Friday, 22 July 2016

Extinction, Red Stitch Actors Theatre and Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

A four-hander about environmental protection and the rational and irrational passions that drive us, "Extinction" should, by rights, be a fairly engaging, thoughtful piece. But it doesn't quite get over the line - partially because the characters never really stray too far outside their cliche, partially because the arguments seem a tad stacked, and partially because the entire evening feels just that little bit underpowered.

Colin Lane is the biggest name in the cast, and he may be part of the problem. He's a very nice guy in a role which possibly needs an actor with a bit more mongrel, a bit more go-and-get-it, a bit more, well, sex appeal. Of the rest, Natasha Herbert scores best as the character trying to balance pragmatism with passion - she often feels like the only grown-up on stage, frankly. Brett Cousins gets a lot of sympathy-drawing devices into his character but never really escapes the sense that he's also a tad self-righteous, unbending and a dick to pretty much everybody around him. And Nagaire Dawn Faire feels exceptionally dumb for someone who's meant to be a research scientist - she's a sentimental nincompoop who spends a lot of time wandering between two men, neither of who feel particularly charasmatic enough to draw the attention.

Nadia Tass's direction is kinda perfunctory, and David Parker and Daniel Nixon's video sequences that act as set-and-scene-change-breaks start out interesting but become rather repetitive montages.

I'm possibly sticking the boot into this more than it actively deserves - I did find bits funny and there were a couple of moments where dramatic sparks seemed about to fire. But as a thinkpiece that manages to get shallower the more you think about it, this ended up being a somewhat unrewarding experience.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Next to Normal, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

This is one of the good ones. In fact, this is looking pretty damn good for being my musical of the year. So you may want to book now (tickets are pretty goddamn reasonably priced for a musical, too), go see the show and then come back and read the review. Not least of all because I'm going to have to wax spoilerific later on in the review and if you want to avoid them, you should just go now and see a superlative dramatic musical about pain, love, loss, family and heart. Bring tissues, you'll need 'em.

So what makes this so good? Particularly given I reviewed a production of the same show at the Hayes in Sydney about 18 months ago and wasn't entirely sold? Well, part of it is that this is a much better production in several respects. Despite being a six-performer show, the emotions dealt with here give it epic size, and Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport's two-level set uses the width of the Arts centre stage to give these emotions room to spread and claim their space in a way the Hayes didn't really allow. Partially too this is a much better cast production - every performer nails their role and makes their contribution felt (again, the Hayes had some slight issues in a couple of roles).

In this through-sung musical (there is a bare minimum of dialogue in between nearly 40 listed songs), you need a cast who can dramatically sell their songs. And each of them do this with aplomb. Janelle McMenamin has one of the rare leading roles for a middle-aged woman that allows her to seize the stage - in many ways, the show utterly revolves around her, and McMenamin is by turns loving, cynical, detached, disturbed, amused, hurt, wounded, sexy and heartbreaking, and most of all constantly compelling. Grant Pegg as her husband plays a lot more repressed, as the figure who just wants to pretend everything can be resolved and that the cracks can be painted over, but the darker pain breaks through, first in moments then, towards the finale, completely. Pegg's powerful voice captures both the repression and the outburst easily. Kaitlin Nihill is pure perfection as the troubled daughter Natalie - angered and damaged by her awful home situation, defensive and scarred, but drifting never the less into a new relationship that may help her find her way. It's a role that's very easy to simplify into eye-rolling brattishness, and it's appreciated that Nihill goes beyond the surface to find the relatable core of the character.Will Huang makes it difficult for a reviewer to come up with new superlatives, but he is as electrically compelling as he's ever been, in a role that asks him to shift from gentle confidante to terrifying monster, from detatched observer to engaged participant, often in a second. Daniel Steer is loveable adorable sweet gentleness as Henry and he matches well with Nihill. Joel Hutching's two doctors are largely detached and professional (although he is able to break the cool facade for a couple of moments of rock-god-ness).

Kelda McManus' direction keeps the relationships front-and-centre and makes sure this is consistently engaging (she also did very well to corall a runaway possum on the set during intermission - possum is, I assume, not a regular cast member). Rhys Madigan runs a tight six piece band to skilful effect .Pete Barton's sound design could be tighter (there are a couple of dodgy microphone moments), while Liam Ashton's lighting design designates the many different spaces of the action well and reinforces the drama where required.

In short, a quality show, done skillfully, that will take you on an emotional journey and make you feel damn good about the quality of Canberra talent. Go, see, enjoy.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Back at the Dojo, Belvoir

Lally Katz has a strong line in mixing personal stories with magic realism and making something sweet and heartfelt and entertaining out of it. "Back at the Dojo" takes the stories of her father and his drifting into and out of a drug addiction and into a relationship with the woman who became her mother, and combines it with a somewhat invented wraparound with an older father waiting at his wife's hospital bed and being visited by their transgender grandchild.

The strengths of this show largely lie in the father's story - while this is in many ways a young man's coming of age and finding love story, and as such is fairly familiar territory, it's played with heart and truth and few histrionics. The wraparound is a bit more problematic. It's partially that, with the best will in the world, Brian Lipson's New Jersey accent does not convince, and it creates an unavoidable drag in his performance that never really lands. It's also partially that, while Luke Mullins gives the role of Patti his all, Patti tends to come across as a self-obsessed whiner who manages to make her grandmother's deathbed All About Her.

But this script could ask for no better production than Chris Kohn's. Using the background of a realistic facsimile of a hospital room (down to the mass-produced plastic chairs) it flits across time and space in an instant, with a talented ensemble playing multiple role. Harry Greenwood as the drifting young Danny is a sweetly befuddled kid slowly finding his way into adult responsibilities and encountering love and loss as his journeys lead him towards maturity. The karate dojo at the centre of much of the second act lends a distinctive controlled physical energy to the play, and that's led by Natsuko Mineghishi, who embodies control and compassion in roughly equal amounts. The remaining cast cover multiple roles exceedingly well - Fayssal Bazzi, who stole scenes wholesale in last year's "Ivanov", now is heartbreaking as the emotionally damaged Jerry, Catherine Davies is immediately endearing and adorable as the young Lois, Shari Sebbens has a range of sympathetic roles while Dara Clear has an equally wide range of largely unsympathetic ones.

The contribution of Jethro Woodward's sound design (a rich mix of compelling dramatic music) and Richard Vabre's lighting design (switching moods from institutionally cold to cosily warm and back again in an instant) cannot be underestimated in making this a compellingly intriguing production.

I don't think this is as strong a script as Katz's previous hit with Belvoir, "Neighborhood Watch", but Kohn's staging makes it an intriguing journey none-the-less, well worth the taking.