Saturday, 15 September 2012

Lost in Yonkers, Canberra Rep

A lot of the best plays have a second story that only becomes apparent while you're watching them. You think you're experiencing one story, small scale, about a couple of people in a particular situation. And then something happens and you realise that what you're seeing is a much bigger story about an entire way of living, a society and the costs and damages those choices cause to people.

Lost in Yonkers is one of those plays. It starts out as the story of two smart-aleck Brooklyn kids forced by circumstance to live with their grandma for a year, with typical Neil Simon one-liner quips, and becomes something far wider as the various aunts and uncles show up to reveal the damage that can come from grandma's tough-and-brutal brand of love. 

Canberra Rep's production services the first of these stories wonderfully. It's a very fast-paced production, which works nicely in making sure the jokes land every time, but I found some of the emotional material in the second act felt raced - I would have liked to see a couple of seconds more reaction time in a couple of the later scenes where the truth of how these characters have been living their lives hits home. But I acknowledge this is a personal preference - emotional torment isn't everyone's idea of a good night out, and I expect others will appreciate that this allows the pain to peek through rather than wallowing in it.  

The set by Andrew Kay is a sepia-toned beauty that opens up to the full width of the Theatre 3 stage while keeping the action nicely concentrated, and the performances by Lachlan Ruffy (as the older and more responsible of the two brothers) and Pippin Carroll (as the younger and goofier) are gorgeous in their variety. 

This year has been a bit of a Ruffy-fest (his performance in "Breaker Morant" saw him being the second-best actor to play two roles only because he happened to share a production with Graheme Robertson, and I've given praise to his work in Cats elsewhere), but this one gives him a chance to be front-and-centre, which he seizes with both hands - heroic and vulnerable, strong and hapless... I have no idea what Ruffy will do next, and from someone I previously considered a friendly face in the chorus ... well, let's just say if the dude does Hamlet next year, I wouldn't be at all surprised and would be popping down my dollars to watch it.

Pippin Carroll meanwhile is delightfully natural in an endearing performance - as the younger and more naive brother, he sparks an audience's protective instincts. The art of being adorable without being annoying is a tricky one (many a child actor has sparked desires to slap them), and Carroll manages it without any visible effort.

As their protective Aunt Bella, Bridgette Black is damn good. Bella's a child in a woman's body, and Black brings it in all its complexity - her glee when she sees something good, her stubbornness when she chooses something she wants, and her heartbreak when hurt. It's an emotionally naked performance of rare skill.

Paul Jackson is the best I've ever seen him (again, he's been popping up a bit lately) as the shifty gangster uncle Louie - performing in his natural accent (or closer to his natural accent, anyway) seems to have unleashed his hidden potential (or maybe just allowed an audience to see what was there all along). Louie isn't nearly as tough as he pretends to be, and Jackson allows just enough of the man-behind-the-curtain sneak through to bring that all-important third dimension to the character.

Elaine Noon is also delightful in her cameo as Aunt Gert - it's a one-joke character and plot-device really (an extra outsider to act as an escape hatch when required), but she sells that one joke and absolutely belongs to the greater family that is the rest of the cast. 

Helen Vaughn-Roberts is slightly a victim of the emotional-skimping I mentioned earlier (for example, I would really have loved the revolve at the end of the penultimate scene to happen, say, about ten seconds later for true emotional-shattering effect...), but she is suitably stern while allowing her tough  kind of love to glimpse through (in particular, she sells the hell out of the line "It's not important that you like me, it's important that you live"). 

Colin Milner's accent work was a little unstuck on opening night, but the central heart of his character shined through - the love he has for his children. Hopefully this is a role that will grow throughout the run into something special.

In short, this is an excellent production of a great play with some spectacular performances in it. I have niggles, but ... I suspect this is a case where most audience members won't have the same niggles I do. Well worth watching.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Kale Bogdanovs - Tuggernong Arts Centre

Canberra standup comedy has been undergoing a renaissance for the past few years. There's a lot of very funny people going around telling jokes - your average open mike night is still a bit hit and miss, but the co-ordinated nights (such as the regular gig at the Civic Pub) are usually nights of continuous comedy gold.

And if it's a renaissance we've got, Kale Bogdanovs might just be our ... I don't know, one of the really impressive Ninja Turtles. Leonardo, probably. Cause he invents stuff that nobody else does. He comes across as just that teensy bit more intellectual than your average joke-jockey - that may just be to do with wearing glasses and enjoying the way a sentence is put together way too much, but never the less, it's rare for him to be caught in the middle of doing a cheap joke. His jokes are very expensive artisan-carved pieces.

So this Tuesday he did his CD recording at Tuggernong Arts Centre. Using the theatre rather than the cabaret room (and comedy ALWAYS gets better in the big room at tuggernong - suddenly you're not stuck in the corner with the tiger-print lounge and the weird angles), he claimed the stage as his own for an hour of material that looked at love, work, body-image and, surprisingly, mortality to an appreciative audience. It was delightful, and if you missed it ... buy the goddamn CD, it'll be awesome.

Support acts were mostly pretty reasonable. Host Neil Sinclair seemed a tad nervous (and got Kale's name wrong, which... is very slightly inexcusable), and I've seen Simon Bower be better (a man that young and allegedly prudish possibly shouldn't be doing non-stop sex humour), but Jay Sullivan brought a very professional ten minutes to close out the first half in style, including a nice line in Gina Reinhardt jokes that moved a little beyond the obvious.

But Kale was, and is, the main attraction. He's leaving Canberra for the bright lights of New York shortly, so ... this might be one of your few chances to say "I saw him when" - he's hosting the Hot Five competition on 17 October and is headlining the Civic pub on 7 November. Go. You know he'll be funny. It's what he does.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Short + Sweet, courtyard studio

The short play night is a difficult mistress... it's like having a tapas meal where the food hasn't been picked according to how it goes together, but just on what various people might like. So you can get stuff you really like, and stuff you really don't.

Such were the three rounds of the Short+Sweet festival this year. It's great to see Canberra's various theatre practicioners coming together in once place for an evening of very varied entertainments (many of whom perform in areas I'm unfamiliar with). One can argue with some of the slotting (I'm not entirely sure a play with a kid of around 10 years old should be in the second half of the evening, for instance, or that a play with a bathtub on stage should be right at the beginning since it tends to leave a lot of water to clean up early on)... but over the three rounds there were 32 separate plays, several worthy of mention. In particular, I liked:

- VD - Eliza St John had an appealingly emotionally open quality and sold this one woman story beautifully.
- Ah! - Fast and furious and with plenty of opportunities for all three actors (Elizabeth McRae, Kiki Skountzos and Riley Bell) to do some great physical acting.
- Smart Jimmy Slow Bob - A clever piece that twisted nicely and defined its characters well. Sterling work from Dan Halliday and Scott Rutar in particular
- sushiwushiwoo - Some great characterisations from Caroline Simone O'Brien and an almost-unrecognisable Megs Skillicorn (not just the wig, it was her whole physicality that was totally different from anything I've seen her do before)
- The Brett I haven't Met - Sam Hannan-Morrow is an actor I praise highly. And this is why. Even in a statically-staged piece like this, he brought sterling emotional work.
- "G" - Miranda Drake delivered something that could easily fall into pretension or overly-personal revelation, and made it funny, moving and poignant.
- How About Canons - Really just mentioning this for Joshua Knol's inspiredly ridiculous performance which added hilarity to a somewhat familiar type of piece (the "historical figure and his secret inspiration" genre)
- Seasons of a Lifetime - Again, great emotional work in this improvised piece from Reid Workman and Katherine Green. Impro is tricky in nights like this (you don't necessarily have the finely honed emotional arc you might have in a rehearsed developed piece, and exposition has to be fairly naked because you're expositing both to the audience and to your fellow actor!) but these two brought something pretty special
- The Voyeurs - I'd heard noises about Alison McGregor being something to watch, but hadn't previously seen her. This is a big mistake on my part and I'll be watching out for her again.

I may not agree precisely with who won and who didn't in the finals (results are at but I just wanted to chuck some praise out there for a fine evening of varied theatre.