Friday, 17 February 2017

John, MTC, until March 25, 2017 ****


THEATRE 
By Annie Baker, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until March 25, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 16, 2017
Stars:****
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Friday Feb 17, 2017, and later in print. KH

 Helen Morse & Johnny Carr
In her play, John, award-winning American playwright, Annie Baker, braids the ordinary with the peculiar and the real with the otherworldly, evoking a slightly disturbing sense of dislocation and miscommunication.

In the historic town of Gettysburg, site of a horrific American Civil War massacre, troubled couple, Elias (Johnny Carr) and Jenny (Ursula Mills), arrive at a Bed and Breakfast run by the relentlessly cheerful but ever so slightly odd Mertis (Helen Morse), who prefers to be called Kitty.

Attentive hostess, Mertis, like one of her beloved birds, flutters around her guests in her kitsch B and B that is cluttered with bric-a-brac, decorated with old-fashioned, floral carpets (Design, Elizabeth Gadsby), and a pianola that has a life of its own.

Her big-city guests and their petty bickering seem banal in comparison with Mertis and her even more eccentric, much older friend, Genevieve (Melita Jurisic), who is blind and intermittently suffers delusions and audio-hallucinations.

‘Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you?’ asks Mertis; not only do we recognise the sensation of being watched over by a higher being, we are also intensely aware that we, the audience, are voyeurs on this tiny, intimate and strangely ordinary world.

The concept of vision is key in this story, with one character blind, one myopic, one a little bit psychic, and the fourth fascinated by spectacles and, adding to this notion, is the playfulness of light (Richard Vabre), both natural and artificial.

Perhaps even more significant are the lies, secrets, unspoken thoughts and mysterious pasts of all four characters that reveal themselves in spurts and trickles as the four struggle through several days and nights.

The entire cast is accomplished with the luminous Helen Morse central, playing Mertis with nuance and sensitivity, giving her a whimsical, vibrating quality that seems to mask a darker secret.

Jurisic gives an audacious and often hilarious performance as the acerbic but definitely bonkers Genevieve, whose delusions elicit laughs but whose mental illness is far from funny.

Carr effectively captures both Elias’s vulnerability and his volatility as he wrestles with his own insecurity about his fractious and unravelling relationship with Jenny.

Mills is sympathetic as Jenny, balancing her barely masked despair and overt neediness with secretive behaviour, but leaving us with the sense that Jenny is eminently faithless and untrustworthy.

Sarah Goodes’ unobtrusive direction focuses on character and relationship, and on the spaces between the words that are a signature element of Baker’s writing.

Although the play has a weird, spooky quality, it seems to occur in real time with characters frequently pausing, musing, considering or gazing during long silences.

This realistic ordinariness is more successful than the hints of the supernatural that seem tacked on and do not quite gel.

So who is John? By the end of this three-hour production with two intervals, all will be revealed and you may leave with an uneasy sense that you missed something that occurred off-stage or upstairs in this peculiar little B and B.

By Kate Herbert

Helen Morse - Mertis
Melita Jurisic - Genevieve
Johnny Carr - Elias
Ursula Mills - Jenny

Director Sarah Goodes
Set Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Richard Vabre
Sound – Russell Goldsmith

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Little Emperors, Feb 14, 2017 ***


THEATRE 
By Lachlan Philpott, Malthouse Theatre, Asia TOPA 
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until Feb 26, 2017  
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 14, 2017 
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Wed Feb 15, 2017, and later in print. KH
 Alice Qin & Diana [Xiaojie] Lin
The actors in Lachlan Philpott’s Little Emperors perform ankle-deep in a murky pool of water that heightens the physical and personal struggles of their characters.


Wading through this emotional soup, the four Chinese and Australian characters shift through myriad moods as they splash each other playfully, stumble or drag themselves with laboured movements through the resistant water, or fall face first into the shallow pool like drowned souls.

Little Emperors, a play that deals with the repercussions of China’s One Child Policy that ended in 2016, is the result of a Malthouse Theatre collaboration between Philpott and Wang Chong, a young director from Beijing.

Philpott’s script, set in Melbourne and Beijing and performed in English and Mandarin by Chinese and Australian actors, explores the personal experiences, memories and stories of some of those affected by China’s social experiment that aimed to control population.

In Beijing, Huishan (Alice Qin), a single, 31-year old woman, wrestles with her fraught relationship with her fragile but demanding and emotionally manipulative mother (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin).

Meanwhile, across the world in Melbourne, Huishan’s ‘illegal’ brother, Kaiwen (Yuchen Wang), struggles to direct and devise an experimental play for the ChuFest, a Chinese university theatre festival; a play-within-a-play that echoes the theme of the One Child Policy.

 Yuchen Wang (R) Alice Qin (on screen)
On both sides of the world chaos ensues as characters reveal dark secrets, unleash personal attacks, challenge each other’s world views and face the repressed emotions arising from the consequences of the One Child Policy.

Diana Lin is compelling as the Mandarin-speaking mother, creating a poignant and complex character who agonises over her unmarried daughter’s circumstances, avoids her own serious illness and pines for her absent son, Kaiwen.

Lin brings a depth and range of feeling to the mother’s wrenching stories about her childhood during the Cultural Revolution, her husband’s iron-fisted control, and her grief over her past, enforced separation from her ‘illegal’, second child.

The scenes performed in Mandarin by Lin with Qin as her daughter, are the strongest as the two grapple with their love that is tainted by miscommunication, the opposing aspirations of two generations of Chinese women, and a mother’s desire to live vicariously through her daughter.

The English language scenes are less successful when Kaiwen, known as Kevin in Melbourne, tries to direct his muddled play but is left with only the sound technician (Liam Maguire) when all the actors abandon the project and Kevin reveals his arrogance.

The dialogue and action between Yuchen Wang and Maguire is awkward, laboured and not credible, particularly in their seduction scene, but Yuchen Wang’s final scene in Mandarin is his most believable and moving when Kevin/Kaiwen finally lets down his guard and reveals his anguish.

Wang Chong’s direction uses a non-naturalistic style that is a counterpoint to the generally naturalistic dialogue, and he heightens the abstraction with live video of the mother and daughter projected on a huge, curtain of Chinese newsprint suspended behind the pool (design by Romanie Harper).

Despite the unevenness in the performances, Little Emperors provides us with some intimate insights into the repercussions of the Chinese One Child experiment.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Way Things Work, Feb 5, 2017 ****


THEATRE 
By Aidan Fennessy, Red Stitch Actors' Theatre 
Red Stitch, St. Kilda until March 5, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 5, 2017
Stars: ****

Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Feb 6, 2017 and later in print. KH
Joe Petruzzi, Peter Houghton

We hope against hope that our governments and corporations stay honest, but all those blokes we see on the TV news marching into corruption enquiries chip away at our faith in ethical practices.

Power corrupts, goes the saying, and in Aidan Fennessy’s play, The Way Things Work, Minister Barlow (Joe Petruzzi) is the epitome of a dodgy, state politician as he tries to wriggle out of a corruption scandal by schmoozing then blackmailing a senior public servant, Dench (Peter Houghton).

Fennessy’s biting satire peers into the machinations of the political, corporate and criminal worlds at the point where they intersect over the building of the fictional Western Link Tunnel that is now the subject of a Royal Commission.

Houghton and Petruzzi are versatile and credible in their multiple roles as they deliver Fennessy’s acerbic dialogue with comic assurance.

The two-hander divides into three acts, the first observing the off-the-record meeting between Barlow and Dench, while the second portrays a volatile confrontation between the two Greek-Australian brothers (Petruzzi, Houghton) who own the company that supplied concrete for the tunnel.

The final scene, between a prison guard (Petruzzi) and a violent criminal (Houghton), is the most physically intimidating and makes the space dangerous while it reveals the extent of the corrupt practices of the previous characters.

Petruzzi embodies the smarmy but rough-edged politician, Barlow, who fights like a mongrel dog to save his corrupt career from disgrace, while Houghton’s Dench shifts from a reasonable, ethical man to one who is cowardly and pliable.

 Joe Petruzzi, Peter Houghton
The initially broad, comic caricatures of the concrete–selling brothers take a nasty turn as Houghton’s character reveals his strategy to undermine his brother’s plans for a ‘golden handshake’  – with the blessing of their mother.

Houghton’s formidable acting range is evident in the third scene when he transforms into the sneering, manipulative inmate who seems vulnerable and needy until he reveals his secret control over his gaoler, Warren, played with easy blokiness by Petruzzi.

Fennessy, who both wrote and directed the play, maintains a simmering dangerous energy in all scenes while commenting satirically on the unethical and criminally corrupt practices that sometimes permeate our governments and corporations.

The Way Things Work is an indictment of these practices and it reminds us how powerless we are to interrupt the flow of corruption and how little we know about what goes on behind closed doors.

By Kate Herbert 

Cast
Joe Petruzzi & Peter Houghton

Set and Costumes - Aidan Fennessy
Lighting - Matt Scott
Sound - Russell Goldsmith

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Book of Mormon, Feb 4, 2017, Melbourne ****1/2

 I was not reviewing this for Herald Sun, so this will not be in print or online for HSun. My review will be solely for this blog.  KH


MUSICAL THEATRE
Book, music & lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez & Matt Stone
Princess Theatre, Melbourne, Australia, from Feb 4, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2
 At right: Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes)
Gird your loins and smash your moral compass before entering the theatre for The Book of Mormon.

This irreverent, over-the-top, satirical production is a riot of memorable songs, absurd narrative, stoopid dancing and idiotic, religious iconography that recalls sappy prayer book pictures of Jesus and God.

Even while you shriek with laughter, you’ll cringe with shame that you are guffawing at such rampantly offensive, blasphemous, racist and scurrilous material by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, those wildly successful, bad boys of TV (South Park), film (Team America) and now musicals, with their new playground pal, Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Frozen).

It slams The Mormons – AKA the Church of The Latter Day Saints – in this tale of two boyish and naive Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and Elder Cunningham (A.J. Holmes), whose two-year mission sends them to Uganda to convert Africans to their Church and convince them of the Mormons’ seemingly mad, almost Sci-Fi beliefs.

The show may break all standards of taste and political correctness, but it adheres religiously (ironic, eh?) to the conventions of the Broadway musical with its repertoire of singable tunes, tight choreography and fish-out-of-water characters who go on a journey into the unknown to learn about themselves and the world.

The dialogue and lyrics (Parker, Lopez, Stone) are riddled with expletives, foul-mouthed rants and grotesque references that include raping babies to cure AIDS and routine clitorectomies on village women.

Directors, Casey Nicholaw and Parker, keep up a frenetic pace of outrageously silly choreography (Nicholaw) and high-octane, comic delivery to leave the audience gasping for air as they gape open-mouthed at the sheer brutality and lunacy of it all.

Bondy captures the ambition, sense of entitlement and super egotism of Elder Price but still manages to make him likeable as he demeans his missionary companion, patronises the Ugandans and confronts his rising doubts. He questions his faith, the Heavenly Father and the loony story about Joseph Smith digging up the Book of Mormon that becomes the third book of the Christian Bible. Yeah, really!

Holmes is versatile as Elder Cunningham, the giggling Star Wars freak, investing him with childlike energy as Cunningham lets loose his wild imagination – known as lying in the Mormon church – to create new myths to address the myriad problems faced by the villagers. He digs deep to sing Man Up then converts the village when he sings Making Thing Up Again.

Bert LaBonté has a field day as village head, Mafala Hatimbi, leading the chorus in the effervescent and irreligious Hasa Diga Ebowai.

Zahra Newman who has a fine voice singing the sweet Sal Tlay Ka Siti, plays Mafala’s daughter, Nabulungi, whose name Cunningham cannot, for the life of him, get right. (He calls her Neutrogena, Nutribullet and even Nutella). Newman merges charming, bright-eyed naiveté with poignant moments of hopelessness when she feels betrayed by Cunningham’s ‘lies’.
The ensemble includes an immaculately groomed chorus of Mormon clones, dressed in pristine white shirts and pressed trousers, and beaming with glittering, white smiles and their annoyingly relentless positivity. Their chorus of Turn It Off reveals hilariously how they repress and switch off every little, provocative or unhealthy thought.

It may, however, make some audience members consider how the arrogant West (read America) slaps bandaids on horrendous, Third World problems. The Mormons may be repressed, chauvinistic and puritanical, but they are also hopeful and well meaning and they have a go at helping others, even if they go about it in a weird way. 

By Kate Herbert



Elder Price - Ryan Bondy
Elder Cunningham - A.J. Holmes
Mafala Hatimbi - Bert LaBonté
Nabulungi - Zahra Newman  (Neutrogena, Nutribullet, Nutella)
General Butt-F...ing-Naked - Augustin Aziz Tchantcho

Scenic Design – Scott Pask
Costume – Ann Roth

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Encounter, Feb 2, 2017 ****1/2


THEATRE
By Complicite & Simon McBurney (from UK)
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Feb 10, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars ****1/2

Review also online at Herald Sun on Feb 2, 2017 and later in print. KH
 Richard Katz in The Encounter, pics by Joan Marcus
Do not adjust your headphones because Richard Katz in The Encounter is about to transport you to the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon in this startling and immersive feast of sound and story.

Katz may be alone on stage surrounded by microphones, reams of videotape and other detritus of the modern world, but he populates the space with characters through his versatile voice, evocative storytelling and the maddeningly complex aural landscape that he and the sound technicians create to hurl us into the rainforest.

The show is based on Petru Popescu’s book, Amazon Beaming, that explores the experiences of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who, when stranded in the remote Amazonian jungle in 1969, encountered the isolated Mayoruna tribe of ‘cat people’.

All audience members wear high-tech headphones that transmit Katz’s voice and a remarkable array of sound effects directly to our ears, an experience that feels extremely intimate because Katz seems to be whispering immediately beside us.

The experience is initially alarmingly disorienting as Katz’s voice and the soundscape shifts from our left ear to our right or seems to move around us, behind us, shifting closer or further away as if we are hearing and experiencing the real world.

This weird and compelling effect is the result of Katz speaking near the mysterious, ‘binaural’ head that is some inconceivable form of 3-D microphone that looks like a ghostly sentinel perched on top of a totem pole.

The charming and gleeful Katz transports us to the Amazon, addressing us directly as himself and as and McIntyre, the deep-voiced American, but he also conjures a parade of other people including Barnacle, the wart-covered tribal chief, Red Cheeks, the rebellious tribesman and Tootie, a playful boy.

As the cacophonous sounds of the rainforest and its creatures and people pump into our ears, we slap away a mosquito, turn to check no one is standing at our shoulder or walking towards us over crumpled leaves, or that we are not dangerously close to a surging river.
The Encounter is a strangely hallucinatory experience and, as we trek through the jungle with McIntyre and the tribe, we question our perceptions of reality and what is fact or fiction, what is real or manufactured, while we muse with McIntyre about solitude, the march of time and the nature of civilisation.

Using ancient rituals and hallucinogens, Barnacle wants to take his tribe back to ‘the beginning’, defying time, returning to a period and place where white man and his planes, weapons and sickness cannot reach them.

We ponder the nature of communication as McIntyre struggles to understand how Barnacle beams messages directly to him without speech, and we confront our own materialism as McIntyre deals with losing all material goods, including his precious camera and the film that holds the images that make the experience ‘real’ for him.

The Encounter by Complicite is a challenging and mesmerising performance that creates a world in our minds and reminds us of the extraordinary skill of the actor and the magic that is great theatre.

By Kate Herbert