Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Mama Africa, March 22, 2006

 Memories of the Struggle  
by Mama Africa Theatre Company (South Africa)
Commonwealth Games Arts Festival
Federation Square and Central Lawn, Alexander Gardens, until March 26, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 22, 2006

The teenagers in Mama Africa Theatre Company from South Africa, come from Kliptown and disadvantaged circumstances. Their show is a celebration of their youth, their energy and their commitment to use their talents to tell stories about the painful struggle of Africa.

The show is a mixture of song, dance, character and ingenious but simple design.
With hand-held signs, they set the time and place of various moments in the African struggle.

At the opening, a young girl calls, “I’ve lost my youth! I’ve lost my innocence!” Their song, Where are the Flowers, is a lament about lost joy, lost land and – yes - lost innocence.

These young people are passionate and delightful. Their dancing and singing has a wild and joyous edge and their characters are charming and funny as well as evoking more the more difficult times of the past in Africa.

The group performs under difficult circumstances without any microphones in an outdoor location. This means that some of their dialogue is inaudible but their vitality and their message gets through nonetheless.

By Kate Herbert

East by Steven Berkoff, March 22, 2006

East by Steven Berkoff
La Mama at Courthouse Theatre, Wed to Sun 8pm until March 22 to April 1, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 22, 2006

Steven Berkoff once said that, when actors read an early script of East, its graphic language shocked them and this prompted him to rewrite it into verse.

It is the collision of the verse form and Elizabethan language with the East End cockney dialect, songs and characters that makes this play so potent.

Any production of a Berkoff play suffers comparisons with Berkoff’s own idiosyncratic performance style. The script itself demands heightened characters, a broad physical style, a capacity to deliver verse and vocal acrobatics. East demands enormous versatility from an actor.

John Bolton certainly directs this production with great imagination and an emphasis on grotesque characterisation. The direction is sleek and the frequent segues between scenes are seamless.

Each of the cast, all recent graduates from VCA School of Drama, is energetic and creative in his or her character interpretation. However, some roles cry out for an older actor, particularly that of the father.

Andre Jewson is a capable actor whose strengths are evident but his youth reduces the impact of Dad’s raving outbursts.

The two Bovver Boys, Mike (James Ballarin) and Les (James Re), are the pivotal roles and set the tone for the entire play. It is their violent and sexual antics that are the focus of the action.

Ballarin and Re capture the physicality of the Bovver Boys and perform with great vigour.

Sarah-Jane St. Clair, as Sylv, the closest target of their misguided sexual aggression, embodies her sultry, provocative and street-wise nature.

Simon Morrison-Baldwin plays Mum in drag with appropriate resignation to her lot. If the role is not to be played as a jaded middle-aged woman, a young man in drag is probably a good choice.

The play is not a linear narrative but rather, the characters self-narrate episodes in their lives in East End of London. Their dialogues, monologues and ensemble scenes highlight the embedded violence, prejudice and desperation of their daily interactions.

The characters are grotesque as is Berkoff’s language. The audience is confronted by sexually explicit language and ferociously lurid and sickeningly violent imagery.

What remains at the end of the play is a sense of the pointlessness and tragedy of these wasted lives. There is little or no love in the family life. There is a joylessness in the sexual relationships and deep-seated anger and frustration in the violence.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

The Wave by Ellis & Bheki (South Africa), March 21, 2006

The Wave by Ellis and Bheki (South Africa)
 Commonwealth Games Arts Festival

Fed Square Amphitheatre and Alexander Gardens Palm Stage until March 23, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 21, 2006

Ellis and Bheki, from South Africa, perform The Wave outdoors in the enclosed space of the Fed Square Amphitheatre. It is an intimate story-telling show so they invite the audience to sit close on the ground around their performance arena.

They wear microphones so we can hear their lyrical stories stimulated by the Asian Tsunami.

The pair shifts between telling the story as themselves and from the perspective of two elephants sent to clean up the aftermath of the wave.

Their physical portrayal of the elephants is inspired and stylised. They move as if in a dance, the lumbering elephants transformed into graceful movers, trumpeting with huge horns and howling when injured.

As they search for human bodies, one (Ellis) finds his mahoot, the man who tended his injured leg after he was captured by hunters then trained him as a tourist ride.

The other elephant (Bheki) tells how he was hunted and transported to the Singapore zoo from Africa and how, in his anger, he killed a keeper. He, too, was rescued and now helps in the clean up after the Tsunami.

There is pain and anguish in the elephants’ tales but the show is compelling for small children and adults alike, some of whom participate in the story.

By Kate Herbert

Strawberry by Fraser Hooper, March 21, 2006

Strawberry by Fraser Hooper (England)
Commonwealth Games Arts Festival
Fed Square Amphitheatre and Alexander Gardens Palm Stage until March 26, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 21, 2006

Fraser Hooper’s character, Strawberry, is an engaging and gentle clown that appeals to children and adults alike.

Strawberry works on the ground, at the level of the children, not on the stage. His entire show incorporates members of the audience, mostly children. He manages to work the audience without using any words, giving instructions to an entire crowd with a whistle and plenty of mimetic gestures.

The children who join him on stage are teased gently, given tasks such as holding and passing the juggling balls or setting up and playing the snare drum.

He gets mileage out of having several children hold up a pointed finger. With one, Strawberry pretends to pick his nose with the child’s finger. He uses another’s finger as a coat rack.

One child wears Strawberry’s coat and becomes a simple and ingenious coat puppet.

An adult pair plays clown badminton with Strawberry controlling the ball on a stick. A group of burly men engage in a tug of war with four tiny kids who win - with Strawberry’s assistance.

Strawberry is a subtle and charming clown for the whole family.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 20 March 2006

Heartstopping by Third World Bunfight (South Africa, March 20, 2006

Heartstopping by Third World Bunfight (South Africa)
Commonwealth Games Arts Festival
City Square March 16 to 20, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 20, 2006

If you missed Third World Bunfight you missed a treat. 

Their first show, the House of the Holy Afro, was  “highly stylised Afro-Kitsch” incorporating a DJ, a club poet, House rhythms and African sound and dance.

Their second show was an outdoor performance installation, set against the backdrop of Collins Street. The six performers, stood or squatted on a wall at the edge of the City Square, each behind a microphone.

All wore white body paint evoking images of the Japanese Butoh dancers. This performance is almost static. The three women were seated, perched on the wall under hand-held umbrellas. The three men stand behind them, playing percussion. They accompany snatches of opera and African song with stylised gesture and slow-motion movement.

It is almost a meditative state and the lunchtime city audience was mesmerised.

The singing was resonant of the plains of Africa with songs that bled one into the other, some with the tones of a lament, others with the passionate beat of Africa. Apart from the minimal percussion, the six voices sang a capella, filling the Square with unfamiliar, warm and welcome sounds.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 17 March 2006

Hello Again, March 17, 2006

 Hello Again 
Words and Music by Michael John LaChiusa by Halogen Productions
 Chapel off Chapel, Prahran, March 17 to April 1, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Hello Again, by American, Michael John laChiusa, is an exciting new musical with much to recommend it.

The concept and structure, comprising ten playlets, are based on Arthur Schnitzler’s groundbreaking 1900 play, Reigen, also called La Ronde. The same play served as a foundation for David Hare’s successful play, The Blue Room.

The show is designed like a circle dance in which ten characters meet as pairs in ten scenes about ten diverse sexual encounters. Each character plays one scene then moves on to a new partner.

Like Schnitzler and Hare’s plays, the focus is on sexual relationships between two people: seduction, passion, infidelity and unrequited love.

In Hello Again, unlike Hare and Schnitzler, the characters change decades as they change scenes so that all appear as two different versions of themselves in an anachronistic collision of realities. This change in era is initially confusing.

Everyone is seen in two relationships. Characters shift status, their power and sexuality taking on a different dynamic as they assume a new mask with another partner, in another reality, in another decade.

Shaun Kingma’s direction is intelligent and deceptively simple. A series of sheer white curtains create the changing architecture of each location. The presence and voices of other singers set up atmosphere and context in the background.

The ensemble is talented and each voice has a distinctive quality. A particular highlight was Monique Chanel Pitsikas as The Young Wife. She has a bright voice and compelling presence as she shifts from humour singing the hilarious duet, Some Other Life, with The College Boy (Chris Purcell) to poignancy when she languishes with her emotionally remote Husband (Barry Mitchell).

Jodie Harris is another rivetting performer playing the Nurse as both a naïve virgin and a deliciously sexy siren singing, In Some Other Life, with The College Boy.

David Spencer brings great dignity and regretfulness to The Senator singing, The Bed Was Not My Own, and Sophie Carter is suitably provocative and warm as The Whore.

The band, conducted by Greg Smith and hidden in the mezzanine above the stage, plays superbly ranging in style from sultry ballads through taut tango and raunchy jazz numbers amongst numerous other styles.

Hello Again is a delightful new musical.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 16 March 2006

From a Distance by Version 1.0, March 16, 2006

From a Distance by Version 1.0
 North Melbourne Town Hall, March 15 to 26, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 16, 2006

From a Distance by Sydney company, Version 1.0, has all the hallmarks of a devised production, many of which are effective and successful. However, the eclectic and sometimes scattered nature of a devised performance can interfere with the delivery of its core message.

Because there are so many voices, ideas and references focussed on the issue of what it means to be “un-Australian”, we witness a diffused series of vignettes that, although entertainingly presented, do not to make a strong or cohesive statement.

This is not to say that there are no moments of resonance, coherence or of theatrical interest. The production is engaging and the seven performers create a contemporary work with a movement base and a non-linear structure.

It does, however, look and feel a little dated, like a devised show from the 1980s.

The catalyst for the piece is the incident in the rowing final at the Athens Olympics during which Sally Rogers stopped rowing and collapsed in the boat prompting her team mates to threaten to throw her overboard.

The ensuing media feeding frenzy raises issues of being “un-Australian”. Who knows whether it was the team’s response or Rogers’ failure to complete the race that attracted this description and what, indeed, constitutes being “un-Australian”?

Version 1.0 incorporates verbal and visual extracts from the press about the rowing fiasco. We see the rowers’ uncomfortable press conference, a letter is read suggesting that the topic is in bad taste and we see projected images of news articles about other “un-Australian” events such as the treatment of refugees.

Also appearing on stage are activities that are considered unashamedly “Australian”: cooking on an electric barbecue, eating sausages in a roll with sauce, sipping beer or wine and ironing clothes. Are our  lives so banal?

Although sport is not portrayed directly on stage, repeated movement sequences make oblique reference to sports training and a woman works out on a rowing machine only to be repeatedly pushed off by a colleague. Dialogue from news articles and the press conference are reiterated.

The performers are capable and the show has amusing moments that become more threatening towards the final scenes.

Unlike the more ambitious Austral/Asian Post-Cartoon: Sport Edition by NYID in 1997, From a Distance is not a visceral, edgy and dangerous view of sports nor of the danger of prejudice and competition.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Still a Hero by Nicky Marr, March 8, 2006

Still a Hero by Nicky Marr

 La Mama, Carlton, March 8 to 26, 2006

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 8, 2006

Cross-cultural relationships have often been the stuff of dramatic narrative. Racial conflict, family disapproval, cultural and religious differences and plain, old prejudice can cause relationships to founder.

Nicky Marr’s play, Still a Hero, attempts to reflect the challenge faced by Sherman (Keith Brockett), a Chinese-Malaysian international trader, and Monica (Tamara Searle), an Australian photographer of Irish heritage.

Their initial physical attraction is not enough to sustain them through the confusing period of adjustment to their cultural and personal differences and the real or presumed prejudices of their family and friends.

The concept has dramatic potential but the production has mixed success.

Marr’s dialogue is peppered with platitudes and the characters and relationships remain two-dimensional.

Director, Kelly Somes, with Nicky Marr as choreographer, introduces some abstract physicalisation of the relationship, but these interludes do not interconnect with the very static dialogue scenes. The production employs two disconnected styles and might benefit from the styles being interwoven.

Brockett and Searle are more comfortable and engaging in the movement-based sequences in the play. They never genuinely connect with the rather awkward dialogue so their characters remain superficial.

There are some comical cameos by Tim Stitz as a surly Chinese waiter, Sherman’s profoundly prejudiced Aunty Mei and Monica’s gay friend, Steve. However, these caricatures seem out of sync with the rest of the play.

Projected photographic images and a collage wall provide some interesting design elements but these fail to enhance the show are not integrated sufficiently into the fabric of the production.

The narrative seems uncertain of its direction. The cultural issues become lost early and the relationship is not adequately developed for us to have sympathy with its failure. Monica doubts Sherman’s fidelity because he has failed to mention his dead wife and the focus shifts briefly and inappropriately to Steve’s collapsed gay affair with a married man.

 The climactic scene, in which Monica is trapped in their burning house only to be rescued by the heroic Sherman, is depicted in such abstract movement that its dramatic purpose is almost missed.

The production lacks cohesion and coherence and the script does not challenge the issues arising in mixed race relationships with sufficient rigour.

By Kate Herbert