Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Temperamentals

Daryl Roth, Stacy Shane, Martian Entertainment present THE TEMPERAMENTALS by Jon Marans at the New World Stages, New York.

“Temperamental” was an American slang word for homosexual in the 40’s and 50’s.

THE TEMPERAMENTALS by Jon Marans is a play about the men who formed the Mattachine Society in 1950, in Los Angeles. It was one of the earliest homophile organizations in the United States, probably second only to Chicago’s short-lived Society for Human rights,1924. As you can see, well before the turning point of the Stonewall Riots in New York, the GLBT community. This play is then a type of docudrama about this society’s founding group.: Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), Rudi Gernreich (Michael Urie), Chuck Rowland (Arnie Burton), Bob Hull (Matthew Schneck) and Dale Jennings (Sam Breslin Wright).

Harry Hay, a married man and communist, conceived an “international…fraternal order" to serve as "a service and welfare organisation devoted to the protection and improvement of Society’s Androgynous Minority”. Rudi Grenreich, an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany and later MGM costume designer, on meeting Hay and reading his document known as “The Call” declared the document ‘the most dangerous thing he had ever read” and became an enthusiastic supporter , and, incidentally, his lover. On November 11, 1950. Hay, along with Gernreich and friends Dale Jennings and lovers Bob Hull and Chuck Rowlands, held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society. The play covers these meetings and the preambles to this event and to the later trials and tribulations of the society in the Cold War America, 1950’s environment.

But it would be wrong to think this play is a just a dry documentary. It explores the men involved and the struggles that they have, both personally and societal, to the growths and adjustments that each has to make to the recognition of their rights and healthful need to find a way to live. It covers the realities of a ‘closeted’ world and the emotional and political, lawful impingements that the bigger world impressed on them, to survive happily, (or attempt to).

The growing personal and political relationship between Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich is attended to by Mr Ryan and Mr Urie with consummate delicacy and insight. The longings of these humans and the inhibitions of the period that made it dangerous to express them are beautifully presented under the guidance of the Director, Jonathan Silverstein.

Mr Urie (some of you may know him from his work in UGLY BETTY, a television production) gives, what I regard as the best acting performance I saw on this trip to New York (Norbert Leo Butz (ENRON) and Ari Fliakos (NORTH ATLANTIC) being the other work I admired, especially). The wit of the physical expression and the intelligence of the verbal choices, including the wonderful use of the Viennese dialect was bedazzling.

The other actors, in multiple responsibilities were also, variously, excellent. The sophistication of Mr Burton’s Vincent Minnelli, the empathetic creation of the emotionally immature personality of Chuck Rowland by Mr Schneck and the contrasting heroism of the working class or everyman, Dale Jennings, by Mr Wright, were all appropriate and generous offers.

The production design (Set and Costumes, Clint Ramos) is very basic and serves as a backdrop to the many locations of the plot without fuss, but with a sense of usefulness and taste. The Lighting (Josh Bradford) and Sound Design (Daniel Kluger) supportive to the mood and environment changes.

After the tepid and rather clichéd Broadway production of NEXT FALL, that also deals with the “Gay” experience, it was a relief to have a, relatively, adult approach to this world. Sentimentality did not raise its head, although the events of THE TEMPERAMENTALS were tremendously moving. The complexity and the sensitivity with which the production explored the shifting levels of the personal and political dilemmas was of a high order of acquittal.

The 2010 Drama Desk Awards gave an award to the actors: the Outstanding Ensemble Award. Michael Urie received the Lucile Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. Justly deserved.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sapphires

Company B Belvoir and Black Swan Theatre Company present THE SAPPHIRES at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney.

THE SAPPPHIRES by Tony Briggs and Directed by Wesley Enoch won two Helpmann Awards for Best New Australian Work and Best Play in 2005. This is a revival production that began in January as part of the Perth International Arts Festival and since has toured to several venues in Victoria and after this season here in Sydney, travels internationally to South Korea for a short season. There are plans to make a film of this work. After the success of BRAN NUE DAY let us hope it happens.

I saw this work at the Belvoir back in 2005 and enjoyed it very much. This revival, with a mostly new cast, was even better. I had a great time. The opening numbers were dynamically delivered by the four women Hollie Andrew (Julie), Christine Anu (Gail), Casey Donovan (Cynthia), and Kylie Farmer (Kay) accompanied by a very slick and enthusiastic band Simon Burke (Lead musician) Ben Collins (Saxophone), Daniele Di Paola (Drums), and Andrew Weir (Guitar). But it was after the first scene with the women around the laminex table that I thought “I’m going to have a great time tonight!” Mr Enoch had elicited from the actors a clear delineation of character in the ‘classic’ musical theatre genre form and then “cracked a whip” to grasp a classic “comic” timing that was breathless in its pursuit of the right laughs and emotion. The actors were able to sustain this level of skill throughout the show.

Balanced with performances of comic pathos by the men in the company: Jimi Bani (Jimmy), Kenneth Ransom (Robby), and particularly Aljin Abella as the wily ‘jack of all trades’, Joe and Oliver Wenn as the good hearted and goofily naïve tour manager, Dave, you have a production that, along with the writing, displays a clever sense of laughter, melodrama and the high jinx of the music without any bathos or cloying sentimentality. Crisp, to the point, informative, political in small capitals and most proudly, celebratory. From the beginning to the end I and my guest had a great time.

Based on a true story of an Indigenous female singing group called The Sapphires, formed in Melbourne, that were invited to join a group of entertainers travelling to South-East Asia (Vietnam), to perform for the troops stationed there in 1968, Tony Briggs has created, he says, “a show that (is) fun, theatrically entertaining and something that people of all ages and cultural persuasions could sing, laugh and shake their Mooms to.” Wesley Enoch says “the story of these four women is as iconic as the music they sung. It tells about four sisters taking on the world and rising above anything that tries to limit them – politics, racism, war, the law or personal pain.” It was all that and more.

The music has been chosen from the immense resources of the sixties international ‘Girl Group’ pop repertoire, and is there anything more disarming than being able to bop to and indulge in the fun and truths of songs such as RESPECT, MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK, and STOP IN THE NAME OF LOVE ? I’d say “NO!” Add the touching introduction of the song BURA FERA by Theresa Clements of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Nation, sung beautifully by the women, and a tribute to Paul Robeson using CONGO LULLABY and the splendiferous James Brown’s SAY IT LOUD I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD and PEOPLE CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE and a full emotional experience is delivered, and how.

The integration of the true story, the music theatre genre techniques, the well drawn characterisations with accurate and slick direction, topped by enthusiastic musical gifts, a terrific night can happen. It did. Congratulations to all.

Auspiciously, Mr Enoch has just being appointed Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company. Good luck.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Next to Normal

David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Second Stage Theatre, Carole Rothman, and Ellen Richard present NEXT TO NORMAL at the Booth Theater, Broadway.

This is a six character musical. It is an intimate, dramatic, almost naturalistic psycho-drama. It was nominated in 2009 for eleven Tony Awards. It won three: Best Original Score. Best Orchestration. Best performance by a Leading Lady. This work won, controversially, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

This is a musical about a woman, Diana (Alice Ripley), suffering from bipolar disorder, uncoiled from the death of her very young son and an inability to grieve properly, which leads to attempted suicide, drug abuse and a debate about the ethics of modern psychiatry. It examines this mother’s terrible plight and the effect it has on her family, husband Dan (Kyle Dean Massey), and daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). Diana hallucinates a 16 year old son, Gabe (J. Robert Spencer), a very viable and persistent presence, and seeks aid from a psychiatrists, Dr Madden/Dr Fine (Louis Hobson). An outsider, a would–be boyfriend of Natalie’s – Henry ( Adam Chanler-Berat) – shows some signs of ‘light’ (rescue) for the family.

The subject matter and the territory covered in this musical is dramatic indeed. It is way off the usual path that the musical theatre presents at this level of production. The audience I saw it with were variously affected. Some in tears, some deeply moved. I felt strangely detached and a little shocked.

What bothered me for most of this performance was the scale of the production. This is a true Broadway Musical Production with a dazzling set by Mark Wendland, good costuming by Jeff Mahshie, whizz-bang lighting by Kevin Adams, wonderfully directed/staged by Michael Greif. The performances are wrenching and amazingly powerful. On the performance I saw Jennifer Damiano as the daughter out standing for her consistent committed dramatic truthfulness, closely followed by Alice Ripley as Diana – maybe, a little too automatic, only slightly, in contrast. The other cast members were terrific.

However, the biggest problem for me was the orchestration by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt which was for a full rock orchestra. It was monumental in scale. The noise was tremendous and the scale of it was loud, louder and loudest. The sound design by Brian Ronan thumpingly penetrating and ear drum explosive. The climatic orchestration of the last number, LIGHT, stratospheric. What I really mean is “way over the top.” You were going to give a standing ovation one way or the other, the director and producers had decided, either because you were moved to honestly respond or you needed to get up and out of the theatre to escape the noise. Whether the song/music developed or followed a hallucinogenic moment, an attempted suicide, drug abuse, the tremors of electro-shock treatment, or the despair of the daughter, the despair of the husband, the bewilderment of the boyfriend, the taunting of the ill woman by her imaginary son that leads to her breakdown, the catastrophic traumas of the ill woman, her exhaustion, the husband’s dilemma, the daughter’s resolution, it ended with a rousing clamour to draw applause. It felt ‘kinda sick’ to be applauding such tragedy, the lyrics and the acting being so potent. But there we were, like Pavlov’s dog, taking the noise cue and putting our hands together when a considered contemplation, absorption of the power the moment – drawn by the writer, Brian Yorkey, would have been more appropriate. This musical calamitousness was created through some thirty-seven musical numbers!!! Thirty-seven, mostly, noisy orchestral ,“Broadway type” arrangements, cueing us to applaud!!! (Woof, woof).

I felt that the deeply affecting narrative and all the issues explored in this theatre piece would be better served with a more modest set of instruments and orchestration. A chamber orchestra perhaps? The cello, that is already employed, being the signature instrument, in a more musical clarifying manner. The musical production was an overkill of the material and was in my experience horribly overwrought and flying a flag, an emblem of: “Ain’t this brave?”; “ Isn’t this worthy ?”; “Hasn’t Broadway grown up?”; and “Such a serious issue, treated so bravely, as a musical?”

Bigger is not necessarily better. In my estimation this particular musical play might have more potential to affect an audience with a more modest production. Treating, respectfully, rather than commercially, a very serious contemporary experience. Not demanding sentimentality as a major response but true feelings and sentiment.

I read where this production earned back its expenses a year after the opening night on Broadway. If it were simpler the costs might have been recovered sooner and the material/subject matter more resounding.

The last musical to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. To compare the merits of each makes the comprehension of the controversy very easy to understand. This production certainly makes a Rock Musical Soap Opera out of the material in “next to normal”.

Monday, June 21, 2010

North Atlantic

NORTH ATLANTIC by James Strahs. A Wooster Group production, presented by the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre’s Jerome Robbins Theatre.

NORTH ATLANTIC by James Strahs is a satirical dash through an American military experience. It is set in the waning years of the Cold War on an American aircraft carrier where the military strategies/jargon of the crew, both male and female, are infused /confused with the breathless innuendo of the hard core gobbledegook of officialdom and the sexual undertowings of the underlings on duty. With the urge of sex winning the battle for attention with this crew. If it makes sense, it must be because you were once part of it – the military, that is, or you have watched a lot of war movies of all vintages.

NORTH ATLANTIC is a ‘vintage’ work of the Wooster Group. First devised in 1983, revised in 1984, Re-staged in 1999 and now again in 2010. And certainly as a first time experience of the Wooster Group it is a bewildering time capsule of what one has read of their work. The material itself sounds and feels extremely out-moded, the satiric impact diminished over twenty years of dwindling pertinence, and its revival must surely be justified as a demonstration of the theatrical techniques of the company’s team/house style.. This is, indeed, impressive.

The set (Jim Clayburgh) is mostly a steeply raked representation of an upper deck high tech decoding room. It shifts and tips dangerously.(Would Australian O.H.S. authorities pass this design?) In front, a platform exists for standing “jokes” and a further lower floor level for more usual if asinine conversations between the ‘crew’ of this ship. The Sound demands are miraculously organized by Bruce Oland, Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair; music arrangements by Eddie Dixon. There are many musical numbers heartily attacked by the performers. The lighting (Jennifer Tipton), a sophisticated pattern of focus.

The acting demands are huge and wondrously executed, and after mostly lack lustre performances and commitment in most of the other work I have seen in New York theatre this visit, it was a welcome thrust of professional technique that grabbed my attention from the very first utterance. Ari Fliakos as N.I. Roscoe Chizzum is particularly arresting. Bur all the company: Paul Lazar, Steve Cuiffo, Zachary Oberzan, Kate Valk, Frances McDormand, Jenny Seastone Stern, Maura Tierney, Koosil-ja and Scott Sheperd are worth catching and admiring.

But what the performance adds up too is less quantifiable. I was happy to see a bit of theatre history in production terms but wished for something more interesting in content to take away. Elizabeth LeCompte is the director and this museum piece should just be filmed and archived (probably has), for as cutting edge theatre, neither the text material or the guerrilla tactics of the production style are anything we don’t already know about and inherited from practitioners learning from these past masters of shock and awe in the theatre, all over the world. In twenty-seven years a lot of water has passed under the bridge. On reflection, viewing a Marx Brothers film does give the same adrenalin rush of ‘theatrical chaos’ but with a lot more entertainment – laughs. The text content seems to be satirically still relevant. NORTH ATLANTIC however brilliantly re-composed, feels like nostalgia and a waste of resources.

That other war ‘musical’, SOUTH PACIFIC, playing up at the Lincoln Centre seems to be able to hold its age and impact more impressively, according to friends.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


A WHITE BOX THEATRE Production in association with B Sharp present BANG by Jonathan Gavin at the Downstairs Theatre.

BANG by Jonathan Gavin is a really good night at the theatre. A new Australian play. The first act of this play presents a collection of characters and spins a 'web' of connection for them all, to a fate at a railway station platform, where just before the interval break, there is a BANG, which is a suicide terrorist bomb explosion. The second act continues the unravelling connection of these characters.

It is, on the whole, a very moving and human expedition. The writing is impressive. Mr Gavin tells us: " BANG draws from many wells of history, narratology, theology, chemistry, semiotics, the list goes on....", "Metaphysical Naturalism" is what one of the characters decides. It felt an apt description. This is not just sentimentalizing character drawing or narrative telling, there is much magic, much pregnant social, philosophical and political debate. And it is woven skilfully and accessibly into the audiences witnessing, with the multitudinous 'affects' of the human being in all of its confusing, conflicting impulses and techniques of survival under duress, clearly, empathetically and even sometimes, humorously, presented to us.

Six actors, Blazey Best, Caroline Brazier, Ivan Donato, Tony Poli, Damian Rice and Wendy Strehlow play some twenty-two characters, covering a diverse range of ages, sex and cultures. The Director, Kim Hardwick, has assisted these actors to create with simple 'characteristic' adjustments, such as a dialect or tonal commitment or physical emphases to demarcate the shifts and adoptions/adaptations, to seamlessly, create characters, sometimes in a second, in a mere intake of breath, a re-arrangement of a shawl. Wonderful acting.

Actor after actor displays wonderful control and judgement as they shift and change from one character responsibility to another. The delicacy,elegance and deeply mined depths of emotional truth is again and again revealed, each in turn, and each in ever more perplexing and comforting details. This is a remarkable ensemble of actors. Each tuned into the ego of their own creations and at the same time all submissive to the generated sensibility of the performance ensemble, that definitely and remarkably included the audience as one of the main participants. A story being told to the 'tribe'. A story that is trying to help the 'tribe' to find a way to live their (my, our) lives in the present "terrible" times of uncertainty.

What is remarkable about the writing and acting of this play dealing with the issue of cultural and religious war, that deals with great personal tragedies and need for revenge, is that one is wiser and hopeful, not angry or fearful of the predicaments of our surrounding calamities. One is left at the end of the performance with a warmth of identification and shared pain, respect and balanced appreciation of the complex motivations of some of our human brothers and sisters. Even if they are "the other". I left the theatre with an exhilarated sense of hope. An imperative to need to understand, not judge and condemn.

How different is that to the nihilistic exhaustion of the STC's ORESTEIA that one takes away?

Ms Hardwick with her collaborators: Costume and Set Design- Mark Thompson, costumes that are basically serviceable with minimum adjustments to create whole worlds of characterisation for the actors belief and the audience's clarity; a black floor space with scattered detritus and a mirrored wall, that allows the Lighting Designer, Martin Kinnane to create reflected images of heightened poetic power, and a Composition and Sound Design by Steve Francis, taking us, oh, so subtly, from place to place, era to era, and time to time shift. And what is even more remarkable is that all that support by the team is not intrusive on the remarkable 'readings' of the actors of Mr Gavin's wonderful play. Almost invisible.

Dare I say that the NSW government literature prize-givers should take note of this contribution to the Australian cultural fabric of our community? On the night I went, maybe thirty or more high school students (Newington College) were sitting in this tiny space. What was remarkable was the concentration and growing awe of that audience. Remarkable to see many of them, as the play reached its endings, leaning in to the stage action, in their seats, mesmerized by what they were watching. This young Australian audience watching this new Australian play by a young Australian writer that will definitely affect their attitudes to living in the twenty-first century.

Do go. Do not miss it.

I went and borrowed a copy of Mr Gavin's play, A MOMENT ON THE LIPS to read the next day. I was impressed, indeed.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Sydney Theatre Company presents the Residents in ORESTEIA by Aeschylus. In a new adaptation by Tom Wright at the Wharf 1.

Tom Wright has adapted the Aeschylus ORESTEIA. He is also the Director. It is, “…of course a trilogy. This production isn’t. It’s a version mainly of the first two plays in the trilogy, AGAMEMNON and CHOEPHORI (the Libation Bearers), with a dues ex machina at the end. Apollo’s speech of conclusion is based on his words in Aeschylus’ third play, EUMENIDES, but fundamentally this version isn’t an attempt to present the whole catastrophe. It’s an attempt at a distillation, a reading. We have found it to be like a dream; some weird ancient obsession that bubbles up from somewhere deep and finds contemporary forms…A nightmare of where we have come from, a dream of where we are.”

The text of Aeschylus ‘translated’ through the prism of the sensibilities of Mr Wright reflects, in this contemporary re-telling, “the other presiding spirit in the rehearsal room…the inevitability of Freudian Psychology when dealing with such material.” Mr Wright, in his program notes goes on,” It has reached the point now where it feels practically impossible to explore characters such as Clytemnestra, Orestes or Electra without viewing them through the prism of Freudian notions. They are bigger than mere characters, they become emblematic for suppressed, half-understood family crisis. The House of Atreus as an archetype of the family as incubator of pain.”

To this end, then, Mr Wright and his Designer, Alice Babidge, give us a contemporary setting. This play is also now Freud’s contemporary world crucible. A non-descript dirty, black floor space backed by a black wall with a set of three elevators doors, which serve as entrance and exits for the characters. They are also used to reveal the bloody goings on in this dreadful family. The doors imprinted with bloody handprints and then smeared theatrically over the opaque glass, and opening to reveal sculptured arrangements of abused bodies, dripping blood. Just why there are three sets of doors and where the elevators travel to, upwards or downwards, to what must be floors of Hammer House of Horror proportions, (images of Kubrick’s THE SHINING, kept surfacing) becomes a point of distracted speculation during this performance, that sometimes allows the consciousness to drift away from the action unfolding on the stage.

The clothing of the present time, hoodies, underwear dresses, jeans, t shirts, sneakers, bare feet etc – an almost brand image now of the Babidge vision, speaks to us, that this work is of the present time, of our friends and families. No Kings or Queens, no war lords or warriors, no gods or furies here, just the casually dressed corporate or professional head or bling decorated female government figure, the next door cross dresser, the boy or girl in the other next door. (Whatever the project era: THE WAR OF THE ROSES, THE WOMEN OF TROY, THE LOST ECHO, THE MYSTERIES: GENESIS , contemporary grunge is the look (check out Vice Magazine link in review for HOLE IN THE WALL). Ms Babidge finds this the solution to the story telling she is responsible for. It is becoming a little too predictable and unimaginative. Good god she must be bored with it because my friends and I are. We have a gamble on it – The vodka and tonics are delicious). This look reduces this core cultural text to the basic role of the actor : to story telling. Unadorned just tell us. The brunt of the task is handed to the actors. The sound (Max Lyandvert) and Lighting (Damien Cooper) are the simple, but talented, servants to the ordinariness of the contemporary ‘vibe’ of this rendition, in which extraordinary things are told.

The flat visual choices of the production are in marked contrast to the bejewelled beauty of the writing by Mr Wright. Here is the gift to us. The language reminded me of the spectacle of hearing Wilde’s SALOME. The imagery and muscularity of verse structure is stunning and arresting. One longs to read it. (This is true of the “Troy” text too and THE LOST ECHO, I hope the STC plan to publish them). It is calamitous, then, that only a few of this Resident Company of actors have the verbal or physical measure or skill, of the writing that they are dealing with, for us. Ursula Mills, the leader of the chorus, Alice Ansara, Sophie Ross and Julia Ohannessian are not able to sustain the long verses of story telling in a consistently imaged or visceral manner to capture and keep hold of our imaginations or attention (Hence my SHINING dreams). And since the production has simplified the design images to such pragmatisms, the language as communicated sound is the vital gestural instrument of the experience. It mostly fails with these four actors. Mr Wright does not seem to be able to guide or assist these young artists to clarity or musicality (Voice and Text Coach, Charmian Gradwell). Long, arid staging of “noise” is at least half the night.

Richard Pyros as Aegisthus (despite his silly costuming), Brett Stiller as Orestes are in stark but illuminating contrast to the chorus work above, moving and clear in their textual speaking. Relishing the language and the challenge of Mr Wright’s careful poetic crafting, word by beautiful word, phrase by phrase, and it was a blessed relief.

However, for me, the pleasure of this production is to listen and watch the flowering of the gifts of Zindzi Okenyo as Clytemnestra. On the performance I saw, as the evening went on, Ms Okenyo grew from strength to strength to presage the promise of an actress of some greatness. It is not yet absolutely secure, but watching her over the year-long program that the Residents have shown us, the experience of this contract at the STC is nurturing a talent of some import. From the beautifully intelligent and skill supported creation of the small offer Of Lady MacDuff in Vs MACBETH to this Clytemnestra. True, a little too much bluster ( or nerves ) at the start it gradually settled down in the Agamemnon play to be in almost full possession in the second Libation Bearers act. Regal, arrogant and confidently foolish Clytemnestra.

In the text, somewhere, one of the speakers talks of the “fledglings” struggling in the nest (in reference to Orestes and Electra, I think), it certainly gave me pause to think that the ‘nest’ of the Resident Company, after a year of opportunity, ought to follow the Darwinian inevitability, and cast some of these artists free – out of the nest – and to harness some of the others to further possible growth and flourishing soon. To invite some new energies.

The Shipment

The VIVID LIVE program present THE SHIPMENT at the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House. Part of the VIVID Live program curated by Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed.

THE SHIPMENT is a production from the Young Jean Lee Theater Company. Young Jean Lee is the writer and director and is of Korean-American background. The reputation of her company in dealing with social-political issues and observations is quite and quietly growing around the theatre ‘fringes’ of the United States. THE SHIPMENT is a ‘variety’, vaudeville type program: dances, Stand –up comedy, short sketches, song and finally an extended playlet. It reminded me of the Twentieth Century Fox Television show of the early nineties IN LIVING COLOR put together by the Wayans brothers, Shawn and Marlon. This was followed in the mid-nineties by another show called THE WAYANS BROTHERS, of a similar ilk, that launched the careers of many comedians including Jamie Fox and James (Jim) Carrey (one of only two regular white performers).These two television shows created around a construction of song and dance (the much missed FLY GIRLS – Jennifer Lopez, introduced herself to my consciousness!!), sketches and extended ‘plays’ to satirise and expose and culturally provoke discussion and awareness on racial (black) - identity , stereotyping and prejudice. Television with vision and courage – imagine!!!

THE SHIPMENT opens with some mildly wry ‘dancing’ by two of the performers,(Choreography, Faye Driscoll) and then segues into an extremely provocative Stand-Up comedy routine by a charming but foully ‘potty-mouthed’ storm-trouper of cultural taboos, performed confidently by Douglas Scott Streater. Just how to receive, absorb and/or appreciate the material is a very interesting experience in an Australian context. Having lived in The USA this was a slightly familiar bombardment of laughter in a very sensitive tissue of barbed and uncomfortable truths of prejudice and attitudes. Those about me in the theatre seemed to be willing to laugh but were more than slightly unsure at how much or just what is ok to respond to. The recent/present Rugby League/Sport RACE scandals and the ‘comedy’ of the network football shows certainly surfaced in my consciousness. Theatre of stomach and brain churning dimensions – visceral and cause for self-assessment pause.

Following was a very clever sketch charting the career of a young man who wishes to be a hip hop /rock star – the early difficulties, limitation of talent,, the introduction to the drug world, the dealers , the customers , the victims, the dead, the nurturing to award winning fame by suspect managers etc. No props or setting, nothing but wittily observed characteristics of both character and culture were employed for a ‘dead on the mark’ creativity for believability and humour resulting in satiric accuracy of an astringent kind. A song, I was not sure of its intent, except of a demonstration of a cappella beauty and skill, was next.

Finally, a living room set (Set Design ,David Evans Morris; Costumes, Roxana Ramseur) is constructed by the crew and the five performers, Amelia Workman, Douglas Scott Streater, Jordan Barbour, Mikeal Ernest Jennings, and Prentice Onayemi play out a playlet of an almost TV sit-com recreation (think the Cosby Show) of a drink gathering of work mates in the apartment of one of them, that gradually spins into the familiar games of ‘get the guest’, that ends in a “gotcha” moment, well telegraphed, for the knowing, before it lands. It is hilarious and intermittingly uncomfortable, unsettling for its careering side tracks in genre.

The performances of this tightly wrought group of actors were excellent, impeccably rehearsed and disciplined – of consummate skill. The textual deliveries alongside physical comedy ‘reaction’ expertise of these artists are an object lesson of comedy technique. The ultra-sensitive contortions of Mr Jennings as Omar were delicious. The consistency of the dead pan choices of Mr Onayemi as the emotionally uptight Desmond, breathtakingly admirable for the sheer discipline and bravado. Ms Workman’s understated ‘politician’ Thomasina; Mr Streater’s disturbed host, Thomas, and the accidental guest ,Michael by Mr Barbour, demonstrated the expertise of the function of feeds and joke-landers of the comedy milieu.

Politically edgy, the night still resulted in a kind of elation that only comedy of such accuracy, both in the writing and acting can give. One left the space vividly charged with the energies of the world as a hopeful and optimistic possibility.

Two nights of comedy, this month, THE SHIPMENT, and the less skilfully performed BEDROOM FARCE up at the Darlinghurst Theatre, but still two nights, that on leaving the theatre, gave one the fillip to face the real world with some new zest and hope. Hmmmmm. More of it, I reckon.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Seagull

Siren Theatre Co and Sidetrack Theatre present THE SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Christopher Hampton.

I traveled by bus out to Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, not so far away. The bus(428), in fact, stops directly outside the venue. Inside the theatre, a converted assembly hall or drill hall of times past, the wooden interior walls are painted an attractive blue-grey black. The audience's seating is raked steeply into the rafters of the architecture. Later, in the interval, passing onto a wooden patio, amongst gas heating stands, as it is winter, to refresh with a drink or standing in a quaintly old fashioned foyer, looking at the photographs of the production, resplendent with improvised box office and drinks bar, an atmosphere of raw anticipation pervades.

It had just been a week of drenching rain and the atmosphere in the theatre spaces and outside, in the grounds of this Addison Rd. Community Centre, on this clear winter night, were a refreshing sense stimulant and the theatre building had the added, oddly, felicitous familiarity of the look of the wooden barn/house that one sees in the histories of the Moscow Art Theatre: the house at Pushkino where the Moscow Art-Accessible Theatre rehearsed, in its first summer of existence. THE SEAGULL being the last play of their season. Instead of the mooing of cows or other animal life on this 'country' estate in Marrickville, the flight noises of the overhead airport traffic buzzed down on us. My ‘romantic’ imagination was seduced pleasantly into a feeling of the beginning of a new enterprise, here, with Kate Gaul's first production of Chekhov and first production by her Siren Company in this venue. It was Opening night, 5th June.

It has been over a week since I saw the production. What lingers is the warm glow of Luiz Pampolha's lighting on the simple design choices of Ms Gaul and Andy McDonell - a large, oblong, grey picture frame curtained with a white light material, when opened to reveal a crushed white paper backcloth. The wooden floorboards of the hall covered simply with a few suggestive selected properties for each act: for instance, a large wooden oblong table in the last act, softly emanating a warmth, one end covered with the writing utensils of the young writer, Konstantin (Josh Wakely), the other end with the gaming implements of a family passing time with Lotto on a muted table cloth.

The almost continuous sound score composed by Daryl Wallis, a glassy, music-box Ravel like impressionistic conflagration of gentle "noise" (The music of Vladimir Rebikov, a contemporary of Chekhov is mentioned in the program notes) haunts my memory still. Sometimes appropriate, other times puzzling in its presence, but lingering. It, with the visual imaging of the set and lighting created an impressionistic mood that is soft and sentimentalizing -romantic. A 'romantic' not naturalistic conception (the costumes, also by Mr McDonell, not at all clear in the mixed styles, attracts attention unnecessarily - confusedly, in period and otherwise).

The performances in this production are dominated by Zoe Carides' reading of Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, an actress, protective of herself and her lover, the writer, Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin (Matt Edgerton). It is a witty reading conflicted with the pathetically human dilemma of an aging woman gripping fiercely onto the world of security that she has constructed for herself, attempting to balance a world of work in the theatre on the brink of decline; the possibility of debt in her near future; the demands of an aspiring playwright son banished to the family estate because of "causes for which,as they say, the editor accepts no responsibility" with "no qualifications, no money. not one kopeck"; and the wandering eye of her man, Trigorin, "the last page of her life" fixing on a young, bedazzled star-struck country girl, Nina Mikhailonvna Zarechnaya (Lizzie Schebesta) who is "prepared to suffer the resentment of my (her) family, poverty, disappointments, I'd live in a garret and eat nothing but black bread, and endure not being satisfied with my work and being aware of my own imperfections, but in return I'd ask for fame...real, spectacular fame." With the lightest of touches, Ms Carides sprinkles her machinations to survive as she wants with the complexity of conflicting life needs that are both comic and deeply empathetic. Chekhov played, in my estimation, with the "direct" life and "indirect" life of the author's text with insight and good judgement. This performance is reason enough to see this production.

The translation by Christopher Hampton (January, 2007 for the Royal Court Theatre with Kristin Scott Thomas as a spectacular Arkadina, by all reports) allows for Ms Gaul to lead her actors to a humorous reading, and much laughter on the opening night leavened this production,(Chekhov does sub-title his play: "A Comedy in Four Acts") that mostly plays for a superficial glance at the density of the material.

Most of the acting had not settled into an ensemble whole on the opening night. There was a tendency for the actors to play in self contained bubbles, serving the scene on the page directly, with barely an iota of comprehension of the sub-textual life or "indirect"/sub-textual clues of the writing, or if they did, had no ability to communicate it expressively.

After Ms Carides the next best "Chekhovian" performance was given by Genevieve Mooy as Polina. Josh Wakely seemed out of his depth as Konstantin, both technically and imaginatively. Lizzie Schebesta as Nina was pretty and well spoken with no real grasp of the dramatic arc of the character's journey drawn by Chekhov. The last act was played in a generalized, 'actressy', romantic haze of sentimentality. No real sense of the dramatic life experiences that she had endured in the year or so between the Act Three and Act Four. She looked trivially affected by the broken love affair with Trigorin, her pregnancy and then death of her child; a wretched working life in small roles on provincial stages where she is "acting" badly, enduring "travelling in third class to Yelets... with the peasants; and in Yelets (where) the culture - loving tradesmen will harass me (her) with their attentions." She finishes, "Life is ugly", under direction and design, I imagine, dressed in a shimmering dress with a glowing swathe of blonde hair, perched stagily on a bed with a pained Kostia, close by. Mr Edgerton's Trigorin, under powered and under imagined and expressed - underwhelming. If these three principle characters are not galvanised with histories and psychological insight then there is a default in the possibility of the full experience of this great play. However, even when it is played as vaudville as Katherine Cullen does, executing her choices as Masha as a heavily made up “clown”, eye lashes and liner, poking her head out between the joins of the stage curtain, wearing a school girl hat in act one, and then giving a brilliant playing, with full-on theatrical pyrotechnics, the act three drunk scene, to capture a round of applause as she exits, the play is still resilient to this battering and lapse of judgement to have a hold on our attention (One was driven to ask which of these two characters, Masha or Nina, had aspirations for the stage career as a life choice? In this production the talent for theatrics seemed to emanate from Masha).

Most of the acting by the Siren Theatre Company reveals the life of the scenes as they occur not much more. The company tend to supply a life for the characters on the page but fail to capture the lives of these people of Russia. From where they have come, the lives they are leading, captured momentarily by Chekhov in each of his four acts and where they are going is not explored at all. The reality of famine and restive, looting peasants behind the arguments between the estate owner, Sorin, and his manager, Shamrayev, over the necessity for the "barking dogs" to guard "against thieves breaking into the barn" in the famous quarrel scene of Act Two is passed off as a kind of comic turn, instead of a trenchant need for Shamrayev, as vital as his blessed memory of the upstaging of the great, Silva by a member of the local choir.

It is a great play and like my recent experience at the Darlinghurst Theatre of Alan Ayckbourn's BEDROOM FARCE, another great play, where the production did not meet the potential of the writing, The SEAGULL is mercurial enough to still reward the audience.

The play's chief subjects are art and love, never far from each other thematically. A play with fifty “poods” of love. All, alas, unrequited. Medvedenko (Kade Greenland) loves Masha, Masha loves Kostia, Kostia loves Nina, Nina loves Trigorin, Arkadina loves Trigorin, Trigorin loves.....(himself?). Shamrayev (Monroe Reimers) loves(?) Polina, Polina loves Dorn (Robert Alexander), Dorn loves… A comedy, indeed!

Anton Chekhov wrote for the theatre in a new way. He wrote about life that he hoped would be lived on stage as real people. He was a contemporary writer. He wrote what he saw about him for the theatre with the same insight and intelligence as his famous short stories. In reaction to the histrionics usually seen on the Russian stage, he attempted to put on stage day to day existence.

A new way of acting was required and at the heart of the success of this great play, after a disastrously misconceived production in 1896 at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, to which Chekhov complained "They are acting too much. It must be done simply. Just as if in life. It must be done as if they spoke about it every day"... From the book Nemirovich-Dantchenko, MY LIFE IN THE THEATRE: "This did not mean that the actors were overacting. It meant that they were acting feelings, images, words"; Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and Stanislavski created a mise en scene and practice of rehearsal for the Moscow Art version in 1898 that was based in the intuition and expression of the underlife, the beneath the line intimations of the characters. Great care about everyday naturalism in the scenery, props, lighting, sound and acting was taken. It revolutionised the theatre techniques of the Russian stage and subsequently the world.

And still, today, the Chekhov repertoire, especially the four great last plays, THE SEAGULL, UNCLE VANYA, THREE SISTERS, and THE CHERRY ORCHARD throw a challenge to all artists who attempt to explore them. Some actors declare that to play only the works of Shakespeare and Chekhov would be enough for a lifetime. Ms Gaul after a wonderfully brave and, to my experience, successful production of RICARD III, last year, now tests her mettle with the Russian. This is, relatively, a less than successful attempt, but one still worth capturing. Practice in this atmosphere of character and relationships will grow from experience to experience. Chekhov requires intuition from all the artists and the ability then to infect each other and the audience with that insight, it is mysterious and ephemeral, but when caught, as it was caught in the UNCLE VANYA by the Russian Company from St.Petersburg at the Sydney Festival a few years ago it is pure theatrical magic. Sometimes life-changing.

Here from the Siren Theatre Company in the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, I carry, several weeks after the event, a memory of my night spent with them, and although I was unhappy with most of it, it lingers. Still. Something happened. Check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Our Town

Scott Morfee Jean Doumanian Tom Wirtshafter Ted Snowdon Eagle Productions Dena Hammerstein/Pam Pariseau The Weinstein Company Burnt umber Productions present OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder. at the BARROW STREET THEATRE, New York.

This award winning Off-Broadway production of OUR TOWN is playing in the Barrow Street Theatre which is part of a local community centre called Greenwich House. "Since the beginning, Greenwich House has been a pioneer social service agency and committed to the arts as a dynamic stimulus for cultural enrichment and individual growth." To buy one's ticket at the theatre, one clambers past prams and strollers, women with young babies and children, older citizens waiting for an appointment - either medical or government, and patients attending drug and or alcohol recovery sessions, to a small window looking into a room where a couple of people are talking and seemed to be in the business of running a theatre box office. Pleasantly and with a kind of old fashioned patience and generosity I am sold a ticket for the matinee performance. All in all this is a very gentle entry to the world of our town as Mr Wilder might see it today. A live, functioning community of very ordinary people.

The performance space feels like a converted small town hall. Seats surround three sides and to reach my seat, I cross the playing area which simply has two small, square, solid wooden tables with non-descript chairs. A single row of chairs for an audience sit close to the playing space and behind them a wider alleyway spreads to the feet of the raked seating for the rest of the audience. (Scenic Design Michelle Spadaro).

When we all seem to have gathered, a man dressed casually and much like most of the audience steps forward and begins “This play is called ‘Our Town’. It was written by Thornton Wilder...” He then introduces the producers and the actors of this production and then details the circumstances of the town, verbally and gesturally laying it out for us and gradually draws the characters into life. They too dressed much like us (Costume Design, Alison Siple) begin to enact simple activities of rising into the day. This gentleman known as the Stage Manager (Michael Shannon) laconically, ironically, gently acts as our guide through a twelve year history of the people in this town. From births to schooling to marriage and death we meet a panoply of ordinary folk.

Some claim this is a great American play…
“Possibly the great American play” says David Margulies, in the Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of the text:
“…Like many works of great art, its greatness can be deceptive: a bare stage, spare language, archetypal characters… Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind, Wilder wrote, not in 'scenery'. …Indeed he begins the play with: “No curtain. No scenery.”

A bare stage, in this production both set and costumes almost literally so: none.

The last act is set in the town cemetery and the staging here is simply people seated on chairs much like ours, and the spread of the actors cross the stage and up into the audience body, all three sides. I felt that I was sitting like the actors in “My own grave-cemetery plot”. The actors are so simply present and so real that it is both discomforting and wondrous. One of the actors, an aged gentleman with a head and disposition as powerful as the Easter Island statuary (Jason Yachanin), fascinates me for the sheer ordinariness and accuracy of the aesthetic. Transcendent belief occurs. A surrender to one's own committed imagination and feeling.

Years ago I saw a most remarkable production of THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA at the New Theatre (Directed by Mary-Anne Gifford) and whatever the strengths and weaknesses are of that organisation, it has often the felicity to cast actors that are so much like the physical life/truths of the population that they purport to represent, that their sometimes untrained offers transcend the usual theatrical necessities and capture your imagination in a way that all the whiz bang CCTV gimmicks of the major companies cannot do. So it is here. Then in a spectacular ‘coup de theatre’, the Stage manager pulls back a black masking curtain to reveal a detailed period kitchen, smells of breakfast and all the frosty snow-scape outside through the window as the dead Emily Webb is granted a wish to visit her family one last time, before resting in her plot like the others. The family appear in full period costume and the aching pain of the spiritual Emily as she sees the everyday of breakfast is such that she pleads:

“Oh, Mama, just look one minute as though you really saw me......I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?” "No", replies the Stage Manager, "The saints and the poets, maybe - they do some." "Were you happy?" asks one of the dead. "No," Emily replies"...I should have listened to you. That's all human beings are! Just blind people."

The greatness of this play is the exploration of the “cosmic in the commonplace.” Writing novels as well as literature for the theatre, Wilder is a radical artist working on themes and theatrical experimentations that engaged other artists like Priestly and Pirandello. (He is a winner of three Pulitzer prizes, including one for this play.) The power is in the utter simple, undecorated observations that he invites his audience to imagine for themselves. The experience of this production by David Cromer is so disarmingly simple matching the vision of Mr Wilder without sentimentality or nostalgia that its profundity catches you unaware and moves one to a spiritual dimension unexpected but healthful in its affect.

Some of the reading of the characters by some of the actors causes one to hesitate a complete embrace unequivocably, but the overall tone and commitment of the production's vision by the company ultimately sweeps even those quibbles away.

It is a remarkable experience. Remarkable for the very considered choices and the apparent courage to trust Mr Wilder completely that Mr Cromer and his fellow collaborators undertake. Maybe this is the great American Classic. The STC will present this play later this year. There is much to challenge this view in the canon of the American Theatre literature. Here in Sydney, Eugene O'Neill's great LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT hopefully will give some cause to debate.

Next Fall

Elton John and David Furnish, Barbara Manocherian, Richard Willis, Tom Smedes, Carole L. Haber / Chase Mishkin, Ostar, Anthony Barrile, Michael Palitz, Bob Boyett, James Spry/ Catherine Schreiber, Probo Productions and Roy Furman in association with NAKED ANGELS present NEXT FALL by Geoffrey Nauffts at The Helen Hayes Theatre, New York.

The relationship between an atheist, Adam(Patrick Breen) and his Christian boyfriend, Luke(Patrick Heusinger) forms the central dilemma in this light weight play. What was interesting for me was the possible clash of the value systems that these two men might have. However, ultimately it is treated in a relatively superficial way and the sentimental struggle about whether the truth can /should be told to a trenchant believer like Luke’s father, Butch (Cotter Smith) at the hospital bed of a dying Luke, the homophobia of the family and the understanding of the friends becomes the thin thread of interest.

There are lots of light jokes and over the evening, the cliché of character types and character sit-com humour dialogue takes us on to an ultimately sentimental ending. I have to admit, that despite my unhappiness with the quality of the play, I had a little cry. But if this play represents – as some of the American press have claimed – the best new American play of the Broadway season then they are in trouble.

The acting is of a very relaxed television truthfulness and played to win you theatrically if not completely believably. Nothing to take home and cherish as a bench-mark here. The Set is fairly bland and looks cheap jack (Wilson Chin) in its affects. (Director, Sheryl Kaller.)

A few years ago Terrence McNally’s LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! was taken to Broadway and won a swagger of prizes. I wondered if it was because it was a gay play and wow how interesting that we have become so liberal to see this type of play on a Broadway stage. “How progressive we are.” I have similar cynical reservations about this work. Cute but dull. Amusing but boring. Maybe we should commission Mr Albee to write a gay themed play and we might have something to celebrate. NEXT FALL is not good enough, really. Especially when considering the cost of the ticket. If it is a gay themed play you want to see then find THE TEMPERAMENTALS. A much better time is to be found there… But more of that another time.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


The Shubert organization and (twenty-five producers !!!) present The Headlong Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and Royal Court Theatre Production of ENRON by Lucy Prebble at the BROADHURST THEATRE, Broadway.

ENRON by 30 year old English writer, Lucy Prebble, traces the trajectory of that company, "Enron from its heady early days with Kenneth L. Lay as its avuncular founder to its rise with Jeffrey K. Skilling as a seductive division head who eventually became chief executive, to its demise when various schemes by the chief financial officer, Andrew S. Farstow, and others to disguise the company's massive debts unraveled." [1].

From the epilogue to the play first performed in July 2009, almost a year after the Global financial Crisis of September, 2008, (dealt with in the David Hare play THE POWER OF YES presented in London in September,2009 and at Belvoir Company B last month):

BOARD: When Enron was declared bankrupt,it was over thirty billion dollars in debt.
SECURITY OFFICER: Days before employees were told to leave,the latest round of bonus cheques was handed out to Enron executives, more than fifty-million dollars.
EMPLOYEE: That week, twenty thousand employees lost their jobs.
SENATOR: The financial practises pioneered at Enron are now widespread throughout the business world.
BUSINESS ANALYST: Over the last year and a half, the US Government has pumped ten trillion dollars into the financial system to try and keep it from collapse.
SLOMAN: Counting that amount at a dollar a second would take more than three hundred and twenty thousand years.

The collapse of Enron ought to have rung warning signals to the financial world and the 'general' big world of government, but as reported in the exhaustive book TOO BIG TO FALL by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Allen Lane, 2009) it was more comfortable and necessary for the Wall Street 'warriors' and perhaps government to ignore it. Catastrophically, as David Hare's later work indicates the financial 'wizards' stayed at it and are still at it. This play's timeliness was recognised in London, but my impression sitting in the Broadhurst Theatre in New York was that the US public, as represented by my fellow audience, is still in a bewildered state of incredulity and disbelief that such perfidy is endemic to one of the pillars of their culture.

This is the same production team as in London but with an American cast. Rupert Goold, whose work we saw at the Sydney festival, SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, is in directorial charge. (In better charge than the work at the Seymour centre last January, I must remark?!!!) And in finding that the world of the stock market is as imaginative in its use of metaphor as the theatre: "The notion of a company collapsing is a metaphor, obviously a company doesn't literally collapse." says Ms Prebble, she has creatively found a way to tell her story without being boring: colour and noise and jokes and musical numbers, choreography and all! The appearance of "raptors" in business suits one of the joyfully delightful creations in an otherwise hair raising revelatory examination of the world we 'bank' on.

Mr Goold is her inventive partner in crime. In an article by Helen Shaw in the TIME OUT NEW YORK magazine (issue 758) he says that Enron has "some sense of Neil Labute's IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, some Kevin Smith and some nods to Tarantino." He layers such influences under the play's dominant visual theme: the freak show. In the circus-like atmosphere of the energy bubble, Lehmann Brothers pops up as a Siamese-twin act, rubber-stamping accounting firm Arthur Andersen yammers as a ventriloquist's dummy, and the titular company never stops moving." When Lucy Prebble's stage direction commands "Party like its 1999", Goold gives us heady, funky choreographed numbers (Scott Ambler) with lightsabers and laser lighting effects (Mark Henderson).

The ploys and politics of the business of Enron are entertainingly revealed and it is both fascinating and repulsive. Norbert Leo Butz playing Jeffery Skilling is magnificent in an extremely dynamically taxing role from fat man to unrepentant professional "killer" slammed behind bars - this is a classic tragedy. He is ably supported by Stephen Kunken as Fastow, Marin Mazzie as Claudia Roe, his sexy and canny rival for power, and Gregory Lizin as Kenneth Lay. All of the company of actors in a cast of seventeen actors are engaged busily in the telling of this tale. Not all of them, on the night I saw it, still in preview, comfortable with the lightning changes in tone, style and directorial strategies required of them.

The set and costume design by Anthony Ward, clever and pragmatic, supported by a very busy video and projection design by Jon Driscoll. Lighting by Mark Henderson.

Mr Butz as Skilling opens the play with this prescient speech:

"Enron Online will change the market. It is creating an open, transparent marketplace that replaces the dark, blind system that existed. It is real simple. If you want to do business, you push the button. We're trying to change the world."

At the end of this woe filled play, after he has been sentenced to twenty-four years and four months in prison for his corporate crimes he says directly to us:

"I'm not a bad man. I'm not an unusual man. I just wanted to change the world." In court he has said, "Took advantage of regulations?....That's what we do. In business, you buy something at one price, you sell it at a higher one and what's in between, that's your advantage. Which you TAKE. That's how the world WORKS. If you want an objective morality present in every contract, you're living in a dream… So when you ask, 'Did we take ADVANTAGE of that?'... you know what I hear? I hear, 'Do you make a living, do you breathe in and out, are you a man? 'And I know that the only difference between me and the people judging me is they weren't smart enough to do what we did." He has the last line of the play, looking back at all that has happened he simply says: "All humanity is here. There's Greed, there's Fear, Joy, Faith , Hope… And the greatest of these ...is money."

This was the best new play I saw in New York, on this visit. It is a confronting and intense experience and I can imagine for some of the New York audience, as it was for me, a very saddening and infuriating one. Ms Prebble and Mr Goold have produced a bitter pill with a sugar coating that has us entertained while learning, and laughing ...right up until we get home or our hotel and turn on the television news.

I hope a Sydney audience gets to see it.

1. Alastair Gee, "DRAMA! MUSIC! FINANCIAL SHENANIGANS!", New York Times , February 17th 2010.
3. Andrew Ross Sorkin, "TOO BIG TO FALL", Allen Lane, 2009.
4. Lucy Prebble "ENRON", Methuen drama, 2009.

ACO: Romatic Symphony

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present Tour Four ROMANTIC SYMPHONY at Angel Place, Sydney.

The first piece presented in this concert was by contemporary composer Jonny Greenwood. Most of us would recognize Mr Greenwood as the lead guitarist of the band Radiohead. Mr Greenwood is, however,no stranger to classical music, early influences have included Messiaen, Penderecki and Ligeti and he started out as a viola player. He "has been building a career as an orchestral composer, both in film soundtracks (BODYSONG, NORWEGIAN WOOD, THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and through an ongoing association with the BBC Concert Orchestra. From a BBC Orchestra's commission came the work played in this concert: POPCORN SUPERHET RECEIVER (2005, revised 2007)."

"The score is a maze of glissandos and tremolos, punctuated by slapped, plucked, and bowed syncopated transients, with a distinctly rock-influenced section" (from concert program notes). Indeed, it is when the orchestra were required to hold and play their instruments (Guarneri, Guadagnini et al.) as if they were guitars, that I felt a wry smirk cross my face. Is he taking the mickey with these orchestra players? Whatever, the piece was stimulating and quirky and enjoyable to attend to.Others thought so too in my audience. The piece in 2006 won the Radio 3 Listener's Award at the British Composer Awards. "The music was subsequently adapted for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film THERE WILL BE BLOOD." (from concert program notes) Ah ha, that is why it was slightly familiar? Must rent the movie soon!!!!

The second piece was the Schubert Symphony No.8 in B minor,D759,"Unfinished". The orchestra augmented with brass, woodwind and timpani, this was a very pleasant hearing of a work not known to me.

After the interval, Brahms Symphony No.1 in C minor, OP.68 (1876), in four movements with the enlarged orchestra, was given. Again,a new work in my slowly growing concert going education, and usually,I have a hard time appreciating the music of Brahms with full concentration but in this instant the orchestra gave a scintillating, and in the final movement,a rousing and excited performance, such that we cheered and stamped our feet with a warm glow of affected emotions. Brahms is regarded as one of the great composers of what is called the ROMANTIC music. This symphony came in the middle of his endeavors, 1876; (b.1833 - d.1897) It was some twenty years in the preparation, according to the musicologists. Apparently much influenced by his regard for the past in music composition he was branded a musical conservative and there is certainly sound connections to the Beethovian heritage. But. this thrillingly stood on its own as a score to hear again.

A crowded concert platform took many calls under the care of Richard Tognetti. A satisfying night, traveling aurally from the Greenwood contemporary "avant-garde Romanticism" to the historic great of romanticism: Brahms, via Schubert.

Bedroom Farce

Stella Green productions in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents BEDROOM FARCE by Alan Ayckbourn.

BEDROOM FARCE by Alan Ayckbourn give us four couples and three bedrooms. The three bedrooms are presented simultaneously on stage (Set Designer, Tom Bannerman) and the action flows in and out from one to the other. On the left is Ernest (John Turnbull) and Delia's (Jeanie Drynan) comfortable bedroom in their large Victorian house. In the middle bedroom, Malcolm (Adam Cleland) and Kate (Lizzie Mitchell) are happily nest building in their newly acquired brick terrace house. And in the right bedroom are Jan (Celia Bickmore-Hutt) and her incapacitated husband Nick (Richard Cornally). The domestic harmony in each one is shattered by visits from the neurotic Susannah (Megan Alston) and her insecure and emotionally immature husband, Trevor (Mitch Firth).

With over seventy full length plays to his credit Mr Ayckbourn is regarded as the master of the satiric observation of the middle class marriage and the relationships that sustain them. Comedy of Manners tipping into farce with often a dark tinge of understated tragedy - a kindly objectivity that casts a dark shadow over the laughter. Some have compared his objectives to those of his American fellow writer Neil Simon.

But "though they are theatrical craftsman of great skill, they work in quite different ways, Simon is the master of the one-liner joke…", laughter in Ayckbourn's plays "comes from what characters do because of who they are and because they are at the mercy of each other, and of circumstance" (Holt, 1999). It is interesting that the Simon background comes from that of sketch revue for television, scriptwriting, and the focus was on the words; whereas the Ayckbourn background is as a director, and as such relishes the visual action and actors. He insists that he is as much a theatre director as playwright.

In this production of this cleverly written frothy farce of manners, the Director (Byron Kaye) has led his team to mostly, mastering, with his company, the technical niceties of timing and vocal placement. But still the rhythmic structure of the comedy is not always in synchronisation, and especially in the start, there is an awkward and clumsy sense of musical inaccuracy and so fudges of the comic communication undermine the writer's intent and skill.

Mr Cleland and especially Ms Mitchell have the securest instinct and confidence in their responsibilities and are a delight with the light touch of whimsy that the material requires. Mr Turnbull has the right insight and drollness for Ernest but is not musically balanced by the too naturalistic delivery and concerns of an underpowered and technically unfocused Ms Drynan, his principal partner. The other actors vary in their hold on the 'score' and depending with whom they are in "action" with, succeed more or less. In the work of Ayckbourn there is a necessity for a great precision in the use of language.

Comedy is the fiercest form the actor works in and the most demanding taskmaster - it does not suffer the under-prepared and is merciless. The pain of the mistimed line or badly placed tone, in comedy, is instant knowledge for the actor. When the 'hit' is accurate, it is sublime, the reward is instant laughter, but the miss is palpably a public agony and conscious humiliation to endure. The great comic masterpieces demand well-primed instruments to achieve full potential.

But 'sound' plotting is only the start of his skills for this playwright.

"As Michael Billington points out, Alan Ayckbourn is primarily a visual pllaywright. He understands the primacy of dramatic action which is a narrative of action - not words. What is funny is most often what the audience sees as much as what it hears. His scripts are skilful constructions of both elements; to read only the ill timed or thoughtless remark, without visualizing the ironic consequences for all the participants onstage, is to ignore the real strength of a playwright who is also one of his generation's most experienced theatre directors" (Holt, 1999).

Another problem of this production, then, is in the lack of adequate time that the director allows for the visual absorption of the language and activities to be explicated by his actors, for the audience. The work is rushed and is essentially, verbally biased. Comic illustration of the subtextual pain is not given adequate opportunity to be developed by his actors, or to be seen by his audience. Only part of the play's potential is given.

In another sequence, Mr Ayckbourn writes that the lights are merely raised in each room in turn in a sort of resume of the plot so far. He uses a pattern of lighting states to highlight the farcical nature of the antics of the couples, "a 'coup de theatre' occasioned with a minimum of dialogue by Mr Ayckbourn's understanding of the comic pictures he has contrived..." (Holt, 1999). Punctuated with proper timing the potential for laughter is immense. In this production no such sensitivity is consistently utilised. The stage size may have presented a problem (the beds in two of the rooms are oddly undersized) and so the action may be squashed, and/or the time in the technical rehearsal has not been sufficient to solve the visual exquisites that the playwright has given.

Last year the London and New York audience were given an apparently, wonderful three nights in the theatre with a very fine and funny production of Mr Ayckbourn's THE NORMAN CONQUESTS. (This playful trilogy of interlocking plays had a remarkable production in Sydney eons ago - Tony Llwellyn-Jones and Jennifer Hagan amongst the cast, I fondly remember). While this production of Mr Ayckbourn's skilful play does not fulfil it's entire potential, it is still a diverting and more than amusing alternative to the recent serious and worthy repertoire in our theatre spaces in Sydney. Practice does make perfect and with time these comic techniques may become more polished. Certainly a pleasant night in the theatre.

One has to reach back to TRAVESTIES to recall a laughter-drenched night in the theatre. And one recalls the mastery of the direction of Tom Stoppard's TRAVESTIES by Richard Cottrell last year for the Sydney Theatre Company at the Opera House and yearn for his deft skills to be brought to bear for our delectation again soon. The directors who have this gift and discipline are rare indeed.


Michael Holt, "ALAN AYCKBOURN - Writers and Their Work", Northcote House Publishers, 1999.

Alan Ayckbourn, "THE CRAFTY ART OF PLAYMAKING", Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Richard III

Melbourne Theatre Company presents RICHARD III by William Shakespeare at the Sumner Theatre, Melbourne.

This is my third meeting with the Duke of Gloucester- Richard III in the last couple of years. Firstly, the extraordinary one hour ‘reduction’ created by Pamela Rabe and Benedict Andrews, to serve that Director’s particular agenda for his vision of the great cycle of the historic rivalry between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the Sydney Theatre Company’s THE WAR OF THE ROSES, based on Shakespeare’s eight plays, where The Duke was played as a petulant brat- “a monstrous clown” cavorting in a child’s playground horribly committing acts of violence in an atmosphere of a world of raining ash, without restraint. Then to the fluid ‘form’ exploits of Kate Gaul’s, Siren and MakebeLive Production at Carriageworks with six actors, including a splendid exploration by Thomas Campbell as Richard III in May of last year. I have also treasured memories of Anthony Sher’s great ground – breaking performance in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in the mid-eighties, on tour in Melbourne, alongside the films and performances of Laurence Olivier, Ian MacKellen and Al Pacino.

This play is obviously infinitely attractive to the artists of the theatre and like all of Shakespeare’s work adaptable as a contemporary writer. (refer to Jan Kott’s excellent book “Shakespeare Our Contemporary”).

Simon Phillips in his notes in the program tells on his re-reading of the text, of being arrested by a tiny speech by a Scrivener, who in writing up an indictment for treason, that one of the characters, Hastings, has supposedly committed, is struck by the incongruous impossibility of the timing and therefore truth: “Who is so gross, that cannot see this palpable device?” (Act3, Scene 6). “For the scrivener the trumped-up charge was a sign of the times, but, the surprise is it’s a sign of ours, too. Choose your own blatant political swindle from recent times: Stalin’s show trials, Joh’s gerrymander, Mugabe’s faux election or that skulduggery in Florida in 2000. Everyone saw through these palpable devices, yet they still got away with it. Other treasons – children overboard or sexed up WMD’s reports – take us longer to wise up to, but do the same damage.” Mr Phillips goes on to say “The political manoeuvring in RICHARD III strikes me as shockingly up to the minute, up to the latest headline… It leaps off the page like some pacey political thriller, and it’s for this reason I decided on a contemporary setting. A certain vital energy flows down our modern corridors of power, an energy captured well by TV series such as the neo-Shakespearean THE WEST WING. In Shakespeare’s day power came dressed in ermine and purple, topped by a crown; now it wears a well-cut, single-breasted suit, but the dynamism is the same. Today’s power rushes from conference to conference; it cuts deals; it plots against opposing factions; it frames its desires in weaselly legalese and hunts for loopholes; it tells the convenient lie and blows the dog whistle; and it unashamedly wraps itself in the flag and in warm, comforting pieties. All this is in RICHARD III.”

Taking this contemporary edge and inspiration Mr Phillips and his Set Designer Shaun Gurton have concocted a brilliant design configuration of a great house/ palace/corporation that spins tirelessly on a magnificent revolve to reveal deftly apt environments with efficient and telling details of unique identification for the scenes in this Elizabethan play to translate into a thrilling and frighteningly recognisable world that we all live in, today. A hospital with its waiting room, an autopsy room, a lavish dinner hall, a dingy corridor, a quiet but comfortably disarming room for conspiracy conversations with drinks and moody lighting, a media conference room (with the support of some video and live broadcast technique, Josh Burns) and a palace that is being ransacked by rebellious population in the culminating scenes of the “battle-fields’ of Shakespeare’s Bosworth. The set design is a star of this production but never intrusive, wonderfully sewn into the action and atmospherics of the production needs. No grand display for its own sake but totally submissive to the conception of the play by Mr Phillips and Mr Shakespeare. The lighting by Nick Schlieper vitally collaborative with the vision of the concept. The composer, Ian McDonald, no less clever in his blatant and subtle musical interpolations – both of the extremes of the production need met skilfully. The Costume designs by Esther Marie Hayes no less brilliantly conceived but also seemingly magically pragmatic to address lightning changes for the 17 or so actors covering 26 individual roles in different states of living- celebration, mourning; nursing staff, conference attendees etc. It seems great detail planning was invested in this work and the result is magnificent. (The technical rehearsals must have been horrendous!!!!) With all of this background support the actors are viscerally challenged and, mostly, beautifully calibrated to meet and utilise the inspiration about them.

Much has already been said about Ewen Leslie’s performance as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, by others. I can only add my admiration and awe: Here is an actor so centred, so immersed in the great psychological needs and machinations of this character; so fit vocally, and, miraculously, physically, so daring in the plumbing of the darkness of the night of his soul to explicate this horrendous figure of power, so familiar to us down the corridors of history, too often in the very recent times, that in the power house energy that he pumps out in scene after scene, he floats many of the other performances to levels of revelation of both character (and skill) that is, only on reflection, after the event of the performance, that one fully appreciates the dexterity and generosity of what we have just witnessed. Here is an actor of some note. And gratefully he is young and has, hopefully, time to continue to delight us. Mr Leslie has been quoted as to his preference and love of the theatre. Let us hope and pray that the theatrical powers that be, continue to provide this artist with the work that will continue to challenge him to a fuller flowering of his gift and talent. The tragedy for some of our promising artists is that the work is often not regular enough or challenging enough to deliver these ‘titans’ to the full power of their potentials. I have a list of actors that would benefit with more constant challenge and would, given the vision of this production team, could, develop a consistency of performance exemplified in the great European theatres of our times. (Mr Leslie will soon be seen in THE TRIAL at the Malthouse, Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company – a Co-produced production with ThinIce – no pressure, intended, of course.)

Mr Leslie is surrounded by a magnificent array of women, Jennifer Hagan (Queen Margaret), Alison Whyte (Queen Elizabeth), Deidre Rubenstein (Duchess of York) and the volatility of the play sparks with the power glow of an atomic explosion as the female of the species re-acts to this truly ugly male. Ms Hagan’s poisonous madness and white hot power harnessed with laser like accuracy, Ms Whyte, pathetic, and cruelly tortured in the great Act 4-Scene 4 of mounting maternal horror and the masterful slow burning of Ms Rubenstein to her magnificent rage to Richard’s face – the vocal pyrotechnics shaped by this actress culminating in the indelible declaration of “NEVER” delivered at a scale rarely heard or seen on the Australian stage is thrilling. Zahra Newman in the role of Catesby, here translated into a possible ‘Condoleezza Rice’ advisor, is also terrific with the armoury of effects that Mr Phillips has given her in an extrapolated role reading. She plays both efficiency as the agent of Richard’s plans, but, in counterpoint to the raging royals above, displays a dismaying and mounting despair and horror, subtly but concretely for us. Humphrey Bower was more than impressive as Buckingham; Ian Bliss as George, Duke of Clarence, tantalising in the brief but startling choices in his work; Nicholas Bell as Stanley, and Bert Labonte as an accumulatively interesting Richmond (an Obama touch) are also notable.

My only reservations, lies in the relative lack of directorial detail with some of the rest of the cast. All have the “goods”’ but not all have been helped to refine or develop their opportunities. Most of the faulty impressions are really tawdry technique details but they stain, slightly, the complete ‘masterpiece’ that this work could be. Perhaps in the end, that cruel tyrant: “TIME”, prevented Mr Phillips or his team of assistants from attending to the obvious necessities. In an ensemble, it is not only the great that cause the metering out of the ultimate ‘wreaths of honour’ but the consistency of all the ‘cogs’ in the wheel. From the greatest to the least – in the assessment of art it is the whole picture that is balanced and appreciated. Measure the success by the weakest links. Here there were weaknesses. It is one of the wonders of my recent National theatre experiences that the work in all areas of the enterprises I saw, were impeccably strong, or at least gave the impression of such. All areas of the collaborators, impeccable. Astounding.

This is still a great achievement. A friend, I admire and respect enormously, with great knowledge of these interests, confided that he felt that this was the BEST Australian production of Shakespeare that he had seen. I wish, I hope that this work augurs well for a near future of equal achievement. If the Bell Shakespeare recent HAMLET was a measure stick, for me, of that company’s work than this is certainly a measure of The Melbourne Theatre Company under the helm of Simon Phillips. Here is a salute for much more in the future. A gauntlet of proffered greatness has been thrown. May it be taken up.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hole in the Wall

Mogo Zoo present HOLE IN THE WALL at Performance Space, Carriageworks.

The production that I saw at B Sharp the other night, PARLOUR SONG, was followed by HOLE IN THE WALL at Performance Space presented by Mogo Zoo. Mogo Zoo seems to be a spin-off group from MY DARLING PATRICIA, with some of the same artists working together in this newer collective: Claire Britton and Halcyon Macleod, for example; although this company has also shown in Sydney another “performance, installation” called THE TENT, (see LIVEWORKS). I put together the coincidence of PARLOUR SONG and HOLE IN THE WALL because both deal with the sameness of some domestic lives and a yearning for something else. They seemed to resonate with each other for me. I was also reminded of the Malvina Reynolds song from my youth, LITTLE BOXES:

And the people in the houses
All go to university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.
And on it goes…

The audience meet in the foyer and the production manager, Jenn Blake gives us necessary OH&S warnings about the interactive nature of the performance we are about to see, experience! A group of about 36 or so are then divided into equal parts and we are guided to a back door in the Bay 20 space at Carriage works. Nine of us enter a white door into a square box with period-feeling wallpaper of white flowers, green stemmed and leafed, on all four walls. Even the barred double window is covered with the pattern. Claustrophobic and yet familiar. There is a roof to the room with a white pill shape light fitting, that works (Lighting, Mirabelle Wouters). ( Set Design Claire Britton, Matt Prest and Danny Egger).

The door closes and the room starts to move. Instantly, we are all quite disorientated and collectively laugh, hold each other and advise how best to navigate the journey we are on. The walls travel across the performance floor and sometimes turn on an axis, we study the floor or touch the walls to manage our equilibrium. Much hilarity masks our anxiety. Finally, we stop and after a time the light in our room blacks out and we listen to a recorded voice regaling us about the ground and the holes that can be made in it that could be our grave.

In the dark, I anxiously looked in the gloom to see if the floor was solid, not wishing to end in a premature grave. Instead of the floor moving, a wall does, split in the centre, it opens, hinging into a space where a double bed and a young woman lies (Claire Britton). But more startling is the sight of three other, perfectly identical boxes that surround or box in the bed, all filled with the rest of the audience we had left way back in the foyer. Little boxes, little boxes…

After some noisy behaviour with the young woman wrestling between the mattresses and the bed foundation she is joined by a pyjamed young man (Matt Prest) who calms her, makes the bed, and with her beside him, drift into a vocalised dream filled sleep, until a “giant” is summoned from their unconscious and thunders us back into darkness and hurt ear drums and a re-configuration of the walls of the little boxes.

Over the next 50 minutes or so, the walls close to form other spaces in the ‘house’: a hall way, a lounge room etc in which different scenarios are enacted by the couple. Seemingly trapped in these little boxes in the bigger box of their domestic home, the frustrations, aspirations and longings of the couple are explored (Text: Halcyon Macleod) and witnessed by us who sometimes are invisible to the couple or sometimes addressed as participants in an event in the house. At one time a flown bed is used as a screen on which a thoroughly delightful animation of a couple and the suburban sameness of the neighbourhood lives is played out (Animation: Claire Britton, Matt Prest, James Brown) – (this, for me, is the most intriguing and exciting part of the performance).

As the performance went on I was not sure of the quality or insights of the text. I had time to vacillate and debate my dilemma as the performances by Matt Prest and particularly Claire Britton were played in a style that was presentational and tended to overwrought shouting and superficially engaged ownership. (Screaming and shouting at full capacity is not a consistently useful choice to communicate with.) I was pushed to a disassociated state -observer, and horribly, assessor, of the technique employed. Directed by Hallie Shellam, I could not discern whether my gathering alienation from the work was the text or the performance of the two actors. I remembered my other experience with Ms Britton and Matt Prest, so, I came, subsequently, to consider the performance choices to be the cause of my disaffection. It seemed to me either Ms Britton is a fairly inexperienced actor with no real solid craft skills, that is, vocal and physical technique, enormous straining instrument tensions were alarmingly observed or that the company had striven for a slacker/grunge/hipster art invocation of the nonchalant amateur, that is reflected in so many contemporary art forms, particularly in the visual arts, music and pop culture presently (i.e.VICE Magazine). Matt Prest seemed to be, mostly, in a much more secure place as a performance artist, relatively, in charge of his technical instrument and so much more absorb-able (the party sequence, for instance).

I query this because, I have great admiration for the imaginative and inventively executed work of this company, MOGO ZOO and also MY DARLING PATRICIA. The work of both these companies combines so many creative elements from so many disciplines of performance, the work represents, for me, possible directions in theatre experience for the Australian audience that tantalise with anticipatory bliss, like no other form. But what has been a nagging flaw, in my experience of the work, for my full, unequivocal embracement of the works, e.g. THE TENT or NIGHT GARDEN is the relative coarse, 'slacker' approach to skill in the ‘acting’ of the texts. This nearly always undermines the full potential of the impact of the work, for me. I nearly always leave the performance behind me with appreciative but disappointed memories. If the style of the “acted” performance is deliberate, then, it needs more refinement or study. If it is not a deliberated choice, then ‘trained’ actors should be introduced as part of the creative teams to perform. (Or more rehearsal time?!!) Often, in the closeness of the performers to me, sometimes almost speaking directly to me, I longed for Ms Britton to drop-in the physical expression of the text into a personalised or revealing place, for the ideas and the pain, grief of the narrative and images of the text were potentially overwhelming and confronting.

The difference between the possibility of ‘good’ and “great’ work is, in my experience a very narrow margin but it is a margin that needs greater preparation and concentration in application in performance. Both these companies have, for me, the option to be great, but so far have not truly, achieved it. (The production POLITELY SAVAGE by MY DARLING PATRICIA has that indelible afterlife for me, and is possibly the exception, but then it was my first introduction to their work).

I recommend the work of both these companies but have a restless qualm about the efficacy of the communication skills of the performers that prevent it from being totally transcendent.