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The Flick

By Annie Baker. Outhouse Theatre Co. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (NSW). April 5 – 21, 2018

Photo : Marnya Rothe

The raked seating of the Reginald Theatre is mirrored by a similar rake of red plush seating. Red and black cinema style carpet stretches up steps to an aisle. Above it, in a high, dark-curtained wall are the windows of the projection box of The Flick, a cinema in Worcester, Massachusetts. Both theatre and cinema black out simultaneously. Loud music heralds the credits of a movie. Lights come up on the empty cinema, littered with spilt popcorn.

The striking verisimilitude of Hugh O’Connor’s set matches the plausible verisimilitude of this most unusual play. It’s long (three hours), but it’s persuasively real. Characters stand in still contemplation. Pauses stretch. Dialogue falters. It is a cunning writer who demands so many silent moments; a brave director who follows those demands so conscientiously. But for this play it’s essential – and it works. It won an Obie for playwright Annie Baker in 2013, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014 – and this production, in the very experienced directorial hands of Craig Baldwin, treats it with care and integrity.

The play follows the everyday work routine of three cinema workers. Sam, in his thirties, has been in the job for twenty years. He’s a plodder, to whom the monotony of the routine has become second nature, but he’d love to learn to run the projector. Rose is the projectionist, younger than Sam, pretty, outwardly self-contained, but a little remote. Avery is a twenty-year-old college student and movie buff who hates the “cold clarity” of digital movies. He has taken the job over the summer break because this one of the last cinemas showing 35mm film.

Photo : Marnya Rothe

The play evolves as they clean the cinema after regular movies sessions. With brooms and long handled dust pans, they sweep up spilt popcorn and pick up discarded snack packets. Sometimes they mop over the carpet. The repetitive scenes are transitioned by brief black outs, flickering light from the projection box and aisle lights, the clicking of the projector itself and theme music as credits role.

Coined a “comedy of the mundane”, the play has touches of Beckett and Pinter – and requires similar timing, intricate control and subtle characterisation. All of which Baldwin has achieved. The timing is meticulous. The characters speak in halting dialogue, broken by pauses that are exasperatingly long … but maddeningly natural. They are the basis . . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

Mr Bailey’s Minder

By Debra Oswald. The Theatre on Chester. Director: Kaye Lopez. 6th – 28th April, 2018

‘Tis a pity Debra Oswald has stopped writing for the stage, because, despite the success of her TV, film and more recently her novels, the characters she created for the theatre have an authenticity that gives directors, actors and audiences much to think about and much to love. They are enduring and the issues they face transcend generations.

In Mr Bailey’s Minder is one of them. Director Kaye Lopez sees it as “… a deeply moving piece about friendship, ego, art and the secret longing for a better life … shame and judgement, love and forgiveness”. That so many ideas can be portrayed by four characters in two short hours is a tribute to Oswald’s perspicacious insights and discerning characterisation.

Leo Bailey is a famous artist who has sunk into alcoholic dementia. He lives in boozy isolation in a dilapidated house carved into a cliff. Offensive and cruel, he has driven away his family, apart from the eldest, Margot, who, manages his dwindling estate from a distance. She too has suffered his malicious tongue and spitefulness but a strange sense of duty impels her to provide for him. Enter Therese, a young offender, who takes on the role of Leo’s ‘minder’. A little rough around the edges, but determined not to go back to gaol, she takes on the task of carer with a will, eventually breaking through Leo’s obnoxiousness, and, in the process, finding herself.

Alan and Cate Cunningham have transformed the stage into the mouldering kitchen-sitting room of Leo’s house. The rock face forms one wall, and a broken stained-glass window lets in the changing light, designed by Wal Moore. Paintings hang from the paint spattered walls and discarded canvasses lean against them. Empty bottles litter every surface. A glass panelled door opens as Margot introduces Therese to the house – and the unusual job for which she has applied.

As Margot, Paula Searle is suitably cold and aloof. She is tense, distant, completely ill-at-ease in this house she used to call home. She suffers Leo’s verbal abuse with dogged stiffness, . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

The Children

By Lucy Kirkwood. Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Mr 29 – May 19, 2018.

Photo : Jeff Busby

A challenging and rewarding work, The Children unfolds naturalistically in real time.

On a simple functional set of a rustic kitchen by Elizabeth Gadsby, superbly lit by Paul Jackson, three clever and influential sixty something nuclear physicists reunite.  The world as they know it has been turned upside down by a Fukushima like disaster.  Some of their pasts are divulged and we get to witness their flawed and often messy humanness.  And the apparently altruistic reason for the, often uncomfortable, ‘get together’ is revealed in the last minutes of the piece.

Lucy Kirkwood’s text functions on a number of levels.  As an unfolding story it is full of surprises and maintains interest.  However as an observation of characters from the baby boomer generation it sometimes feels like an indictment.  The subject matter of our damage to our planet is deeply unsettling.  But there is another niggling ambiguous rift in this production.  Perhaps it is in the writing.  I am wondering if this is because Kirkwood is a much younger woman than the generation she is writing about.  Therefore, what is presented is only partially from the lived perspective of the protagonists.  So, at times the actors are bound by the way Kirkwood has written – to perform their characters from the perspective of an observer.

There is lots of humour and many laughs in this work.  However, I get the impression there is a delicate balance, for director Sarah Goodes, between releasing the intrinsic sense of fun and play in the material from under the pall of the framing of a story of cataclysmic disaster.  I am wondering . . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

Harvey

By Mary Chase. Castle Hill Players. Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill. April 6 – 28, 2018

Photo : Bob Seary

A movie starring James Stewart and five television productions have made Harvey famous on the big and little screen. But the original play by Mary Chase has also had a long and enviable stage history. After opening on Broadway in 1944 it ran until 1949, with a total of 1775 performances. Openings followed in London (1949) and Paris (1950). It was revived on Broadway in 1970 and London in 1975, both with James Stewart recreating his movie role. More recent revivals (Broadway 2012, London 2015) indicate the enduring appeal of this ‘treasure’ of the 1940s.

Elwood P. Dowd is a gregarious man who has been befriended by a Pooka – a helpful, mythical Celtic creature – in the form of an invisible six-foot plus rabbit called Harvey. The sociable Elwood introduces Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the growing embarrassment of his sister, Veta Lousie Simmons and her daughter Myrtle Mae.  As a last resort, they decide to have him committed to a psychiatric clinic called Chumley’s Rest. When the much-mortified, and increasingly over-wrought Veta tries to explain her brother’s condition, she herself is incarcerated and confusion reigns.

The production is a polished tribute to a classic American play.

 

Harvey is a comedy of errors, where moments of farce are juxtaposed with the calm nonchalance of Elwood himself who is blissfully unaware of the concern he causes and mayhem that arises from the muddle at Chumley’s Rest. The mixture of style and pace requires clear direction and precise timing and director Meredith Jacobs has ensured both. The production is crisp, the characters clearly defined and the attention to recreating the period is meticulous.

The set design is heavily reminiscent of the times. Wainscot panels, sombre colours, ‘substantial’ furniture and a portrait of his mother above the fireplace make Elwood’s home distinctly 1940s America. The offices of Chumley’s Rest, revealed after a clever turn of the set, are similarly suggestive of the times. The lighting (James Winters) emphasises the precision and detail of the set. The wigs and hair styles (Jacobs herself) and the costumes (Annette Snars) show fine attention to authenticity and an eye for flair.

Photo : Bob Seary

Chris Lundie is relaxed and gently convincing as Elwood P. Dowd. Lundie has a quiet, unpretentious but commanding stage presence. He inhabits Elwood’s character gracefully, emphasisng his generosity, trust and gentlemanly manners. . . . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

 

La Boheme

HANDA Opera on Sydney Harbour. Opera Australia. Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point. 23 March – 22 April 2018.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Rain clouds that have hovered threateningly over the city all day begin to clear. Late afternoon sunshine begins to filter through. The harbour begins to sparkle. What has been a dull and dreary day turns into a balmy, Sydney, autumn evening. How lucky for the opening night of another Handa Opera on the Harbour!

As the sky darkens above the Bridge and the Opera House, a crescent moon shines through the last wisps of cloud – and the lights go up on a snow-encrusted stage. It is a wintery December night in Paris. La Bohèmeis about to begin.

The wide, floating stage is a chilly street of the Latin Quarter, complete with towering Paris street lamps. Above the stage is an attic garret, the artlier of four struggling artists trying to make a living. A skylight suspended above it is a huge screen framed by icy stalactites. Here, projections of Paris landmarks under falling snow encapsulate the scene.

It is not, however, the Paris that Puccini envisaged in 1896. This is Paris in 1968, besieged by the “May revolution” where student demonstrations, riots and a general strike almost brought the country to a standstill, but also brought about a wealth of protest art and music.

It is, it would seem, a fitting re-imagining of an opera about struggling, fun-loving artists in freezing garrets, new-found love, bitter jealousy and a crippling illness!

La Bohème– is the age-old “boy meets girl” tale of love found, lost and found again, often, as in this case, unfortunately too late.

If it appears I am concentrating on the spectacle rather than the music and singing, forgive me – but that’s what these annual operas are about.

The struggling artists are Marcello (painter), Rudolfo (writer), Colline (philosopher) and Schaunard (musician). When Schaunard arrives home with money received for playing his violin to a parrot until it died, they decide to go through the busy ‘Quartier Latin’ to the ‘Café Momus’to celebrate.

Rudolfo stays behind and meets Mimi, who has come knocking on the door for a match to light her candle. They fall in love and join the others, where Marcello re-ignites his love for the lovely Musetta.

Passion, jealousy and the need for money constantly divide and re-unite the lovers until, at last, they are together again, remembering their past happiness … as Mimi, alas, dies from consumption.

Take this story to 1968 and designers Dan Potra (set) and Marco Devetak (video) come into their own. ‘Café Momus’ becomes a night club in the thriving, busy twentieth century ‘Quartier Latin’, complete with street entertainers, stilt-walkers and torch throwers. The toy seller, Parpignoi, appears suspended from a crane in a basket decorated with multi-coloured balloons, and spirits one of the children away in a swing that hangs below. Musetta arrives in a ’60s police car that drives along the harbour broad walk. And snow falls from light stands . . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

Flight Paths

By Julian Larnach. National Theatre of Parramatta. Riverside Theatres. March 16 – 24, 2018

Noni Carroll Photography

This is a world where men and birds fall from the sky, where young women are judged by the colour of their skin and where power can be ordained by a line of succession … where most of the characters genuinely want to create a better, fairer world than the one they were born into.” (Anthea Williams, Director)

Williams and playwright Julian Larnach consolidate their Belvoir-based working relationship in this production than brings seven young actors together in this different take on the ‘coming-of-age’ theme. Its characters come from diverse backgrounds, have diverse aspirations, but are thwarted by the same “flawed system” – whether it be in an over-crowded slum of Kibera in Kenya, or the exclusive, ‘hallowed halls’ of Oxford University.

This is another moving, thought-provoking production under the auspices of NTofP’s commitment to “reflect today’s Australia and its diverse population”. . .

Larnach’s writing is economic, the dialogue effectively honed to suit the characters and the environment from which they come. In short, carefully edited scenes he explores complex themes that question both altruism and classism, and examine the realities of both. He creates clear, multi-dimensional characters who interconnect across cultural and social barriers, looking at global issues through the keen eyes of young people who want to change the world.

His words are delivered crisply and clearly by talented young actors who have found compassion and empathy with the characters under Williams’ perceptive interpretation of the script. The pace she sets is fast, commensurate with the youth of the characters and the new tempo of their lives. Under her discerning direction they meet disparity, disappointment and disillusion with the underlying courage and optimism of youth.

The Lennox Theatre has been cleverly reconfigured to allow a closer relationship with the audience, more imaginative staging (Jeremy Allen) and creative lighting design (Verity Hampson). An arch of lights curve above the stage, glaringly African bright in some scenes, shimmering in others, especially effective in the final moments of the play as they flicker quickly to the sound of a flock of starlings whistling through the sky above (sound design by Michael Toisuta).

Luisa (“everyone calls me Lu”) and Emily are two young Australian women following a dream. Lu has arrived in Oxford on a scholarship but has yet to decide her major. Emily has flown to Kenya as a volunteer with an aid organisation to help build a school. Both are strong-willed, highly scrupled.

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography

Ebony Vagulans is convincingly gentle, yet staunchly down-to-earth as Luisa, determined to be true to herself despite being out of her comfort zone among the class-conscious, intellectual elite of Oxford, exemplified by Brandon McClelland who plays both

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

Le Corsaire

Victorian State Ballet. The Concourse, Chatswood. March 17 and 18, 2018

Photo : Ron Fung

Le Corsaire – or A Pirate’s Tale – is a ballet in three acts based on a poem by Lord Byron. The story is short and simple. Shipwrecked pirates Conrad and Birbanto, and a slave, Ali, are found on the shore by Medora and Gulnare. Conrad falls in love with Medora, Ali with Gulnare. Unfortunately the maidens are captured by Lankendam, a slave trader, and sold to a Turkish Pasha for his harem. The pirates search for the maidens and eventually rescue them despite betrayal by Birbanto. Medora, Conrad, Gulnare and Ali escape by sea but a storm erupts and only Medora and Conrad survive.

Rather than for the depth of its story, the ballet is famous for the beauty of the dancing. First presented in 1856 to the music of Adolphe Adam, with original choreography by Joseph Mazilier, and later Marius Petipa, the ballet has become famous because so many excerpts of the choreography are presented at galas and concerts around the world.

Over the years composers Cesare Pugni, Leo Delies, Ricardo Drigo and Prince Oldenburg added to the breadth and depth of the music – and this presentation by Victorian State Ballet celebrates the Australian premiere of the full version of the ballet.

Choreographer (and Co-Director of the company) Michelle Cassar de Sierra has been true to the original choreography, whilst also “bringing something fresh and new, reflecting today’s classical ballet standards”. The famous Grand Pas de Trois and the Odalisques Pas de Trois she sees as “timeless” and are presented in their original form. The bazaar, pirate and slave scenes have been re-choreographed to empahasise the work and talent of the corps de ballet.

In so doing, De Sierra has created a stunningly beautiful performance that highlights the skill and training of the dancers – and her esteem for the ballet itself. Not only has she accentuated the beauty of the traditional choreography, . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

The Wolves

By Sarah DeLappe. Redline Productions. Old Ftiz Theatre (NSW). March 14 – April 14, 2018

Photo : John Marmaras

What a great vehicle Redline Productions has chosen to highlight the under-tapped wealth of women in theatre! Written by a woman, directed, designed and stage managed by women, and performed by nine fine, fit, feisty, female actors, this prize-winning first play by American playwright Sarah DeLappe raises the bar in the determined pursuit of recognition and equity across the arts.

The nine actors are the Wolves, a high school, indoor soccer team warming up before their games. They are fit, committed, bright. Delappe’s dialogue uses the ‘like’ nuances and ‘like’ idiom of their time, to portray the diverse range of things that concern them, from the treatment of the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia to the benefits of tampons over sanitary pads to the behaviour of their hungover coach. Conversations overlap, switch rapidly from one topic to another, the pace defined by the various stretches and passes of their carefully co-ordinated warm up sequences. Pauses are limited, usually arising from a perceived slight or disagreement, sometimes tense, sometimes funny, resolved by their observant captain, or the whistle signalling the beginning of a game.

Photo : John Marmaras

The play takes them through the ups and downs of the season, the demands of home and school, gossip, boy troubles, the gradual acceptance of a new girl, disclosures of personal confidences, an accident that side-lines their striker, and a tragedy before the final match that almost affects the impetus of their will to win. It’s a play of the times, a 2017 coming-of-age insight into the insecurities and aspirations of late teenage women.

. . these characters are portrayed with buoyant veracity and vitality. Arthur’s direction has found the enthusiasm, energy and complexity of adolescence in a production that is a credit her sophisticated vision and meticulous direction.

Jessica Arthur directs this cleverly written play with the integrity and truth it deserves. The action is fast, based in the carefully chosen warm up routines, timed to each sit up and crunch, each slap of a catch, each smack of a ball against the wall – and viewed through a net that ingeniously separates and protects the audience. The actors fill the space, bouncing words off each other as skilfully as they manipulate the ball. Movement and fitness are as important to this production as the theatrical skills of the actors, who concentrate on fast, changing, physical routines while delivering intersecting conversations that pass between them as rapidly as the action of the matches they must win to get to the nationals.

Arthur has secured a talented cast that has become the tight, fit, ensemble that the play requires. The warm up routines demand a high level of fitness and co-ordination, the choreography as physically demanding and complex as the quick changes of topic and the intensity

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.

The Shifting Heart

By Richard Beynon. White Box Theatre. Seymour Centre (NSW). March 8 – 24, 2018.

Photo : Danielle Lyonne.

Written in 1956, and first produced by The Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1957, this one of the first plays that explored the effect of racism and discrimination in Australia following the arrival of European refugees and migrants after the Second World War. So relevant was its message, that it was produced in the West End in London in 1959, was recorded as an ABC radio play in 1962, and was adapted for television by the ABC in 1968.

It tells the story of the Bianchi family, who have moved to Melbourne from Italy. Maria, their daughter, has married Clarrie, an Australian whose father was killed in the war. Gino, their twenty-one-year-old son has become “naturalised” and regards himself as an Australian.

The discrimination they face seems mild by today’s standards, but sixty years ago it was effectively hurtful. A neighbour constantly throws rubbish over the fence. The local storekeeper calls them Momma Macaroni and Poppa Spaghetti. Clarrie refuses to make Gino a partner in his scrap metal business because an Italian name on his truck might lose business. Gino loves to dance but the local dance hall proprietors have decided to prohibit entry to “New Australians”.

Despite this, the Bianchis keep striving for acceptance, buoyed by the friendship of one neighbour, Leila Pratt, and the grandchild that Maria is expecting.

Director Kim Hardwick makes no attempt to set this production anywhere but Australia in the 1950s. And somehow this makes its contemporary message even more palpably clear. Things haven’t changed! “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“—”the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The setting, cleverly re-imagined by Isobel Hudson, and atmospherically lit by Martin Kinnane, is the back verandah of a typical old, two-storey, inner-city weatherboard house. The paint is peeling. The verandah is propped up with timber stays. Garbage overflows from the bin, which Poppa Bianchi has forgotten to put out for collection. A dead fish wrapped in paper has been thrown over the fence by the woman next door. An old bedstead acts as a couch on the verandah. The fence on Mrs Pratt’s side is dilapidated. On the other side, it has been repaired and re-inforced.

In fact, it is exactly as described by Richard Beynon in his original stage directions. Once again, congratulations to Hardwick and Hudson for getting it right!

Tony Poli and Dina Panozzo are convincingly and lovably real as Poppa and Momma Bianchi. They mix accented English with rapid Italian phrases and endearments in a way that is as natural as their gestures and expressive faces. Their reactions are believably emotional, their affection and concern for their children believably strong.

Panozzo’s tiny stature emphasises the inner strength and tenacity of the character, and the volatility of her nature. Her Momma Bianchi is a small whirlwind of changing emotions and sensitive compassion, which radiate to the audience in tangible waves.

Poli too, finds the different dimensions Beynon has written into Poppa Bianchi. The loving father, the irascible Italian temper, the tender sense of fun, the harrowing depths of despair … and the determination to stay in his new home despite the heart-breaking results that discrimination brings to the family.

Both actors reveal all these emotions strongly, and the effect upon the audience is profound . . . .

Continue with the rest of the review in Stage Whispers magazine, here.