Saturday, 15 December 2012

The "Well I Liked It" awards

Given that I've (probably) seen my last bit of theatre for the year, and everybody's concentrating on exciting things like awards or, probably far more important, planning Christmas with friends and family, it seems the time to celebrate the good and ignore the bad from the year in theatre.

So I'm inaugurating the "Well I Liked It" awards for things that I liked. For any recipients - you should enjoy your WILI in private. Waving your WILI around in public doesn't impress anyone. My reasons for granting a WILI are my own, and I'm not going to give my WILI to anyone who's work I haven't seen. A critic has to have some standards, after all...

And I'm aware that theatre is a ridiculously collaborative medium, and amateur theatre even more so, so there will probably be instances where I'm praising someone for their work when actually several people were involved.

And these are awards with no particular rhyme or reason - I'm not doing anything like categories or anything. Just "I think that's award worthy".

Enough pre-amble. Let's get to the giving.

First up: "Thysestes" and "Death of a Salesman" get gongs for being the outstanding two works I saw interstate this year in the professional sphere, both at Belvoir (and I'm aware my eye is limited by only seeing Belvoir of the major companies interstate). Both were inventive takes on classic stories - "Thysestes" admittedly being a much older story and a much looser interpretation, but "Salesman" also providing a creatively different vision on a familiar play centred skillfully on a strong single visual metaphor and some incredible performances.

Also interstate, a production of J. Julian Christopher's "Man Boobs" in Melbourne, a dramatic-comedy/comedy-drama about body-image, emotional failure and the effects of past trauma, done by VicBears as part of the Midsumma festival. An intimate two-man piece turned one night's casual hookup into something far more heartfelt and soul destroying.

Locally: Big praise to Jenna Roberts' performance as Roxie in "Chicago" - one of the most striking performances in a local musical was also one of the first of the year. Jenna wasn't on stage a lot this year, but she made her performance count - it had the element of surprise, never quite knowing what she was going to do next but knowing that it was going to be amazing, whatever it was.

Duncan Ley's twin directorial triumphs for the year, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Pool: No Water" beg to be looked at as a pairing, just because they applied a consistent directorial aesthetic of "for gods sake, make it interesting" to two very different scripts. P&P was a story everybody knew going into the theatre, Pool a story I suspect nobody knew - both showed great ensemble work, were visually stunning to look at, kept all kindsa surprises up their sleeves and generally dazzled.

Cynthia Jolley-Rodgers lighting for "Speaking in Tongues" made an unconventional set look amazing, with clever use of shade, colour and pools of light to enhance the emotional impact.

Lachlan Ruffy deserves an award for being everywhere, and fitting in perfectly and perfectly differently every time he was somewhere. His twin performances in "Breaker Morant" were differentiated beyond just haircut-and-accent into portraits of intimidated fear and blind arrogance respectively, his gorgeously genial Bingley in P&P was delightfully charming, his palsied-up Gus The Theatre Cat in "Cats" was heartbreaking, his lighting for "Memory of Water" was emotionally acute and kept the work intimate, his gawkily brave teenager in "Lost in Yonkers" was hilarious and moving, and his waiter-dance-moves in "Rent" were just plain gigglesome.

Euan Bowen gets an award for what he did with a cape in "Improbable Fiction". Dear god, can that man wield cape.

Jarrad West was also everywhere (to the extent I didn't see everything he did). But both as performer and director, he amazed. In particular, his Diabetes in "God" pulled the whole piece together (in a ridiculously short skirt), his direction of "Hairspray" was witty, soulful and oh-so-John-Waters and his direction of "Rent" made me see stuff in my favourite musical I'd never seen before.

Vanessa DeJaeger impressed the hell out of me in three different places - her sunnysided Rosemary in "How To Succeed in Business", her mini-bitch Amber in "Hairspray" and her touchingly damaged Mimi in "Rent".

Max Gambale also brought the gobsmackingly good in two places: The just-plain loveable Edna in "Hairspray" and the demented artilleryman in "War of the Worlds" both amazed in two very different ways.

I've undoubtedly ignored stuff that I loved but just forgot to mention. But this is a few things that sprung to mind as worthy of some form of reminder recognition.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Rent - Everyman Theatre

Once upon a time in 1996, there was a musical I fell in love with. I was in my final year of uni, I was regularly commuting up to Ava and Susan's, a CD store that had nothing but musicals and film scores on its shelves in the Sydney Town Hall arcade, and picking up new and classic scores. And there was this new rock musical based on a Puccini opera about young people in contemporary New York. And I listened. And I fell in love and I commited large amounts of the lyrics to memory.

It helped that I was a precocious lad who was hyperinformed by most of the references - I'd already started on my Sondheim obsession (the other CD I bought at the same time as "Rent" was the original cast of "Company"). And it helped that I was young and still living with my parents and about to move out and face the big wide world of responsibility, and I was the prime market for a tale of rebellious artists and their interconnecting personal lives who resisted selling out and embraced the chance to let their freak flag fly.

I'm older now, and I've paid off one mortgage, have moved to a bigger house and am in the middle of paying off another. But those wild young kids still have an appeal to me. I saw the  1998 Australian production three times (taking advantage of the "$20 tickets for the front three rows, available at the box office two hours before the performance, queue out the front for as long as you like beforehand" rule) and grinned like a maniac (particularly the night when a young actress called Natalie Basingthwaite played Maureen). I'm aware the material has its weaknesses (in particular, I can opine for ages exactly how crappy a song "Your Eyes" is and how it lets the whole show down) but I have too much love for the rest of the songs to really let anything like that ruin things. I've got a copy of the final broadway performance on DVD and have watched it somewhat frequently too.

Which is to say ... I'm very partial to a particular way of doing Rent, which is big, broad, and dramatic. So when Everyman (yes, I've almost got to this production, thank the lord) advised they were doing Rent in the Courtyard studio, I was skeptical. It's a musical with loudness and a bit of spectacle, how can you squeeze it in there?

The answer is ... by being a tad less loud and a lot more intimate, and keeping the show about the people. Which is what it always was, at its core - these lovers, artists and philosophers, all struggling to make sense of their messy and complicated lives.

It doesn't hit at once how successfully this works - in fact, the first time I realised the benefits was about five or six songs in, during Roger's "One Song Glory" solo (the first solo number of the show). Suddenly everything draws in, and we're focussed on one lost man, trying to make his mark and afraid he may fail. Nick Valois' performance is not perfect (among other things, his harmonies need work), but in this scene, and in a lot of his acting, he brings real soul and pathos.

Really owning and taking advantage of this intimacy is Vanessa de Jaeger, who is transcendantally good as Mimi. She's the first I've seen, or heard, who's really looked like a junkie, and has looked that young and that broken. Her emotions are raw across her face and her body - in tiny gestures that would get lost in a bigger space - in glances and in moments. You really feel a lot has gone on in this young woman's life to bring her to this point. Her entrance in "Light My Candle" starts very fragile - growing in confidence as she uses her sexuality to manipulate. And then the gobsmacking "Another Day" - Roger's resistance is almost physically abusive in a way that is uncomfortable to watch, and you can feel the pain of his rejection across de Jaeger and her desperate need to get past that rejection and grab onto love like a liferaft.

Elsewhere in the cast ... It's good to see Louiza Blomfield unleash her powerful voice and equally powerful comic chops on the Canberra stage again, and it's also good to welcome Julia Jenkins for added hilarity and to match Blomfield note for note in my favourite lesbian love duet ever, "Take me or leave me". Jarrad West adds to his army of charming portrayals with a Collins that is loveable, funny (though his "I'll cover you (reprise)" failed to break my heart...), while Adrian Flor was a giddy delight as Angel (though, again with the nitpicks, his voice was maybe a little too Carol Channing, and one of the metal bars he was drumming on during "Today 4 U" gave out more of a "ping" than the "clunk" it was supposed to). Matthew Chardon O'Dea's Mark has the nervy jewishness down pat and does well in the somewhat difficult "observer" role. And Will Huang gives Benny a nice drive, keeping the character from being a simple villain of the piece, rather another person who's mixed up in the same complex world as the rest of them instead.

Two ensemble highlights for me was, first, the chance to see Amy Fitzpatrick acting and singing on stage (I've only previously seen her as a choreographer - she's got a powerhouse voice and I'd like to hear it again soon!), and second, Lachlan Ruffy for two standout cameos - his reading of "I'm a New Yorker, fear's my life" hit the laughs right, and his special dancing way of taking restaurant orders during "La Vie Boheme" also drew the eye.

Nick Griffin's band is tight and hits all the notes nicely without dominating. Jordan Kelly's choreography is mostly pretty good (for a show that I'd usually think needs not-a-lot-of-choreography - the only instance I'd question is during "Out Tonight", where, honestly, I was so busy focussing on DeJaeger, the decision to have three other dancers elsewhere on stage felt like an unnecessary adornment).

Is this the perfect production of Rent? No, partially beause I've so assimilated Rent by ozmosis by now that the perfect production for me can only be directed by me, starting me, to an audience of me. But this is a fascinating version that is well worth the watching.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Improbable Fiction - Canberra Rep

I love Alan Ayckbourn. Let's just get that out there. Of the super prolific playwrights who've dominated theatre since the seventies (I'd argue Williamson, Neil Simon and Ayckbourn are the respective champions of Australian, US and UK theatre in terms of sheer prolificness), he's the most formally innovative, cleverest, funniest and often, the one with the most insight into human nature and its undoings.

"Improbable Fiction" is in the purer-fluff end of his writing, a light entertainment with no greater message, perhaps, than the ever-important instruction "if you're going to be a writer, then write" - perhaps with an overly mild Act one to set up, but the standard  Ayckbourn playing-with-form kicks in with a vengeance for Act two as the play starts bouncing across multiple genres with ease in a gleeful showcase that allows the performers to showcase their versatility and skill.

Glueing it all together in this production is Jerry Hearn, playing what is essentially the audience point of view character, essentially the straight man. It's been a while since I've seen him, and in this one, he strangely resembled Geoffrey Borny (in all the best ways - charming and meek and with a natty red jumper) - a perfect gentleman in bizarre and befuddling circumstances.

The other six members of the ensemble bounce between roles with maximum speed and  wit - each displaying their various strengths. Andrew Kay substituted in for Jasan Savage at fairly short notice, but if it wasn't for the occasional glance at a script here and there, you wouldn't be able to tell - he fits in spectacularly. I will say that it's obvious that Euan Bowen has dreamed for years of a role where he'd be given a cape, and celebrates his chance to flourishes one delightfully.

Madelaine Kennedy brings a playful sense of fun and makes it clear why she'd be the centre of attention from six different writers, Kate Blackhurst has the closest to an "authors message" speech as the one writer least convinced she should continue and makes it fly, Christa deJaeger is poignant in act one and suitably wild in act two and Heather Spong is giddily gorgeous in act one and, by turns, grim, soppy and taciturn in act two.

Enhancing it all are the costumes by Miriam Miley-Read (several different fantastic looks for the various cast members), the adaptable set by Wayne Shepherd and the creative lighting by Chris Ellyard. I'm not as sold on the original music by Wayne Sheperd and the sound design by Mike Maloney - the original tune for the musical number is lovely, but the pre-show and interval music sounds tacky and cheap and tends to annoy rather than sooth you into the show (keyboards have their place, but when they sound too "keyboardy", that's ... not the right place).

All in all, this is a fun night out, perfectly made for the silly season.