Friday, 26 June 2015

Casanova, Canberra Rep

Just your usual advance notice - this is a rave, so go do the booking thing because I'm going to like this a lot and insist you go. And, bluntly, Canberra audiences are getting a shitty reputation for not supporting newer shows and going to see the same old stuff recycled every four or five years, and if you want to change that, you need to support the good stuff with your dollars.

Anyway. Why is this the good stuff? Well, it starts with the script. You don't often see a wild rollicking adventure on stage, but that's what this is - one man, armed with little more than his wit and his charm, out to make his fortune and find his way through Renaisasance Europe. There's comedy, dance, a duel, and rather a lot of lust along the way - plus a sweet love story and some gentle pathos as the older Casanova looks back on his youth both with enjoyment of what happened and regret for what might have been. Mark Kilmurray has lightly trimmed the 2005 TV mini-series by Doctor Who scribe Russell T. Davies (which aired in the UK a fortnight before the first episode of the Who revival) into a flowing theatrical romp.

Jarrad West's production takes that script and gives it vivid life. Playful, vigorous and ever-flowing, the production draws you in with charming energy, providing great opportunities for the leads and a large ensemble to play out these wild adventures. West also designed the detailed-yet-generous stage design - plenty of decoration but with large open playing spaces for the actors to spread across.

First among the cast are the two men playing old-and-young Casanova. I've not seen Tony Turner give a better performance in about a decade of watching him. He's playful, cynical yet able to turn on dime into a pure expression of the heart, and he's heartbreaking later in the play as regret for the darker sides of his reputation start to overwhelm him. Ben Russell as the younger Casanova (the lack of resemblance between the two actors is a delicious gag) has effortless charm, displaying a keen mind  and enthusiastic wit in true leading-man style.

As the key women in their lives, Steph Roberts and Amy Dunham bring the emotion. Roberts is practically Turner's partner-in-crime in the telling of the story - eager to hear the stories but at the same time not entirely taken in either by some of the more over-the-top details or entirely sure she approves of some of Casanova's bad behaviour (she plays a vital role here, allowing the show to not be just a celebration of Casanova's libertine ways, but to also critique the dangers of not caring for consequences) . Dunham is in more restrained style than I've previously seen her (she has a wild engaging style that's appealed in shows like "Hairspray" and "High Fidelity" which isn't seen here) but she's gorgeous, classy, with still just that touch of mischief that makes her a perfect playmate for Casanova, and makes it heartbreaking when they're unable to be together.

Riley Bell as the young Casanova's servant, Rocco, is a stealthy scene-stealer - somewhat grotty, as impulsive as his master, similarly quick-witted (I'm not entirely sure all his lines are in the script) and simultaneously supportive to his master and trying in vain to recapture him back to some vague level of rationality. Bojana Kos plays two very different phases of Bellino - both as the early arrival to Venice, proper, restrained and falling towards Casanova, and the later phase where excess has taken over and started to rot, and plays them both with aplomb. Chris Zuber as Casanova's snobbish nemesis Grimani is suitably stern, staunch and dangerous, perhaps even more so when Casanova finally unlocks his secret pain.

The ensemble is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar performers, all of whom seize great spotlight moments. Kate Blackhurst and Liz Bradley particularly score as two very-friendly-sisters in a variety of different poses, Geoffrey Borny has both his usual charming gentleness as a patron and friend to Casanova, and produces some alarmingly seedy noises during the later part of the evening (it's unlocked a whole other dimension to Borny, I would love to see him be evil for an evening). Sam Hannan-Morrow shows up all over the place as various threatening, ingratiating, seedy and delightful types (including, at one point, as a nun). Bradley McDowell is delightfully foppish, Kayla Ciceran hits the heart with an emotional speech near the end of the evening, and there's also fine moments from Alice Ferguson, Emily Ridge and Tieg Saldana.

All are costumed by Anne Kay in a clever, gorgeous, beautiful array of outfits - some beautifully in period, some delightfully not-so-much (in particular the pearly-king-and-queen outfits for the London sequence). Lighting by Kelly McGannon is precise, emotive and helps the show's verve and energy immeasurably.

If it teases you in with the promise of lust and sex, Casanova lets you go with a spirit of adventure and excitement. It's a fun, gorgeous production with surprisingly emotional moments combining with wild hilarity to let your eyes, ears and heart feast on an engrossing epic.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Mother Courage and Her Children, Belvoir

Brecht can be a tricky trap for professional theatre companies. His plays abound in parable-like simplicity, but require creative theatricality to really fly. In the case of Mother Courage, his epic about war and capitalism, they also require an ability to tell a long story covering multiple years while feeling tied together (Brecht only vaguely gestures in his script towards when and where the characters are, and there's very little information as to who's fighting who and why, just that the war is continuing throughout and that it's obviously a religious war).

Eamon Flack's production doesn't quite connect the dots as it might. There's good stuff in there (in particular, many of the performances, and some nice imagery), but this isn't something like his "Glass Menagerie" or "Angels in America" where he's found the beating heart of the play and got it moving. Michael Gow's new translation certainly feels playable and speakable, and Stefan Gregory provides some good tunes to to with the songs, but too often this stops and starts when it should be pulling the audience along with it through humour, tragedy and compelling struggle.

Part of it may be that the comedy early on doesn't land, meaning that the tragedy later can't either. The central idea of this production (making Mother Courage's cart a lightbulbed food-truck) seems clever and modern, and there is a through-line of Courage as a practical small-businesswoman whose compromises are still not enough to save her and her children from the harm of war, but elsewhere things are very vague. Neither Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese or Richard Pyros as Elif, her two sons, make much of an impact in their scenes, therefore we don't really fell their loss when they are compromised and killed (although Conroy's post-mortem appearance in a bouncy, enthusiastic "Song of the Great capitulation" is one of the most effective moments in the evening - a great moment of darkness creeping into entertainment, which should have been a feature of more of the evening). Nevin has all the ruggedness and deviousness that a good Mother Courage should have, but too often she's not met at her own level. Paula Arundell as Yvette is suitably sultry and sings a great "Fraternization" song, but her appearances are too intermittent to really hold the night together. Similarly Arky Michael's cynical and lusty Cook has a great energy but is used too infrequently to really work. Anthony Phelan's Priest doesn't quite land - there's a certain amount of self-righteous weaselry in the role that isn't quite captured, so his scenes tend to go  a tad flat. Emele Ugavule is passionate and engaged but her death scene suffers from staging problems that mean it never quite lands as it should either.

I have had strong hopes for Flack as incoming Artistic director of Belvoir, but this isn't the best model of his talents. For whatever reason, this doesn't feel like a fully-committed full throated production the way it should, and thus it falls flat when it should grab you by the scruff and demand attention.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Jesus Christ Superstar, PeeWee Productions, AIS Arena

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the perrenials. It will be revived as long as people appreciate the hard-rocking score (possibly Lloyd Webber's best), the incisive lyrics (Tim Rice is still Lloyd Webber's strongest lyricist), and the interesting angle it takes on the last week of Jesus' life - by telling the story largely from Judas' point of view, and by omitting the resurrection, it leaves unresolved the key question of whether Jesus was human or deity, making it a show about Christ that isn't just for Christians (it's the perfect show for an agnostic, in fact, because it decides nothing).

This Arena Spectacular version has many strong things to recommend it. The vocals and orchestra under the direction of Ian McLean with vocal coaching by Sharon Tree are key among these - the entire cast is in good solid voice and the band really rocks when the show is required to rock and are delicate and sensitive when the score gets sensitive.

Dramatically, things aren't always as strong. Key in any production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is the dynamic between Jesus and Judas - a passionate, argumentative, engaged debate about what action they should be taking, a strong bond that falls apart in ways that leads them both to their deaths. Almost none of that lands here - Michael Falzon's Judas is vocally excellent, but too often his body-language and attitudes suggest a guy who's mildly perturbed rather than being ripped apart by his passions. Similarly, Luke Kennedy's Jesus sounds great but spends a lot of his time casually strolling around the set rather than being more and more desperate to seize his limited time to reach his followers. His fleeing from the lepers during "The Temple" is particularly dudded - there's no fear or sense that he's ever really overwhelmed. Both are strongest on their last substantial numbers - Falzon's title song has all the sarcastic, jumpy energy that is lacking everywhere else in the show, and Kennedy's "Gesthemene" (possibly because he's blocked to stand centre stage in strong lighting with no movements) lands great.

Because of the lack of tension between Jesus and Judas, there's a flow-on effect to Jenna Roberts' Mary Magdelene. Mary is meant to be the cooling, calming point between Jesus and Judas. If there's no tension, anything she does to try to produce calm between the two just feels weird and unmotivated - they're already pretty chilled out, why bother exhorting them to calm down?

Elsewhere, there's a lot of strength in the supports. Max Gambale has a great mix of imperial hauteur and an increasing sense of dread and frustration as Pilate. Gordon Nicholson is astounding as Herod - he's massively high camp, with an almost Frankenfurter vibe (Nicholson matches my imagination of what Reg Livermore did with Herod in the original Australian production).Zack Drury's Caiaphas is suitably imposing and menacing, Will Huang's Simon Zealotes gives a bounce and energy to the whole show (he's also the only soloist to join in on the choreography), and Nick Valois in the under-written role of Peter gives great energy to both his songs (although "Could We Start Again Please?" seems weirdly directed as a love song between him and Mary Magdelene, rather than two friends joining together to wonder what went wrong with the man they both love).

Phil Goodwin's lighting design is pretty goddamn spectacular - it's a bit keen on sending out the blinding-effects into the audience now and again, but there's a great sense of spectacle (in partular, the uber-gaudy title-song gives Judas' vegas-style hustling a good backrdrop, and the "tv static" crucifix during the crucifixion is a great image which it would have been great to see supported elsewhere in the production - I have a feeling this is borrowed from the recent Arena tour that used a lot more multimedia, where the static could have made a bit more of a statement rather than just be there as a nice image). Jordan Kelly's choreography is good in bigger crowd numbers like "Hosanna" and "Simon Zealotes", although I'm not in love with the Up-With-People-style modern-dress dancers in the title song - their moves seem a bit too clean-cut for what should be a bit more down-and-dirty.

All in all, this is a production with a lot of strengths but with a bit of a dramatic hole where the centre should be. There's some great work here that could have been stronger with better, tighter and more passionate direction.