Tuesday, 30 August 2005

Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas, Aug 30, 2005

Under Milkwood  by Dylan Thomas  
 by McPherson Ink
Atheneaum Theatre 1, Aug 30 to  Sept 3, 2005
Colac, Moonee Ponds, Geelong, Werribee, Horsham, Hamilton, Sale, Frankston until Sept 29, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 30, 2005

The cobbled lanes and entire eccentric population of the fictional Welsh coastal village of Llareggub burst into life in this production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood.

Thomas called it a "play for voices" and it is impossible to do justice to his lush, vivid, lilting poetic language on this page.

Four actors (Daniel Craig, Beverley Dunn, Dion Mills, Charmaine Gorman), directed by Don Mackay, inhabit the countless bawdy, loving, yearning, petulant and gossiping characters in this ninety minute version of the play.

Thomas lived part of his beer-soaked life as a poet in the Welsh village of Laugharne and one can imagine him jotting down his observations of the townsfolk in the pub and on the streets over the years to form the final script of Under Milkwood.

It is a rich, inspired and irreverent view of the passions and yearnings, loves and losses, venomous hatred and long-held rivalries, all heard on one spring day in Llareggub.

The actors share the three narrator voices that paint the landscape and characters of Llareggub. (Spell it backward) Each actor also plays numerous characters with his or her own distinctive style and great conviction and relish.

The narrators allow us to see the village but it is blind old seafaring Captain Cat (Craig) who allows us to hear it through his hypersensitive ears.

The actors transform from one character to another with a swift shift in body and voice and the addition of a scarf, a hat or jacket.

Although Thomas' called it a play for voices and the creamy Welsh accents and lyrical language are definitely the focus, the script lends itself generously to the embodiment of its unique characters.

There is a delicate balance of loving and despising in Under Milkwood.

Mog Edwards, draper, (Mills) writes soulful love letters to his loved one, Myfanwy Price (Gorman), dressmaker and candy shop keeper. Mrs. Cherry Owen (Gorman), adores her loving husband Mr. Owen, (Mills) even when he reels drunkenly from the pub.

Innkeeper, Sinbad Sailors, (Mills) pines for his unrequited love, pretty Gossamer Beynon (Gorman) and promiscuous Polly Garter (Gorman) sings a wrenching song about her long dead lover, Wee Willy. Even Captain Cat weeps for his dead Rosie Probert.

The harsher underbelly of Llareggub is seen in schoolmaster, Mr. Pugh (Mills) who secretly plans the poisoning death of his nasty wife. (Dunn) while Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Dunn) still controls her two dead husbands from her dreamy sleep.

Under Milkwood is a unique and complex language play, passionate, raucous, raunchy and profoundly moving and funny.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 25 August 2005

Stuff Happens by David Hare, Aug 25, 2005

Stuff Happens by David Hare  
 Company B, Belvoir
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from Aug 25, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 25, 2005

David Hare's play, Stuff Happens, is like a documentary-drama about George W. Bush's regime and the decision by the US to invasion of Iraq.

The result is harsh criticism and biting political satire directed at every member of the current United States government and English Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

This production, directed by Neil Armfield for Company B Belvoir, Sydney, boasts an exceptional cast of sixteen actors not often seen on stage in Melbourne.

The stage is starkly designed with a wall of huge, distressed steel girders upstage.

The characters sit and stand around a huge conference table, at times looking like characters at the Last Supper.

As the political events unfold preceding the March 2003 strike on Iraq, scenes move swiftly.

Hare takes verbatim speeches or snatches of dialogue from Bush, (Greg Stone) Cheney, (Russsell Kiefel) Rumsfeld, (Russell Dykstra) Powell (Wayne Blair) and Blair (Rhyss Muldoon) and inter-cuts them with dramatisations of crucial conversations that were never made public.

Between scenes, characters swarm across the stage, swinging the huge table to a new position or forming tableaux of meetings we know occurred but of which we have little intelligence.

This alien world of power and violent decision making in the White House, Downing Street or the United Nations headquarters, is somehow represented as a cartoon. The characters are like satirical rubbery figures mouthing platitudes. Each actor almost impersonates these political characters.

The terrifying thing is that these cartoon men - and Condoleeza Rice (Leah Purcell)  - are real decision- makers for our world.

The vengeful, self-centred and ill-informed actions of the Bush government seem to be made by a boys club of ignorant but single-minded people.

Tony Blair is represented as trying to maintain international law and a philanthropic view of the rest of the world. He sees himself saving people from tyranny. Bush and his cronies want to blow Iraq into the Stone Age as retaliation for September 11.

The rapidity and idiocy of the decisions made leave one gasping when seen compressed into three hours.

The play is didactic, arguing a particular political point and representing the  decisions by the US and England as hasty , ill-considered and dangerous.

Greg Stone plays Bush with a cunning, boyish stubbornness. As his cohort of bully-boys is superb. Wayne Blair shows the invidious position of Colin Powell  and Muldoon, as Tony Blair, displays the hope and eventual panic of the British PM.

Stuff happens not an easy night in the theatre but it is a challenging and educational one.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Sunset Boulevard, The Production Company, Aug 17, 2005

 Sunset Boulevard 
Music by Andrew Lloyd  Webber  Lyrics and Book  Don Black and Christopher Hampton 
The Production Company
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, August 17 to 20, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 17, 2005

The spectacle of the luxurious mansion and glittering lights of Hollywood may be missing from this concert production of Sunset Boulevard, but the harsh view of the self-centred wannabees is present.

Director, Wayne Harrison, focuses successfully on Lloyd Webber's music, the voices and the relationships between these profoundly self-centred characters.

Judi Connelli's big cabaret voice fills the State Theatre with the overwhelming and controlling personality of the faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond.

When she sings Surrender, we believe Norma will never surrender her claim to fame and adulation. During With One Look we see vividly Norma's obsession with her own silent movie image.

Joe Gillis, the dashing, down-at-heel screenwriter and gigolo played by David Campbell, is acquisitive and almost as manipulative as Norma herself. His voice is true and resonant and he makes Joe's cynicism palpable in a stirring rendition of the title song, Sunset Boulevard.

"Now I have suits and she has hope, " he sings. The story and lyrics are relentlessly critical of the Hollywood culture of the 1940s.

Roger Howell's magnificent, rich baritone and still presence bring great dignity to the role of Max Von Mayerling, Norma's devoted butler, minder and ex-husband. He sings with warmth and passion, The Greatest Star of All and New Ways To  Dream.

Chelsea Plumley brings a cheeky quality and bright voice to the ingenue, Betty Schaefer, Joe's love interest and an aspiring writer.

The chorus provides a fine supporting cast of wannabee writers, actors, singers and producers. Their rousing opening number, Let's Have Lunch, and The Perfect Year, both capture the quality of Billy Wilder's unpleasant Hollywood.

Harrison keeps the action moving swiftly and a simple design of three movable screen by Richard Jeziorny provide a sense of location. The car chase with miniature cars was a very entertaining addition.

The orchestra, conducted by Peter Casey, provides the foundation for the production with a strong and rich quality of sound.

Sunset Boulevard is an expansive and cynical story that is well-served by Lloyd Webber's powerful music and by the intelligent and witty lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black.

It makes one crave a full production of the show again.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 10 August 2005

Cheech by Francois Letourneau, MT, Aug 10, 2005

Cheech by Francois Letourneau
Translated  by Rick Des Rochers  
Melbourne Theatre Company
 Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Aug 8 to September 24, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Cheech, a play by contemporary Canadian writer, Francois Letourneau, is often funny, generally outrageous, riddled with inner urban angst and fast dialogue.  Be prepared for male and female nudity, coarse language and some violence.

The performances and direction (Gordon McCall) are broad and colourful but the play and its young, desperate, out of control characters, leave one feeling unsatisfied.

The story centres on the thriving and overt sex industry in Montreal.

Ron (Aaron Blabey) runs an escort service. On this day, the Chrysler convention is in town and Ron must win this lucrative group booking by impressing the boss with a photo portfolio of sex kittens. Cheech is his unseen arch rival.

Letourneau uses a non-linear but narrative based structure. The play is set during a single day but does not run chronologically. Scenes are short, like ad breaks, and are revisited out of order.  A digital time clock alerts us to the actual time of day.

Canadian director, McCall, keeps the pace rapid and stages the play on two levels of a vivid, metropolitan environment. (Shaun Gurton)

Aaron Blabey makes the volatile and despairing Ron credible and funny. His depiction of Ron's secret anger management exercises is hilarious.

Ron's sidekick, Maxime, (Kenneth Spiteri) takes photos of the perky but secretive escort, Jenny. (Miria Kostiuk) Max gets himself into unexpected hot water when he takes the girlie pics to the pharmacy to be printed.

Max is preoccupied with Stephanie, (Kate Kendall) a suicidal prostitute who slits her wrist while on a professional call to the apartment of the socially awkward Olivier (Daniel Frederiksen).

Meanwhile, upstairs, Alexis (Jason Raftopoulos) obsessively awaits a call from a girl

The absurdities and tragedies of all five characters converge in one final anti-climactic scene.

Characters are bound to modern technology: mobile phones, voicemail, voice recorders, ghetto blasters and cameras.

They are all psychologically dysfunctional: Sophie uses anti-depressants, Ron a self help pop psychology, Stephanie attempts suicide, Alexis wills his phone to ring and Sophie masks her identity.

The play is entertaining, rapid-fire, contemporary in characters and content but strangely emotionally alienating.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Measure for Measure, Bell Shakespeare, Aug 9, 2005

 Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare   
Bell Shakespeare
 Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, August 9 to 2, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

John Bell's production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a theatrical delight that is successful on every level.

It boasts an accomplished cast, intelligent and compelling direction, imaginative design and makes the Elizabethan dialogue and concepts crystal clear to the modern ear.

It is known as a "problem play" but is also called a tragicomedy because, although it is a comedy with broad, bawdy content and a happy and romantic outcome, it deals with serious issues.

Written in 1604 during the reign of James 1, it debates the issues of morality, justice, hypocrisy and self-sacrifice

The Duke of Vienna, (Sean O'Shea) departs his decadent city, leaving it under the iron-fisted rule of his conservative deputy, Angelo. (Christopher Stollery).

The Duke avoids his responsibilities by departing Vienna but secretly observes the outcome of his experiment by disguising himself as a Friar.

What transpires is that the rigid and puritanical Angelo adheres to the letter of the law against fornication by condemning to death young Claudio (Timothy Walter) for making pregnant his fiancee, Juliet. (Michelle Doake).

Claudio's devout sister, Isabella, (Tamsin Carroll) a nun, is asked by Claudio's raffish friend, Lucio, (Matthew Moore) to petition Angelo for Claudio's pardon.

Instead, the frozen heart of Angelo heats with lusts for Isabella and he promises to spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him.

The play requires intense concentration to comprehend the complex arguments presented by all parties to support their respective positions.

Isabella's suit to Angelo is long and imaginatively argued. Angelo's subsequent argument is equally compelling.

The Duke, still in disguise, convinces his loyal Councillor, Escalus, (Robert Alexander) to stay Claudio's execution. The Duke then manipulates everyone in the final scene in which he reveals his identity and exposes Angelo's dirty deeds.

The lusty, degenerate Vienna is vividly depicted in the bawdy scenes opening the play and the second half. Robert Kemp's design, blending classical architecture and modern clutter, is evocative.

O'Shea is compelling as the reticent Duke who grows into his authority. Stollery is commanding as Angelo and Alexander a sensitive Escalus.

Moore makes charming the rogue, Lucio, and  Darren Gilshenan is hilariously credible as the cheeky pimp, Pompey. Carroll's composure and grace as Isabella make her rivetting.

This is an exciting and delightful production of a play that deserves more attention in the modern repertoire.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 2 August 2005

Construction of the Human Heart by Ross Mueller, Aug 2, 2005

 Construction of the Human Heart by Ross Mueller
 Store Room,  August  2 to 21, 2005
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 2, 2005

Construction of the Human Heart, by Ross Mueller, employs an inventive form to tell the story of a marriage in tatters.

The Man (Todd MacDonald) and Woman (Fiona MacLeod), seated in an empty space, read their lines from what appears to be a rehearsal script, complete with bulldog clip, dog-eared pages and highlighted dialogue.

Initially, we wonder whether this is a play reading rather than a production. Slowly we realise that the actors and characters, the script and reality are blending and splitting, bleeding into each other to create a complex dual reality.

A voice over provides scene settings and stage directions, forcing us out of the story and back into the construction of a play.

The characters' story is that both husband and wife are writers. She is the more successful. His career is at a standstill as he awaits a big break into television writing.

He compares her to a combination of Elle McPherson and Stephen Hawking: brains and beauty. She, unflatteringly, says he is the lovechild of Elvis Costello and Elvis Presley: a backhanded compliment.

But what lies at the heart of their dysfunction is the haunting presence of their dead child. Each recounts memories of the child. The woman remembers driving past a cemetery where her mother was buried. The man remembers reading the child's favourite book, Where the Wild Things Are.

Mueller uses the reading of the dialogue as a metaphor of a couple caught in the replay of the "script' of their relationship to highlight their alienation from each other. It emphasises the mechanical, unemotional layer that is superimposed upon their grief and loss.

As the play advances, the scripts are tossed - literally - and the pair struggles to communicate as their marriage disintegrates.

MacDonald is passionate and moving as the distraught husband. As his wife, MacLeod effectively portrays a woman with a cool surface masking her profound underlying pain.

Director, Brett Adam, keeps the staging simple and focuses on the relationship and the form of Mueller's play. We are constantly confronted with the fact that we are watching actors but we are simultaneously drawn into the trauma of the characters.

Construction of the Human Heart is a fascinating study in form and style that works on most levels.

By Kate Herbert