Saturday, 30 April 2016

Punk Rock - Murdoch Theatre Company (28 April 2016)

It’s a scenario that has become frighteningly prevalent in recent times – a lone gunman wreaking havoc and misery on innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At school, at work, in a café; no public place seems immune to the criminal insanity. We watch in disbelief as school shootings become incomprehensibly commonplace in the US. We are brutally reminded despite tighter gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur atrocity that this type of evil can strike on our own shores, the Martin Place siege a case in point. Oftentimes it is the act of disaffected youth – radicalised, marginalised, traumatised. We lament what could make someone do such a heinous act?      

This brings us to Punk Rock, a slow burn drama that builds to a harrowing climax. Set in an English school where students are preparing for their mock exams, it explores the pressures and preoccupations that might lead a person to spiral so completely out of control. Among the many are bullying, sexual identity, relationship dramas, rejection and the pressure to succeed, to conform, to rebel. It’s a powder keg of adolescent emotions and power dynamics where any of the students might snap.

At first it is a familiar world – the teasing, bullying, and knockabout ribaldry of high school where identities and pecking orders are forged and refined. But there’s a sense of dread that creeps in as we slowly come to realise something isn’t quite right here. This is where Murdoch Theatre Company’s admirable attempt fails. Too many elements detract from the creation and ratcheting up of that tension.

Foremost of these is the sound design. Live music is performed by Michael Bennett-Hullin and William Burgess on guitar and drums providing authentic bursts of punk music to start the show and between scenes. However, once the guitar amp is switched off there is a muzak-like soundtrack piped in from the speakers high up on the back wall of Studio 411 that was distracting to say the least. I sighed with relief once it stopped after what felt like 20 straight minutes only for it to sporadically return throughout including, most unfortunately, the lead-up scene to the moment where a gun goes off. I didn’t understand why it was there in the context of scenes set in a school library or why it came in and out without any seeming rhyme or reason. It totally undercut any attempt to build that atmosphere of dread.

The lighting design also periodically confused me as again, the action takes place indoors so changes in the intensity of lighting during scenes didn’t make much sense especially when linked to dialogue about the level of heat in the room. If it was supposed to reflect emotional intensity then I would argue that this is the job of the actors to convey.

The set design was very good with all the trappings of a school in decay – battered tables and chairs, graffiti strewn cushions and a warped row of cupboards to represent lockers. Except for one important aspect – the band was visible behind a lattice framework that was the centrepiece of the back of the set. Once they completed their punk interludes all the musicians could do was watch the action with nowhere to hide from the audience. This posed another distraction. At one point a section of that framework was opened as a ‘window’ by an actor at the start of a scene. The guitarist closed it before the start of the next scene! This totally wrenched me out of the supposedly hermetically sealed world of the story.  

To the performances and Mike Casas brought immediate creepiness and intensity to his portrayal of William instead of perhaps modulating this to incrementally build as his character’s arc deepens. It is a difficult role and he plugged away at it but often he was caught out Acting in a tic laden, mannered performance. Thomas Dimmick gives the bully Bennett a sneering verbosity but I didn’t get a sense of physical menace or unpredictability. He did handle the ‘lipstick scene’ well after the perennial target of Bennett’s scorn (Chadwick played by Sean Welsh) questions his sexuality. Welsh delivers the memorable monologue about all the woes of mankind with straight forward earnestness and plays the reserved ‘nerd’ with nice understatement. 

Paige Mews is the new girl, Lilly, who becomes the object of William’s misplaced affections while already sleeping with Nicholas (Will Moriarty). It is a steady performance but I didn’t feel the inner turmoil that would drive a character to deliberately burn herself with a cigarette lighter. Shannen Precious has some nice moments as Tanya, another target for Bennett’s anger. She adds fleeting moments of humour and a touch of backbone within the group hierarchy. Will Moriarty’s Nicholas was oddly lacking in swagger or charm as Bennett’s presumptive buddy and object of Lilly’s attentions. Bella Doyle rounds out the cast as Bennett’s put upon girlfriend Cissy bringing equal measures of mean girl snark and helplessness as the character’s relative status is determined by his behaviour.

The climax is still disturbing – how could the depiction of cold blooded murder not be? But its power is diluted by the wide spacing of the performers whereas a more claustrophobic configuration would have worked better – they are trapped and there is no way out. The final scene was omitted. I’m in two minds about this. In many ways it’s superfluous as it provides no easy answers. What it does do, however, is let the audience breathe again before releasing them back into the world. A world you would like to think is safe but one where what they have just witnessed is a terrifying possibility.

Co-directed by Tay Broadley and Justin Crossley, Punk Rock is one of the more ambitious productions I’ve seen staged at Studio 411 (formerly the Drama Workshop) and should be commended for that. Ultimately though, there were too many aspects working against propelling the themes and narrative into truly compelling dramatic territory.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

24 Hour Stage Project - Blak Yak Theatre (9 April 2016)

Blak Yak Theatre held their inaugural 24 Hour Stage Project at Rigby’s Bar and Grill in the city on Friday and Saturday nights. I had the pleasure and great honour of being asked to come along and adjudicate the 6 teams that had created productions in that 24 hour period. Writers, actors and directors had been assigned at random and given the theme of Back in 5 which they were free to interpret in any way they liked. The writers went away Friday night to work their magic with the directors and actors starting their work Saturday morning. There was time for a tech run each in the afternoon before the lights came down on a paying audience from 8pm.

Teams were competing for cash prizes and there was also the opportunity for feedback and Honourable Mentions. Perhaps more than that it was a way for newcomers to get involved and have their words, directing, or acting staged in front of an audience, some for the very first time. Plus the impetus of having people coming together in a collaborative endeavour to create new work. Hopefully creative partnerships were forged and some if not all of these projects will find life in further development.

I received the scripts Saturday morning and I was impressed with the quality across the board given that they were written in only a 12 hour window. For the Best Script prize I wanted to choose a winner based on the work on the page before seeing the actual productions later that night. It also had me intrigued to see how they would be realised, again in the fiendishly short space of 12 hours for directors, actors, and the technical crew Blak Yak had provided to make the words come to life on stage.

The night was very well run, there was a good sized and enthusiastic audience in attendance downstairs at Rigby’s, and everything went without a hitch. Above all else the end result of 24 hours of frantic creativity was 6 varying yet compelling pieces of theatre. There was everything from a super-hero themed comedy set on a train to Midland; international spies duelling to see who would end Donald Trump’s robotic march to the White House; a hard hitting tale of a woman trying to come to terms with the abuse of her childhood; overwhelming grief and confusion over the death of a friend; a woman celebrating her wedding anniversary in, let’s say, unusual ways; and a relationship coming to an end as ‘going out to get milk’ turns into a cross country trip to Sydney. It was a nice mix of comedy and drama.

The quality of acting was high and the use of the small stage space inventive. As I remarked before announcing the winners it was instructive to see so clearly demonstrated that with a space no matter how small, a script, some actors, a director, simple props, minimal set, basic sound and lighting cues you can create theatre that will move people or make them laugh or think or all of these things. All you need is a willingness to work together, take some risks, and be creative in your storytelling.

I really enjoyed the night and it was a little unusual for me. Normally I never ever take notes when I’m watching a show. Occasionally at interval or after a production you might see me adding a few reminders to Memo on my smart phone but they’re usually song titles or references I might forget. Here I had a notepad and Adjudication form as there was the opportunity to give some brief feedback to each team as well as having to choose winners in a short timeframe. I even eschewed my usual cider, nursing a lemon squash (heaven forbid!) all night.  

Thank you to Blak Yak President Lorna Mackie who, along with her team, did such a wonderful job of organising the event and looking after me on the night. It really was a fantastic evening and, given the positive reception, looks like it will become an ongoing proposition. If so, I encourage people to get involved as it’s a fun (if tiring!) way to meet new people, put original work in front of a receptive audience and develop momentum for stories and idea. 

Congratulations to all the writers, actors, and directors who participated. Thank you also to the people who came up to chat after the event. I suspect Blak Yak will make a formal announcement of all the winners online so I won’t pre-empt that here only to say, well done everyone!

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Fractured - The Actors' Hub (8 April 2016)

One of the reasons fairy tales are an enduring and popular form of storytelling is that they present instantly recognisable archetypes and a strong moral framework. In more cynical times the “they all live happily ever after” resolution once good invariably triumphs over evil is somehow seen as less desirable and perhaps even a weakness as the world seldom works that way. Moral complexity and ambiguity rule the day as evidenced by grimmer, grittier takes on those other great fables, the comic book superhero.

Fairy tales aren’t immune to such reinterpretations with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods a prime example. What cost does “happily ever after” demand? Fractured attempts a similar subversion with the tagline: What Disney didn’t tell you about schoolyard wolves and the lure of poisoned apples.

Developed by The Actors’ Hub’s Gap II students this self-devised piece warps well known fairy tale characters and tropes into a storyline where evil wins the day. The key difference is that fairy tales, as well as having clear archetypes for its characters, also have distinct storytelling patterns. The hero or heroine typically enters a special world to undertake a task or quest to defeat some kind of villain or challenge and then return with whatever prize comes with victory. There’s lots of rescuing of princesses, slaying of dragons, reversing of magic spells, defeating of evil witch/sorcerer/ogre/insert villain of choice. It’s a familiar story pattern ingrained in our DNA and explicitly explored by Joseph Campbell and later utilised by Christopher Vogler to become, for a long time, the pre-eminent screenwriting template in Hollywood.

Here though the germ of a good idea – that the storybook of each presumptive hero or heroine is being altered or even erased due to a magic potion – is lost in unfocused storytelling. All the elements are there – evil sorcerers, princes, princesses, a dark forest, a ball, wolves, poisoned apples - but I was unsure of the task or quest, which character(s) was the presumptive hero/heroine, what the stakes really were, and what was driving the story forward.

The scene is set with three cackling sorcerers of some description (Benjamin Constantin, Andrew Dunstan, Zach Clifford) brewing a magic potion. A pack of wolves headed by Butch the Bulldog (Nicholas Allen) and Blackheart the Beagle (Tyler Lindsay-Smith) entice a bored Prince Eric (Christian Tomaszewski) and his royal buddy Prince Kristoff (Quintus Olsthoorn) to come to a ball where three princesses will also be in attendance – Ariel (Lauren Thomas), Cindy (Sarah Papadoulis), and Bella (Grace Chapple). Another Prince – Adam (Daniel Moxham) – appears entranced by Cindy after an encounter in the woods. Various characters eat the poisoned apples that contain the magic potion and one of them disappears. The sorcerers triumph having altered all of the other characters’ storybooks as a result. There is no rescue, no quest, no happy ending.

A common fault with self-devised pieces is the lack of narrative drive leading to any kind of real conflict and climax. Here the princes are bored, the princesses seem more interested in hooking up with someone at the ball, and the wolves are just being mischievous. The only characters with any real motive are the bad guys and possibly Prince Adam though his character isn’t explored in any great depth. This means there’s no narrative momentum or the normal rhythms and turning points you would expect.

Lots of references to fairy tale characters are tossed into the dialogue but this was all surface level. Even the concept of the storybook was muddled as each character also had a ‘mirror’ that was used a surrogate for the trusty mobile phone with a couple of ‘elfies’ taken along the way. A ‘Tinderella’ gag might get a cheap laugh but such references felt incongruous and tended to undercut the fairy tale context.

Putting aside all the storytelling problems, it’s clear that The Actors’ Hub puts an emphasis on physical movement and voice work in their training. The wolves are a rambunctious bunch with energetic displays as they tumble over each other to amuse Prince Eric. The forest is well portrayed by actors contorted into different poses, some atop the other. Plenty of howling and cackling, while tending to wear out its welcome, showcased a full-throated approach.

The pick of the performances included Thomas as a prickly Ariel, Chapple as the virtuous Bella, while Tomaszewski made for a slightly pompous and languorous Eric, and Moxham intrigued as Adam. I would have liked to have seen his character better utilised as it felt as if he could have been the classic underdog hero.

There’s no doubt this was an exuberant performance and that there’s potential in this group of actors. However, no amount of enthusiasm and craft can make up for what was a jumbled storyline of missed opportunities. 

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Black Swan State Theatre Company & Malthouse Theatre (1 April 2016)

1900. Valentine’s Day. English style gentility meets the ferocity of the Australian landscape as five private school girls recount the details of a mystery that will traumatise a community and grow into legend. Three girls and their governess disappear that day. One is later found but has no recollection of events. Another who turned back is unclear of what happened. The fifth girl, an orphan, did not go on the excursion but meets her own tragic fate. What hold does this ancient land have over the naïve newcomers who attempt to conquer it with arcane codes of civility and properness?

In many ways it’s an impenetrable mystery heavy on atmosphere and symbolism but short on closure. It’s interesting then that director Matthew Lutton and playwright Tom Wright (adapting from Joan Lindsay’s novel) have chosen to present the theatrical version as Australian gothic horror. It features outstanding sound and lighting design (J. David Franzke and Paul Jackson respectively) augmented by composer Ash Gibson Greig’s haunting flourishes. The results are startling. It is easily the best use of the Heath Ledger Theatre space I have seen in the last few years.

Set designer Zoe Atkinson has wisely restricted the spacious stage area with black walls forming an irregular shaped triangle, the base of which is the front of the stage, creeping into a darkened apex upstage left. Hanging over upstage right is an ominous, large bundle of sticks and brush, an ever present reminder of the harshness of the land. The other notable element is a voluminous wardrobe in the middle of one wall. We never see Hanging Rock itself but its presence is concisely evoked in the precise language.

That language is finely delivered by the five actresses - Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels - who all inhabit various personas throughout the recounting of the tale. From the adolescent school girls to an array of other characters both male and female, they are excellent in clearly delineating each person through accent, posture, and aided by costuming. There is complete clarity as to who is in each scene. It is an impressive ensemble.

The play starts with all five of them in a line detailing the events of that fateful day. A rhythm is established as dialogue and characters are rotated seamlessly between them, building in intensity until a jarring black out as the girls, onstage and in our imagination, disappear into the wilderness. It’s a technique that is filmic in nature and repeated often. The stage completely dark and then the next scene bursts into full light, immaculately presented like a beautifully composed frame. Then slam cut to black to unsettle and build atmosphere and tension. The speed and precision of the transition from scene to scene is superb and attention grabbing.

Discordant, insistent sound adds to these transitions and suggests the horror elements implicit in what may have occurred up at the rock. The aural landscape is subtly presented as sounds of the bush intrude. The attention to detail is immaculate with one sequence including the crunch of gravel underfoot in time to the actress’s movements.

Each scene has a title displayed above the stage. I found this superfluous and a little distracting. So much skill and effort had gone into crafting the sense of place and time that these headings felt perfunctory by comparison. The wardrobe, symbolic of the portal between worlds and of the gap between dreaming and reality, was ultimately revealed to have a more practical application. This diluted its own silent mystery.

The use of a tumble mat for a sequence involving a mini-trampoline (useless physical movement) felt out of place, somehow too modern. It also cluttered the space taking away from those beautifully staged ‘frames’. More critically it anchored the last stanza of the production as Lutton could no longer deploy the razor sharp scene transitions and slam cuts to black as the mat was too big to move quickly.

This robbed the production of a clear stylistic choice just as the narrative itself began to meander to a somewhat tame conclusion. In this the expert use of so many devices to ratchet up the tension is let down by the anti-climactic nature of the ending. There are also some late shrill moments that felt tonally out of place such as the attack on the returned girl by other students desperate to know what happened.

Putting these few issues aside, director Matthew Lutton has presented a visually and aurally compelling production with an excellent ensemble of actresses. The stagecraft on display during this sole preview was exceptional and is sure to enthrall Saturday’s opening night audience. The show is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre and runs until 17 April.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Boise, Idaho - Black Martini Theatre (31 March 2016)

Have you ever sat in a cafe sipping a latte gazing across the room at all the other customers wondering who they are, where they’ve come from and what the future might hold? Perhaps you’ve witnessed a demonstrative couple and speculated what the cause of their angst might be; maybe a loving couple sponsors romantic thoughts... or morose ones depending on your mood; and then there’s the body language of a silent pairing that may speak volumes. We imprint our own experiences and desires on anonymous strangers who simply happen to be in the vicinity. If you’re a writer it’s pretty much an occupational hazard.

But what if the targets of your musings knew of the imaginary narrative you were building for them? What if they started to play along, to actually become the alternative versions you conjured? How do you react if your fictional hold becomes so great they come to believe they are the characters in the drama fabricated in your mind? This is the premise for Boise, Idaho, a snappily written 30 minute play produced by Murdoch University’s Black Martini Theatre and directed by first-timer Luke Gratton. 

In a cafe that may be in Paris but certainly isn’t in Idaho a man (Hock Edwards) narrates a tale of love, infidelity, and dead rodents using a couple at a nearby table (Launcelot Ronzan and Tijana Simich) as his inspiration. The couple become aware of his verbal ‘big print’ and soon begin to play along until things get out of hand as the salad flies and the dry cleaning bill mounts. Even the waiter (Tay Broadley) is sucked into this surreal mix of reality and fantasy like the Millennium Falcon caught in a tractor beam. It is clever, funny, and well written as a series of distinct sequences unfold.

Edwards is very good as the Narrator. He dominates the early proceedings delighting in the purple prose used to create a fully realised fantasy world that is exaggerated and absurd. He exhibits good comic timing and underplays the funnier lines to great effect... for no apparent reason.

The inevitable change of gears comes mainly through Simich whose character twigs to the conceit and then is the first to embrace it. She plays well off Ronzan as they work through the initial confusion of their new personas to displaying real emotions of hurt and betrayal as the lines become blurred between fantasy and reality.

Ronzan is largely the straight man here until inhabiting his new identity with quite some exuberance leading to a dark climax that is sensibly undercut with a lighter denouement. Along the way there are some surprising moments that give Broadley’s waiter a genuine reason for cleaning up during final bows.

Simply staged and briskly directed to suit the punchy writing this was the equivalent of having a nicely made coffee with a good muffin or piece of cake at your favourite cafe while daydreaming about that intriguing couple in the corner booth. Just, whatever you do, don’t order the soup and salad. Seriously, trust me on this!

Written by Sean Michael Welch and Directed by Luke Gratton, Boise, Idaho is on at Studio 411 on the Murdoch campus until 2 April and stars Hock Edwards, Launcelot Ronzan , Tijana Simich and Tay Broadley.