Friday, 24 May 2013

Ruben Guthrie, NUTS

Writer Brendan Cowell has served as a useful "good luck" sign for some of Canberra's younger theatre companies - Centrepiece performed his play "Men" in 2005 as their second production, and the current incarnation of NUTS did his play "Bed" in 2008, also fairly early on in their run. He's a tough, funny writer with a great ear for dialogue and an eye for modern Australian society that cuts pretty deep.

His play Ruben Guthrie is about a young successful ad-writer who begins to come unstuck when his drug-and-alcohol fuelled lifestyle sends him into Alcoholics Anonymous. As he begins to redefine his relationship with alcohol, his relationships with his fiance, his parents, his job and his best friend are also redefined.

It's a very solid play with a marathon lead role for the actor playing Ruben - and at first, I was worried Lewis Meegan wasn't up to the task. He started off running his lines very fast, almost gabbling them into incomprehensibility- as Ruben's first AA meeting tells about the incident that got him there. But he settles into a good groove as Ruben's journey softens him and strips him of his certainties, Meegan hits the necessary emotional notes soundly.

Elsewhere, both the writing and the performances sometimes skate the edge of caricature - in particular, Ruben's mum and dad (played by Dean Batten and Jessica Symonds) - who get all the laughs from the script required, but don't often get any deeper (though Batten's final line does hit the heart like a sledgehammer). Part of Cowell's point here is that Ruben's alcoholism isn't just a personal phenomenon - it's part of a family cycle - but by playing the parents as just figures of fun, you lose the tragi-part of the tragi-comedy.

As Ruben's boss, Michael Bones similarly doesn't really get past the one note caricature level of the sleazy enabler (the writing has a few more complex notes as the character's also an addict, but they're not really engaged with very much).

Ruben's two girlfriends - teenage Czechoslovakian supermodel Zoya (Gabrielle Dutton) , and fellow AA member Virginia (Alexandra Davis)- are probably the most under-written of the roles - partially, I think, because to explore them and round them more fully bears the threat that it may make Ruben's behaviour less likeable and expose that his behaviour pre-and-post AA can be quite self-serving. There's indications that Zoya's suffered quite a lot at the hands of Ruben (he's reported as starting his relationship with her when she was 16 and he was 26, which is borderline paedophilic), but with it only being reported rather than shown, it's not something the audience can really take to heart, and Zoya's really never allowed to be vulnerable.  Similarly, Virginia's clearly got her own personal history and baggage that she brings into the relationship, which is fascinating material to mine, and builds up to the end of the first act -  then is largely thrown away so that she can be discarded offstage as part of Ruben's downward spiral. Casting similarly aged actors as Ruben, Zoya and Virginia really hurts here - the script suggests Virginia can be a decade older than Ruben, and that age gap may have given the relationship that extra side it needs (although I still think Cowell writing Virginia out offstage is a massive mis-step).

Ruben's best mate Damian runs away with some of the best comedy of the play, and in Alex Battye's performance, we get our other character that gets to three dimensions. Blokey, companionate, and ultimately dark enabler, Battye hits the cynical notes and the heartfelt ones strongly and clearly.

The set, by Shaun Wykes, is nicely adaptable and looks gorgeous (all those tempting bottles of alcohol, which ... would make for a great cast party at the end of the season, except that after weeks of rehearsing and performing a play on the dangers of alcholism, perhaps everyone would be happier with mineral water and a salada). Lighting by Owen Horton gives the tiny space of the Drama lab different moods and feels in good style. One minor props note - when the characters start consuming mountains of cocaine towards the end, I picked up the odour of scented baby powder, which ... I'm pretty sure was not the intent.

I've found myself more critical of this production while writing than I was while watching it - the broadness of some of the performances is entertaining in the theatre, but less handy when writing critically. And this is an incredibly engaging piece - just one that, maybe, doesn't quite cut as deep in this production as it could have. But given 90% of people probably go to the theatre to enjoy themselves rather than have their hearts ripped out and stomped on repeatedly, I'm not sure this matters to anyone else.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Word Play, Boho Interactive

Is it theatre? Cinema? TV? Gaming? Whatever it is, Word Play is a live interactive experience from Boho Interactive, who've been presenting work where the audience gets more involved than is usual. In this case, it's a live broadcast from a forestry laboratory in Yarralumla to the Discovery Centre at Black Mountain Laboratories, where three actors get to tell a post-apocalyptic disaster story, about a disastrous plague and the quest for a possible solution. The interactivity comes up as the audience gets to message the cast at various points in the story, asking questions and providing directions, either via SMS or via a specially built phone app for iphone or android (and it's worth getting the app rather than doing it by SMS, the app is very well designed to suit the production).

And it's when it's interactive that this show really comes alive - either with the audience getting to ask open questions, or give open directions to the characters (a midshow sequence where the audience is asked to give instructions is particularly a highlight, partially because, well, the audience are shifty bastards and often give perversely wrong instructions just to see if the actors follow them ... and they do!). It really does give a live-ness to the situation that being shown-via-webcast doesn't always permit (after all, you're not in the same room as the actors). Some of the other interactivity is a bit more obligatory  of the "because it's there" - there's a sequence where the entire role of the audience is to determine in what order the exposition is going to be in, which isn't that much fun - whatever the audience chooses, the whole set of stories is going to be told anyway, so the choice is somewhat arbitrary.

Elsewhere, when the show isn't being interactive, there are highs and lows. The script feels a little bit in love with its own exposition - the ultimate nature of the threat is actually quite simple (and appropriately terrifying), but it works better by being shown rather than being talked about, as it starts to physically affect our three characters - and the first half hour or so is very talk heavy. The presentation by multiple web-cams is technically pretty sound (each cast member has a webcam attached to them, plus a couple of webcams placed around the set also pick up alternate angles, and all editing is done live) and a credit to director Marissa Martin and her tech team.

I think this falls more into the territory of "interesting experiment" rather than "completely successful" - it could use a little tightening round the edges, but the performances by Euan Bowen, Raoul Craemer and Cathy Petocz are solid and committed, and there's interesting ideas here worth exploring. So worth having a look.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Frankenstein, Ensemble Theatre

Nick Dear's adaptation of Mary Shelly's classic begins with the creature's birth - experienced from the perspective of the newborn, stumbling, shambling into a world that he's an outcast in. It's an arresting point to begin the story, and a fine introduction to Lee Jones' performance as the un-named creature - a lonely, confused, desperate figure who is assimilating everything for the first time.

And this is an unusually close adaptation of Mary Shelly's work, echoing her themes of the moral responsibility of a creator to his creation (including a lot of literary allusions to John Milton's "Paradise Lost").  This isn't the mute or mumbling figure Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee provided - he only returns to take his revenge after he's been educated enough to know just how far he's been wronged. It trims extensively (Shelly's framing device is gone, as is roughly the first hundred pages of the book), but intelligently, focusing on getting to the meat of the material.

There's some other great performances in here that should be acknowledged - Michael Ross as the blind man  who takes the creature in and gives him his first demonstrations of kindness and education, Katie Fitchett as Elizabeth, Doctor Frankenstein's fiance and the one person who gets to argue with both the Doctor and the Creature about the destructive nature of their mutual obsessions (her observation that "if you wanted to create life, maybe you could have got me pregnant" cuts right to the heart of the matter). Andrew Henry's Victor Frankenstein is less successful - though the script is somewhat loaded against him, all our sympathies are going to be with the newborn outcast rather than the intellectual who disowns responsibility - still, Henry gives us a Doctor Frankenstein who is more a simpering wimp than a magnificently arrogant bastard.

Kilmurray's staging is mostly pretty good (though it looses flow a little in one or two scene transitions) - the simple design highlights the performances and the text. The live musical accompaniment (performed by Heather Stratfold, composed by Elena Kats-Chermin) keeps the mood tense and engaging throughout.

I was kinda expecting to love this, but instead this fell into the "good, but not great"... I think unfortunately due to the uneven nature of the sparring partners - Jones clearly dominates the story at every turn, meaning the drama is somewhat diminished. But this is still an effective evening in the theatre, telling a classic story in modern style.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

When the Rain Stops Falling, NUTS.

Student theatre is a place where the reviewer treads warily. There's a lot of not-quite-ripe talent out there, often pushing themselves in plays which are way outside their abilities, leading to something which is clearly an educational experience for the performers but means very little to an audience member.

And "When The Rain Stops Falling" should be a case in point - it's a challenging work, an epic covering almost 80 years and two different countries, beginning with a long monologue and continuing with a long scene entirely without words. It contains two love stories, three fathers with distant or non-existant relationships with their sons, several tragedies and mysteries, and at least one bone-fide miracle. The original production that played Canberra in 2010, was gorgeously cast, designed, directed and scored and is one of my top ten theatre memories. So ... how do NUTS do?

Surprisingly ... very very well. The design is simple without being sterile - a minimalist joy. Not all the performances work entirely (one or two moments get a tad histrionic or else don't quite hit the emotional notes they're aiming for) - and the usual problem of casting early-twenty-somethings as people in their forties and fifties are visible, as the age distinctions aren't entirely convincing - but there's considerable skills on display  - particularly from Abbie Jones as the younger Elizabeth Law, who is by turns witty, romantic, intelligent and heartbreaking as required. The lighting design by Owen Horton also gets major plaudits for shifting moods, times and places effortlessly. And the direction by Ellie Greenwood, assisted by Gowrie Varma, ties it all together so that this feels like one story being told, rather than several loosely arranged ones.

It's also worth noting that this was a remarkably well attended production - the night I saw it got a good solid crowd who were held rapt through 120 minutes with no intermission. NUTS is obviously doing something right, and the word is spreading.

AMAX, Smiths Alternative

A quick music review, though one with a theatrical bent (given Amy Dunham and Max Gambale are both theatre regulars)... AMAX have been performing gigs on and off for two or three years that I've noticed thus far, but this is the first one I've actually made it to. And they're pretty darn polished, I gotta say. Performing a bunch of original songs, with one cover in the bracket I heard, AMAX provided with gorgeous harmonies, some great guitar work from Gambale, Dunham simultaneously tough-and-tender, Gambale wearing his heart on his sleeve (in addition to his Hawaiian Shirt and Bright Red Clogs), and encouraging some toddler dancing  up the front with songs like the high-energy "Suitcase Stowaway". Very impressive - they're apparently working on recording their first CD, which you should all purchase or itunes download or illegally download it and drop large sums of money into Amy and Max's hands as penance.

As for the venue - I'm quite impressed with the stage at Smiths, it's quite hipster-chic charming. Yes, the venue is a Jorian Garnder Joint, which ... well, I'll be honest and say I'd tend to like his producing a lot more if he just let the work talk for itself, rather than appearing on stage himself to introduce at any point, but ... damn it, the guy has good taste in material to put on stage and a good history of putting stuff on stage, and should be commended for creating another good joint for local creatives to let their creative selves hang out.