Thursday, 22 May 2003

A Tree, Falling by Ron Elisha , May 22, 2003

A Tree, Falling  by Ron Elisha  
Chapel off Chapel, May 22 to  June 7, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Jonathan Hardy  is exceptional in Ron Elisha's witty, moving and beautifully observed new play, A Tree, Falling. He portrays Lenny Riefenstahl,  a confused old man suffering Alzheimer's and, finally, a stroke. Lola,  his 'friendly visitor' sent by the council, is played sympathetically by Kirsty Childs.

The play has a simple but effective structure. It comprises a series of visits by Lola to Lenny's home over a short period of time.  Lenny's health deteriorates and Lola's maddeningly cheerful patience degenerates into frustration, pain and a desperate need for Lenny to recognise her.

Lenny's very muddle-headedness and the collision of his and Lola's realities are the core of Elisha's wry, black humour. Lenny behaves as if Lola is lonely, deluded and a total stranger - every time she visits. It is enough to drive Lola to distraction. Lola becomes almost as confused as Lenny although he is completely oblivious to his own confusion or hers.

For anyone with experience of an aged parent suffering dementia or a stroke, this will be painfully and humorously reminiscent of that wild ride. We laugh at the recalcitrant old fella  who finds simple pleasure in 'the joy of forgetting'. Hardy is completely believable, entertaining and touching as Lenny. He is the focus and Child's as Lola is his satellite in the play.

Director, David Letch,  stages the play on a simple, abstract set. This stylisation allows their colliding worlds to take on a surreal quality. Letch's clever theatrical conceit has an anonymous stage assistant to shift props and removes clothing from Lenny in almost ritualised slow motion. The lighting design by Kerensa Diball  crates a sense of anticipation on stage. The dramatic environment is enhanced by music composed by Marc Chesterman.

We come to know and love Lenny as we would a friend. However, we know him only by report. We never see the man who was Lenny when he was in full possession of his faculties.

Elisha cleverly reveals, through the fragmented conversations of Lola and Lenny, snippets of information about his life and character, his skills, his family, schooling, his two wives and his German background. A Tree, Falling, is a delightful and poignant piece of theatre about a magnetic character diminished by age and illness.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 20 May 2003

Hair (The Musical), Her Majesty's, May 20, 2003

Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado   
Music by Galt  MacDermot
Her Majesty's Theatre, May 20  until July, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 20, 2003

David Atkins'  production of Hair, the 60s musical, is peppy and jam-packed with effervescent youthfulness. It is, however, a very squeaky clean version of the hippies of that drug taking, promiscuous, militant decade.

 The first half is the stronger although there is little narrative. The second stalls with a series of LSD hallucinations unlike any old hippy ever experienced.

The show is an excuse for plenty of lively choreography, (Jason Coleman) a vivid design (Eamon D'Arcy) and retro costumes. (Laurel Frank). Essentially, it is an excuse for a bunch of memorable songs played by a fine nine-piece rock band. Hair boasts Aquarius,  Donna , Frank Mills,  Good Morning Starshine,  Let the Sun Shine In  and the title tune, Hair.

Some songs were controversial in the 60s but  are pretty tame in the naughty noughts. Sodomy,  is a sung list of sexual practices that probably shocked middle America forty years ago but an eighty-year-old couple beside me did not flinch. Hashish  similarly, is a list of recreational drugs that has changed little apart from the omission of Ecstasy  and Crack.

Atkins includes updated references. Including an anti-war placards saying No HoWARd. Mitchell Butel's bogus audience member is an Aussie mum  not a New Yorker.  The play is known as an anti-war piece. This is not detectable until a moving moment at the very end when Claude  (Kane Alexander) enlists, dons a uniform and comes home in a body bag.

The Tribe  of Hippies is like Ferals  of our decade. Every generation thinks it started the revolution. The Tribe lives as outsiders, abusing drugs, big business and government, defying their parents, avoiding work and hating war.

Several characters are central to the loose narrative. Sassy Matt Hetherington,  plays Berger,  the apparent leader while the confused Claude is played charmingly by Alexander. Tamsin Carroll,  plays Sheila,  the political radical of the Tribe, great strength both in voice and character while Butel  is hilarious as the high camp Woof.

A highlight is Patrick Williams  as Hud  the African-American.  His voice is rich and his presence compelling - even in a sequined gown during Black Boys. Dead End, which he sings with the black cast members, is a terrific, funky blues.

At the close, we are left with the poignant message that naïve, young men died in Vietnam. Given our current place in the world order this show is timely.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 16 May 2003

Waiting by Dina Ross, May 16, 2003

Waiting  by Dina Ross  
fortyfivedownstairs, May 16 to June 1, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 16

Waiting, written by Dina Ross and directed by Greg Carroll, comprises three short monologues about three different women in Melbourne.

Petra Schulenberg.  plays all three characters. The monologues are not connected, each being a discrete snatch of one woman's life. They are character sketches rather than short plays because they have less theatrical action or dramatic tension than a play.

In Maybe Bach,  Schulenberg is Andrea,  a 36 year old woman desperate for love, waiting in a Carlton café for the arrival of a blind date from the personals column. Andrea shifts between passionate and romantic fantasies about love and lust, music and novels until she finally  reaches the grim realisation that the man is not coming.

MRI  sees Fran,  a younger woman, in a hospital gown dealing with the terror of neurological tests and a potentially fatal prognosis. Intercut with her own trauma is that of her Jewish grandmother in Dachau.  

Both Andrea and the grandmother are interesting but the link between the two threads is not quite resolved in this story. The flashbacks to grandmother are repetitive and do not move Fran's story forward.

The final monologue, Boo Boo Be Do,  is entertaining. Schulenberg plays Courtney,  a Marilyn Monroe  look alike complete with Marilyn's sexy, white pleated dress and platinum wig.

Courtney whispers, pouts and wiggles her bottom at us in order to win a look alike contest. We are part of their inner world and part of Courtney's audience. The staging is sometimes awkward and the placement of the other contestants is unclear.

There is potential for this last to be a poignant piece. It could delve deeper into the degradation of being an out of work actor, failures in her personal life and losing the look alike competition.

 Schulenberg gives a strong performance in all three roles although there are moments when she looks uncomfortable in Maybe Bach and Boo Boo Be Do.

Some of the script feels more like prose than theatre but they are interesting if not compelling.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 15 May 2003

Twelfth Night, Chambers TC, May 15, 2003

Twelfth Night  by William Shakespeare  Chambers Theatre Company  
 Theatreworks, May 15  to June 1, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 15

William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night  is a comedy with a dark edge. It incorporates all the tasty elements of Shakespearean comedy.

There is confused identity, pretty twins, cross-dressing, unrequited love, a naughty drunk, (Joe Clements) a witless aristocrat, (Phil Roberts) a sour servant, (Geoff Wallis) and a wise fool. (David Adamson)

This play invariably works at its best when the darkness and irreverence are highlighted. Alex Pinder,  director of this Chambers Theatre production, allows the grimness to surface only occasionally and more particularly, in the later scenes.
 He focuses more on the comic and romantic elements in the first half.

Shakespeare's jester,  Feste,  (Adamson) is witty and often vicious. Much of his cynical commentary is in verse, riddles and songs. Pinder keeps Feste on stage as a silent, objective observer of the shenanigans of the other characters. This works in part but leaves Feste with little to do but sit and watch much of the time.

The stage is almost bare. The cast, when off stage, remains seated on the sidelines, reminding us that they are actors and this is a play.

There are several fine performances. Julia Zemiro  gives an intelligent, detailed, truthful and witty interpretation of Olivia,  the grief-stricken lady of the house. When Olivia falls in love with her female servant, Viola/Cesario,  (Kate Doherty) her transformation is completely believable.

As Malvolio  the sneering supercilious servant to Olivia, Geoff Wallis almost steals the show. His comic timing is impeccable. He colours the character with detail and plays it for truth giving Malvolio both depth and enormous comic value.

Joe Clements  and Phil Roberts  make a good comic duo as the inebriated Sir Toby Belch  and his hapless sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Arabella Davison  plays Maria as worldly and witty. Paul Canlan  is stately and credible as the lovelorn Count Orsino  and Jeremiah Tickell  is charming as Sebastian.

The music is an asset. The a cappella songs from Adamson and the cast are a delight. The final song provides some polish to the final rather lack lustre scene. This is an entertaining production with some excellent individual performances.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 9 May 2003

The War Against Short Trousers, May 9, 2003

 The War Against Short Trousers  by Lisa Dethridge  
Where and When: Chapel off Chapel, May 9 to June 1, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Playwright, Lisa Dethridge, worked as an analyst for NASA  and the United Nations.  In a response to working on such weighty analysis she wrote this political satire about the world order.

The War Against Short Trousers, directed by Kaarin Fairfax,  parodies corporate power, western governments and their corrupt leaders. Coming in for particularly virulent criticism is George Bush and the USA. Close behind come England, Australia and the Middle East.

Despite its concerns with world issues, the play is not a drama. It is a broad comedy with cartoon-like characters and a superficial commentary on issues of globalisation, invasion, alliances and covert operations. The style is reminiscent of the 1960s Agit Prop  (Agitational Propaganda) political theatre in England. Its message is blunt and its form is intended to communicate to the broader community without any depth.

The story reflects the Middle East war and America's role as Big Brother and Australia's as Little Brother. A major world power resembling USA, is led by The Chairman  (Tom Stringer) who is a dead ringer in behaviour for George Bush. The Chairman appears to represent Her Royal Majesty, The Queen  (Chris Bunworth) but is in fact using her in his plot to control the world.

In an outlying island state called, rather too obviously, Kickembutt,  a bumbling big baby of a leader bears a striking resemblance to John Howard. The action is rapid, deals are made, lovers lost, wars started during an eighty minutes romp. The script is thin and old-fashioned in style with many predictable, even adolescent jokes peppered with some clever satire.

There are some strong performances particularly from David Lennie  as the John Howard look-alike, Murray McMurray. His impersonation and timing are impeccable. Kat Stewart  as his ethical daughter, Kelly  is lively and makes the most of the style. Boc  and Choi  (Tarn Vu, Penelope Bartlau) provide some entertaining moments as a duo of islanders.

The show is light, warmly received and a bit of fun. The staging is rough and the cast too big for comfort but it takes the mickey out of our world leaders. What more can we ask?

By Kate Herbert

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, REd Stitch, May 9, 2003

 Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train 
By Stephen Adly Guirgis  Red Stitch Actors' Theatre
Where and When: Rear Chapel St Prahran, May 9 to June 1, 2003 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There are three exceptional elements in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train: Kenneth Ransom's, Peter Evans' direction and Stephen Adly Guirgis' script.

Ransom plays Lucius,  a genuinely likeable and charming serial killer and psychopath who awaits extradition from a New York jail to Florida where he will be executed.

After killing eight people because they forced him to see the sun, he discovered Jesus. Lucius is alone in a twenty-three hour lock down security area of the jail until the hapless accidental young killer, Angel,  (Vince Miller) arrives in an adjoining cell.

Ransom plays Lucius's religious mania, warmth and charm with relish. He inhabits the role seamlessly, his timing is impeccable and his characterisation flawless.

Peter Evans directs this gritty piece with great sensitivity. He maintains a swift pace but allows the dense dialogue to remain clear. Evans uses to advantage the tiny space at Red Stitch's new premises. Christine Smith's  design creates two claustrophobic cells with lines of yellow paint and Dans Sheehan's  lighting design adds to the murky gloom. Guirgis is an actor writer and director with LAByrinth  Theater  in New York.

This award winning script challenges issues about the value of life, justice and the law, preconceptions about killers and the underclass in America. His language is complex and intense but there is no blurriness in his message nor in the development of his characters. It is a passionate and important piece of writing.

Kate Cole  is sympathetic and believable as Mary Jane,  Angel's jaded lawyer who rediscovers her vocation in defending Angel. Richard Cawthorne  and Dion Mills  play the two prison guards. Cawthorne gives Valdez  a violent, inhumane edge that is diametrically opposed to the humanity of Mills' character.

The play is structured around the two inmates. Slowly, Guirgis unfolds their stories through their solo scenes, monologues by Mary Jane or the Guard, their scenes with guards or lawyer and finally with each other. The power of Lucius's personality is the core of the play and Ransom makes a feast of it.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 8 May 2003

The Paragon, Sidetrack, May 8, 2003

By Adam Hatzimanolis

 Sidetrack Performing Group  for Theatre in the Box
 Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre,  May 8 to 18, 2003
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Theatre in the Box at The Black Box is an initiative of the Victorian Arts Centre designed to present culturally diverse, innovative contemporary Australian theatre.

The brief is that the program will include work that would not normally be seen at the Arts Centre but that it will challenge the boundaries of contemporary theatrical form.

The Paragon is interesting as a story-telling exercise by Sydney-based writer-actor, Adam Hatzimanolis. However, it is by no means innovative or challenging in its themes or form. This is surprising from Sidetrack Performing Group which has, since the 1980s, been a company that experiments with form.

Director, Don Mamouney,  creates some short, evocative physical transitions between Hatzimanolis's personal stories. Mamouney creates a strangely fascinating dehumanised opening scene with a printer on stage spewing out pages of Hatzimanolis book from a laptop to the sound of an interviewer's voiceover.

The problem is that Hatzimanolis writing style is predominantly narrative and the structure of the writing is unwieldy. Hatzimanolis tells rather rambling, poorly structured tales of his family and professional life. They are not connected apart from being from his life.

There is potential here for identification theatre for a particular audience. His childhood in a Woolongong fish and chip shop with his Greek parents will be familiar to many. Snippets are memorable. As a child, he struggles to tie his shoelaces and to understand the death of his Uncle.

 He causes a fire in the dad's chip shop then is ripped off by a dodgy mechanic who is restoring his EJ Holden. Even his fantasies about Nicloe Kidman being in his stars will be recognised by some.

Hatzimanolis plays dialogue between characters but there is minimal transformation into or inhabiting of these characters. There is no form to the stories and his casual presentational style and lack of eye contact with us is often unengaging.

 The story teller needs to find a form of presentation that engages and challenges an audience whether by exceptional writing, incredible stories or extraordinary form and style.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 7 May 2003

Claustrophobia by Barry Dickins , May 7, 2003

What: Claustrophobia  by Barry Dickins  
Where and When:  La Mama, May 7 to 25, 2003 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Barry Dickins, in Claustrophobia, writes a backhanded look at deaths in custody. It is not what we expect.

John White  (John Francis Howard)  is country cop in the Wimmera.  At the start of the play, we presume that he is the jailer of Bob Black,  (LeRoy Parsons) an aboriginal man who sleeps in the corner of the cell.

White is resentful, menacing and we fear he may be a danger to the sleeping Black. What transpires is that both a inmates in this gloomy country jail but Black is in for a harmless unpaid car registration while White is the one at risk of hanging.

White is frenetic, overcome with fear and claustrophobia and about to be lynched by a mob for drunkenly strangling his wife.

Dickins slowly unfolds their story. Not only are they cellmates they share memories of their childhood friendship.

Black is a cheerful positive and easy-going man - a good foil for White's surly misanthropic attitude.

Dickins resists writing for laughs although the script is still funny. James Clayden's direction seems to miss Dickins' irony on occasion because he often has the actors play the dialogue for truth.

Clayden's pacing of the play does not highlight the richness and balance of humour and poignancy in Dickins' writing.

Parsons is charming s Black, bringing a brightness and openness to the character and the play. There are moments when he is nto quite connected to the style of Dickins' writing but he carries the role successfully.

John F. Howard plays White with an appropriate sense of restrained menace. He seems always on the edge of exploding and we cannot predict whether he is a danger to himself or Black.

The actors are trapped behind a fence of horizontal wire strung across the tiny space at La Mama. The sense of claustrophobia is potent in this production.

Dickins' unusual ironic angle on the topic may not challenge the politics of deaths in custody but it is an interesting piece of theatre.

By Kate Herbert