Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Burning, Everyman Theatre, The Q

Duncan Ley is the finest working playwright in Canberra. Fullstop. I'm sorry if that insults others, but ... the crown is his. Come back again when you've written as many heartfelt, strong, dynamic plays as his and we'll talk again.

"The Burning" is his first play that got a wide audience, a tale of 17th century German witchtrials with a strong fathers-and-sons thematic underneath, and ... no, it's not his best play - it does slightly smack of melodrama (and dressing one set of father-and-sons all in black with a lot of leather kinda empahsises the point), plus the courtroom events in act two draw strongly on other courtroom dramas more than anything that would ever happen in an actual courtroom - but it shows a strong capable writing mind producing strong, propulsive drama. It's engaging from the gentle, witty beginning to the shockingly twisted end, and, for a story that is strongly dependent on torture and violence, all the violence is kept carefully offstage, described rather than presented, but no less chilling in its effect (as always, it ends up being more-so as there's nothing creepier than the audience's imagination).

In the context of his later play's, it's intriguing how his common themes of power, guilt and the place of his character's in their wider society are all here - just that his most recent works have moved away from the period settings of plays like "The Burning" and "When in Rome" into modernity of "Home at the End" and "The Ides of March". If I prefer the more recent works it may be because the historicism plays a little as a crutch - a way of borrowing authority rather than earning it.

It seems somewhat unfair that fate, as well as making Duncan Ley the finest working playwright in Canberra, should also make him an astoundingly good actor. In the role of Ernst Vasolt he refuses ever to fall into an easy pattern, with every line of dialogue, and every movement drawing the audience in. He can gently throw away lines casually, only to turn and smash the next phrase into the audience. It's impossible to take your eyes from him when he comes to play.

Astonishingly, Jack Parker, who plays Frances Schiller, is still in high school. Astonishingly because he more than stands his own with actors of senior authority, presenting a compassionate, emotive, deep, performance  - it's a major mainstage debut and I doff my hat.

Amy Dunham has that strange gift of being instantly loveable as soon as she appears on stage.In her opening bickering with Parker, she's fast and clever, and the two of them have great chemistry together with that feel of a real, strong, binding relationship. Her final exit from the play (late in act one) also sees her launch herself off the stage in a way that seems astonishingly reckless (but I have no doubt is carefully choreographed for her own safety) - she amazes me.

In a major break from his usual typecasting as a beamingly charming fella, Will Huang is pure concentrated twisted rage as Frederick Vasolt - he gets astonishing effects just from holding a knife, or chewing an apple off a crowbar. He is, in the best way possible, thoroughly disturbing.

Jarrad West ... isn't as strong as he might be as Phillip Schiller. There are moments when his strength comes through - the declaration "I love my son more than I love my god", or his involvement in the trial scene - but there are other moments when it doesn't seem he's truly feeling the complex emotions that lie within Schiller - his characterisation occasionally seems to come from the script rather than from the heart. West is one hell of an actor, and this may be an awkward mix of performer and role, but it's the one piece that didn't really land with me.

Geoffrey Borny shows strength and will as the unfortunate Johannes Junius. Tony Turner projects easy authority but is unfortunately not always on top of his lines. And Peter Holland celebrates a victory lap of a great year for drunk acting (after his sublime Aguecheek) in the early scenes before becoming an easily bamboozled magistrate in the later scenes.

Duncan Driver's directing keeps the show pacey, strongly presentational, and builds the tension nicely. Tim Hansen's music gives the play a strong underbeat and maintains that tension and energy without being intrusive into the action.

In short, this is fine work performed excellently by a company on the top of their game. Well worth the trek out to Queanbeyan.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Cabaret, Canberra Philharmonic

Back to the slightly-chlorinated foyer of the Erindale theatre, and Phlharmonic's latest addition to the crowded schedule of Canberra musicals. And it's a goodie - Kander and Ebb's story of 1920s Berlin on the verge of historic disaster combines strong songs with a story of dramatic import.

Unfortunately, the version chosen for performance is the 1987 revision, not the one currently playing Broadway (nor is it the original version). Cabaret is one of those shows that has an iconic film version that doesn't completely resemble the show it's adapted from, meaning that subsequent revivals have tried to insert the songs from the film as much as possible. In this case, the revision also tried to plum up the romantic plotline between Cliff and Sally in ways that I don't quite think work - some gestures towards Cliff's bisexuality (given Christopher Isherwood, the historical analogue of Cliff, was exclusively gay), and an added song (since cut in subsequent revisions), "Don't Go". Unfortunately, there really isn't much to be done to make Cliff particularly interesting - he's better as an observer than as a dramatic participant, and his song is banal. Trying to expand his role only leads to the first act being a slightly butt-numbing 100 minutes - this desperately needs to be tighter than it is.

There's also one or two unfortunate directorial decisions - in particular, several of the songs are delivered in a flat, "stand and sing" style where the performers stay stuck to the spot in ways that feel un-natural - like the director hasn't gotten around to giving them any blocking. Ros Engledow's Frauline Schneider is a particular victim of this - both her solos suffer from cement-feet.

Central to any Cabaret is its Emcee, our somewhat untrustworthy guide through the world of 1920's Berlin. Angel Dolejsi delivers an intriguing angle on the character - less a satyr and more a clown, one who's slightly endearing, and who becomes during the course of the show more and more alienated from his surroundings and less convinced of the songs he's singing and jokes he's telling. It's a cleverly informed performance.

Kelly Roberts provides a Sally Bowles who is suitably fascinating, gossipy, funny, heartbreaking and exasperating - projecting both the outward confidence and her inward insecurity. Again, she's somewhat sabotaged by external elements - the combination of her costume and lighting at the beginning of "Mein Herr" do not show her off to best advantage (this isn't a costume made for silloutette), and her version of "Cabaret is damaged by having her concluding the song in an overly-tight-follow spot while a set change goes on behind her, and by not having nearly the motivation it should have (I've seen the song placed in other productions after her final scene with Cliff, and without that lead up there's not the sense that she's working out and defying all her problems in the middle of the song). So she's merely good when she could have been spectacular with better support.

Ian Croker makes me a liar again - I've said previously that he's most interesting when he has a hint of evil around him. His Herr Schultz has no hints of evil, and is loveable without being cloying, and remains fascinating. Engledow matches him as her firm exterior melts when confronted by his kindness - and their breakup is heartbreaking.

Dave Smith's Ernst is suitably genial as required, although keeping him as the only person wearing a coat at the end of act one means that too much of a hint is given as to his secret. Kitty McGarry's Frauline Kost is similarly sharp and petty in ways that become darker as the show progresses (it's a pity her character virtually disappears in Act Two).

I've criticised a range of Jim McMullen's directorial decisions, and I should point out that, as many as fail, several others succeed - his use of Doleji in some of the non-cabaret scenes is particularly adroit. His musical direction needs no such criticism - his band is tight and sounds great. Similarly, the design (shared between McMullen and Croker) manages to make the sometimes-awkward Erindale stage play wonderfully, with a good sense of height and space.

This is, let me point out, one of the all-time-classic musicals, done in a very good production. It's not excellent, and there are flaws... but it certainly rewards close watching.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir

The Belvoir method of reinvigorating the classics, giving them a fresh lick of paint and contemporising their outlook, is not universally popular. And, to be fair, it is not a universal panacea - while keeping it contemporary can be a way to let the cast and audience into the production, the director is still responsible for keeping the show lively and engaging.

Unfortunately, Adena Jacobs' production of "Hedda Gabler" fails this in the opening five minutes. She's way too fond of her own stage images (long, silent scenes before the dialogue of Ibsen's play begins, breaking up between scenes), and her stage pictures just aren't fascinating enough to stare at for ages to reward the length of time we're left to examine them. The pace of the play (and this is a substantially cut text - 90 minutes long in total) never really recovers from this particular directorial self-indulgence.

The where and when is also quite messy in some of the other details. Why does the car have American number plates? Jacobs' program note suggests that it's about the American dream, but ... frankly, a bored trophy wife like Hedda feels just at home on the north shore of Sydney as she does in California, and the choice not to use American accents means that any American gesture is minor.

Ibsen's drama does peek through and there are redeeming moments here and there. Ash Flanders' Hedda does reflect a couple of the angles of Hedda - a ridiculously rich role, simultaneously a wild monster of a woman and a wimp, whose fantasies of conquest and destruction are brought flat by her decision to make a comfortable marriage to a mediocre academic. He plays the role distinctly as a female (including an impressive tuck during his nude scene) but there is a point at which his portrayal of Hedda's boredom with life does read as distinctly boring in itself - though part of this is a production problem, and part of this is Jacob's somewhat clunky translation.

As for the rest of the cast, Marcus Graham's Brack comes across best - it's when he's working his way around Hedda and insinuating himself into her life that the show really comes to best advantage. There's a delightfully congenially-predatory quality that Graham brings to the character that keeps him endlessly watchable. Oscar Redding's Lovborg is suitably intense and mercurial, Anna Huston's Thea keeps the character from being too much the easy-victim, and Tim Walter's Tesman keeps the character as he should be, a friendly, studious but not particularly interesting man (I've seen Hedda's suffer from Tesman's who wanted to be interesting).  Lynette Curran is pretty much wasted as Aunt Julie with nothing to really get a handle on, and Branden Christine's Berthe is given one of the worst modernist cliches, the maid who is required to stare silently at the rest of the characters and silently judge them - no, it isn't an interesting thing to do with the maid characters in classical literature - they're small parts, stop trying to make them bear weight they're not meant to.

I appreciated the production in the sense that it gave me a chance to think about Ibsen's play. But I don't think it's a particularly good production of the material.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Legally Blonde, Free Rain Theatre, ANU Arts Centre

It's been a while since I've reviewed a Free Rain show - in fact, the last time I did was their production of "Cats" back in 2012 (my first review!) And they've certainly been growing as a company - their production of "Phantom" last year was, like it or not, a landmark in local theatre last year (getting local amateur musicals back on the main stage of the Canberra Theatre is not to be sniffed at).

And there's a whole heap to praise in this show. First of all, the show itself  -I love large chunks of Lawrence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's score - it's bouncy, bubbly material, with a kinda 80's musical styling full of witty lyrics. Heather Hach's book moves efficiently across the plot, feeling pretty much "Just Like The Movie" - although it does slightly bog down in the legal-trial shenanigans of Act Two (it may be partially that Elle's journey of discovering her self-worth is pretty much done by the end of Act One, so there's not really a lot of internal movement outside of plot shenanigans to drive the show).

Next, the cast. Do I believe that the only option was to cast an interstate professional as Elle? Well, I'll just say that the cast also includes Jenna Roberts, Vanessa de Jager, Laura Dawson and Michelle Norris and leave it at that. But if we're going to have to do that (and it may have been a contractual requirement for the rights), Mikayla Williams is charming, funny, engaging, dances wonderfully and sings pretty good too (though her voice was obviously tiring by the end of Act One - still, she's barely offstage during the entire show and she was back on pitch in Act Two, so a temporary lapse can be forgiven).

Jenna Roberts is Jenna Roberts. Which means ... well, my theatre-crush on her just extended again. Her gloriously, goofily ridiculous, adorable, ever-so-slightly-trashy Paulette is welcome whenever she appears on stage, particularly when singing "Ireland", possibly the most ridiculously whimsical song of the score.

Damon Grebert-Wade is a suitably snotty Warner, although there's just enough of a hint as to why he might be likeable underneath to not make Elle's attraction to him ridiculous. Brian Kavanaugh is sleezy, jazzy perfection as the slimy Professor Calaghan. Dave Evans' Emmett is likable but ... maybe it's a problem with me having seen too many musicals, but this is very much a photostat Dave Evans performance (I've seen that "clutch the chest and look into the middle distance and belt the note" movement too many times before) and there's never really a lot of chemistry between him and Williams, which is a pity. Sarah Darnley-Stuart's Vivienne is delightfully snotty when required and equally generous when required to be, however her singing voice feels a bit too "trained" - I don't know that this should be a role that needs collatura sounds, and her vocals don't mix well with the rest of the cast.

Elsewhere in the cast, David Cannell's three cameos stick out for particular attention as being delightful cartoons, similarly Zack Drury's Kyle arouses repeated hysteria (and he even gets a chance to unleash his comedy-legs). Special mention to Bella as Bruiser and particularly Mosey as Rufus, who are quite adorable and most importantly don't bite any of the cast.

Nick Griffin's musical direction is tight and sharp - this is a well drilled cast and band working at peak power. Michelle Heine's choreography is similarly skilled - I have no idea how the cast has quite that much energy but I'm glad they get a chance to show it all off. The set is a combination of Steve and Susie Walsh's architecture (which is adaptable, clever and gives the cast multiple useful playing areas) and Chris Pitcairn's AV design (which, again, indicates the tone with witty cartoonishness). Fiona Leach's costumes are all wonderful (I'm not entirely sure how you get danceable low-crotch pants for the Jamaican bit of "What You Want" but I'm glad she found them) - whether tacky or couture, they reflect character, mood and style.

Chris Neal's sound design needs polishing - in the opening number I had no idea which cast member was singing which line for large chunks of the song, and levels generally were pumped into the uncomfortable level of "loud" (to be fair, I was seated pretty much in prime blasting range of one of the speakers, but still).

So this is a show I love, done to a high degree of polish. It's good, friendly fun.