Monday, 27 October 2014

August: Osage County, Free Rain, Courtyard Studio

An epic-length and sized story of one Oklahoma family gathered together in the face of a crisis, "August: Osage County" has been an international sensation since it premiered in Chicago in 2007. The opening line is a T.S. Eliot quote, "Life is very long", and indeed, at over three hours, a fair chunk of the richness and complexity of life gets included. Combining jet-black comedy, tragedy, secrets revealed, searing confrontations and heartbreaking pathos, Tracy Letts has provided a play that's full of interest both to performers and to audience.

Free Rain's production fulfills much of that interest. The choice of the small courtyard studio does mean an intimacy in the playing, at the expense of one or two more epic moments  (in particular, the idea that this is a family home that most of the family has abandoned disappears a bit when there isn't a lot of empty space around those remaining; and only one window has to cover for all the windows that have been blocked off elswhere in the house). But sightlines are generally well preserved (only once did a key character disappear out of view, during the opening conversation in Act Three between the three sisters), which is not always the case when the Courtyard is set to play longways (I've often seen productions where there doesn't appear to be any good points for the audience to sit, whereas here if you're reasonably central you're covered).

The cast is, pretty uniformly, superlative. David Bennett as the patriach whose departure precipitates the action, is firmly memorable, wise and regretful. Karen Vickery as the matriach is utterly extrordinary as the matriach, turning from incoherently stoned to brutally focussed on a dime (first seen when she viciously spurts forth with "why don't you fuck a dead sow's ass" and getting increasingly unpleasant and unpredictable from there). Andrea Close as the oldest daughter is similarly rich, traversing vast realms of emotion from bitter anger to worn-out exhaustion to righteous fury (her declaration at the end of Act Two "I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW!" is an order that must be listened to). As her husband, Jim Adamik is calming, witty and finally resigned and accepting (their final scene together in particular is heartbreaking). As middle daughter Ivy, Lainie Hart plays both the tension as she attempts to keep a series of secrets from her family, and the ease she feels when she doesn't have to hide anything about herself. Youngest daughter Karen as played by Rose Braybook, practices an extended avoidance of any uncomfortable realities, even as the worst appear in front of her. Paul Jackson as her fiance pretty much IS the worst reality that could appear in front of her - he's odiously sleazy and unpleasant.

Outside the immediate family, Liz Bradley is staunch and eventually just as clearly in denial as aunt Mattie Fae. Michael Sparks brings midwest-charm and a clear strong sense of certainty to her husband Charlie. Ethan Gibson is, frankly, too young to be realistically 37 as the script repeatedly insists he is, but he invests both in Little Charles' fragility and in the gentle warmth that exists between him and his secret partner. Amy Campbell, similarly, doesn't quite look young enough to be 14 but certainly has the prickliness and the know-it-all cynicism down pat. Linda Chen is a solid, frequently silent presence as the maid Johnna, and Brian Kavanaugh's Sherrif Gilbeau is warm and decent.

In pretty much every case you get a sense of these characters as people with long histories before and after their time on stage.  Pretty much every character who leaves the house seems likely to never come back but living with the revalations that have happened during the action onstage seems likely to be a long and painful process, and we're fortunate that in this productions the characters feel so fully rounded and real that you can't help wonder and worry about these poor damaged and damaging people.

Cate Clelland as director has done a stirling job in getting a solid cast united in a dramatically rich evening that feels deep enough for your mind to swim in for days later. When something this good is on Canberra stages, you are urged to go. Go now.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Wedding, Hughes theatre

With a who's who of Canberra Theatre in attendance, The Wedding was always going to be a major event on the calendar. And with two high quality lead performers/producers/writers in Sarah Byrne and Peter MacDonald, the end result was, as predicted, polished perfection. Costumes, music, lighting, weather (despite one well-timed ominous rumble during "in sickness in health") all combined to present an event that celebrated life, love and happiness.

Even the one un-even moment mandated in the script (the legally mandated "marriage is between a man and a woman") was quickly rescued by a delightfully phrased rebuttal ("but we look forward to the day that these rights can be extended to all our friends").

The musical accompaniment of the Wacky Whizz-bang Wurtlitzer band as a fine all-melodica trio gave a delightfully whimsical tone to the entire event, but perfectly-excecuted whimsy.

The wedding had a one night run. But now the sequel, The Marriage, is running. It will run forever.

(Yes, this is incredibly self-indulgent but ... it's a blog, that's what they're for)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sunset Boulevard, The Q

Andrew Lloyd-Webber is the ten-pound gorilla of musicals - his shows are among the biggest of all time (in the list of longest running Broadway shows, he has the top two - Phantom and Cats - on the West End he has to be satisfied with 3rd and 6th, due to the non-closing of The Mousetrap and Les Miserables). "Sunset Boulevard" is unusual in the Lloyd Webber canon in that it's got a strong central star part for a mature diva (and mature divas have devoured the role, from Patti LuPone to Glenn Close ... even Barbra Streisand launched two of the songs on her "Back to Broadway" album and used "As If we Never Said Goodbye" as her opening song in her iconic 1994 concert, and reused it to launch the shows in her 2012 tour. Incidentally, for people who are wondering out there, yes, That Guy is a homosexual. Flaming).

Based on the Billy Wilder film, the show is about a cynical screenwriter who's encounter with a former silent-screen diva becomes increasingly fraught with danger as her delusions about her potential return to the silver screen. Obviously Wilder's film had the advantage that it could use the real Cecil B. DeMille, and Gloria Swanson and Eric Von Stroheim were playing characters not-too-far-removed from their own past - but the musical has it's own virtues in a lavish score with suspensful ostinatos and two strong arias for Chief Diva Norma Desmond (Brownyn Sullivan), one per act. And Sullivan is in powerfully good voice for both of them, seducing rapturous applause from the audience. She's also clearly studied her silent film divas - her ever-active fingers signalling a woman who's used to big gestures.

Elsewhere, things are a bit more uneven. Vocally the cast is mostly strong, dramatically the show doesn't work as well. This is a story of strong passions and dramatic movements, and the staging keeps on getting bogged down in the most awkward of places, with long pauses killing the pace in unfortunate places (particularly late in act two and just before "As If We Never Said Goodbye" - the cast sorta stand around awkwardly and wait for Sullivan to burst forth. There is also a tendency during the big songs for the cast to not sufficiently engage one another - it's "face front, feet down, belt it to the back wall" blocking, and leads to other cast members often being stuck on the sidelines onstage waiting til they're allowed to act again.

Sullivan's Norma is too often a daffy auntie rather than a demandying monstrous Diva. Daniel Wells' cynical narration only rarely gets to show the heart and torment as he's drawn guiltily towards Desmond, first as a source of income and later as a protector. Peter Dark's Max Von Myerling starts strongly as he imposingly stalks the halls and sternly barks his responses, but it's not until late into act two that we get any variation in his performance. Vanessa DeJager, is sweet, funny and charming but there's no sense of burgeoning chemistry between her and Wells until they burst into their love song halfway through the second act - and the relationship is over a scene after that, which doesn't help.

Sharon Tree's orchestra is mostly pretty solid but either there's too many synths in there or the sound mix by Eclipse Lighting and Sound brings them too much to the fore, leading to an overly "tinny" sound. Brian Sudding's set suffers from being overly tightly contained and not changing all evening, but also looks like some of the painting hasn't really been finished (the chimney, in particular, looks half-done). Miriam Miley-Read's costumes capture the era and the granduer (as required) gorgeously.

So this is a show about grand passions that, alas, ends up being largely an academic exercise. It's often pretty and nicely presented, but it lacks the guts and soul that would bring this from "adequate" to "extrordinary".

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warf Revue - Open For Business, Canberra Theatre

The Wharf revue has, if I've read correctly, had thirteen installments by now. And this is the first one I've seen. A series of topical songs and sketches performed by a team of four, it's reasonably fast, snappy satire allowing us to giggle at the foibles of the rich and powerful. Or at least politicians.

This year, as has been the case for a few years by now, one of the performers (Drew Forsythe) is sitting out (his role in "Strictly Ballroom The Musical" taking precedence), though he's still credited as a writer and appears in a few pre-filmed video inserts (introducing the show as a sternly straight-faced Brownyn Bishop and later appearing as a distincltly Montgomery Burns-ish Rupert Murdoch). And onstage the highlights tend to emerge from Jonathan Biggins (who gets a chance to show off one of my favourite physical features, comedy legs, in a pair of very short shorts as Bob Brown in a Greens-style-funk-off) and Amanda Bishop who shows off a powerful set of lungs in a range of operatic-leaning numbers (in particular, a wild-haired Peter Credlin) as well as being a disturbingly sexy Miranda Devine. Biggins and Bishop also score in a Paul Keating/Julia Gillard duet that may be the highlight of the evening (the comedy well of imitation Paul Keating insults may, in fact, be inexhaustible, and, yes, it is absolutely playing to the lefty luvvies of the audience to have these two onstage, but, well, I am a leftie luvvie so why should I complain).

It could be argued, of course, that political satire is astonishingly redundant in a country that has got to the point where the Palmer United Party has managed to get several members elected. And to a certain extent, these are fish being shot in a barrel. The opening few numbers take a while to really land (Phillip Scott's opening song, the Corey Bernardi song and the "Canberra tales" segment all lack a slight "zip"), and, indeed, Scott generally scores better as a sideline presence adding occasional zingers and as a vituoso piano accompanist rather than as a performer in the centre of sketches. Newcomer to the Revue Douglas Hansell scores with a extrordinarily twattish Christopher Pyne (almost as twattish as the actual Christopher Pyne) and a stick-up-the-butt Scott Morrison, but elsewhere is more functionally good rather than extraordinary. It also feels like the closing number is a tad perfunctory rather than something that really wraps up the evening enthusiastically.

So ... this is uneven, but the highlights are indeed pretty darn good.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Equus, Canberra Rep

Peter Shaffer's drama is a modern classic. Stripped down to the essentials, it's an exercise in pure theatre as a psychiatrist investigates the fractured psyche of a damaged young boy - combining tight dialogue, lighting, sound, physical movement and staging in a shattering narrative.

It's not, however, the tightest play ever written. There are some quite rambling monologues for the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Jerry Hearn) in which he internally examines his motivations and, despite Hearn's best attempts, this doesn't quite grab us to the dramatic core as much as we care about his patient, Alan Stang (Benjamin Hardy). It could be a personal preference that I can't quite be as drawn in by the middle-age angst of a professional as I am by the dangerous combination of emotions that Hardy creates - a boy whose fevered imaginations on religion, sexuality and society lead him into disturbing territory. Hardy has the strange ability to jump in seconds from a physically angelic child to a sullen teenager, and then to provide a disturbingly vacant stare as the shattered person Alan has become, and it's truly fascinating to watch.

Around these two performances is a strong ensemble. The six horses of the chorus (Graham August, Melissa Gryglewski, Ben Harris, Ben Kearney, Erin Pugh and Nikole Rene Souza) are a strong physical presence throughout - observing, silently judging. S.E. O'Brien's masks are a great, simple stylised design, deployed powerfully and carefully as the play progresses (initlally only handled by the chorus, they aren't all worn until the final sequence - when finally all six are in play, the tension is at its height). Elewhere in the cast, Olivia Sparrow's kind, compassionate Jill is a highlight. Ian Croker and Nikki-Lynne Hunter go beyond the slight cliches of the script of censorious-aetheist-dad and religious-overly-indulgent-mother to reveal two people who are trying their best to live their convictions and raise a child, not just simple single-issue-monsters.

barb barnett's direction pulls this longish evening (two and a half hours) together with a strong sense of builidng tension to the final exorcism. Supported by Ian Croker's rich scenic design, Penelope Vaile's varied costumes, Greg Bateman's dense and clever sound design (as the rhythmic noises onstage transfer from the actors to the soundtrack and back again without apparently missing a beat) and Jon Grotto's sharp and intelligent lighting design, she uses a simple, horseshoe-shaped arena with a few benches and a raised bar to bring us closer inside the mind of one damaged boy.

This is important work that plays to the mind and the heart, with one superlative "where has this actor been and when can I get to see him again" performance at the centre. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The King and I, Australian Opera, Joan Sutherland Theatre

Rogers and Hammerstein's fifth stage collaboration took them away from their run of Americana classics into the culture clash between a Victorian school teacher and a Thai despot. Yet it's also where the Rogers and Hammerstein formula seems to stick in place in a little - there's the romantic subplot with the unhappy ending from "South Pacific" back again, there's the older lady with the big song (a la Nettie Fowler from "Carousel and Bloody Mary from South Pacific), and there's even a rejected song from "South Pacific" with new lyrics ("Suddenly Lucky" became "Getting to Know You"). No wonder the Australian Opera decided to recycle their South Pacific leads.

The problem, of course, is that Teddy Tahu Rhodes may be qualified to play a French plantation owner but racially and dramatically he's wildly mis-cast as the King of Siam. The role isn't written to take advantage of his fine operatic voice, but instead is vastly in need of a particular pranking sense of charisma which Rhodes flatly doesn't really possess. His performance tends to consist of stomping around looking fairly dopey for most of the run of the show, which just doesn't work. In a show that largely consists of a battle of wits between the two leads, Rhodes looks weapon-less.

It's a pity because a lot of the production around him is pretty darn good. This is a return of the 23-year old 1991 revival that launched in Sydney with Hayley Mills and Tony Marinyo, and the production design by Brian Thompson (sets) and Roger Kirk (costumes) remains gorgeously lavish. Lisa McCune is suitably uptight and governessy in all the right ways, And Jerome Robbins' ballet for "Small House of Uncle Thomas" is a modern classic for a reason, it's funny and heart rending and dramatic in all the right ways.

But, dammit, there's a big fat hole where the King should be in this production and the rest of the production just doesn't quite hold up around him. It leads to awkward questions about the slightly clunky construction (by not being very invested in the King, the logic of why he suddenly becomes conveniently ill for the finale becomes more dubious - dramatically, it's meant to be that he has been emotionally destroyed, but Rhodes comes nowhere near selling that).Which means what we have is a very pretty, functional object that just doesn't work.