Thursday, 18 February 2010

Madagascar by J.T.Rogers

Madagascar by J.T.Rogers
Melbourne Theatre Company
Where and When: Fairfax Studio, Art Centre, March 18 to April 3, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

For the characters in J.T. Rogers’ play, Madagascar represents the exotic and unknown, a fanciful dream world, buts also the painful reality of famine and despair in Africa.

Rogers’ play is cunningly constructed by threading together the stories of three characters whose lives intersect in painfully intense ways. Time is elastic; memory bleeds into real time and characters who have been separated for years, share the same space, conjuring memories, snatches of conversation, arguments and past golden times.

Noni Hazlehurst gives an inspired and subtle performance as Lilian, a wealthy, acerbic and driven New Yorker who “stays in motion”, travelling the world to avoid her guilt and pain about her missing son, Paul.
Lilian raised her son and daughter, June (Asher Keddie) virtually alone, while her husband, Arthur, a charismatic and renowned economist, pursued his research in Madagascar.

Keddie is pale, luminous and emotionally fragile as June, who puts her life on hold to hunt for her brother.
Dancing around the edges of their lives is Nathan (Nicholas Bell), a less successful colleague of Arthur’s, who finds himself in a secret affair with Lilian. He is played with vibrating anxiety and self-doubt by Bell.

A powerful but unseen presence on stage with them is Paul, the missing son. His mother and sister adore him but we cannot help feeling that he is a narcissistic young man, obsessed with his father and determined to punish his mother, sister and Nathan for their human failings.

The play takes place in an apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. In this flat Lilian awaits her son’s arrival years earlier. It is the same place where June, for several years, tragically lives her life as a tour guide hoping for the return of Paul, and where Nathan reminisces about his time with Lilian.

Rogers’ dialogue is intelligent, articulate, witty and caustic. His observations about our dangerous and rapidly changing contemporary world are compelling and often funny. His characters come alive for us through their inner worlds, their memories and their hidden pain. It takes most of the first half for us to comprehend his complex interweaving of their stories.

Director, Sam Strong, moves his characters like ghosts, their paths weaving through the sparse, architectural design (Jo Briscoe). Paul Jackson’s lighting highlights the isolation of the characters and creates a flickering, otherworldly light through reflections from the water lying on the stone paved ground.

Madagascar is a mesmerising and superbly acted and directed production.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Mamma Mia ***1/2

Mamma Mia
Music by Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus, Book by Catherine Johnson
Where and When: Her Majesty’s, from Feb 13
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

Mamma Mia! is back and the stars are Benny and Bjorn’s songs from the phenomenally successful ABBA. Every song is a potential Eurovision winner. ABBA’s lyrics tell stories about love, loss and lifestyle so they lend themselves readily to musical theatre.

The narrative, by Catherine Johnson, is tissue-thin. Former wild girl, Donna (Anne Wood), runs a taverna on a Greek island. Her daughter, Sophie (Suzie Mathers) is marrying Sky (David Somerville), at the delicate age of 20; too early according to her 70s feminist mother.

High jinks begin when Sophie, unbeknown to her single mother, invites mum's three ex-lovers (Michael Cormick, Robert Grubb, Peter Hardy) to her wedding, hoping one of them is her unacknowledged dad.

The massive chorus numbers are electrifying including Voulez Vous, a sassy, sexy dance party with writhing bodies and Gimme Gimme Gimme, which features the seductive, youthful chorus. Under Attack is a quirky dream sequence with chorus wearing fluoro snorkels and flippers.

The dialogue is cheesy and awkward, lacking the necessary comic flair, making characters look two-dimensional. It works best when threaded into songs or underscored by music. The songs more successfully reveal characters’ inner lives and relationships.

Donna and her pals, Tanya (Jennifer Vuletic) and Rosie (Lara Mulcahy) are a treat reprising their past glories as Donna and the Dynamos, singing Super Trouper wearing white lycra and platform boots. And their encore of Dancing Queen is genuine ABBA.

Wood’s rendition of The Winner Takes it All is impassioned as is Mamma Mia, which accompanies her melt down when she sees her lover, Sam, after 20 years. Vuletic is an Amazonian temptress singing Does Your Mother Know surrounded by athletic boys, and Mulcahy rouses the quiet audience to clap along in her hilarious version of Take a Chance on Me.

Mathers brings a simple charm to Sophie with her warm, bright voice. Michael Cormick is absolutely delicious as Sam with his thrilling, rich and powerful voice. He even looks good in orange lycra!

The audience was strangely subdued for an opening night – no celebrities whooping and clapping. But the show escalates to a big musical finish with I Do I Do I Do and Dancing Queen. Then the crowd finally leapt to its feet in the finale, Waterloo, when Wood asked, “Do you want to dance?”

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Silvia Plath: The Girl Who Wanted to be God**

Silvia Plath: The Girl Who Wanted to be God
Gallery 314, Richmond
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on February 14, 2010

This week was the anniversary of American poet, Silvia Plath’s suicide in 1963. She was 30 at the time of her death but had produced a novel, The Bell Jar, and books of poetry including her early work in The Colossus and more mature work in Ariel.

The Girl Who Wanted to be God was originally developed by Gillian Hardy, Karen Corbett and Rosemary Johns with Brenda Palmer, who directs this production. The play attempts to depict, in an abstract form, Plath’s entire short, life: childhood, college years, her fraught marriage to, and separation from controversial English poet, Ted Hughes and more. Dramatising a biography is a tall order. A life rarely has a natural dramatic arc because of its ups and downs – and Plath’s life was certainly an emotional and psychological roller coaster.

The stylisation and abstraction of this production unfortunately obscure the story and character rather than illuminating them. The performance style feels laboured and script structure rather dated, like something devised in a 1970s drama workshop.

Plath is played by three women, all older than Plath, who depict Plath’s inner world by playing three alter egos: the parent (Laura Hill), the adult (Carolyn Masson), and the child (Peppa Sindar). Presumably, this is based on the old theory of Transactional Analysis that suggests that, at any one time, our thoughts and actions are governed by our inner parent, adult or child.

The trio communicate as separate voices in Plath’s head and through their stylised movements. There is insufficient detail or complexity to the movement which often feels undirected or aimless, and the actors look a little uncomfortable. Kasey Gambling’s unaccompanied snatches of song add another layer to the piece but the singing seems to be added on rather than fully incorporated.

The staging of this production needs greater complexity and resonance in order to capture the vivid, intense, layered and messy inner world of Plath and the velvety darkness of her poetry. The metaphoric form, in the end, does not quite work.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 5 February 2010

Farragut North ****1/2

Farragut North 
By Beau Willimon, Red Stitch Actors Theatre
 Rear 2 Chapel St., St. Kilda, February 5 to March 6, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: 4****1/2
Published in Herald Sun

The zesty dialogue crackles with wit and adrenalin in Farragut North, by Beau Willimon. The play dives headlong into the secretive, manipulative world of a political campaign for the nomination of the US Democratic presidential candidate. It is a world of spin doctors, ambitious interns, fawning campaign assistants, cut-throat journalists and competing party factions. This world makes you want to be a kindergarten teacher.

If you’re a West Wing fan, the characters, issues, whirlwind negotiations and back stabbing will be familiar. An hour is a very long time in politics. Careers and reputations are ruined in minutes with an ill-chosen word or a secret meeting. Willimon worked on political campaigns, including Sen. Hillary Clinton’s, and his inside knowledge gives authenticity and credibility to his revengers’ tragedy-style plotting. Give them swords and kings to overthrow and it could be Shakespeare.

Brett Cousins is driven and hard-headed as Stephen, 25-year old Press Secretary for Presidential candidate, Morris. He is a battery-powered machine, a calculating, media wunderkind who controls the campaign message. David Whiteley plays, with battle-wearied assurance, Stephen’s boss, Paul, the campaign warhorse who demands loyalty – although Whiteley appears a little too fit and youthful.

Stephen wrangles voracious Times journalist, Ida, who is played with steely determination by Karen Roberts. Lucy Honigman is sassy and confident as clever intern, Molly, who seduces her bosses. Tim Potter is marvellously understated and obsequious as lurking Deputy Press Secretary, Ben, who Stephen ignores to his own detriment.

Iowa seems to be in the bag and their candidate looks set to win. But Stephen’s dreams of a golden future crumble after he meets secretly with opposition Campaign Manager, Tom, portrayed with calm, ruthless confidence by Kurt Geyer.

Willimon’s script is cleverly crafted with plenty of plot twists and red herrings. Kim Durban’s production is taut and her direction of this accomplished cast is assured. Peter Mumford’s design is stark, cool and flexible in the small space and the entire production gives the impression of a rarefied, secretive world of intrigue, conspiracy and menace.

Life in this political fast lane is short, dangerous and not to be trusted. There is little to criticise in this script and Durban’s production. It is funny, challenging, superbly acted and inventively plotted. Aaron Sorkin must be jealous!

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper **1/2

 Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper 
By Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes
Where and When: La Mama, Feb 4 to 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

Being in the tiny La Mama space for Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper, makes the experience very intimate and personalised. The style is less like a play and more like a personal chat with a cheerful, old bloke called Lloyd Beckmann (Tim Stitz). 

La Mama is transformed into Lloyd’s living room, complete with comfy armchairs, pouffes, cushions, shelves crammed with family photos, books, and other memorabilia.

Lloyd Beckmann was Stitz’s paternal grandfather and the performance is really a tribute to the old man’s indefatigable character and relentless good cheer in the face of adversity. Stitz greets us in the newly renovated La Mama courtyard. He wears beekeeping regalia and conducts an informative session about beekeeping and honey beside a series of hives. Later, we even get to taste honeycomb and are treated to an aromatic sensurround (Jodie Ahrens).

Lloyd was born early last century in Queensland and tried making a living from his honey but resorted to working as a colliery manager until retirement at 64. Everything went pear-shaped with two bad business investments and he and his wife ended up living in a caravan in their latter years.

Stitz devised the play with director, Kelly Somes. The structure of the stories needs some work to make it a more theatrically compelling piece, despite its warmth and intimacy. The through line is unclear and the parallel stories of beekeeping and Lloyd’s personal life are not effectively interwoven. The play could make more of the metaphoric references about the older generation handing on to the next and the old queen bee being replaced by the new breeder.

There is a great deal of love in Stitz’s performance and we feel part of the family and its trial by the time we leave. The most emotive and riveting moment is when we hear Lloyd’s own cracked and aged voice on a cassette tape recording from 2004. Here he comes to life even more vividly than in his grandson’s depiction of him.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 1 February 2010

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room) ****

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room) 
By Gary Abrahams, Dirty Theatre
La Mama Courthouse, until Feb 7, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Published in Herald Sun 

The title of Gary Abrahams play tells all; people wall themselves up in dingy Parisian rooms where they deceive themselves and each other. They may be lovers, but they remain strangers in crucial ways because of their dishonesty. 

The script, adapted loosely from James Baldwin’s novella, Giovanni’s Room, is a densely written and emotionally taxing, romantic tragedy, although it initially disguises itself as a coming out in Paris story set in the 1950s.

The production has complex, layered acting. David (Jay Bowen) is a decorative but confused, young American living in Paris to find himself – and waiting for his father to send the money he desperately needs. He waits for his girl, Hella (Joanne Trentini), a brisk, progressive miss and another American child of the wealthy. 

Hella travels Spain to consider David’s marriage proposal. Everything goes pear-shaped by the time she comes back to gay Paris; it is much more gay than when she left – and so is her fiance.

While visiting a bar with his jaded, older friend, Jacques (Dion Mills), David meets Ku-Jean (Terry Yeboah), a lusciously attractive, African refugee. David spends the night, and the next several months, at Ku-Jean’s cheap, grubby room.

The play raises issues including love and lust, sexual attraction, sexual preference and what is considered perversion. It spotlights the profound guilt of the deceitful and the despair of the closeted and raises oppressive roles imposed upon women in mid-20th century marriage. There are also some ironic references to Americans being pure and happy people from a safe land with no murderers.

Bowen gives an accomplished performance as David, balancing passion with poignant despair while Yeboah is passionate and thrilling as the beautiful, exotic Ku-Jean. Abrahams directs their loves scenes tastefully and sensitively.

Trentini takes us on Hella’s roller coaster ride, beginning as a brusque, smart, independent woman but sliding into a drunken funk when she realises her life with David is collapsing and she is facing a lonely marriage. Mills captures the world-weariness of Jacques in his barely perceptible sneer and his slow, cat-like gait. Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, as the raddled, young American, Sue, has a disconsolate feel lying just below her artificial cheer.

Acts of Deceit could benefit from some editing and a less cluttered design, but it is a rich and well-acted production.

By Kate Herbert