Monday, December 10, 2012

Signs of Life

Heather Mitchell, George Shevtsov, Aaron Pedersen and Pauline Whyman in Signs of Life. Photography by Lisa Tomasetti.

Sydney Theatre Company, Black Swan State Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present SIGNS OF LIFE by Tim Winton, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

Tim Winton is a great, celebrated, Australian novelist. Beginning in 1981 with his inaugural book, AN OPEN SWIMMER, winning the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. He has won an unprecedented four Miles Franklin Awards and nominated twice for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction (1995 - THE RIDERS; 2002 - DIRT MUSIC).

He has had two of his novels adapted, by others, for the theatre : THAT EYE, THE SKY (also, a film) and CLOUDSTREET (also, a television mini-series). SIGNS OF LIFE is the second play that he has written, the first we have seen in Sydney. AFTER RISING WATER (2011), was produced by Black Swan and the Melbourne Theatre Company and seen in Perth and Melbourne.

Taking a character, Georgie (Heather Mitchell), from his novel, DIRT MUSIC, Mr Winton continues her story. Georgie, haunted by the ghostly presence of her husband, Lu Fox (George Shevtsov), has the sanctuary of her grieving, the homestead, invaded by an indigenous brother and sister, Bender (Aaron Pedersen) and Mona (Pauline Whyman). All are in search of place, of belonging, perhaps identity. Maybe , here in this landscape they will find it. each of them. The interaction between them, especially Bender and Georgie, is the concern of the play. There is some beautiful writing, and the over all impression is one of a sense of the enormous spirituality of the Australian landscape - a landscape with a dried up river bed reminiscent of a large skeleton of a dinosaur - old in time, in layers and layers of time, waiting to embrace, absorb, this new era of life, these people. Indeed, these characters are floundering for some anchoring identity of belonging, and collectively they may find it in the ancient 'music' of this place, this land.

The principal problem, for me, was that the 'pearls' of the short scenes did not have a string of action of continuity, that is necessary for the 'reader' of the play in the theatre. The writer, or the director, Kate Cherry, had not found the way to bring the pieces into a fluid whole of embodied action. The entrance and exit of the characters seemed clumsy, (especially those of Lu - sliding onto the stage through a split in the back drop of the set), and not knitted to the possible musical construction of the play. I thought that the play in the Drama Theatre was on a stage too big for it. Too wide. The setting (Zoe Atkinson) too detailed, too specific visually, and skewed off centre in an uncomfortable staging. The text had the musicality of a string quartet, a chamber orchestra, playing beautiful language, for the listener to endow and imagine. The play is a chamber play and was harmed by the breadth of this theatrical space. The imagery to be invested by the audience to make the play live is in the language, the rhythms in the gaps between the scenes, they needing the same simplicity as the speaking of the poetics. It could almost have the staging simplicity of a radio play. A play for voices (UNDER MILK WOOD?).

Listening, (and watching), I had the memories of the great poetics/themes of Eugene O'Neill and some of his plays. The speech, here, of the sea and the great cliffs of the West Australian coast reminded me of the hypnotic magic of Edmund's speeches of his sea voyages from LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. The landscape and the characters in SIGNS OF LIFE triggered memories of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, of humans stumbling, staggering in a landscape of dirt and dry dust, under the canopy of the stars, echoing the resonant search of the Greek myths of yore, for these Australian indigenous. Tim Winton seems to be searching for the affirmation of a world bigger than the palpable one around us in this play. He is, perhaps, trying to find the spiritual space of the nation, for our times. This is the magnetic pull of his novels and I believe it is here in this play, too, but not in this production.

Ms Mitchell gives a great performance, feeling and breathing the scale of Mr Winton's vision, with an ownership of great passion and concentration, body, voice and 'soul' engaged. Aaron Pedersen, too, has intimations of that power, and is physically and vocally convincing, he is best when working with Ms Mitchell - he is, however crippled with a final badly directed moment with a kite, that had a poetic possibility, but is not resolved the way it probably ought to be by the director. It is almost risible, and undercuts the ending of the play, and some of Mr Pedersen's Bender's impact. Ms Whyman has moments of conviction but lacks consistency of truthfulness and Mr Shevtsov's performance as the ghost of Lu Fox does not seem to have a consistency of a reality - is he a spirit or his he alive? - the emotional action and involvement seemed unsuitable for a ghost and confused me.

SIGNS OF LIFE has only potential in this production. It is not fully expedited - the possibilities not kinetic at all.

I look forward to more theatre work from Tim Winton.

P.S. $84, concession (including the 'tax' of $5 taken by the Sydney Opera House Trust to pay to see the Sydney Theatre production in the Drama Theatre, even though I was at the box office in working hours and with cash. If I couldn't pay it, would I be prevented from attending the play? Would the STC lose the income? How do the STC feel about this demand, this 'tax' on attending their work at the Opera House? Do they lose custom?).
$10 for the program.
$3.50 for a coffee before the show.
A total of $97.50 for an afternoon matinee.

Is it possible for many of us to go to the theatre, at this rate?
Certainly this house occupation, audience attendance, may have been only just over half full. I am being positive, here.
We will have to discriminate more rigorously about what we see. Others are, it seems.
This production was approximately 80 minutes long. More than $1 a minute!
What a philistine, I am, eh?
But, I do like the theatre, I do. I want to see as much as possible.
Oh, well.

The Last Five Years

The Arts Centre Gold Coast in collaboration with Golden Apple Theatrical Productions presents THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown, in The Space at the Gold Coast Arts Centre.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS is written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. The original production was nominated for a number of awards and garnered two Drama Desk Awards in 2002 for Book and Lyrics after its short run in the Minetta Lane Theatre, an Off-Broadway space. Mr Brown won, in 1999, the Tony Award for Best Original Score for PARADE - his first show.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS concerns Cathy (Lucy McIntosh) and Jamie (Tyler Burness). The conceit of the construction is that the two protagonists tell/sing of their relationship over five years, from meeting to separation (divorce?). Cathy's story is told backwards from the break-up, and, Jamie's is told chronologically forward, from their first meeting. Each of the character's sing mostly solo and only once in duet, on their wedding day. It is moving but not sentimental. The work is serious and rings of lived truths.

Performed without interval (approximately, 85 minutes), it is a very demanding work for the singers. The style of music covers "pop, jazz, klezmer, latin, rock, and folk". It requires not only alert and agile singing, it insists, if, it is to work, on "acting chops' of a fairly high order. Fortunately, both these performers, Ms McIntosh and Mr Burness, at the Gold Coast Arts Centre, have both. Mr Burness, often, particularly subtle and revelatory in his storytelling choices.

The Directors of the production, Cilla Scott and Adam King, have created a fluid scene movement and the many changes of time and location are handled deftly, clearly, with a minimum of fuss; the actor/singers, cared for with thoughtful details of staging and direction. The lighting (Anthony Lee) is swift and useful (if, a little under rehearsed), but, sophisticated in its ambitions. The Sound Designer and Technician (David Rushton) keeps a well balanced sound from the singers and the orchestra.

This young orchestra of nine musicians was led dexterously by Matt Dennett. The orchestrations of the score were revealed to be as much a character to the performance, the story subtleties, as the actors are. Having only heard the score of this musical theatre piece with piano before, the orchestrations of Mr Brown are very impressive, indeed. Mr Dennett seems, to me, a fairly interesting talent. Both, he and Ms Scott, have a resume of success, and it ought to continue, with encouraged opportunity.

This is the debut of Golden Apple Theatrical Productions. It is a very auspicious beginning and worth catching. The Gold Coast Arts Centre have found 'gold' in their collaboration and support of this company. The local community ought to flock to it. It is a very rewarding evening.

What did I expect to find up here on the Gold Coast? Certainly, not a theatrical experience as sophisticated as this.(My Sydney, 'arrogance' revealed!!!)

But, DO GO.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Psycho Beach Party

Little Ones Theatre in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers present PSYCHO BEACH PARTY by Charles Busch at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach.

Look, PSYCHO BEACH PARTY by Charles Busch, at present to be seen at the Bondi Pavilion, is just, great, great FUN. For most of the 'folk' I know well, a show not to be missed. I mean if you want big laughs and a show that reeks with an expertise of gleefully wicked innocence and glad bags of high style, than, this is a must see.


I know I went crazy for the Belvoir's take on THYESTES, directed by Simon Stone at Carriageworks in January (I did), and some of you found/thought I had gone completely over the top, well, I feel the same about this show, but ,of course, differently. This is silly exhilaration, not 'f.....ed up' exhilaration - there's no blood to start with, and I think you could take your kids. I, of course don't have any kids, so, I could be wrong.

This show was once called GIDGET GOES PSYCHO, and "Theatre-in Limbo", unlike a certain theatre company, which I won't name, thought that maybe there might be some 'copyright problems" and changed it to PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. Oh, well they do work in New York, not remote Sydney, you know, so they had to be careful and do the right thing. Mr Busch and his companion in art, Ken Elliott, sprung from watching, perhaps too many times the phenomena of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach Party movies - six of them made between 1963 and 1965! - including, and here is a clue to the show at the Pavilion: MUSCLE BEACH PARTY and BEACH PARTY BINGO; and the TV show GIDGET, put together a new show to replace, in 1987, there long running hit, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, on Off-Broadway.

Says Chicklet, the heroine of our show, who happens to channel multiple personalities - think, THREE FACES OF EVE, 1957 (Joanne Woodward) or SYBIL,1971 (Sally Fields), and don't forget THE BAD SEED, 1956 (directed by Mervyn LeRoy), to get the psycho-thriller pop culture vibe - to her man Kanaka, a Beach Surf Board Hunk:

"I think we understand each other very well. I know what you fantasize about, I know what you dream about and I'm going to give it to you in spades. Now I want you to go into town and buy yourself a slave collar and a garter belt and a pair of black silk stockings. Spike heels will complete the ensemble and then my darling Kanaka, I'm going to shave all that man fur off and you'll look just like the little boy that you are.'

You get the picture? John Waters (and Divine) can eat their hearts out, this week. So, can early Pedro (Almodovar, that is). Why re-run those tired old movies you know by heart, at home, when you can watch this show LIVE?

L. I. V. E. - LIVE.

"VAMPIRE LESBIANS of SODOM, one of the longest-running plays in Off-Broadway history, PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, and THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE have earned Charles Busch renown for his ability to weave popular culture, wicked camp humour, and biting social satire into unusual and uproarious theatre. Busch has been acclaimed as the premiere drag star of the American theatre, and his work has earned the Outer Critics' John Gassner Award for Playwrighting and a Drama Desk Award for Best Play nomination. He has been called a "first-class satirist and farceur" (Mimi Kramer, The New Yorker). THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE also received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2001.

Now, I should add that I have seen other attempts to bring Mr Busch's work to the stage and they have been , generally, disastrous. It is very, very difficult 'stuff' to pull off. The stylistic sensibility needs to be very special indeed. This company, Little Ones, led by the Director, Stephen Nicolazzo (the recent showing of the Singaporean play: SEX, VIOLENCE, BLOOD, GORE at the Old Fitz, briefly, this year, was, from what I have read of it, an intimation of Mr Nicolazzo's talent) has everything perfectly gauged for a wonderful time. They know how to rev this stuff into a scintillating style. Let's hope they can keep it that way.

The set design (Owen Phillips): floor, walls, columns in leopard print carpet, the furniture dressed that way as well, including the beach umbrella; costumes with wit to die for, including lots of leopard print (Eugyeene Teh and Tessa Pitt); the Lighting (Katie Sfetkidis) and Sound design (Nate Edmondson); plus, choreography that punches out all the style humour of the time, and, danced magnificently, is a great credit to Kurt Phelan, are all tops.

All the acting company (ALL OF THEM) are amazingly taut and spot on, playing as an amazing clock work team: Kevin Kiernan Molloy - a sexy muscle Star Cat -the 'kick sand in my face', please!! beach boy fantasy flirting with Zoe Boesen  as Marvel Ann - thrillingly chilled or a bitch, depending on your moment to moment P.O.V. ..., yes, really!; Paul Blenheim (so good in WRECKING recently at the Old Fitz) as Provoloney and Tom Dent (Is it his real name?) as Yoyo - two boys, who will be two men, who, in a blink of time, right in front of your eyes, will really be into each other!!, good mates and true, they will be surprised, you won't be (see photograph above); Ash Flanders as Chicklet- truly outstanding - channeling many personalities (particularly, Ann Bowman) but "who learns that each of the various roles she plays in life are all part of one being, and that they only make her stronger.."; Amanda McGregor  as Mrs Forest - Chicklet's mother, who is really, fraughtly whacky - relentlessly trying to find her real role in life; Genevieve Giuffre (Berdine) - the nerdy, admirable, loyal, wise, best friend to Chicklet; Peter Paltos (Kanaka) - the king-cool-dude of the beach; and Caitlin Adams (Bettina Barnes) - the movie queen of all b-movie queens, who you'll get to love, in the end,  just as you do the Baroness (The great Eleanor Parker) in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I promise.

All of them are special. But, my special one is Ms Giuffre and her Berdine, round shouldered, stooped, google-(goggled?)-eyed but whip smart. So, I think I should just relate her last diary entry for us to you, from the show, to whet your appetite some more:

"Life is sure whacky. Here Chicklet and I were best friends and I never really knew her. If I don't know her, can I ever truly know anyone? Star Cat thinks science can tell us everything, and Bettina says if she feels things, they're true. Oh, sweet, lonely Schopenhauer and crazy ole Nietzsche and dear, committed Jean-Paul, all of you searching and never settling for an easy answer to life's eternal puzzlement. I hereby vow to carry on your never-ending quest. I know that my true calling is to be a novelist and devote my life to exploring the fathomless possibilities of the human comedy. ..."

This is some of the smarts of this show.... exploring fathomless possibilities of the human comedy....

Recommended. Highly. Congratulations Mr Nicolazzo and the team.

P.S. Dear Little Ones, my one peeve , and one of my constant ones,  is that in your program notes you have no biography of the genesis of your great production : THE WRITER, Mr Charles Busch. Not fair. Maybe, not nice?!
I say, The Writer is the God, if not GOD: "In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh".
 Can you fix it? Give him his due.

Monday, December 3, 2012

ACO: Russian Visions

Australian Chamber Orchestra presents Tour Seven: RUSSIAN VISIONS in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House.

Can I say that, for me, almost every time I leave a concert given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I feel as if I have been especially privileged. I go tirelessly to the theatre (Drama) to have an experience of transcending excellence. It rarely happens. Maybe, because it is the field in which I have toiled, and that I am too knowing, too demanding, whereas, in the world of music making, I am simply an audience, and, so find so much to admire in the artistry, dedication and in the playing by this orchestra.

This concert RUSSIAN VISIONS with the guest piano player, Steve Osborne, and later, trumpet player, David Elton, left me in a heightened state of being, glad to be alive. Grateful to be alive. How lucky am I?

The highlight, for me, was the Shostakovitch Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op 35 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (1933). It is a piece I have on disc. I was introduced to it by the San Francisco Orchestra, years ago. Or, come to think more, was it part of a San Francisco Ballet program?. Whatever, it is a treasure to me. It is a piece that I find exhilarating, and, when played with daring, absolutely thrilling. I went to this concert not knowing what I was to hear, so, when this very familiar piece began to reveal itself, I lifted my attention to high concentration. The reward was spectacular. I was lucky, I was seated close to the concert platform - the physical playing by all was not only an aural, but, a physically visceral experience, too. Mr Osborne a demon of passion at the piano, and Mr Elton immaculate with his sound making, and seemingly, effortlessly, taking up the challenge of the piano playing tempo. Watching the string players engage, one could see the excitement that Mr Osborne was throwing out to them all. The simple joy on my part, to watch such lovers of their craft, so in unison, was art of great significance. I need to declare a bias for the music of Shostakovitch.

The significance of the variety of delicacy of the playing, especially by Mr Osborne, in the many offers by Sergei Prokofiev in his work Visions fugitives, Op 22 (1915-1917) (arr. Barshai/Tognetti), played as the first item of the concert, became apparent clearly, after the bombast of the Shostakovitch Concerto. It is a typical pleasure of the Sydney Chamber Orchestra choice and organisation of repertoire that such realisations occur, cumulatively. It makes one feel clever and deeply respected. Trust us says the orchestra, the program is more than any one part, it is, rather the sum of the whole.

In the second half, a short work by Shostakovitch, Two Pieces for String Octet, Op 11 (1924-25), was followed by a lush and enveloping romantic 'bath' in a realisation for string orchestra of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Op 70 (1890). The finale bang and speed of the piece lifted one to float from the hall into the real world outside. I think my feet were on the ground. I know my spirit was flying around and above me.

Thanks, greatness is awe inspiring. I recommend the Australian Chamber Orchestra as a guaranteed source of life enhancement. I have rarely been disappointed. Certainly not with this concert.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hollywood Ending

Arts Radar, Theatre503 and Griffin Independent present RAPID WRITE: HOLLYWOOD ENDING or, How A Washed up Director Made a Crappy Movie that Almost Destroyed the World by CJ Johnson at SBW Stables Theatre, Griffin, Kings Cross.

In HOLLYWOOD ENDING, Don (Terry Serio) is a filmmaker of pornography, a director at the 'lower' end of the Hollywood industry. He has ambitions, as all who work creatively do, to make a work that is 'great'. Amy (Briallen Clarke) is a film producer working with Randy (Blake Erickson), a writer. They have a project with a small budget that they wish to be made before the election date of the next President. It is a small window of time. Their ambitions may be for more than 'artistic' greatness. They decide to offer Don the responsibility. Don sees this as his chance. Don engages his daughter, Laura (Caroline Craig), to come on board as the first-assistant. Laura is skeptical of her father as a person, and becomes even more skeptical, and more alarmed as the project reveals itself, more apparently. Jerry (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a designer, a creative facilitator, who has often worked with Don.

Most of the play deals with the hazards of movie making, or especially, how a washed up director ended up making a crappy movie.  The play is an expose (satire?) where the compromise of money, time and the creative vision undermines the aspirations of the participators.  It is, on this level tightly written, sometimes amusing, but, a very familiar journey. A comic strip of character and action.

There is, however, a darker weave within this story. Gradually, we get to see that HOLLYWOOD ENDING might be a light veiling, revealing the making of a film resembling the recent YouTube sensation, INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS. A sensation of woeful art that caused, almost, a major international incident of incendiary proportions. Riots around the world, in the CBD of Sydney, even (16th September), protested the work.

These consequences and the possible motivation behind this film seem to me to be the really interesting subject matter of the play. Unfortunately, this play ends, when it makes this clear or clearer. The second last scene of the play between Don and his aggravated daughter, Laura, gets to the 'meat' of a possible play, that may have had some real social concern. Add the last scene of the play between Don and Amy and the diabolical underpinnings of the event of the play become appetising. The play ends where it really should have begun, I reckon.The interesting subject matter  became the tag of our night in the theatre, rather than the substance of the writing. The comic 'piss take' of the film making process, is not all that original or interesting. I came out asking: Who Cares? Who cares about the history of the making of any film, mediocre or otherwise? But, the debate arising from the characters Laura and Amy with Don, in those last scenes, I would like to get to terms with, to hear more of. Even, the psychological characterisation of Don and his dealing with temptation in mediocrity would be more arresting.

The idea of this project, RAPID WRITE, is an attempt to create a play from "page to stage in 8 weeks." CJ Johnson, the writer tells us: "Tim Roseman (Director of this production and the new Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia), who pioneered the RAPID WRITE program at his Theatre503 in London, says that it was borne out of the frustration that plays tended to take at least two years to hit the stage, by which time, if they were about topical issues, they had lost their urgency, their pungency. Plays borne out of RAPID WRITE hit the stage nine weeks after their inspiring incident, whatever they might be."

HOLLYWOOD ENDING, as it is, lacks, "urgency', lacks "pungency". So, is eight or nine weeks too long for this process, if you want topicality? It seems so, if this is typical of the writing that comes from this challenge. This play, inspired by INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS and the furore it caused, is, of course, long past its incendiary topicality (not, of course, in the bigger moral picture of concern). Too, the election of the American President is of no real vital topicality today - we know the result! Is it  a sign of the frenzied speed and appetites of the media crazy era we live in?

Now, on the Friday night I saw the play, maybe, my topical concern was:the bikie-'war' shootings in the suburbs of Sydney; the Australian Indigenous issues; the Climate Change Debate; the Sexual Abuse Scandals; Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church, local and international; the present demolishing of the dignity of the Federal Parliamentary system, and a respect for the democratic process, Abbott, Bishop V's Gillard; the Obeid family saga and State Government corruption.; Mr O'Farrell, Packer and a casino. These were topics of interest for me as HOLLYWOOD ENDING was told on Friday night. The INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS film, long past my immediate, topical concern, and the history of making a crappy film is much to familiar a story, no matter how lively the telling, to hold me in a spell of rapt bewitchment.

Though, lively, the telling is. It is a very tight production. The direction by Mr Roseman is impressive - the skills of keeping these short scenes moving, the spiffy set design by Rita Carmody and the Lighting by Hartley T A Kemp are arresting. The writing, within its field of play, is good too. It just lacks any real interest, for others, other than artists, perhaps!? Mr Roseman has also encouraged an acting bravura from this company, that keeps the piece from wearying us with its familiarity. The acting is exciting - however, throwing  up a very recognisable pattern, in my history of theatre going with new Australian plays, where, the actors, sometimes, have to do much more for the writer than the writer offers the actor. Mr Serio, a tireless backbone to the piece,  a desperate man facing  the fatal Faustian offer of eternal fame (life) or oblivion, supported wittily with a performance from Mr Erickson as a total creative 'dumb-ass', and Mr Llwellyn-Jones as a sanguine survivor in a familiar world of mediocrity and compromise. Ms Craig hits her mark in her last scene confronting her father, and Ms Clarke reveals, cumulatively, a malevolent force of some power - ice-blonde cool, neat and dangerous. Her last scene - Kapow!

HOLLYWOOD ENDING is well done but, ultimately, shallow. The parameters of the project may be too limiting!? The last scenes of this play triggered off memories of Stephen Sewell's MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA, only, in the sense, of course, of the darkening conspiracies intimated by CJ Johnson here. I would have liked to wander into that scape. Suggested,here, but, not delivered.

Fun, but..... so what?