sixth Festival, which began in 2004. Festival Director Barry Watterson is responsible for championing the event and has expanded gently the activities. This years is the biggest arts offering. Check it out. (

The festival began in 2004 with a performance of Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT. This year Mr Watterson has curated a production of the great Italian, Carlo Goldoni's (1709-1793) THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. This adaptation by Australian playwrights Ron Blair and Nick Enright has been directed by Darren Gilshenan from a production first produced by The National Institute of Dramatic Art in 2008.

This is a fabulously rambunctious, knock about comedy, wonderfully adjusted to the outside venue by Mr Gilshenan. All but one of the actors are recent graduates of the Institute and are engaged in their first professional engagement. Miranda Tapsell, Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood, Josh McConville, James Elliott, Andy Cunningham, Alex Russell, Nick Maricic and Demetrios Sirilas are joined by Lindy Sardelic in creating a totally fun evening for all the family. Broad physical comedy and very bold "commedia" characterisations, along with some hilarious jokes tell a very silly and enjoyable love story complicated by a servant, Truffaldino, who finds employment with two different masters. "Two masters, two wages, (means) two dinners-too right!" Confusion and passionate pursuits of lovers ensues. All ends well and it is a great relief when at last it does. One has laughed exhaustedly.

All of this handsome and charming band of actors are in great form. Josh McConville as Truffaldino is tremendous as the overworked servant. Demetrios Sirilas, as a hysterically love-lorn young man is hysterical in the ploys he undertakes to win his bride. Miranda Tapsell gorgeous as the wiser servant in the play. Andy Cunningham and Lindy Sardelic are well matched as the lovers in the "master's world". Both swash buckling and delectably handsome in their swaggering postures and deceptions. Alex Russell creating two amazingly funny people strikes the right notes in what is a particularly difficult task in the open air. Two VERBAL comics (this is in contrast to the physical choices that most of the other actors have.) Therefore especially marvellous. Watch and listen closely.

Handsomely costumed by Charli Dugdale in period - like clothes inside a setting designed by William Stewart that is significantly atmospheric and deceptively simple, the actors and the audience enter into a pleasurable experience of the imagination. A live musician, Phillip Johnston, is included to add to the fun and atmospherics.The director Darren Gilshenan deserves great credit for his vision and skill in the very fine disciplined work he gives us.

On Sunday night a nearly full moon rose in the heavens, the twilight turned to a lit darkness, a sweater was wrapped around the shoulders and some of us munched on a picnic and suckled cooling liquid refreshments. The show was the perfect way to share a summer evening. Arrive early, sit as close as you can and share in a wonderfully unique and totally winning night at the theatre. The kids will love it. Part of the joy was to watch little young people stand and stare entranced with what the actors were doing. Laughing, and wisely discerning what they thought
was funny and good.

From little things great things grow. The Coogee Arts Festival is six years old and the presentation of this work sets an enviable standard of achievement. This is a great gesture for the community of Randwick.

Playing now until 28 February. Book online through Moshtix or
call 1300 GET TIX (438 849).