Thursday, 27 November 2014

The "Well I liked it" awards

2014 was an interesting year in Canberra Theatre - I do seem to have reviewed less this year than I have in previous years, and ... I won't say it's always because there was less that I was interested in, but certainly there was an element of "resting on your laurels" in a few cases. Not in every case, some stuff stuck out well during the year, and this is meant to be a positive post about things that were good during the year, but ... it wasn't always the case that I left the theatre in a better mood than I walked into it this year.

Having started off on a moody note, let's go on to note what was good, in vaguely chronological order:

- Karen Vickery's dual performances bracketed the year gloriously, both as a strong loving mother in "Steel Magnolias" and in a monstrous terror of a mother in "August:Osage County".

- Supa Productions scored a strong one-two with two off-the-beaten-track choices for their musical season in "Witches of Eastwick" and "La Cage Aux Folles". Neither were entirely perfect productions, but each were fun, and, at the very least, both brought welcome performances from Michelle Klemke and Jarrad West that were among the highlights of the year.

- "Government Inspector" at Belvoir was flatout continuous hilarious fun, satirising pretence and presumption wonderfully in a fast, smooth romp.

- "White Rabbit/Red Rabbit" stuck with me and is going to fall in the "I liked it" category, at the same time as acknowledging many people would have hated it. I'm still not sure whether a show that manipulates it's participants quite as much as this one does should be considered a success... but it's stuck with me, for better or worse (it also gave us a chance to see Eliza Bell back on Canberra stages, and her human warmth kept the ropey parts of the evening together).

- Jenna Roberts showed up to handily grab another "Well I Liked It" with her performance as Paulette in "Legally Blonde", making her unique as a triple-time-winner.

- "The Burning" at the Q stuck out for giving two prominent roles to performers that helped redefine them in my mind - Amy Dunham went from her regular casting as wacky sidekick to a rounded, adult, warmhearted woman who left the stage way too soon, while Will Huang went from his regular casting as charmingly genial musical performer to something utterly creepy and evil.

- Benjamin Hardy's performance in "Equus" stuck out as something intriguing - as act two lead into his increasingly harrowing exorcism of his self-created demons, he kept us engaged, enthralled and astounded.

- Also from "August: Osage County" I have to mention Andrea Close, who plumbed rich veins in anger, rage, wrath and, eventually, a strange kind of familial love.

- EDITED TO ADD - one performance that has been ruminating in my brain since I wrote this is Angel Dolejsi's performance in Cabaret. In particular, his raw-as-guts and emotional-as-hell "I don't care much" comes back to me as one of the year's strongest musical performances, in a production that was otherwise quite uneven

A good bunch of WILI winners, I salute them all.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Blithe Spirit, Canberra Rep

What makes a production work? Is it the acting? The set? The script? How about when all three appear to be firing but yet it still doesn't quite float?

To start with, the script - Coward's script combines a bit of the "lovers reunited" energies of "Private Lives" with the utterly eccentric Madame Arcati and a fair bit more plot involved than usual to provide a witty evening of quips, bitching and cocktails. There's also, as this production uncovers, a little bit of sexism, racisim and classism (as the characters variously mock women, indians and the servants), although this is played fairly straight (with the main recovery largely being that Emma Wood's Ruth, in particular, doesn't take the sexism lying down but clearly resents each sting),

The acting is largely fine, and in some cases better than fine. Wood is, for mine, the highlight ... which may indicate an underlying problem, in that this is a comedy where the best performance is the most straightlaced of the lead characters - comedy, particularly this comedy, is about letting inhibitions loose, discovering joy in unexpected places. Wood is, as the part demands, uptight, sensible, rational and calm until the moment when her marriage is rudely disrupted by the return visit of the ghost of her husband's ex-wife - then she's tense, disturbed and engaging. 

Elsewhere, things are more mixed. Peter Holland is a delightful performer, but in this produciton he's way too laid back, way too often. The return of his ex-wife should excite and enliven him - too often Holland is sprawling across the couch, comfortably settled in. Anita Davenport has a gorgeously kittenish voice and has, elsewhere, shown the ability to be damn sexy, but her Elvira is more a playful friend than a seductive threat in the household (this may be partially due to her costume - the cape and feather boa are nice for her to play with, but the nightie underneath is way too flat and figure-concealing to allow Davenport to bring all the sexy required). I recall last time Davenport and Holland were up against one another in "Out of Order" the sparks flew far more, so it's not a question necessarily of the actors not having chemistry as it not being suitably bottled. 

Liz StClair Long's Madame Arcati is a delightful scene-stealer when she shows up (her dancing moves as she goes into a seance being a particular highlight) but there are moments when she, again, lets the pacing slide off track and rather than continuing rolling comedy, we get intermittent amusement. Yanina Clifton's Edith is a delightfully unsure-of-herself-maid and brings additional amusment when she can, though it isn't exactly a part that can carry the evening. 

Andrew Kay's set is grand, imposing, and does all the clever-ghost-tricks with aplomb (with the assistance of Dot Russell and the rest of the stagecrew), although there is some strange furniture-arranging on it that leads to the stage having strange gaps on it and people having to move chairs and tables around a lot more than seems entirely sensible. 

In the program notes, Director Kate Blackhurst suggests the secret of acting, as per Noel Coward, is "learn to speak clearly, to project your voice without shouting - and to move about the stage gracefully without bumping into people". I'd suggest the secret of directing is that you find ways for people to bump into one another, to make connections between each other - at the moment, what she's delivered is a production full of isolated individuals rather than a rounded story.

In short, this is an evening which I found myself liking elements of the acting and the production without ever quite being captured and carried along into the pure comic raptures I was hoping for. So ... it's okay but I wanted better. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

A reasonably straightforward version of the Dickens classic, what brings this out of the ordinary is some exceptional stagecraft and some entertaining performances.

First, though, I do have to poke a bit at the scriptwriting. Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks' script is never actively bad, though there are points where the difference between dialogue in a novel and dialogue on stage is pretty apparent (dialogue in a novel doesn't have to sound natural coming out of an actor's mouth, dialogue on stage does). I do kinda think Belvoir has had a problem with some of their adaptations over the last year - Simon Stone made script adaptation look a lot easier than it actually is, and attempts to follow him have often led otherwise talented theatre-makers astray. Just because you have a classic story and a verbatim translation, you don't always have a completely persuasive script - it does need a little more care than that.

Fortunately, while Sarks is mediocre as a playwright she's exceptional as a director. There's some virtuoso staging here - on a bare-bones, heavily raked stage with trapdoors, she directs a show with regular magic, snow and a kaleidoscope of locations and times, as Scrooge's journey takes him through his past present and future, and keeps it moving effectively and entertainingly. She's assisted by Michael Hankin's deceptively simple design, Benjamin Cisterne's sharp-as-a-tack lighting, and Stefan Gregory's creepily effective sound design.

Scrooge may be one of the roles Robert Menzies was born to play - his natural hangdog expression and thin body are a perfect representation of Scrooge's miserly nature and his drawn-in-grumpiness. But he's also exceptional at tracking the changes in this man - as humanity creeps back into him. The rest of the cast bounce through a range of supporting roles - Kate Box's tinsel-tastic Ghost of Christmas Present, Steve Rodgers' ambiable Bob Cratchit and his goofy Christmas-tree-charity-bucket-holder, Ivan Donato's stern Ghost of Christmas Past, Ursula Yovich's mumsy Mrs Cratchit and Miranda Tapsell's bright-and-bubbly Tiny Tim stick out for special mention.

Stage management by Edwina Guinness and Sara Stait deserve special mention both for highly-active work backstage to make all the magic work, plus for what is undoubtedly a highly laborious pre-show setup and post-show cleanup to properly distribute the massive amount of snow that ends up in various spots around the auditorium (and contributes to a fun pre-show ritual as various kids and adults in the audience throw bits of paper all over each other).

A fun and fast moving adaptation that, perhaps, doesn't cut as deeply as it could, but never the less proves effective in the watching.

Emerald City, Griffin, Stables Theatre

David Williamson's 1987 comedy came at an interesting time in his career - during the 80s, he wrote only five plays, while also writing thirteen produced screenplays. Which is probably why in this play the central character is a successful screenwriter - frequently feted by everybody as highly talented. and with a strong ethical core that gets him into trouble as often as not.

Fortunately, despite the wildly self-serving premise, "Emerald City" is also one of Williamson's wittiest and most thoughtful plays. While the initial circumstances are far removed from everyday life, somewhere in the middle of act one it becomes clear that the various ethical dilemmas and compromises aren't just in the film industry - there's broader ethical questions about how far do we really care about the world outside our own door and what should we really be doing with our lives going on.

As the Williamson surrogate, Mitchell Butel has a easy charming semi-gormlessness that serves him well - it's a bit astonishing that he is, in fact, old enough to be having a mid-life crisis, but never the less he sells it well. Lucy Bell as his wife is both patient, mildly exasperated audience to his rants and her own very active, compassionate, intelligent woman. She has a knack for spotting bullshit without being unnecessarily unkind, and really sells the deeper questions of the script. Ben Winspear plays the sleaziest of the tempters on the edge of caricature but brings back his inner humanity and emotional motivations to keep him human. Kelly Paterniti is, similarly, written just on the edge of being a blatant sex-object, but she adds intelligence and style to keep things iteresting. Jennifer Hagan gets some of the snarkiest comments and lands both her intelligence and ego wonderfully.

Lee Lewis directs with a good speedy energy - Williamson's longer rants are kept active with stage business to ensure nothing gets too bogged down in re-iterating what's already understood. A gloriously 80's Ken Done mural captures the era wonderfully, keeping Sydney harbour as glossily tempting as ever. Kelly Ryall's music has some idetifiably 80's notes that act as short bumpers between scenes, and Luiz Pampolha's lighting similarly captures regular shifts of location and mood.

This isn't the deepest show ever, but it's good fast entertainment with a bit of a brain, and is worth catching.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

La Cage Aux Folles, Supa Productions, ANU Arts Centre

La Cage Aux Folles began as a French stage farce in the mid seventies, before turning into three French language films (the two sequels do seem to define "stupid sequel plotting"), an english language remake ("The Birdcage") and a grand splashy Broadway musical. With music from Big-Lady-supremo Jerry Herman and a script by Harvey Fierstein (fresh off Torch Song Trilogy), it combines French farce with American sentimentality, to surprisingly good effect.

It's rare enough for a musical to feature a mature-aged couple at the centre - let alone a long-term couple who are together at the beginning and end of the show. For all the glitz and glamour, what really works about La Cage is that core central relationship between nightclub owner Georges (Jarrad West) and drag performer Albin (Benjamin O'Reilly). Separately, they're charming  - West oozes Clooney-esque smoothness and gravitas (and a surprising wig, but then again, Georges is probably the kind of guy who'd toupee), while O'Reilly is hilarious, a real clothes-horse and adorably scatter-brained - but together, this lifts into something magical. Wherever the show around them is shaky (and there's a couple of shaky points), these two serve as a strong anchor to hold the show together. It does take until the fifth song when the two duet on "With you on my arm" for all these elements to come together, but once it does, the show bypasses a lot of your critical facilities, goes straight to your heart and stays there.

Elsewhere, there's a lot of good talent - the six "Les Cagelles" move well, and are dressed in increasingly glorious costumes (designed by Suzan Cooper), Greg Sollis provides some delgihtful cameos in the supporting cast, Alexander Clubb has enough charm for us to forgive his character for doing some fairly massively insensitive things, Fraser Findlay steals scenes with goofy aplomb and Barbara Denham is smooth and classy as deus ex machina Jaqueline. The Dindon family, the conservative nemeses of our two heroes, are fairly underwritten, but each sieze a moment or two to shine - Len Power has a great smug moment at the restraunt, Michelle Klemke has one moment of vocal outburst that's hilarious and a similarly fun dance moment later, and Tamina Koehne-Drube gets to show off a fine pair of dancing legs early in the show and looks genially charming later.

There are some first-night pacing problems meaning that this works better as sentimental comedy than as fast-paced farce, and some awkward noises coming out of the pit co-ordinated by Rose Shorney - hopefully these will be ironed out as the run continues - and some strange accent-soups being played among the cast - West, Clubb and Power are all mid Atlantic, O'Reilly is somewhat regionally UK, Klemke, Koene-Drube and Denham are French, and everybody else seems to pick one at random and goes with it (Sollis tries two different ones for his two cameos). The set design using multiple LED projectors works well for the most part in solving the problem of the ANU Arts centre's restrictive backstage, but is still a little pixel-ish, particularly for the screens closest to the audience.

Still, I think what an audience will take home is that this is a fun, sentimental, glamourous, sweet entertainment for an audience to gushingly enjoy. Plenty of quality giggles, some nice tunes to snuggle with your special someone in the audience, glitzy costumes and a whole lot of fun.