Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Nora, Belvoir

Belvoir's return to Ibsen after last month's Hedda Gabler is, alas, another miss. Anne-Louise Sarks does at least understand pace and tension and keeps her drama flowing relatively well, and for most of act one (a tight modernisation of "A Doll's House") she holds together well the story of a wife (Blazey Best) reaching the point of frustration with her husband (Damien Ryan) that means she must walk away from her home forever.

The problem is, what comes next. Again, this may be advertising, the question posed is "what happens after she leaves her husband and children". And the answer in this case is .. not a lot. The choice to go with "immediately after" and have the entire second act be her conversation with a friend (Linda Cropper) in which we learn, not surprisingly, that her options are limited, means it's not a particularly dramatic resolution. While the notorious Broadway flop "A Doll's Life" took Nora into ridiculous adventures in industry and mutiple subsequent romances, at least it took her on a journey. "Nora" just seems to dump her on a couch for fourty minutes.

It's a pity - Blazey Best is a hell of a strong performer, and both surpresses her frustrations and lets them flow out of her in act one when the time comes wonderfully - her silent dancing moment in particular draws the audience in. But not coming up with anything interesting to happen in Act Two is, ultimately, a fatal flaw that kills the show. Cropper and Best drive it reasonably and for a while you hold out hope that this is going to go somewhere ... but it never really does.

So, no, not recommended.

Ugly Mugs, Griffin

An "Ugly Mugs" pamphlet is a publication made for and by street-working prostitutes in Melbourne - describing and identifying possibly dangerous customers to help other girls avoid them. Peta Brady's play uses this as a way into exploring issues regarding female sexuality and male violence and the ways they seem inextricably linked.

The show is structured around two storylines - in a morgue, the examiner (Steve LeMarquand) is examining the dead body of a prostitute (Brady) and finds her copy of the Ugly Mugs pamphlet - and while reading, he converses with her and she talks back about her life; meanwhile a young boy (Harry Boland) sits in police custody and remembers the last time he saw a young girl (Sara West).

The first of these storylines plays much stronger than the second (though it does have a somewhat too tidy wrapup) - unfortunately, it also seems to get way less stage time. LeMarquand and Brady have an easy interaction about them that plays well, and it's good, specific, tight writing. West and Boland, meanwhile, are in a far more generic storyline - West, in particular, is very strong (and both LeMarquand and Brady play second roles in this storyline as well) but the relationship between the two feels only very loosely thematic and it's really only at one point (when West sits on the trolley that has previously had the prostitutes corpse on it), that any kind of link is clearly drawn.

I don't want to dismiss this as a misfire - there's a lot of strengths here - but it isn't a perfectly aimed shot either. Maybe it's that the publicity for the show sold itself a lot on the prostitution angle and it ends up being subdued next to a midly aimless adolescent drama instead, but I did feel this didn't quite realise the potential it had.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Short and Sweet Top 20 Week 2, Courtyard Studio

The final round of heats for Short and Sweet offers another mixed bag with a couple of highlights and pieces worth talking about.

"Vulnerable", written and directed by Ben Harris, sits unusually in three parts scattered through the first half of the evening. It's an interesting structure, although some of the dialogue does not sit comfortably on the actors and it works more impressionistically than as a clear narrative of a story. It's a case where what's going on with the lighting and positioning is often a lot more interesting than what's being told - which suggests skill without, at this point, structure. It's a positive sign and I await further developments from Ben.

"The Unexpected" is from the usually reliable Greg Gould - however, in this playing, at least, it comes across as a tad schematic and clunky. The staging possibly doesn't help - it's a little too fussy and the characters never quite go deep enough to get the most out of the script.

"Presto" is a clever piece from Mike McRae, featuring a delightful Michelle Cooper performance as a heftily analytical rabbit, Paul Jackson as a cynically hard-boiled monkey, Tony Cheshire as a delightfully self-impressed magician and Sarah McCarthy tying it all together as his harried assistant. While it's not the most brilliant script ever written, it's snappily directed, tightly played and looks good.

"And what a damn fine morning it is" gives a good solid two hander for Luke Middlebrook and Michael Smith as two competetive suburbanites. It goes a little soggy in the middle (not enough real variations on the theme), but is well played by the duo.

"Deep Shallow Empty" has interesting staging and performances but, again, the writing plays as overly schematic and has a couple of phrasing problems where the dialogue doesn't sit comfortably on the actors.

"Tagged" is an amusing, brisk trifle played between Sophie Benassi, Scott Rutar and Rhys Hekimian - Benassi in particular excels at playing the straight woman (even when wresting with a misbehaving prop), and this never outstays its welcome.

"Gold Digger Nights" is an attempt at a musical, and while story and songs are never mindbogglingly brilliant, the perforamnces both from Catherine Crowley and Zach Raffan in character and Tim Maloney and Jim McGrath as musicians give it a reasonable amount of verve (in particular, the climax gives good interaction between the quartet).

"Floozy Boozy Monday" winds up the evening with some reckless mute clowning with Katie Woodward and Anna Voronoff. They're committed performances and wind the evening up with a giggle.

As always, it's worth sampling Short and Sweet as a good mixture of what short-form theatre can do in Canberra - it is not wall-to-wall excellence, but it's often intriguing and diverting.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Short and Sweet, Wildcards, Courtyard Studio

The wildcards is always the most un-even of the Short and Sweet groupings - but in its un-evenness, there's sometimes a few unpolished gems (and occasionally something shiny and perfect). This time, it's, alas, more un-even than most, but there's three ten minute pieces deserving of mention.

First, "The Literary Monogomist" is a witty, well-staged piece of cross cultural referencing, well held together by leads Jess Waterhouse and Luke Middlebrook. In the wide strokes of making fun of people overly-attatched to a single literary fetish whether it be Jane Austen, Star Trek or the Bible, it's a fun idea (although there's never quite a full-hearted engagement with the third one - which is a pity, there's always room for broad biblical reinterpretation) - in the details, I'm not entirely sure having most of literature teaming up to save the soul of one bored check-out-chick is necessarily the most deep (why her rather than anybody else, I wonder-  it seems like the usual condescension towards chicklit). Still, it amuses, and mostly moves at a decent pace (though I think the Trek interludes drag a little - in particular, one joke about Shatner's other career higlights played to absolute silence, and the direction is pretty perfunctory). It's probably about three rehearsals and a rewrite away from true excellence.

"TV" is basically an exercise in allowing the seven performers from Child Players to play around across genres - there is a brief gesture at a deeper message, but mostly it's about showing off the talents of the ensemble. And this is a skilled ensemble who switch modes, characters and styles instantaneously. If young performers can play on this level it's indicative that there's a bright future for ACT Drama.

"The Liberal Rainbow" is a superior piece of verbatim theatre, working around issues regarding gay marriage and political responses to it - Sue Webeck directs a strongly visual and aural kaleidoscope by selecting carefully through the speeches and framing them amusingly, musically and soulfully.

As for the remainder - there's some good ideas, some good performances and even occasional good pieces of writing, but they don't quite add up to satisfactory wholes in various ways - some can't sustain the full length, some are overly interested in playing towards a twist that is overly obvious early on - there are several worthy themes that aren't rounded out into full pieces (ten minutes is really too long to just repeat the one idea without variation).

So this is probably the weakest of the servings, but with three interesting titbits.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Short and Sweet, Top 20 Week 1, Courtyard Studio

Theatrical Yum-cha is back! The current round of Short and Sweet seems the strongest I've seen yet, with plenty of clever, amusing, intriguing, thoughtful pieces in there.

"Sex Tape" (written and directed by Evan Croker) begins promisingly - Katarina Thane's "She" owns the stage in her confident lustyness and John Lombard's embarrassed "He" is suitably awkward. It does suffer slightly from a "seven minute mark authors statement" syndrome -  the characters start to be lost a tad and become mouthpieces rather than individuals - but it at least has a nicely startling final image.

"The Runner" (by Wayne Mitchell, directed by Heidy Perri) doesn't play quite as strongly - possibly because the characters are so written on one level, the plot developments remain obvious and there isn't a lot to the material. There's a couple of nice moments (Maurice Dowling and Penelope Vaile's face-off-tango moves, in particular) but this doesn't quite flow.

Genevieve Kenneally's "Potato Whore" is strongly staged and a good execution of a simple but clever idea. Alison McGregor and Scott Rutar score strongly and stably as the protagonists, with Rhys Hekiman and Laura Griffin playing well around them, and the direction is strong, physical and visually interesting. I'm not entirely sure the writing quite knows what to do with the additional characters (Kellie Seccull's Zooey may have been better as a one-moment cameo, and John Lombard's Professor doesn't really add to the piece so much as ... is just there crowding up the stage) but it resolves nicely.

"A.N.X.I.E.T.Y" (written and directed by Ben Harris) is a good break in the male-female-relationship stuff that's dominated the first half - it's very much a fully-staged piece using all the elements of light, sound and the space of the stage. Cara Matthew's terrified Evelyn draws the audience in, while Sarah Michelle Thomson's Hunter is suitably freaky. There's a slightly messy resolution involving Neil Parikh's Konrad where the script seems to be drawing in an entire other field of plot too late (wait, is she scared because she's flying or because of this relationship?) and there isn't quite an easy chemistry between Matthews and Parikh to help this to work, but it's one of the more impressively staged pieces of the night.

"Sacred Profane" (written and directed by Kirsty Budding) isn't the strongest piece - it's attempting to write about a taboo topic, but it's simultaneously over-written and doesn't have a particularly strong or new insight into the topic. Also, a two hander really lives or dies on its performances, and unfortunately I don't think Terry Johnson's teacher is really up to snuff - he talks about strain and angst but it's never really felt by the audience.

"The Lady who peeps out from behind a folding screen" has a nice slow simplicity to it that contrasts well with the rest of the evening - a lot of the effect is deliberatley visual. John Lombard's simple script is well illustrated by Alison McGregor's directing, and Arne Sjostedt's music and the makeup from Chole Dodgson, Helen Braund and Kim Kerby really help with the mood and the style. Genevieve Kenneally's "Lady" is suitably intriguing and shy, Stevan Savic's Samurai has that gruff protagonist thing working for him, Monique Suna's Maid is witty and impudent, and the mean-geisha trio of Michelle Cooper, Joshua Bell and Katie Woodward are a great addition.

"Death in Ten minutes" (by Joachim Emilio, directed by Petra Lindsay) is meta-to-the-extreme but keeps on finding new levels to disappear down the rabbit hole. Tse-Yee Teh's "Zleen" is stronger as playful sidekick than the somewhat bombastic X.O of David Weisner, but all in all this is reasonably amusing.

"Triple Nought" is an impro piece devised and performed by the trio of Catherine Crowley, Ruth Pieloor and Heidi Silberman. On this particular night, the setups and developments tended to play stronger than the resolution with a lot of great ideas being thrown out but not all of them resolving particularly cleanly, which is a slight risk in impro pieces - but other nights I can see this one really flying.

"Black Coffee" (by Deanna Ableser, directed by Liliana Bogato) is unfortunately a fairly static piece and spends a lot of time analysing what should be a fairly simple decision. Lucy Bates sells her side of the storytelling reasonably well but there's a little too much fussy staging with props (I'm not entirely sure why Don Smith leaves without his laptop, for example), and it fails to really stick.

"Business Meeting" (written and directed by Ryan Pemberton) is a suitably ridiculous ending to the evening - Brendan Kelly's high-energy performance centres the piece strongly with Tom Short's acquiesent Shan hilarious in response and Mitch Gosling playing the straight man well.

All in all it's a cleverly mixed evening with thrills, laughs and drama a-plenty. A good launch to the season.

Edited to add:  "Business meeting" won both the audience and the judges voting. Also through from the judges voting for this round were Triple Nought and Sacred profane. The other audience choice was "Potato Whore".

Friday, 1 August 2014

Arcadia, Canberra Rep

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is one of his finest plays. It combines deep thought about maths, history, literature and the certain heat death of the universe with a fair few sex jokes (often very witty sex jokes). It's that rare play with both heart AND brains and offers a theatrical feast for the brain and the soul.

Rep's production captures much of this feast and serves it up in fine style. There's a rich variety of performances - from the youngest, Jack Taylor doing double duty as the shy, silent Gus (whose physicality speaks volumes) and the snidely brattish Lord Augustus, to the oldest, Graeme Robertson, whose Jellaby serves up the dryest of dry commentary with perfection and perfectly timed pauses and sniffs.

In between those ages we find two collections of casts. In the 19th century, there's Amelia Green, whose Thomasina is sharp and intelligent yet still the unknowing innocent in so many areas; Matthew Barton as Septimus, her tutor, rakish, sly, yet increasingly bewildered by his pupil; Helen McFarlane, ever the grand lady of the manor; Colin Milner's perfectly blustery, easily flattered and slow-on-the-uptake Chater; David Kavanagh's stiff-upper-lip Captain Brice and Arran McKenna's befuddled and bemused architect, Noakes. In the 20th, Laine Hart's sharply incisive Hannah leads the way, supported by Pat Gallagher's terrifyingly self-confident Bernard; Sam Hannan-Morrow's knowledgeable but heart-sore Valentine and Sian Harrington's bubbly Chole.

It's a rich team who keep a long (close to 3 hours) play flying by with sharp twists, turns and counterplots as events from one timeline start to influence the other in all kinds of unexpected ways - with so many telling small details that a second glance is recommended. The unexpectedly moving finale had my heart skipping a beat. Quentin Mitchell's grand set is capable of close intimacy and broad spread from moment to moment, assisted by the able lighting of Chris Ellyard. Neil McRitchie's sound design combines classical music from the 19th century with all kinds of delightful cheese from 1993, and Michael F. Coady's piano work fits in delightfully.Helen Drum's costuming crosses periods with aplomb.

All in all this is a delightful rich mental pudding of an evening.