Thursday, 26 August 2010

Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash ****

Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash 
By Fondazione Aida, Verona Italy
La Mama Courthouse, Aug 26 to Sept , 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Poetic abstraction is at the heart of Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash, a tribute to controversial, Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini on the 35th anniversary of his death. It is a visceral, theatrical production by Italian company, Fondazione Aida that is visiting Melbourne from Verona.

The piece, constructed around the rich, verbal landscape of Pasolini’s poetry, features the compelling acting of Lorenzo Bassotto and Monica Ceccardi. Bassotto is sturdy, grounded and a little scruffy, in stark contrast to Ceccardi who is small, fine-boned, but muscular. They are two anonymous, non-specific people who engage in passionate and intensely emotive relationships.

Their performance fills the empty space with Pasolini’s despairing and beautiful language, evocative black and white imagery from his films, eclectic music ranging from classical to Lou Reed, and the vigorous physicality of two bodies immersed in a primal struggle.

Fragments of text from four of Pasolini’s poems are used as a foundation for a loosely connected series of vignettes. Each investigates a particular compulsion, emotional struggle or obsession around themes of love, isolation, entrapment, darkness and light.

In one disturbing but riveting scene, the actors laugh like children at play while they violently attack one another in turn. In another, the woman is stuck and cannot move her feet so the man draws her a chalk path along which to travel. When she collapses dramatically to the floor, he draws a chalk line around her prone, lifeless body as if she were a murdered corpse.

The final projected film is footage of piles of fetid rubbish lining the streets during the 1970 street cleaners’ strike in Rome. Pasolini’s obsession with decay, death and filth is encapsulated in these images, in the clutter of crumpled newspaper on stage, and in the actors’ desperate efforts to scrub the floor clean.

Bassotto and Ceccardi employ a vivid, physical, theatrical language to portray the vitality of Pasolini’s poetic world.

Fondazione Aida is also performing Peter And The Wolf daily at 1pm and running Commedia del’Arte mask workshops on two weekends.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

She’s Not Performing **1/2

She’s Not Performing  
By Alison Mann
La Mama, Aug 25 to Sept 5, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

She’s Not Performing, by Alison Mann, has disturbing content about the emotional pain of a birth mother relinquishing a baby for adoption. However, the problems with the production are not related to content but to script, acting and staging. It all feels a little uncomfortable.

Margarite (Andrea Close) is a dysfunctional 42-year old suffering a profound sense of loss 25 years after giving up her baby girl. She is naïve, aggressive, unable to sustain relationships and tortured by self-loathing. Her feelings of worthlessness are so severe that she self-harms with razor blades. It is distressing and chilling to see her separate herself from the physical pain.

Margarite is not a likable character. It is difficult to sympathise with her crudeness, her brutal behaviour and her irrational pursuit of Annie (Rachel Purchase), a young lap-dancer who Margarite desperately wants to believe is her daughter.

Director, Kelly Somes, begins the show with Annie’s titillating sex club dance, but this initial physicality and visual dynamism disappears quickly. The script deteriorates into rather colourless realism with shallow dislikeable characters and flat, predictable dialogue.

The catwalk stage leaves little room for any on stage action. The actors look cramped and trip over the audience’s feet as they enter and exit. The most interesting part of the staging is the dancer silhouetted behind a full-length, sheer, red, upstage curtain. The aggressive sex scene between Margarite and her casual partner, Iain (Mike McEvoy), is suitably unpleasant and dangerous.

The acting is awkward, particularly from Close who has trouble finding the nuances to make the thin dialogue effective and the woman-child Margarite, credible. We remain strangely unmoved by the play and its emotional topic until perhaps the final confessional and honest moments of Margarite with her baby’s father (Christopher Bunworth).

There is a uncomfortable relationship drawn between women who relinquish babies and dangerous or inappropriately sexualised behaviour. I am sure the writer’s intention is to sympathise with the continuing plight of these women and the pain that they suffer, but the play seems to diminish the issues rather than to illuminate them.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 22 August 2010

West Side Story ***

West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Regent Theatre, Melbourne, from August 19, 2010 for six weeks only
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Opening night review Sunday August 22, 2010

The Jets and The Sharks in West Side Story may resemble the Labour and Liberal Parties, but their street battles involve more real bloodletting and actual bodily harm than those fought at the ballot box this weekend.

Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story broke the mould for musicals when those brawling street kids –the white Jets and Hispanic Sharks – burst on stage performing Robbins’ brutal, primitive choreography to Leonard Bernstein’s pounding, dramatic score. Arthur Laurents’ gritty narrative about gangs struggling for power is based on Shakespeare’s warring Capulet and Montague families, and Stephen Sondheim’s cunning and emotional lyrics illuminate the characters and story.

Joey McKneely directs this production, reproducing Robbins’ dynamic, athletic choreography with a highly trained, muscular chorus of dancer-singers. They effectively recreate the lusty street battles of the Prologue and The Rumble, and the sexy, latin moves in Dance at the Gym. The versatile band plays Bernstein’s astounding, energetic score that incorporates orchestral, latin and jazz styles.

The cast competes with our memories of the movie cast, but they delight and challenge us with their character interpretations. Tony (Josh Piterman) and Maria (Julie Goodwin), like Romeo and Juliet, are central to the violence that erupts between their respective cultural groups.

There is electricity between Piterman and Goodwin who sing the impassioned romantic duet, Tonight, and the beautiful, plaintive Somewhere. Piterman sings the tender ballad Maria, and Goodwin enjoys the girlish, playful I Feel Pretty.

Alinta Chidzey, as the feisty, vivacious Anita, sings the exuberant (I Want to Live In) America in the role made famous by Chita Riviera and Rita Moreno.

The aggressively chest-thrusting, macho gang members are played by Dan Hamill as Action, Rohan Browne as tough guy Riff, Nigel Turner-Carroll as Bernardo, Brendan Yeates as Diesel and Turanga Merito as Chino. The Jets are entertaining when singing the tricky lyrics of Gee Officer Krupke by wordsmith, Sondheim.

West Side Story is a musical masterpiece and this production revives some of its stirring, musical romance and passion, its choreographic vigour, its tragic, urban landscape and lives cut short by violence and racism.

West Side Story runs for a limited, six week season at the Regent Theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Twelfth Night **

Twelfth Night 
By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare Company
 Regional Arts Centres, then Playhouse from Sept 1 to 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a dark romantic-comedy. A subtle balance of darkness and comedy is essential to its success. Director, Lee Lewis, counterpoints tragedy with broad farce and makes several crucial errors in this production that throw out the balance.

Lewis starts the play in a non-theatrical way. Seven actors enter in silence and darkness, their torches adding eerie light to the huge, central mound of abandoned clothing and surrounding packing boxes.  They wander aimlessly, grubby and dejected, watching bushfires news footage. The only woman (Andrea Demetriades OK) weeps suddenly while the men look on helplessly. They are displaced fire victims arriving in a safe location.

An old man (Max Cullen) finds a book –Twelfth Night. They take turns reading snippets without inflection or characterisation. Suddenly, each begins “acting” as characters. The play begins and the bushfire theme is lost, apart from their costumes and piles of detritus.

Twelfth Night begins with Viola shipwrecked and rescued on the shore of Illyria, believing her twin brother, Sebastian (Adam Booth), drowned and mourning his loss. Disguising herself as a boy, Cesario, she becomes servant to suave Count Orsino (Elan Zavelsky (OK)) and falls in love with him. But must carry his love missives to Olivia (Kit Brookman) who falls in love with Cesario/Viola.

It is a play about mistaken identity, love, grief and redemption.  Lewis’ vision of fire victims performing the play works in theory, but the fire context is lost after 15 minutes. Despite one oblique reference, the notion of fire victims diverting themselves from their predicament is not reincorporated. Would it have made more sense to use a boat disaster or flood if altering the context of the play?

The show took off when Cullen, as Feste, Olivia’s Fool, sang St. James’ Infirmary and the audience applauded. There are some funny slapstick routines, especially when the naughty servants are hiding in the tree to trick puritanical Malvolio (Ben Wood) and Brent Hill is particularly entertaining as Maria.  

However, cross-gender casting muddies the characters; the dialogue lack clarity, being often shouted or too fast; the obtrusive pile of clothing pushes action away from the strongest, central stage position; and actors disappear when in front of its motley colours. It works best when they perform on it during the clown scenes.
This production has positive intentions but it ends up disrespecting fire victims, the play, the writer and the audience.

By Kate Herbert

The Boy From Oz ***

Todd McKenney stars as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz 
Songs by Peter Allen, book by Nick Enright, by Production Company
 State Theatre, until Aug 22, 2010 with return season in Jan 2011
Reviewed by Kate Herbert

IF you sing along or play your mime maracas to I Go to Rio on the radio, you'll love The Boy From Oz. 

And, if you are a fan, or even a foe, of Todd McKenney on Dancing With The Stars, you can toss roses (or something harder) at the stage as McKenney reprises his role as Australia's absurdly camp expatriate performer and songwriter Peter Allen.

This new concert version opened on Wednesday night and a mischievous McKenney gleefully prances, minces and shakes his maracas and sequined loud shirts, looking totally at home as Peter Allen, having successfully performed the role in the original, late `90s Aussie production. Hugh Jackman replaced him on Broadway.

The clever book, written by Nick Enright, depicts the light and shade of Allen's life. We see the child's budding showmanship, his rise to stardom, marriage to and divorce from Liza Minnelli, the death of his male partner and his father's suicide.

Veteran musical star Nancye Hayes provides taut and sensitive direction, weaving Andrew Hallsworth's vivacious choreography among the narrative.

 Musical director John Foreman leads a tight band in a repertoire featuring Allen's best loved tunes, including Quiet Please There's a Lady on Stage, Everything Old is New Again, Tenterfield Saddler, I Still Call Australia Home and a sassy, Latin, carnival-inspired version of I Go To Rio.

The inimitable Christen O'Leary, as Judy Garland, captures the tremulous, tottering star in her final days, singing All I Wanted Was The Dream. Fem Belling captures Liza Minnelli's spirit in Sure Thing Baby, a Bob Fosse-inspired Cabaret scene. David Harris, as Allen's partner, sings a heart-wrenchingly beautiful version of I Honestly Love You and Robyn Arthur is impassioned when singing Don't Cry Out Loud as Allen's supportive mum.

The chorus of dancer-singers, including a special trio of talented gals, is delectable.

McKenney is dynamic and versatile as Allen but he shares the lead with Allen's memorable songs. The Boy From Oz is one of a few Australian-born musicals to make it overseas and it is a suitable homage to Peter Allen's exceptional body of work and flamboyant personality.

The Boy From Oz runs at the State Theatre until August 22 and will return for another season in January.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Mary Poppins Article

Mary Poppins Strikes The Right Chord
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from July 29, 2010
Arts News article by Kate Herbert
Star rating: *****

What makes Mary Poppins so freakishly successful? Did the GFC depress us so badly that we are in such desperate need of magic in our lives? Is raising kids so tough now that, like the beleaguered Banks’ family, we crave someone like Mary Poppins who whips families into shape and solves domestic problems? We need a Super Nanny who, with a finger snap and “spit, spot, spick and span”, tidies the kitchen.

The children of the 60s, fans of the movie, are now taking their children to the musical. The show is the spoonful of sugar, the antidote for a world that faces wars, increasing violence, repression, self-centredness and greed. For three hours, anything is possible when Mary transports us into her cosy, enchanted world where rules make the world better, not worse.

Musical aficionados, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, and original songwriter, Richard Sherman, agree that our Melbourne production is the best, topping Broadway and London. As the new song says, it’s Practically Perfect. When I met them after the curtain call, song-writing duo Anthony Drewe and George Stiles looked dazed. At the after-party, Richard Sherman told me that the “creatives” cried for joy at the success of Melbourne’s production.

Perhaps its phenomenal success is also due to our exceptional Australian cast and the new star in the musical theatre firmament, Verity Hunt-Ballard. She is delectable as the mysterious, conceited and acerbic Mary and is “the triple threat” (sings, dances, acts). Her soprano is crystal clear; her character a perfect blend of prim, mischievous, pert and bossy; her comic timing is impeccable; and she maintains Mary’s poise and cheekiness while dancing complicated routines.

Our casting is ideal because Melbourne had an abundance of stars available whereas Broadway and West End productions competed against dozens of shows for their stars. Mackintosh said on Melbourne radio that our production is blessed with Australian leads that became stars in his shows. These include: Philip Quast (Javert in Les Miserables, Australia and London), Marina Prior (Phantom, Les Mis), Debra Byrne (Cats, Les Mis, Sunset Boulevard) and Judi Connelli (opera and musicals).

Mackintosh’s history of musical hits is another ingredient in the recipe for success. For Poppins, he wrested the stage rights from Australia’s own P.L. Travers then struck an unprecedented co-production deal with Disney executive, Tom Schumacher. He appointed Oscar-winning screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, to adapt Travers’ original stories into a cunningly wrought and coherent new script with interwoven narrative threads, charming characters, witty dialogue and moving stories.

Mackintosh engaged Drewe and Stiles to write new songs, including the singable Practically Perfect and Anything Can Happen. These fit seamlessly with the Shermans’ unforgettable classics: Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Let’s Go Fly A Kite and Jolly Holiday.

Director Richard Eyre creates a cohesive, rollicking whole. The transformational set transports us from the Banks’ staid, domestic home into Bert’s pastel painting of a technicolour park with dancing statues, or to visit eccentric characters in gelati-coloured costumes singing Supercalifagilistic.

During the Great Depression and World Wars, audiences sought escapist entertainment as a diversion from dire circumstances. Nothing has changed. When Mary literally flies over our heads, she allows us to leave the real world outside in the cold. Poppins not only has supercalifragilistic production values, but it strikes the right chord at the right time.

By Kate Herbert