Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Short & Sweet Festival 2006, Melbourne, Nov 29, 2006

 What: Short & Sweet Festival 2006

Where and When: Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until Dec 17, 2006

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Short & Sweet Festival, a play-writing competition for ten minute plays, runs over three weeks at the Fairfax Studio. In Week One, the quality of the ten productions varies wildly in script, direction and acting.

The most compelling and dramatic writing is in Relics, by Brett Danalake and Iain Triffitt. It is a cleverly wrought story of a Jewish woman who collects Nazi memorabilia, her most recent collectable being an horrific souvenir of her dead husband. The performances are very strong and the ending rivetting.

The Emotional Anatomy of a Relationship Breakdown (Suzie Miller) is a simple idea that comes to life on the stage with a capable cast. Miller effectively uses the device of having three actors play both the man and the woman in the relationship.

Memoirs (Emma Henshall, Ella Fenwick, Brian Opedal, Skye Gellman) approaches playwriting from the point of view of non-verbal, devised theatre. This melancholy and lyrical piece uses circus and movement in a non-verbal exploration of relationship and memory.

Other plays have some interesting elements but do not fulfil their potential. The 11 O’Clock (Josh Lawson) is a comedy sketch portraying a psychiatric patient who believes he is psychiatrist. When We Fall (Tamara Searle), a series of interlacing monologues, is initially poetic and obtuse but makes sense by the end.

Charlie (Iresha Herath), about a boy who has a crush on his grandparents’ farmhand, is a little heavy-handed as is Moving Fast (Adam Gelin), a broad comedy about an unemployed man who decides to take over the world and become an aboriginal-Muslim – all this while his wife is buying milk.

Eight Gen X Women (Rachel Ford), reads like a diary of young women lamenting their love lives. The stage is crowded with eight actors and the incorporation of singing and direct address does not always work.

Jack Rabbit (Gareth Ellis) is so abstract and wacky that its intention is unclear while Spring Session (Chris Hodson) relies heavily on two actors playing very cute dogs and a few repetitive jokes about Kim Beasley and John Howard.

A couple of themes pervade the plays: relationships and loss with a touch of madness thrown in. The great advantage with Short and Sweet is that, if you do not enjoy one play, it lasts only ten minutes and there are nine more.

By Kate Herbert

For Samuel Beckett, Eleventh Hour, Nov 29, 2006

For Samuel Beckett
 by Eleventh Hour Theatre
Eleventh Hour Theatre, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy

Tues to Sat, Nov 29 to Dec 9, 2006

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Eleventh Hour production, For Samuel Beckett, is Beckett’s Endgame with a nod to his influences at the beginning, namely some footage of Buster Keaton and part of Molly Bloom’s monologue from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The cast of four (David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape, Richard Bligh) displays an exceptional understanding of Beckett’s style and form. They capture the absurdity, the existential dilemmas, the slapstick and verbal comedy and the eccentricity of the characters and dialogue.

Endgame, in classic Beckett style, is a grim, comic view of human existence. It highlights human foibles, physical weaknesses, ageing, desperation and confusion as well as the awful reality of our personal power relationships.

Hamm (Houghton), an invalid, is the master who treats Clov (Tredinnick) like a slave. Nagg (Bligh), Hamm’s father, and his wife, Nell (Krape), are entrapped in two large rubbish cans. They represent all humanity, all damaged in some way and heading for degeneration and death.

All four are incapacitated in some way. Hamm is blind, crippled, in pain and restricted to a huge crate-like chair on wheels; Clov has bad legs and cannot sit; Nagg and Nell rest on stumps for legs and their sight and hearing are failing. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell.

Beckett’s debt to clowns such as Keaton and to vaudeville is evident in Endgame as it is in his Waiting For Godot. The dialogue is often rapid-fire, like that of a playful vaudevillian duo and the characters are archetypes, drawn with broad, comic brushstrokes.

Houghton’s plays the villainous master, Hamm, with a huge dose of irony and a fine, wheedling tone not unlike the egocentric Mr. Burns in The Simpsons. As Clov, Tredinnick plays the resentful servant with a shuffling gait and grumbling tone.

Krape’s eccentric voice and manner make the smaller role of Nell entertaining and Bligh’s Nagg is suitably whining and weasel-like, reminiscent of Wilfred Bramble in Steptoe and Son.

Directors, William Henderson and Anne Thompson, set the audience on two sides of the actors and focus effectively on the physicalisation of characters and adherence to Beckett’s principles of style. Designer, Julie Renton, uses distressed walls and canvas to create a grey environment that is highlighted by Niklas Pajanti’s dusky, evocative lighting. Live violinist, Miwako Abe, adds a musical dimension with Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin.

Beckett could happily celebrate this year, his 100th anniversary, with this production.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Babes in the Wood, Malthouse, Nov 21, 2006

 Babes in the Wood by Tom Wright
By Malthouse Theatre

Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Nov 21 until Dec 2, 2006

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Babes in the Wood, directed by Michael Kantor, is a chaotic blend of Victorian pantomime, political satire and new cabaret. 

It may have lost some of its surprises since its premier in 2003 but it succeeds as entertainment despite, or perhaps because of, its shambolic nature.

This remount has some new jokes and one entirely new audacious scene that leave the audience gasping. You might think that Steve Irwin (Eddie Perfect) and a chorus of stingrays singing a satirical ditty called, Die Doing The Thing You Love about the sting of love piercing your heart might be simply bad taste.  Strangely, it is a celebration of Irwin’s joy in his work. Its barbed (sorry!) criticism is directed at Germaine Greer - who will talk herself to death.

Babes is a play within a play within Australia’s history. An old-style travelling theatre tours to grim, remote towns performing Babes in the Wood in rough marquees out the back of grotty pubs. The complicated internal sexual politics of the actors keep interrupting the play.

Max Gillies relishes his role as the tipsy old actor playing panto dame, Auntie Avaricia, a vicious, greedy old cow. Auntie sends her servants Boingle (Julie Forsyth), an immoral kangaroo, and Flapgherkin (Francis Greenslade), a dim-witted emu, to murder her recently orphaned, newly wealthy niece, Ruby (Caroline Craig) and nephew (Lucy Taylor).

The pretty darlings are lost in the Australian bush but Auntie’s do-gooding daughter, Phyllis (Diana Emry), enlists her reluctant beau, Jack (Perfect), to rescue them.

The show is littered with anachronisms, historical fact and fiction, topical political references, bushfires, drought, mythical cities and a hashish-riddled dreamscape of old Baghdad.

Contemporary characters and songs hurl themselves into the Victorian melodrama. Gillies’ John Howard impersonation is impeccable, Perfect sings a mad version of Hello This Is Joanie and Emry’s rendition of Nutbush City Limits as Amanda Vanstone is outrageous.

There is a cameo of a creeping, shrouded terrorist, plenty of references to White Australia and the “Unaustralians” and a very funny Rumsfeldian reference to “unknown knowns”.

The original songs (music by Ian Grandage) are a highlight including, We Liked It Better the Way It Was, They Hate Us Because We Are Good and the finale, There Was Something Here. Eddie Perfect is a master of the cabaret song but the entire cast sells a song with verve and Grandage is versatile on numerous instruments.

Babes is a romp worth seeing.

By Kate Herbert

Hellbent, Red Stitch Actors' Theatre, Nov 29, 2006

adapted by Ailsa Piper & Hugh Colman from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
Nov 29 to Dec 16, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, is a revenge tragedy from the early Jacobean period after the death of Elizabeth 1. 

Hellbent is an assiduously edited version of the script rather than an adaptation. It is reduced from three hours to 100 minutes.

The editing reduces the cast of characters from fifteen or more to six. Several characters are folded into one. Lines of dialogue are reallocated and action is compressed into a shorter time frame. This has both positive and negative effects.

On the credit side, the story is more sharply focussed on the major players. On the debit, the narrative hastens too rapidly to its climaxes without our having developed clear understanding of the characters or issues at stake. The relationships cannot fully develop with such editing.

The play was a venomous indictment of the misuse of power and the excesses of the secular and religious leaders of the Renaissance period who were hell bent on power, violence, deceit or lust.

The beautiful, young and lusty Duchess (Kate Cole) is newly widowed. Her two very powerful brothers, the Duke Ferdinand (Dion Mills) and the Cardinal (Felix Nobis), are hell bent on stoping her remarrying. Secretly, the Duchess proposes, beds and marries her estate manager, Antonio (Nick Coghlan). Her lady’s maid, Julia (Verity Charlton) assists in the deception of the brothers.

The revenge and tragic repercussions are the result of the brothers’ actions and their enlistment of the soldier and murderer, Bosola (Simon Wood), as their spy and assassin.

The violence in Webster is typical of the revenge tragedies of the time but it can be too much for a modern audience to take seriously or tolerate. In some of the final scenes, particularly for Mills as the malevolent and crazed Duke, it tilts into melodrama.

Coghlan captures the steadfastness and honesty of Antonio. As the Duchess, Cole is best in her early skittish scenes before the onset of horror and grief. Nobis, as the Cardinal, has a stately, sinister dignity.

Wood goes some way toward making the murderer, Bosola, sympathetic as he fulfils his masters’ orders without the taste for blood.

There are compelling moments, particularly in the scenes after the Duchess’s demise where the story has time to unfold.

The play gallops along a little too fast and awkwardly in the first half but it is an interesting version of Webster’s classic.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Tomfoolery, Nov 15, 2006

Lyrics and music by Tom Lehrer, adapted by Cameron Mackintosh & Robin Ray
 Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Nov 15 until Dec 16, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

This reviewer is an unashamed Tom Lehrer fan. Tomfoolery, adapted by Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray, is a tribute to Lehrer’s masterly satirical songs.

Lehrer began at Harvard as a fifteen-year-old Mathematics prodigy where he then taught mathematics and began his parallel career as a musical satirist. He performed university revues but quickly developed a reputation that took him to concert tours, television and finally into recording studios when he tired of performing.

He is often vitriolic and his political satire remains pertinent in the Noughties. Nothing is spared criticism in the thirty songs featured in Tomfoolery. We hear favourites including Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, The Masochism Tango, The Vatican Rag and I Hold Your Hand in Mine, some of which were banned by philistines in Adelaide and Brisbane when he toured Australia in 1960.

Lehrer’s lyrics are sublimely clever, cunningly wrought and his rhyming owes much to William S. Gilbert. Punctuating the songs is Lehrer’s inimitable, acerbic patter.

The show is a pastiche performed by Rhonda Burchmore, Mitchell Butel, Gerry Connolly, Bert Labonte and Melissa Madden Gray and directed by Simon Phillips and choreographer, Ross Coleman.

The ensemble romp across sparkling Broadway steps before tattered velvet curtains designed by Gabriela Tylesova. Upstage, the tight five-piece band play and, on stage, Connolly accompanies songs on piano.

There is far more glitz than Lehrer employed. His unembellished, laconic style is absent from this production. At times, the complex choreography, multiple voices and characters interfere with the delivery of the songs. However, the group renditions of the anti-war songs, Who’s Next? And We Will All Go Together When We Go, are rousing.

Butel and Gray’s Masochism Tango is hilarious, Connelly wraps his mouth around the tongue-torturing The Elements and the group enjoy the riotous satire of English grammar, Silent E – Snore, Sniff and Sneeze - N’t.

The five diverse voices are not a perfect harmonic blend and the second half includes more solos. One huge hit was Gray’s version of The Irish Ballad as she Irish jigged her way through the murderous verses of Lehrer’s parody of an interminable Irish folk tune. Lebonte’s croons The Old Dope Pedlar that remains topical.

Lehrer as a bashful master of lyric and satire. One can’t help thinking that making a glossy show is the antithesis of what makes him special.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 2 November 2006

Catch a Star…Falling, Somebody's Daughter, Nov 2, 2006

Catch a Star…Falling
By Somebody’s Daughter and Highwater Theatre
Chapel off  Chapel until Nov 5 then Butter Factory Theatre, Wodonga Nov 8-11, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 2, 2006

 Recently we saw plenty of esoteric and indulgent art during our festival. It is a delight and a relief to see Catch a Star… Falling: raw, moving and inspirational community theatre that gives a voice to marginalised rural youth and ex-prisoners. 
This is a unique experience that everyone in a position of privilege and safety needs to see.
With Artistic Director, Maud Clark, a small group of women ex-prisoners with a history of drug addiction work in Northern Victoria with 12 to 16 years olds who exhibit anti-social behaviour or drug and alcohol abuse. Many dropped out of school and are, or have been, homeless. Their situations are a result of abuse and family trauma.
The eight teenagers working with four women on stage, reveal stories that are tragic, hopeful, enlightening and often funny. Each of the kids and adults has a different range of problems and challenges to overcome.
To avoid their dad’s violence, Clyde and his sister live in a tent by the river with their mum, Grace. They are hungry, unshowered and exhausted and are taunted at school for their dirty clothes.
When Barney’s Nana dies, his much older sister, Zena, a police officer, returns to town to try to look after him. Johnny, with the help of Trina, the School Youth Support Officer, ditches his criminal behaviour and returns to school.
Bert, the son of a heroin addict, is fostered by his teacher, a former junkie. Bert resorts to getting stoned daily. Ebony is a persistent runaway from many foster homes but now she lives with Trina and her daughter, Savannah, who escaped from Trina’s violent husband.
Many of the subjects were abused as children and their anti-social behaviour is a reaction to this abuse. The circumstances of the young people and their mentors are just examples of the many kids in trouble in our environment.
The stories are peppered by songs that are revealing, tragic or celebratory and there is plenty of humour and well-observed characters. The story of the boys trying to seduce girls in the park is hilarious.
Catch a Star demonstrates that, with early intervention and support, young people can find success, love and joy and pathways back to education. Highwater Theatre aims to help break the cycle of abuse, violence, addictions, institutionalisation and poverty through an intensive arts-based education programme.
By Kate Herbert