Friday, 29 April 2005

Playing the Victim, by The Presnyakov Brothers, April 29, 2005

Playing the Victim 
By The Presnyakov Brothers translated by Sasha Dugdale 
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Red Stitch, Rear 2 Chapel St, St. Kilda, April 29 until May 21, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 29 , 2005

Playing the Victim, by The Russian Presnyakov Brothers, is like a satirical version of current Crime Scene Investigation television shows.

A laconic young man called Valya, (Angus Sampson) has a job playing the role of victims in the reconstruction of violent crimes. Running the investigations is the disillusioned Inspector Shnurov (Jim Daly) assisted by his doting Constable, Lyuda, (Olga Makeeva) and lackadaisical Sergeant, Seva (Anthony Rive).

The TV show parallel is obvious. The play begins with a screenwriter (Glenn Perry) meeting his director (Rive) to discuss the very same scenario of a man playing the victim. The series of bizarre crime reconstructions follow.

Director, Alex Menglet, accentuates the absurdity of the writers' style and the grim comical elements. This has the edge of a contemporary Chekhov play without the poignant characters and tragic inflections.

There are some really delightful scenes such as Valya's father and mother (Daly, Makeeva) giggling in their bed.

Sampson revels in Valya's cheeky diversionary antics and rambling monologues such as the rave about urine and Russian toilets. His distinctive rhythm and delivery blends well with this quirky character whose main objective is to avoid doing things he does not like such as dishes or swimming.

There are times when the ensemble seems uncertain or uncomfortable in the style but the play is definitely entertaining with its mad, grim humour.

Daly, as the Police Inspector, diverges hilariously from his task to solve the crime to bemoan the behaviour of the younger generation and the ailing performance of his football team.

A mysterious waitress in Japanese restaurant (Verity Charlton) dances and sings a peculiar version of Madam Butterfly story.

A criminal (Tomek Koman) struggles to explain how he stayed underwater to drown his victim. Another (Perry) escapes when the coppers forget he is in the toilet.

The little Red Stitch space is cunningly designed by Tomek Koman with a few simple items to locate scenes: two wooden chairs, a strip of lino as a swimming pool, a barn door as a café kitchen and an orange blanket as a bed.

The Presnyakovs' script is strange and funny but leaves us unmoved. The most entertainment comes from Sampson's shambling and ironical observations as Valya.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Monologues by Asa Gim Palomera, April 28, 2005

Monologues  by Asa Gim Palomera 
Women of Asia
 Chapel off Chapel, April 28 to May 7, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 28, 2005

It is heartening to see a stage filled with so many Asian women in Monologues, by Asa Gim Palomera.

Six women of diverse Asian backgrounds, plus two from Mediterranean cultures, perform a series of vignettes about the various predicaments of women from Asia.

All are based on true stories an were originally part of a larger project called Women in Asia.

The women are all versatile and skilful performers, both physically and vocally. Director, Asa Gim Palomera, underlines the emotional dialogue with abstract and evocative choreography.

Some of the characters are comic while others are grim and disturbing. Many depict the women in their role as sexual objects or as abused by or subservient to men or to other women.

Strangely, the stereotypes of Asian women are reinforced in many stories, although the reasons for such stereotypes are investigated to some degree.

In Virgin Sale, (Shireen Morris, Kaori Hamamoto, Janette Hoe)  an 11 year old girl is sold into prostitution by her parents and lives a life of sordid sexual exploitation.

S.S.S. - Retired Prostitute (Janette Hoe, Shireen Morris) depicts a young woman who uses sexual wiles to manipulate the 2,000 men she "loves'.

A more disturbing tale is The Dowry, (Mandi Sebasio-Ong, Shireen Morris, Daniela Lucchetti about an Indian bride who is abused and starved by her mother-in-law.

Milking Madam Butterfly (Yet Again) features an opera diva (Shireen Morris) commenting ironically upon the tragedy of Puccini's Madam Butterfly, a victim of her own dreams.

An overtly tragic story is Japanese Medea, (Miki Oikawa, Diane Stathis OK).
A young Japanese mother, isolated, humiliated and finally abandoned by her husband, drowns her children.

Woman on Top changes the pace. The wife of an Asian Prime Minister (Kathleen Baguio OK) revels in the wealth and power she has bought with her marriage.

Two comedies involve food and marriage. An Italian woman, (Stathis) married to a Japanese, bemoans the meagre portions of food in Japan. Then a Japanese wife (Oikawa) of an Aussie bloke, appears docile but uses commando-like tactics to compel her man to eat seaweed and rice.

There is a little too much emphasis on Asian women as victims and the finale of naked women grasping at kimonos in the half-darkness, was confusing and awkward.

However, Monologues is lush, entertaining, challenging and passionately performed and directed.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 27 April 2005

Smashed by Lally Katz , April 27, 2005

Smashed  by Lally Katz 
Store Room, April 27 to May 15, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 27, 2005

Two enchanting features of the production of Smashed are the magnetic performances (Katherine Tonkin, Suzannah McDonald) and the magical set design (Rainbow Sweeney).

Lally Katz's play revolves around two teenage girls and begins with Hazel (McDonald) lying prone in Ruby's arms (Tonkin).

Something horrid, they tell us, has just happened but they postpone their inevitable confrontation of this awful experience.

The pair retreat into their common past: their childhood, adolescence and budding maturity. They even tilt time to drift into 'memories' of their unlived futures.

Katz's script bends time as the girls comment upon or relive their experiences.

The two young women play out this entire series of fantasies and memories amongst a miniature set built of dolls' houses.

They tower over the buildings like giant angels walking through an unwitting city.

They relive their intimate childhood games, dancing to pop songs, discovering Hazel's mother is ill, their first kiss and sitting bored in Hazel's bedroom.

They creep back to the demolition yard where they make up stories about the redneck owners. They walk through the countryside, remembering a hill or a lake then they go for a drive in hazel's mother's car, singing at the top of their lungs.

Many elements of the text are successful. The notions of time and matter, love and friendship, memory and reality, loss and grief, create some interesting material, particularly in the first half.

However, the ideas, form and language run out of steam in the second half. The dialogue becomes overly poetic and the themes are repeated.

What makes the show work well is the lyrical direction of Clare Watson and the particularly compelling performances of Tonkin and McDonald. The pair are as unalike as black and white.

Tonkin is dark, statuesque and smouldering while McDonald is tiny, pert and blond and absolutely luminous.

The two accomplished young actors have enormous range and skill both vocally and physically.

Although it is not spoken in the play, it is obvious to us from the outset that hazel has died and Ruby is grieving. What we do not know until the end is how this horror occurred.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Journal of the Plague Year by Tom Wright, April 19, 2005

 Journal of the Plague Year by Tom Wright
Adapted from Daniel Defoe, by Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse  April 19 to May 8, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Journal of the Plague Year is a series of theatrical images, often inspired, exploring a year in the bubonic plague ridden London.

Defoe's fabricated journal of a man living the year 1665, is the foundation for Tom Wright's vividly composed text. The book is a pseudo-documentary and the voice of its central character becomes the narrator, a man who is witness to, and survivor of, the plague year.

The narration, by Robert Menzies, is the thread upon which the images of the plague are strung.

The production is a grim but often comic vision that combines the grotesque style with the vaudevillian.

Director, Michael Kantor, allows the gruesome realities of the plague to collide with the music, commentary, style and, perhaps most significantly, the hindsight, of the present.

It incorporates slapstick, satirical dialogue and slabs of text from Defoe. These weighty and awkward tracts of text are the weakest element of the production.

Printed titles, in the style of Victorian melodrama, introduce the horrors of each new month of the Plague Year.

Kantor uses a powerful and consistent theatricality. With one startling image following another.

A disembodied hands grasp at a dying man, huge balloons inflate overhead with an ominous hissing, a group of dissolute aristocrats fan themselves on a balcony (Ross Williams, Julie Forsyth, Marta Dusseldorp), a demented doomsayer shouts prophecies. (Mathew Whittet)

A leather-masked man (Dan Spielman) disposes of bodies in a yawning pit, ghoulish skull masks cavort through the streets and a giant rubber head appears over a fairground.

The atmospheric quality of the play provides a provocative and disturbing depiction of the plagued city.

The Dance of Death, typical of the bubonic plague victim, is distressingly portrayed in the convulsive death of a young woman. (Lucy Taylor)

The ensemble is compelling as they balance cruelty and comedy. Their awkward twitching bodies, white faces, blackened eyes, inky stained costumes and naked limbs give an awful sense of humanity stripped bare in a city laid waste.

Paul Jackson's lighting creates a complex, sculptural landscape with Anna Tregloan's constantly moving physical design. Max Lyandvert's live music blends an evocative soundscape with anachronistic contemporary songs.

This is a bold and irreverent production that augurs well for the new Malthouse.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 13 April 2005

Two Brothers by Hannie Rayson, April 13, 2005

 Two Brothers by Hannie Rayson 
Melbourne Theatre Company
 Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, from April 13, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 13, 2005

Although the brawling brothers in Hannie Rayson's play are not the Costellos, there is a passing jocular reference to those real brothers who sit on opposite sides of the political fence.

Two Brothers makes its socio-political attitude crystal clear: Australia has done a great disservice to its refugees with its Pacific Solution and introduction of Temporary Protection Visas.

Brother number one, James "Eggs" Benedict (Garry McDonald) is a conservative politician, the Minister for Home Security who aspires to be Prime Minister.

His brother, Tom, (Nicholas Eadie) is a socialist human rights activist and lawyer working with an Aid agency for asylum seekers.

In the first half, the story is more credible and politically accurate. As Eggs' corruption and ambition escalates on a Macbethian scale, so the story deteriorates into an unbelievable soap opera.

The opening scenes zip along at a rapid pace. Relationships and characters are introduced swiftly, although with limited depth. The narrative was compelling, the jokes frequent and clever and the audience greatly entertained.

Director, Simon Phillips, uses a revolving stage to move quickly and effectively between the short and lively scenes. Dialogue is witty and credible in the first half.

An Iraqi refugee, Hazem Al Ayad, (Rodney Afif) is a client of Tom's and a survivor of the sinking of an Indonesian people smuggling boat on Christmas Day. His entire family drowned and Tom attempts to obtain residency for him.

The pivot of the story is that Eggs is responsible for an Australian Navy boat not saving the refugees. All this is complicated by the fact that Eggs' son, Lachlan (Ben Lawson), was a Gunnery Officer on the ship.

It is difficult to engage with the characters in the second half because of the chaotic and unrealistic situation. The dialogue becomes didactic and characters become ciphers for the play's political statement. Eggs and his assistant, Jamie (Caroline Brazier), become two-dimensional emotional thugs.

The performances are strong from the entire cast, particularly from the leads, Eadie and McDonald and from Afif as the passionate Hazem. Strangely, Hazem is the most believable and certainly the most sympathetic.

The stark chrome and glass design (Stephen Curtis) reflects the steely coldness of the plot and is lit effectively by Nick Schlieper.

A new play inevitably has some glitches. Although Two Brothers is entertaining, its narrative and dialogue need some reworking to give it the punch this topic warrants.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 12 April 2005

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, April 12, 2005

 Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story 
Book, Lyrics and Music by Stephen Dolginoff
Theatreworks, 14a Acland St. St. Kilda, April 12 to 23, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The story of Leopold and Loeb, two teenage killers, shocked America in 1924 and entered US crime history.

American writer of musicals, Stephen Dolginoff, transforms this tale of murder, homosexuality, obsession and thrill seeking into a fascinating and disturbing musical for two men.

Two wealthy, educated and intelligent 19 year olds, Richard Loeb (Adrian Corbett) and Nathan Leopold (Nathan Butler) kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy in Chicago. They were caught and imprisoned for life plus 99 years.

Most of the details of the story are cleverly woven into the lyrics of the 15 songs. The rest is in the narration provided by Nathan Leopold, 35 years after the crime, as he addresses the Parole Board.

Butler and Corbett are appropriately cast as the two boys who seem such unlikely candidates for the horror they perpetrate.

This is an unusual story for a musical but it is strangely effective and affecting. It is not harrowing to watch but there are some distressing revelations in the story.

Dolginoff's songs draw on classic musical form and the music underscores the dialogue.

Pianist, Vicki Jacobs, the only musician on stage, brings passion and skill to the score.

 One drawback with the music is that the songs sound too much alike with repetitive tunes and little variety in style

However, the songs are well sung by Corbett and Butler who both have clear, bright voices that blend tunefully in their duets, particularly in the impassioned My Glasses/Just Lay Low.

The staging is sparse with only a couple of boxes and a single chair on stage. Director, Martin Croft, keeps the action simple and the focus on the characters, relationships and songs.

Cunning lighting by Katelyn B., (OK) closes the cavernous space to create discrete and intimate locations for the scenes.

Leopold and Loeb were lovers at High School who reunited before beginning Law School. Loeb was bisexual and charming. He manipulated the lovelorn Leopold to be his accomplice in a crime spree, seducing Leopold into a sexual contract written in blood.

Loeb became obsessed with Nietsche and believed that he and Leopold were superior men who could outwit anyone. He was wrong.  

This volatile fusion of compulsions led the pair to the kidnap and murder.

The show is diverting and capably performed with a very satisfying twist at the end.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 8 April 2005

Mannix by Rod Quantock, April 8, 2005

 Mannix by Rod Quantock  
 Kingston Arts Centre, April 8 to 10, 2005

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 8

Dr. Daniel Mannix was the controversial Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne from 1913 until his death at 99 years in 1963.

Mannix was an intelligent, fiercely independent and vocal Irishman, a spokesman for the underclass, the workers. His constituents were the Irish Catholics of Melbourne who, early in the 20th century, were still considered dangerous outcasts.

Rod Quantock uses as research for this one-man show, performed by Terence Donovan, the early period of Mannix's reign.

Donovan plays Mannix as well as the feisty Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, and several other characters of the period.

This intimate and small scale play begins with Donovan playing a 10-year-old naïve and poverty-stricken Irish Catholic boy who witnessed the arrival of Mannix in Melbourne in 1913.

Through they eyes of this child, we hear of Mannix's compassion, generosity and fortitude. The Doc, as he became known, tried to follow the motto he assumed on ordination as a Bishop: "All things to all men."

Quantock's script is a series of monologues direct to audience, recorded quotes from the Argus of the time and of Mannix's critics and some delightful Irish ballads sung live by Donovan in a warm and sweet voice

Donovan portrays the dignified Mannix at the pulpit and in the street. He rails against injustice and speaks out, to his detriment, against Hughes' planned referendum on Conscription during The Great War.

Mannix's efforts attracted enormous criticism and paranoia. He was called "belligerent" and "provocative" and then accused of being associated with "reckless extremists, pacifists and pro-Germans.".

 Mannix became the target of every bigot in the country - but he marched on relentlessly with his quest for fairness.

Donovan plays Mannix with warmth and his opponents with a gentle criticism. Although he was a little under-rehearsed on opening night, the show has legs.

Quantock wisely chose a short time span of Mannix's career on which to focus. The verbatim speeches and quotations are effective in telling his story and expanding our understanding of the man.

The show leaves us wanting more. In its next incarnation, the play could expand further on Mannix's dynamic and forthright personality, the characters around him and the view of the Australian press of this historic figure.

By Kate Herbert