Saturday, 3 June 2017

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Belvoir

Belvoir's latest is a tad unusual - a new American comedy adapted from one of pop-culture's most prevalent narratives - The Simpsons. While, yes, the show's a good 15 years past its prime, I'm one of a vast number of my age group who, back in the day, watched the first eight or so series in regular repeats and could and did recite gags from the series (indeed, my brother and I still will recite the Frogurt conversation from Treehouse of Horror III).

So this is a post-apocalyptic story about how narratives survive, mutate and survive - while also being, almost, a retrospective history of how theatre evolves. In the first act, we meet a set of people gathered around a fire, trying to remember the episode "Cape Feare" (notably, a Sideshow Bob episode, and one based on a film that is itself a remake). We're not told the full details of the disaster that's led them to this point, but references make clear that it's scary, dramatic and very real for these people, and that whatever escapism sharing the narrative can give them is desperately needed. In the second, five years later, these people have formed a small touring theatre company, now re-enacting the episodes with rudimentary props and costumes, trying to evoke for their audiences the world before the disaster. Of course, the world outside is still impinging, and some of the squabbles of the troupe will feel awfully familiar to anybody who's ever been part of an amateur theatre group (in particular the petty rivalries with other groups and the concerns about naturalism versus styalisation), and it's clear this is still not entirely a safe world, but the performers try their best. In the third, seventy-five years later, things have morphed and advanced to the point where the story has become something between a passion play and an opera, semi-ritualistic with a heroic narrative and hyperstyalised performances.

It's one of the most astounding things I've seen at Belvoir in quite some time - by no means is this a conventional narrative (none of the characters from acts one and two appear in act three, unless you count the "characters" being re-interpreted), I'd normally go through the cast and point out highlights, but this is such a ridiculously tight ensemble it feels impossible to pick people out - Esther Hannaford's heroic Bart in act three has true nobility to her, and Jude Henshall's director Colleen has all the exasperated energy of the character in act two, while Brent Hill's Matt holds as the centre of Act one as the primary character driving the memories, but really, everybody is exceptional.

Imra Savage pulls together a tight production that allows even the most ridiculous moment to have generous humanity to it. Jonathan Oxlade's design is exceptional, and in particular Act Three is the most glamorously excessive I've ever seen the Belvoir stage, while still having strong authenticity to it.

For something that could have been a trivial wacky diversion, this is a show with an awful lot of depths. Well worth catching up on.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A View From the Bridge, Canberra Rep

Arthur Miller's "View from the Bridge" is the only contemporary working-class drama of his major plays ("All My Sons" and "Death of A Salesman" are both closer to middle-class, "Crucible" isn't contemporary), and acts partially as a rebut to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's "On the Waterfront" - set in the same location, it argues that sometimes the legal system needs to be defied when it comes to things like immigration law in the face of genuine human need. It also presents a gripping home drama as the relationships within a Brooklyn home are stretched as two visitors expose fautlines.

In Chris Baldock's production, this is a story both about a family and a community and how the two interract. In the first act, the continuous prescence of a greek chorus of neighbourhood people seems almost intrusive on the domestic scenes inside the hosehold of Eddie Carbone. But it pays off greatly in the second act as Eddie's private transgressions face public consequences, as his community turns against him and as he seeks desperately to find his way back to reclaim his place in it. There's a cumulative power that pays off wonderfully by the end of this tense, tight piece.

Central, of course, to the tragedy is the Eddie Carbone. Knox Peden's making not only his Rep but also his Australian debut with this production, and it's a knockout performance, pugnacious, combative but with a longing soul at the middle of it that can't help but draw compassion even as it becomes increasingly obvious how wrong he's going. Karen Vickery is a 3 year Canberra veteran now (with, of course, a whole lot more behind her), and brings every inch of that skill to Beatrice, Eddie's wife and confidante, supportive but completely willing to call her husband on his bullshit when she knows he's wrong, powerless to stop him failing. Karina Hudson also makes her Canberra debut as the bubbly young Catherine, who is required to do a lot of growing up in a brief period of time as she finds love, meets betrayal and finds her confidence to stand up to Eddie. As the charming-but-possibly-mercenary Rudolpho, Alexander Clubb keeps you guessing as to his true motives - there's a surface charm and a sweet voice, but also that little bit of withholding that keeps things uncertain. Chris Zuber has a strong solid integrity that grows into brutal menace when he is betrayed.. David Bennett narrates in the one role I'm not entirely sure is utterly necessary - I've not seen a production where Alfieri's monologues feel integral to the play rather than imposed to underline themes that don't need underlining, and this isn't the one that changes my mind, but he's solid enough. Cameron Thomas and Benjamin Russell double both as Eddie's casual buddies and two menacing Immigration Officers, and present strong distinguishable characters in brief stagetime.

Baldock's set, realised by a team of 17 dedicated buillders, is impressive both in how it fills the stage (across the wide Rep stage but also through strong verticals) and how it allows tight focus on the small family drama while letting the bigger community elements come through. Helen Drum's costumes give a gritty period authenticity, Chris Ellyard's lighting design impresses both in giving focus to the different areas and to building the hellish intensity as the play winds to its inevitable conclusion. Jon Pearson's sound design gives a strong sense of place and mood.

This is intense, raw drama presented in top-notch condition. This is theatre that will draw you in and get the heart pumping. Go see it.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Avenue Q, Supa Productions, The Q.

This is a first para about my personal history with the show. So if you're looking to see if you should go watch this (spoiler: YES YOU SHOULD) or you're involved in the show and want to see if I've mentioned you by name (spoiler: PROBABLY IF YOU WERE ON STAGE OR INVOLVED IN DIRECTING. DESIGNING LIGHTING CHOREOGRAPHY MUSICAL DIRECTING OR SOUND, PROBABLY NOT OTHERWISE), skip onwards. Okay, for the rest of you - this is, weirdly enough, the fourth time I've seen this show. It's the first show I ever saw on Broadway (one of my facebook profiles is of me with the Bad Idea Bears - photo entirely does not capture me having original cast member Jennifer Barnhardt behind me working both bears), and it's probably the only show where I haven't at least been front-of-housing where I've ended up seeing it three times in a year (I saw the Australian professional tour twice, once in Melbourne and once in Canberra despite having slight issues with a few production decisions and performances, particularly in handling of puppets, largely due to Canberra being discounted and wanting to support top-level professional tours of shows that I like - I like amateur theatre a lot but I also like people being paid for their efforts cause you can't feed yourself on applause).

Anyway, point being, yes I know this show and like it lots. It's a refreshingly young-feeling show (the writing team were all making their debut, with Bobby Lopez starting his EGOT-claiming ways with his 2004 Tony for the score), taking the "Sesame Street for College Graduates" with both humour and a fair bit of sincerity - it's not just a puppet-filled gagfest, it's also about feeling lost in a big terrifying world (whether that world be New York City or anywhere else) of financial pressures, entangling relationships, and of course, casual racism.

And this production gets a young lively cast to go with it - some of them thirty-something theatre veterans, some making spectacular debuts. My very specific objection to the Australian professional run is that there is one golden commandment for this show - Thou Shalt Not Pull Focus From Thy Puppet (and there were a few too many cases where that took place in that production) - but this cast, despite being full of talents who in other circumstances absolutely should have focus, knows that we're here to see the puppets and gives them free rain. Nick Valois nails the gentle befuzzlement of Princeton, and Emma McCormack's Kate Monster gives us a rich range between sensitivity and rage. Dave Smith relishes the chance to have silly voices both as the gormlessly silly Nicky and as a distinctly deep-south Bad Idea Bear, and Joel Hutchings is distinctly stick-up-the-butt as the not-particularly-hiding-it-very-well-closeted-Republican Rod. Robert Stankov makes an utterly adorable debut as a gleeful Trekkie Monster, Josie Dunham brings every element of puppet-sex-appeal to Lucy T. Slut, Kate O'Sullivan brings wild energy to the other Bad Idea Bear, and Jo Burns is the best kind of Crabby Old Bitch as Mrs Thistletwat. As the token humans, Nina Wood is a delightfully dogmatic Christmas Eve, Riley Bell a loose and playful Brian (and in things I never knew I wanted to see on stage, Riley Bell Does Jazz Hands is now one of them), and Joanna Licuanan Francis has funk and attitude as Gary Coleman.

Jarrad West runs a tight production, keeping the show fresh and focussed. Elizabeth Alford's band is one of the strongest I've heard lately - there's not a bum note from the 6-member pit. Pierce Jackson's choreography has a delightful playful quality to it - there's nothing that looks particularly complex, but it's exactly the kind of thing the show needs - giving the cast movement that reflects the character of the show. Nick Valois and Chris Zuber's set is a nicely solid bit of building, looking lived in, run down, but also loose enough to let people get on-and-off relatively quickly.

Lighting is a little bit imprecise (there's a few too many moments when characters are not lit as they're supposed to be - particularly in the opening of the "Fantasies Come True" sequence). Sound is mostly pretty solid except for one misbehaving microphone at one point.

In short - yeah, this is a great production of a favourite show full of great local talent. So, yeah, you should book a ticket for this one.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Play that Goes Wrong, Canberra Theatre

Spoofing theatre itself is a reasonably old gag (going back at least to "Pyramus and Thisbe" in "Midsummer Night's Dream", and probably further) - and we've seen two strong examples last year with "Play On!" and "Noises Off". But this is the modern-state-of-the-art version with all stops out. Like "Play On!" the play being (badly) done is a fictitious Murder Mystery, although in this case we're witness to one disastrous performance rather than a combination of rehearsals and runs, and there's not a lot of backstage story to go with what's going on on-stage. Instead we see a run with vast levels of disaster piling on one another as set, props, words they don't understand and their fellow actors conspire to endager life, limb and the show going on.

This is very heavy on the slapstick and lacks any kind of higher mind beyond giving the audience a good time. It also has virtually no reference to popular culture post the mid 80s. But it is immaculately drilled slapstick, as the set becomes more and more a deathtrap. Acting throughout is broad, but appropriately so for the material - if it's difficult to pick highlights in the cast, that's largely because they're such a solid strong ensemble.

I will say the script is a little keen to actually go through with the plot mechanics of the murder mystery which seems somewhat irrelevant to anyone's enjoyment (and, indeed, I kinda wish we got one of the two follow-ups that have come along in the UK since this, "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" or "The Nativity Goes Wrong" instead), but as commercial theatre goes (as compared to the subsidised stuff that hits the Canberra Theatre season), this is thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Dog/The Cat, Belvoir

Double bills are, for whatever reason, not always all-that-popular. Possibly because it's frequently the case that one half of the evening vastly supersedes the other, that you feel like you're getting theatrical snacks rather than a full meal, or that the two plays are great individually but just don't taste right together.

Such is not the case with "The Dog/The Cat", possibly because both were written with the express purpose of being companion pieces. WHile they both have different characters and different concerns, they are both clearly contemporary Australian plays perfectly suited to the three actors performing them. They are also perfect expressions of their individual writer's skills. Brendan Cowell kicks the evening off with "The Dog", which tells of two guys who share ownership of the same dog but who otherwise wildly contrast (one a writer with a disastrous work and personal life, one a phone-app entrepreneur who's super-slick) and the woman that both meet in the same park while walking the dog. Cowell is a master at expressing Australian masculinity in writing, and these two guys are vivid creations. The woman between them is also a pretty solid creation. It's been way too long since Cowell's written a full-length mainstage play (three years since "The Sublime" at MTC), and I'm not entirely sure why.

Lally Katz has the other half of the night with "The Cat", a somewhat more whimsical piece about a divorcing couple who decide to share custody of the cat. This goes some truly eccentric places (starting with the cat being represented onstage by an actor and progressing from there) and lets Katz express her oddball view of modern life and dating in a fast-moving set of scenes that produce regular giggles.

The trio of performers get to show off a wide range of skills - Xavier Samuel engages our heart as the sad-sack Ben and produces regular giggles as the moody cat, Sheridan Harbridge is effortlessly cool as Miracle, equally uncool as ex-wife Alex and goofily airheaded as girlfriend Sophie, while Benedict Hardie locks in as the dapper Marcus, the nerdy Albert and the super-physical Jeff. This is a two-years-later remounting of a production originally directed by Ralph Williams, with Anthea Williams doing the remounting for the upstairs space, and however the combination works, this feels suitably effortless.

Entertainment that feels this freewheeling and easygoing is damn hard work, and I'm deeply appreciative that Belvoir's brought this back for a bigger audience to catch.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trelawney of the Wells, Canberra Repertory Society

This is old-school stuff, a grand 19th century play set in the world of 19th century theatre. But it's not utterly without contemporary interest - written as a nostalgia piece (produced in the 1890s, it's set in the 1860s), it depicts a moment when actors were starting to move into the upper echlons of British society, about the limitations of that upper society, and the changing theatre from broad melodramas and pantomimes to the more "realistic" drawing room comedies.

Tony Turner's production hits this in fits and starts. A few edits may have been wise on the script - there's a few characters who add nothing except for running time and a few too many times when characters stop being humorously tedious and just become tedious. And the opening exposition has particular pacing issues - it feels like the show takes a good twenty-thirty minutes to really get going. The second half is noticeably stronger than the first, as both script and performances seem to crystalise a lot more.

At the centre, though, are a couple of fine performances. Alessa Kron as Rose Trelawny is our sympathetic heroine - playing both the lively girl and the somewhat more exhausted figure later in the play with equal gentleness. Rob de Fries brings his usual charm as the frustrated small-part-actor and budding playwright Tom Wrench. As Rose's fearsome potential in-laws, Jerry Hearn and Alice Ferguson have suitable imperiousness and outraged propriety - Ferguson in particular scores great laughs when scandalised by ankles. As two of the older members of the Wells company, Jan Smith and Nikki-Lyn Hunter have a moving moment towards the end as they realise both that theatrical fashion is about to pass them by, and that it will inevitably change again.

The 19th century is right up Rep's alley for set and costume design, and between the fine work of Ian Croker, Anna Senior and the set-and-costume teams, that tradition is maintained. Lighting design by Stephen Still is a little crude and basic for much of the action (though the final image is delightful), and John Pearson's sound design has some odd musical choices.

This is one of those nights for me where it's not a rolling continous delight but there are some gems worth picking up.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Renonsense Man, Jimoein, Canberra Comedy Festival, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre.

This is more traditional comedy than Gadsby, for good and for ill. It's just jokes, very much in the same style that Jimoein has been doing for over 20 years around Australia - and he shapes them pretty reasonably and pretty charmingly. If there's no greater topic or greater aim, is that necessarily a problem?

Well, for me, it is a bit. I kinda now feel I have ticked off that "seen Jimoein live" box and I haven't really seen a screamingly good motivation to come back and see him again. He's perfectly reasonable and acceptable, but he doesn't bring anything particularly different to the table. And there is a fair bit of material about his wife which is... just not thought through at all. While, yes, these are "just jokes", he's spending a substantial chunk of the show basically saying he kinda hates his wife but he's not strong enough to separate. Which is kinda pathetic and not in an interesting way.

Look, Jimoein will sell out theatres for another coupla decades with material that will probably be very much like this anyway. I just won't be there again.