Tearing Down the Fourth Wall

Pushing Up Daisies vs A Comedy of Errors

“O! I’m going to the theatre, Darling. The cinema is sooo plebeian. Mink or Chinchilla to guard against the cold?”

Nauseating!

“It’s a Brechtian interpretation. Perfect for my essay on comparative approaches to theatrical storytelling on the early 20th Century Stage.”

Alienating!

“Ohh, goody, there’s a hearing loop in the auditorium!”

Tragicomedy!

“Chookas, Sweetie. I’ll be in the fifth row, towards stage left.”

Familial, fidelity.

“How could he be cast over me?????”

No Comment.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

 

Theatre audiences haven’t always fallen into such broad categories. Look around an auditorium and you will see a refined bunch of people with seemingly singular taste. But they’re a small umbrella group. Of course, I’m not referring to the big musicals that seem to break out and draw people in – crossing boundaries of wealth, sub-cultural fixations and education, and beyond the community of theatre practitioners who love and support the craft and each other.

Spending two to five times as much as the price of going to the footy to see a drama or an opera, can be an edifying, fulfilling experience but it won’t provoke the same audience response and loud catharsis that the footy can. Oops! Isn’t the theatre supposed to be cathartic? Hasn’t that old Greek word entered the English language to describe what goes on in your heart when theatre is at its best? When it lifts you, makes you see yourself and realise that you have changed or can change or that somehow life can be better?

Catharsis in the theatre is a very personal thing. It quietly slips down your cheek when no one is watching.  It wasn’t always the case. In Shakespeare’s day it was caterwauled at the performers, its heckling parleyed back and forth between the auditorium and the stage along with a barrage of soft tomatoes, and it could take to the streets in insurrection.

I don’t think you have to go so far back as Shakespeare to find audiences so engaged with performances – perhaps only back to just before the advent of television. When theatre was the only choice of dramatic storytelling for all.

In modern presentations of plays directors and their troupes try to instigate some of that interaction.

Shakespeare wrote the asides, as if they were improvised, to address his audience directly into his texts. At the Pop-Up Globe the performers run through the groundlings’ standing pit, and the stalls. They invite the audience to photograph them mid performance; they hurl fruit into the audience and lewd staging is used to raise laughs and lower everyone’s inhibitions. The twenty-first century audience smiles in appreciation of their nod to historical performance peccadillos and laugh too, but say nothing in response.

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

What would happen if the audience did respond? and as often as they were invited to and, when they weren’t invited.

Over the past week I have attended two very different productions. Both were comedies. The first was Shakespeare’s classic, A Comedy of Errors in the Pop-Up Globe and the other was Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by the Hellenic Art Theatre. In the first production, the ensemble dared the audience to interact. In the second, they had to deal with it as a matter of course.

How to cook with no ingredients - feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

How to cook with no ingredients – feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by Γιωρου Γαλιτη,  under the direction of Stavros Economidis satirises stereotypes found in modern day Athenian society. It does this by a series of monologues presented as eulogies to the newly departed. Each eulogy is honest rather than diplomatic and more revealing about the living than the dead. Among the different types we hear from is a thief, a bishop, a socialite, a politician, a surgeon and, poignantly, a chef (Nick Tsioukanis) who advises how to cook for life under the austerity measures imposed on Greece in the wake of the economic crisis.

The stage is bare, dressed with only two coffins, diagonally pointing into centre stage. Each monologue is delivered between these two coffins beginning with the personification of death himself.

The nature of monologues is to be addressed to the audience directly as much if not more than the stage environment. Conventionally, the audience sits up and listens closer. In this production the audience is alert and engaged from the get go. As Death enters and requests mobile phones be switched off, the pre-show chatter is diverted and acknowledges his request. Chatter isn’t entirely quelled and remarks fly on every entrance by a subsequent performer.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

“Ah, here she is! It’s Evelyn.”

“Hmm, Stavros has lost weight.”

It’s clear there is a familiarity between the performers and their audience that has been accumulating over years of offering and attendance.

When each eulogy begins with an address to the deceased, someone has to voice the audience concerns that the latest performer has made a mistake. Clearly the dead man was named for someone else.

“Get it right, it’s so-and-so in that coffin.”

“No. It’s supposed to be a different person, now.”

As each monologue is given, audience members comment and add short anecdotes among themselves. It’s clear and loud that they can relate. Occasionally the performers were heckled within the context of the character that they were presenting.

Without even having to try, the fourth wall is down. Why did the Pop-Up Globe troupe have to put such an effort? Could it be that the answer lies with the audience?

The widow

The Widow (Evelyn Tsavales)

I’m apt to hypothesize that a lot has to do with the fact that the Hellenic Art Theatre have a relationship with their audience that spans many decades. There is a familiarity of faces across the fourth wall and also between the pews of the auditorium. They are not the disconnected group that attend the larger commercial theatres of the city. They share the migrant experience that binds them whether its mink on the shoulders or uni books in the backpack or personal connections to the company. There is security in this familiarity.  It’s something that I’m betting this audience shares with that of the audiences at the Globe in the age of Elizabeth and James. Then, there was the homogenous experience of being citizens of London who waited for the theatre for their drama where for decades HA Theatre’s audience waited for HA Theatre to be the sole provider of theirs.

A lot has to do with the comedy as well. When they offer Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women later in the year, I can’t imagine that there’ll be heckling.

With such an abundance of audience banter – how do the performers deal with it?

The General

The General (Stavros Economidis)

It would take a seasoned performer with the resilience of a street performer or swift repartee of a stand-up comedian to take it all in stride and keep the momentum of the written text going. That’s how I imagine the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, to have been like. The exercise of the same members of the ensemble, play after play in front of a familiar audience would insite asides, heckling and banter that Shakespeare never recorded.

The cast of the Hellenic Art Theatre take it all in stride and offer a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα is playing at the Mantouridion Greek Theatre at the Addison Rd Community Complex in Marrickville until 30th September. English surtitles are projected throughout the performance. Bookings: www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au

The Pop-Up Globe is offering Shakespeare in Moore Park from this September and October.

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Pop-Up Globe: A Comedy of Errors

“The Best Night of Theatre Ever” – Australian Stage on Pop-Up Globe Melbourne

“This isn’t dusty Shakespeare. This is now. Alive. Like a Party”

“LIMITED SEASON, STARTS SEPT 5”

Read the hype. Are you excited? Do you absolutely have to go? If you miss the Sydney shows will the only alternative be flying the 21+ hours – if you’re lucky to get a direct flight – no stopovers – to London? Will your experience of Shakespeare ever be the same again? Following this train of thought I had to go. I had to go now – like the persistent urge to pee that’s never sated, my anticipation ran at a cross-legged stampede through my patience. Opening night wasn’t soon enough. It had to be, now, now, now.

So it was I saw a matinee preview and thus couldn’t enjoy the best night. What about the best day?

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe company have put the latest research from Sydney University into what the second Globe Theatre would have looked like into their construction of their demountable theatre. The second Globe Theatre stood longer than the first and would lave seen a greater number of performances of Shakespeare in the Jacobean Era before the closure of the Theatres in the 1630s. For this reason they tell us they chose the second Globe over the first to emulate. The groundlings stand before the thrust stage and each level of stalls provides seating with appropriate price fluctuations. Draughty and wet at times, towels brought along could be needed as well as a pair of sunnies to proof against the stealthy sunlight chasing through the scaffolded stalls. But the experience is about emulating that of the early 17th Century and it seems to do just that.

At eye level with the thrust stage: discovery space and entrances on the back wall, structural columns break up the performance space and scaffolding on the right supports the stalls for the audience.

Taking away all hype and advertising, if I were to stumble upon this theatre I’d be very, very excited. Much has been said of the lack of props and setting on the Shakespearean stage but their lack doesn’t justify performers having to work within a pool of light in a nebulous black void filled only by their costumes and presence, as we often see. That’s not the Jacobean stage at all. No, what is missed is that the entrance doors and discovery spaces – both the central double doors and the balcony alcoves over the stage proper – have roles to play. They conceal and they reveal. The columns of the entrance porch and the columns supporting the ceiling all break up the space and lend the actor their presence to be reimagined.

The Pop-Up Globe’s, Southampton’s Company, under the direction of Miles Gregory use all of these architectural features to bring to life the plot. They don’t limit their playing space to the stage but traipse through the stalls and ground entrances claiming all areas. They extend the reality of the play into the groundlings throwing produce and asides their way. What’s wonderful – fresh and classic at the same time – is their ability to step out of the reality of the plot and refer to themselves as players without breaking the illusion of the play. I imagine this to be experience with the other plays on offer over the next six weeks: Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice.

From the programme and publicity leaflet

A Comedy of Errors was a lot of fun. Few opportunities to extend the play with visual gags and slapstick were passed up. The cast have a lot of fun with it. Ryan Bennet and Blake Kubena as the twins Dromio are perfectly cast. They look enough alike to pass as twins but differ enough to be told apart. Both are wonderful comic actors who project the same incorrigible comic soul. Watching their antics is pure joy. Serena Cotton’s Luciana is exuberant, energetic and endearing. Romy Hooper’s gloriously uninhibited Adriana is sure to raise eyebrows.

A lot of the laughs come from visual extensions that move beyond the intension of the playwright. Shakespeare was a bawdy fellow if his scripts tell us anything about him. This is a bawdy interpretation and very funny but the physical extensions of the script don’t necessarily aid the understanding of the relationship between Adriana and her husband that Shakespeare intended. Shakespeare’s bawdy wit is obvious in his words. When his words dictated the visual gags, I found the humour more gratifying.

The action is set in the Ottoman court under whose jurisdiction Ephesus was in thrall when this play was written. Musicians aid the exotic setting with drums and flute. An arghile pipe stands with the band and wafts its incense through the air. Colourful costumes represent a mish-mash of cultures ruled by the Ottomans, Sufi’s, Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and the Duke who is dressed as a Turkish Pasha. The costumes are so exotic where the courtesan is dressed as a 1960’s socialite and Aegeon wears a modern-day con’s coveralls I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. But just a little.

The Pop-Up Globe is here for the next 6 weeks. To experience Shakespeare in this replica environment is a real treat. As promised, The Comedy of Errors was alive, like a party – a well dusted one. It’s left me itching to see more.

Online Bookings can be made at http://www.ticketmaster.com.au/popupglobe

The beautiful canopy/ceiling above the stage, with the upper level discovery alcoves and balcony.

Review: Tales of Hoffmann

Rockdale Opera Company

August 18-26, 2018, Rockdale Town Hall

Musical Director: Luke Spicer

Director: David Brennan

Looking for a good night out? Boo! Did I scare you? No? How ’bout…”OPERA!!!!” Scared now? What about, “Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann!” Yes? Edgar Allan Poe, better? No? Hoffmann is scarier – his stories have been operatically realised by the great romantic composer, Jacques Offenbach.

Okay, “OPERA! HOFFMANN! OFFENBACH!” Now you’ve got to be scared!

Mention a good night out and most people won’t immediately think of the Opera. It’s that thing that happens in that funny looking building on the Harbour. It’s performed in a foreign language. It’s expensive. Everyone speaks with an apple in their mouth and they’re just the audience. And the sound is…different – sonorous singing complementing a rich instrumental accompaniment – not the usual demonstrative rapping or tuneful skipping out of lyrics meant to be bopped to. It’s decidedly not pedestrian and not easily accessible.

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Heymish PR

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Oscar Smith

But what if it was? What if it were in English and each act opened with a dramatic introduction setting the scene about to be sung? What if it was offered in suburban Rockdale, with plenty of free-parking and easy public transport? What if Musical Director, Luke Spicer, presented a superb orchestra to uplift highly trained and talented singers? What if the Director brought with him the experience of years as a principal at Opera Australia as David Brennan has? What if the core of the Rockdale Town Hall resonated with the song of disparate lyrical organs expressing their joy in concert with each other, in concert with Offenbach?

It would be a shame to miss it.

The Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann, offers all of this. If you haven’t experienced opera before, this production is all too easy. An act by act synopsis is offered in the programme and just enough time and ample lighting to comfortably read it in the scene changes. Adjusting your ear to the style of singing may take a few moments – like accustoming yourself to Shakespearean English –  but it’s worth it.

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Heymish PR

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Oscar Smith

The poet, Hoffmann, walked away from his creative muse to pursue love with disastrous and macabre results. Three of his exploits detail his bizarre infatuations: with a life-size, battery-operated doll; a Venetian enchantress who steals his reflection and hopes to steal his soul; and the lovely Antonia who loves him but risks her health when she shares his music with him.

Benjamin Oxley’s Hoffman is sympathetic and real. The warmth of his voice and the sureness of his pace and actualization endear us to his plight. Camilla Wright mesmerises with her realisation of the doll, Olympia. Her robotic movements and painted smile fool few beside the lovelorn Hoffman. There is much to admire in her delivery, she enchants with her acting and musical humour.

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Heymish PR

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Oscar Smith

Barbara Jin, portrays Nicklausse, a student who the Muse has charged with looking out for Hoffmann. She physicalises her character’s emotions roundly, communicating her state of mind emphatically without hamming. Ray Dubber, a company veteran, delights as the near-deaf servant, Franz. He has a larrikin’s face for comedy and is a delight to watch, a delight to listen to.

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Heymish PR

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Oscar Smith

Opera poses many challenges for its performers: they must sing the right notes; carry the tune at volume; and bring across their particular character. In a couple of instances towards the end of the second half, the strength of the full orchestra posed a challenge for the performers. But the feelings were there.

This opera was unfinished by Offenbach at his death. We are told that the act in Venice was left the least developed. Dramatic tension within this act could perhaps have been better utilised with a bigger delivery of the dastardly Dapertutto, the purveyor of reflections and souls – perhaps from costuming or make-up? Perhaps the blocking of his movement and interactions?

The costumes are evocative of the early 20th Century and aid in setting the production. The set itself is stripped back and striking – a lit backcloth and black silhouettes creating the Tavern and Venice effectively.

All in all, the Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann is a good night out, even for the uninitiated. Very enjoyable.

Tickets can be booked online. Phone bookings: 02 8197 1796

Hurry, the run closes August 26!

 

Review: I’ll be Back Before Midnight

The Guild Theatre, Rockdale
Director: Jennifer Gilchrist

This was first published in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, online edition.

The coals are lit, the broth is brewing, the Guild Theatre cauldron is fed a dash of Beetlejuice, a flower from the attic and a sprinkle of Sherlock Holmes to offer up Peter Colley’s international smash, I’ll be Back Before Midnight. This black comedy, sans satire, is seasoned with a little drama, plenty of plot twists and a revelry in horror movie tropes.

I'll be back by Midnightcouch

Lani Crooks as Jan Stapleton and Robert Mason as George Willowby, photo courtesy of the Guild Theatre

Jan Sanderson (Lani Crooks) is a neurotic wife who has just been discharged from mental care after a nervous breakdown. In spite of her anxiety, her husband, mild mannered archaeologist, Greg (George Gleeson), takes her to the country. It’s Jan’s hope that they will reinvigorate their marriage. Laura (Natalija Karna) arrives with a mind to renew her relationship with her brother as well. George (Robert Mason) is the hands-on landlord/caretaker with an incorrigible black sense of humour, an easy yarn and a wicked laugh, who checks in on them from time to time.

Jan and sister-in-law, Laura (Natalija Karna)

Jan and sister-in-law, Laura (Natalija Karna), photo courtesy the Guild Theatre

What begins, somewhat, as a psychological drama soon develops into a thriller as we question where the action is really taking place – in reality or in Jan’s head? Is her sister-in-law really playing with her mind? What’s really going on between the siblings? Natalija Karna’s Laura is needy and conniving. George Gleeson cruises along evenly as a likable Greg, until… da, dah, daaaah – no spoilers. Robert Mason embodies the rustic farmer with country charm from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He has a lot of fun with George and so do we.

Archaeologist, Greg Sanderson (George Gleeson) and his landlord, George Willowby (Robert Mason), photo courtesy The Guild Theatre

Archaeologist, Greg Sanderson (George Gleeson) and his landlord, George Willowby (Robert Mason), photo courtesy The Guild Theatre

Painted in sepia, Bill Ayers’ and Jim Farrow’s set design is deceptively ordinary. This 80’s living room comes alive with clever sound effects and various lighting techniques that complement each other to offer the kind of haunted house you’d experience watching an old movie. The house extends past the stage with exits in the usual places but each closed door or drawn curtain holds expectations as the house and performance gradually comes alive with suspense and sinister purpose.

The sound effects pervade the house spreading unease. Mundane noises, aptly timed and curtly delivered, are incorporated to help put you on the edge of your seat, and unexpected exits and entrances to jolt you out of them. The central sliding doors become a focus of suspense in the second act as Lani Crooks hits her stride when the canard woven around Jan begins to fray.

If you like haunted houses, old horror movies and plot twists you’ll enjoy, I’ll be Back Before Midnight. It’s playing at the Guild Theatre, Walz St, Rockdale throughout August, closing on September 1. Tickets can be booked on ph: 9521 6358 or online http://www.guildtheatre.com.au/2018-season/ill-be-back-before-midnight/

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The Sound of Music

Bankstown Theatre Company

July 27- August 5, 2018
Bryan Brown Theatre, Cnr Rickard Rd & Chapel St
Director: Glenda Kenyon; Musical Director: Ian Buchanan

Julie Andrews’ and Christopher Plummer’s most beloved musical, The Sound of Music has arrived at the Bryan Brown Theatre. Wait, shouldn’t that be Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music? So you would think, however, so ingrained are the portrayals of Maria and Captain Von Trapp by Andrews and Plummer that any production since that movie has to deal with many expectations: how the cast should look, act and sound. But how do you meet expectations when casting requires strong, lyrical voices and chemistry between the players?

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Maria (Lauren Eade), the Captain (Peter Sahlani) and the Von Trapp family children

Director, Glenda Kenyon, has been gifted with the considerable vocal talents of Lauren Eade as Maria. With eyes open you may see Eade but close them and you’ll hear Julie Andrews. Eade’s stage presence charms throughout the 3 hour production. When the children, pining for their missing governess finally hear her make her return, their joy is easily transferred to the audience. In a production that translates the iconic scenes from the movie onto the stage the children’s delightful choreography will cuckoo childhood memories from the cobwebs. The children shine.

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Lauren Eade as Maria and Dale Selsby as the Mother Abbess

The sound of voices are the strength of this production. Peter Sahlani plays his emotions on his sleeve while his voice is a nice complement to Eade’s. Dale Selsby encapsulates the Mother Abbess – her still authority and her compassion. Her characterization is flawless. The deep resonance of Daniel Rae’s (Rolf) singing is powerful as it’s unexpected. I wanted to hear from him.

Liesl_Rolf low res

Courtney Emmas as the 16 year old Leisl and Daniel Rae as her beau, Rolf.

There are a few surprises for those who haven’t seen the stage show before. Did you know that the Baroness and Uncle Max sing? Taking license from this difference between stage and screen, Simon Fry’s Uncle Max is a distinct departure from the austere impresario you may expect. Melissa Goman’s calculating Elsa sheds some of the icy chic for a song and dance with Max. Generally, the production pays homage to the movie from the characterisation of the nuns to the look of final scene in the abbey garden.
It’s an ambitious production. The Bryan Brown theatre, for those who haven’t patronized it before, is a comfortable, air-conditioned modern, facility with ample underground parking in the heart of Bankstown. The stage sports a wide apron of seating that keeps the audience close and performances are afforded a certain amount of leeway for intimacy despite its capacity. However, the stage itself is not deep. The staging and cast size of this production exceeds the limitations of that depth. The operatic scope of the set would have better been realized on a bigger stage.
Fans of the movie will find much to enjoy in this family classic. I challenge anyone to see it and not have joyful echoes of,  “Doe a deer …” ringing around their thoughts for days afterwards.

Matinees and evenings showing at the Bryan Brown Theatre, Cnr Rickard Rd and Chapel St, Bankstown until Sunday August 5th.

Tickets are available online or by phone: 0481 869 858

Photo Credits

HeyMish PR

A version of this review, catered for the St George and Sutherland Shire communities was first published in the online Leader.

 

Review: Snoopy!!! The Musical

This review appears in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.

MMS_SNOOPY_NathanFarrow_LouisVinciguerra_LexiHutchinson

Snoopy, The Musical opened at the Sutherland Memorial School of the Arts, June 15. Starring Nathan Farrow as Snoopy, Louis Vinciguerra as Charlie Brown and Lexi Hutchinson as Lucy

Peanuts! Get your peanuts! Peanuts and Hot Dogs, er, Hot Dog, er – make that Cool Beagle, the coolest beagle, Snoopy!!! Miranda Musical Society are reaching out to Peanuts fans with their latest musical. The Sunday comic strip comes to life with larger than life performances from its all-singing, all-dancing cast.

It’s been awhile since the beloved gang have featured in weekly print. And long gone are the years where a major holiday didn’t go unmarked by a Snoopy movie on TV . Remember the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Beagle? It didn’t matter your age, it seemed that there was always something to engage every member of the family. But that was a while ago. How does Snoopy!!! stack up today?

Leaving aside preconceptions and treating the plot – or more correctly series of comic strip stories – as that of a loosely strung together overview of the lives of a group of primary school kids, what do we have?

MMS_SNOOPY_PaulTuohy

Paul Tuohy as the blanket carrying, thumb sucking peanut, Linus.

Portrayed by a cast too young to have been inundated with Snoopy comics, cartoons and plush toys, the talented cast do an admirable job. If something of nuance is lacking it’s made up for in vitality and energy. The pace of the show skips along. There is never a quiet moment yet Louis Vinciguerra’s poignant portrayal of Charlie Brown comes across through all the clamber of the Peanut’s troupe’s emotions. If Charlie Brown’s losing to Snoopy and  his life situations has been taken for granted for generations, it isn’t in this production.

Snoopy!!! has a talented cast of singer-dancer-actors. Nathan Farrow as Snoopy oozes cool with his affected nonchalance. Alexis Hutchison as Lucy and Tamana Rita as Sally Brown are bounding bubbles of exuberance. Paul Tuohy’s lovable Linus engages the audience. Jess Punch lays out Peppermint Patty’s sensitivity and offers it to you as she looks you and Charlie Brown in the eye. But if there is anyone to fear who may steal the show, it has to be Blake Bennett as Woodstock. His portrayal is part clown, part mime, all joy.

MMS_SNOOPY_JessPunch

Jess punch as Peppermint Patty minus the iconic auburn hair and baseball cap

Filling the orchestra pit is an ensemble of percussionists, keyboards and guitars. This is a live show. Musical Director, Adam Foster and Choreographer, Madison Larsen have helped create a rich offering. Erin Macbeth’s costumes help distinguish the characters immediately, despite their head styling. Bob Peet’s set design is a mash-up of comic art, Charles Schulz’s iconic dog-house and those generic Playschool cubes. Comic images light up the backcloth and the whitewashed wings cleverly reset a scene with a new flood of bright colour in Loki McCorquordale’s complementing lighting design.

Will today’s kids like it? They may not recognise the characters. Punning, Snoopy in-jokes and 20th Century references may go over their heads. What will appeal to tweens and up is the song, dance and humour. Essentially what kids (and adults) need doesn’t change. What made Snoopy popular in the first place was the ability of the Peanuts gang to reach out with their stories. Tim Dennis’ production does this with panache.

Snoopy!!! is playing at the Sutherland Memorial School of Arts, just across the road from Sutherland train station and commuter carpark, until June 24. Tickets are available online

Cranky Ladies of History

Cranky Ladies of History! read, Cathartic Ladies of History. Fablecroft Publishing, you’ve got my attention. Short stories, little windows into the living rooms of history; whose sill should I perch on first? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Elizabeth I? Hildegard of Bingen? Mary Wollstonecraft? Empress Theodora… Hatshepsut!

Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled Egypt as a man. The glorious queen until her newphew/step-son obliterated her memory. Damnatio memoriae! That’s something to be cranky about… after she was dead. Will the story focus on her relationship with her newphew – or her brother whose rule she gave legitimacy to? Or something else entirely? I’m too familiar with her life, what if the story disappoints?

I fan across the edges of the near-shut book. There’s Lady Godiva, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Tudor and exotic names I haven’t heard of before; women from the Middle East, Asia and Scandinavia that are equally intriguing for being made peers in this anthology.

There are so many names, so many women to choose from. Which to read first? The contents page further confuses matters. The authors – some names are familiar, most are not. Not that, that’s a deterrent.

Where’s Hatshepsut again? In the middle, Neter Nefer. Will the story talk of her possible romantic relationship with Senenmut and his fall from grace? Their alleged child together? What if nothing I can relate to is dealt with? I fan the pages again.

What of Theodora, the beloved wife of Emperor Justinian? He changed the law so that he could marry this burlesque dancer, come actress, come prostitute and make her Empress. Resplendent in pearls and jewels she remains an enigma. Was her influence really the cause of all that was bad in the Byzantine Empire? Her charitable work and religious devotion don’t add up to our modern, cliched way of seeing women. Who was she really? With the scurrilous recounts of her life by “Saint” Procopius doing her no justice, there is satisfaction in Barbara Robson’s portrayal of Theodora getting some of her own back at him.

Fitting a life into a short story is a tall order. How do you make sense of a lifetime, the journey of a soul and its many transformations in a few thousand words? Do you choose a defining moment? Or do a general sweep? And if you did the sweep how effectively could the reader be entangled? In Theodora I’ve been inspired to look for her long form biography.

I wonder if I’ll be doing the same after Hatshepsut…

In this anthology, different approaches are taken by the various contributors with varying success. When it comes to dealing with famous people whom we have a pre-existing bond to, any changes that may threaten the veracity of our investment isn’t going to be received well. Ditto for well known and loved stories. If you’re going to muck around with a legend or myth you had better improve the experience or risk disappointment. The legend of Lady Godiva, her naked ride through Coventry and the peril of Peeping Tom would seem to be in the category – you can’t touch this. But then there’s Garth Nix. Not only does he play with the story, his uplifting adaptation will stay with you long after you have finished it. It celebrates women’s strength in their solidarity, their sisterhood.

Writing speculative fiction really lends itself to the short story format. History doesn’t shackle the narrative. It’s easier to make a pithy point or shape a savvy parable when your imagination is unbounded. There are quite a few stories with speculative elements and they are enchanting but the quirkiest tale of the lot is set in the early 20th Century, in Brisbane. The charm of Sylvia Kelso’s cantankerous lady doctor Lillian and her madcap flights to the rescue will leave you smiling long after you have finished reading Due Care and Attention. I’m smiling now.

In writing a biography or historic fiction the author takes on a burden of conscience. Will their story resonate the truth? Would their interpretation be approved by their protagonist? I’d like to think that Hildegard of Bingen would have of Juliet Marillier’s Hallowed Ground. The story shows the saint’s devotion to her work, her god and living a life of humility. It shows her honesty and her strength in terms of her vocation and the society and times in which she lived.

There is a lot of variety in this anthology. It has an international feel. There are many different women to meet and diverse cultures to experience as a strong female. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable read. If there were to be a Crankier Ladies of History, I’d be looking forward to reading that one too.

And Hatshepsut…well, you’ll have to buy the book!

What’s in a good review?

When I was younger I’d get all excited about a new movie or show opening. I’d open the papers to look for the reviews with bated breath. I wanted the show to be well reviewed but I was anxious that I wouldn’t enjoy it if it was. I was aware of a gap between what the reviewers appreciated and what I did. If they liked it too much would it be hard work, you know, slow and atmospheric, or bizarre and inexplicable? Would a good review make me feel uncultured or ignorant if I didn’t get it? Conversely, if they didn’t like it and I did, I was made to feel the same way. What’s wrong with melodrama anyway?

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

Ancient audience

 

After doing a few reviews more than usual this year, I’ve come to believe that a good reviewer needs to talk to the prospective audience of the show. Who are they? Will they like it? Is it appropriate to all members of a target group or family or non-targeted audience member?

Where and by who the production has been staged should influence how the performance is judged. An inner-city boutique theatre will have nuanced choices of material it stages and appeal to a particular market. Suburban, community theatre’s will select different stories with a wider appeal. Each offering should be judged on its own parameters.

If the performance is well-subsidized and offered by trained professionals then more can be expected from its production values. If the performers are drama students learning the ropes there is a different expectation – a greater responsibility is invested with the director.

The reviewer also needs to look towards the playwright. Has the director achieved the intensions of the story? Is the story relevant? If it’s a classic play, has the production touched its modern audience? Has it reached across time and given the audience an understanding of the past that resonates today?

The budget of the performance will dictate set, sound and costume design. How these challenges are met can influence the telling of the story. The decision to have a bare set because the actors, a pretty costume, a prop or two and a good script should stand on their own doesn’t always work. Really good actors, well practised in their craft can make this look easy, but it’s not. Sometimes borrowing lavish costumes that set a particular time or reality but restrict movement – so that they remain pristine – isn’t a good choice. A bare set highlights the oft asked question – what should I do with my hands? and where to stand without devolving into a tableau of talking heads.

The aim of the performance is to immerse the audience in the reality of the story. All of the elements of staging  – performers, the stage, set, costumes, props, sound design and lighting should support that reality.

The actor is crucial. Every performer no matter how big or small their role is, is crucial to creating and maintaining the theatrical illusion. How they all interact with each other – listen to each other before reacting or responding, reinforces the world of the play. If they get up from one side of the stage and walk to the other mid speech – what are they responding to? what is their motivation? Can we see what’s going on in their head? Do we as audience members feel their agitation? Or are we wondering what the actor forgot? A big pitfall, oft stated is putting on an accent or a disability. Nothing breaks the illusion than an accent that is dropped and picked up and dropped throughout the play. Maintaining an altered state over the course of a performance is really difficult.

As a reviewer it can be difficult knowing how far to delve into criticism. A play is a good one if its target audience enjoyed it. It’s a really good one if it realises the intent of the playwright as well. It’s a great one if it does this and ticks all of the production value boxes.

So what is a good review? Like a good play, a good review will talk to the play’s audience. One that can predict the enjoyment and/or edification of the target audience.

 

 

 

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Guild Theatre Limited, Walz St, Rockdale
www.guildtheatre.com.au
Director: Susan Stapleton
18 May-9 June
Didn’t get an invite to the royal wedding? Couldn’t hobnob it with English aristocrats? Lost the chance to eavesdrop in the forest of their hidden desires? Missed coochie-cooing at fairy imps in floral finery? No fear, King Theseus & Hippolyta will be repeating their nuptials over and again at the Guild Theatre, Rockdale, until June 9. And you’re most welcome.

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Oberon and Puck conspire to humiliate Titania with Bottom in his ass-ears – centre Oberon (Haki Pepo Olu Crisden) and from left to right, Puck (Rosemary Ghazi), Titania (Donna Randall) and Bottom (Russell Godwin) Photo courtesy: Susan Stapleton

 

Shakespeare’s best known comedy is about love found, love lost, love fought for, and love renewed. With his own wedding looming, King Theseus is called upon to arbitrate a dispute between Hermia and her father over her refusal to marry Demetrius: for she loves Lysander and he, her. But Demetrius won’t give her up. Helena, only recently cast off by Demetrius, will betray her childhood friend to get him back. Faced with an impossible choice Hermia and Lysander run away to an Athenian wood. Demetrius follows hotly on their heels and Helena on his.

Under cover of night the fairy realm awakes and watches. Elven King Oberon charges his mischievous imp, Puck, with administering a love potion to Demetrius to re-invigorate his love for Helena. While he’s at it, they even a score with Oberon’s fairy queen, Titania. She is made to faun over the first dolt she sees – Bottom, the would-be actor. Over-eager Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and midsummer mayhem ensues.

Shakespeare challenges directors and designers of AMSND by mixing up mythical realms of England, Medieval Europe, Greece and Rome. Theseus and Hippolyta are clearly Ancient Greek while Roman gods Cupid and Venus step back for the real love brokers, the medieval elf, Oberon, and English folklore’s, Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck. Which world is it? As the supernatural world is shown through an Elizabethan lens, Director Sue Stapleton sets it in Tudor England.

It’s a beautiful production. Stapleton makes good use of the creative talents of Costume Designer Leone Sharp, Set Designers Jim Searle and David Pointon, and Lighting Designers Roger Hind and Ruth Lowry. Tall trunks rise from dense low foliage lending depth to the stage and projected shadows of branches and camouflage extend the world of the stage into the aisles of the auditorium. Costumes are lavish. Elaborate headpieces of bone, feather and foliage created by Jodi Burns give a nod to popular images of Celtic goddesses and the Green Man.

The tone of the performance is set early by Kim Jones’ feisty Hermia. Her energy and passion are carried on in Rachael Howard’s Helena. Neither are biddable Elizabethan gentlewomen. Rather they’re rebellious, shrewish, smart and strong, modern women. It works. Rosemary Ghazi delights as the incorrigible mischief-maker, Puck. Despite the crowd-pleasing, ham acting in the play within the play, Calib James’ big but disciplined interpretation of Thisbe shone through. He’s an actor to look out for. Overall, AMSND can boast good performances from its ensemble cast.

A comedy with plenty of colour, fairies, romance, clear annunciation, and the crowd-pleasing play within the play, make this a very easy introduction to Shakespeare for young theatre goers. This is the Guild Theatre of Rockdale’s first offering of Shakespeare since 1979. It’s charming. Hopefully they will revisit the Bard a lot more regularly. Tickets are $25/$20. Bookings ph: 9521 6358.

This blogpost was first published as an article in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader

 

Theatre Review: Coup de Grace

CDG_Jimmy_Boniface_Oscar_Adam_Grace_Hailey_1a

James Phipps (Jimmy), Bill Ayres (Boniface), William Jordan (Oscar), Indianna Dimmer (Hailey), Margareta Moir (Grace) and Luke Austin(Adam). Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

Arts Theatre Cronulla, May 11 – June 16
Director: Tom Richards
Cast: Margareta Moir, James Phipps, Luke Austin, William Jordan, Indianna Dimmer and Bill Ayres

You can depend on Arts Theatre Cronulla to deliver a good night out. You can expect Tom Richard’s seasoned direction to bring a comedy off the page. And from internationally successful British playwright, Robin Hawdon, you can demand laughter. They have all delivered in the Australian premiere of Hawdon’s latest offering, Coup de Grace.

Coup de Grace is a comfortable situation comedy in the vein of 70’s produced British TV sitcoms. It’s not biting satire. It doesn’t set out to change the world, your morals or set you on a path to revolution. It’s a farce, a delightful farce. It’s comedy as the means and the end in itself.

Poor unsuspecting cat burglar, Jimmy, steals into the hotel room of movie star Grace Gervais (Margareta Moir). Her lifeless body lies partially covered on the sofa. Her lover, Adam, enters and mistakes Jimmy for her cuckolded husband. In Adam’s mind that makes him guilty. Jimmy tries to exonerate himself when her real husband, Oscar, walks in on them both. Oscar is quite happy to be misconstrued as her manager. Suddenly, Grace makes a miraculous recovery and then . . . proceeds to play along with her husband’s ruse. Sound chaotic? Set it at the Cannes Film Festival, add a stolen diamond necklace, Oscar’s ditsy, French secretary, gunshots, poison and a hotel manager who thinks he’s Hercule Poirot and you have a riotous night at the theatre.

With so much happening, so quickly, the story is set up in the first half with a hasty pace. Bill Ayers’ measured portrayal of the Hotel manager helps to ground the characters and anchor the plot. His comic timing is spot on. He spoofs Agatha Christie’s iconic detective’s accent, manner and pronunciation to hilarious effect. Margareta Moir’s portrayal of the histrionic diva fittingly fills the stage. Her investment in the improbable reality she projects on the other characters and their easy acceptance of it buoys the plot.

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The Hollywood diva, Grace Gervais (Margareta Moir) the victim, victimising. Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

 

Hawdon’s convoluted plot lines are all deceptions. Like an episode of Seinfeld, very little actually happens. The story is built on the perceptions and assumptions the characters make of each other. Accusations move the plot along. Grace thrives on drama both on and off the screen. She would live the life of the tabloids and holds them all in thrall as she works through her suspicions. Her husband knows it and plays along. The plot works because they all want to believe the illusion that keeps their secrets safe. The only ones that can see the truth are the audience and we laugh at the lot of them.
Hawdon’s latest play is sure to be another winner. His cleverly constructed plot weaves its magic without resort to crude language nor lewd staging. Word play and innuendo are peppered throughout a performance that raises chuckles and not eyebrows. It’s a show that the whole family will enjoy.

Coup de Grace is playing at the newly refurbished Arts Theatre Cronulla from 11th May – 16th June. Bookings ph: 9523 2779 www.artstheatrecronulla.com.au