Friday, 8 May 2015

Le Noir, the Dark Side of Cirque, Canberra Theatre

Acrobatics and erotica have a reasonable amount in common. They're both about showing off the body and what it can do in various ways, and generally benefit when the performers wear skimpy, form-fitting clothing. Le Noir combines elements of both into an intimate cabaret evening that grandly displays 11 separate acts showing off various types of acrobatic manouverings in a framework that plays up some of the erotic potential of these acts.

Divided into three sections, basically distinguishable by the cast's dress-code, "Blanc", "Rouge" and "Noir" (the transition between "Blanc" and "Rouge" is nicely sudden and grand, the transition between "Rouge" and "Noir" is over interval), the show uses a smallish stage in the middle of the Canberra theatre stage, surrounds it with an on-stage audience, and on a level of pure spectacle, it frequently astounds. It is, inevitably, still a variety show, so some acts are stronger than others (and some fit the theme better than others - in particular, the duo acts show various types of couplings entertainingly - the Trapeze, perhaps, plays this best by giving the coupling a teasing push-me-pull-you attitude - and there is something slightly problematic in that, in order to achieve the various acrobatic poses, performers inevitably wind up having to stomp on one another's crotches occasionally). The pairs are nearly all boy-girl, making this a fairly hetro-normative evening (the only pair that isn't boy-girl is the act-one-closer "strong-men" piece, which plays more as two men showing off their form for the audience than anything with a romantic-angle between the two performers).

A couple of the solo acts aren't really particularly eroticised - however the Cyr Wheel and Shape Spinning sections have performers showing pure joy at the delights of showing off what they can do with a simple piece of equipment, and the Rolla-bolla lets the performer adopt the persona of a muscular mechanic himbo being teased by the supporting dancers into performing more and more dangerous stunts to impress them.

The MC's sections, entirely in french, have very little to do with erotica at all and a lot to do with exploiting audience participation and breaking up the evening, which they do pretty effectively in a lightly fun way.

Lighting and sound are occasionally a little overwhelming (lights enjoying blinding the audience with lights in the eyes every so often, and sound amped up pretty loud, with an onstage DJ giving it full doof-doof quality), I also don't know how the fairly intimate performances look from up in the fairly distant seats of the back of the canberra theatre (I was seated relatively close up) and worry that the venue may be a little large for what is, ultimately, acrobatic cabaret.

I don't want to be too hard on this, it is frequently a very entertaining, stylish evening, with acrobatic performers doing spectacular things with precision, and with a nice overlay of production value. If it doesn't re-invent the form, it isn't necessarily trying to. I think there is room to expand, though, with a bit more thematic coherence and, perhaps, a wider range of erotic potential than is currently on display.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Crucible, Canberra Rep

It's been a while since I've unashamedly loved a show at Rep as much as I've loved this one. So the tradition applies - go buy your tickets now, then come back at your leisure and read this. This is a production that you will hate yourself for missing. So don't miss it. Book now.

And now that you've booked, let's talk about the show. Arthur Miller's play is, of course, a recognised classic and a regular school text, but it's also a living theatrical piece that needs skilled performers and tight direction. In this production, it gets it.

Michael Sparks' set covers the wide Theatre 3 stage with trees made of rope, indicating the puritan's fear of the natural world where, as the play begins, young girls have been cavorting in the woods, and also the tangled webs that have been weaved by old rivalries between the people of Salem. A central clearing is the main playing area, with all scenes represented by various arrangements of four white benches. This stark design focusses the play marvelously on the story and the acting - it takes a lotta work to look this simple. Kelly McGannon's lighting compliments this well - giving the woods a darkly shadowy presence while giving the downstage area the warmth of a home or the coldness of a courtroom.

Populating the scene is a cast of extraordinary depth. Leading the way is Duncan Ley. I've said previously he's one of Canberra's finest actors. And now that he's leaving Canberra (this is his farewell performance on the Canberra stage), he's leaving with a performance that will stick in the mind for quite a while. His Proctor starts cynical, smart-alecky, moody and blunt. But we start to see different sides to him - a man with passions, affection for his wife, longings for the sensual temptation of Abigail, and riven with guilt by his actions - and trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of horrendous circumstances. Lexi Sekuless matches him, showing a gentle, kind woman who's renegotiating second-by-second how far she can forgive her husband's transgressions and balance the love she has and the betrayal she feels. You never doubt, though, the love and affection that sits inside her. Zoe Priest's Abigail Williams is a bloody marvel. She's a ruthless force of nature - one of her early lines talks about seeing her parent's heads bashed in by Indians, and you get the feeling she's determined that next time, she'll be the one holding the hammer. Intense, driven, vengeful, mercurial and just plain dangerous, it's a performance that will long stick in the memory.

Elsewhere in the cast, Duncan Driver applies his formidable intellect to the role of the overly-arrogant Hale - as the scales fall from his eyes and he begins to see how deluded he has been, it is a marvel to watch. David Bennett's Giles Corey has some of the moments of humour of the show and makes them count, managing to be both genial and massively argumentative at the same time. Yanina Clifton's Mary Warren has a great mix of meek submission and bravery followed by complete mental disintegration. Mark Bunnett's Danforth is thoroughly, despicably devoted to his mistaken sense of duty, and to sticking to the bureaucratic technicalities of law rather than letting any slivers of humanity slide through. Adam Salter's Reverend Parris, too, delivers foolish pride and arrogance followed by desperation as he realises how wrong he has been and how hard the backlash to his actions will be. Elaine Noon's pitiless Ann Putnam is convincingly, painfully bitter from her losses, and Paul Jackson's Thomas Putnam has a wonderfully awful rich, entitled air as he takes advantage of the awful situation.

Jordan Best co-ordinates this all with precision - her blocking of the group of girls in particular makes them a solid, terrifying unit falling in lockstep behind Abigail - but there's great understanding of space, of where the connections between characters should register and where they will fail. She ensures that we're passionately engaged in this life and death struggle for characters to retain their integrity and honour in awful circumstances.

I cannot speak highly enough of this production. It's strong, impressive work that should be seen, contemplated and hailed.