Wednesday, 30 June 1999

Cloudstreet, 30 June 1999

adapted by Nick Enright & Justin Monjo from Tim Winton's book
Company B, Black Swan, Playbox , MTC,
Victorian Arts Centre until August 1, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Cloudstreet is the perfect title for this play: it has its feet on the earth and its head in some other misty world.

This adaptation (Nick Enright, Justin Monjo) has the "magic Australianism" of Tim Winton's novel pared down to four hours. Favourite characters leap off the page onto a bare stage speaking Winton's witty 1940's Aussie lingo. Only occasional lines of dialogue slip into obscure philosophising.

The production is a momentous collaboration between six organisations, the originators being Company B (Sydney) and Black Swan (Perth). It sold out at both Sydney and Perth Festivals in1998.

Neil Armfield's direction is exceptional, miraculously conjuring the huge, rambling house at No. One Cloud Street, Perth and its two families. We see the hard-drinking, smoking, gambling Pickles who own it and their tenants, the Lambs, driven by the Christian work ethic.

Fish Lamb (Daniel Wyllie) is the spine, or rather, the soul of the story. At age nine, he was saved from drowning - but "not all of Fish Lamb came back."  He is no longer the smart, cheeky Fish everybody loved. He yearns for the peace of the water which spat him back, has uncanny foresight and sees the dead.

Armfield has assembled a versatile and skilful ensemble. John Gaden as Lester Lamb is sweet and lovable. As his tartar wife, Judi Farr is tormented and driven by grief. Max Cullen captures the cheerful incompetence of Sam Pickles who chases the "Shifty Shadder", Lady Luck. Kris McQuade, as his gorgeous, slatternly wife, Dolly, is a tragic shell of a lusty woman.

Wyllie is poignant and sustained as the idiot savant, Fish. Christopher Pitman is moving as his guilt-ridden brother, Quick, who seeks to eliminate evil, and Claire Jones as the quick-witted Rose, is magnetic.

Robert Cousins sparse set design is a gift. The original production was staged in a warehouse but the rambling openness is replicated in the canvas walls, shadow screens, sand and wood flooring. Composer, Iain Grandage plays evocative piano and cello live and the lighting by Mark Howett is magical.

Armfield has created a visionary, deceptively simple show that has complexity, detail, intelligence and joy. Don't be put off by the length. You get to eat and you might even get a very dramatic fire evacuation, as we did on opening night.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 29 June 1999

Carboni, 29 June 1999

Carboni (or The Consequences of Some Pirates Wanting on Quarter Deck a Rebellion)
by John Romeril La Mama at the Courthouse until July 10, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is chastening that Carboni, which is the only truly political Australian play in town, was written in 1979. Playwright, John Romeril, is almost the last of our political playwrights. He is committed to rabble rousing, lefty shows with funny, musical content.

Romeril took the text for his monodrama directly from Raffaello Carboni's original work, The Eureka Stockade, written in 1855. Carboni was an Italian immigrant with a clever, poetic turn of phrase, an observant eye and a revolutionary's heart. His time on the Ballarat goldfields was one of the most eventful and bloody in our history since British settlement.

Adam Cass, directed by Graeme Dale, plays Carboni as an articulate, worldy Italian who is appalled by the events in Ballarat in the 1850's.

The style of the script is " didactic" theatre in the best sense of the word. It is informational and  "alienates" in the manner of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, by forcing us to observe and form opinions.

The music is composed by pianist, Anthony Pateras, and played with Robin Fox on drums and Adele Conlin on violin. It has the clang of Eastern European folk traditions and echoes Brecht's Mahagonny. George Dreyfuss wrote some of the original score for the 1979 production.

The direction does not do justice to Romeril's script nor to Carboni's story. It relies too heavily on broad posturing, which is a poor replica of Brecht's "Gest": gestural theatre. The shadow images, inside clunky screens plumped centre-stage, are only partially visible to side seats.

The music is interesting but so loud, particularly the drums, that Cass is incomprehensible for large sections of the text in spite of his big voice.

It requires great skill to carry a solo show and Cass gives a committed although limited performance. He is mannered, lacks depth and his character and scene transitions are clumsy. He is more effective in the latter half when the focus is on Bakery Hill, the massacre and the ensuing court cases for High Treason. Carboni's graphic detail and emotional language are compelling here.

After hearign his account of Bakery Hill, it is no wonder Carboni returned to Italy to soldier for Garibaldi.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 26 June 1999

Body: Celebration of the Machine, 26 June 1999

By Amanda Owen
at La Mama until July 11, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Watching an acrobat in action makes one marvel at the human body. But even a skilled acrobat such as Amanda Owen is still astonished at the complex workings of this delicate mechanism of flesh and bone.

Amanda Owen, with director, Donna Jackson, has created Body: Celebration of the Machine for this very reason. Owen employs the external workings of the body to demonstrate and celebrate the inner operations.

The body she explores through physical theatre is a living, feeling, pleasure-seeking machine. It is the vulnerable and the generative machine.- which breathes, hurts, yawns, digests and sleeps. It even gives birth and dies when it runs out of fuel - or time.

Owen's own body is a fine specimen of highly trained muscle. She wheels, twists, somersaults and catapults her way through the tiny La Mama space. In spite of the confined space, they have even managed to rig some circus suspension gear from the roof.

The design is almost entirely composed of slides projected by three projectors onto the rear wall. They comprise beautifully photographed (Ponch Hawkes) images of faces and bodies as well as stylish graphics (Lin Tobias) of skeletons and machines accompanied by text.

The show is not entirely phsyical theatre. Owen tells stories about family, pregnancy, injury. One is about her mum's hip replacement told graphically through shadow puppets. She ocasionally plays characters, some of which are actually drawn onto intimate parts of her body with texta pen.

These body characters are part of a witty song, with music by Kim Baston, which is performed as a miniature puppet show behind little curtained stages.

The most hilarious section of the show is the story of body excreta told through "interpretive dance". Being English, Owen was never allowed to discuss 'emissions' so euphemisms were her only option.

Owen is warm, charming and a highly skilled physical performer. She spent 15 years working in circuses and physical theatre companies in Europe until she came to Australia in 1993 in Trestle Theatre's State of Bewilderment that was a staged version of Leunig cartoons.

There are some moments of visual poetry such as the final rebirth scene an there is some quirky use of magician's illusion one of which depicts gruesome self-mutilation.

This is an unusual and clever show that is worth a look.

By Kate Herbert  

Friday, 25 June 1999

The Merry Widow, 25 June 1999

Music by Franz Lehar
Original book and lyrics by Victor Leon & Leo Stein; English version by Christopher Hassall
 State Theatre from June 24 until July, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Franz Lehar's, The Merry Widow, typifies the sensual, cultured, fun-loving reputation of the Viennese. It is a bright and cheerful romance that was his only hit.

The Merry Widow is a light opera which took the western world by storm in the three years after its premiere in December 1905 at the Theater an der Wien. It has more singable tunes, peppy lyrics and romance per square inch than Hollywood in the 30's.

This production, directed by Rodney Fisher and produced by Simon Galaher and Essgee, responsible for Pirates of Penzance and the less successful Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. These shows concentrated on entertainment rather than singing quality .

Marina Prior plays Hanna Glavari, the rich widow from the Eastern European principality Pontevedro that Lehar modelled on Montenegro. The economy of the country relies on her millions so Baron Zeta, (Max Gillies ) ambassador to Paris, is compelled to marry her to a Pontevedran despite the bevy of Parisian seducers pursuing her.

Prior is pert as the widow and sings most songs prettily although the normally bewitching, poignant Vilia lacked control and strength. As her past lover, the rakish Count Danilo, John O'May is sexy and charming and can certainly sell a song. Their duet "Love Unspoken" was effective.

Two comic roles are played superbly. Gillies is sweetly foolish as the Baron. The highlight was Grant Piro as Njegus, the Baron's gauche, twitching secretary and hilarious in his rendition of "Gay Parissienne" in the style of Joel Gray.

Gallaher sang well as de Rosillon but Helen Donaldson as his secret lover, lacked presence and was the only role with a broad Aussie accent.

The English version of Leo and Stein's book is cleverly translated by Christopher Hassall and additional dialogue by Rodney Fisher adds a contemporary flavour.

 Stage design  by Zac Brown is exceptional, particularly in Act 1. The turquoise and lavendar tones of the tilting glazed dome over a steep stair were luminous. and Brown's costumes were gloriously frivolous.

The orchestra conducted by Vladimir Kamirski was commendable apart from some poor entrances in Act 1. Choreography by Andris Toppe was witty and the full male chorus number, "Girls!", with high kicks and Swan Lake chorus line, was a crowd pleaser.

This is an entertaining show to rival the other contemporary musicals in town.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 19 June 1999

Popcorn by Ben Elton, 19 June 1999

 Athenaeum II from June 19, 1999

In our increasingly litigious era, it is interesting that Melbourne is seeing two plays dealing with rubbery law. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia manipulates/interprets law to save Antonio and punish Shylock.

Ben Elton's comedy-thriller, Popcorn, demonstrate that, with strong argument and sufficient media coverage, the guilty can appear victimised, even innocent.

Hollywood movie director, Bruce Delamitri (Steven Vidler) makes films which glamorise sex and violence as do Tarantino and Stone. He returns home from the Academy Awards with two prizes: an Oscar and Playboy centrefold, Brooke Daniels. (Helen Thomson). The evening turns sour when his fans, the Mall Murderers (Steve Bastoni, Nadine Garner), hold him hostage.

Elton is a consummate comedy writer and the dialogue in this dramatised version of his novel deserves its Olivier Award for best comedy

Frequently, the 'white trash' killers speak eloquently in Californian psycho-babble but the very incongruity of such language out of their mouths is hilarious.

Director, Kaarin Fairfax, has effectively kept the pace in overdrive for two hours although some moments in second gear would be useful. It is exhilarating, exhausting and relentless just like Elton.

Ironically, Elton himself, while criticising both screen and real violence, manages to glamorise the crims. It is disturbing to laugh while feeling horrified at our own amusement. Remember Pulp Fiction?

With instant modern media coverage, The Public may be unable or, more likely, unwilling to distinguish real from simulated violence. Do we care in the end whether someone really dies if it makes good TV?

It may all sound serious content but it is a frenetically good romp in the theatre if you are not overly sensitive to sexism and violence.

Steve Bastoni is deliciously unpredictable as the ruthless, delirious, sexist murderer, Wayne Hudson. His stage presence, comic timing and delivery are exceptional.

Helen Thomson as Brooke–"I'm an actor"–Daniels, works the role with great comic craft and plays Elton's sexy pantihose strip to the hilt. Garner is wild and funny as Scout, Wayne's equally crazed lover, although she could reduce the facepulling.

Vidler is suitably repellant as the smarmy director and Jane Turner is outrageous as his brash, money-grubbing wife. Support from Stephen O-Rourke and Bianca Rowe and others was commendable.

The play is a comic indictment of the American legal and social system out of control. It is, however, unlikely to change anything.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 18 June 1999

The Merchant of Venice , 18 June 1999

By William Shakespeare

Bell Shakespeare Company at Atheneaum 1, until 3 July, 1999

It is certainly a novelty to witness a production of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice riddled with adolescent jokes, sexual innuendo and anachronistic costumes. The novelty rapidly wears thin.

Fortunately, the final acts lean less heavily on silliness and Richard Wherrett's direction has greater consistency. This is not to suggest that injecting The Merchant with surprises and highlighting its humour is a mistake.

The problem is that the production has no coherent vision and is dominated by often inappropriately wacky character interpretations and very uneven acting ability. It lacks charismatic performances but has a number of funny cameos.

  The staging is confined by a very beautiful beaten metallic design that, however, makes the space inflexible for action.

Bell's first, more successful production of Merchant expanded the potentially homo-erotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. In this production, the idea is clumsily wrought with a kiss occurring too late in the play.

Shylock, (Percy Sieff) a moneylender, advances 3000 ducats to Antonio (Graham Harvey), the merchant of the title. Antonio, against his principles, is borrowing against prospective income to subsidise his friend, Bassanio (Rhett Walton). It all ends in tears - for Shylock.

Shylock is a Jew, spurned by Venetians for his usury. Sieff gives a sound and substantial performance. He plays Shylock with an edge of fragility and uncertainty arising from his persecution by Venetians who have no comprehension of his race nor of his business. This nervousness balances Shylock's vengeful passion to exact his due from Antonio when the loan cannot be repaid.

The sub-plots concern attitudes to romance and the role of women. Portia, Bassanio's chosen love, is a spirited, intelligent young woman who must disguise herself as a man to be heard in court.

As Portia, Odile Le Clezio was disappointingly shallow, racing through dialogue and demonstrating little of the magnetism that would allow her to dominate the courtroom.

Although Shylock appears in only five scenes, his character and predicament provide the spine. He forces us to address racism, alienation, loss and revenge.

This modern audience, versed in prejudice, must consider injustice from two diametrically opposed positions. Shylock has a right to his day in court and to payment of his bond: "a pound of flesh". But does he have the right to take a life in order to appease his rage at being alienated?

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 8 June 1999

The Picnic by Tom Petsinis, 18 June 1999

La Mama at Victoria University E Theatre until June 20, 1999

The migrant experience provides great material for narrative in the theatre as do the ancient Greek myths. Playwright, Tom Petsinis, has attempted, unsuccessfully, to marry the two in a story that draws, in a circuitous fashion, on the story of Penelope and her son Telemachus, who were abandoned by Ulysses during the Trojan War.

Petsinis's earlier play, The Drought, found a more effective mode of applying to a contemporary tragedy, the ancient Greek theatrical convention of the singing /dancing chorus. The Picnic emerges as melodrama, not tragedy, complete with a cap pistol.

The parallels with the Ulysses myth are tenuous. Petro Belos (Simon Karamitan) came to Australia 20 years ago and changed his name to Pete Bell. He abandoned his wife and son when he remarried bigamously. 20 years later, his son comes hunting his father and revenge. The play ends with a death; whose is unclear.

Script problems are compounded by unimaginative and clumsy direction by Petsinis. Another problem is the casting of only three professional actors (Ian Scott, Maria Limberis, Julie Campbell) who perform with great commitment and virtuosity.

The remainder of the cast comprises Victoria University students and amateur actors from the Greek community. All of these performers are keen but are limited in skill and range.

This is not strictly community theatre. It is not developed nor exclusively performed by the Greek community nor does it tell stories of specific members of the community. It cannot, then, be viewed as a community theatre project so its flaws must be assessed in the cold light of day.

There are too many songs played and sung by band and singer (Triandafilos Nicolpoulos, Paul Glouftsis, Chris Roikov, Marion Stojanovski). The lyrics are unclear and the singer, although in fine voice, cannot adequately replacement the power and poetry of a Greek chorus.

The accompaniment of all songs by a chain of Geek dancers is, initially, charmingly folkloric but becomes tired and predictable. For the first 45 minutes, there is absolutely no dramatic action. The first high point is Limberis as Granny in Greece followed by Scott's compelling poetic monologue as "the actor".

Limberis is hilarious as a raving Greek woman and Scott is moving as the senile old Uncle who is looking for his stolen dreams. Campbell is credible as the jealous and frightened second wife, Stella.

The production is simply a sandwich short of the full picnic.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 2 June 1999

Mame, 2 June 1999

 Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee; Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
At Melbourne Concert Hall June 2, 3 & 4, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Australia produces high quality musicals and, in them, we see local stars of international standard. The intention of Melbourne-based group, The Production Company, under the patronage of Jeanne Pratt, is to stage concert versions of musicals featuring Australian talent.

The first of these projects is Mame, directed and choreographed by David Atkins and with his pal and regular collaborator, Rhonda Burchmore, in the title role. She follows in the footsteps of numerous Broadway and West End stars.

The brassy Rosalind Russell was an enormous hit in 1958 in the play, Auntie Mame, which preceded Jerry Herman's 1966 musical adaptation. The first, and perhaps most successful leading lady in the musical role was Angela Lansbury. Does anyone remember now that the Murder She Wrote star could sing?

Burchmore is very popular in some quarters and has featured in shows as diverse as Hot Shoe Shuffle, Hey Hey It's Saturday and Die Fledermaus . Her particular style either appeals or does not. She plays a bold, quirky and progressive New Yorker with heaps of hootsbah. The latter Burchmore may have, but she lacks any semblance of the extraordinary, eccentric or charismatic required for this role.

This is not to say that she is not entertaining. She works hard to pump out the litany of fabulously singable songs including It's Today, Open a New Window, We Need a Little Christmas and many others which are supported by a spectacularly good chorus and cameo performances.

Accolades go to the luminous Pamela Rabe as Vera Charles, the throaty sensualist and lush, "First Lady of the American Theatre" and Mame's gladiatorial friend. Rabe steals the show with her impeccable comic timing and delivery, warm voice and detailed characterisation.

The Australian Theatre Orchestra, conducted with zest by Andrew Greene, provides a full sound. Atkins' direction keeps the pace cracking and fills the stage with action. The show retains all Herman's songs as well as Lawrence and Lee's witty, pithy dialogue. This is a script with some dream one-liners and Burchmore and Rabe make a meal of them. Their "bitchy friends" duet, Bosom Buddies, is a highlight.

Susan-ann Walker as frumpy nanny, Agnes Gooch was a delight. Alan Fletcher as Mame's rich husband, Rod McLennan as stitched-up trustee for Mame's orphaned nephew and Geoffrey Baird as her friend Lindsay were all commendable. The cast is strong and the evening is entertaining.

By Kate Herbert