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.

Advertisements

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/

img_2956.jpg

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

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.

Dream4wdps

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

 

Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical

A Michael Coppel, Louise Withers & Linda Bewick Production

Director: Gary Young

Starring: Natalie O’Donnell, Sarah Morrison, Alicia Gardner, Jayde Westaby, Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Josef Bar, Stephen Mahy

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, closing May 6. Opens Perth May 12

IMG_1743.JPG

Mammia Mia!?! Why review Mamma Mia? Haven’t we all seen it before or at the very least the Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried screen adaption? What more is there to say? If you like ABBA, you’ll like it. If you don’t, you won’t. Right? Hey, it’s closing, why bother?

I didn’t particularly want to go. I know the songs. They were indelibly tattooed on my memory way before the tapes in their cassettes wore through. I saw the movie – a feel good family treat that informed my expectations of the Musical. I just couldn’t get excited, not about going to a live covers show. But Mum was thrilled. My sister suggested we take her out as an early Mother’s Day treat. Seeing Mum so eager was reason enough.

I didn’t regret it. Live theatre is an altogether different animal than film. It’s a feel good romantic fantasy. Energetic, colourful, funny and, very simply, wonderful escapism.  The songs are so well suited to the storyline that at no point did it feel like a covers show with a plot stringing them together. If anything, the production highlighted how the songs have retained their relevance over the years by tweaking their presentation. Back in the seventies and early eighties when they were first released, all of the songs had a forthright appeal. Ballads aside, in the twenty years or so since they were reimagined for the Musical, they have evolved. Or perhaps we’ve changed – matured? become a little jaded? Those direct, danceable but robust lyrics of the first half, were delivered tongue-in-cheek which was very much the tone of the first half to the intermission. Carried away by its joie de vivre it was a little too pacey at times. Those self conscious lyrics can still have emotional weight, given just a moment more to settle.

The truth in the delivery of the ballads in the second half was poignant. That the audience was moved was heard in their applause-which followed each solo. Wonderful performances were given by the entire cast. There were sight gags and hilarious stage business seamlessly woven through the choreography of Danielle Bilios, the realisation of which was deftly handled by the chorus. The dream sequence opening the second half was a visual treat in its choreography, costumes (Suzy Strout), staging and lighting. Visually stunning, Linda Bewick’s set is postcard perfect. The lighting design of Gavan Swift reinforced the Aegean island feel, then danced along with the exuberant choreography before calling the auditorium into an extended disco. It’s really a lot of fun.

Any negatives? A little off putting was the volume of the overture played before each half. It was too loud. The explosion of sound bringing in the second half could have come with an OH&S warning. Too loud and sudden. I had to check how Mum (in her 70s) took it. In the first half there were times during the full company numbers that the voices were engulfed by the music, the lyric at intervals difficult to make out. It didn’t detract from the overall telling of the story and the feeling was still conveyed in the music. Was it a technical oversight? Or are all of the bigger numbers supposed to get a rock concert treatment? Like the pacing of the first half – were the music queues called in too quickly or was it supposed to be fast? But I’m nit-picking.

Mamma Mia! The Musical is a lot of fun. Much more so than the movie. Wonderful escapism, lau and big smiles abide. Sadly leaving Sydney but opening in Perth soon.

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review: The Rover

 


Photo credit: Zabowski via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

The Rover by Aphra Behn; Directed by Eamon Flack

Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until August 6

I was so looking forward to seeing this play, to seeing Aphra Behn psyche on stage. I’d never seen her work brought to life. This was going to be my first time.

The show was fun, funny, exhuberent, raunchy and altogether, very, very big! It was set in a Naples carnivale-mardi gras and the look and tempo of the performance was of a circus side-show – excitement and otherness was paraded and celebrated. There was lots of physical stage business, lots of sight gags and buffoonery. Their comic timing was impeccable. It seems like every comic device was employed to get a laugh – and received it. The cast played it up to the audience on every opportunity. The way that the sight gags were unravelled- or in the case of Gareth Davies, disrobed – was luxiourously allowed to develop and grow and build mirth with each prolonging gesture. In their silence and indulgence in each mime-like, clownish nuance (or drunken slip and crawl – in the case of Toby Schmitz’s beleaguered attempt to climb his courtesan’s window) there was no holding back – no skimping on the possibility to draw out the laughter. Megan Wilding, as Lucetta and Moretta was masterful in the way she played the audience – cajoling them with unencumbered silence, coyly approaching her lover, pulling faces, hammering obscenity or drawing out laughs with each puff of her cigarette. Beholdng such a spectacle was marvelling at their talents. Yet where was Aphra Behn in all of this business?

But she was there, you may point out. Just there, at the beginning of the play, an entr’acte all her own – her own soliliquy – her defence of her playwrighting and female playwrights. You may want to point out that Aphra Behn’s work is not so well known as Shakespeare’s and that the english used is obscure at times, so that following a verbose 350 year old play is aided by horsing around and bucking off the words. The problem is that in telling a story on the stage the physical metaphor that’s presented by the actors has to be felt to be understood. This metaphor was too often laid aside to keep its momentum as an emotional thread.

So, the first act was a joy ride, perhaps too much of one, as the second act paid the price for frittering away the opportunity to build the emotional connections between the lusty and the love-lorn. The first act down-played the script and up-played the physicality. There wasn’t enough attention to the script to build the empathy needed to allow the second act to reach its denouement plausibly. Toby Schmitz’s Willmore is more a larrikin than a cad who actually needs to fall in love to presumeably mend his roving ways and marry Helena (Taylor Ferguson).

Where the playwright makes her voice heard directly – via Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels) the noise and colour of the carnivale is muted by the veracity of Nikki Shiels’ performance driving home her point. Exotic, sensual, pitiable, garboesque, Nikki Shiels’ gave the story heart and intellect. We can feel for Bianca but in the convolutions of the storyline involving Don Pedro, Don Antonio, Belvile, Florinda, Willmore and Hellena, the suspense and subsequent release is missing.

With the number of jaunts into carnivale mode there was always the danger of big acting becoming ham acting. Big and ham are two differnt kinds of deliveries that look identical in performace photos but deliver different results in the auditorium. Foreign accents can blur the distinction too. Clowning and miming require big acting. Interject a steady stream of laughter and minimise the script, and big could devolve into ham. Ham doesn’t matter in the style of jokes being built – it probably aided them –  but it didn’t aid empathy to be drawn on in the second act.

The use of asides to explain obscure terms was a brilliant stroke and worked well with the carnivale atmosphere and the use of the whole auditorium as a performance space. The audience connected with the show. It was a lot of fun, a really good night out. The academic in me was left a little cheated but nothing too serious.

Theatre Review: Twelfth Night

Belvoir St Theatre until 4th September
Directed by Eamon Flack

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare: boring; archaic; staid; difficult; artsy-fartsy; a chore. Not this production of Twelfth Night! Pacey. Clever. Colourful. Hilarious. A wealth of comic timing and techniques delivered expertly by well-training, long-practised artists. Jokes and wordplay written 400-plus years ago made clearer and extended by a physicality of performance and stage business that milks visual comedy. The cast is having a ball and the audience is invited. This is the Shakespeare production you drag your friends to so they can experience exactly why you like Shakespeare. They’ll love him too.
It’s so much fun, it’s easy to forget that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, that it’s questioned as to whether it’s a comedy at all. There is a depth in the play that this performance doesn’t touch. It’s a director’s quandary that to go the full distance with the questions that Shakespeare asks will destroy its happy ending. What’s a comedy without a happy ending? You see, Shakespeare questions who we love, why we love and can we love on demand? By tying up most of the loose ends at the end, the reader of the text can feel deflated. Antonio who bares so much love and risks his life for the young Sebastian is cast off in the slacking of Sebastian’s new-found lust in Olivia. Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, spirits him off to a church. When Sebastian’s identity is revealed she accepts that he is not the person whose proxy-wooing captivated her and accepts him because he is male and looks like Cesario/Viola and they are now married. The purity and passion in these same-sex relationships is cast aside for a facile heterosexual denouement.
Is there satisfying elements to the ending of the text? Yes. Orsino, who has been denying his attraction to Cesario/Viola can safely love the female Cesario/Viola and Sir Toby Belch marries his match in hijinx, Maria. In reading the text one wonders whether in a freer society if Viola would pursue the bond she makes with Olivia or Orsino. This production doesn’t go that deep. Eamon Flack’s interpretation stays on the surface of the text. It’s the right decision for a satisfied audience at the end of the show. Not that he doesn’t touch on same-sex love at all. Casting a female, Amber McMahon, to play Sebastian may incite questioning along that line as much as it gets a laugh when Olivia, Anita Hegh, kisses him/her. It does create challenges for the actor playing Cesario/Viola, Nikki Shiels.
Cesario/Viola spends a large chunk of the play onstage. It is her journey that we follow and that drives the play forward. By choosing to keep the interpretation on the surface she spends a long time in bemusement at Olivia’s advances. It’s a really hard intension to maintain and maintain interest in. A subtlety in response to Olivia’s poetry is lacking that would have enriched the performance for the actor and the audience. Similarly, Sebastian could have been more fleshed out. But how far do you go before a comedy in performance becomes the tragi-comedy of the text?
It’s often asked, does it really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Would it change our enjoyment of them? Would it change their interpretation? In the case of Twelfth Night, William of Stratford is such an unknown creature that we can make of the play what we will. However, if the bisexual Earl of Oxford were believed to be the author then it would be harder to keep the interpretation on the surface. It would be seen as part of a tradition of plays that are homosexual in theme and openly questioning sexuality. But I digress.
While all of the performances were really good and the comedy well timed I have to make special mention of Keith Robinson as Feste. He entertained the audience as the court jester as much as the court of the play. In coming back from the intermission he opened the second act in a sit-down – stand-up of jokes of a contemporary nature that then blended back into the text really well. His facial expressions, his timing – he had the audience. Anita Hegh as Olivia made great contrast of austerity and unbridled passion that resulted in many laughs. Movement Director Scott Witt had the ensemble cast moving in a choreography that was always purposeful and visually effective. The cast dressed as clowns in a sanatorium and moving in a colourful but starkly bare stage reminded me of an ancient chorus. Their movement physicalized the inner life/turmoil of the shipwrecked Viola and compensated for the lack of props and setting elements a more realistic set could have offered. Witt’s movement direction completed Michael Hankin’s set.
Any production can be knit picked but this one is just too engaging. It’s just wonderful.

Thank you to Elly Baxter from Belvior Publicity and Public Affairs for permission to use their photos.

Theatre Review: The Little Prince

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s The Little Prince adapted from the book by Antoine de Saint-Eupery; Directed by Michael Barlow, Adapted by Simon Clarke

Performed by Jacob Lehrer and Jessica Lewis

If you have ever created theatre for little kids you know that there are no rhetorical questions in the theatre. Throw a question at a very young child and it will answer it. If the child doesn’t hold with the actions a character makes it will call out ,”No!”, “Don’t go!”. “She’s hiding in the box”, etc.. They are the first to giggle, clap and get up and dance. If they don’t understand a theatrical convention, they will demand of the performers, “What are you doing?”, “What’s that?”; quite distracting for the rest of the audience. Whatever you do in staging, don’t lose their attention. They will let you know: “Can we go now?”, “I’m bored!”

112 The Little Prince 140619 Jessica Wyld

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s production of the French classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is delivered with panache to the 4+ crowd. It has everything to sustain a very young child’s attention: big facial expressions that are felt and real, short scenes interspersed with music, a variety of puppets and styles of performance,  plenty of colour and sensitivity in the realization of the handing of the puppets and an enigmatic, amazing, quixotic, unfolding set.

042 The Little Prince 140619 Jessica Wyld

It is a thoroughly entertaining production . . .  although, is Antoine de Saint-Expery’s message going over the tiny heads of its audience? It is a philosophical parable aimed at adults and the more mature of the younger set told in a naïve manner. Think of The Alchemist by Coelho. To counter this each short scene that reaches into the deeper reality of the play is followed by a sung refrain of the point being made. The message that what is valuable cannot be seen is repeated over and over. The audience is given every opportunity to absorb these words. But is the target audience to young to understand their meaning?

In its determination to hold the attention of its youngest audience members and adhere to tried and true practice for that age set, some of the magic of puppetry is lost.Necessarily a 50 minute production, the unpacking of the set, a compact crate filled with boxes and their surprises was rushed. A greater belief in the wonder of stage business and its ability to hold an audience’s attention would help to slow this down.

Between each message-filled episode of the Little Prince’s journey he would be floated away to the strains of, perhaps, discordant music that contrasted with the melodic tune of the scene just played out. The brevity of each scene interspersed with these interludes kept the  fast pace in the overall delivery. These interludes would have been much more effective with a slightly older audience where the more mature child would have a space to absorb the pithy parable before being engaged with the next episode.

101 The Little Prince 140619 Jessica Wyld.jpg

The lighting design was effective and helped to allot the many levels of reality their own place in the sun or space (or head space). Perhaps a smaller pool of light would have aided the delivery of scenes meant to be focused on the intimate interaction of just the puppets with each other. By this I mean I would have preferred to see less of the expressions of the performers when the puppets were interacting with each other in conversation. It was difficult to enter their reality when focus would slip between the puppeteer and the puppet in a weighty moment. The interplay between puppets and human characters was lovely. The relationship of the two human characters was a little nebulous but entertaining – what was their relationship? Were they stage hands? Random teenagers ready to play?. The selfies and adolescent stage business got the older child.

But these criticisms would be more apt if the performance was directed at an older audience. It’s not. I would love to see it directed at an adult, high school and older primary crowd – my eleven year old got it and enjoyed it.

It is beautifully presented. It is entertaining. I highly recommend it for a young and up to primary school age audience.

The Little Prince is playing in the Monkey Baa Theatre at Darling Quarter until 9th July.

Thank you to Liz Raleigh, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre and Monkey Baa Theatre for their production photos.