Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest - University Dramatic Society (29 April 2015)

Over the last 12 months or so I’ve seen a lot of student theatre, especially at Curtin and Murdoch Universities and they tell me ECU has pretty handy acting and musical theatre departments on their Mount Lawley campus. It had me wondering what my alma mater UWA was up to on the theatrical front especially given I’ve seen a couple of independent productions at the Dolphin Theatre recently. So off I went to see my first University Dramatic Society (UDS) production with a sense of curiosity and, to be honest, no real expectations.

I’ve written before about those shows that sneak up and surprise you. Last year it was WAAPA’s Children of Eden and Roleystone Theatre’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Well, you can add The Importance of Being Earnest to that list. I knew none of the cast or crew but this was a thoroughly entertaining evening that even with two intermissions whizzed by.

Any discussion of the play has to start with the writing. It is dazzling and full of the trademark wit and dry observation Oscar Wilde is renowned for. The dialogue crackles and fizzes with intelligence and razor sharp humour that makes listening to the exchanges an absolute delight. The tale of fictitious identities and resultant romantic entanglements is expertly crafted even if the major revelation at the end now suffers somewhat from what I call “Luke, I am your father” syndrome. Yes, modern audiences have endured variations of the familial twist for well over a hundred years which tends to temper our surprise. However, that is a minor consideration.

The major one by comparison is how well performed and presented the whole endeavour was. The standouts for me were Ben Thomas as Algernon who relished the language and was suitably sly and mischievous; and Rebecca Egan as Cecily Cardew whose recounting of her engagement to ‘Earnest’ was a highlight. Rupert Williamson was excellent as John Worthing and his verbal jousting with particularly Thomas was rapid fire and engaging. Grace Chapple made for a haughty Gwendolyn and her set piece exchange with Egan in what was a dazzling second act was another highlight.

I warmed to Rebecca Cole’s Lady Bracknell over time – her more deliberate delivery and impressive rolling R’s felt a little out of kilter at first but she was a forceful presence in the third act as befitted the character’s status. Sally Clune’s Miss Prism, she of the formidable pout and excellent aging makeup, stumbled a few times with the dialogue and tended to, along with Ben McAllister’s Reverend, to flirt with caricature. The latter was playing up exaggerated physical movement for laughs but the writing is so good that it felt superfluous. Matt Perrett and Lily Protter rounded out the cast as the ‘hired help’.

As mentioned, the second act where the all major characters collide in the countryside was quite an inspired piece of theatre brimming with comedy. It is also a very handsome production with excellent costuming and well-appointed sets such as the trestles laced with flowers in that countryside setting along with a tree and even swing to stage left. The interior sets were all lounge chairs and settees and an amazing amount of cucumbers and muffins were sacrificed in the making of the show. In this regard, Ben Thomas showed an almost Brad Pitt level of skill in eating whilst acting!   

I very much enjoyed the first UDS production of 2015 and walked away impressed by the acting and overall presentation. I was sitting next to a couple whose grand-daughter I believe it was had been involved with the costuming. They had seen the play starring Judi Dench in London but liked this one more. When I inquired as to why they remarked that Dame Judi was head and shoulders above the rest of the cast which unbalanced that production. It is fair to say that this is not the case here where the scintillating dialogue and banter is well delivered by the principals. It is a very funny and breezy show that was well appreciated by a good sized audience.

Written by Oscar Wilde, Directed by Antonina Heymanson and starring Rupert Williamson, Ben Thomas, Grace Chapple, Rebecca Egan, Rebecca Cole, Sally Clune, Ben McAllister, Matt Perrett, and Lily Protter there are three more shows left at the Dolphin Theatre on the UWA campus, Thursday through to Saturday 2 May. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce - Hayman Theatre Company (21 April 2015)

There is a word – a Polish word I believe – that means the sadness one feels as the echo of laughter slowly fades from a recently emptied theatre. If only I could remember what that word is…

If I could then that’s how I would describe the aftermath of watching this very funny play that was wonderfully performed and staged. That and my now sudden guilty feelings about eating almonds!

Yes, this is a gloriously off-the-wall farce that spirals off into strange territory indeed as one of its characters turns into… an almond.

But let’s backtrack a little and start with Sarah Ruhl’s deliciously subversive script. Here it is melancholy and sadness - as embodied by Tilly (Zoe Street) - that is sexy and irresistible with happiness being a chaotic force that causes all kinds of disaster. Flipping the expected stereotypes around is a masterstroke that allows for the farcical and absurd but retains a key message with the almond transformation a clear metaphor. The last third of the play flirts with going way over-the-top but is grounded by an almost too obvious passage of dialogue delivered by Tilly that urges the characters to genuinely be there and support the nut afflicted Frances (Olivia Dugandzic)… even if they have to become nuts themselves. Yes, how does one truly support a friend or loved one who is enmeshed in sadness and melancholy?

Street is excellent as the bank employee Tilly. Her world weary, languid and poetic turn in the early going that marks her sadness as being so potent is terrific to watch. In turn, her therapist Lorenzo (Kane Parker); a tailor (Nathan Whitebrook); a hairdresser Frances (Dugandzic) and then Frances’ lover, the nurse Joan (Daisy Grant) all are drawn to and ultimately fall in love with her. Buoyed by such emotion that is magnified on her birthday, Tilly suddenly becomes inextricably happy causing everyone else to slip into sadness as her allure is somehow diminished. Here Street switches gears to become almost annoyingly ecstatic, playing children’s games and even riding a bike onstage at one point. It’s an eye-catching performance.

Whitebrook is the tentative tailor who kicks off proceedings by offering a defence of melancholy directly to the audience which is a technique used throughout as characters speak through hanging window frames. They also represent the portals to vistas that inspire melancholy such as wistfully gazing through a window on a rainy afternoon. His character’s descent into tear-filled and hiccupped sadness is nicely observed as is the boisterous rivalry with Lorenzo. Parker sports a very good Italian accent as the lovelorn therapist and he gives an exuberant performance that is amusingly capped off by his plaintive pleas to know if he too now is an almond. The fight scene with Whitebrook is a highlight. 
Dugandzic gives Frances that air of infatuation despite herself and the fact the character is already in a relationship. It is as if she is compelled to be with Tilly. I especially liked her ‘delivery’ as an ‘almond’ perched alongside the audience in her ‘letterbox’. Her ‘resurrection’ is masterfully staged. There is a late revelation regarding a dubious backstory that was perhaps one step too far for me but is well acted nevertheless. Daisy Grant’s nurse is seemingly far more practical so it’s a treat to see her play the ‘gaga’ looks and clinginess as Joan falls for Tilly’s charms as well.

The cast is rounded out by Savannah Wood, resplendent and elegant in a gown as she plays the cello to stage left. Wood played beautifully and added so much texture and tone to key moments. Of course, the cello is perhaps the instrument most suited to melancholy so it was cheeky and fun when Lorenzo asks her to play something ‘happy’ after the other characters suddenly realise she is there. This is another example of playing around with conventions with Tilly even handing her red balloon to the young boy sitting next to me.

The play fairly rockets along at just under 80 minutes and is well directed by Leah Mercer with seamless scene transitions and handoffs between characters. There is great energy throughout and, as I’ve come to expect with the Hayman Upstairs Theatre, good use of multiple entry and exit points for the actors. This is the second show I’ve seen there this year and it appears they have really taken their set designs up a notch with this and Spring Awakening. The wallpaper on the back wall; the varied rugs on the stage; the hanging frames; the centrepiece couch; Frances and Joan’s apartment space – all well-appointed and adroitly used.

Above all this is very funny even as the farce turns into something quite surreal in its last third. The performances are excellent, especially in the first half as Tilly weaves her spell. This is a really enjoyable production with only four more performances, 22-25 April at Curtin University’s Hayman Theatre Upstairs. 

Written by Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Leah Mercer, Melancholy stars Olivia Dugandzic, Daisy Grant, Kane Parker, Zoe Street, Nathan Whitebrook, and Savannah Wood.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Dreaming Hill - Western Australian Youth Theatre Company & Southern Edge Arts (15 April 2015)

One hundred years ago our youth were asked to fight a terrible war far beyond our shores at immeasurable cost - soldiers as young as 14 died on the Gallipoli Peninsula and later on the fields of France and Belgium. In this centenary year, a year that will see many commemorations to honour the deeds of those men and women who served both at home and abroad, it is particularly fitting that the Western Australian Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) in partnership with Southern Edge Arts commissioned this original play. Written by Hellie Turner, The Dreaming Hill explores the day before that fateful landing on 25 April 1915.

The cast of predominantly teenagers from both companies - including a 14 and 15 year old – was a powerful reminder that in another age these were the very people who served our country as soldiers and nurses in the chaos of ‘the war to end all wars’. The tragedy of what followed was captured eloquently in a line delivered by a Greek fisherman to a young Australian serviceman – “only dead men see an end to war.” The fact that we still put young men and women in harm’s way to this very day illustrates the point. The clear message was to us as an audience, as a community and as a country to never forget the cost exacted to protect our freedoms. 

The play follows five Australian diggers and four nurses with their Matron as they spend a last day on the Greek island of Lemnos before the amphibious assault. They encounter various locals including the aforementioned fisherman, Spyros (Luke Binetti); a good-natured shyster, Ascesto (Lachlan McGregor), who promises girls, grog and garlic while protecting the honour of his beautiful sister Phoebe (Liannah Prior); with a haughty ‘witch’ (Zali Stipanicev) thrown in for good measure. There are portents of impending doom from the flock of crows that fly overhead to a speech by Spyros about chaos. For the lads though there is a mix of excitement, apprehension, and naivety which is beautifully counterpointed by the nurses who know (and have trained for) the deadly ramifications of what is about to come. The hospital ship that they will shortly return to is another potent symbol by its very presence offshore.

The script by Turner is lyrical and poetic with one of the soldiers, Leo (Campbell Greenock) himself a ‘philosopher-warrior’ quoting Shakespeare, reciting his own attempts at poetry, and having conversations with Spyros about Homer’s The Illiad. The beauty of the island and its people is nicely conveyed as is all the exuberance and impetuousness of youth. But the script never loses sight of what is to come with references to Death, Chaos and symbolism like The Ferryman intruding. In the most powerful sequence, the fragile romance and tenderness on display at the end of the party is torn apart by a flash forward to only a few hours hence with sickening detail. It is wonderful piece of theatre as we have come to identify and even care about these characters only to have their possible futures blown apart before our eyes. Equally impressive is the company intoning each of their character’s fate on the day and beyond in a chilling postscript.

The acting is very strong across the board – from the innocent flirtatiousness of the nurses played by Daisy Coyle, Mikayla Merks and Tahlia Norrish to the over-exaggerated accent of the New Zealand nurse (Michaela Barker) used for comic relief. Tess McKenna reins in their antics as the stern Matron and is decisive and calm as the glimpse of battle shows us the grim reality of war.

Greenock opens the play by walking onto the impressive outdoor set as a modern day teenager before stripping down and changing into his uniform. It was a potent message – what would it be like to step into their shoes given all we now know. He gave a well measured performance that grounded the more poetic elements within the context of the horror to come. He has a particularly fine moment with a rallying speech towards the end of the play exhorting the men to “go forth” as the time of battle draws ever nearer. The only slight drawback was the string of lights in front of him that had lowered for part of the party sequence that cast shadows over and partly obscured his face from my vantage point. 

Liam Longley’s and Thomas Blowffwitch’s characters both try their luck with romance, Longley to sweet effect; Blowffwitch’s to amusing reversal. Andrew Phillips was a stout physical presence as Frank which made sense on reading the program notes to see he has served with the Australian Army – his bearing and demeanour was perfect for the character. While not as accomplished, Austen Faulkner’s Harry was the decent kid from Fremantle out of his depth in both war and love but had some nice moments all the same.
The standouts for me were Binetti and McGregor, the former working well with Greenock as they discussed Aristotle and Homer and the nature of war and chaos. Binetti has that intangible quality that makes him eminently watchable even when prowling on the outskirts of the set. McGregor, on crutches no less after breaking his ankle a fortnight ago, was sly and mischievous, providing a lot of humour to lighten the stark knowledge of these people’s likely fate.

Director Renato Fabretti makes full use of the set as his actors clamber over sandbag emplacements and literally feel the soil under their feet. There was a tendency in the party sequence, however, as soldiers and nurses paired off, for the actors not in whatever featured duo was talking, to be impassively waiting for ‘their turn’. Live music is provided for atmosphere to one side of what really is a thrust arrangement with the audience enclosing two sides of the courtyard at the Museum. External street noise was minimal and not too invasive, even from the movie playing on the big screen in the cultural centre.

Overall this was a wonderfully acted, evocatively written, and well directed play that looked at a brief moment of joy and discovery before being wrenched into the horrible reality of war. That it was performed by actors the very age of the men and women being portrayed gives it special significance and it is a thoughtful and powerful addition to the ANZAC canon.

Directed by Renato Fabretti, Written by Hellie Turner and starring Michaela Barker, Luke Binetti, Thomas Blowffwitch, Daisy Coyle, Austen Faulkner, Campbell Greenock, Liam Longley, Lachlan McGregor, Tess McKenna, Mikayla Merks, Tahlia Norrish, Andrew Phillips, Liannah Prior, Sam Reeves and Zali Stipanicev, The Dreaming Hill runs until 18 April in the WA Museum courtyard before moving to the Albany Museum 23-26 April.  

Monday, 13 April 2015

Point and Shoot: Farewell Show - Holland St Productions (11 April 2015)

I first saw Point and Shoot at Fringe World 2014 where it won two major awards including $10,000 to assist touring the production interstate and overseas. It was subsequently performed in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney towards the end of that year garnering more awards and praise with an encore season at Perth’s Fringe this year. As the team prepare to take the show to the Brighton Fringe Festival in the UK they announced 4 final shows in WA – two in Perth and another two in Busselton to raise money to assist with costs or, as one declared at the end of Saturday’s performance, so they can afford to eat while on tour!

It would be fair to say that after witnessing the show for a second time that it is my favourite piece of original content generated out of Perth (in all formats) for quite some time. I revisited the brief review I wrote back in February 2014 and this still holds true:

“This is a hilarious and pointed satire of Hollywood and the filmmaking business with a clever plot ("twist") and biting lyrics. The four actors play multiple roles and instruments and all are in fine voice. The transitions are seamless and this rockets along at a frenetic pace.”

What struck me on Saturday night though is that after touring the show and making tweaks here and there it is such a tightly constructed and slickly performed production. The writing (Book and Lyrics by Tyler Jacob Jones) is clever and witty which has fast become the Jones trademark as witnessed by his subsequent play F**k Decaf and work on Skin Deep which debuted at Fringe this year. It is also a wonderful synthesis of a love and understanding of both movies and musical theatre. A passion shared by Robert Woods who wrote the music and crafted the filmed excerpts for the fictional 1961 sitcom Selma Saves The Day and its bombastic, over-the-top 2042 feature incarnation.

This is the mischievous conceit of the whole undertaking Рinverting the current Hollywood paradigm to posit a world in 2042 where the Independents rule the roost in the name of ART and the blockbuster of yesteryear is in disgrace after every single property was plundered for entertainment. All except the obscure, one season show where Selma, her meatloaf, and trusty pet canine literally save the day. In steps the granddaughter of its original creator who comes to Hollywood with dreams of bringing Selma to the big screen. What follows is so furiously entertaining and funny with twists galore that you are swept up in the sheer audacity and inventiveness of it all. The script none-too-subtly lampoons the state of clich̩ ridden filmmaking but also betrays an intimate understanding of genre and how to subvert it.

This in itself is impressive but the kicker is in the execution. Four actors playing over fifty characters with rapid fire character transitions AND playing multiple instruments during the course of the story with musical motifs cleverly used throughout. It’s a dizzying display of talent, chemistry between the performers, and tight direction and choreography. All four – Jones, Woods, Tamara Woolrych and Erin Hutchinson inhabit different personas so distinctly with such diversity across their multiple roles that it truly showcases triple threat ability – singing, acting, and musicianship. This isn’t used as a gimmick but rather as a meticulously crafted and wildly inventive presentation of the story.

Jones is ever the showman as the screenwriter who dreams of bringing the movies of his childhood back to the big screen. Woods has a manic intensity as the hobo who portends cinematic doom. Woolrych is both ditzy newcomer and knowing femme fatale while Hutchinson is the desperately lovelorn secretary who will sacrifice everything for her unrequited love. But they are so many more iterations including their parts in the filmed footage. It’s simply a dazzling fusion of writing, performance, direction and music.

An added bonus was that as part of their fundraising drive an original cast recording was available for sale on CD. The standout song for me – Absolute Perfection – so beautifully sung by Woolrych will no doubt be stuck in my head for days to come. It was also no surprise to see so many local filmmakers in the audience with even a brief discussion afterwards about how you would go about adapting Point and Shoot for the screen. For art, of course!

All that’s left to say is that I wish the four performers and their support team all the best for their UK performances. I have no doubt the show will be a hit and deservedly so.  

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Spring Awakening - Fresh Bred Productions (10 April 2015)

Hot on the heels of the performance of Frank Wedekind’s 19th century play at Curtin University last month comes the Tony Award winning musical adaptation, presented by Fresh Bred Productions. Fresh Bred hit the scene in February last year with the Patrick Marber play Closer which was followed by their first musical, The Last Five Years, in August. They appear to have found a home at UWA’s Dolphin Theatre and a niche in mounting ambitious musical theatre productions with Sweeney Todd up next. Even Closer betrayed their intentions with an original score composed by regular musical collaborator Kohan Van Sambeeck.

Having seen the source material only a month ago certainly helped my understanding of the story but what struck me most was this: how audacious it was to take a play written in 1891 and turn it into a rock musical. It is testament to the thematic potency of the original even though some of the darkest aspects have been toned down for the different format. There’s still plenty of honest and uncomfortable examination of teenage sexual awakening in its various forms married to a superb set of songs.

Here lies the strength of this production. The orchestra, led by Musical Director Joshua James Webb, was terrific throughout. The music by Duncan Sheik is an impressive yet eclectic mix of strings and more rock oriented elements – electric guitars and drums - with Webb on keyboards. This collection of musicians certainly knew how to rock when required – The Bitch of Living and Totally Fucked for example – but was perhaps even sharper when providing the mood and atmosphere to numbers like Whispering and Touch Me. Situated at the back of stage behind the gauze stripped ‘trees’ representing the German woods, they were tight and focussed with the only blemish a false start at the beginning of the second act but that appeared to be related to a backstage issue. Well played Van Sambeeck (percussion), Hanna Lee-Smith (Violin/Guitar), Cristina Filgueira (Viola), Beren Scott (Cello/Violin), Tim Perren (Electric Bass), Ben Griffith (Guitar) and Webb (Piano/Conductor).

Matching the musicians was the vocal talent on display. This really was a strong cast from a singing perspective – the featured vocalists excelled and were given tremendous support from the ensemble. I had not come across Madeline Crofts (Wendla) before but she set the tone from the beginning with Mama Who Bore Me and sang beautifully throughout with Whispering a highlight. Finn Alexander (Melchior) unfortunately had a dead microphone for the opening sequences which cruelled All That’s Known but once that technical problem was rectified he too showcased a fine voice, notably in songs like Touch Me. Both impressed with their acting skills especially in two pivotal scenes – the beating of Wendla with the switch and the now more ambiguous sexual congress that ends the first act. 

Cal Silberstein played Moritz with an exuberance that marked the character’s incarnation here as most recognisably a musical theatre construct as distinct from the more sombre version in the original play. He did it well in the first act driving a lot of the comedic energy but this gave way to darker hues at the end of the first (And Then There Were None) and into the second that provided a nice arc. Kimberley Harris, another fine singer, was an almost ever present observer as Ilse with a featured scene with Silberstein in Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind. The musical started with the teenagers seemingly listening to Ilse intently and that configuration was reprised at the end as if she was relating the tale just witnessed. Indeed the whole company was almost always in sight with the ensemble in the wings and actively watching when not in a scene. The Ilse character also appeared to take on aspects of the Masked Man who has been otherwise excised from the adaptation.

Naomi Denny (Martha) had a notable moment with The Dark I Know Well and the effective welt makeup on her shoulder elicited an appropriate audience response when revealed before that song. Sven Ironside made for a charismatic, mischievous Hanschen and his work with Andrew Longo (Ernst), particularly during The Word of Your Body (Reprise) was playful but hauntingly beautiful as well. I really enjoyed the acting work of Michael MacCuish who added real authority and presence in the ‘Adult Men’ roles, and Nat Burbage played a mix of stern adult female authority figures and the more emotional mother roles.

The set harked back to the setting of the source material with the woods and classroom represented in minimalist style before we switch to the Reformatory and graveyard in the second act. There was an interesting use of glow sticks during the raucous Totally Fucked which gave a real sense of energy but jarred a little stylistically. The cast was buoyant during The Song of Purple Summer and final bows. Having been in rehearsals since November the hard work and preparation was evident in particularly the musical and vocal quality on display.  

Adapted from the Frank Wedekind play with Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater and Music by Duncan Sheik, Spring Awakening is directed by Craig Griffen with Musical Direction by Joshua James Webb. It stars Finn Alexander, Cal Silberstein, Madeline Crofts, Nat Burbage, Michael MacCuish, Pete Martis, Daniel Kirkby, Sven Ironside, Andrew Longo, Shanice Palfrey, Olivia Everett, Naomi Denny and Kimberley Harris. There are two more shows at UWA’s Dolphin Theatre, 17-18 April.