Monday, February 24, 2014

Jump for Jordan

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin theatre Company presents the World Premiere of JUMP FOR JORDAN by Donna Abela at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

JUMP FOR JORDAN by Donna Abela is having its World Premiere season for the Griffin Theatre Company. The core of any successful artistic endeavour is, usually, sprung from the life of the artist - all the artists, ultimately, but always with that of the writer, to start with, in the performing arts. Add Imagination and Research and a play on the page evolves. Add the collaboration of Actors, Designers and a Director, and finally an Audience - a different one every night -  and an experience will be staged, and absorbed from that original source, the WRITER. 

Ms Abela comes from a Maltese family and she talks in her program notes: 
Not uncommonly, I am a stranger to half of my heritage. My father's first language was foreign to my ears. He wanted me to be bound by codes that weren't entirely from here. I had scattered facts about his homeland, fragments of family history, and an unutterable awareness that the wake of war and trauma was still washing through the house. Born in Sydney, I grew up living with a divide, without the full story, and in danger of filing cultural and family vacuums with ignorance, assumptions or racist invention.
How many of us have grown up around friends, the daughters and sons, the second generation of refugees and immigrants, and had to watch them, untangle the demands of the parents' old traditions, and that of being part of contemporary Australia? Personally, many friends from many countries of European strictures (Greece, Malta, Italy), the Middle East (Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan) and Asia (Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines), let alone with my Indigenous and South Pacific companions and collaborators, or my South American and Afro-American acquaintances - the list, it seems can go on and on, is endless. The journeys I have had with them, coming from my long time English/Irish/Australian generational heritage/prejudice has been a wild, and sometimes sombre roller coaster of learning and confrontation. I took for granted, for a long time, that my upbringing was the same as theirs. Ignorance allowed a kind of blissful state! Ignorance, galore, on my part, indeed. I discovered, slowly, that it was not only their food that was different.

Iain Sinclair uses a quotation from LP Hartley's THE GO-BETWEEN, to begin his notes to his production: "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." This play is an attempt to bring to the stage an experience that two such young persons, brought up, essentially in Sydney, two young women, Loren (Sheridan Harbridge) and, especially, Sophia (Alice Ansara) have, in dealing with the 'politics' of their parents and their extended family: Sahir, dad from Palestine (Sal Sharah), Mara, mum from Amman in Jordan (Doris Younane), and a visiting aunt, Azza from Jordan (Camilla Ah Kin), who were torn apart in the internal commotion of that country's upheavals in the 1940's. In Campbelltown where this family ends up they all discover that they do, indeed, do things differently, here.

Sophie, the 'heroine' of this play is a would-be archaeologist (still studying, with difficulty at Uni.) and the play sifts through shifting layers of past and present, farce and fantasy. It is Sophie's 'mad, messy excavation of her own history, and her attempt to piece together the broken bits of her identity'. Ms Abela tells us: 
The play is constructed like a disturbed archaeological dig site which has collapsed together layers of reality, memory, projection and conversations with the dead.
Sophie talks to her dead dad, we see projections of the angry response that Mara has to her new home provided by her husband in Campbelltown, we have visions of Aunt Azza as an avenging 'angel' of jihad proportions, whilst after meeting her in the flesh of reality as a contemporary woman, turns out to be, perhaps, the most balanced and progressive member of the family.

The play is funny, melancholic, and, best of all, empathetically informative of what, I have come to know to be traumatic cultural and social adjustments, for all, in those families. It is the first time that I have witnessed such lives on our stages, so vividly. The structures in the writing, of quick short scenes set in the past and present, hither and thither in location, of conversations with a ghost, projections of exaggerated, comic figures of terrorism, heartfelt romances of aspiration, and bitter, bitter angers- are all juggled wonderfully by Ms Abela with swift tonal shifts of mood daringly juxtaposed. The writing is terrific and has the pulse of the fast world of new media interaction.

Maybe, too fast, for on the night I saw Mr Sinclair's production, I was lost in the frenetic pacing of the early scenes - I was left bewildered as to 'what was happening', 'who was who'. The first short scene erupted in a commotion of shouting and action, overloaded with sound - so many 'offers' going on I couldn't locate the sense of the play.  I felt the production began at seventy miles per hour and I had to spend several scenes chasing the 'train',  to comprehend the dramaturgical audacities of the 'lay out ' of the writing, before I could get, comprehensively, "on board'. Talking to some others, later, in the audience, mine was not a unique experience.

Ms Abela as part of her Production Notes to the published text warns her collaborators :"... Attention must be on context as well as content." The first scene unfolds in the present and the past with three characters - one in both time zones. In the experience of the production there was no 'context' signalled for us, the audience, to 'read', and no 'content' able to be heard. One didn't know where to JUMP FOR JORDAN. Maybe, it was first night jitters, for gradually, I did catch up. But quiz me about the context and content of the early scene or three and I could not tell you anything, but approximate gist. A residual uncertainty, unfortunately, stayed with me throughout the night - I never became completely immersed.

All the performances are good. Ms Harbridge giving her usual highly intelligent and wickedly clever, comic 150% - taking her Loren to an edge, but always staying on the right side of it for us to believe, both stylistically and naturalistically;  a moving dance in the time journeying of Mara from one emotional world to another by Ms Younane; and a charming 'goofy' offer by Ms Ansara as Sophie, attempting to keep all her worlds in the air, without dropping one or the other, or, one for the other. Anna Houston as the only non-arab in this play provides a gentle and warm touchstone for us, as Mr Sinclair calls us: 'skips', while Ms Ah Kin is outrageous as the imagined 'terrorist', Aunt Azza, and Mr Sharah, with gentle dignity and simpleness, provides a keel, an emotional centre to the story, as the nature/plant loving father figure, Sahir.

The Set Design of an outer suburban living room, invaded by the sands of either country, Jordan or Campbelltown (although the soils of Campbelltown are fairly fertile and not sandy at all - the familiar beige carpet being piled with sand may represent another kind of metaphorical 'desert'), by Pip Runciman, works well with the Lighting Design, by Nicholas Rayment, helping to demarcate context for the audience in the pell mell of the demand of the production and writing. But I wondered – was there too much sound coming from the work of the Composer and Sound Design of Nate Edmondson? 

JUMP FOR JORDAN represents a new, original and confident voice, that is comically optimistic in its breadth of vision, with some wisdoms of insights of a lived experience for all of us to embrace. This is the first play of the new season for the Griffin and one hopes a harbinger to the quality of writing and subject matter to come. The first of Lee Lewis' first season as independent Artistic Director of Griffin.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Privates on Parade


New Theatre presents PRIVATES ON PARADE by Peter Nichols with music by Denis King as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at the New Theatre, Newtown.

The New Theatre have presented, Peter Nichols' PRIVATES ON PARADE before, some 25 years ago. John Short was the musical director of that earlier production and is again. During the preparation Mr Short brought to the attention of his Director, Alice Livingstone, differences between the text he had worked on then and the present one that they had begun to "solve". In her program notes, Ms Livingstone tells us, that she had read and re-read various versions of the script that exist, and along with her Assistant Director, Mark Croasdale, and Mr Short, have shaped the performance text we see, hopefully, honouring the Peter Nichols' intentions. It seemed to me, having re-read the published Faber edition of the play (1977), Ms Livingstone has done just that, with great credit.

PRIVATES ON PARADE is concerned with an entrainment troupe commissioned by the British Armed Forces, in this case, the fictitious, SADUSEA, (Song and Dance Unit of South East Asia), on tour in post-war Singapore and Malaysia (1948-50's) - this play is partly, auto-biographical, Mr Nichols having been a part of ENSA - the Entertainment National Service Association. It is a kind of tribute to the traditions of music hall, vaudeville, 'end of pier' concerts and panto mixed with acerbic observations of an Empire in tatters and decline - "So could you please inform us who it was that won the war?" patters Terri Dennis, a leading member of the entertainment company, in Noel Coward mode. " ... Could you please inform us how we came to lose the peace?"

Within the nostalgic and glowing homage to theatrical traditions of the past, the 'body' of the play reveals the prejudices of a culture that is in desperate need of 'renovation': the political arrogance of the Forces of Empire and the antiquated attitude of the rightness of the missionary zeal of Christianity,  capitalist corruption, racism, sexism and homophobia bristle, with uncompromising and unbridled political incorrectness throughout this text - a contemporary audience may find themselves squirming with the blatant beliefs that our parents/grandparents once cherished - the BLACK VELVET song, for instance. The tone of Empire and Commonwealth values, struck pertinent chords of unfortunate personal memory for me, having been a child of the nineteen -fifties. The musical satires and 'political  observations' are leavened, harnessed with the melodrama-soap-opera plot machinations, concerning the ordinary lives and needs of the real soldier characters of the Song and Dance Unit, living in extreme and unfamiliar circumstances.

My memory of the recent Michael Grandage production of PRIVATES ON PARADE, which I saw in the West End, last year, was that of a play with musical numbers, whereas Ms Livingstone's production frames the play within the make-shift proscenium of a touring variety theatre (Design by Alan Walpole), and is rather a kind of variety show, with direct monologues and letter writings, intruded by real life dangers and complications.

The company of actors have been drilled and choreographed (wonderfully byTrent Kidd) and musically well prepared. James Lee as Terri Dennis, leads us competently through the workings of the play, his impersonations of the 'famous' include Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda, amongst others, and are created effortlessly, and he has a compassionate touch to the humanities of his other function in the soap-opera of the Nichols' demands. Three recent graduates from the WAAPA BA Musical Course give performances of outstanding skill: David Hooley, as Stephen Flowers; Henry Moss, as Eric Young-Love and Diana Perini, as Sylvia Morgan, their music, dance and acting responsibilities finely judged. Peter Eyers as the misguided and 'Blimpish' Major Giles Flack, along with Morgan Junor-Larwood, Martin Searles, Jamie Collette and Matt Butcher, too, give good support. One needs to mention David Ouch and Gerwin Widjaja, who besides representing the presence of the underclass of the citizens of this colonial outpost, also have (along with Mr Moss) concocted a trio of 'drag' entertainers to warm up the audience in a pre-show entertainment of some delight.

The production is brisk but sometimes just a little too brusque (some of this text is much funnier than these actors allow), but it is as my fellow audience member said as we were applauding: "a little charmer". I thought it more than that and more memorable/successful as an experience than the recent London production, despite the New Theatre's more modest resources.

Another musical to catch this month in Sydney.

P.S. The New Theatre has program notes for both the writers of this show. Well done.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sweet Charity


Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present SWEET CHARITY. Book by Neil Simon. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Dorothy Fields. In the Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst.

What is it about the anticipation of a musical, especially one that I know and like, that causes 'my inner child' to appear? Whatever it is, here 'he' is possessing my fingers, so indulge me:
The Hayes Theatre Co has taken possession of the old Darlinghurst Theatre at the end of Greenknowe Avenue and designated it as a permanent home for music theatre and cabaret in Sydney. A very welcome initiative and one longed for by many in the community. In a city as large as Sydney, and one that has cultural aspirations (if not, pretensions), even in this modest space, both for performance and audience numbers, one can shout a hopeful "Hooray". Things are looking up.

One of the role models for this organisation could be the Menier Chocolate Factory in South London, which has acquired a reputation for outstanding musical production and, although, its 'brief' covers not only musical and cabaret performance, but straight theatre as well, it has had an International impact in the transfer and critical acclaim for its Musical production work - it seats only 180 patrons, slightly larger than the Hayes, (118?) and appears to have a bigger staging space, but, as they say: "from little things, big things grow". There was enough excitement in the foyer and in the auditorium last night, in the Hayes Theatre, to generate and inflame the ambitions and the 'how to do it' grit of the community of music theatre devotees, to inspire and transpire into success, equal, one hopes, to that of the London model.

SWEET CHARITY, is the first offer from the Hayes Theatre Co. and is produced by Luckiest Productions (Richard Carroll, Lisa Campbell and David Campbell) and Neil Gooding Productions. SWEET CHARITY is a 1966 Broadway musical, with a Book by Neil Simon; Music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and was Conceived, Staged and Choreographed by Bob Fosse, originally.

SWEET CHARITY marked the second phase of Bob Fosse's work on Broadway, the conscious development of choreographic direction as the spearhead of the end product.
...Musicals are more of a piece now, not scenes directed by one man and dance numbers directed by another. The ideal is to make movement consistent throughout, make the actors' movement blend with the dance movements', said Bob Fosse. That ideal in time became the very substance of Fosse's shows as he increasingly approached musical staging not as a means but as an end in itself." [1]. 
SWEET CHARITY, with Fosse's wife, Gwen Verdon, a now famous Broadway "hoofer", in the lead, was created around her dance potentials, despite the strong book from Neil Simon, who was the hottest Broadway writer of the time, he, coming off the success of BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1963) and THE ODD COUPLE (1965). (Though, reading in the new bio-book: FOSSE by Sam Wasson one suspects that there was some re-jigging from Mr Fosse going on with Mr Simon's book, as well). The very famous night club sequence in this show, "Rich Man's Frug", was the first major statement as to where Mr Fosse was headed - where dance was the signature element of his storytelling, where the show stopped in narrative, to, instead, explicate dance for dance sake - similar to the show stopping dance sequence of the Harmonia Gardens that Gower Champion made for the finale of act one in HELLO DOLLY, (check out the film sequences for both). To follow was PIPPIN on Broadway (1972) - where Stephen Schwartz found his book virtually jettisoned, where "the tone of the musical changed - from a sincere, naive, morality play to an anachronistic cynical burlesque" - as well as his film work in CABARET (1972); CHICAGO, on Broadway (1975), perhaps the apotheosis of Fosse's blending of all the elements that make a perfect musical experience; and DANCIN' - a Broadway show that was only dance (1978) - the show that Alan Jay Lerner (MY FAIR LADY, CAMELOT) sent an opening night telegram to Fosse saying "You finally did it. You got rid of the author", and his semi- autobiographical film, ALL THAT JAZZ (1979), that was dominated by the dance sequences.

This tendency of focus for Bob Fosse, may account for some of the famous dilemmas, some feel, concern the second act of SWEET CHARITY, which for Broadway tastes, seems to fizzle into a realistic play with, an unusual, for Broadway of the times, an unhappy ending. The origins of SWEET CHARITY is the famous Fellini film, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), starring Giulietta Masina, (the wife of Fellini), which is the story of a prostitute in post-war Rome with all of her religious background, grounding and grinding her to places, that for any other human being, might have led to despair. The famous last sequence in the film has Ms Masina, moving off into the future with a gleam of hope, silhouetted in a glowing light, umbrella open (Mary Poppins like, it occurs to me!), which affects us with the satisfying end to a kind of "fairy story".

In SWEET CHARITY the world has been transferred to a seedy dance hall in New York, the Fandango Ballroom, and Charity has none of the European underpinnings of religious heritage to struggle with and support her, during her travails, rather, perhaps, instead the false prophet of the power of money to help her secure her future (a very American dream of some historic consistency -  check out WOLF OF WALL STREET and compare and contrast with the Italian film, THE GREAT BEAUTY, an example par excellence of the dream values and the way the two cultures serve up a critique of their worlds). Maybe, Mr Fosse just ran out of time to develop the dance elements of his vision to secure a more satisfactory last act? Or, is it his genius to subvert the expectancy of the tastes of the time, to a fierce reality? The themes and manner of telling his chosen stories certainly became bleaker and bleaker: CABARET (film) and the great CHICAGO. Certainly, I have no problem with the ending as it stands today, unlike in my impressionable, still romantic, teenaged years. Neither did the American audience, of 1966, for it ran for 608 performances and 10 previews and has been revived since, many times, there and around the world.

The auspicious choice of this production to be the inaugural production for the Hayes Theatre, is enhanced by the historic connection to the original Australian production of this show, by the then great commercial management, J.C. Williamson, in 1967, when Nancy Hayes, a young Australian artist was belatedly promoted to stardom as Charity. This inclination to have, at last, Australian artists in leading roles in these commercial ventures had changed when Jill Perryman created Fanny Brice in FUNNY GIRL at the old Her Majesty's Theatre, in Sydney, in 1966, to enormous National popular success - a true leading lady, as was Ms Hayes, then, and still is. Up until that time J.C.Williamson usually imported so-called international stars - artists - to play the leads, it was deemed a better box office strategy with Australian audiences - has much changed when one looks at some of our film castings?

The serendipitous blessing, that Ms Hayes gave to the company, on stage at the opening night, when she was acknowledged and respectfully honoured by the SWEET CHARITY company and audience, to congratulate this generation of artists and imagine/predict her hopes for the bright future for this endeavour was truly moving. A rare opportunity to see the sequences of our history being so presently connected - moments to remember. This SWEET CHARITY being, one hopes, a contemporary turning point for Sydney (Australian) musical theatre, as was the 1967 production, with Ms Hayes present at both - wonderful! One anticipates that Ms Hayes, either as a director or choreographer, if not performer, can be engaged in that future. How about a cabaret season, night or two or more, with Ms Hayes? - I am sure she would have a tale or two to tell, as interesting and entertaining, as anything, as say, Elaine Stritch, gave to her home audiences. In 2009, the Menier, mentioned above, produced a version of SWEET CHARITY, which was transferred into the London West End, and was consequently nominated for three Olivier Awards, in 2011. To see the whole amazing list of their transferred productions out of their tiny space into the West End, even Broadway, is awe inspiring. Let us see what can happen here in Greenknowe Ave!

Back to my inner child: I am the black sheep of my family. No one, before me, in any of my network of family, ever expressed an interest, or, even went to the theatre. How is it that I've been 'blighted' so? I blame my interest in the bright lights of the stage, on my growing up in the 1950's and 1960's and watching television - all those classic films: the Black and White genius of the Warner Brother's Studio: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, among many; and, of course the colour extravaganza of MGM musicals SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS; THE STUDENT PRINCE; GUYS AND DOLLS; HIGH SOCIETY - oh, now, I remember, my dad, who did like Mario Lanza, used to sometimes sing (a little bit drunk) to the L.P. records we had, on family occasions, before the adult relatives settled down with him into night-long poker and rummy card games at my granny's.

I never saw a live musical, professional or otherwise, until OLIVER! at the Theatre Royal, maybe, in 1965, and, so was dependent on the local 'picture show' to keep me in touch with the latest. I remember distinctly, THE KING AND I at the Boomerang Cinema, Coogee Beach: "Shall We Dance?"; WEST SIDE STORY at The Mayfair: "Maria, Maria, Maria"; SOUTH PACIFIC (which I, also, saw at the Mayfair in Castlereagh St, 6 times!): "Some Enchated Evening"(s) or really matinees; and, of course, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (at the same cinema, the Mayfair, 16 times. Yes, 16 times!! - Nuns, children, songs, Nazis and that beautiful Baroness, how could one resist the formula?): "Do Re Mi Fa". I began to lose interest in the musical around about MY FAIR LADY: "The Rain In Spain", which I felt was a bit boring ! (I saw it maybe 7 or 8 times at the especially mauve decorated Century cinema in George St); so, when I came to the movie version of SWEET CHARITY: "Hey Big Spender", although, I saw it some 5 or 6 times, somewhere in PItt St., in my teenaged discernment, I judged that the script and the direction of the book was lousy, and the song and dance sequences were amazing. Shirley MacLaine was better as Charity than in that other 'good-time-girl' movie, IRMA LA DOUCE ( a version of a musical without the music bits - I knew there was something wrong with it, besides the irritating Jack Lemon, oops, that is Jack Lemmon, not lemon!). Shirley was kind of cute, remember AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, and her Indian Princess?, I may have fallen in love with her, then. And, even I knew that the ending was odd, wrong, and was surrounded by confirming studio gossip, which I read avidly, wherever I could find the entertainment sections in magazines and newspapers - those were the days, my friends, with NO internet, just bookshops with magazine sections! I haunted them.

I saw my only other live production of SWEET CHARITY a few years ago (2007), when Tony Knight directed it in the school program at the great "old-NIDA", with Jessica Marais and Hugh Sheridan in the cast.

OK, put the 'child' in the corner for a while.

Packed onto the tiny stage in Darlinghurst, seventeen artists smoulder around the design elements by Owen Phillips, in atmospheric lighting by Ross Graham, dressed in the first of many witty costumes by Tim Chappel. Six of those artists are the band led by an inspirational and exciting, Andrew Worboys, and the amplified thrum of a sleazy dance hall welcomes us to our seats. Dance Hall Hostesses, lean into some of the audience and invite them to dance, which some do, and maybe were promised a later 'adventure', until the familiar music of the SWEET CHARITY overture, in glittering, enticing arrangements, begins.

The energy and excitement of this show came quickly, infectiously, into the confined space of the Hayes Theatre, and we were swept along by the ingenious creativity of all, led by Director, Dean Bryant, and especially the great choreography of Andrew Hallsworth (especially, in consideration of the small space he had to create in). Mr Phillips has solved, ingeniously, the space problems with two large, oblong, reflective glass/mirrors on wheels and explicitly useful properties to set the key visuals for the changing scenes. Integral to this is the choreographic organisation of the company in shifting the settings, almost imperceptibly, whilst also changing costume and wigs, all to the timing of the movement of the musical storytelling to explode on cue into song and dance. A kind of military planning and strategic action - incredible team and team work! This company of performers are dedicated and obviously thrilled and determined to make this production work and be memorable. They do this.

To begin at the top of congratulations, the musical sound coming from the band led by Mr Worboys is the highlight of this production, and Mr Worboys' solo as "Herman" giving his immaculately committed rendition of "I Love to Cry at Weddings" is a knock-out. Kapow! This production follows the Menier innovation of casting the roles of Charlie / Vittorio / Oscar with the one artist. In this case it is with the sublimely talented Martin Crewes. I first noticed him in the disappointing DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, a few years ago, and saw a performer that not only could sing but could act - one of the few who could do both in that show - (he hardly had to 'dance' in Zhivago). In this triple casting Mr Crewes reveals, again, the qualities that I believe make a musical theatre "star" - he can act, sing and dance exceptionally, in each category. He is amazing in the detail of defining his three very different men as an actor, and his singing accuracy, especially with the clarity of his lyrics was/is outstanding.

Charity Hope Valentine, SWEET CHARITY, is being found with the creative instincts and skills of Verity Hunt-Ballard, and she, last seen, by me, in the Disney production of MARY POPPINS, as Mary, could not be more contrasted. The performance grows stronger and stronger as the evening progresses, and the last moments in the show, as it was with her Mary Poppins performance, are her best. Whether Ms Hunt-Ballard reaches a sufficiently wide arc of journey in her storytelling, or not, will always be a matter of taste, but for me, this Charity lacks the naive-cunning of a survivor, however dull witted she maybe, in the Dance Hall environment at the start of the show - just too nice and a little too wholesome (middle class) for me to believe her. And, despite the aid of amplification, to assist her, some of Ms Hunt-Ballard's lyrics were unhearable, muffled, unsupported.

Ms Hunt-Ballard is not the only actor in this show that has similar problems. Debora Krizak, following the Menier casting innovations, has the opportunity to play both Nickie and Ursula. And while the visual/physical differences of character are remarkable - achieved with costume and wig changes (wigs by Ben Moir) - her vocal work, needs much more accuracy in the dialect choices (Dialect Coach by Jennifer White) and more consistent accuracy in lyric clarity,whilst her acting capabilities seem to be very basic indeed - both her characters, which are 'gifts' for  any actor, are relatively, shallow caricatures of externalisations. Technically, her mishandling of the vocal rhythms of Neil Simon's witty book are, ought, to be regrettable. This is, unfortunately, true of most of the other performers as well. Jakob Ambrose, a recent graduate from the WAAPA BA Musical Theatre degree (2011), in his role as the job interviewer with Charity, almost derails their scene with a lack of any real character study or even vocal energy - thank God for the driving consistency of Ms Hunt-Ballard. This is true of many of these artists. It is a blemish, and does prevent this production reaching that sublime credit of excellence, that one witnesses in New York, for example. This company is very, very competent and has being drilled physically and vocally well, but not to the real standard of a Broadway show - whatever we might wish was happening. This is a really good 'Aussie' show that falls back onto 'enthusiastic energies' to get by, instead of demands for real, impeccable quality of performance (check out my blog On CIrcus Oz's recent CRANKED UP). There is a fine line between good and great, and the difference is really, just plain "hard work". Watch the documentary of the recent Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE: EVERY LIITLE STEP (2008) to see what standards I am judging by. The Director is responsible for this standard, he has cast the company, and one assumes, especially with the incredible difficulties of staging a musical, that he has within the time limitations done his best to help the performers - there is also credited an Assistant Director, Valentina Gasbarrino. So, it is, then, next and most importantly, the responsibility of the actors to be able to produce the required skill level in all areas of this very difficult genre of theatre, and near enough is, definitely, not good enough. Employing a carpenter, I assume he/she has the requisite skills to do the job at a standard of excellence - I want my house to remain standing. An electrician the same - I don't want my house to burn down. No different, at all, when I hire an actor then, they must, I believe have the skills to do the job at a standard that I regard as excellent.

So, whilst applauding this production of SWEET CHARITY as an experience, and joining in the excitement of what is going on at the Hayes Theatre, it still, especially from the performing artists, not achieving the real qualities of a production of an international product. I encourage an audience to attend, for locked into that small space with the dynamic enthusiasms of this company one can be won, swept way, and forgive the lacks, because of the visceral vibrations of the closeness of it all. Sweet Charity is a good musical, the original conceivers were at some heights of excellence, or near enough to it, and the core drivers of this production appear to be similarly inspired. My concerns for this genre I love, are ambitious, and it is almost unbearable sometimes to watch some of the work we are given, here in Sydney, the recent GREASE production, a case in point.

This welcome new venture, the Hayes Theatre Co, should be a cauldron and centre for the pursuit of uncompromising excellence in its genre. It won't necessarily, as history will tell you, make you popular, and it may mean you develop a reputation for being difficult, but, if we all are on the same page, a bit of extra sweat and tears, is worth it. A happy professional company is a role model of skill and storytelling excellence, that never relents in the constancy of the pursuit of high achievement. I remember reading a story of Gwen Verdon, between the last matinee and evening performance of her last performances in CHICAGO, after a long season, calling a rehearsal, to solve some problems - now that is some example of pursuit of excellence. It may not have made her popular but it IS what makes a star. I, certainly, would be having some Book rehearsals with some of this company still, if not, a drill for finesse in other areas, as well.

I read somewhere recently, "Genius is the infinite capacity of taking pains."

Bring 'my inner child" back from the corner: Two musicals in Sydney in small venues. FALSETTOS and SWEET CHARITY. The first an example of a kind of Broadway "anti-musical" - rather, a play with non-stop music; the second, an ambitious mounting of classic Broadway fare with all the stops and whistles.

Both worth catching. Book your tickets, immediately.

P.S. Once again, no program notes about the writers of this project either. Heaven help the writer to receive some due respect from their co-workers in Sydney.

Reference:
1. SHOWTIME. A History of the American Musical Theater - Larry Stempel. W.W. Norton & Company -  2010.
2. FOSSE by Sam Wasson. An Eamon Dolan Book. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - 2013.






Thursday, February 13, 2014

Falsettos


Darlinghurst Theatre Co presents FALSETTOS. Book by William Finn and James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. At the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst.

Being Jewish.
Being married, with a family.
Being bisexual.
Being heterosexual.
Being homosexual.
Being a kid and not being sexual at all, and in the midst of this.

Coming 'out', being 'out', going 'out' and growing 'up' and coping. All of this makes up the content matter of FALSETTOS, the new production landing on the new stage of Sydney's latest theatre, The Eternity Playhouse, exploring, chasing, an answer to the question: What is "manliness"?, and, maybe, others.

This work pursues its interests, tells its story, entirely through song. There is no spoken dialogue. But, it is not an operetta, and it is definitely not a 'rock opera'. It is a play guised as a musical! And in this production, directed by Stephen Colyer, a play with only a piano supporting the 'song', brilliantly executed by Nigel Ubrihien, and, without the aid of electronic instrument or voice support - all natural sound and voice! (and all the warmer, more telling for it), we have a most winning musical adventure - show.

In the dynamic era of the rise of gay agenda politics in the seventies, last century, on Broadway, although mostly, obliquely, gay 'subtext' began to become 'text', that could be easily read - no 'code' going on for sure, for the want-to-be-perceptive - and although they were not lead characters "and all still portrayed as sexless, ashamed, or the butt of humour" they were seen and heard, up-stage and often centre, at least for a little of the stage-show time. They were "There!": in musicals like COCO, APPLAUSE, SEESAW and, of course, famously, A CHORUS LINE. Then in 1983, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, broke through some barriers and became the first Broadway musical to feature, centrally, a leading, two character relationship between the same sex - two men - that was dignified and truly 'human', and became a blockbuster hit. It was a musical in the Broadway tradition - that is, lots of set, costume, dance, jokes and out-pourings of sentimentality - and succeeded with mainstream audiences by 'balancing two conflicting impulses: The show's desire to 'out' the traditional musical, and its eagerness to be merely a 'gay version' of it." Harvey Fierstein (author of TORCH SONG TRILOGY), who adapted a French farce for the Book to LA CAGE..., tells us:
Gay sensibility was always in the theatre. But whether we got seen by large groups of people or not, there's a difference. This is America, and unless you can make money it don't count. So LA CAGE AUX FOLLES: hardly the first gay musical on Broadway, but the first gay musical to make money. And that's what makes it count." (1)
William Finn, a songwriter-librettist, over some 12 years, wrote three one-act self contained works: IN TROUSERS (1979), MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS (1981), and FALSETTOLAND (1990), each of them produced separately Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon. In contrast to the big Broadway musical, these were in a brave and undecorated format, and dealt with a few ordinary people in, slightly, extraordinary personal states.

 Later, during 1991-92, collaboratively, with James Lapine the last two of these one-acters were joined to form the show FALSETTOES. MARCH OF THE FALSETTOES dealt with the breakup of  Marvin's (Tamlyn Henderson)  marriage , and his new same-sex relationship with Whizzer (Ben Hall), and how all coped with it: wife, Trina (Katrina Retallick), son, Jason (Isaac Shaw), psychiatrist, Mendel (Stephen Anderson). There, this real but personally complex relevant-issue story rested. In the eighties, the "gay revolution" was shaken with the horrifying impact of AIDS. This became a late focus of FALSETTOLAND which appeared in 1991. Two new characters, Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann), two lesbians, were introduced, to the quintet of characters, and the death of one of the characters led to a coming together of all the extended 'family', with a definite sense of all 'growing-up', maturing, under the duress of the ordinary realities of life, as a result.

The union of the two works by Mr Finn became FALSETTOS in 1992. The simple ordinariness of this Jewish family and some of their friends, dealing with the influences of a public gay liberation atmosphere, permeates the first act and a half of the play. Approximately, three quarters of the way in to the story, one of the characters becomes ill with a 'mysterious' disease and dies. AIDS is only inferred and the extended family move through the normal, although, traumatic loss of one of themselves. There is no sensationalism here - it is just a story about ordinary people. It ran for 487 performances in the John Golden Theatre on Broadway, and won the 1992 Tony Award for "Best Book of a Musical" and "Best Original Score".

FALSETTOS is as unlike the usual Broadway musical as one could find (the recent show ONCE, is another, now on Broadway, is a contemporary musical play and production, pushing against the mega-stuff we have become used too seeing and hearing), it being a two act chamber musical without big sets, costumes, production numbers, show tunes or a happy ending, and unlike LA CAGE ... represents a kind of gay anti-musical, presenting "... homosexuality not as a cause to defend but as a fact of life ..." (1). Young, old, gay, straight, bi-sexual, all, Jewish or not, these characters are humanly flawed, and just trying to understand and solve the dilemmas of being part of the ordinary world.

Mr Colyer's production is set pragmatically against, and 'winged' by blue/grey walls, and in the centre of the back wall there is a window/picture frame, that nestles an untreated wooden sound-dynamic box, containing a shining black grand piano, that will provide the accompaniment to all of the show. Production Designer, and that includes costume, is by the modest, but theatrically practical, Gez Xavier Mansfield. The furniture for the production are six (or seven) open oblong boxes that become tables, beds, walls and coffins, add some simple, portable, collapsible black chairs - all very serviceable to the economic scene dynamics/changes of the storytelling. The design focus is to serve the story, the play. The lighting Design by Hartley T A Kemp appeared to be underprepared.

There is quite a lot of physical movement going on to support the songs and story with only an occasional glimpse of what we would call dance choreography. There is no accreditation for this work, but because of Mr Colyer's dance background, mentioned in the program notes, I assume it is his work. This work is beautifully and confidently accomplished by all, and sometimes with jaw-dropping spectacle, as all is done, often, while the performers are singing - a very big demand: Ms Retallick has a very difficult story to tell in one of her songs whilst, as well, participating in a step-board aerobics class - this is almost worth the price of the ticket alone! One remembers her turn in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, fondly, and tick the KPI boxes, that it was no accident - Ms Rettalick is a fairly amazing talent.

Besides the expert and sympathetic direction of Mr Colyer, the musical preparation by Co-Musical Directors, Chris King and Nigel Ubrihien, is a major achievement. Mr Ubrihien's non-stop , and enormously empathetic, accompaniment during the show is, maybe, the best performance in the experience of FALSETTOS.

The piano and the singers are not micro-phoned, the piano and the voices are 'unplugged', and there is, resultantly, a real sense of intimacy that is required from all in the theatre for the work to develop. It is an uncommon experience in musical theatre experiences today (in the straight theatre, alarmingly, as well, the Sydney Theatre demanding it, and/or director's using it, willy-nilly - in, even, small spaces: MACHINAL, in Wharf 2 for instance, last year. Is voice work still taught in the major drama schools, in Australia, or is it just too 'old-school' a skill?). This artistic decision by this company thus 'asks' us, the audience, to participate, actively, inviting us to 'lean in' to the performers , and so, to the characters, to bring the work to nuanced life. We identify, maybe, even adopt the characters as part of our extended family, more intimately. All of us become, so much more, finely, responsible for the appreciation of the dilemmas of this play-production, the 'circle' of communication being an active live give-and-take one, that asks us to be more than the passive, possibly semi-comatose listener, being swamped and 'abused' by the power of electronic sound levels which we have become so used to in the commercial theatres (a lot of my recent Broadway experiences, for instance: NEXT TO NORMAL, just one such endurance test). We become uncommonly involved in a very subjective way.

In the first act of FALSETTOS, Tamlyn Henderson and Ben Hall, construct a believable relationship, that intrudes, explodes, into the traditional 'family' structures, wonderfully played by Katrina Retallick in states of endearing bewilderment, and a young Isaac Shaw, who alternates the role of Jason with Anthony Garcia. Mr Shaw, a thirteen year old, is extraordinarily gifted and winning, and is clearly an equal, in this case (credit to the director) to the seasoned performers about him. Stephen Anderson, as the psychiatrist, is equally as committed and perceptive about the opportunities of his character. Margi di Ferranti and Elise McCann extend the 'family' dynamics of the work in a very delightful way. All the performers, both, as an ensemble and stand-out soloists, are convincing and expert. There is real clarity of text and truth of situation going on. Vocal work married to the physical work, seamlessly, to elucidate the story in the lyrics. One smiles, laughs at some of the acerbic comedy of Mr Finn's lyrics in songs like: "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" or "Everyone Hates His Parents", because of the prepared detail of these performers in their work, and we are moved not to maudlin states in the emotional journey, but to appreciative acceptance of truths, because of the controlled direction and acting, of very honest responders to the words and music of William Finn and James Lapine.

This is billed as a Mardi Gras event, but this production is a show that all lovers of musical theatre will enjoy, and even some that are not. It is accumulatively impressive and satisfying. Stephen Colyer, has, in his usual once a year production, organised another experience of a high order. Seeing his work more regularly would continue to enhance what goes on, on our stages - for there appears to be much detailed preparation, a clear empathetic vision, and a very able technique of the craftsman to serve the works he chooses to bring it to fruition with a high sense of integrity and "love.' Check out his resume - it is becoming a very, impressive body of work - e.g. TORCH SONG TRILOGY; NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY; KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.

Other work by William Finn includes THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM SPELLING BEE (2005) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2011-13), recently, opening Off Broadway, at the Second Stage Theatre.

Go. Enjoy FALSETTOS and spread the word.

P.S. One of my regular moans: There is no biographical information about the writer in the program. I guess this work just sprang from the ether. I would have thought, no writer = no work to direct, design, act in. The writer is the SOURCE, the INSPIRATION for the project, and yet is mostly unacknowledged by most Sydney Theatre Companies in their programs - a lot about the creative team, walking around the rehearsal room: that is the director, the designers and the actors, but not much, if ANYTHING, about the WRITER!!!! Usually because he/she is either dead or living somewhere else.

PHawwwwwwwww!!!!!!!

Reference:
1. SHOWTIME -A History of the Broadway Musical Theater by Larry Stempel. W.W, Norton & Company -2010.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

ACO: Dawn Upshaw, Elgar and Grieg

ACO, the Australian Chamber Orchestra present DAWN UPSHAW, ELGAR and GRIEG in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House.

UPSHAW, ELGAR and GREIG is the opening concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) for the 2014 season. The program is quite eclectic, performing John Adams, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Edvard Greig, Maria Schneider and Edward Elgar.

Selections from "John's Book of Alledged Dances", from a major composition of the same title by John Adams (1994), was the first work presented. This is a selection of five of the Dances from a ten dance cycle (one of the pieces is played twice: Judah to Ocean, bookending the selection). All of the pieces have 22 members of the string orchestra  accompanied by a recorded percussion sound track of prepared piano sounds - the prepared piano was, of course, the invention of John Cage. Originally, the prepared piano sounds were organised as loops installed in an onstage sampler, and one of the musicians triggered them on cue with a foot pedal. Evidently, it created too much suspense for Mr Adams, and so he has now created a CD of the loops, a decision he says "that allowed for significantly less anxiety during concerts".

In his notes, in the program, Mr Adams refers to a string 'quartet', creating the work, significantly, smaller than this large body of instrumentalists with the ACO. I wonder if less is more in this case. The use of the recorded prepared-piano seemed to me to be a kind of intellectual exercise, and that now the danger of miscalculation has been removed, does not have any real frisson or advantage. The most interesting and moving dance was Standchen: The Little Serenade, and because of the familiarity of the form, the second selection, Habanera, had some emotional tug. All in all, however, the work seemed to be less interesting than other work by Mr Adams. Perhaps, the broadcasting of the CD loops from speakers high above the orchestra, instead of from the floor with the orchestra, further diminished the impact of the composition experiment, and the intimacy of the sound of a 'quartet of strings' may have been lost with this larger orchestra, swamping the integrity of the work?

The guest artist, Dawn Upshaw then sang Liebes-lied (Love Song) from an early song cycle, Die Liebenden (the Lovers) - 1958-1959 - by Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, followed by Solveig's Song by Norwegian, Edvard Greig, from the Peer Gynt score. Whether it was because of the familiarity of Solveig's Song or not, I found the singing by Dawn Upshaw of this piece the best of the concert performance - familiarity breeding contentment.

Before the interval the orchestra, led by Helena Rathbone, played the Grieg Holberg Suite, Op.40, composed in 1884 for piano solo and then orchestrated in 1885. Written swiftly on commission to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Baron Ludvig Holberg - a writer, philosopher and playwright
Grieg chose to tap into the musical style that prevailed in Holberg's day, writing a 19th century take on the Baroque dance suite perfected by the dedicatee's contemporaries, Bach and Handel." In sound the work, despite been dressed up in 18th century costume, is neither Baroque or modern, but precisely in its own time.
The nostalgic familiarity of the sounds, something that I obviously was yearning for this Sunday, seduced me into an appreciation that probably was more grateful than discerning.

After the interval, we heard the major work of the concert WINTER MORNING WALKS composed in 2011, by American, Maria Schneider, using some poems by Ted Kooster. Nine poems written by Mr Kooster during a long recovery from an illness with cancer, from some one hundred, have been the inspiration for Maria Schneider. She and Ms Upshaw are daughters of the Midwest of America and had a kindred response to the words and the music, each having, as well, survived 'battles' with that disease

In his notes in the program, Mr Jay Goodwin tells us: When Ms Schneider, set out to compose WINTER MORNINGS walk "... she wanted to incorporate more of the freedom and unpredictability of the jazz world." So, three Jazz musicians, Scott Robinson (Alto and Bass Clarinet), Jay Anderson (Double Bass) and Frank Kimbrough (Piano) joined the orchestra.
Though their parts are not completely improvised, the three jazz musicians are able to modify and embellish, speeding up or slowing down the musical flow, exploring different rhythmic possibilities, and adding a sense of spontaneity to the work. Singer and orchestra must respond and react on the fly, demanding intense focus and a collaborative spirit from everyone on stage.
The performance began, movingly, with the first poem: Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning. While not doubting the passionate connection of all the artists to this work, I gradually felt it spoke of an experience that was very personal, and that there was a kind of beatific zealotry projected by Ms Upshaw in the work, that was almost too private for her to communicate, to me, to really include me, in the journey of the poetry and music. It seemed to be of a very densely, Midwestern exclusivity, and/or personal valediction of courage, that was too private to share relaxedly. Weirdly, I became distanced by the work, rather than embraced.

The ACO with Ms Upshaw recorded the work in 2012, and it is a Grammy Award winner. This is the work's first performances in Australia.

The concert finished with Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. It was an oddly chosen work, or, maybe I was still disconcerted by the mood I had been taken to during the Schneider and was still sitting outside the concert.

Welcome back to the ACO. I miss the experiences very much. This concert, however, was the first time that I was not aroused, made curious or celebratory about the time spent with them. Agree or disagree. The orchestra have performances this week at City Recital Hall Angel Place, Tuesday (8pm), Wednesday and Saturday(7pm) and a very convenient one at 1.30pm on Friday.

Bite Me


ATYP, the Australian Theatre for Young People present BITE ME at Wharf 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

BITE ME is a program of 10 new 7 minute monologues written by young writers involved with the Fresh Ink project managed by the Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp). It is an annual event. OUT OF PLACE was what we saw, last year.

The writing appeared to be, generally, of a much more interesting calibre than previously, benefiting, it seems from the leadership of Australian playwright, Jane Bodie, (THIS YEAR'S ASHES) assisted by Declan Greene (from Sisters Grimm: LITTLE MERCY and SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN) and Angela Betzien (THE DARK ROOM).

I had some moments of 'aesthetic arrest' during this performance, particularly, with SWEET IN THE SAVOURY by Tasmin Hossain, performed thoughtfully and instinctively, beautifully, by a very young artist, Angelica Mandani; FOOD BABY by Kyle Walmsley, performed with startling elan and insight to the judgement of the humour, by Julia Rorke; GEORGE by Keir Wilkins, performed by Paul Musumeci with some care; FACON by Felicity Pickering performed with too much movement and an over loud microphone, that distracted rather than clarified the writing, by Kate Williams, and TELL ME by Jake Brain, performed by Joel Jackson, hampered by a divided focus of skills - voice and body. The other writers represented were Emily Sheehan, Julian Larnach, Jory Anast, Sophie Hardcastle and Zac Linford.

I am not a fan of the monologue form as a theatre experience, usually. However, the work here was of interest. Get along and spot the writer of the future. Each of us, hopefully, will champion one, or another. Closes on the 22nd of February.

One hopes that these writers will get to write in a fuller form, with a cast of 4 or more characters, soon. A season of new plays commissioned by atyp, as in the John Clark inspired old NIDA, Jane St. seasons  would be a welcome 'innovation'.

 atyp, how about it? Fresh Ink some more.

Cranky Reservations:

Anthony Skuse has directed the work and, as usual, has guided the performers to some real place of security. The abstracted set design, by Gez Xavier Mansfield, is beautiful to look at, - lit, by Sara Swersky, with her usual eye for beauty - a nice art installation in a gallery, but providing difficulty of focus for audience seated anywhere but centre. The sound support by Jed Silver serves as an encompassing cover for the integrity of the bits that helps to make a whole. It is interesting to see the solutions evolved by Mr Skuse to give the 10 monologues some coherence, and, as in last year's OUT OF PLACE project, directed by Paige Rattray, choreography is the ingredient preferred. Adele Jeffreys was the movement collaborator. And, as in my impression last year, to the use of choreography, it seemed to me, that there was much too much of it, and that it began to appear to be indulged at the expense of full focus on the writing and acting (did GEORGE, for instance, need the full company to be moving synchronistically throughout the piece? - personally, I was distracted away from the text, with no artistic compensation.)

Mr Skuse tells us in his program note:
We rehearsed for a week in December reading through the texts and playing with ways we could use a table: sitting around it, lying on top of it and crawling underneath it. The table is one of those everyday objects we fill our lives with - like chairs and beds. The simplicity of its form underlies the complexity of its possible meanings. In art as in life the table can stand for family, power and death. Our physical relationship with tables can be expressive of our relationship to life.
"The table is one of those everyday objects we fill our lives with - like chairs and beds"- fill our lives with? Really? Use, maybe, but fill my life with? NO. Books, maybe, help me fill my life, but table, chairs and beds? No, definitely NOT.

"In art as in life the table can stand for family, power and death" !!!!!!! In life, really? In art, I could consider it possible, maybe.

"Our physical relationship with tables can be expressive of our relationship to life'" !!!!!  How?

"A bit of a stretch, eh, what? A big bit of hyperbole going on, there, eh?"
"OK, I'll give it a go."
But, finally, wearily, I thought, during and after this production - I thought the table was just that, still, a table, and not a representative of power, life or death in its usage in this context, and, I took solace in another person's remark: "... a cigar is just a cigar." 

That we had this pristine white topped table without chairs or ever any FOOD, considering that food was the theme of the originating idea of the writers' inspiration was an oddity- and while still not wanting to be literal, this table came, ultimately, frustratingly, to stand, opaquely, for a directorial/choreographic concept.

DV8 is a company that uses the conceit of practice of combining speech with text, (TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU; CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS), and they have specially selected/auditioned artists, and usually have given much time to achieve the probability of making the spoken word and the choreographed action, seamless, as one - it was a very difficult ask by Mr Skuse to give these young artists. A wonderful task, but beyond the skills and time frame, perhaps of the company - Mr Jackson, for instance, was committed but defeated by the accuracies needed to entwine his movement with his textual responsibilities for clarity in TELL ME - and the primary objective of the exercise of BITE ME was surely the  revelation of the writing (and the acting), not the wrappings of an entertainment dominating, in moved allegories of family, power and death? Yes?

I guess, it is all a matter of taste, really.

I'll stop going on. And on.

Proof


Ensemble Theatre presents PROOF by David Auburn at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli.

PROOF by David Auburn was first performed in 2000, and was awarded:

Drama Desk Award for Best New Play.
Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.
New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play.
The Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The Tony Award for Best Play.

All in 2001.

These five awards attest to the outstanding merits of this play. These merits are what draws one to this theatre (there has been a previous production at the Sydney Theatre Company, directed by George Ogilvie, with Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto, in 2003), and these merits, in the writing, is what gets one through the experience of this production at the Ensemble Theatre, directed by Sandra Bates, for the direction, and the acting are simply, and only, adequate.

Robert (Michael Ross), was a mathematician, of prodigious genius, at a very young age, later to become a professor at the University of Chicago, who, subsequently and unfortunately, succumbed to a debilitating mental illness. He had two daughters: Claire - 29 (Catherine McGraffin) who is married, and a financial analyst, living in New York, having left her sister, Catherine, to care for their ill father in Chicago; Catherine - 25 (Matilda Ridgeway) a, possibly, gifted mathematician who made the decision to give up her own university studies to care for her father, but who, as well, has developed, secretly, a revolutionary paradigm-shifting proof about prime numbers, whilst struggling with a fear of a genetically inherited tendency to a similar mental fragility as her father's; and Hal - 28 (Adriano Cappelletta) a student mathematician, who was preparing his Phd under the mentorship of Robert, and has been reviewing, the note books belonging to his teacher, and attempting to engage Catherine into a long wished for relationship.

The play is not really about mathematics, and so is not a daunting exercise for those of us who are fairly rudimentary with numbers, (no Stoppardian concentration, cleverness required here, a la JUMPERS or ARCADIA), it is, rather, an emotional observation of a delicate young woman, Catherine, in the throws of deep grief, attempting to find a 'proof' that will help her distinguish between her own sanity and the possession and pressure of 'genius' - a very American drama with a therapeutic pre-occupation, indeed. The play in two acts with nine scenes takes place over a three day period in the year 2000, with two flashbacks to 1996. The writing is full of surprise reveals, and dramatic twists and turns - it has sometimes the feel of a psychological thriller, as of Paula (Ingrid Bergman), in GASLIGHT, one can ask, while watching the play, "Is she (Catherine) mad or isn't she?", and be kept on the tender hooks of indecision, right down to the end. This is a story with Catherine as the centre of our interest - the first scene, we progressively, discover, is a mental delusion composed by her, and sets up the mechanisms for all the dramatic explorations/ambiguities of the play. We are led through an intriguing few hours, by Mr Auburn. The simple observation from Catherine: "You should have trusted me", ought to be an accusation thrown at us, who have doubted her, and give us pause about our swift judgements/prejudices. The play is wonderfully riddled with 'layers' of perceptions.

What, then, this play requires is a classic "method" approach to all the craft decisions, especially in the acting. A production demanding an approach, by the actors, director and auxiliary artists, to a deeply researched observation of the 'given circumstances' of the characters and the play, and the ability to translate that into performance. This should seem to be a "slam-dunk" for this company at the Ensemble, who still, honourably, credit Hayes Gordon as the Founding Director of the company, in their program notes - Mr Gordon once being an actor/director/ teacher, famous for his intense preparation of play production, schooled in the American traditions of the 1950'-60's - to quote one of the actors of the early times, from the Ensemble website: "Stanislavskian- Strasbergian- Gordonian." Indeed, I remember my first experience at the Ensemble, THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS, by Paul Zindel in 1971, directed by Hayes Gordon (in the 'round'), and been startled to shout out a warning to one of the characters,  during the performance, so 'real', intense and believable was the production!

In this present production there is only a token sense of an absorption in the 'method' of the acting style that is required to reveal the realities of the characters - for, here,  they appear to be superficially experienced, and decorated with, mostly, characteristics of behaviour, not character - I came to conclude that Ms Ridgeway's Catherine must be a 'coke-head' (cocaine addict) - for this Catherine seemed to touch her nose with her elegant fore-fingers so often, I thought it must be a choice, to reveal to us the origin of her possible 'madness'. I have recently seen,  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and THE GREAT BEAUTY, and may, of course, have been in a mistaken mind set. This kind of choice, permeates, unfortunately, all the acting, and is symptomatic of the shallowness of approach, for on the night I attended, it seemed when the text was not being spoken, nothing was happening - the play came to a halt, nothing sub-texturally was happening. There was no 'passionate pursuit of an objective', at all - (to speak the arcane of the 'Method'), instead, there was a barely 'acted' generalised set of static 'emotional states' on view. If the play does not have a central performance anchored, deeply, into the subterranean struggle of the inner turmoil of the character, (i.e. layered) and, then, supported by similar imaginative engagements, from the other characters in the play, there is no chance for conflict or real dramatic tension to resonate - the play will lose it's emotional intelligence, volume, integrity and, to be crass, wallop.

The history of this play, when one counts the above Best Play awards, and add the 2001 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, by Daniel J. Sullivan, an expert in this kind of writing, along with the 2001 Tony Award for Best Actress, to the originator of the role of Catherine, given to Mary-Louise Parker, (note, this actress in the television adaptation of ANGELS IN AMERICA - as Harper - you can, also, see her on television in WEEDS, if you are unsure of the qualities I am alluding to), tells us that this play has the potential to be a devastating night in the theatre. PROOF is in the tradition of other great American plays and playwrights: e.g. contemporaneously say, THE HEIDI CHRONICLES by Wendy Wasserstein; BURN THIS by Lanford Wilson; CRIMES OF THE HEART by Beth Henley; THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA by Horton Foote etc. where the text, along with the 'actions' indicated by the writer, is only the 'skeleton' or bone structure of the play, that need to be 'fleshed out' by an imaginative creative team. The writers have given the artists, approaching their work, clues, as to what to delve into, reveal, but not the complete solution.

None of these actors, in this production of PROOF, have been coaxed by Ms Bates to achieve this at the necessary artistry. Add the difficulty of the slack musical dynamics of this performance, orchestrated by Ms Bates, and dullness can set in. Observe where actors indulge in 'motivational' pauses for us to witness - in other words, where these actors (unconsciously, I presume) ask us to watch their character act-out the struggle with the textual offers of the character they are engaged with, instead of 'pursuing need' - both Mr Ross and Ms McGraffin seem settled into this routine of 'watch me act', instead of 'telling the story' with a 'passionate pursuit" of character need- which, because of the actual pauses written by the writer, cause the 'music' of this drama to stagger and appear effortful, leaving gaps, time, for us, as an audience, to disengage, to embrace a disbelief in the reality of the propositions of the play - characters, plot and dilemmas. A kind of tedium, exhaustion, set in, for me.

In the Hayes Gordon tradition-technique of approach to production, there is no way, I presume, one could have the detail of a green 'living' vine climbing up the walls of the 'house' in December, in Chicago, what, with its notorious winters - it being so cold! - and yet, here, in the design by Graham Maclean, permitted by Ms Bates, an acolyte and the designate of Mr Gordon's theatre since the 1980's, that is what we see - that vine in December, 1996, and four years later, in September, 2000,  exactly the same vine?! -nit-picking, for sure, but really... this is where my concentration had drifted to, in this production. The lighting design, by Trudy Dalgleish, also, is quizzical and lacks real import in defining the time shifts and seasons of the play. The music for this production, which has an extensive explanation in the program notes - it is the only interest examined in the notes: talk of Bach, Brahms, Hiller and the idea of 'mathematical proofs', like one of those tedious artist statements we are sometimes required to read in art galleries, to explicate what we are looking at, in this case, listening to - has little added affect for the experience of the performance of Mr Auburn's play.

That the Ensemble has the acumen to choose, perceptively, their program of plays - see this season brochure, (I did enjoy NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH and look forward to CLYBOURNE PARK, for example) - and yet be so lackadaisical in the preparation of the productions of those plays - plays that I want to see - is evitable, surely.

This production of PROOF, a good play, is barely adequate to reveal the potential of its dramatics. However, I will report, the audience I saw this performance with seemed, generally, receptive to what they had seen. Do see for yourself - the season continues until March 8th.

 Maybe, I am just too hard to please.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Legend!


DECORUM in association with the Sydney Independent Theatre Company presents LEGEND! by Pat Sheil at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo.

LEGEND! is a one man play by Pat Sheil. It creates a character, 'Slips' Cordon, a grandfather, played by John Derum, who is an anecdotal folk-historian acquainted, familiar, with some of the major figures and events of our last century. The authority for the veracity of his tellings is that of a self-proclaimed eye witness, and "I was there", becomes the running mantra throughout the recollections (the tales of Baron von M√ľnchhausen and George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman seemed to me, to be, vernacularly, of a similar DNA!). Like the Woody Allen creation Zelig, who finds himself present at many turning points of international history, 'Slips' serendipitously has found himself present and involved with the 'legendary' of some of our Aussie past: Don Bradman, Victor Trumper, Francis de Groot, Jack Lang, Pharlap, Dame Nellie Melba, Errol Flynn, Robert Askin, Joern Utzon, Sir Roden Cutler, John Kerr and even John "Jack" Simpson and his Donkey at Gallipoli, are some of the figures that are part of the panoply of the life of this "amazing' man, this LEGEND!

Set in a fully recognisable and decrepit living room of 'Slips' home (no designer credited, though technically supported by a real and mostly, unsung legend, Tony Youlden) surrounded by dodgy-looking memorabilia of his exploits, this shaggy-dog story of interconnected 'authoritative' braggadocio is an amusing, almost subversive, series of good-old fashioned Aussie debunking of some tall poppies of our folk history. Mr Sheil's writing has the familiar audacity of a lot of satiric writing of old, plus, unusually and welcomingly, for me, a sophistication of language usage - most enjoyable (I have just, co-incidentally, read my first P.G. Wodehouse novel, THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS, and thought, while watching LEGEND!, that Mr Sheil has a similar way with words, words, words, only very, very Aussie-like ones). Think: The Mavis Bramston Show, The "Aunty" Jack Show, or Norman Gunston, or, even the greatest of our satirists, Barry Humphries and his Dame Edna, or, more particularly, in 'Slips' case, of 'SIr' Les Patterson, and you are in the locus of this material. Mr Derum is familiar and comfortable in this piece of bravado, and as time passes will be even more secure, guided with a sure hand from Lex Marinos.

The work is just an hour long, broken with an interval (hardly seemed necessary), and I found myself laughing often. LEGEND! is a stand-up comic routine submerged in a partly fledged characterisation of a familiar type. The work stays fixed in its comic intents and is an easy way to spend some time. I had hoped, during the performance, that it would develop further into a deeper character-play study, in the order of say, the Steve J. Spears' THE ELOCUTION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN or Humphries' Sandy Stone. It doesn't, and maybe, I ponder, a chance to give the work a broader, a deeper interest for survival, is untapped. The human empathy of recognition that Mr Derum's 'Slips' encourages in us, stays resolutely in the 'piss-take' larrikin tradition of a lot of our comic writing and performance, and fends off an invitation for us to appreciate a true picture of a grandpa, much like the one at home, maybe, whose memory is decorated with much fancy.

Don't know what to do tonight on a balmy, summer night?

Maybe, a wander down to a comic night, with a beer, at the Old Fitz pub is worth a visit.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Travelling North


Sydney Theatre Company and Allens present TRAVELLING NORTH by David Williamson at Wharf 1, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay.

David Wiiliamson's TRAVELLING NORTH was first performed at the Nimrod Theatre, Sydney, in August, 1979, directed by John Bell. This play was the ninth in an output that had established David Williamson as the most prolific and 'bankable' writer that the Australian theatre had ever produced: THE REMOVALISTS (1971), DON'S PARTY(1971), THE DEPARTMENT (1975), THE CLUB (1977), amongst others, were proof of that last claim. To produce a David Willliamson play was to virtually ensure a good box office return - money in the bank for that lucky theatre company - for Mr Williamson had his fingers, exactly, on the pulse of the Australian psyche and foibles, and his audience relished it with great and grateful appetite. Mostly, they still do.

What marked TRAVELLING NORTH as different in his out put up to that time was the unique characterisation and plotting of a kind of romantic 'memory' play. It was, in my estimation, his first play that gave us characters that were not just recognisable 'agents' for his socially satiric critique of the Australian scene, but, also, deeply observed emotional characters with a tender mixture of human frailties and failures dealing with the big realities of life, specifically, ageing and death. Frankly, a love story, leavened with crisp, comic sentiment and not a scintilla of sentimentality. It was, as well, the first play of his to have satisfying, sympathetic observations of the female of the Australian species. There was with Frances, but too, with the daughters, Helen (Harriet Dyer), Sophie (Sara West) and Joan (Emily Russell), an insight of empathetic comprehension to the cause and effect of the origin of the behaviour of these women - they were not just slender caricatures positioned to be the butt of sexist jokes, as in other of his earlier plays. These women were understood and respected.

Frank (Bryan Brown), a war veteran in his 70's, a retired engineer, socialist, has found a companion, Frances (Alison Whyte), in her middle 50's, who is willing to travel north with him, from Melbourne, to find and live out the dreams of the 'mythic' promise that the tropics have always proffered to the Australian psyche. Says Frank to Frances: "We're going to lead the ideal life. We'll read, fish, laze, love and lay in the sun. … it's time you started enjoying life. … You're my companion not my slave, and that's the way it's going to stay." Not since THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL had the 'North' had such an alluring promise of a place of magic. Unfortunately, for them both, nature makes its call, and takes a toll on those dreams.

Frances stands alone on stage at the beginning of the play looking and listening, contemplating, perhaps a dream, in the warm, tropical atmosphere of a late Queensland afternoon, to be startled, that Mr Williamson indicates, comes from "an underlying tension and anxiety", by the entrance of Frank.The play finishes with Frances with a champagne glass in her hand, outdoors in the garden, to the swelling music of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto number three, declaring, though now alone, claiming, her freedom to "go travelling further north." Having, through the course of the play, been tested by the demands of her unhappy daughters, and the perturbations of the dying and demanding Frank, Frances has at last reached a state of real release that will permit her to really begin her own quest for independence and self-realisation. TRAVELLING NORTH, is, indeed, the journey of the burgeoning 'modern' Australian woman, unharnessing herself from the subjugations of family, and duty to men, and be an actualised 'self'. The play is set in a time of great cultural and social changes in Australia - the period between 1969 and 1972 - and the given circumstances of the "when" of this play, is a significant metaphor of the promised optimism for all of it's 'peoples', for change.

This production of TRAVELLING NORTH, Directed by Andrew Upton (only his sixth production as director at the STC - it has been interesting to watch his development) is set on a shining, gleaming wooden set of platforms of rising steps, (I could not help but see visual connection to the configuration of the pink granite steps and platforms to the outside entrances at the Sydney Opera House, and remember its connections to the sacrificial steps of its Inca inspiration), sitting in a stripped back theatre wall-'box'. It is a formidably bare and challenging image - it is a follow-up by the Designer, David Fleischer to his and Director, Andrew Upton's 'installation art' piece, that they created for their production of Joanna Murray-Smith's FURY, in this theatre, last year. That design, did not facilitate the flow or imagery of that play and neither does this design contribute much to this play (the irony of steps to be negotiated by older characters in the play, did not pass by my knees and hip objections without my consciousness ringing alarm bells). The set design's visual aridity is compensated, mostly, with lighting atmospherics for the two climatic extremes of Queensland and Melbourne by Nick Schlieper. This production has no furniture, except for a recliner chair, carried, late in the play, to the highest platform by the dying Frank, and acts, it seemed to me, as a kind of metaphorical throne, for the forced directorial imagery of a 'King Lear' inheritance for Frank, struggling with the "Goneril and Regan's", that he names the children of Frances, by this team of artists. There are, as well, next to no properties. The costuming, also, by Mr Fleischer, are fairly accurate creations that would be seen, just as legitimately on mannequins in a museum exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum - the wigs and make-ups are all over-stylised exaggerations, reminiscent of the work of Diana Vreeland in her costume exhibition work, recently featured in the wonderful documentary of her career. They hardly appear to be clothes or accoutrements worn by ordinary people.

This 'post-modernist' stripping to essences in the set design and presentation of couture exaggerations in costume and period look, does not assist this play, that seems to cry out for a naturalism to nurture the 'melodrama' of the play's pre-occupations. In taking such licence with the visual world of the play, Mr Upton, certainly, then, is making demands on his actors to create so much more, imaginatively, than the experiencing of the circumstances of the emotional narrative. These actors must create the entire world of the play (setting and practical details), and so have to speak not only with their voices, but, also, with their eyes, so that we, too, can see the whole world of the play that they exist in, and interpret Mr Williamson's intentions. The capability of all is variant- some can, some can't or don't.

The casting of this production and the performances that we are given, directed by Mr Upton, seem to lack emotional intelligence. Like the design, the acting from most of the actors has been reduced to the simple pragmatic essences of the action of the characters, without any deep or true motivational study, to a kind of imaginative aridity of expression. Mr Williamson's plays work best when the actors bring the 'homework' of the Stanislavskian realities of acting technique to their characters. Russell Kiefel, as the Doctor, Saul; Andrew Tighe, as Freddy and Emily Russell, as Joan, do best, and create, within the limitations of the direction, some real glimmers of the humanity that this text cries out for.

Bryan Brown, who is a film actor of some breadth of experience, and looks every physical inch a desirable catch for any woman - still has the matinee idol potentcy, physical glamour, even in shorts - has had a very limited history of theatre performance (most of it with the STC, in production of THE RAIN DANCERS and ZEBRA, two productions spread over some 15 or so years), and seems to be out of his comfort zone here, labouring under the strain of the verbal accuracy and responsibility of the role on the stage. He gives the appearance of a tentative line reciter and hardly deviates in character development from a narrowly conceived journey - that is, from irascibility to death, with some studied and grafted externalisations of physical decline - and rarely seems to be listening to the other actors in his scenes to any palpable effect or change. There is a kind of 'deer-caught-in-the-headlights' demeanour visible, which is distracting from the type of masculine bully, that Mr Williamson has written. True, there is a memory of the late Frank Wilson's original creation, and the film performance of Leo McKern, lingering, to persuade me that Mr Brown's performance lacks emotional depth or the ability to express it on the stage, which could be declared unfair, on my part. But Mr Brown's performance does lack the open and free emotional dynamics, that we may have witnessed in his film and television work.

Ms Dyer as the emotionally injured Helen, one of Frances' daughters, simply plays the superficial actions of her character and that she does not reveal the comedy or warmth as part of her perception of Mr Williamson's writing, is astonishing. Ms Dyer recently won the Best Actress Award from the Sydney Critics for her work in MACHINAL, and that those qualities are not on show here, is an alarming disappointment - is it the difference in direction that makes this work so pallid? Ms West, as the other more sympathetic daughter, Sophie, seems, mostly, out of her depth in any appearance of complicated empathy or insight to the character's difficult position and journey in the course of the play. Again, I found it curious, that while watching this production, the original performances of Jennifer Hagan and Julie Hamilton, from some 35 years ago, came roaring back to me, vividly, as deeply funny and deeply affecting revelations of complicated women. Perhaps, Ms Dyer and West and Mr Upton have no reference points for such women of that time and play over the surfaces of the text.

Alison Whyte is now playing Frances as a consequence to the indisposition of Greta Scacchi - maybe all those stairs in the design were prohibitive - and has had little time to develop the character to much depth. Ms Whyte seems to be cooly cocooned in the concentration of 'learning' the play and the complex opportunities of this role evade her as yet, which, of course, does not serve Mr Williamson's intentions well. It is a cold figure that we watch, and the necessary chemistry between Frances and Frank, as well with the other characters, is mostly absent. One wonders what Ms Scacchi might have brought to this leading role in the play. Ms Scaccchi, like Mr Brown, is a film actor of some note, but also, has had a very wide and famous experience in the theatre. Certainly, her warmth and emotional intelligence would have made her ideal casting for this very significant Australian character, and may have brought some redress to the balancing of the dramaturgy in the scheme of the writing intentions in this misconceived production.

Philip Parsons in his introductory essay to the Currency Press publication of the text of TRAVELLING NORTH (1980), is laudatory of its virtuosic writing. Constructed almost cinematically over some thirty three scenes, the intricacies of the subtle contrasts and juxtapositioning of the order of the scenes with a masterly conception and execution of development of plot, character and theme, is beautifully expurgated and worth reading. To be able to distinguish between the qualities of a good play and a good production is the concern of the discerning and regular theatre goer.

This production of this good play is inadequate in revealing why it is one of the cherished plays in the Australian repertoire. We shall have to wait a while longer to another production, to appreciate the joys of the playwriting of David Williamson in this wonderfully human work.

Sad to tell you, dear diary. Sad to say.