Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Rodeo Moon - WAAPA (16 November 2015)

The year is 1969. I know this because several characters seemed keen to tell me so. The other key year of note is 1967 when a Referendum question was overwhelmingly passed to remove references in the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory to Aboriginal people. Two years on though and change is slow to come to the outback. Racism is rife and there is a clearly established pecking order. You challenge it at your peril.

Things come to a head in the Pilbara where a combustible mix of forces converges – a rodeo swaggers into town full of machismo and sense of superiority; a ‘coloured’ girl (white father, aboriginal mother) who is a political student dares to stand up for the indigenous townsfolk who are understandably leery; three hippie activists escaping the Vietnam draft arrive; and, as improbable as it sounds, a certain pair of politicians about to fight a Federal Election rock up to check out conditions on the ground.

There is no doubt playwright David Milroy has a specific viewpoint to expound. That he does so in a “Jack and Jillaroo musical” which is full of songs and comedy is an interesting and entertaining choice. This is both a feel good show with everything from a drag act to hilarious bush poetry; to a serious drama that explores the harshness of life in such a rigidly stratified society, the edicts of faraway politicians be damned. It straddles that divide reasonably well though the tonal shifts can be abrupt.

For me the play works best when it focusses on the personal cost of the choices its characters make within the context of what is set up. That larger framework felt forced in the early going with characters delivering awkward exposition to describe the political and social climate of the time. Notably, John Gorton (Ben Jeakings) provides a searing indictment of the ‘politics of denial’ while being played largely as a buffoon. His partner in this unlikely comedy duo is Gough Whitlam (George Carter Zillessen) who will lose the election but manufacture a 7.1% swing to Labor that sets up his ascension as Prime Minister three years hence.

Within this construct there are two simple but quintessentially human stories. Political student Molly (Simone Detourbet) wants to meet a mother Pansy (Shanice Tabua) she has never known; and local indigenous girl Tilly (Teresa Moore) is sweet on star rodeo performer Knuckles (Conor Mavromatis) and wants to dance with him at the ball.

The personal obstacles both face resonate far stronger than any political ‘debate’ on hand. Molly’s father Wetherill (Nelson Baker) resists his daughter’s desire to see Pansy, out of shame and under pressure from rodeo boss Buckley (Jack Sheppard) who has very clear ideas about the place of ‘blacks’ (and women). Tilly’s quest is fraught with danger as it’s a line that if crossed comes with great risk. Both storylines arrive at happy conclusions but not without dramas along the way.

To the performances and Moore is a standout as Tilly. She has the best singing voice and uses it expressively while providing the character with real resolve and dignity. Detourbet has a fine scene with Baker as father and daughter clash in a dramatic highpoint while bringing feistiness to her character throughout. The interaction between Molly and Tilly, initially strained before they bond as allies in their separate causes, is the heartbeat of the piece and well conveyed by both actresses.

Props to Sheppard who gives what could otherwise have been a thoroughly loathsome character enough flair and energy to make his carnival barker Buckley engaging. James Schultz plays Molly’s brother Billy with impressive intensity as he carries a major dramatic thread to do with their mother. On the other side of that coin, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa and Dakota Morrison, bring the laughs with their hippie draft dodgers. Kepa has a strong stage presence and good voice while Pickett threatens to steal the show as the most unlikely of rodeo queen contestants. Mention also to Brian Anau whose bush poem had me squirming and laughing in equal measure.

Musical Director Wayne Freer was also the solo musician on keyboard and guitar and the songs were a likeable mix of ballads, sixties style pop, and indigenous numbers. The majority of the cast were not particularly good singers but the character of their performances carried the day. The stage was red dirt on wooden floorboards with a tree stump, wooden fence posts, and a raised platform at one end. The lighting design accentuated that dirt to give a real sense of place.

This was a funny and entertaining production with a serious undertone that, if nothing else, had me looking up both the Referendum results and the 1969 election. But it was the human cost that people faced during those turbulent times (and in many ways still do) that struck a nerve. 

Rodeo Moon is written by David Milroy and co-directed by Rick Brayford and Eva Grace Mullaley with Musical Direction by Wayne Freer, and stars the Aboriginal Theatre students Jack Sheppard, Nelson Baker, Conor Mavromatis, James Schultz, George Carter Zillessen, Ben Jeakings, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa, Brian Anu, Simone Detourbet, Teresa Moore, Dakota Morrison, Shanice Tabua, Katrisha Jackonia, Stephanie Binder, Aiesha Blurton, Nicole Brockman, and Meiching Riley. There is one final show at the Enright Studio on Thursday 19 November.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Acacia Prison & The Actors Workshop (13 November 2015)

“Close your eyes.

Now breathe in… and breathe out. Breathe in… and breathe out…

Now open your eyes.”

As I did so I saw sixteen actors arranged on a slightly staggered, three level stage.

I was at the theatre.

I was about to watch a play.

One of the most cherished comedies in the history of theatre:

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In that moment of breathing, eyes closed, all that had come before melted away - the long drive, the uncertainty of what awaited me, the security protocols, the screening, the escorted walk through the grounds of Acacia Prison to a building that normally would be a workshop, the guards.

Yes, this was the most unusual of settings and circumstances.

But none of that mattered now. I was about to witness something truly special. I was about to witness the transformative power of theatre, a magic as potent as the one Oberon wields in Shakespeare’s most whimsical of comedies.

I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. I was moved. I was transfixed. I was beyond impressed.

These men, almost all with no previous acting experience of any kind, flung themselves at this with energy, with style, with commitment, and with their own sense of humour and spirit. It was raw, it was powerful, and it was bloody well funny as all get out. The sly asides, the improvised lines, the odd fluff here and there, the occasional line read from the sidelines; all were incorporated with flair to burn. Above all, this was faithful to The Bard himself in a rollicking performance that drew a spontaneous standing ovation from family, friends, official visitors, and guards alike.

It was a simple stage with a painted backdrop that was flipped over to represent the woods after the initial Athenian scenes. You could see the actors and stagehands in the wings; the incomparable director Nichola Renton off to one side with script in hand giving surprisingly few line prompts. The makeup was done by one of the men in only 40 minutes before the show; the costumes were made by one of the staff. Musical inserts were a funny mix of everything from Chariots of Fire to the Benny Hill theme music. Other men were manning the sound and lighting desk at the back with something like a hundred cues. There were no airs and graces here. Everyone pitched in.   

The performances were all astounding, from a mischievous Puck to a commanding Oberon (the actor, who also played Peter Quince, learnt the lines in 4 days!); to a terrific set of Mechanicals (Bottom’s death scene as Pyramus is something to behold!); and a quartet of young lovers that pursued, evaded, flirted, fought and finally found their true loves in rousing fashion. The men playing Hermia and Helena did so without a hint of self-consciousness and played up to the audience with a wink and a nod that was hilarious. Everyone embraced their part and what I thoroughly enjoyed was seeing their response to the laughter and appreciation they were receiving. That magic symbiotic relationship between a cast and an audience when things are firing on all cylinders.

The Question and Answer session shortly afterwards was just as impressive. The men spoke with passion and sincerity about what this opportunity meant to them and how they had incorporated so many elements into coping with life outside the performing arts programme. One likened the experience to walking through the closet into Narnia which was as apt an analogy as you’re likely to hear. Many talked about the support and encouragement within the group and how they were a family; how they trusted each other and felt safe. Perceptive comments about learning how to read body language and how to use that back in the blocks; about how their days performing were like being out of prison. The camaraderie within the group was palpable as was the sense of humour. It was moving to see the reaction of loved ones in the audience as well.

This is no luxury programme, no gimmick. The benefits were there for all to see and everyone involved needs to be applauded and encouraged to continue and expand this. As an actor in the audience remarked, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and empathise with that character is an invaluable skill. The sense of teamwork and working together to achieve a common goal and support each other along the way is equally as important.

To mount a production, of Shakespeare no less, and pull it off with such success is a testament to the hard work and commitment of not only the men but the staff as well. Then there’s Nichola who spoke so passionately about working with and teaching this extraordinary cast. What an accomplishment!

This truly was a special day – memorable, moving, and funny. 

Is it the most polished performance I’ll see this year? Not even close. 

Did it the meet the requirement of theatre to entertain, to inspire, to move, and, for a comedy, to make me laugh?

You bet your arse it did.

In spades! 

The Maids - Tempest Theatre (11 November 2015)

Who at one time or another hasn’t thought ill of their employer? Who hasn’t fantasised about putting them in their place… or worse? Of course, for the vast majority of us, those thoughts remain a fantasy. We rail about real or perceived unfairness in the workplace and the ‘draconian’ conditions placed upon us but often do so in silence.

French dramatist Jean Genet, however, used the real life murder of an employer by two French sisters in 1933 as the dropping off point for this play. And so sisters Claire (Aisling McGrogan) and Solange (Kylie Maree) came in to being, maids in servitude to an unnamed Madame (Maree Grayden). What follows is an exploration of the power dynamics between classes and, as importantly, the sisters themselves with a touch of sadomasochistic role play and the hint of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. It’s perhaps an overly clever piece of writing with plenty of reversals and an ambiguous ending as one of the key tenets is the blurring of fantasy and reality.

That makes it a tricky proposition both from a performance point of view and for an audience unfamiliar with the piece as the ground shifts constantly. In the opening scene for example the power dynamics simply didn’t ring true and I was quite perplexed until a reversal explained why that was the case. The sequence does set up the premise but left me a little flatfooted to begin with.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing to unsettle or intrigue an audience but there was a crucial element I never quite got my head around – tone. As a screenwriter I am always conscious of tone (a vital element of any screenplay) and here I wasn’t sure what sort of story I was watching. Was it a comedy, a drama, or a tragedy? That proved to be elusive as there were aspects of all of three but not a consistent approach throughout. Furthermore, the injection of the ‘murder mystery’ regarding Madame’s lover ultimately felt like a red herring.

I suspect the biggest reason for this inconsistency was a quite fascinating clash of acting styles. Kylie Maree was very grounded and natural as Solange, building towards an end monologue that showed how crazy and delusional the character (possibly) was. McGrogan, however, took a more melodramatic approach to Claire with a wide-eyed intensity that noticeably jarred – where she was all hand gestures and physical movement, Maree was still and measured. 

Maree Grayden’s Madame who makes a brief appearance in the middle of the play also felt more caricature than character. Those different styles muddled the tone as moments came across as comedic that perhaps should have been more understated. A sequence involving a tea cup was leached of any tension due to an almost sitcom style execution. Was I meant to laugh or was I meant to feel unease?

There’s no doubt that in the power hierarchy established by the play Claire is subservient to her sister and therefore can come across as whiny and pouty. However, there wasn’t a clear enough delineation between the ‘real Claire’ to when the character was merely role playing. There was a ‘sameness’ to the performance that undercut its effectiveness.

Kylie Maree did modulate her approach to Solange and there is a clear arc here as the more dominant figure emerges and finally flourishes into quite a disturbing profile of someone capable of murder. Whether she does or not is an entirely different matter that was being debated in the lobby after the show. Maree’s final monologue is all the more compelling because it is the continuation of a slow build up as the character is fully revealed. There is a fascinating scene between the sisters just prior to this as their role play threatens to spiral out of control as Solange exerts her dominance.  
The set was very well appointed and lit in the intimate studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre – flowers and mirrors are key elements as are the gowns Madame prefers and the maids play with. Director Susie Conte maximises the space with the action up close and personal with no break during the hour plus production. The highlight is the closing monologue that Kylie Maree delivers in style before an open ended conclusion invites the audience to ponder the ramifications of what they have witnessed.

Written by Jean Genet, Directed by Susie Conte, The Maids stars Kylie Maree, Aisling McGrogan, and Maree Grayden. The final show is on tonight, 14 November, 7.30pm at the Subiaco Arts Centre.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Next to Normal - Black Swan State Theatre Company (10 November 2015)

2015 is proving to be quite the stellar year for musical theatre in Perth. One of the reasons is productions that tackle subject matters and themes you wouldn't immediately associate with the genre - shows such as Urinetown (pungent dystopian satire), Spring Awakening (repressed teenage sexuality), Assassins (killing US presidents!) - and now a rock musical about bipolar disorder and its effects on a family. I attended the third and final preview.

Next to Normal stands out for the fact that its subject matter is challenging and under-serviced, certainly in musical theatre form. It demands that the acting from the performers is as good, if not better, than the singing requirements. The cast here deliver in spades with a potent mix of excellent songs, a great score, and a fully formed narrative arc for its central character that is as harrowing as it is gut wrenching. It is clear why this is one of only a few musicals to have won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Horwood, Alyce, Beck & Cormick
Gary Marsh Photography
That lead character is Diana Goodman; wife, mother, and a woman struggling to cope with bipolar disorder. Rachael Beck is superb as Diana bringing impressive acting chops and a wonderfully clear and expressive singing voice to the table. It's a role that necessitates incredible highs and devastating lows and Beck embraces that range with skill, nuance, and incredible stage presence. You simply can't take your eyes off her - she is at the centre of everything - and Beck elicits such a strong emotional response from the audience. The songs deepen our understanding of that emotional landscape and are delivered in style, whether plaintive and heartbreaking; playfully raunchy; or full on angst. There is also humour and hope to be found here and it's well calibrated in that regard.

Medical treatment for bipolar comes under the microscope as the suburban housewife is forced to suffer varying forms of medication and procedures that take away her fundamental essence; her sense of who she is, good and bad. It also fails to address the possible underlying cause of her mental state as some memories cannot be erased by modern medicine no matter how invasive and powerful. You can only feel but empathy for the character as the writing and Beck's performance is first rate.

Diana's condition impacts those closest to her - husband Dan (Brendan Hanson), daughter Natalie (Shannen Alyce), and son Gabe (James Bell). Natalie has a new boyfriend, the stoner Henry (Joel Horwood), while Diana is being treated by Drs. Madden and Fine (both played by Michael Cormick). A total cast of only six and what a cast it is. Acting and vocal talent across the board is exceptional with everyone given their moment to shine.

Hanson has perhaps the most difficult role - Dan is described by Diana as stolid, steadfast, solid and stoic. In the early going his was the one character in danger of verging into caricature. But as the show progressed and Dan is forced to make increasingly difficult decisions regarding his wife that smoothed itself out until Hanson delivers a devastating punctuation point (I Am the One - Reprise) in the aftermath of Diana's final choice.

Shannen Alyce & Joel Horwood
Gary Marsh Photography
One of the highlights was seeing 2014 WAAPA graduates Alyce and Horwood in their first Black Swan production. They worked so well together (Perfect For You, Hey #1-3) and sang beautifully. Horwood gave Henry a sweet naivety and charm while showcasing an excellent voice. Alyce played the studious daughter who rebels in the face of the family issues aided by Henry's more carefree influence with a believable forthrightness that was compelling. There is a moment when she is onstage with Beck performing Everything where you see the consummate present and the bright future side by side that had me grinning in appreciation.

Cormick is memorable as especially Dr. Madden when Diana's fantasies are occasionally brought to life with a shot of rock 'n' roll style voltage. He has a powerful voice and an authoritative stage presence that matches Beck blow for blow as they duel both in acting sequences and numbers such as Didn't I See This Movie? with ECT looming.

The other standout for me though was James Bell as Gabe. It's the relationship between Diana and Gabe that is the heartbeat of this piece and Bell is simply electrifying. Gabe's presence carries so much emotional heft and Bell attacks the role with such energy that his impact is undeniable. Another tremendous vocal talent, his performance and its ramifications are pivotal to making this fly.

There IS an orchestra pit! Gary Marsh Photography
Another aspect, of course, is the music and I was curious to see how this would work in the Heath Ledger Theatre. I now know that there is in fact an orchestra pit and the sound balance and quality was excellent. The six piece band under Musical Director David Young (also on Keyboards) played very well. The show took off in a sequence of songs where it all clicked as a rock musical - I Am the One, Superboy and the Invisible Girl, Open Your Eyes and I'm Alive. It felt like a clear change of gears as the energy level ramped up but more than that I suddenly discovered 'the voice' of the piece. From then on I was all in.

Musical highlights abound but special mention to I Dreamed A Dance and How Could I Ever Forget?, two stunning sequences that fuse lyrics, music, direction and performance for maximum emotional impact. Only one criticism - given the quality of the songs it was disappointing they were not listed in the programme; an all too often and baffling omission for musicals.

Hanson, Bell, Horwood, Beck & Alyce
Gary Marsh Photography
Wisely, given the more intimate nature of the show, Set Designer Bruce McKinven halved the depth of the spacious stage space with curtains forming a 'back wall' for most of the production. There was a central revolve with an outer rim that rotated independently as well which director Adam Mitchell used to great effect. The main piece of set on the central revolve was a large wood-panelled block where the panels opened on each side to depict everything from kitchen sink to toilet to bathroom vanity.

Scene transitions were slick as the revolves ensured the pace never flagged. Lighting design by Trent Suidgeest was evocative and well judged while the sound design by Ben Collins was the best I've heard at this venue; the only minor quibble being that Hanson's microphone volume was noticeably lower in the early scenes but this was soon corrected.

This is an excellent production with everybody at the top of their game, on stage, in the orchestra pit and behind the scenes. Directed by Adam Mitchell with Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Musical Direction by David Young and starring Shannen Alyce, Rachael Beck, James Bell, Michael Cormick, Brendan Hanson and Joel Horwood; with Young on Keyboards, Michael Perkins (Drums/Percussion), Shane Pooley (Bass), Andrew Weir (Guitar), Brian Kruger (Violin) and Laura McGorgan (Cello), Next to Normal is a must see and is on at the State Theatre Centre until 22 November.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Fresh Bred Productions (31 October 2015)

What a way to spend Halloween night – attending a production dripped in revenge and obsession where a “demon barber” slits the throat of unsuspecting customers who end up being the filler for meat pies! Of course, this gruesome tale is blessed by the sublime music and lyrical dexterity of Stephen Sondheim with a dark-hued book by Hugh Wheeler.  

My first impressions as I wandered into the venue were, “what a spectacular theatre!” quickly followed by “what a cast!” as I looked through the programme. Indeed, St. Hilda’s Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre is a wonderfully appointed 940 seat theatre with all the mod cons – large performance space, orchestra pit, immaculate seating, all the high-tech gadgets, and beautiful lobby and facilities. It was impressive in every way.

As is the cast director Craig Griffen has assembled. I was immediately encouraged on seeing Ian Cross’s name - the standout in a recent production of Oklahoma! - in the lead role. His Jud from that musical was also a dark, tormented character whom he played with great intensity and menace. He excels here with another tightly coiled turn as the eponymous character showcasing a powerful voice and bringing a fierce energy and gruffness to the role. This is occasionally leavened by a softer approach in regard to Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Madeline Crofts), and a vein of jet black humour with his landlady and partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (Elethea Sartorelli).

Sartorelli, who won a Finley Award last year for a supporting role in the musical Xanadu, is the perfect foil to Cross. Her Mrs. Lovett is cheekily amoral yet caring when it comes to young Tobias (Pete Martis). She sings beautifully, Cockney accent and all, and brings so much black humour to proceedings. Cross and Sartorelli work well together, the first act closer, A Little Priest, a highlight as they gleefully cavort while singing the gloriously mischievous song replete with trademark Sondheim wit and wordplay.

Michael MacCuish, who was good in a non-singing role in Spring Awakening, reveals a tremendous voice as Anthony, the sweetness of which works well in counterpoint to Cross. I enjoyed the sincerity he gives the love-struck sailor, another contrast to all the duplicity swirling around the character. Crofts displays yet another standout voice with Green Finch and Linnet Bird an early highlight as she stands perched upon a step ladder like a beautiful, fragile bird herself. Again, another pairing that works well with Kiss Me a memorable moment that is reprised in snippets throughout.

Martis plays Tobias with suitable naivety until the character stumbles upon the truth leading to an escalation of events. His Not While I’m Around with Sartorelli is quite effecting as the bleak subtext of the moment cuts right through the sweetness of the ballad. This is where Sondheim’s genius lies – another gorgeous song, Johanna, is sung so earnestly while Sweeney is dispatching men with his razor. The jarring contrast of lyrics and music with the brutal actions onstage makes such sequences layered and compelling.

It’s fair to say every character is well cast with singing ability at the forefront. Kimberley Harris makes for an ultimately tragic Beggar Woman who gives some cackling cheek as she intersects with various characters along the journey. Another strong voice, her warning cries in song become increasingly desperate as events spiral out of control. 

Cal Silberstein is carving out quite a niche with memorable, comic inspired characters. Here it is with Adolfo Pirelli whom Todd bests in a shaving competition and ultimately condemns to the meat grinder of the bakehouse. There’s a mischievous attitude about Silberstein’s performances that make them stand out no matter how brief.

Rounding out the principal cast is Simon Brett who gives Judge Turpin a creepy, obsessive air of his own and has a showpiece moment of self-flagellation in Johanna: Mea Culpa; Daniel Kirkby as Beadle Bamford who joins in the fun with Parlor Songs on the “partly singed harmonium”; while Thomas Owen is briefly featured as a doctor in the asylum where Judge Turpin hides his beloved Johanna whom he intends to marry despite her being considerably younger and his ward. There really are some disturbing aspects to this story beyond the murders!

The Ensemble is also in very fine voice as they reprise The Ballad of Sweeney Todd throughout and act as silent witnesses to events or incidental characters such as the asylum inmates. They are: Stee Andrews, Rebecca Cole, Jordan Dunne, Olivia Everett, Jackson Griggs, Crystal Haig, Niamh Nichols, Emily Semple, Shannon Whyte, Sam Widenbar, and Lauren Kingham.

Then there is the nine piece orchestra under conductor Joshua James Webb who play the challenging and exceptional score extremely well. From the opening Organ Prelude they are in fine form and the sound balance is spot on between performers and musicians. Indeed the sound design is excellent for such a large venue. I overheard Webb’s mentor talking to the director after the show and he was effusive in his praise of the musical quality. There is no doubt this is a superbly sung and played production. Well done Simone Bishop, Ben Hogan, Tadgh Pedder, Krista Low, Andrea Sitas, Blake Howieson, Laura Halligan, Tahlia Denn, and Ben Albert.

To the staging and the set is quite sparse with a lot of use of smoke and haze effects. This gives great atmosphere with the lighting often used to cast the performers in partial shadow to add to the eerie tone. I did have some quibbles – the use of scene locations – for example ‘Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’s Tonsorial Parlor’ on large white sheets that descended into place tended to undercut the unsettling tone as they felt too obvious. This was also the case with the ‘19th Century London’ that unfurled at the start of the show to some mirth. These struck me as redundant as the spaces were clearly delineated by the props and the performances themselves.

It also felt a curious choice when the impressive lighting array was lowered to just above head height at the start of the show for one of the ensemble to literally ‘plug things in’ after which it would rise and descend for various scenes. This was a little distracting as if too eager to show off the technology but after a while settled down to a more traditional configuration.

In all, this is a fine production of a tremendous piece of musical theatre. I understand months of preparation and rehearsal have gone into making this show a reality and it shows. Congratulations to all involved on taking a risk with such a huge undertaking for independent theatre and pulling it off.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is directed by Craig Griffen with Musical Direction by Joshua James Webb from a Book by Hugh Wheeler; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and is on at the Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre in Mosman Park next Friday and Saturday the 6-7th November.