Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dr Frankenstein, Canberra Rep

The obsessed doctor and the irate creature sprung from that obsession are a pair that have been adapted frequently across the last two centuries - there's something elementally fascinating about a scientist confronted by the bestial figure born by their own desires. Selma Dimitrijevic's version of Mary Shelly's classic novel draws the focus fairly strongly onto the scientist member of the pair, presenting her obsessions as they start as healthy curiosity and become something far more dangerous.

The only major change to the story as told originally is that the doctor is written female, and no longer has a fiance to be collateral damage in the battle between creator and creation. There's no overriding feminist agenda except for the perfectly fine one of "let's have good parts available for women" (the same agenda that got Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet over a century ago). And Jenna Roberts dominates the first half of the play very effecively - whether it be through arguing her responsibilities to her family against her desire to make a space for herself, or demonstrating her scientific experiments with blithe indifference to the fate of those experimented on (her treatment of a lab rabbit is quite startling), or her first experience coming face to face with the man she has reanimated.

There is a flaw that appears in both novel and play that, once the creature comes into existence, the scientist starts to go into retreat, reacting to the creature's provocations rather than beating their own path. And while Jenna Roberts presents very strongly the guilt she feels as unintended consequences start to pile up around her (yes, this is another Jordan Best Rep show with a body count - so far she's not had a show there with everybody as alive as they started), never the less we become more and more intrigued by the creature. And Michael Sparks paints him as a fascinating figure (with the assistance of some truly creepy post-mortem-makeup from Sian Phillips) - emerging first as a strange new-born babe ,both innocent and brutish, before growing increasingly embittered by his encounters with the world. His act two monologues are utterly compelling to watch - giving us a creature who stares us down with disgust at what he has to share a world with.

The remaining cast, inevitably, are largely supporting and there to feed the story of Victoria and her creature - but each have their moments, whether it be the gentle charm of Cole Hilder's Henry, the familial judgement of Georgina Horsburgh's Elizabeth, the terrifying fate of Emily Pogson's Justine or the cold and harsh judgement of Saban Lloyd Bennet's Father.

Matthew Webster's original music lends a funereal mood to the proceedings, setting Percy Shelly's poem "To Night" to suitably specteral tones, with a clever mix of live and pre-recorded singing. Chris Zuber's set design combines with Chris Ellyard's lighting to provide something suitably suggestive and with plenty of eerie spaces to allow fear and doubts to gather. Anna Senior's costumes tell the stories of their characters well - with Victoria's simple unadorned outfits contrasting well with the more ornate ones for Elizabeth and Henry's colourful cravats, supporting who the characters are.

This is not the full-throated gothic grand guignol some may expect - instead it's something more creepy and disconcerting, something that builds and creeps in its effect. If nothing else, it's worth seeing to catch two of Canberra's best actors, Roberts and Sparks, together in scenes of pure brutal power as creator and creation go face to face.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Kill Climate Deniers, Griffin Theatre

Gosh, it's been a while since I've written over here. YEs, there have been shows in Canberra, and no, I haven't seen them, and I have no particular excuse other than ... I just didn't get to them.

So here's the first show of the year I actually saw. Not in Canberra, but at least by a Canberra writer, set largely in Canberra and originally workshopped and tried out in various productions in Canberra before hitting the big smoke. This is a very meta-heavy show, with four women playing most of the characters and Eden Falk playing the author, commenting both on his play and the reaction the title has gotten from right-wingers (this may be the first play to be significantly improved by dramaturgy from Andrew Bolt).

The play-within-the-play is an OTT satire of politics, revolutionary and otherwise, in their reaction to climate change, through the form of a Die-Hard-esque action movie. It's incredibly cartoonish satire done to hilarious perfection by Rebecca Massey as our heroine, besieged Environment minister Gwen Malkin, Sheridan Harbridge as her PR offsider Georgina Bekken, Lucia Mastantone as the terrorist Catch and Emily Clarke as both a sniffy journalist and a mining executive. It plays broad but hits every target, particularly as the action gets more and more ridiculous leading to a climax of complete absurdity that simultaneously gives us an effective action finale.

The wraparound is where the thinking really happens, and where the real dialogue with the audience begins. This is a play that examines itself and the easy attitudes expressed within as much as it examines the outside world. What does climate change really mean, and are we really ready for it?

Lee Lewis delivers a production that pushes the tiny space at the stables to its limit. There's a whole heap of projections working in conjunction with the action, sometimes footnoting it, and ... every once in a while, possibly upstaging it, briefly. It's hyperactive theatre at its best - you hang on and enjoy the ride and you think about the thoughtful bits on your way home, grinning, stunned and overwhelmed. It left me gasping in a good way. Yes, even the bit about how all bloggers are crap, which I can't find in the script now but which I laughed my head off while in the theatre.


Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The "Well I liked it" awards, 2017

It's time to wrap up the year with the "Well I Liked It" awards, or WILIs for short. This is the sixth awards, so therefore I can talk about how the WILI is long-standing, hardened and well practiced. It's quite respected to have a WILI, the WILIs stand out in theatre awardsand I've even seen people occasionally talking about their WILI on facebook, with a few celebratory eruptions here and there for anybody with the balls to go beyond normal performance level. And who am I to judge. Well, I'm a guy with a blog, that's who, therefore I can judge however I like, and other people may even agree, or violently disagree. And either way, I get paid exactly the same amount. Which is nothing.

AAANYWAY.

Let's kick off with Jarrad West. He knocked three very different shows out of the park this year. First with a production of Avenue Q which was undoubtedly my favourite local production of a musical of the year (admittedly, I saw only three local musicals so it's a weak field this year, but still) - a solid, funny and playful production of a contemporary classic. He followed up with another fast and funny night in the theatre with the consistently hilarious "39 Steps" that combined a thrilling breakneck narrative with a touch of romance, some hysterical nonsensical diversions and a bit of dashing heroism. And with "The History Boys" he brought a dense, thoughtful play to full emotional life in an intimate, intense production that combined the abstract questions of knowledge for its own sake versus knowledge as a commodity with a heartfelt examination of how the individual personal failings of teachers affected or inspired their students.

Two shows have to get a mention here that I didn't actually write reviews for, largely because I ended up seeing both before they officially opened, and I don't review previews. Pigeonhole's "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"  took a play I thought I knew too well and opened up fresh new angles, particularly through the lead performances of Jordan Best (an Olive full of drive and energy right up until the point where life hits her like a truck and brings her heartbreakingly to her knees) and Andrea Close (whose Pearl made a character who could otherwise play as a sniffy scold into a fully rounded player who's been around enough to enjoy it while it's fun but who knows where her limits are and can shut it down when it goes too far). And Belvoir's production of "Ghosts" felt frighteningly relevant as a story about religion, secrets, sexuality and respectability played out between five strong performers to a conclusion of utter devestation.

Other plays that deserve a mention include Jordan Best's tense, gripping production of "Wait Until Dark", held at the centre by a perfectly cast Jenna Roberts, who moved from initial naivety to final strength as she was repeatedly conned and betrayed on her way to resolution; and two American plays from Belvoir with the intensely theatrical "Mr Burns" showing the immense power of pop-culture stories to sustain and survive beyond the ephemeral; and "Hir" showing what happens as cultural revolutions hit against the mainstream masculinity that it's trying to transcend.

I also have to mention the National Theatre's "Follies", a knockout of a production showing fantasy, memory and reality smashing up against each other in an emotional demolition derby that simultaneously embodies musical escapism and rebels against it. I have no idea if the NT Live broadcast showing in Australia in February will capture what I saw on the Olivier stage in anything like the brilliance that the stage production did (performances tuned for a 1000 seat venue can often look oversized in closeup), but I can only hope that it does so that others can share.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Belvoir

You can't help but be surprised by Stephen Curtis's set as you wander into Belvoir for this show - a fairly strong transformation has taken place, all the way into row B of the theatre, as this inner suburbs drama palace has been transformed into a run-down pub on a band night, complete with mini-stage in the corner and bar tables and couches for the patrons. Co-written by and starring Ursula Yovich, this is the venue for an exploration both of a tough woman in tough times, and about the place of the Aboriginal people in modern Australia. The basic setup, with Barbara telling her story in between songs, would seem to resemble a cis female "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", but this has a few differences in the structure - in particular, Barbara's offsider, her cousin Rene, is quite capable of being as vocal a presence as Barbara, and the songs, while showing off Yovich's fine soul voice and generally having a good groove to them, aren't quite as focussed on story telling as the "Hedwig" numbers.

Still, the work by the "Camp Dogs" team is pretty strongly memorable. The script, by Yovich and hardest-working-playwright-in-the-business Alana Vanentine, has a strong throughline, clever wit and true heart to it. And Leticia Cacares' direction makes this a show that comes out and embraces the audience, and uses the stage wisely and well - both in the strong performances of Yovich and Elaine Crombie, and in the witty use of various elements of the stage (including the occasional moment in the spotlight for the tight band). 

This is a show that reaches beyond simply being an indulgence piece for Yovich (showing off both her acting and her singing) to tell a story about family and belonging and how hard both can be in a production of unusual strength and passion.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Australia Day, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Jonathan Biggins' 2012 comedy is in the firm tradition of popular Australian comedy (particularly the David Williamson pieces so beloved of the various state theatre companies during the 90s and 2000s) - there's a mix of people gathered, issues of national importance that are brought down to tribal loyalties (indeed, Williamson's favourite word, "tribe", shows up here again), and a couple of moments where people get up on their hobby horses or have an emotional breakthrough of some kind on the way to a tidy conclusion.

Biggins is, perhaps, a wittier writer than Williamson, with a lot of great one liners springing back and forth across the stage. But there are a couple of rough edges in his plotting, particularly in the moments where a serious moment tries to intervene, and Rep's production doesn't always smooth over those rough edges as much as it might.

Acting honours tend to accumulate at the older end of the cast. Neil McLeod as the cantankerous and uncensored Wally gets the most of his "I can't believe he just said that" lines, albeit occasionally softening up just a little too much, perhaps, when the plot turns sentimental. Micki Beckett's Marree is the perfectly gentle CWA representative, with an essential befuddled innocence about her. Sarah Hull as the Greens representative gets a large chunk of the plot and a minimum of the jokes, but represents the character well as she starts to realise how down and dirty in politics she's going to have to get to succeed. Pat Gallagher tends to get the other half of the plot, and often is everybody else's straight man, but he has an endearingly shifty way about him that helps the plot get through. Jonathan Lee gets a grand set of jokes and delivers them well, although he also carries very little plot. Thomas McCoy as Gallagher's mordant sidekick unfortunately falls a little flat during the denouement, which as written should be his moment to shine - you never really get the sense that anything about him has been changed as a result of the events of the play.

Cate Clelland's sets capture nicely the realism of a scout hall and a tent, although the blocking around the meeting table is a little odd - if you're going to spread out the table lengthways (and the proportions of Theatre 3 kinda require it), why are people sitting downstage of the table with their backs to the audience? Heather Spong's costumes delineate character well, including Beckett's ridiculous animal costume.

This tends to be the kinda piece that works better as a set of jokes then necessarily as a stringent commentary on the state of the nation, with a middling plot along the way. And as a set of jokes, it's very funny. But there's not a lot behind the laughter to stick around with me.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Atlantis, Belvoir

Lally Katz's work has flirted with barely-disguised autobiography for a while now, through taking stories of friends and family - "Neighbourhood Watch" from her neighbor, and "Back to the Dojo" from her parents. This time, she's drawing directly from herself. And what we get is a play that is, inevitably, somewhat self-indulgent (and this is a fairly freewheeling autobiography that hopscotches from fact into fantasy and back again all over the place). But still, as directed by Rosemary Myers, it's an entertaining international road trip as our heroine tries to find her place in a confusing world

Amber McMahon as Lally is the centre of the story and she provides a lovely upbeat all-accepting presence - very aware that the things happening to her are probably going to be theatre material at some point, but still happy to engage in the people and experiences of the moment. The other four characters cover around 40 characters between them, sliding in and out with remarkable ease - Matthew Whittet plays everything from boyfriend to uncle to teenage girl, Paula Arrundel similarly slides from philosophical AirBnB host to religious revival host, Lucia Mastrione goes from crabby Psychic to cabbie, and Hazem Sharas covers cowboy romantic pickup and a panther. The shifts are all clear and frequently hilarious. Jonathan Oxlade's set is simple and abstract but contains multiple surprises to cover the extensive demands of Katz's shifting imagination in a classily stylish manner, and Damien Cooper's lighting design also has to be noted for supporting the mood and location as the story moves.

This isn't necessarily a play that I love but it's probably as good a production as it's ever going to get unless serious rewrites set in, so it's probably worth seeing. It does have the best comic use of the Vengaboys I've seen in a while.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Boys will be Boys, The Street

Regular readers will note I haven't reviewed a show at the Street in about 4 years . There's a bunch of reasons for this, but part of it has been that the Street has had the feel of a "closed shop" - there's still lingering resentment from the amateur theatre movement in Cnberra both of some fairly intolerent statement made by it's artistic director/CEO and the venue's unavailability for amateur groups.

Still, in the interests of at least pretending to be vaguely fair, I went along to "Boys will be Boys" - the STC production in 2015 got a fair bit of acclaim, and of the cast of 5 women, I knew and liked the work of three of them.

And while there's some impressive work here (in particular, Imogen Keen's set and costumes are top notch stylish work, and Niklas Pajanti's lighting design handles some of the trickier aspects remarkably well), it doesn't quite work. Melissa Bubnic's script has its strengths but never quite gets out of the specifics of the ultra-rich-and-ultra-greedy to feel more universal - Caryl Churchill's simiarly "women in business" themed play, "Top Girls" perhaps has more to say about how little it matters whether the top capitalist is male or female. As directed, in some of the earlier scenes some of the incisive wit fails to land effectively - there's a tendency to play scenes as fast as possible, sacrificing meaning along the way - I can understand the intention to have smart energetic banter, but there still needs to be more than just rattling off lines. Scenes that play slower tend to work more effectively - in particular the search for connection between Astrid (Pippa Grandison) and Isabelle (Kiki Skoutzos), or the later scenes as personal disaster leads to a divide between Astrid and her protoge Priya (Isha Menon). Grandison is also effective during the songs where her powerful voice has soul and strength. Kimmo Vennonen's sound design is a little too busy - there's a few too many cases where noise is there for the sake of being noise (I should also note here, the audience was kinda painful - I had people behind me muttering throughout the show, a lot more audible than they seem to think that the were, and so was somewhat seething throughout).

So unless something particularly intriguing shows up on the Street schedule again, I'll probably be continuing my absence.