Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ivanov, Belvoir

Anton Checkov's other rarely-performed piece bears a few similarities to the first one (recently reviewed as "The Present"). Both centre around a married man of low income and uncertain future who engages in casual love-making with the neighborhood rich people, both feature an out-of-control party in their second acts, and both end broadly similarly. "Ivanov" does have the distinction that it was performed during Chechov's lifetime, though, and extensively revised a number of times. And that level of testing means that it's a tighter piece, more focussed. And in Eamon Flack's adaptation, it manages to be both heartbreaking and wildly funny, often within seconds of one another.

There's a rich array of characters, though everything centres on Ewan Leslie's Ivanov, a man who is aware of his personal failures and inabilities yet struggles to do something vaguely decent with himself while surrounded with absurdity and grasping need. Leslie shows a remarkable range and depth of emotion - from detached observer to romantic, even loving husband, to tormented thinker. Even when he's drawn into making a mistake all over again, you can't help but emphathise.

Elsewhere there's strong support - whether it's Zahra Newman who's a delightfully sunny presence as his wife up until the point at which she's not sunny any more, Blazey Best being the most nouveau of the nouveu riche, John Bell giving great Curmudgeonly Uncle work, John Howard as a man bored and exhausted but somehow continuing to go on, Mel Dyer giving deathstares as the maid, Fazzal Bazi a lord of misrule as Ivanov's cousin, Airlie Dodds innocently deluded as a pure force of passion, Helen Thompson luxuriating in wealthy crapulence and Yalin Ozucilek, magnificnetly offended that nobody realises how badly everybody is behaving.

Flack directs to perfection - it's a play that's both personal and yet wildly political - the inner angst is just as much driven by money and class and who has power as it is about who's lust is leading them where. Michael Hankin's set modulates beautifully and entirely suits the belvoir space (and the set changes are highlights), while Mel Page's costumes are led by and reflect their characters down to the ground.

A lot of Belovir this year has felt strangely tenative - not fully going into the works presented, at a slight remove. But this is the full meal-  rich, whole hearted, great theatre. Absolutely worth the watch.

Of thee I sing, Squabbalogic/Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

The biggest musical of 1932, "Of Thee I sing" has slightly slipped into being a trivia answer since ("the first musical to win the Putlizer Prize"). With a script by Morrie Ryskind and George Kaufman, who, among other things, co-wrote a number of early Marx Brothers hits, it's inevitably wildly silly, and while the Gershwins wrote the score, it isn't a score that produced any standards that have had a big life outside the score (unlike, say, the other big musical of the 1930s currently playing in the Opera Theatre, "Anything Goes" - which oddly enough, shared two of its original leads with "Of thee I sing").

A spoof of American Presidential politics, "Of Thee I sing" tells of the adventures of John P. Wintergreen - "everybody loves him, and they'll vote for him whether they want to or not". The party machine decide they need a cause, and after consulting a grouchy chambermaid, they decide their cause will be Love - their candidate will find true love on the campaign trail with the assistance of a national beauty pageant. It sounds like it should work wonderfully, until, of course, Wintergreen finds affection instead with a campaign worker, Mary, who just makes great corn muffins. But the deposed beauty queen, Diana Devereux, isn't going to take this lying down, and she has some surprising connections...

In all honesty, Kaufman and Ryskind's book is the kinda script that could use a little creative editing around the edges. It does have a reasonable mount of wit to it, but there are some longeurs that coulda been trimmed (in particular, Mary has a conversation about White House catering that goes nowhere, and in a show that lasts two hours fourty-five minutes, perhaps a parody of Senate tedium is not what you want to introduce at the two hours twenty mark). The Gershwin's score is bouncy though reprise heavy, with plenty of opportunities for big choral work which the couple of hundred members of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs launch into with gusto (although some sections needed tighter diction as witty lyrics disappeared in a vocal muddle). If the score does feel a little like they're imitating Gilbert and Sullivan without bringing a lot new to the table, it does at least have a reasonable pep to it.

Squabbalogic's casting is, as usual, impeccable. David Berry's Wintergreen has that all important combination of smarm and charm - you know he's a shifty bastard but you like him anyway. Courtney Glass' Mary is loving without being a complete doormat, Jaimie Leigh Johnson's Diana gives good quality indignant rage, and James Jay Moody's Throttlebottom is dweebishly ridiculous. Sharing fourteen of the other roles between them, Blake Erikson, Nathon Farrow and Rob Johnson morph gracefully between whatever is required of them, often in mid-scene.

If it's not the greatest musical ever written, "Of Thee I Sing" is never the less an entertaining artefact of 1930s Americana that pleasantly diverts

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Much Ado about Nothing, Canberra Rep

Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" has a classic rom-com premise at its centre - a bickering man and woman keep on bickering until it's obvious that the only thing to do is for them to fall in love. But the play around it has some interesting angles - in particular, there's real darkness in the subplot as the sweet-young-things, Hero and Claudio, are torn apart by a vicious trick, with Claudio's reaction making the earlier light fluffy giggles turn nasty. What started out as light jesting suddenly turns deadly serious - these jokes hurt.

At the centre of this production are Jim Adamik and Lainie Hart as Benedick and Beatrice, the squabbers who will, inevitably, find themselves together. There's rich performances from both - Adamik has always been a delightful clown (and is again here, particularly in his broad physical manouvres round a trellis during the "overhearing" scene), but there's also a serious, gutsy actor who shows his mettle when the games are over and the jokes aren't funny any any more. Lainie Hart manages to achieve great comic effects from the most minor of movements - there's a moment when she manages to get a laugh as she breaks her stride and her collar suddenly stops bouncing - as well as immaculate vocal work tossing quips hither and yon.

In the secondary romantic roles, Vivek Sharma has a sweet dopey romanticism, is quite delighfully comic in his fooling of Claudio, is suitably despairing and cruel in his rejection, and moves into dejected sorrow as he realises what he has lost. Marni Mount's Hero is pretty but ... this is one of those "is it the part or is it the actor" things - I can't remember a really good Hero from any other production, and I get the feeling there is not much more to do than stand there and look pretty. Which she does very well.

Elsewhere, there's a mixed bag of performances. Tony Turner doesn't appear to be pushing himself very hard - even in the despair of the rejection scene, we get more "gestures towards emotion" than actual emotion. It's a pity after his strong performance in "Casanova". Riley Bell's Dogberry is probably going to split audiences - for mine, there's some great physical comedy in there (in particular one very dramatic pratfall) but it does come at the expense of sacrificing some of the great spoonerisms in the script, which kinda get buried under all the physical business. There is, however, a great comedy-team-up look between him and Liz Bradley (as Verges) - when he's next to her, with his rubbery face and her stone face, his height and her .. not-height ... it definitely provokes grins.  Fraser Findlay steals scenes effortlessly with a strong singing voice, witty gestures and a strong solid presence. David Kavanaugh gets in some high-quality brooding as Don John, Ben Russell is impishly pleasurable as Don John, Joshua Bell's Borachio and Bradley J. McDowell do great slimy-creep work as Don John's toadies.

The 1920s settting means costume design is rich and gorgeous throughout - the set design does feel a little bit static and Cynthia Jolley-Rogers lighting is a little samey (though the foggy mourning scene does induce a great lighting moment). There is also a slightly weird placement of the interval - it doesn't quite feel like the right moment in the action (maybe a scene earlier?) to be taking a break.

This is not a perfect production, but there's great work in the centre of it between Adamik and Hart, and it is certainly worth the catching.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Storytime 2015, Civic Pub

Okay, this isn't really theatre, but it's never the less one of the events that happened round town that I went to that I think kinda deserves a review anyway. It's not really standup (though it's hosted by one of Canberra's best standups, Jay Sullivan), and it's not really a music show (though it had a damn good music act in the middle). It's sorta a chat show, live and in person, with a simple format - Jay has four guests, who he interviews then invites to tell a story about their lives. The guests are wide and varied but all have a story to tell of some type or another. After the second guest's story, there's a musical act, who plays us to interval, and plays again just after interval. And after the final guest, it's done.

This time, the four guests were Emma Markezic (a sex columnist for Cosmopolitan), Tony Brennan (Deputy high Comissioner for the UK), Matt Nightingale (a bass player for a ridiculous number of local bands) and "Andrew" from the band "Glitoris (an all female band that plays punk songs while bare to the waist and covered in glitter). All had wild and wooly stories to tell about their lives and adventures, both capably interviewed by Sullivan, and solo. It's a remarkably human evening - these are regular people with their own interests and they share them beautifully and generously. Midshow act "The Here and Now" sounded absolutely bloody gorgeous, too.

The nature of the event, of course, means that it's as good as its guests, but if the curated selection of human beings is as good as this again on October 20th when the second Storytime happens, it'll be awesome indeed.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Into the Woods, Dramatic Productions, Gunghalin Theatre

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's musical is the most obviously commercially appealing of their three shows - a plot consisting of fairy stories jammed together is always going to have much wider audience than a french painter or an italian stalker - but it still has traps for performers, including a varying tone (with some scenes playing as broad spoof, and others as deeply emotional explorations of loss and pain), Sondheim's trademark "how many words can we squeeze into three minutes" phrasing and odd rhythmic patterns, and an ending that doesn't entirely hold up to scrutiny (the second act spends extensive time criticising the characters for having behaved dubiously without thinking the consequences, only to turn around and let them behave dubiously without thinking of the consequences again to resolve everything).

Dramatic Productions unevenly satisfies these requirements. There's some particularly strong performances, as well as a few lacklustre ones, but a strong sense of pace keeps the action rolling along reasonably nicely. In act two, in particular, the show develops a sense of desolation as misfortune after misfortune pile up on the characters, and there's some nice character work there. But there's also a couple of places where performers are only working on a purely surface level - playing for the laugh at the expense of playing for the truth. THere's also some wandernig accents around the cast - some play regional british, some are definately singing in an American accent (although here it might be that the songs rhyme properly in american but not in british). 

Vocally and individuallly, Grant Pegg as the Baker and Veronica Thwaites-Brown as the Baker's wife are dramatically interesting and sound wonderful - although there is a slight lack of chemistry throughout that means they seem more like buddies than a married couple. Sian Harrington's Red Riding Hood switches effortlessly between the sweet ingenue and the brattish, knife-weilding, bun-stealing child in a delightful perfomrance. Kelly Roberts' Witch has cackling, fast-moving evil in her crone form and smooth elegance in her beautiful form (although she's having problems with the sleeves of her costume, which appear a little tangled - the costumes generally are a slight hinderance-  with several of them borrowed from the Victorian Opera's performance of last year, not all of them seem to have been re-tailored to fit the new actors - there's also a slightly alarming phallus on one of the knobs on the set which I'm going to assume was Victorian Opera's attempt at pointing to the freudian undercurrents, though it remains unacknowledged by the rest of the production, and I'm not sure if I'm just seeing willies on the set in places I shouldn't). 

Elsewhere in the cast, Miriam Miley-Read has little to do as Cindarella's Stepmother but does it with wit, charm and a good evil-cackle, Brian Kavanaugh's Steward is similarly not doing very much but being delightfully supercillious whenever he is doing it. Alexander Clubb is pushing too hard in both of his roles - his growls as the wolf tend to over-ride comprehensibility and musicality, and he's overplaying for laughs as Cindarella's prince - his material is naturally funny and it needs light, airy playing, not the elbow-in-the-chest he's delivering.

Damien Slingsby's musical direction is smart, focussed and sounds good - Kathryn Jones' choreography feels kinda like unnecessary trotting about a lot of the time, but never the less if you're going to have choreography in this show, this is certainly choreography. 

All in all, this is a production that's enjoyable to watch in several places but feels a little skimped in others - it works better than the movie simply because the movie trimmed in a few too many places that started to damage sensible plotting - but there's still a sense that there's a better version of this production with a few key recastings and a little bit more focus on the undercurrents here and there.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Seventeen, Belvoir

Getting actors who are 70-odd to play 17 year olds is, undoubtedly, a gimmick. But getting very very good actors who happen to be in their seventies to play these roles is far more than a gimmick  - it's about letting us see theatre legends with their hair down, playing roles far removed from their usual work, looking at that point on the verge of adulthood where life seems to offer huge changes in the smallest gesture.

A simple story of a bunch of teens out for a party after the last night of school, Matthew Whittet's script could very easily be boiled down to the simplest stereotypes. Mike's the alphamale, tough and in charge, Tom is his bookish friend who's about to move to Melbourne, Sue is Mike's attractive and compassionate girlfriend, Edwina's Sue's nerdy best friend, Ronny the weirdo that they all try to avoid and Lizzy is the annoying little sister. Gathered in a park with some tunes, some beers and a few vodka shots for one last night out, the addition of a game of truth or dare starts getting a few more truths out there than normal.

As you can spot, there's a few devices here that feel a little stock (in particular, the truth-or-dare game and the "he's moving to Melbourne" ticking clock). But more importantly, there's the acting. Playing a seventeen year old country kid seems to have knocked off some of John Gaden's patrician airs - he's convincing as a guy who is slightly off-putting in his determination to be in control, but ultimately is subject to a helpless passion. Maggie Dence as Sue is truly embraceably real, that strange mixture of a carefree air and a slight worry that her life doesn't necessarily have an easy map to it. Anna Volska's Edwina projects a great sense of superiority that is increasingly wobbled as she gets drunker. And Genevieve Lemon's Lizzy has that great "Can I play too" attitude, but also is heartbreaking in her moment of compassion for her big brother when he starts to break. I do think Peter Carrol's Tom is slgightly under-characterised (he's sorta the default protagonist, but either Carrol hasn't found much to play in him, or there isn't much to hold onto in the role that's interesting) - and Otto's Ronny is a little familiar from other performances Otto has given in the past - it's a case where stereotyping slightly weakens the effect.

Anna Louise-Sark directs with mostly a firm hand (although her silent patch in the first five minutes is kinda offputting - Belvoir's had a couple of shows in the last twelve months which have slowed the action to a crawl, and I've tended to find the slowness has not been rewarded with depth). This is a piece with heart and soul rather than necessarily a deep think-piece about what seventeen means - but it manages to get over the slightly stock situation with some skilled focused acting and a gentle script that doesn't hit the message button too hard.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Present, Sydney Theatre Company

It took me a while to warm to Anton Chekhov. His plays can feel like nothing very interesting is happening - people are just gathering, talking, and then wandering away, moping about their wishes and dreams but never apparently doing very much to achieve those things.

And then I got older, and the songs of failed experiences started to resonate a bit more, and suddenly I got it. It possibly also helped that I started reading translations and seeing productions that made the ennui urgent and pressing, rather than vague and ephemeral. It probably also helped that I acted in one of the plays in a really minor role so I got to watch one of his plays repeatedly and got to see the subtle ironies and structural power of his plays at work (my acting career is a long series of shows where I've spent more time getting into my costume than I have on stage - trust me, I don't write this stuff because I think I can do better than the actors involved).

"The Present" isn't entirely typical Chekhov - yes, it's set in Russia (although in this case the translation has made a vague update to the 1990s) and it is largely about frustration and lack of success - but it's adapted from a script that was never performed during Chekhov's lifetime, never had a title, and would take 5 hours to perform in its entirety. Previously adapted under titles like "Platanov", "Don Juan in the Russian Manner" and "Wild Honey", any version has to pick what to concentrate on, but all versions do centre around Platanov, a schoolmaster who holds a strange but irresistible fascination to the entire female cast (in this production, he's played by Richard Roxburgh, who largely convinces partially by more resignedly accepting their attentions rather than wildly skirt-chasing). Andrew Upton's adaptation is on its strongest ground when the action remains focussed on Platanov. Elsewhere, it can be a little diffuse - the opening ten-fifteen minutes, in particular, feel a tad aimless (despite beginning with a bang, literally, as Cate Blanchett shoots a pistol into the auditorium to bring the houselights down). Blanchett's Ana Petrovna, the owner of the estate on which all the action takes place and around who's birthday the events are timed, has some bravura sequences - in particular, some wild business with a detonator, some sexy dancing and a chance to show off some damn shapely legs, all in act two, but much of the business relating to her two older suitors and her desire to hold the estate together is rather unfocussed, while her scenes opposite Roxburgh burn with intensity and passion.

Elsewhere there is some unevenness. Chris Ryan does a great line in peevish betrayal, and Toby Schmitz is at his best in Act Four when he's been shattered (his early act one material does feel a little like Schmitz's greatest hits, as there's a lot of the familiar sarcastic ease that's been in a number of his performances - he's good at it, but it's familiar stuff). Jaqueline McKenzie doesn't seem to get a chance to transition properly onstage from aloof coldness to passionate engagement - it's like a switch was flipped backstage - which does mean she's only given half a character to work with, it's watching the transitions that is interesting. Marshall Napier is great fun to watch but does seem to have recieved the direction "play it like Brian Blessed" and siezed it with gusto. Eamon Farren's disreputable Kirill is wonderfully sleezy but seems to have wandered in from another play when he abruptly shows up in act two, and wanders out before the climax of the action.

In short, this was a production that had a lot of good actors doing good work, but in a show that wasn't always as focussed as it might be. The high point in act three (where in an exploded void, Platanov is confronted by lovers and betrayed friends in regular succession) is where the writing is most focussed on the, basically, high-class-sex farce which Chekov actually wrote (though his ending, which is one of those "the quickest way to resolve this is to shoot someone", doesn't quite ring with the best of his endings, where the worst punishment you can impose on these characters is to let them keep living with themselves. So this is sorta a case of a fine sympony orchestra playing a composer's lower-order works - you can spot echoes of the good stuff but it isn't all the best tunes.