Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Fox on the Fairway, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

The end-of-year knees up at Rep is a regular tradition - it's been going on at least as long as I've been going to Rep stuff (back with 2001's production of "Black Comedy"). They haven't always been farces (one of the bigger end-of-year hits was Duncan Ley's "And then there Were None" which was pure Agatha Christie Thriller), but there's always been a sense of fun, of running off the leash a bit.

However, that running-off-the-leash is a little deceptive -  particularly with farce, that most tightly-controlled of genres, where the threat of discovery and disaster lurks just around every corner and part of the fun is in seeing how it is avoided at the last minute (it's like watching car-racing expecting to see people nearly-crash).

"Fox on the Fairway" doesn't quite get there - it's partially that Ken Ludwig is a fairly gentle farceur as they go (his characters are never particuarly punished for their transgressions, and he's very fond of his deus-ex-machina happy endings for everybody), but I think it's production-related - much of the staging feels a bit ... undetermined. There isn't the speed, the promptness, the purpose-of-movement that gives farce its energy.

Jim Adamick, Rachael Clapham and Bridgette Black are capable, skilled, charming, familiar actors and they're amusing in their roles. Martin Hoggart is less familiar but seizes his fresh-faced role with gusto and skill. Andrew Price perhaps over-emphasises the stuck-up villain side of Dickie and underemphasies the stupidity, leading to a slightly awkwardly-angled performance, while Natalie Waldron's performance doesn't quite get the tone right - playing two-dimensional characters larger than life so that they fill all the space that would otherwise be occupied by the third dimension.

I don't know whether Andrew Kay's set is too large or Liz Bradley's direction is just unable to manouvre the actors around the stage effectively, but in the wide-open spaces characters sometimes felt lost on their way to the next exit.

I don't want to sound like "Fox on the Fairway" is a waste of the audience's time - it's often fairly amusing. But it could have been riotous. And instead... it's a gentle giggle. A pity.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hamlet, Belvoir

There's a sense of anticipation to this one. Simon Stone is at the top of his game, Toby Schmitz similarly. And this is the first Shakespeare at Belvoir for a fair while - not since 2010's "Measure for Measure". And Hamlet is one of those roles that defines an actor as "the real thing" - it's a marathon part with lots of solid soliloquies, and has plenty of space for someone to show off their talents.

This is a particularly Hamlet-centric Hamlet - the cast has been chopped down to Hamlet's family and Orphelia's Family plus one courtier (with some lines reshuffled between characters to keep the play moving). And as the bodies pile up, the actors playing the recently-deceased (or, in the case of Hamlet's father, before-the-beginning-of-the-play-deceased) remain on stage as mute ghosts observing the remainder of the action. This can be creepy (Greg Stone's Polonius in particular) or surprisingly moving (as Polonius and Orphelia are re-united post-mortem) - and it makes it very clear exactly how many of the bodies on stage Hamlet is responsible for.

So while being Hamlet-centric, it's by no means sympathetic to him - it's quite bracingly unsentimental, in fact. Schmitz brings his soliloquies right into the face of the audience ... it's quote confronting to have Hamlet stare at you asking whether he should kill Claudius or not (and reacting sarcastically when you can't give him an easy answer). Hamlet is the quintessential angry young man, questioning all the certainties and striking out at the hypocrisies he sees around him - this production, though, doesn't let him off the hook for his own crimes and hyporisies, but instead leaves them very visible around him (in the shape of the bleeding and dripping bodies).

I don't know that all the artifice works. In particular, the funereal laments sung by Maximillian Reibel and played on piano by Luke Byrne give this a classicist feeling that I'm not entirely sure the rest of the production works in (it also leads to the finale, which is played semi-abstractly around Hamlet as a pile of corpses, death and pain - it works in the moment but it lends a lot of distance to the production). In some ways, this has the same "museum piece" feeling as Stone's 2011 production of "Thysestes" did - making us more observer than involved participant by the end. It's a deliberate choice and ... I'm not saying it's a wrong choice, but I'm saying it's a deliberately distancing choice that can make a play of hot, impulsive, dangerous passions come across as somewhat cold.

It's a production that engaged me, that made me think, anticipate, laugh, feel terrified, moved, and disturbed me. And in that sense, it's a great production.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Annie Get Your Gun, Queanbeyan Players, The Q

Yes, this is the first Canberran show I've seen since Broadway. So, yes, possibly standards are going to be tricky when judging what comes next in the firing line (see, that's funny cause this is a musical about people shooting a lot).

Still... this was not an enjoyable evening in the theatre. Irving Berlin's 1940's musical has a strong song-stack of standards including "There's No Business Like Show Business", and "Anything You can Do I can Do Bettter", and a script that I remember thinking was pretty good when I first saw it when someone else's high school did it in Armidale when I was 12. And Annie Oakley is one of the great female leads in a musical - written for the legendary Ethel Merman, the role's bounced around since then being performed by everybody from Debbie Reynolds and Bernadette Peters to Suzi Quatro and Reba McIntyre.

There are, however, key problems with the show that any production needs to deal with in any contemporary production - first, the sexism (the basic conflict of the show is that the male lead can't accept being outclassed by his love interest, and that's a fine thing to deal with, but not if you're going to think his reaction is perfectly acceptable); and second, the racism (there's material about indians which is pretty much on the level of "gosh, they have silly names and speak silly"). This 1999 rewrite vaguely attempts to address both, but really fails to engage either on a fundamental level, at least in this production - the indians are still largely joke characters, and the sexism thing isn't really engaged either as Frank remains a bland character who whines a bit (cutting his character-establishing song, "I'm a Bad Bad Man" probably doesn't help, as it might at least have given him a little bit of roguish charm to be getting on with. It's also bad history, as the real life Frank Butler doesn't seem to have had any problems with his wife being more capable than him.

The device of framing the entire show as a "wild West show" is intriguing (for historical reference, the events of the show are taking place at about the same time as the events in the TV series "Deadwood", which means there's something that can be said about how the Wild West was being mythologised even as it was dying off, so a bit more use of the idea that what we're being told is nothing like the whole truth would be handy ..) but instead  all we really get is a few pre-announced scene changes and a chance for the stage crew to be visible. Which is disappointing.

Very nearly redeeming the whole exercise is Anita Davenport, whose Annie is reckless, charming, sings well and supremely self-confident. Elsewhere the cast isn't as good - a reluctance to embrace Frank's slightly caddish nature instead leaves Richard Block largely playing a peevish blank of a character, Pat Gallagher is fine but doesn't have a lot to do as Buffalo Bill Cody, Greg Sollis and Sophie Hawkins are charming but their subplot remains so massively inessential (it was cut in the 1966 revival in favour of giving Merman an extra song) that they mostly keep contributing to running time rather than anything else. A lot of the supporting cast plays some very average jokes very very broadly, with the result looking like bad high-school drama. Oddly enough, the best acting apart from Davenport seems to come from 8-year-old Jake Keen, who's performance avoids the ick associated with child actors and who instead lands all his jokes and is rather effortlessly charming with it.

The orchestra put together by John Yoon is perfectly fine once they work their way in (I suspect a little pre-tuning up would have been handy as the overture had a couple of wildly off-key notes). Kathyrn Jones' choreography varies from the bland to the "what the hell are you thinking" during "My Defences are Down" (I assume she's going for laughs, but ... god knows why, it has nothing to do with the characters, the song or the show).

So... no, this wasn't a great night out in the theatre - instead it's an evening where I kept on wishing I could be watching the Davenport-sings-the-Merman-catalogue-with-an-8-year-olds-assistance show instead. Which is a pity.

Friday, 15 November 2013

No Mans Land, Cort Theatre, Broadway

And so we come to the end of our Broadway odyssey with a shameless Star vehicle. "No Man's Land" is a two-star vehicle, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart uniting for Harold Pinter's 70s play featuring a lot of scotch drinking and intemperate thought.

Occasionally I'll watch productions of plays that I've read but not enjoyed simply to see whether they go better in the staging. And I'll confess, Pinter's plays of subtle-menace often slip into the "too subtle for me to notice" on the page. Productions of "The Birthday Party" and "The Caretaker" in the past, for instance, have made a somewhat dry reading experience come alive into something much more three dimensional.

Alas, this production doesn't really do that. I'm not sure if it's because Pinter is writing something a lot more cerebral, or whether it's simply a case of there not being very much there to begin with.  Either way ... yes, this is a story about two men, one wealthy, one not, both literary men, who meet one evening and keep on drinking, and talking, and find it difficult to disengage from one another. There's a sense of the losses that come with age, of the uncertainties before death, but that's about it - there's not a lot of plot development going on.

Stewart and McKellen give it a fair go - McKellen gets most of the lines in the first half, rabbiting on extensively while Stewart gets the occsional "oh", and "good" to react with - and they draw out a fair bit of humour from the extreme vagueness of the action (about ten minutes in, McKellen realising that he hasn't even let Stewart know what his name is yet, for example). In support roles, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley are suitably menacing (and sound suitably English) but ... this still remains a distinctly unengaging evening. I can say I've seen Stewart and McKellen. I can't say I enjoyed it.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Fun Home, Public Theatre, Off Broadway.

It's easy to forget that, before Alison Bechdel became a test and a meme, she was a cartoonist - her regular strip "Dykes to watch out for" spawning three-point test that asks whether a piece of work has (1) at least two named female characters; (2) who have a conversation; (3) about something other than a man, and thereby provoked continual debate about the representation of female characters in pretty much every form of narrative art from comics to TV. But her other work is also important - "Fun Home" is based on her autobiographical graphic novel about growing up, particularly focussed on her coming out process, and on her relationship with her father, a neatness-obsessed man who part-time ran a Funeral Home (hence the title) who was also a closeted homosexual and who committed suicide a few months after Alison came out to her family (not a spoiler, we find this out about ten minutes into the show).

It may come as a surprise that this story is being told as a musical. But it really shouldn't - it's a story deeply covered in emotion and soul and pain and that makes it perfect for singing. The technique of having three different Alison's on stage (a young one, a college age one and a forty-something Alison who's trying to draw the story) keeps the story moving in multiple timelines (as we jump from college Alison's awkward first flirtations with the cute girl in the Women's collective to young Alison on a family trip to see "A Chorus Line", or coming up with a Jackson-5 inspired commercial for the funeral home, or focussing her attention on the Partridge Family to hide from the arguments between her parents. Beth Malone as the older Alison has a bemused detatchment as she observes her past, while Sydney Lucas is sweetly, smartly inquistive as the Small Alison and Alexandra Socha is all fumbling late-blooming adolescence (her singing of "I'm Changing My Major to Joan" is a particular highlight).

Broadway vetrans Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn play the parents, and they are astounding - Cerveris in particular takes a tightly-wound, deeply-uncomfortable man and makes his insecurities, his self-justifcations and his compromises fascinating. Kuhn's supressed for a lot more of the show (her initial reaction to her husband's dalliances is to bottle the feelings up) but when the true pain of living with the compromises is revealed, we feel all the pain she's been living with for far too long.

Composer Jeanine Tessori's had one of the odder modern musical theatre careers - she's never had a consistent lyrical partner, and her shows vary from the highly commercial with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Shrek The Musical" to deeper fare like the civil-rights era "Caroline Or Change" and the faith-healing cult hit "Violet". But she proves herself a composer to be reckoned with in this strong, emotional material. Scriptwriter and lyricist Lisa Kron provides a script that is witty, smart, passionate and heartfelt and lyrics that get to the core of the characters .

I found this really emotionally affecting - a show that deserves to be seen wider (the season at the Public has extended repeatedly and supposedly eyes are on a Broadway transfer, though it would benefit from keeping things intimate) - the costs to a family of a life of painful lies in an era not set up to cope with them. This is solid, major musical theatre work of a type that's seen too rarely, and thoroughly recommended.

(note - there's a really good article at about Bechdel's reaction to the show which is well worth checking out)

Twelfe Night, or What You Will, Belasco, Broadway

Exactly what "traditional" Shakespeare means has been the subject of much debate for a good couple of decades now. Certainly, you'd think Shakespeare's Globe would have a handle on it - performing in a theatre purpose-built to recreate the original conditions of his work. So when the company goes on tour, what do they bring with them to keep the style alive?

In this case, a simple set design designed to resemble how Shakespeare's plays would have been presented in the great halls of the aristocracy - a screen, two doors, seating on stage for a few rows of highly visible audience, a simple single lighting state (there are something like 100 candles onstage, but quite obviously there's also additional lighting for visibility), no amplification, and a gallery for musicians to play rauschpfeifs, sackbuts, shawms, recorders lutes, citerns, therobos, hurdy gurdys, pipes, tabors, field drums and tympani, and, of course, an all male cast. (note, I have no idea what half those instruments are but they're listed in the program and ... we all have google).

To add to the feeling of this being an "event", when the audience enters the theatre the cast is on stage getting changed from a basic shirt or smock into their full garb (for the men who are playing women, this is of course a fairly complex operation - Elizabethan outfits for women were not exactly easy wearing - but even the men have a fair bit of clothing to stuff themselves into).

All these externals don't really matter, of course, if the acting style is a dead recreation of something long gone. But that's where the magic really hits. Because this is some of the liveliest Shakespeare I've seen in years. Leading the company is Mark Rylance in the not-obviously-a-starring-role of Olivia, and in this case, he doesn't re-centre the play to make it All About Him, so much as bring a character fully to life who could easily slip into the background - finding the funny in Olivia's high seriousness early on and the increasing disruption as her desire for the disguised Viola and the increasingly reckless behaviour of her servants (the delivery of the word "Malvoli... oooh" at the right moment particularly gets belly laughs). His dignified, stately manner of walking and speaking makes the comedy so much funnier when that dignity is cracked.

And of course, it really isn't all about him. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's ensemble comedy par exellence, and the Globe brings fine ensemble playing - with Stephen Fry as the obivous interloper as Molvolio (which makes sense - Malvolio's puritan ways means he never completely fits into everybody else's world, and his attempt to ingratiate himself is quite ridiculously funny. As is Samuel Barnett's Viola (who's as confused by what's happening to her as everyone else), Angus Wright's gloriously thick-headed Aguecheek,  Paul Chahidi's smart, witty Maria (whose half-hearted "yay" near the end brings down the house) and Colin Hurley's charmingly disreputable Toby. Peter Hamilton Dyer's Feste rides across the evening as a wise, free-roaming sprit of misrule, charmingly mischevous.

So this isnt' good traditional Shakespeare - it's simply good Shakespeare. If you wanted to nitpick, there are definately line readings and performance approaches that would not have matched Elizabethan practice - but who really cares? The point of any play is in the moment, in the theatre, and it's there that this production shines gloriously.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Mildred Fierce, Theater 80, Off-broadway

Yup, it's drag-time! "Mildred Fierce" is shamelessly retro-drag, digging out Joan Crawford's second-finest-moment on screen (right after Baby Jane) as an excuse for jokes, songs and general ridiculousness. I can't defend it as high art, or even as particularly witty, but goddamn is it good fun - throwing taste out the window and throwing puppets, dance-numbers, innuendoes and all out stupidity in.

Varla Jean Merman plays the long-suffering Mildred with appropriate histrionics, drama and all-round ridiculousness. Varla is, of course, the fictitious child from the very real 32-day marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine  (the chapter entitled "my marriage to Earnest Borgnine" in Ethel Merman's biography is a blank page). She's also a man in a dress, but a man who has a spectacular pair of legs and unleashes them occasionally during dance numbers.

Can I recommend this as high quality theatre you should leap to? Nope, it's a ridiculous cartoon, slapped together, basically panto for adults (the song lyrics in particular are pretty poor, though the puppet and model work throughout are quite fun). But as a light fluffy diversion ... this diverts nicely.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Buyer and Cellar, Barrow Street theatre, Off-Broadway

Off-Broadway is a realm of all kinds of small and wacky theatres. In the case of the Barrow Street, it's quite obviously used as a community-centre during the day, but of an evening it's hosted a lot of top-flight stuff. "Buyer and Cellar" is no exception - it's a one-man play telling of a struggling actor who gets a job in Barbra Streisand's basement, looking after her accumulated possessions. As the prologue states, this is speculation based on a couple of paragraphs of Barbra's somewhat bizarre interior-decorating book "My Passion for Design" (which turned out to be entirely real and available on severe discount at Barnes and Noble ... I didn't buy it), but it uses the speculation to extend into asking some major questions about celebrity, ownership, detachment and class. It's also ridiculously gossipy, funny and bitchy as hell.

Michael Urie is the one man, and he's delightful. He mentions early on he's not going to do Barbra's voice ("everybody does it, even women")... but the voice he chooses for Barbra has wit, Jewishness, is canny and full of character. As Alex More, the unemployed actor, he's hopeful yet aware of the risks, funny, clever-and-goofy in about equal measure. And he's a delight to behold.

The simple one-room set by Andrew Boyce is enhanced by clever lighting from Eric Southern. It's intriguing that there's been two shows largely relating to working for Barbra Streisand very recently ("I'll Eat You Last", which starred Bette Midler on Broadway and will star Miriam Margoyles in Melbourne next year, is the other one and deals with Barbra's long-term manager, Sue Mengers), and suggests there's still something about her unique combination of massive talent and equally massive narcicissm that retains relevance, even as the performer herself has done less and less interesting work over the last decade or two. And "Buyer and Cellar" is certainly both a celebration and an examination of that phenomenon, while also going beyond simple celeb-gossip into something far more human.

Pippin, Music Box, Broadway

Broadway is Big. Really big. How big? Well, there are 40 theatres which are formally called "Broadway" theatres, most of which have stuff running 12 months of the year. That's not to ignore a massive number of off and off-off-broadway theatres also spreading across New York City, also incredibly active in their product.

Anyway, point being, there's a lot of theatre. And, given this is the height of commercial theatre, the tickets are bloody expensive and the theatres usually somewhat overstuffed with people crammed into overly-tiny seats, how good is it, really?

In the case of "Pippin", pretty darn good. "Pippin" is a fairly seventies show on that most seventies of subjects, a young man trying to find himself. In this case, he's the son of the medieval king Charlemagne, though in some ways this becomes increasingly irrelevant to the plot - the show largely consists of Pippin trying various life options and finding them unsatisfactory (war, sex, politics and finally, ordinary domestic life). It's a rare show where the main character can become king of France and it ultimately doesn't matter to the outcome of the story - arguably you could show up for the last forty-five minutes or so and not have missed anything particularly substantial, except for everything else about the storytelling and presentation (which is, of course, substantial). Pippin's guide through these adventures are a team of players -  in this production, quite an acrobatically-capable team, who spin, tumble, and divert through Pippin's meandering adventures.

In the title role, Matthew James Thomas is a sweet-natured hero, not exactly a naive idiot but certainly not entirely worldly wise. He sings the big ballad "Corner of the Sky" with conviction. There's also a nice sense that he's being led by the show rather than leading it - his involvement in the choreography, for instance, has a fun sense of "learning the steps" (which, six months into the run, obviously he isn't). He also onstage has a blonde head of hair which makes hims startlingly resemble Lachlan Ruffy. There's a basic part of the premise that everyone else in the show has been performing it for ages, but Pippin is brand new. And to his credit, Thomas makes that believable. He's fresh, funny and charming.

For our performance, the role of "Leading Player" (narrator, chief tempter of Pippin, and ring-master) was played by the understudy, Gabrielle McClinton. You wouldn't know - she sings, dances and tempts skillfully. She's also nicely petulant when the show doesn't run completely according to plan as Pippin and other performers make choices outside her control.

Most notable of these misbehaving performers is Rachel Bay Jones, who pays Catherine (Pippin's partner in "ordinary life"), whose sweet simplicity is utterly disarming - she's daffy, charming and kinda heart-breaking.

The entire production is a marvel of invention (the staging of "Simple Joys" with variations on large exercise balls is particuarly delightful), and brings glee and a fair bit of spectacle to a story of frustrated ambitions and learning to accept your place in the universe. A perfect start to a run of shows on-and-off Broadway.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Wheel, Steppenwolf, Chicago

Yes, That Guy has been away for a bit. Yes, that means I missed "Little Shop of Horrors" and "A Month of Sundays", and "The Female of the Species" and "The Popular Mechanicals" and a bunch of other things that played in Canberra while I was away. However, this means I have seen things in other parts of the world which I'm going to review. And you get to read them.

First up is "The Wheel" - a big-scale brechtian drama about war. Why go see it? Well, the big attraction here is Joan Allen returning to Steppenwolf after a couple of decades ago away of becoming an internationally renowned film actress - she plays Beatriz, a woman from a peaceful village in Northern Spain who's suddenly thrust into looking after a young girl when a war is declared and the girl's father goes missing. Her quest to find the father gets increasingly surrealistic and runs through multiple wars (WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan are among the wars visually referenced). And like the best of Brecht, it's big-scaled theatre with a strong, solid, central performance at the centre. Unfortunately, unlike the best of Brecht, it doesn't quite find an adequate ending, and the surrealism makes it a very "and then this happened" play rather than something with a strong spine. Instead, the ending chooses a "back to the beginning" structure (which, I suppose, the title suggests it should) with some indications that maybe on the next cycle things may change slightly... but without really paying off.

Allen grounds it as well as, I think, it possibly can be grounded. She's tough yet compassionate, radiating intelligence and determination. The physical production, too, is impressive - it uses the entirety of the stage space, eventually stripping it back so we can see the wings and the set-structures. There's mud and dirt and explosions and a fair bit of spectacle too ... this is theatre that gives the eyes a fair bit.

I'm glad I saw this. Steppenwolf is one of America's premiere companies for a reason - starting as a three member ensemble, it's now grown to an ensemble of 40-odd with a strong actor-based focus dedicated to presenting theatre that challenges, excites and thrills. It may veer on the edge of pretentious for some, but ... I found enough to enjoy to get away with the pretension.