Tuesday, 23 January 2001

Art, MTC, Jan 23, 2001

 by Yasmina Reza Melbourne Theatre Melbourne Theatre Company
at Playhouse, Jan 23 until 24 February, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Don't waste any time. Book your ticket to Art right now - then come back and read this.

Got them? Good. What you are in for is a smart, funny, skilfully written, acted and directed play about friendship and modern art. Yes, it's about the impact of a piece of contemporary painting on the relationships between three Frenchmen.

The translation of Yasmina Reza's ironic and witty French script by Christopher Hampton captures a local tone.

Roger Hodgman keeps the action uncluttered on Shaun Gurton's monastic design. Hodgman cast this perfectly so he can allow his actors their heads. The three look delighted and relaxed on  stage so we run with them.

William McInnes plays Serge, the smug and superior doctor and contemporary cultural elitist who spends 200,000 francs on a canvas by a famous artist. It is the ultimate in controversial 60s Minimalist painting being simply white on white.

As his older friend and ex-mentor, Marc, John Wood is a colourful and culturally conservative provocateur. He is pompous, opinionated, elitist and critical about Serge's painting and even his sanity.

Enter Yvan, played with consummate comic timing by Kim Gyngell. Yvan is tepid, accommodating, less accomplished and educated than the others. His major concerns are with his wedding invitations and the stationery he sells. He is willing to pretend to like the painting to keep the peace.

Writer Yasmina Reza cleverly weaves a sticky web of complex  and hilarious argument, confusion and criticism around these men. Their commonalities are called into question. The values they thought were common are no longer to be presumed. They spar, and spit and scream until it seems that this painting has driven a wedge between them.

The  downward flying juggernaut that is their declining love is fuelled by their need for control, the shifting balance of power between them, their loss of faith, their misunderstanding  and their careless attacks and manipulations of each other.

Reza constantly shifts their alliances and status, sending each to Coventry in turn. Their friendship seems hopeless.

It is extraordinary that she can make a play about people talking about art. It challenges critical theory, deconstruction, satirises the art aficionado and the critic. It demonstrates how the tiniest shift in values or taste can effect a friendships. We rely on common values in relationships. Any variation from our expectations can be fatal to friendship.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 18 January 2001

Dating Joe and Sunset BBQ, Jan 18, 2001

 by Mark Fletcher at Chapel off Chapel until 4 February, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There are often too many high camp shows in the Midsumma Festival  that represent stereotypical gay characters and themes. Happily, Mark Fletcher's two plays,  Dating Joe and Sunset BBQ, are not of this ilk.

In both plays the issues and characters could be any gender, any sexual preference. The stories are about universal human predicaments involving love, loneliness, loss, secrecy and the rigid expectations of a community that does not understand difference.

Fletcher comes to playwriting from being the CEO of his own successful software company but his writing is intelligent, skilful and complex.

In Dating Joe, we peek into a series of personal  moments in the life of a single 54 year old man. He is at home making a videotape to send to a dating agency. He is anxious, trying to please, to be attractive, to be himself and make a good impression on his unknown and unseen viewers.

Joe is played with great poignancy and empathy by Robert van Mackelberg. He could be any of us as he tries to reveal himself truthfully but continually doubts himself.

Fletcher is the master of the slow reveal. Pieces of the puzzle fall into place to reveal the complex nature of this man, his aversion to sterotypical gayness and his resistance to being pigeon-holed.

How do we find love? How do we meet people and form relatioships when we are not 20-something? How do we find our match when we are funny shaped jigsaw pieces?

Fletcher's dialogue is well-observed, honest and easy. He captures the nuances and complexity of natural thought processes.

Sunset BBQ, directed by Martin Croft, investigates a totally different issue about gayness and prejudice.

Peter Hardy sympathetically and passionately plays a doting dad of a Robbo (Matthew Robinson) who died in a car accident three years before. He is faced by the boy's friend, (Andrew Page) with some unwanted news of his son's secret life and desires.

Robinson is sweet and warm as Robbo while Page has moments of truth.

The simplicity of the staging and direction allow the dialogue to speak for itself. There are some awkward scene changes in both plays but the material is strong.

Don't think about these as 'gay' plays.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 January 2001

Corpus Christi, Jan 17, 2001

by Terrence McNally
Polemic Productions at Athenaeum II until 4 Feb, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"Look what they did to him!" say the apostles after Jesus is crucified in Terrence McNally's play, Corpus Christi. It is a poignant simple and respectful ending to a play that has caused controversy amongst religious zealots in Melbourne.

The tiny group of demonstrators outside the Athenaeum on opening night included both the conservative Presbyterians and the Prophets of Islam. What they object to is the portrayal of Jesus as having homosexual inclinations.

What they choose to ignore is the fact that this play is clearly written by a profoundly religious man, McNally, who represents Jesus, his disciples, the New Testament and Christian theology in a sympathetic and devout light.

What he does is leap into the 21st century where all kinds of interpretations are made of Christian Ministry, where gays follow the Christian philosophy, attend churches and marry.

This production with thirteen men on stage, is directed with inspiration by Catherine Hill who makes even the inexperienced actors look and sound great. We are introduced to them all as they are baptised into their roles by John the Baptist (Craig McDonald).

The production is seamless with scenes blending one into the other with songs, clever physicalisation and subtle, evocative lighting. (Nick Merrylees)

The script is a Morality Play in the mediaeval style. However, it is set in small town Texas although Hill wisely chooses not to use Texan accents. It might be even better to transpose the references to Australia.

We see Jesus (Lawrence Price) or Joshua as he is called, born and visited by three hilarious Wise Men. He grows up in a hick town attending Pontius Pilate High School. He goes to the prom and - here is the controversial moment - is seduced by Judas who is gay and an adoring and jealous young man. This is Jesus' downfall.

There are several exceptional performers. Daniel Frederiksen plays Thomas but charms the audience as Jimmy Dean/Satan, Patricia Joshua's awkward prom date and other roles. Bruce Langdon charms the audience as Thaddeus the hairdresser, a wise man and the booming patriarchal voice of God.

Andrew Hall as Matthew , the lawyer, is vocally expressive and s Judas, Trent Baker portrays an unhappy, troubled man.

Price finds a simplicity and child-likeness in Joshua that is essential to the narrative. His murder is moving.

Don't be put off by the protesters. This is a deeply religious albeit modern interpretation of Jesus' life.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 9 January 2001

Man the Balloon, Jan 9, 2001

by Matt Cameron
Melbourne Theatre Company
 at Fairfax Studio, Jan 9 until 10 February, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The notion of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is weird and hilarious and Matt Cameron's first full-length play for the MTC, Man the Balloon, captures both elements.

The play, directed stylishly by Simon Phillips, is absurdist rather than realistic so the peculiarities of SHC are milked to the max. The dialogue is crammed with witty references to exploding people, death, God, psycho-analysis and existential crisis. It's amazing how much we can laugh at the awfulness in life.

The balance could tilt further toward the existential to give greater depth but it works as comedy. The second half is the more successful. It is surprising and chaotic whereas the first half, while funny, becomes repetitious with a few too many running gags.

The cast is a great comic ensemble. Jane Turner as Fanny is a comic suburban nightmare housewife. Her dance routine is a highlight as is Christen O'Leary's  welcome Waldo song. The others are a cacophony of mad characters.

Cameron's narrative is set in a small town that is not even on the map and at which the trains never stop. Odd objects fall from the trains to start a new village fad: yo-yos, rubik's cubes, electric scooters.

One day, the butcher's wife, mother of Elliott Schmelliot (Luke Elliot) explodes in flames leaving only her stumpy legs smoking in the grey Victorian town square. (designer Shaun Gurton) Day by day more individuals combust.

The entire church boys' choir blows up during the funeral. It is followed by a parade of exploding comic townspeople.

Hector the misanthropic cafe owner, (Francis Greenslade) leads the flammable community then the sex-obsessed psychotherapist, (Julie Forsyth the wife-hating florist, (Richard Piper) the over-eating police chief, (Ross Williams) the ambitious mayor (Forsyth), the priest (Greenslade) and Fanny Fry the self-centred socialite. (Turner)

Naive young Elliot, who believes the emptiness and loss of faith  and love in the community are causing the explosions, sends a carrier pigeon for help. The town has tried religion, then analysis. Now, they await the arrival of Waldo, (Piper) a self-help guru who turns out to be a cynical nihilist who cashes in on other people's pain.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 7 January 2001

Romeo and Juliet, ASC, Jan 7, 2001

by William Shakespeare Australian Shakespeare Company Botanical Gardens, Jan 7, 2001 (summer season- no closing date)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Theatre and the great outdoors are not always used in the same sentence these days. This is despite the ancient Greek amphitheatres being in the open air and Shakespeare's Elizabethan theatres being roofless.

Glenn Elston's Australian Shakespeare Company returns theatre to the outdoors and takes advantage of the splendour of our Botanical Gardens. This year we see a return of Romeo and Juliet, that tale of teenage love gone wrong.

The environment  is gorgeous and the simplicity of the staging  and dramatic lighting allow the natural beauty to be focal. The eccentric buildings and huge palm trees create the backdrop for Verona, home of the feuding Montagues and the Capulets.

This space, of course, is not designed for viewing theatre so there are some problems with seeing and hearing. Audience is quite a distance from the stage so voices are body miked and Elston and co-director Phil Sumner, make the action huge and almost pantomimic.

There are some very fine performances from the seasoned performers in the cast while others struggle with the complex and poetic text and vocal demands.

As Romeo Hugh Sexton is is sexy and almost Errol Flynn-like as he swashbuckles and emotes. As his Juliet, Jacinta Stapleton is less successful although she finds an attractive ingenuous adolescent quality in Juliet.

 She is unable to sustain the role vocally and her lack of stage experience is obvious. Shakespeare is too demanding a place to start if moving from television acting (Neighbours) to theatre.

Kevin Hopkins plays a fine Mercutio. He is athletic, funny and credible as the feisty cousin and playfellow of the lovelorn Romeo.

Brendan O'Connor as Tybalt, is a strong presence and muscular foil to Mercutio.

Phil Sumner plays a very satisfying Friar while Michael Bishop and Briony Williams provide substance as Juliet's parents. Dennis Coard is charming as Romeo's father but is seen too little.

The ambient music is excellent, (uncredited) combining the flavour of both Elizabethan and contemporary rhythms.

Take a picnic and the family. Watch for the fruit bats and night birds who can steal the show. It is a fun evening under the stars.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 6 January 2001

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bot Gardens, Jan 6, 2001

 by William Shakespeare
 EHJ Productions at Botanical Gardens (enter Gate F Birdwood Ave)
 Jan 6 until February 26, 2001
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

When bats start pooping on the actors, you know it's outdoor theatre. A Midsummer Night's Dream is, once again, strutting about under the stars at the Botanical Gardens with a cast comprising actors, stand-up comics - and fruit bats.

Glenn Elston's Shakespeare Under The Stars has become a summer tradition which has now spread to Sydney, Perth and Adelaide. It rivals the productions in Regent's Park in London, Central Park, New York and Golden Gate Park.

After the sexy rock 'n' roll version of Much Ado About Nothing in 1999, Elston, with co-director Phil Sumner, has remounted The Dream. This production is fast-paced and is edited to a snappy two hours. It accentuates the comic, the sexy and the loud. It takes advantage of gorgeous natural surroundings enhanced by Tim Newman's lighting.

The cast, in modern dress, hurl contemporary references, songs, slang and asides into Shakespeare's poetic/comic verse. Elston's casting is far more appropriate than that of the recent Hollywood film, which has Ally McBeal whimpering as Helena.

The story so far: Oberon, the fairy King (Stephen Kearney) is ticked off with Titania, his fairy Queen (Tanya Burne) and sends his personal fairy, Puck (Brendan O'Connor) to find a magical flower to make her fall in love with some monster.

Meanwhile, the aristocracy are thwarted in love, then bewitched and confused by the Fairy King's floral potion. Nearby, six tradesmen prepare a "comical-tragical" play for the Duke's wedding.

The greatest treat of the evening was Kevin Harrington as Bottom, the conceited amateur actor. Harrington is a consummate clown and a skilful Shakespearian actor. his death scene is achingly funny.

The double casting shows the ensemble's versatility. The entire show is built on mistaken identity, slapstick and naughtiness. O'Connor and Kearney pump up the wickedness of Oberon and Puck while Greg Fleet and Will Anderson heighten the blokey sexual competitiveness of Lysander and Demetrius in a playful double act. 

Kate Atkinson is excellent as the addled and abandoned Hermia and Corinne Grant is a fine foil for her as the lanky loser, Helena. Adrian Mulraney, a fine classical actor, is under-used as Philostrate.

This is perfect summer family fare, even on these wintry evenings.

by Kate Herbert