Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Present

Photo by Steven Chee
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and UBS present, THE PRESENT, from Anton Chekhov's PLATONOV, by Andrew Upton, 8 August - 19 September, 2015.

THE PRESENT, is an adaptation by Andrew Upton of the, Russian, Anton Chekhov play, PLATONOV. PLATONOV was a play found "among papers 'accessioned to the Central State Literary Archive in 1920.' from items found in a Moscow bank depositors safe. This box was that of M.P. Chekhov - Maria Pavlovna Chekhov's safe deposit box. She, the fiercely devoted sister of Anton. In 1923, the Soviet literary scholar, Nikolai Belchikov, introduced and annotated the previously unpublished play by Anton Chekhov. There is no certainty about when the play was written, but it seems there is some plausibility given to the idea that Chekhov drafted it in 1878, when he was 18, (OMG 18!) and that it was finished in 1881, and offered to the actress, Maria Yermolova, of the Maly Theatre, but was not presented. Some evidence exists, that allows further surmises, that Chekhov continued to work on the text until as late as 1883. In 1887, a new Chekhov play, IVANOV, appeared and, so, PLATONOV disappeared. The original text is long and unwieldly (it seems some 4-5 hours of material) and has been adapted by many writers, and thus there are as many versions and emphasis from the original, as there are, artists.

I have read the text used in the 1960 Royal Court production, Directed by George Devine and starring Rex Harrison; I have read and seen, the famous Michael Frayn, 1984 version, WILD HONEY; and as recently as last year, I saw the adaptation by Anthony Skuse, for Mophead, Catnip Productions and the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), simply called PLATONOV. The play has had various titles in its international adaptations: FATHERLESSNESS - the original drafted title; THE WORTHLESS MAN PLATONOV - the 1928, German title; POOR DON JUAN -the 1954, Swedish title; THAT FOOL PLATONOV - the 1956, French title; PLATONOV - the 1960, English title; PIANO by Trevor Griffiths -1980, another English title; WILD HONEY - the 1984, English title, and now THE PRESENT - the 2015, Australian title. Platonov, then, variously defined as man, Don Juan, fool, wild honey and present!

Andrew Upton tells us in his message from the Artistic Director, in the program:
... I was able to revamp the play specifically for the STC, to which end I had in mind most of this fabulous cast and indeed John Crowley as Director. I believe an adaptation should be tailor-made to the production because, although the play itself will stand the test of time, most adaptations are only useful in relation to their specific production outing. I have brought the play up-to-date (kind of) and set it in Russia in about 1995, with the rise of the oligarchs, post-perestroika. This has given me a lot of freedom with the play, so I have cut and shifted quite a bit from the original. Remaining at its centre, however are Mikhail Platonov, Anna Petrovna, Sergei, Nikolai and Sophia, for the dynamic that Chekhov concocted between these five characters triggers such fabulous drama. ...
There are some of Australia's (Sydney's) favourite actors in this company. There are, also, some of Australia's outstanding actors involved. THE PRESENT, in four scenes over three hours, begins at the gathering of the friends of Anna (Cate Blanchett) on the day before her 40th birthday. Her step-son, Sergei (Chris Ryan) has arrived with his new bride, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie) - an ex-squeeze of Mikhail Platonov; his friend-neighbour, Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) with his latest girl-friend, Maria (Anna Bamford), all awaiting their university companion, Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxbrugh), to arrive. He does with his wife, Sasha (Susan Prior), and their new born son. Other guests invited to Anna's party, she, a widow, being in a 'game' of flirtation, because of money problems, has encouraged two wealthy suitors (despite her own infatuation with Mikhail), one a propertied neighbour, Alexi (Martin Jacobs), who is accompanied by his son Kiril (Eamon Farren); and business oligarch, Yegor (David Downer), who, too, is accompanied by his son, Dimitri (Brandon McClelland). Others in the party guest mix are a retired army 'relic', Ivan (Marshall Napier), and a foreman on the property staff, Osip (Andrew Buchanan).

The two scenes of the first act are broadly played for character-comedy, establishing the relationships and the cultural/social 'role'-plays of each of the people in the action of the plotted scenario, to give us the 'histories' of the group of party-goers and a sense of the emotional 'playing field'. In the first long scene, long set-up revelations, the exposition of the play's circumstances, are given to us with naturalistic activities (in front of a 'symbolist' anonymous, all grey house-front with working glass doors, around a small table and two chairs, that, with a wooden garden bench, are the only furniture on the black paint stage floor, Designed by Alice Babidge). It begins with a kind of "get-on-your-marks, get-set, GO!", firing of a gun, aimed directly at the audience by Anna (one thinks of the ominous Hedda Gabler pistol 'pop'), followed by chess games, present unwrapping, drinks, smoking, hugs and greetings - hand shakes, air kissing - all, orchestrated with over-lapping conversation and the kind of psychological, physical 'teasings' that only the well-used to each other, can be part of. Mr Upton, takes free rein with his comic pen on top of the Chekhov raw material with relish.

Too, the usual thematic pre-occupations of Chekhov (it is interesting to see their presence here in this early juvenile play and to note the power of that pre-occupation in all his plays, especially the later great masterpieces, UNCLE VANYA and THREE SISTERS): the realising of the frustrations that the PRESENT time has revealed to them all, of the failures of their youthful ambitions, and the speed and the nature, difficulty, of 'fleet-footed' TIME. It appears as a prescient shadow on the gaiety of the unfolding, everyday behaviour of the participants in this story. Mikhail Platonov, the once promising university idealist, finding himself, simply, now, only a local country school teacher magnifies his sense of the his own mediocrity, reflected around him by his once ambitious fellow companions, Nikolai and Sergei, to whom he had  judged himself, way back - still does - to be a superior being (one of the oddities of this production is the obvious age disparity of Mr Schmitz and Mr Ryan, to the supposed university companion played by Mr Roxburgh - a visual decade or more is apparent - odd, and a little confusing), both now, too, similarly underachievers of their youthful dreams.

The second scene is in the dining/party space in the gazebo (thrust close to the stage edge, featuring windows and doors - not much other architectural detail - decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons), after the food and beverages have well and truly taken their physiological and psychological anaesthetic toll. Tempers and manners have become dangerously stretched in their attenuation and when their social standards ultimately snap, 'drunken' chaos ensues, with all behaving badly, culminating in farcical emotional inter-active explosions, the climax being the actual deliberate 'Semtex' explosive destruction of the gazebo. Ms Blanchett's Anna outrageously gyrates on a table,  between two grinding men, the father and son, played by Mr Jacobs and Mr Farren, in a particularly frenzied disco-dancing sequence, causing much laughter from the audience (is it the daring and abandon of Ms Blanchett or Anna that we are responding to?), and the nauseating, sexist, Don Juanish behaviour by Mikhail, too, scores laughs galore (for some of us it seems to be a stage performance given by the eponymous Cleaver Green of the television RAKE series - he, too possessed by Mr Roxburgh), floats one into a comic euphoria with only one brief moment of contrary true danger entering the episodes, caused by the oligarchical capitalist's son, Dimitri, thrillingly played in a very brief interlude by young Mr McClelland in a remarkable 'bringing-down-to-earth' exchange with Mikhail, giving, briefly, a glimmer of a possible spine to what otherwise, so far has been just a 'champagne' comic-vaudeville of the follies of spoilt people of a particularly 'Russian' caste/cast (check out the film LEVIATHAN (2015) - Andrey Zvyagintsev). If comedy was all you wanted, then the interval was a very pleasant pastime.

The third scene begins within the frame-work of the supposed blasted gazebo (the Designed look, merely, an empty frame - with no 'stain' or appearance of blasting), Mikhail seated centre stage on a chair, in front of a vacant skyscape with the roiling fog machine creating an impression of a kind of Powell-Pressburger, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), ennui. It appears to be an out of this world world, an out of this body interlude for Mikhail Platanov, in a highly stylised atmosphere, who is confronted by the 'satellites' of the world that he has been, so far, man-handling/spinning with an arrogant, condescending attitude, and now, in a drunken depression, attempts some soul-searching present 'reckoning' of his real position - standing - in this world, especially because of the withering gambits of his own exacting demands upon others. It is here that the guest Director, John Crowley, seems to make an error of choice (or is it he is just unfamiliar/ignorant of the 'habits' of his actors?) for each of the protagonists that come to Mikhail, in this production, brought on with them only a farcical-comic tone to their text, without any true spine of the Chekhovian dramatic human quandary, not showing the ambiguous distance between the tragic/comic behaviours of what it is to be human, of having the aspirations of an angel but the habits of an animal.

That tone was disastrously set by Mr Ryan, who 'guys' the tragic emotional depth of Sergei. (In observation, Mr Ryan seems to instinctively respond in his craft opportunities to a comic 'piss-take' mode to the emotional dilemmas of his characters, e.g. Boris in CHILDREN OF THE SUN, Christian in CYRANO DE BERGERAC). For, the actor, permitted by Mr Crowley, deliberately, exaggeratedly 'pretends' to comic effect for the audience, instead of experiencing the emotional depths of his character's grief of recognition that the woman of his dreams (Sophia) has never truthfully requited him with love - his recent marriage a love-sham. It ought to have been, could have been, a balancing of a truthful choice with the human comedy of a bewildered cuckold, so as to make a truer realisation of the values of all of Chekhov's writing (his short stories as well), instead of the 'silly-ass'-'Aussie-bloke piss-take' tradition he seemed to be reaching into. It  would have made better sense for the action of his scenes and, more importantly, assisted the action of the other characters that follow, procession-like, to the feet of Mikhail. Not one of the actors that followed in the dramatic schemata, not even the usually perspicacious, intuitive and immensely skilful Ms Blanchett, could bring with her, to the central figure of Mikhail, any secured redress for the serious, comic-tragic intention of Chekhov/Upton. The final short act of the play, set comfortably in a well dressed lounge, or reading room in the house, felt oddly chaotic and emotionally truncated, so that the unravelling of all of the overnight events of the scenario, those having occurred off-stage between the last scene and now, became complicatedly difficult to comprehend. The climax of the play, the firing, once again of the famous "Chekhov gun", became oddly bewildering and emotionally bereft of impact.

In summary, the production (the play?) was a comic success in its first half, but a little more than off-balance in the more dramatic developments of the second. The famous comic/tragic elements of the Chekhov canon, are adapted more successfully in the film version of the PLATONOV play, in UNFINISHED PIECE FOR A PLAYER PIANO (1977), Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. THE PRESENT, is a relative disappointment (there is a play version of the film called PIANO, by Trevor Grifiths - 1980, as well). Even, Michael Frayn's version, WILD HONEY, seems to be a more balanced adaptation, pathetic, empathetic and comic.

I saw this production twice in an attempt to fathom my disappointment.  I even re-read Mr Upton's early play - one not based upon, around, another playwright's work - RIFLEMIND (it, by the way, being much better than I remembered the production to be - it deserves a second look, I reckon), because I had felt the echoes of some of its themes in this adaptation of the Chekhov by Mr Upton, and true to my instinct there it was, amongst other generalisations, in a speech from the broken wife of the play, Lynn :
I got so angry on the way to the pub. So angry and I was glad. I was like this [explosion happening]. But walking home was. Terrifying. So good at passion I thought but no idea about love. Over and over. Good at passion but love? No idea. It was terrifying just trying to even get home.
This could have been a speech for THE PRESENT's Mikhail Platonov, who it seemed to be "so good at passion but no idea about love."

This production played to packed houses. The stellar line up of actors a bankable draw card, that, mostly, did not let us down. It was fun - if not, also, moving.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Steady Rain


Justin Cotta and Nick Barkla present A STEADY RAIN, by Keith Huff, in association with Red Line Productions, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo.  22 September - 17 October.

A STEADY RAIN (2007), by Keith Huff, is a cop show, a vivid law and order episode of a grimy underbelly intensity, looking at two Chicago men-in-blue, two schoolboy, neighbourhood friends, partnered to patrol their cities' streets for the protection of their citizenry. It examines two men, two bonded 'bros', under the relentless pressure of the 'job' they do, who over time have shifted the goal posts of their integrity, both in their public and private life so far for so long that, inevitably, something has to give.

This production, by Adam Cook, is gripping in its control of the story telling, and it uses the gifts of Sound Designer, Jed Silver, to create, sonically, the world of the Chicago locale, subtly, introducing a vital third 'character' for the developing  'atmospherics' of the scenario of the experience. Too, the Production Design, by Ross Graham, keeps the locations varied with his Lighting choices and creates the illusion that there is something more than two separate monologues with an occasional present moment dialogue interaction, going on.

The actors give very good, but obvious, performances. Justin Cotta, as Denny, the off-the-rails/bad cop strikes too quickly a heightened macho-energy that becomes a little too one state for too long. That Denny is dangerous and losing control is telegraphed very early, so that we get Denny too easily, and can anticipate/predict his disastrous plummet into the abyss. As a result the writing appears to be one-dimensional and plot-wise dull, despite the language skill. It is the stamina of Mr Cotta's ability to sustain his choices that becomes the pre-occupation of our appreciation/amazement of what we are seeing. Construction of character with an emotional discipline with a detailed restraint to the imaginative and intuitive response to the story development could produce more interesting work than the button-popping stresses we witnessed. The Marlon Brando question that that actor posed himself often: "What else can I do with this moment?" is what I wanted to ask Mr Cotta while I was watching. There were no surprises in his response to the scenario of Denny. Nick Barkla, begins a little under energised vocally but builds to a heartfelt angst at the luck that Joey, in these circumstances, is rewarded with. The turmoil of the good cop struggling with his attraction to his best mate's wife, and to the frustrations of his 'bully' partner/life-long friend are crafted well, even if the inner and outer physical destruction of Joey with an alcoholic addiction and recovery is hardly signalled for us - the fresh-faced health of the actor is what dominated one's impression.

A STEADY RAIN, is what, typically, almost dependably, one has come to expect to see at the Old Fitz Theatre under the Red Line Production curation. The macho, high testosterone bad behaviour of men, written and performed very well. More of the usual. I remarked, recently, that the presentation of BLONDE POISON was a good move for the demographic of the company, both for the representation of the female artist (and dare I say older artist), but also for the audience. We shall see how it pans out for the rest of this year and with their plans for the next year.

A STEADY RAIN, the typical reliable macho opportunity at the Old Fitz, well done, again, by this team of artists.

N.B. There is no information in the program about the writer!

Superposition


Carriageworks and Ozasia Festival present, SUPERPOSITION, by Ryoji Ikeda, at Carriageworks, Redfern, 23 -26 September, 2015.

Lisa Havilah, Director of Carriageworks, has made a commitment to the work of Ryoji Ikeda, SUPERPOSITION being the third work that Carriageworks has presented of the Japanese Sound Artist: test pattern no [5] and concert datamatics [VER 2.0] in 2013. Some of us know his work with the performance collective, Dumb Type - they performed in the Melbourne Arts Festival in 2005.

This work incorporates a large computer-generated dynamic of sound and light with two performers: Stephane Garin, Amelie Grould.

From the program notes of Mr Ikeda:
superposition explores a new notion of information: quantum information. The language of classical information is BIT (binary digits - 0 or 1, which is judgement and logical thoughts.
The language of quantum information is QBIT (quantum binary digits) - 0 and 1 superposed at the same time, which is a new way for us to capture the truth of nature at an extremely small sub-atomic scale - such as behaviours of photons or electrons.
When we try to observe a sub-atomic particle we cannot know both its position and its speed at the same time. Once we observe the position, we understand the information of the position but lose that of the speed.
Before we observed the position, the single sub-atomic particle was actually located at all possible positions simultaneously, which is the so-called "superposition state". In short, our observation fixes the position. It is unbelievably counterintuitive and is beyond our human comprehension.  ... BIT is digital. QBIT is analog - analogous to nature. BIT is discrete. QBIT is continuous - a continuum. ...
superposition is inspired by all these thoughts and is foolhardily and quixotically aiming to explore the new kind of information through art.

Sitting in the theatre we are confronted with a lower battery of ten independent computer screens. On the back wall, and above them, a large screen. In between, is a rectangular screen embracing the whole horizontal width of the installation, which can be, technically, viewed as one image, or as a variety of 'spaces' that can be sub-divided with independent images - mostly 10 or 12. A low sound begins to emanate throughout the auditorium and gradually, with the startling activation of the images, it played, simultaneously, an orchestrated sound/noise symphony. We had been warned about the intensity of it all, for as we entered we were given some ear-plugs to protect our ears. This combined image and sound concert, partly, manipulated live, by two performers, then, over an hour of exploration and extrapolation of the above scientific knowledge, are presented with a quixotic attempt to illustrate the idea of superposition. Too, with questions juxtaposing Science and Religion, for instance, we are urged, invited to debate other things. It can be an immensely immersive experience - and I felt it was better, for me, to surrender to the 'personal' journey intuitive response than it was to attempt to wrestle out meaning, of it all,  whilst in its thrall. Much like the way I responded to the BINDU SHARDS experience of James Turrell, at the National Gallery in Canberra, in April, I simply surrendered to the emotions provoked in my consciousness, without too effortful a logical reckoning of what or why  was happening to me, while in the live moments.

Looking at the complication of all the 'computer-machinery' in front of me in the Big Bay at Carriageworks, I was awed by the imaginative mind that had conceived the project. But, even more I was staggered by the brilliant co-ordination of it all - the technicalities cause hyperventilation and anxiety in me. It startles my conceptual naivety and practical skills that such courage, 'genius' can be given permission. One is grateful that it can be. One is very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it, and then, later, to ponder on it. I was reminded of the awesomeness of George Miller's conceptual imagination with his recent MAD MAX, FURY ROAD film, and my overwhelming admiration of his and his teams' logistics in bringing it into a reality onto the screen, for me.

On-the-edge art. To what next? Where will Mr Ikeda go? The evolution of Science and an artist's, art's response to express it. Is a gift to have witnessed this manifestation of it.

Slut


Sydney Fringe Festival present SLUT, by Patricia Cornelius, at the New Theatre, Newtown.

SLUT, by Patricia Cornelius won the 2009 Awgie Young Audience Award and the 2009 Richard Wherrett Award.

It is in a 35 minute 'story-theatre' form and is told, mostly directly to us, by a group of young girls from primary school through to adolescence and young adulthood, as they tell us of the life journey of one of their peers, Lolita, who sexually matures very early, and becomes the repository of much victimisation, from all areas of her world: the men about her, and more crucially her peers. Whether out of deliberate surprise, envy, jealousy, or cruelty,  Lolita is regarded by all as a SLUT.

The writing is gritty and poetic, and is unwavering in its mature view of the hypocrisies of ourselves and our tribal merciless need to have to have a target to condemn and ruin - it does make one feel superior to have one, doesn't it? Unfortunately, none of the performers in this production or the Director, Nartarsha Wrested, have any of the skills or experience to do justice to this very important work. Like Lachlan Philpott's TRUCK STOP (2012), Ms Cornelius deals in SLUT, with social issues and conditionings with unflinching accuracy with no apology. Ms Cornelius is a Melbourne writer that we rarely see in Sydney. Her plays usually are uncompromising in their subject matter and issues - may be , too tough, for the precious sensibilities of Sydney audiences? I ponder. The last time we saw some of her work was in 2009: THE CALL.

I was most eager to see this play by this much admired writer. Sad that the production was not up to it in any capacity. One had to look beyond the production to capture the truth of Ms Cornelius' writer's courage and skill.

Britannia Waves the Rules


Sydney Fringe Festival 2015 presents BRITANNIA WAVES THE RULES, by Gareth Farr, at the New Theatre, Newtown.

BRITANNIA RULES THE WAVES by Gareth Farr was premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2014, and is having its Australian premier with this production.

 A 90 minute 'story-theatre' exercise told directly to the audience, with some acted interludes with other characters, by a young Blackpool lad, Carl Jackson (Vincent Adriano), who to escape the boredom, "the shite" of his home town, follows up the invitation of a recruiting officer into the armed forces to see the world.  "We fight. We Win. We carry on." becomes his mantra as he is sent to Africa, Germany and finally to Afghanistan where he learns of "The Thunder in his Blood." He is witness to much horror of war and kills. He experiences amongst his soldier companions much grief of war. He returns to a black pool in Blackpool, aching with post traumatic stress symptoms and attempts to cope with the boredom, the 'shit' of that place once again.

This is a full throttle play of some quality in the writing, and with this production Directed by Deborah Mulhall acquits it fairly well. The staging and the managing of the other actors: Nick Rowe, Patrick Cullen, Alan Faulkner and Jane Angharad, is very secure and advantageous to the tensions to the issues of the text. The burden of the play's success falls, mostly, onto the shoulders and skill of Mr Adriano. The passionate commitment of this Mr Adriano is powerful, and I believe, with just a little more vocal discipline and emotional restraint in the climatic battle tellings, it could have been even more effective - just a trifle mis-judged in its emotional demonstration, showing-off.

Although, I have become impatient, exhausted, of the written-form of contemporary 'story-theatre' play telling used in this work, I was pleased and surprised by the performance. Glad to have seen it.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Wonderful World of Dissocia


The Kings Collective as part of Sydney Fringe Festival, 2015 presents THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA, by Anthony Neilson, in the Ambush Project Space, Level 3, Central Park, Broadway, 17 - 30 September.

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA, the play by English writer, Anthony Neilson has been seen in Sydney, previously in 2009, given by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). This is a wonderful play, the First Act taking us on a journey with Lisa Jones, who is in search of one lost hour that has tipped the balance of her life, into the land of Dissocia. The Second Act lands us back into a defining reality. The contrasts between these two worlds is the genius of this amazing play.

This production, by David Harrison, for The Kings Collective, adventurously, in the long warehouse space of the Ambush Gallery, have built an immersive series of designed worlds (Jonathan Hindmarsh) in which the audience is asked to perambulate with Lisa Jones as she travels through her disassociated world. The audience themselves, in this unusual way of viewing the performance can be in a world of disassociation, too, as they accustom themselves to walking and standing (for an hour, at least), juggling for the ability to see, and even more, importantly, the ability to hear the text, embodied by these actors, in what is a reverberating low-roofed, concrete and glass 'tunnel'.

It is a brave choice and does make particular skill demands on the company of actors which none of them really have, or, at least, show here. It calls for skills that can focus the audience to attend to the incidents/narrative of the act, to catch the witticisms of the text and to enable the audience to 'read' the choices of the actors, so that they can clearly comprehend what is happening in Mr Neilsen's play. None of these young actors exhibit the charismatic presence or the gravity of skills that the 'form' of the production demands. The acting, here, both in vocal and, especially, physical choice seems, mostly, approximate, discovered maybe in action of rehearsal, but not refined, not attended with enough detailed care by the Director.

Mostly, one is left with a sympathetic sense of viewing 'young' actors coping as best they can - revealing the effort of the actors over and above real identification with the imaginative characters and world that Mr Neilson has written. As well, because of the need to perambulate from one space to another, to be 'guided', coaxed to each of the spaces, the production looses the forward action of the narrative, for it has no accumulative impetus as we overcome the real difficulties of shifting to accommodations in the design of the action to advantage our receiving of the work. The reception of the play, even if you are familiar with it, is blurred, a little too effortful for the audience. If you are not familiar with it, though tantalising, it could be very bewildering - gathering a gist, only, of the writer's perceptive and witheringly comic/pathetic skills and intentions.

The contrast of the second act 'naturalism' with the audience sat, relatively, comfortably in fixed seating, then, can be moving or boring, depending on your empathy for the actors.

There is the usual reliable and imaginative Lighting Design, by Benjamin Brockman. The Sound Design, by Thomas E Moore, though, is handicapped with the acoustics it must struggle with to make consistent support. The actors are wonderfully committed but essentially the space and the mode of production overwhelms their input. The actors: Grace Victoria, Georgia Scott, Kate Williams, Liam Maguire, Ryan Carter, Alex Frank, Charlotte Cashion, Emma Harvie, Kirsty Marillier and Daniel Monks.

This effort by The Kings Collective with THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA is commendably adventurous but it, mostly, fails to deliver the agile writing intricacies and power of the play. The company has usually, reliably, delivered the 'goods' in their previous offers. In this instance it will pique your curiosity with its form of production choice but generally the work of Mr Neilson is obfuscated (diminished). It is, within the budget and maturity of The Kings Collective, a too ambitious adventure to succeed.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Kinski


Sydney Fringe Festival and Spooky Duck Productions present KINSKI AND I, Devised by CJ Johnson, at the 505@5 Eliza Street, Newtown Pop-up Theatre, 16 September - 27 September.

KINSKI AND I, is a theatre work Devised and performed by CJ Johnson, Directed by Michael Pigott. Mr Johnson is a Film Critic and reveals, here, with this work, a Fan-tastic admiration for the actor Klaus Kinski - 'one of the great actors of the cinema', he says  - particularly in the films he made with Werner Herzog: AGUIRRE,THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), NOSFERATU (1979), WOYZEK (1979), FITZCARRALDO (1982) and COBRA VERDE (1983).

The performance begins with a reading in the 'possessive' voice of Klaus Kinski, in an approximate  German/Polish dialect from Mr Johnson, concerning the making of AGUIRRE, and, particularly, focuses on the incompetencies of Werner Herzog, his Director. It is startling for its frankness and viciousness and one intuits that Mr Kinski may have been a man with the mind and self-belief of a completely self-obssesed narcissist - it has, some amusing sides, especially when you remember he went on to make four more films with Mr Herzog, and is remembered, mostly, because of those collaborations - no matter Mr Herzog's ineptness (Herzog has made a documentary on his working relationship with Mr Kinski: MY BEST FRIEND - 1999).

Mr Johnson, then came from behind his lap-toped plinth, and explained amiably, and with the attraction of a febrile enthusiast, to us, of his introduction to the world of cinema at the now lost (though the building still stands), Valhalla Cinema, in Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, and of his abiding, entranced 'romance' for Klaus Kinski. We learn that an autobiography called KINSKI UNCUT, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, was published in 1996, after the banning and pulping of the original called, ALL I NEED IS LOVE, in 1988, because of threatened law suits - one filed by one of his daughters: Nastassja Kinski. Mr Johnson shows us that he has both books and that the pulped book is the major source of the evenings entertainment.

What we hear throughout this 70 minute performance is a self-exploitation of the life of the man, Klaus Kinski, living his life 'on-the-edge', lived in manic excesses of many edges, possessed with fierce persona, both in his craft/art and personal life. The sexcapades revealed in this performance are highly depraved, as much because of the voluminous numbers of encounters he claims and describes, as in the taboos he declaims to have broken, in their self-celebrated details and relentlessly pornographic, salaciousness. One is made to agree, wholeheartedly, with the quote from Mr Kinski, in the publicity bumf: "A person might think that I only lie around in bed and pass my time f**king. That's not true ... I can't just f**ck, I have to earn money too."  He made 130 films - not many as well known as the Herzog collaborations.  So, indeed, sex to serve an addiction, and movie-making for money to be able to do it - his exclusive pre-occupations, it seems, from the  evidence given us by Johnson in his KINSKI AND I, lecture.

Mr Pigott, has incorporated some glimpses of the films (Laura Turner, videoscape) on a large white wall/screen. The work is full of verbal monstrosities and one wonders just what is the point of it all, besides its innate vulgarity of the indulgence of the ego on display. Mr Johnson, does little more than organise the quotations that he reads (well), and makes/gives no perspective or conclusions as to the raison d'etre of creating this show at all, except, it seems, to underline his whole wonder of the man Klaus Kinski.

Nastassja Kinski in an interview in 2015 asked what she would say to her father if she had the chance: "I would do anything to put him behind bars. I am glad he is no longer alive." A sentiment I carried home after leaving 5 Eliza Street, Newtown. Ironically, it was raining when I left the theatre, and I felt as if I was, symbolically, being cleansed.

From the media publicity: THIS IS NOT A SHOW FOR THE TIMID, AND YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Just who it is aimed at, and why, is the question you might debate after the experience, if you elect to go.
Why?
Why?
I guess because Mr Kinski  could and Mr Johnson wants and can.

Infinity Taster



A Late Night Show, presented by Red Line Productions, INFINITY TASTER, by Rowan Davie, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral st. Woollooomooloo, 15 Sept - 19 Sept.

Red Line and the Old Fitz Theatre has instigated a season of late night shows, after the main event, over the past months. We have seen a variety of work, from the well honed work of established writers in the One Act play tradition: DOLORES, by Edward Allen Baker; BULL, by Mike Bartlett; through to new work from monologists, to new multi-cast plays. INFINITY TASTER, by Rowan Davie, is a new Australian one act play, investigating how its 'wheels' will work now that it is off the page and embodied on the stage with strangers watching/participating..

The actors in this play: Rowan Davie, Eloise Snape, David Soncin, Stacey Duckworth, Jack Stacey-Gill and the Director, Janine Watson, were all part of a touring company for Bell Shakespeare taking the Bard to the country. In between the stresses and strains of doing that, Mr Davie wrote a play for them all and here it is. One can hear the banter of low comedy with the spirit of one-up-manship that may have occurred in the motel/hotel rooms after the showings, and in the Kia Carnival, that careered them from gig to gig, as Mr Davie explored and extrapolated his opus with them.

INFINITY TASTER is a satirical take of an actor/writer been caught up in the surreal world of the movie business: an agent, a studio and all the striving omnes in that kind of 'space' with all their desperate egos and needs, trying to make a war movie for the world to see. It is a fairly absurd but familiar situation with similarly familiar characters. Paulie, the actor/writer of this scenario finds himself caught up in a No Exit world, trapped with a mounting sense of the claustrophobia of limited creative options, mediated over by mediocrities. The text is full of over-the-top writing with jokes as cutting-edge trendy as can be just bearable, and as wafer-thin in character as necessary to keep it moving. The production felt to be just a little undercooked, but, on the other hand, the play is getting a fair workout in the space, and I'm sure much is being learnt from its 'airing' in front of an audience - part of the process benefit of a Late Night spot.

A drink (perhaps) in one hand and a  benevolent appreciation of juvenile comedy will give you some satisfaction with INFINITY TASTER. It has a very short run. What else are you doing out at 9.30pm? The Old Fitz is a very friendly pub.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Minusonesister

Photography by Brett Boardman
Stories Like These and Griffin Independent present the World Premiere of MINUSONESISTER, by Anna Barnes, at the Stables SBW Theatre, Kings Cross, 9 September - 3 October.

MINUSONESISTER is the Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) Patrick White Playwright's Award of 2013, by Anna Barnes. The action of the play is set in a contemporary, salubrious household of an Australian city, with a set of siblings - three sisters and brother - struggling, inside a wrapped crime scene room, to make sense of the consequences of terrible family/domestic violence, that has escalated into a series of bloody revenge murders. A socially-culturally apt reflection of concerns of one of our present real world dilemmas - check out your news outlets.

Apparently, other than in the naturalistic interactions within the script between the characters, Ms Barnes, has not assigned the direct storytelling narrative, so that it has been arbitrarily distributed within the collaborative needs of these performers. The play's writing style then, is the contemporary 'story narrative' form that we experienced most recently, at the SBW Stables, too, with the Angus Cerini play, THE BLEEDING TREE, (another play concerning domestic violence), and can expect again with the STC up-coming production of ORLANDO, by Sarah Ruhl. This play utilises the Electra/Orestes stories (Sophocles) - not a new idea in the history of playwriting, especially remembering in March/April that Belvoir gave us an adaptation of those same 'myths', by Jada Alberts and Anne-Louise Sarks, with their disastrously superficial exploration: ELEKTRA/ORESTES. (Must record the memory of Kit Brookman's more interesting, SMALL AND TIRED, of 2013, as well, working through the same family issues at Belvoir.)

So, in MINUSONESISTER, translated into the present time, two sisters (of a Greek family, I presume), Electra (Kate Cheel), Chrysothemis (Contessa Treffone), and their younger brother, Orestes (Liam Nunan), moving backwards and forwards in time, conjure a murdered sibling, Iphigenia (Lucy Heffernan), and recall and re-enact, for us all, the circumstances of the origins, and details of the consequences of domestic murder(s). This is a very successful 'time-machined' work by Ms Barnes and its logical extrapolations of the original have been carefully thought through into the ethics and law of our present world - unlike the Alberts/Sarks collaboration. Too, the focus on children/adolescents of this modern world, convincingly dressed in our present world costumes, command a belief veracity and, perhaps, a ghoulish gazing of some tentative fascination. The production values, the Design, by Georgia Hopkins; the Lighting, by Sian James-Holland; and a dense (though, sometimes overwrought) Composition and Sound Design, by Nate Edmondson, are of a very high quality - elegant and dramatic.

The actors have been drilled into an empathetic ensemble of play, for the play, by Director, Luke Rogers, with challenging and complicated verbal feats with the language demands of Ms Barnes' writing,  made choral in affect; and who are, also, required to be both the characters when in the subjective re-enactments of certain elements of the story, and, largely, the objective narrators/storytellers in the present time, in the theatre. The principle problem, for me, was that the actors never really seemed to be in any 'awe/state' of having ever experienced the events of the play in, either, the traumatic present in their recall, or, even more surprisingly, in the re-enactment sequences. They were, mostly, actors, impersonating objective storytellers with no apparent embodied memories of what Electra, Chrysothemis, Orestes or Iphigenia had seen, heard, smelt or did in this modern-day domestic tragedy. There were no personalised 'trauma' stakes from the story apparent in any of the acting - the closest being a generalised, remote intellectual comprehension of it all, but with no realised truths on view, nothing for the audience 'to read', of survivors of such domestic tragedies. And, however effective the acting in the production maybe, and it is effective, with certain manifestations of the acting craft, it never convinces beyond that they are anything but actors telling a story. On top of that, the company tended to shout the work, and within the flanked walls of the design, the consequent noise levels, in this small theatre space, caused a necessary 'pull-away' from the actors' efforts. One was forced to sit out of the play, unable, to 'lean' in to it, for fear of 'injury', to permit us to easily empathise, at any inclusive level, with anything much happening on the stage. We could not attach to the momentous subject matter of the journey of the characters in the play.

Stories Like These have taken up the 'thrown chalice' challenge of presenting this prize-winning and impressive play by Ms Barnes. One is grateful to the company for their deliberate engagement in contemporary writing, with an emphasis on new Australian work, and especially in presenting MINUSONESISTER. It is odd, is it not? Curious? One would think the STC would/should have some responsibility after awarding the playwright that they then present the work, from off the page to the stage. If for no other reason than to justify their prize-giving, and to promote Australian artists? And one can, further, beg the question, why the Literary Advisor at Belvoir didn't advise their artists that there was a significant prize winning play, not yet produced dealing with a contemporary telling of the Electra/Orestes myth. An actual play in a prize winning form, all ready to go! Really, odd, considering the unready nature and poor 'showing' of their ELEKTRA/ORESTES offer.

Mr Rogers' production could, unequivocally , with certain adjustments (particularly, say, of volume), reveal a very interesting Australian female voice of the theatre. Jane Bodie at the Eternity with RIDE and FOURPLAY, and Anna Barnes at the SBW Stables, making good impressions for audiences to absorb.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ride and Fourplay

Photo by Robert Catto

Darlinghurst Theatre Company present RIDE and FOURPLAY by Jane Bodie, at the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst, 4 September - 4 October.

RIDE and FOURPLAY are two early works from Jane Bodie. Both are lengthy one act plays. The evening is three hours long. It didn't feel like it on the night I attended.

RIDE (2001), is a two-handed journey as two 'moderns' wake up in a bed not remembering how they got there or what subsequently happened. In three scenes, over the course of a wet summer's day, the two of them interrogate each other, finding the words and language to awaken to a new and burgeoning reality, and at the very last introduce each to the other as Elizabeth and Joe. On a steep diagonally raked platform, with the necessities of bedroom and its props, Designed by Hugh O'Connor, the Director, Anthony Skuse, has brought the play to life with an easeful and intensely observed real-time naturalism with his actors, Tom O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Comfortably, they take their time through the 'geography' of the play and find (are finding) a rapport to successfully sustain the audience's interest. The atmospheres and 'intrigues' of the text revealed are gently, surreally counterpointed with some beautiful 'theatrical' lighting states created by Christopher Page, and otherworldly Sound Design effects, interwoven with the comforting roof-noises of gentle rain by Alistair Wallace. The production requires some generosity of concentration from the audience, but repays it with wry comedy and the luminosities of a beautiful play script-poetry by the writer, Jane Bodie.

In FOURPLAY (2000), after the interval, on the same raked platform, now stripped of furniture, four actors: Gabrielle Scawthorn, Aaron Glenane and again, Emma Palmer and Tom O'Sullivan, take the audience through the journeys of a collapsing relationship and the building of two new ones. This play is written as a non-naturalistic quartet of direct (straight out to the audience) story telling and occasional interactive re-enactments. No props, no set, just the actors, Ms Bodie's language, imagery and storytelling skill, the watchful shaping hand of Mr Skuse, and the invited imaginative concentration of the audience, combine to make this play a delight to unravel. The absolute absorption of the audience I sat with, in this exploration of shared story-telling, was a sure sign of the quality of all the artists involved. Ms Scawthorn is especially watchable and Mr Glenane, seen, relatively recently in ORPHANS, and last year in GRUSOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, delivers a simply clued and deeply experienced through-line of storytelling. Whilst, Ms Palmer and Mr O'Sullivan demonstrate, further, the flexibility of their creativity. It is well done.

This retrospective presentation of the work of Ms Bodie, at the Eternity Playhouse, reveals to those of us who know her work, all of the familiar tropes and preoccupations of her carefully honed writings, and allow us to appreciate more finely, the daring of her 'form' presentations of commonly experienced, complicated emotional situations told with insightful and deprecatingly funny 'gestures', gorgeously embedded in rich poetic trappings of language. The plays feel as modern as if they were just written for us this year, naked and raw to the truths of our remembered younger selves, but just as applicable to the lives of companions about us, today.

The Griffin Theatre has presented her work: THIS YEAR'S ASHES in 2011, and in an Independent co-production with Stories Like These, MUSIC, last year. One hopes that Griffin, Belvoir, or the Sydney Theatre Company have her latest offers on their lists for us to see, for here, in this choice of plays at the Eternity Theatre, we can measure a writer who we deserve to see and relish as her career advances. There is no substitute for consistent quality experiences and Ms Bodie's work suggests that she is a talent that we ought to be seeing: an Australian writer, an Australian female voice, that should be part of our regular contemporary experience. Where are her gate-keeper champions, to commission and produce her latest works?

Do go to RIDE and FOURPLAY. Go with patience, and the reward will be pleasure. Mr Skuse has, with his team, given her beautiful regard and honour.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Then


Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) present THEN by Yve Blake and Co. in the ATYP Space, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd. (9 September - 19 September.

ATYP have welcomed home an alumni, Yve Blake, who has had some success with her one woman/self devised project, overseas: THEN.

From the program: A WORD FROM YVE.
Way back in September 2013 I had an idea. What would happen if I tried to co-write a whole show with strangers? What would happen if I built a website where anyone could send me a story? [...] I built WhoWereWe.com and the stories came flooding in. Enter Alec Groves, a young composer who encouraging me to use cutlery and flushing toilets as percussion. Next, in steps Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Alice Cousins - two fresh young designers who combed my lyrics for images and conjured costumes out of a shoe-string budget. Noel Nussabaum and Joel Enfield added (video) projections [the best element of the show], and finally I roped in Georgia Symons and Phil Jameson to help me figure out what order to put everything in. That wasn't easy, because we had over 1,000 stories to choose from. 
All of the above succeeds in a fairly proficient technically well-organised cabaret show, with a computer laptop being Ms Blake's partner in performance, as she cues quotes from the many people who have sent short contributions to her principle question: Who were we, then? They appear on a screen for her to read for/to us in three (or, maybe, four) different voices, while interspersing  the mere verbal, with several compilation 'lyrics' for songs, from her 'stranger's' inputs, accompanied by adequate movement, and occasional costume changes.

The precision of the production is admirable, but Ms Blake's skills are only kind of OK because they are delivered by a cutesy Cyndi Lauper-esque persona, where girls just want to have fun, circa 1983. For the trouble with THEN is the painfully naive content that Ms Blake has curated from the 'flooding-in thousands' on her website, and has decided that that is what we would love, and appreciate. It is as if Ms Blake is playing with who we were, might have been, when our Barbie Doll, with her 'blonde' hair, was at the centre of our creative games.

In summary, THEN, is sweet, saccharine, and awfully cute, with a soup├žon of mawkish sentimentality, to cover other bases of a tick-box content formula. It can be a very long hour in the theatre. It is not for all of us, I'm afraid. Clearly, the ATYP artistic family believes in the show and have given it the time and space for others to have fun with Yve, on her return to these shores from the UK. Some of us did. Some of us didn't. There were red frogs and snakes of all colours as well as 'fairy' bread to have after the show in the foyer! Along, thankfully for some, some alcohol.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Bull

Photo by Geoff Sirmai
A Late Night Show: Renaissance Productions, in association with Red Line Productions, present BULL, by Mike Bartlett, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, 1-12 September, 2015.

A late night show, this production of BULL, by British playwright, Mike Bartlett, is a 55 minute, black comic/tragedy of the possible horror of present day Darwinian office politics, where only the fittest will survive, pitched in a powerfully exaggerated manner. Three employees meet before an interview with the boss and the outrageous verbal cruelty of the bullying and humiliation of one of the three is a marvel to hear. Its audacity is breathtaking. Its acceptance as a present-day normality by/in the writing is a shocking cause for pause for a deep consideration of the kind of amoral world we may live in. Set in London, arguably, the contemporary Banking/Corporate heart of the present world, the glitter of this modern city 'verbaling' may not be compensation for the loss of the human virtues we watch disappear. Having to watch this unequal verbal gladiatorial 'sport' , and often enjoying it, does make one feel complicit in the 'mirror truth' of the world, shewn up here, with such uncompromising purposefulness by Mr Bartlett.

The three employees, Thomas (George Kemp), Isobel, (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Phillipe Klaus) are awaiting a meeting with their boss, Carter (Craig Ashley), for it to be determined which of them will lose their job. There is no ambiguity as to who will it be from the first beat of the play and so what we are invited to do is to watch, and ultimately indulge because of the 'humour', perhaps, the relentless witty put-downs employed by the characters for the psychological destruction of one of their own. It is a bit like watching an intense version of most of our high-rating reality television shows - from the cooking ones, to the weight loss, to the dating ones (all of them) - where the squirm of the 'guests' are the core pleasure of the humiliations. Like watching in the safety of one's seat a carnivore of the wild stalking and bringing down for the kill a fellow creature in bloody graphic detail.

Working on the set of the main show at the Old Fitz, THE ALIENS,  under the direction of Rowan Greaves, these performers in BULL are confident with the dazzling, deliberate verbosities of Mr Bartlett, and give a stinging impersonation of human beings not too short of becoming poster-monsters of modern manners. Sitting in a theatre at 10pm requires a quality investment to grab and sustain one's interest. The writing and the performances in this production at the Old Fitz are that, and do. Riveting, and truly ugly.

Mike Bartlett was the author of COCK (seen at the Old Fitz earlier this year), and will be seen as part of the 2016 Sydney Theatre Company season with his Olivier Award winning play, KING CHARLES III, performed by the Almeida Company in the original Rupert Goold production as part of a world tour. Mr Bartlett, alongside Nick Payne (CONSTELLATIONS), Lucy Prebble (THE EFFECT) and Lucy Kirkwood (CHIMERICA), are four of the up-and-coming British writers in the theatre to catch when one can.

So, BULL ought to be caught while one can here at the Old Fitz. A coup of curating (accidental, or otherwise) at the Old Fitz to have two of the most interesting and better young, contemporary writers represented on their stage: Annie Baker and Mike Bartlett.  Go. Go to both, perhaps.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Aliens

O
Photo by Rupert Reid
Outhouse Theatre Co, in association with Redline, presents, THE ALIENS, by Annie Baker, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, 25 August - 19 September, 2015.

Annie Baker's 2010 play, THE ALIENS, is set in a fictional place called Shirley, in the state of Vermont. Two older men (early 30's) in the backyard of a coffee shop befriend a young worker of the shop, and share their ambitions and observations of life. It is part of a collection of plays, four in total, set in Shirley, Vermont, the others being: CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION (2009) - produced by the Ensemble Theatre, in August, 2010 -, NOCTURAMA (2010), and BODY AWARENESS (2008). These plays have been published as THE VERMONT PLAYS, and, most have been prize winning. In 2013, THE FLICK, by Ms Baker, was produced, and is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize (now in an extended season at the The Barrow Street Theatre, Off-Broadway - until early January, 2016), whilst late last month, her new play, JOHN, premiered in New York, at the Signature Theatre, to glowing reviews.

Anton Chekhov in 1895, had written a play, THE SEAGULL, in an explorative reaction to what he regarded as the grotesqueries of the writing and production for the theatre of his time, and of Russia - he realising from a career of refined observational 'naturalism' as a short-story writer. This play was an advancement on the relative playwriting 'juvenilia' and effortful striving for that 'difference' in his play, IVANOV, of 1887. The first production of THE SEAGULL, in 1896, failed: the audience did not, necessarily, understand what was happening, or complained, that they thought nothing had happened (still, sadly, the reaction to many a production of Chekhov's major plays today - bad productions, one must conclude). Chekhov swore that he would never write another play. Then, Vladimir Nemirovitch-Danchenko, who with Konstantin Stanislavsky, were the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, persuaded the author to allow them to present THE SEAGULL, in their opening season. Parlously, the Company had had a difficult reception, and when in December, 1897, THE SEAGULL premiered, the very survival of this fledgling company was at stake. It became a brilliant success, the storms of applause at the end of every act growing more and more tumultuous - the critics hailed it, as well. The Moscow Art Theatre was financially saved and a new form of theatre performance - 'naturalism' - was accepted. The audience was stunned by the 'naturalism', the seeming reality of it all - the settings, the costumes and the acting style. Says Nemirovitch-Dantchenko in his book, MY LIFE IN THE RUSSIAN THEATRE (1936):
Life unfolded in such frank simplicity that the auditors seemed almost embarrassed to be present; it was as if they eavesdropped behind a door or peeped through a window. As you know, there is no heroism of any kind in the play, no stormy theatrical experiences, no lurid spots to evoke sympathy, such spots as usually serve the actors to display his talents. Here was nothing but shattered illusions, and tender feelings crushed by contact with rude reality. 
This description of THE SEAGULL's reception, is an accurate, I feel, truth of the affect that Ms Baker's plays can have - at least on my reading of them, and the imagining of their potential. Mr Nathan Heller, in an article in the New Yorker, in 2013 writes, Annie Baker has developed "a style of theatre as untheatrical as possible, while using the tools of the stage to focus audience attention." 

In THE ALIENS, KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters), two friends, surviving a failed band, "The Aliens", meet (illegally), in the desolate back patio of a coffee shop in Vermont, decorated with a recycling bin and trash bin. Here, smoking, and blabbing, they 'chew-the-fat', without direction, about their daily aspirations and achievements. Evan (James Bell), a naive, seventeen year old, a new employee of the coffee shop, becomes gradually acquainted with them and later, joins them to celebrate the Fourth of July, with a single sparkler, to the 'orchestra' of the distant sounds of fireworks at a 'main event' in the city. The text of the play is a deliberate drive into the banal, the mundane, with conversations of not much narrative content, but with enormous sub-textual revelation opportunities, and sprinkled with occasional lyrics from their failed songs, and even a reading of part of the novel that Jasper is trying to write in his new enterprise. At the end of the play, young Evan strums on a guitar - a gift from Jasper which Jasper had stolen years past - to, falteringly, sing a folksong, "If I Had A Hammer" - the 1949 Pete Seeger-Lee Hayes song, made famous to my generation by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 'revolting' era of the 1960's - a youthful era of idealistic hopes and aspirations. By the end of the play all this ordinariness has, just as in Chekhov's great works, revealed the extraordinariness of what it is to be alive, to be existing in the tidal pulls of aspiration and love on that journey to the inevitable, unstoppable finish, of all us humans, us aliens (alienated), to a death.

What Ms Baker has been honing, over the past eight years (she is only in her mid-thirties), is a style of theatre that defies the urgent need of the 'commercial success', where the product, to capture an audience, has seemed to be, should be, MUST BE: "Bigger, Brighter, Louder". She has been exploring the action of our aspirations, in the 'time' between our words, in our thought gestures, and she insists, in her craft, on the TIME for that to happen. It is what I dub 'slow theatre'. It is the cutting-edge trend of our contemporary theatre: Amy Herzog with her play, 4,000 Miles (2011), and DETROIT (2010), by Lisa D'Amour, are other illustrations of this 'movement' - I observe, all female writers. It is happening  even in our cinema: the work of Steve McQueen: HUNGER (2008), SHAME (2011), 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) - this 'slow cinema' is what I call, 'Moving Portraiture', the camera capturing the face, the body of the actor, for the audience to read the inner monologue of the narrative, without the support of the spoken word - or, the Turkish Director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's films: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (2011) and WINTER SLEEP (2014). 

Just as in life, Ms Baker, wants the story to be told/acted through thoughts as well as spoken words. Just as famously as Chekhov, Ms Baker asks for the actors to observe Pauses and Silences, in her texts. So, she instructs specifically at the beginning of this published play script: "At least a third - if not half- of this play is silence. Pauses should be at least three seconds long. Silence should be from five to ten seconds. Long Pauses and Long Silences should, of course, be even longer." She asks that at least a third or half the play is to be 'written' by the actors in the Silences, so that they can be read, endowed, by the audience - imagine!

Of course, these pauses, if the play is going to work, need to be filled by the actors with an imaginative, clear, clue filled sub-textual action, flooded by their character's histories to sensitise the present - to be in the moment - as they pursue the future, to permit the audience to read accurately what might be transpiring; to endow the pauses and silences (ellipses, punctuation clues) with story and a forward action - the action of the observed every day, of the ordinary life in as near 'real' time as one dares. If observed, creatively, by the Actor, and enforced, rigorously, by the Director, there is possible a subtle exposition of a story of an immense cathartic experience for an actively engaged audience. Charles Kruger, of the Bay Area Theatre Examiner, in the US writes:
Baker takes the extraordinary risk of writing intensive silences into the play - some lasting two or three minutes. The effect is amazing. We seem to be experiencing KJ and Jasper's relationship in real time, not theatrical time at all. As each tiny revelation of character and insight is given, we are allowed ample time to reflect upon it as though we had actually heard it from a personal friend. These characters are so real, so authentic, so true-to-life that I felt as though the playwright had been eavesdropping on my most private conversations with my nearest intimates. A masterpiece.
That this 'new' form is working, is exciting, and is a success with audiences, is demonstrated with the growing reputation and expectations of the plays written by Ms Baker. That her past four works have premiered under the Direction of Sam Gold, might also, indicate, that she has found a fellow artist, prepared to trust her as a writer and encourage his actors to enjoy the work that demands a 'naked' revelation of deeply experienced personalised 'truths' in Pauses and Silences indicated in the 'musical scoring' of the play. Today, this process, by Mr Gold and Ms Baker, of attempting to take the theatre experience into an even more explicit 'naturalism' than what Nemirovitch-Danchentko and Stanislavsky achieved, with Chekhov's plays, is as 'radical' as anything else happening at the moment in the theatre, a choice away from other writers' indulgences in post-modernism (or, is it post-post-modernism?), in reaction from the well made 'commercial' play model - and I, personally, love it.

This production of THE ALIENS, at the Old Fitz, has a Director, Craig Baldwin, who does not fully trust his writer to know what she wants/needs to achieve her vision, by not fully observing the written pauses and silences - it does take courage to participate with her vision, the production could become 'boring', especially for the impatient audience/actor or lazy actor/audience - and who cannot resist a flair for personal theatricality ('auteurism), for example, with the interpolation of what I believe is a recording of Charles Bukowski giving a reading of his poem, "BLUEBIRD" during a lengthened scene change, with 'twitching' lighting effects (there are references to the poet in the actual play). I would of thought if Ms Baker wanted to quote Mr Bukowski, she would have, for she seems to know how to write a play and order her material for an audience. This was a Directorial overstatement of what the play is about - other poems are quoted in the program, and I was grateful to have them to read. It seemed, as well, that Mr Baldwin, was unable to advise, direct, two of his leading men to refrain from 'actorly' reactions, a kind of 'melodramatic' exhibition of the usual, self-gratifying motivations/re-actions of characters in the play's situations, and, further, in the case of Mr Wood, as KJ, a tendency to demonstrate an overt sentimentality. Ms Baker, in all her plays, stalwartly, avoids the sentimental gesture - she is, rather, deeply interested in the psychology of her characters, and the way it is 'lived' through by the ordinary man (not an indulgent actor).These characters have no self-pity, rather, having robust glimpses of the worth of 'trying' to 'do', a faint optimism about their lives, no matter the bleakness of their circumstances or prospects of success.

The production of this remarkable play is kept afloat with the committed and delicate work of Mr Bell, as Evan. The gentle, nervous naivety, the gently flowering of confidence of the character, as he journeys through the life of the play, underlines, in contrast with the other performers, the kind of choices that can transform this work into a sublime experience of observed humanity. It is the admiration that one may have for the whole of Mr Bell's performance choices that illustrates the 'radical' demands that Ms Baker is making on contemporary actors and audiences. What, at first, may appear as exaggerated, caricatured choices, by Mr Bell, reveal themselves in the observation of his offers over the whole of the play, to be craft of a high order - this is a finely calibrated, thoughtfully wrought performance. The arc of the psychological development of Evan during the final moments of the play as he sings the folksong "If I Had A Hammer", with all of the lyrics owned and clearly delivered for the audience by the actor, accompanied by the subtle sub-textual interrogation of the inner monologue, through voice, and especially body, as revealed by Mr Bell, delivers a wholly satisfying conclusion to the experience of the play. 

I note that the lyrics -many, unfortunately - and the sub-textual clarity of the 'purpose' of the songs, given to KJ, by Ms Baker, for Mr Wood, are verbally muddy in his delivery technique, and are lacking in any arc of construct, so that the imaginative inner life of KJ is static - where Mr Wood begins, psychologically, when KJ starts to sing, is where he is with KJ when it ends - there is no forward movement of storytelling going on. The magnificent offer that Ms Baker writes, in the 'ladder' speech, in the third scene of the second act, was made comprehensible not by the speaker, Mr Wood, but by the observed thought process of Mr Bell, as the listener. In this scene, then, Evan became more significant then KJ, for Mr Wood did not appear to be able to express the inner journey of the intention of the speech for the audience to be able to read it.

The Design work, by Hugh O'Connor, is minutely observed and excellent in its creative input for our belief mechanisms - the details of the weeds sprouting through the ageing concrete, the faded product signage are exemplary decisions increasing the atmospherics of the world of the play, and undelining the principal metaphors of the writing. The Lighting, by Ben Brockman, has real focus, if used too theatrically by the Director. There is no Sound Designer nominated, and part of the problem is the lack of good musical composition to suit the lyrics of the songs of the play to assist Mr Wood.

I recommend this performance of THE ALIENS simply because:
1) of the potential that one can perceive in the writing and to appreciate what Ms Baker (and Mr Gold, her New York Director) are exploring;  and
2) to enjoy the work of a startlingly brave performer, James Bell.

But, with the silences of the play mostly shortened, or fudged completely, a great deal of the potential of the play is absent. According to Ms Baker above, maybe a third, even half of the play! 

To clarify, from Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Baker handles dialogue beautifully; from bursts of sharply observed slacker-speak to the distinct shades of a 'whatever' or 'cool'. But it's the elongated silences, pregnant and empty, that carry the story and distinguish the script of THE ALIENS. ... Neither of these post-Beckett moderns is going anywhere (they haven't even a Godot to wait for), though some pretty monumental events transpire beneath the static surface. Both KJ and Jasper are damaged goods, which tends to make the many ways which they take care of each other all the more moving. In the underlying kindness of these stunted lives, Baker gives us rays of hope amid bleak prospects. 
THE ALIENS, a great contemporary piece of writing in a flawed production - adequate only, for me. On the other hand, some  believe, good. Certainly, this production does not deliver the "Masterpiece" that Mr Kruger saw in the Bay Area of San Francisco, quoted above. I, sincerely, wish it had.