Saturday, 29 May 1999

A Month in the Country, 29 May 1999

By Brian Friel  after Turgenev
VCA Graduating Year at Grant Street Theatre
until June 6, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"All love is a catastrophe," says Michel  (Tyson Salijevic), Natalya's spurned lover in Turgenev's A Month in the Country. When an attractive stranger is introduced into an outwardly stable environment, everything goes awry.

Emotional chaos follows the appointment of the handsome young tutor, Aleksy in the house of Natalya (Tanja Bulatovic) and her rustic husband, Arkady ( Jonathan Pasvolsky). The situation echoes the arrival of Elena in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

A Month in the Country has all the sublimated passion and thwarted desires of the Russian style. Only the two servants, Katya (Jenny Schwinghammer) and Matvey (Howard Stanley) find love in the end.

The play provides the perfect showcase for the Victorian College of the Arts graduating actors. It is a ensemble piece with no star roles so each actor can strut his or her stuff at some point in the play.

Australian-US resident, Michael Edwards directs this stylish, albeit conventional production. Dean of Drama School, Lindy Davies, evidently twisted  his arm to convince him to take the job, but the product is strong and both company and director seem delighted with the outcome.

The stage design (Rainbow Sweeney) is a beautifully simple polished blond wood floor with deeper, more decorative wooden chairs and table. Period costumes (Amanda Silk) in muted tones add the only adornment.

The style of performance is natural and underplayed. Actors are comfortable and relaxed on stage - sometimes too relaxed. The energy level often drops to such a degree that they are almost inaudible.

The ensemble is strong and includes professional actors, Howard Stanley, Paul Robertson and Will Hodgson all of whom provide hilarious and colourful cameos.

As the gag-meister doctor, Shpigelsky, Joseph Manning is a energetic presence and his loved one, Lisaveta, is played with dignity by Amanda Hulme. Sibylla Budd as the ingenue, Vera, marries a sweet naivete with intense emotion and Oliviero Papi is a bright and lively Aleksy.

Playing Natalya, Bulatovic shifts aptly between mature and childish seductiveness and Pasvolsky captures her husband's gaucheness.

Although the production lacks a dynamic energy, it is a fine production.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 27 May 1999

The Dogs Play and A Few Roos Short in the Top Paddock, 27 May 1999

by Tee O'Neill.
 Playbox at Beckett Theatre until June, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The short play is not necessarily easier or simpler to write than the full length.

It requires the same sense of dramatic structure and style, clarity of characterisation and theme. In fact, it can be more difficult to provide a complete vision in a shorter time while still finding layers of sub-text and depth of meaning.

Only one of Tee O'Neill's two short plays goes any distance to achieving these dramatic goals. The Dogs Play is a grim, vaudevillian piece that attempts to address issues of childhood rape, sexual precociousness, prostitution and abuse.

A barking clan of dogs. (Ben Rogan, Matthew Quartermaine, Tracey Harvey, Ross Daniels) constantly circle the central character, Jenna (Melita Jurisic). They scuffle and gambol on the dirt floor set, (designed by Leon Salom), teasing and taunting their mistress, Jenna.

The actors, in almost cartoon dog suits with black puppy noses and floppy ears, also play the male clients of Jenna, the adult hooker. They flip from playground humour to outrageously sexist bar room jokes and from physical gags to stylised but grotesque sexual abuse.

David Bell's direction is swift and the actors, most of whom are stand-up comics, make a cohesive ensemble with impeccable comic timing. Ross Daniels particularly, has an hilarious range of mad characters. Jurisic provides a fine haunting quality that is accentuated by David Murray's evocative lighting.

However, the play just wanders around getting nowhere in the end. We are virtually unshockable these days, so its overt sexual scenes and gross jokes are adolescent rather than confronting.

The first play in the program, A Few Roos Short in the Top Paddock, is confused. Giant kangaroos and a female commando-pest exterminator invade a corporate couple's suburban home. Rather than exploring an absurdist style, the play is just plain silly and looks like a 40 minute under-graduate revue sketch.

The actor struggle to make sense of the narrative and dialogue comprised of platitudes and very poor gags. There is very little to recommend this piece. The Dogs Play would have been better off alone on stage.

A short play can provide a crystalised vision. Tee O'Neill's two plays struggle to achieve this.

by Kate Herbert

Sunday, 23 May 1999

The Boy From Oz, 23 May, 1999

The Boy From Oz 
at Princess Theatre from May 21, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Peter Allen may have been the epitome of glitzy gay cabaret but his life was no cheery cocktail. Nick Enright's dramatic script for The Boy from Oz provides an interesting counterpoint to Allen's peppy songs.

Enright is master of the dysfuntional family. He keeps action moving, the years flying and integrates the ebb and flow of Allens' career and personal life.

Nee' Peter Woolnough, Allen was born into a tragic country Australian family, married into an even more tragic American show-biz family and died in tragic show-biz circumstances. The famous are not necessarily charmed.

Allen was not a great dancer-singer but he was a showman - and show-off and he wrote catchy tunes including Tenterfield Saddler and the Theme From Arthur.

The versatile Todd McKenney, bouncing at a grand piano or bounding coltishly across the stage, is a much better dancer-singer. He captures the essence of this excitable, high-attention-seeking-unit.

Allen as a boy, played sweetly by Jordan White, dreamed of "When I Get My Name in Lights". He hungered for fame, New York and glamour. He was the ultimate groupie so, to fulfil that dream, he met Judy Garland and married Liza.

As Allen's mother Marion, Jill Perryman is magnetic and moving singing "Don't Cry Out Loud" after her husband's suicide. As Garland, Chrissie Amphlett has great vibrato and vulnerability.

Angela Toohey bears an uncanny resemblance to Minnelli and occasionally equals her power. Edwards has mistakenly demanded they play down the personalities and voices of Garland and Minnelli perhaps to avoid the roles outshining the character of Allen.

Gael Edwards production is slick, her staging echoing Allen's 80s concerts. Act one felt uncertain and the convention of talking to the audience awkward but act two was relaxed and more confident.

The chorus is tight with dancers posed stylishly in cabaret tableaux, choreographed by (Anthony Van Laast). Stage design (Peter J. Davison) cleverly relies on an empty stage peppered with single enormous images: a spiral staircase, Opera House or the Qantas symbol behind an hilarious chorus of air stewards.

Accolades go to McKenney who gambols in glittering shirts (Roger Kirk) to make Allen's heart flutter. The band, under Max Lambert, were in fine form. A major flaw was the backing vocal trio's independent numbers. Murray Bartlett as Allen's lover, sings a superb and unembellished version of I Honestly Love You and Garry Scale's cameos were exceptional.

Of course, I Go To Rio is the finale number complete with bananas galore on headdresses. 

Kate Herbert

Thursday, 20 May 1999

Poetsday by Ross Mueller, 20 May 1999

at La Mama until May 30, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"Poetsday" is an expression little used but pretty damned useful. It is an acronym for, "Piss Off Early. Tomorrow's Saturday." TGIF" meaning "Thank God It's Friday", is in the same family of colourful and cynical phrases from the working population.

Poetsday is also the title of a new short play by Ross Mueller. It is a montage of monologues by four characters, all of who are connected with the building of a fabulous architect-designed home for their never-seen, exceedingly wealthy American client, Abby.

Mueller gives a poetic tone to even the most working class of his characters. David, who works on the site, (Peter Hosking) spins yarns about his four kids, his work place weekend jaunts to the sea in a lyrical blokey fashion. It is he who coins "poetsday". Hosking gives a warm and gritty performance.

Angie, (Carmen Mascia) is a university student with a huge HECS debt who has developed RSI while working as a painter's assistant on Abby's house. Mascia gives a charming portrayal of Angie's ingenuous joy in physical work and her fascination with Abby's stories of Chicago in the 60s and Jimmy Hendrix.

Lily, the architect (Anne Browning) has vulnerability in her pride in her design. She wants Abby's approval and values their teamwork in putting the detail to her plan. Frank (Chris Uhlmann) is caught in a bind. He is a Koori who has to put up with quips and jibes from the plumber and the other boys until finally he flips.

The interesting thing about Mueller's script is that none of the four characters refers to any other. They live in parallel universes in the same workplace. Each has a comrade who is not seen. They talk about alienation, pain, abuse, work, family, love, paint and design.

Strangely, the most absorbing character remains off-stage. The client, Abby's wealth, style and finesse., her history and exotic quality are pivotal for the two women if not for the men.

Director, Lucy Jones, has placed the four in separate spaces at La Mama. Each inhabits a tiny pool of light from which he or she tell a story.  Jim GamAck's live electric guitar accompaniment provides a texture and an emotional layer to the words.

Poetsday lacks some coherent through-line but it is good short play.
By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 15 May 1999

Corporate Vibes, 15 May 1999

By David Williamson
 QTC, STC and Melbourne Theatre Company 
at The Playhouse until June 19, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

David Williamson, in his comedies, has systematically worked his way through social issues, stuffing his characters overfull with societal problems. It was only a matter of time before he reached corporate Australia which cries out for social satire.

Corporate Vibes, about the heartlessness of the corporations, is a perky if insubstantial comedy with lots of laughs and jibes at the expense of business stereotypes.

If you have been on the inside of a corporate environment recently, you will know that it is generally an unhealthy blend of hysteria and tedium. When the work involves marketing the boss's completely unmarketable product, staff either smile and lie or cry, "The emperor has no clothes."

Hype and bulldust, in addition to a fair smattering of pure terror of Sam, are the currency in Sam Siddons apartment construction company.

Sam (William Zappa) is a corporate thug who has made and lost millions from housing developments. His latest monstrosity is not selling because it is ugly and expensive. Sam blames his staff.

 His CEO Michael (Andrew McFarlane) is a cowardly Yes Man, Angela (Caroline Kennison) his award-winning architect a brusque single mum. Megan (Olivia Pigeot), his marketing manager, just wants to be loved and his sales manager Brian (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) hates the decor in the apartments.

Enter Deborah, (Lydia Miller) "malevolent do-gooder", aboriginal Human Resources Manager who thinks venting feelings and finding their "song" will improve staff communication. She is too naive to realise that company directors want staff development to improve productivity. They don't care about people's feelings.

The plot is thin, predictable and lacking in any depth or subtlety but this serves the comedy. Robyn Nevin's direction is clever, stylish and stylised and provides a welcome edge that is not in the text itself. The sleek boardroom design (Stephen Curtis) is suitably grim and cold.

Zappa is particularly good as the bellowing bull, Sam. The play does not allow actors any sensitive moments but Lllewllyn-Jones milks the jokes for all he can. Kennison and McFarlane also provide strong comic support. There is rather too much unnecessary shouting for the Playhouse in the first act, particularly from Miller, but the second act is far better all round.

Kate Herbert

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), 15 May 1999

By Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield 
at Athenaeum II, from 15 May 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

How many kilos of ham can fit on the Athenaeum II theatre stage? Glynn Nicholas, Russell Fletcher and Sean O'Shea manage to jam the whole pig into their production of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged).

The hamming is not unintentional. The entire works of Will are condensed into 97 minutes of rollicking, hooting, mugging, teasing and bull dust. Wigs are on and off like a bishop's cassock. Characters die like flies, fight like Zorro, dress like ghosts, prance, primp and ponce about until everybody is dead, disguised or drown'ed.

The script was written in England ten years ago by three presumably out-of-work and really ticked off actors. It has now toured the English- speaking world but this version has a distinctly Australian flavour.

The cast does not merely babble through short versions of the texts. They begin with an hilarious ten minutes of Romeo and Juliet with a fine balcony scene then do that Scottish play with outrageous Highland accents. They follow with a very bloody TV cooking version of Titus Andronicus and a rap Othello.

They scamper through all sixteen comedies kneaded into one quickie story riddled with mistaken identities and then do all the histories rolled into a football match with the crown as the football.

The second half is all Hamlet, Ponce of Denmark. O'Shea is suitably dour and superior as the Ponce and he looks a scary amount like Rowan Atkinson in Black Adder. Fletcher's doddering old Polonius is very funny. Nicholas does the world's best drowning of Ophelia on dry land. and the audience participation provides the most incisive Freudian interpretation of Ophelia's madness ever seen on the modern stage

The three actors make a great comic team, slipping in and out of roles, bickering on stage and playing with text, audience and each other. They are like naughty kids in the playground.

It is a brave comedian who goes onstage to compete with Glynn Nicholas who is a seasoned solo performer. His playing of Ophelia as Blanche Dubois is a gift and his King Hamlet's ghost as sock puppet simply ridiculous.

The pace of the show will certainly adjust throughout the season. It relies on hyping the audience and galloping apace for 97 minutes. It is worth seeing the three minute, ten second and backward versions of Hamlet that the three do for an encore.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 6 May 1999

La Clemenza di Tito, (The Mercy of Titus), Opera Australia, May 5, 1999

 La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus) 
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Libretto by Pietro Metastasio revised by Caterino Tommaso Mazzola 
Opera Australia 
at State Theatre May 5, 10, 13, 15, 1999

 NB This review was published in The Melbourne Times in Aug 1997

Roman Caesars were never known for their clemency. Feeding Christians to the lions was more their style. The Mercy of Titus (La Clemenza di Tito) is, then, an unlikely subject for a story about a Roman Emperor.

Mozart chose to reflect the new tolerance and reason of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment in this, his last-composed opera, (1791) which was based on the play by Metastasio.

Tito Vespasianus  (Anthony Elek) is a kind, generous, trusting and forgiving ruler who is beloved of his people. He seeks a wife and chooses two before finally selecting Vitellia (Rosamund Illing). Vitellia is overcome with venomous rage when she believes herself spurned for the young Servillia (Emma Matthews).

It is Vitellia who embodies all the vile and vengeful tendencies that are absent in Tito. She coerces her adoring, lovesick acolyte, Sesto (Fiona Janes) into starting a rebellion for her and killing his dear friend, Tito. Who needs enemies?

Illing skilfully blends the coquettish, cheeky egotistical Vitellia we see at the beginning with the penitent sinner of the finale. Her lovely and effortless soprano has impeccable control.

Elek's bright-tones tenor provides an appropriately boyish naivete to his portrayal of the sweet natured Tito. His anguish is palpable when faced with this moral dilemma when he realises his friend has betrayed him.

There is a dark irony in Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito being about mercy and tolerance when,  in 1791,  itfeatured roles for young men who were castrated at the age of ten. Happily, the roles are now sung by mezzo-sopranos. This creates a whole new world of resonances when women are wrapped in the arms of other women.

Janes as Sesto has the warmth and passion in her mezzo-soprano which is necessary for the role of the fallen friend. This role and that of Annio, (Joslyn Rechter) were played by castrati.

Rechter and Richard Alexander as Publio, are both in fine voice and the State Orchestra of Victoria conducted with energy by Daniel Beckwith, do justice to Mozart's lilting score.

This is not the most memorable of Mozart's operas, but it has some fine musical moment not the least of which is the choral lament for Tito at then end of Act One. The production is based on that of Goran Javerfelt who directed it before his death in 1989. Moffatt Oxenbold has brought it to stage.

It is a very static production and, despite the majestic Roman collonade (Carl Friedriech Oberle), it remains visually dull because of its unimaginative staging..


Monday, 3 May 1999

Long Day's Journey into Night, 3 May 1999

by Eugene O'Neill
Melbourne Theatre Company with Bell Shakespeare and QTC until May 29, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Families may be designed to test our patience but the family in Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, would drive a saint to drink.

In fact, they are all four - mother, father, and two sons - driven to drink or drugs. Even in middle-class America during 1912, substance abuse was rife. This play is all the more poignant being derived directly from O'Neill's own family.

Given its gut-wrenching purge of his Irish-American past, it is no surprise that O'Neill requested it only be published twenty-five years after his death and never be performed. It had its first production in 1956, just three years after his death, thanks to the questionable motives of his third wife. Would he writhe in pain knowing his skeletons are out?

The play is an exceptional piece of realism completed in 1945. It tears away any guise of decorum or fragment of hope. The Tyrones are phantoms in a fog of booze, dope and a history of deception, fear and shattered hope.

They are the epitome of that twin-headed Irish-Catholic monster: guilt and blame. In a moment, they flip from love to loathing. They abuse then appease, gloat then soothe. O'Neill balances superbly the grotesque and the realistic.

The Tyrones spend August in their wretched, hollow summerhouse. James (John Bell) is that rare creature, a financially successful actor, stingy as Scrooge and a roaring drunk. His wife, Mary, (Robyn Nevin) is a tragic figure addicted to morphine since the painful birth of her younger son, Edmund. Her decline into morphine haze is the pivot of this single, tortuous day into night.

The sons are no happier. Jamie (Sandy Winton) is a mean-mouthed, womanising, drunken failed actor. Edmund, (Benjamin Winspear), a whining young literary hopeful who represents O'Neill, is diagnosed with consumption. It is the extraordinary day in a family's life which makes great drama.

Nevin is compelling as the desperately lonely Mary. Her relentless decline culminates in the final act with her touching retreat into her youth. Bell, as Tyrone, is overbearing yet charming, the key to the character. Winspear and Winton seem uncomfortable and neither penetrate the complexity of the text.

Director, Michael Donald Edwards, confines our vision within Michael Scott-Mitchell's jagged set design and muted lighting by David Walters. Edwards has kept up a cracking pace to shorten the play to three hours.

By Kate Herbert