Friday, 16 August 2013

Short and Sweet Week 2, Courtyard Studio

Another year and Short and Sweet is back again to give an allsorts collection of plays in under 10 minutes. It's an opportunity to see performers in unfamiliar roles, to see the work of new directors and writers, and to experiment a bit with theatre form.

Unfortunately, it can also, like everything else, slip into a bit of a formula and uninspired directing. And sad to say there is a certain percentage of that this year.

The evening begins reasonably with "Bendigo Banjo Saves the Day", which is no great shakes as a script (it is, like a lot of these scripts, fairly flabby and unfocussed), but has a certain charm in festival director Kate Gaul's staging, which brings a lot of clever imagery, charm and movement into a script that could very easily become completely unstuck (due to the festival director having stepped into direct, this isn't eligible for prizes at the end of the festival).

Unfortunately for the entire first half, there really isn't a staging that matches it. There are moments that glimpse through in performance (Paul Jackson's abashed admittance in "Therapist", Helen Way's enthusiastic theory-spinning and the very impressive fake rock in "Good Cop Mad Cop", Liliana Bogatko's cynical disbelief in "A Dim Light"), but these are mostly mediocre sketch comedy ideas stretched out a little too long and feeling a little too undercooked. "The Boat", which closes out the first half, tries for something a little more serious, but unfortunately the piece is very repetitive in its effect and doesn't offer anything that wasn't done better in two verses of "Cats in the Cradle".

After intermission, things get worse before they get better. "I have a Plan... The Battle for Canberra" draws from historical facts and quotes, and ... unfortuantely, historical quotes often make really really rotten dialogue. Rob DeFries is a fine actor who for the last two years has been in complete dogs of plays at Short and Sweet, and this is, alas, another one. Exactly what's going on with Ben Drysdale's "The Grey Man" in the scripting is anyone's guess, but he's the only one onstage who's bringing very much colour and movement into the piece.

Things improve dramatically, though, for the final three. Ruth Pieloor performs her own monologue that becomes a dialogue through the use of a particularly freaky looking ventriloquists dummy (which Ruth both embodies and manipulates excellently into a great antagonist). If she's not yet Nina Conti (the singular most amazing ventriloquist act I've ever seen), she's at least finding a good creative spin on the material.

Last Drinks is the entry from the team who did last year's winner, writer Greg Gould and director Margaret Allen. And  they hold up admirably with this one - mostly a showpiece for last year's best actress winner (Caroline O'Brien) as the much-accursed bride. If, yes, this is a bit of a sketch comedy piece, Gould's writing and O'Brien's performance seem to bring just that bit extra out that makes this a little bit more rounded.

Checkout breaks the formula completley - it's an excellently staged piece as four women represent one checkout chick on an average day - it's polemic, it's incisive and it moves like lightning under Pete Malicki's expert skill. It's about the type of people who don't end up in drama, all too often, and it's about why what's going on in their lives may be one of the most important things we need to know about. This is great stuff to wind up the evening.

In short ... even for Short and Sweet, this is a frightfully uneven evening. But it comes home very strongly, and that's enough to make it worthwhile for me.

(edited to add - Ruth Pieloor's "Vanity Insanity", "Last Drinks" and "Checkout" all got through to the finals, along with "I Have a Plan". The Short and Sweet format sorta encourages barracking for a favourite, but ... honestly, I'd be happy with any of the first three (bearing in mind, of course, I haven't seen anything from week 1 or the wild cards that could also take the prizes))

(second edit - Vanity Insanity won best Direction and Best Actress, Last Drinks won People's Choice and Checkout tied for Best Production - huzzah for shows that I liked getting prizes!)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Phantom of the Opera, Free Rain - Guest review

I'm not seeing "Phantom" for ... a few reasons, one being the cost, one being my own middling feelings about the show itself. However, a friend offered to review it for me. And I've agreed. So... this is "That Other Guy" with a review of "Phantom".

The phrase that echoed around the Canberra Theatre Centre of Phantom’s opening night was “It’s good, for an amateur production.” While the sell-out crowd were receptive to the performance (there was a quarter of a standing-ovation), they were just as receptive as crowds tend to be on any other opening night. Perhaps the strengths of this production worked against it; the necessary complexity of bump-in meant that they only had three days in the theatre before preview (a common amateur theatre situation, but one that kept being used as an excuse, even in speeches by Somes and Harmon). Regardless, I enjoyed this musical. I didn’t love it, nor did I hate it. It simply happened, and I was there, and it was an important event for the community.
Let’s begin with what everybody has been talking about: the professionals. Let’s be honest for a second – they were good, but they were always going to be. It seems a little redundant to say that Michael Cormick and Julie Goodwin were stand-outs of this show... They’ve had the benefits that come with years of professional training, extensive experience with the material and, let’s call a spade a spade, professional abilities. Since it was first announced, the public have been bombarded with how excellent these two are. Which made them, unfortunately, victims of their own hype in performance. I’ll make no excuses, professionals are never critiqued worse than by amateur performers.
Michael Cormick’s Phantom was not overly Phantom-y. In terms of balance, for every excellent moment, there was an average one. More than anything, Cormick appeared to be the victim of his director. Overall, Cormick’s Phantom didn’t hold my attention. There were definite points at which he showed the abilities of his voice, but production week appeared to have taken its toll, particularly in Music of the Night, as there was the tell-tale growl and occasional cough from then on. Perhaps it is the over-hype I mentioned before, but while I enjoyed his performance, I expected more. As one person said to me in the foyer, “The Phantom wasn’t Phantom enough” – his presence wasn’t what it needed to be.
Julie Goodwin’s voice is stunning, and she fitted into the ballet chorus well. There was a believable friendship between her Christine and Tamina Koehne-Drube’s Meg Giry, which was delightful to watch, albeit at times in their duet (Angel of Music) Meg seemed less of a trusted friend, more of a dresser and awkward third wheel to the voice in Christine’s head. Goodwin’s acting, like Cormick’s, didn’t quite seem comfortable with the direction in places. There were moments where Christine appeared to know exactly what was going on, which is the opposite of her character’s reality. Christine is a pawn, first for the Phantom, then for Raoul, and appeared too strong for either man.
David Pearson’s voice is delightful. At times, though, it felt like he was Christine’s father, not her fiancĂ©e. His lower register is also noticeably louder than his higher, which made it seem that through All I Ask Of You, he was intermittently yelling in Christine’s face. His characterisation, however, was a new twist of the usually played vacuous and playful Raoul, providing a Raoul who was just as charming, dominating and often controlling as the Phantom himself. While not exactly melt-in-your-mouth sweet, Pearson’s Raoul was the first I’ve seen that I didn’t instinctively dislike for being whiney and self-entitled. I’m very glad Pearson’s back in town.
Christine Wallace’s Carlotta was vocally stunning. I don’t know who taught this woman to sing, but sign me up. Carlotta’s trills and operatic vocal runs were spot-on, and she never missed a note. Performance-wise, her non-singing moments could have used a touch more “diva”, and her costumes could have been credibly repulsively garish. Often, Carlotta was dressed in sepia tones, which left her looking a little washed out.
Ben O'Reilly’s Piangi (edited - this role was previously miscredited) left something to be desired. He missed many of his operatic notes in Hannibal and others, but an operatic tenor in Canberra is hard to find. More than that, there wasn’t really a Piangi character. He was Carlotta’s offsider, and left it there, missing many opportunities for physical and verbal comedy associated with being a leading man and still subject to a diva’s whims.
As the theatre owners, Tony Falla and Michael Moore were well cast. While still coming to terms with the intricate timings and lyrics of the Notes scenes, they presented the first real characters we see in the show. The pair showed an excellent contrast in two oft-similar characters, and at times they worked the stage better than Cormick and Goodwin.
Tamina Koehne-Drube has been becoming more and more prolific over the last two years, and Phantom gives us a chance to see why. She is delightfully graceful en pointe for the ballet chorus (although she would be more so if she put her shoulders back), clearly emotionally involved as a character, and her classical vocal training is paying dividends. While she had a few hard moments in her lower register, as well as some microphone issues, she was definitely one of the best performers onstage. The chemistry she had with not only Christine, but with Bronwyn Sullivan’s Madame Giry was apt and believable.
Sullivan’s strict ballet mistress, Madame Giry, was a well-acted and well-sung performance. While the production didn’t make as much of Giry’s ability to frighten respect from anybody she wished, be they dancer, crew or theatre manager, she nonetheless commanded attention and used her time onstage excellently.
Even the famous chandelier gave a perfectly balanced performance: the drama and excitement of its crash to the floor was balanced by jerky, awkward, inexplicable rising. The dramatic opening chords of the show were met by an almost painful stop-start ascension, with unnecessary pyrotechnics.
More than anything, I would say that the show was let down by its direction. David Harmon provides us with yet more balance issues, as for every moment of excellent direction, there are moments of awkwardness. Every director has to put their own spin on things, but The Phantom of the Opera (the Les Mis of Andrew Lloyd Webber “musicals”) has certain things that need to be done a certain way to be most effective. Free Rain’s production demonstrates why.
While there is understandably not much to be done with the minimal set, there were certain directorial decisions that left Cormick in odd places for certain moments. For example, the Phantom overheard the entirety of All I Ask Of You (sung on the roof of the Opera house) from his comfortable seat in Box Five which, logically, not only raises the question of how he physically heard any of what just happened, but why the police, when searching for the Phantom (a murder having just taken place and all), didn’t think to look in his favourite seat?

Similarly, Music of the Night is a slow, gradual build up of seductive power, which should make anybody who hears it crack a theatre-boner for the Phantom. The Phantom has rehearsed and rehearsed this moment for years, plotting his seduction of Christine, where he’ll stand, where he’ll put her when she faints etc. Every detail is measured and precise, for the ultimate theatrical gain. Cormick’s Phantom is all over the stage for this number, his body doing the work that his voice should be. There are only so many times we can believe that the Phantom can wave his hand over Christine’s head and she’ll pirouette. The clear planning of All I Ask of You is then supposed to provide a dramatic difference to Pandemonium, in which the Phantom’s plan has been ruined and he’s hurriedly, desperately ad-libbing a way to fix his problem (the kidnapping of Christine etc). Phantom seemed more prepared for this than anything else in the show.

Pandemonium also sees the threat of killing Raoul (a man who apparently thinks his eyes are at chin level, judging by where he held his hand, despite MANY warnings from the Giry women)... The Phantom pulls a rope, which lifts Raoul’s noose, choking him. Then, without any explanation, the Phantom lets go and walks around the stage, particularly to Christine, while Raoul hangs there, feebly fiddling with noose. As Phantom hasn’t tied the other end off on anything, there is no visible explanation as to why Raoul doesn’t just pull his end of the rope down and at least relieve his airway. Obviously, there are various knots and pulley mechanisms that can explain this, but I don’t think any production can rely on assumed knowledge in an audience.

Another confusing directorial decision was to have all of the Phantom’s asides boomed out into the theatre space and reacted to by the other actors. While this may seem logical as there are gaps in the script for them, it doesn’t really make sense to have the Phantom loudly announce his plans and then for the theatre managers and Raoul to continue as if nothing had happened.

During Il Muto, the ballet is performed facing the audience, and yet we can see a set of fly-ropes in the background. Either the Opera Populaire skimped on set, or the stage was an M.C. Escher design, in which the side of the stage is also at the back. Understandably, the corpse has to drop, and this drop has to be seen from the audience. This just shows why most productions choose to have the corpse drop into the middle of the ballet... So the audience, dancers and managers would all see it at once. Also, the dummy used as the corpse lacked human weight and therein bounced comically when it fell, like a rag-doll.

The ensemble, ballet corps and chorus members alike, sang wonderfully, but lacked any real characterisation. Oliver Baudert shone in his two initial characters, and then appeared to fade into the background (or at least out of my notice). He did, however, appear to have the only French accent in the production. If Les Mis has taught us anything, it’s that either you all do, or nobody does. Joe McGrail –Bateup’s frazzled director/conductor/repetiteur was also entertaining at times.
While this may be nit-picking, it is nit-picking from someone for whom The Phantom of the Opera was the first seen non-G&S musical. It is a passionate love of mine (and one of the two Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals I adore, although this is purely for the story). I feel that I missed a lot of the emotion and heart of the piece because I was too distracted by other things, particularly in the moments above. Those around me in the audience and foyer, I learned, suffered equally.
The design team, led by Cate Clelland and Fiona Leach, with help from Nick Valois, Steve Galinec, Anita Davenport and an army of others, did a tremendous job with what they had at their disposal. Galinec and Davenport’s mausoleum and theatre boxes not only looked the part, but stole the show (as far as non-moving, non-explosive components were concerned). Leach’s costumes were for the most part stunning, with occasional anachronisms that are unavoidable without a bigger budget.
Ian Maclean’s musical direction is superb, with excellent vocal coaching by Lloyd-Weber veteran Leisa Keen. The band, while over-amplified, played exceptionally and the company numbers sounded terrific.
In short, Free Rain’s Phantom was about balance. For every good moment, there were not-so-good moments, and the entirety of act one was upstaged by a falling lamp. While seeing Phantom with professional performers in the Canberra Theatre may be special, this production struggles to be anywhere near the standard to which it claimed. It was an excellent plan by Somes, and successful even before the cast reached the theatre.
I can only hope that the cast and company don’t try to rest of the laurels of selling out, considering they would have had every seat filled regardless of the show’s quality. A safe bet is a safe bet.
On a final, P.S-ish type note – there were flowers and gifts for the production team, Cormick and Goodwin. Most shows at least save that for closing night, and if you’re going to give the leads a present, you should probably give the rest of the cast one too. In a similar vein, I only saw leads at the post-show VIP function, and heard rumours that everyone else had been relegated to the green room...  

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Great, NUTS

NUTS all-modern-Australian drama season continues with another clever choice - Tony McNamara's Russian-history comedy-drama, "The Great". An anomoly in McNamara's writing, this breaks from his usual contemporary comedy mode (seen in plays like "The Cafe Latte Kid", "The John Wayne Principle", "The Virgin Mim", :"The Give and Take", "The Unlikely Prospect of Happiness" and "The Grenade" (the man really likes starting his titles with a "The"), as well as his copious TV writing career for shows like "The Secret Life of Us", "Love My Way" and "Tangle") and instead chucks us back into 18th century Russian history, in particular, the reign of Catherine the Great, telling the tale in two chunks - Act I depicting Catherine's arrival in Russia, her marriage and subsequent involvement in plots against her husband, and Act II dealing with events towards the end of her reign, as she's challenged by her children.

It's a grand story full of humour, revenge, anger and a fair amount of sex, and Casey Elder's production mostly presents pretty well... particularly on the sex. This is a very lushly designed production for NUTS, with red curtains covering the Drama Lab and the cast in some great mixed-modern-and-period costumes by Ara Steel and Chrissy Solazzini. The costume look is almost Amanda-Palmer-esque in its burlesque style, which is accompanied by some music selections from her current album (particularly well-applied in the use of "Do It with A Rockstar" with full lighting effects in the opening moments of act two - less so with the reprises of "The Bed Song" as a romantic theme, which seems to pick the same moment to begin cueing from throughout and becomes a little too repetitive (and misses the point of the lyrics of "The Bed Song", which has bugger all to do with romance and is far more about time and alienation)). The production doesn't quite maintain the pace - it presents a lot of the humour well but gets a little bit lost when things get more serious. It could have used a bit more of Palmer's pop-punk-enthusiasm thrown into the production. The decision to have frequent blackouts between scenes, rather than blend from moment-to-moment also led to a bit of pacing difficulty - bridging the space between scenes is important, and it's slightly flubbed here.

Bojana Kos as Catherine is central, and captures some of Catherine's capering naivety early on very well, and gets her groove on in act two as the older, wiser, and more bitter Catherine. But it's partially structural that there's a scene missing where her naivety gets finally broken and she goes from innocent miscomprehension of the strange Russian court that surrounds her into anger and resentment., and the show therefore gets a little subdued for a short time while I got used to the fact I wasn't going to get a smooth transition.

As her husband in act one and her son in act two, Andrew Eddey has a vehicle to be wonderfully, selfishly silly, and he grabs it with both hands. His work with a tricycle in act two is particularly outstanding. His casual use of his power in act one maps him out as a dangerous sociopath, and his entitled brat in Act two is equally funny. Meanwhile Ben Russell as her lover (in act one) and her daughter's lover (in act two) has a fair amount of charm and swagger to him, which turns to arrogance in act two. If he's never quite sympathetic ... I don't think that's really what anybody is going for here. He's charming and he's kind ... but he's also dead wrong and hedonistic, and the production wisely never lets us forget it. Brody Warren as Orlo starts out solidly but seems to slip away as the character becomes more and more marginal to Catherine - his last-minute confession of devotional love doesn't feel like it's been maintained throughout so it's a little bit lost.

Lauren Klein as the maid, Marial, maintains interest throughout, smart, snippy and not-too-far outside the boundries of good servant-y behaviour. Saskia Roberts's teenage entitlement as Catherine's daughter in act two launches delightfully, but by the time she's debating Catherine on roughly equal terms towards the end of the play, there isn't really a sense of growth so much as a sudden transition.

This is an unusually ambitious piece, but also strangely suitable for NUTS - it's character-focussed and its uneven-ness seems to suit the performers, allowing them to slide between contemporary and period nicely, with a combination of sarcasm and melodrama that plays nicely. This'll be my last review of NUTS for the year (I'm out of the country when "Female of the Species" premieres) but I've been strongly impressed with their work this year. They've survived some fairly rough treatment (including one offensively rude BMA review) but I've noticed solid audiences engaged in new Australian drama that I don't often see in more "respectable" established companies.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Don Parties On, Canberra Rep

David Williamson is Australia's most commercially successful playwright. It's not a debating point, it's a clear and established fact that, for over four decades, he's produced a massive stack of work (this year sees his 45th and 46th hitting the stages) and is still writing at a prodigious pace (in the last decade, he's had 13 different new plays produced), plus his back-catalogue is regularly revived.

For all that, he doesn't get a heap of respect. Critics tend to get sniffy about his work, and it's true, he tends to write about largely prosperous, white Australians dealing with the personal dilemmas that come with being prosperous and white - but, then again, people without money have never been a particularly big audience for theatre, and I don't necessarily see a lot wrong with engaging your audience on their own territory.

And while "Don Parties On" is the first Williamson play that's a direct sequel (unless you count the latter two Jack Manning plays as sequels), inevitably the themes have been visited before - the rituals of masculine friendship as the line between friend and rival blurs, the strained marriages, the generation gap as boomers are confronted with their children's differing values (and in this one, their grown grandchildren), and the disappointments with the state of the world they're in.

Aarne Neeme's production of "Don Parties On" captures a great deal of this - the sadness as well as the all-too-familiar comedy, of broken dreams and almost-friendly-rivalries, of the ways old friendships can be the things that hurt and support you most, in just about equal measure. It's not altogether perfect - a couple of instances of the casting and a couple of instances of the writing let it down - but when it's a play about people, it's affecting and funny and wise and true.

For the casting, let's start with the women, who are the standouts here. Judi Crane can do withering looks and commanding voices as well as anybody, and gets to unleash them here - but she also gets a chance to be gentle, soulful, wise and true. Helen Vaughan Roberts, similarly, has played the holy terror repeatedly, but this is the first time she's really been heartbreakingly, vulnerably broken (in my "Lost in Yonkers" review, I complained I was denied ten extra seconds to really feel her pain ... this time, I felt it). Liz St Clair Long does a great line in resigned acceptance of her husband's foibles, rolling her eyes at his daggy dancing delightfully. Isha Menon is new to me but owns the stage well, opinionated, strong-minded and, again, able to let her heart show where it counts. Anne Mewburn-Gray is a little trapped by her role - the character begins in a high key and only goes higher - there's probably no way of not playing this character unhinged, strained, and
desperate for attention, and that's what she gives it.

The men are generally less successful - Pat Gallagher's Mal is a notable exception here, he's every bit the braggart philosopher with a chip on his shoulder the part requires, and he's hilariously unconsicous of how incredibly tactless he frequently is. Sam Hannan-Morrow also delivers a good line in angst and befuddlement as his life increasingly spirals out of control. Peter Robinson's Don has the height of a good David Williamson surrogate and is good at the gormlessness and vacancy, but he seems to get a little lost in the more politically meaty bits of the play. Len Power's Cooley, similarly, is frequently funny and dances delightfully dorkily, but he's a little too much inwardly the gentle soul to be a convincing lothario, former or otherwise.

This isn't an all-time great new play by Williamson, but it's an entertaining evening with heart, soul and comedy, and is definitely worth catching.