The Twins Pantalone (Fools In Progress Inc)

Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 27-29, 2013
Actors: Guillaume Barrière, Bianca Bonino, Nicholas O’Regan, Ben-Jamin Newham, Fabiola Pellegrino

Theatre review
This production with its classic plot and archetypal characters is a delightful introduction into the world of Commedia dell’Arte. Technical issues with lighting and sound plagued the opening night performance, but did not prevent the show from being consistently comical and funny. The cast of five showcases the silliest of comedies, with the most serious of dedication and skill.

Moments of contemporary references and frequent use of modern language is refreshing, making its humour more immediate and accessible. Nicholas O’Regan is a stand-out performer, with his energy and agility, as well as a keen sense of timing. His use of facial expressions is impressive, considering the masks cover most of the players’ faces. O’Regan, along with Barrière worked with sexual innuendo effectively, and can be very hilarious depending on your personal tastes and capacity for off-colour humour.

The Unthinkably Unsinkable Ship (Fools In Progress Inc)

commedia1Venue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 20-22, 2013
Actors: Guillaume Barrière, Bianca Bonino, Ross Brown, Scott Parker

Theatre review
Commedia dell’Arte is today a rare art form, especially in Australia where conformity in the arts (and everywhere else) is order of the day. This production’s attempts at creating laughter within a tradition of forgotten rules and atypical disciplines, instead of resorting to the common and crass is laudable.  It is indeed that lost discipline with its specific sense of humour and use of classical physical movement and masks, that is the most interesting feature of this show.

The overall direction is kept casual, allowing the play’s performers to distinctly showcase their individual skills and training. Especially Guillaume Barrière and Bianca Bonino, who present an unconventional form of comedy that is simultaneously restrained and effervescent. The rest of the cast is also delightful, each given appropriate space for expression, allowing them to utilise their own idiosyncrasies to create characters that move the plot along.

Lighting design however, could have been more helpful in preventing each scene from looking and feeling too similar. Costume is surprisingly effective, with every article of clothing serving a purpose in illustrating character types and also in providing actors with additional creative devices.

It is a great merit of the theatrical arts that personalities from distinct backgrounds can collide and collaborate. It is at the theatre that moments can be concocted on a singular stage that is completely otherwordly and outside of the ordinary life.

Phèdre (Bell Shakespeare)

phaedreVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 6 – 29, 2013
Playwright: Jean Racine (translated by Ted Hughes)
Director: Peter Evans
Actors: Catherine McClements, Julie Forsyth, Marco Chiappi, Edmund Lembke-Hogan

Theatre review
Not very much happens in this story, but the enjoyment of Greek tragedies like Phèdre is in their heightened sense of drama, and the creative choices made by contemporary theatre practitioners in their interpretation of texts centuries old.

Lead actor Catherine McClements is best in sections where her character’s emotions are overflowing. She portrays pain and guilt with a delicious darkness, and her strength in guiding her audience through the plot with very clear story-telling in terms of her intentions and transitions are remarkable. Even though she lacks a sense of majesty and physical agility that this level of drama seems to require, McClements compensates with her impressive charisma and presence.

Also remarkable is Julie Forsyth who plays Phèdre’s nurse. Even though the role is comparatively small, her grasp of the genre is completely arresting.  The other actors are less appealing, especially Lembke-Hogan who seems to have walked right off a budget soap set, completely out of his depth. One leaves the theatre wondering if actor training caters now only to television work, with emphasis on voice and face, but everything from the neck down is neglected.

Set, lighting and sound design are subtle and sophisticated, with a murky sexiness permeating the theatre even before the play commences. This serves the themes of illicit desire and spousal betrayal well, but comes in conflict with small sections of the play where the mood is lighter and both audience and players obviously need a dose of comedy and quick reprieve from the intensity of the story. Costume design is overly minimal, detracting from the depiction of a “royal story”, although keeping in line with the overall visual style of the production.

For those of us who love dramatic tragedies, it is always about going on that emotional journey which appeals the most. When this is achieved with a classic play that has stood the test of time and does not rely on fads and gimmicks, the experience is particularly satisfying.

Enron (New Theatre)

972247_476667269078808_773163525_n1.jpg  591×413Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 4 – 29, 2013
Playwright: Lucy Prebble
Director: Louise Fischer
Actors: Matt Young, Cassandra-Lee Heschl, Nick Curnow, Peter Flett

Theatre review
This is a story about corporate fraud at its most outlandish. Based on true events, the script is careful to document key moments in the collapse of the Enron corporation, and to clearly explain relevant incidents to a general audience. It therefore makes sense that the play is a straightforward one, and unfolds like a series of historical re-enactments, even though contemporary theatre audiences would probably expect a more artistic or abstract mode of interpretation and expression.

Fischer’s direction is strong. Her emphasis on relationships between characters is a highlight of her play, with great onstage chemistry keeping the audience engaged, and also bringing to the fore, the scandalous role of inter-personnel company politics and hero-worship that had led to the eventual multibillion dollar demise. Less successful is Fischer’s handling of the countless scene changes that occur in the script, which create rhythmic issues with the flow of the all-important narrative. A stronger investment into set design could probably have assisted with this flaw.

It is noteworthy that the multi-talented support cast is utilised very well. Their level of commitment and focus is impressive, and they are key in keeping the tone of the production varied, enjoyable and unpredictable. Leading man Matt Young is outstanding in many scenes. He is especially powerful in conveying his character’s manic anxiety, and the show relies on his extraordinary intensity at many points to lift the drama to great heights, where the script could have actually been slightly pedestrian.

This is a slightly odd story to tell at New Theatre, given the American-ness and the somewhat unemotional nature of the tale, but it is indeed these characteristics of distance and apathy that colour the mild punishment for white-collar crime internationally, and this play does its best to raise our awareness of the depth of human damage if Enron is allowed to occur again.

The Maids (Sydney Theatre Company)

906946-130601-rev-theatre2[1]Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 20, 2013
Playwright: Jean Genet
Director: Benedict Andrews
Actors: Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debicki

Theatre review
It’s difficult to find Genet’s script relevant in Australia today, as the concept of “domestic help” is far removed from our day-to-day realities. Of course, the employee/employer relationship is commonplace, but our experience of it isn’t quite as oppressive and stifling an environment as portrayed in the play. Therefore, it is form rather than content that is of interest in this production by the Sydney Theatre Company.

All three actors are charismatic, vibrant and thoughtful in their interpretations of the text. There are many macabrely humorous moments played with twisted aplomb by these fearless women, providing not just comic relief, but also a sense of gravity and doom while avoiding a monotonous heaviness that could have easily permeated throughout. A very large screen captures these enigmatic faces in tight close ups (with cameras in the wings), feeding the adoring audience with the star power they desire. This same medium however, is also often distracting and awkward. Our eyes are kept too busy, trying to keep up with too much action, and we quite literally lose the plot at several points.

The set design and lighting are sumptuous. Several costumes look like real couture pieces the script proclaims them to be, and they are truly mesmerising (one is said to be a McQueen). The seductive glamour and luxury of the visual design makes sense within the context of the decadent world in which they dwell. On the other hand, the choice and use of music does not work nearly as well, with inappropriate tunes jumping jarringly in at several points, as though someone had clicked the wrong button on an iPod.

Ultimately, this production is about performance, and the art of acting. Huppert’s less than perfect command of the English language is a minor fault, but witnessing the best in the world onstage tackle an outlandish and flamboyant text is not only satisfying, but thoroughly and wonderfully exhilarating.

Antony & Cleopatra (Punchbug Productions)

Shakespeares Antony and CleopatraVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 4 – 15, 2013
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Ira Seidenstein
Actors: Berynn Schwerdt, Denby Waller, Brinley Meyer

Theatre review
A big question that comes out of this production is whether a show should be put on at all when faced with serious budget constraints. There are some set and costume decisions that prove difficult to overlook, but what remains is a big group of actors (of wildly varying capabilities) relying only on their voices and bodies.

Antony is played by Berynn Schwerdt, whose initial entrance is disappointing, as his appearance in no way matches one’s imagination of the character, or indeed classic movie interpretations of it. Eventually though, the actor wins us over with an extremely committed and thoroughly rehearsed performance, in spite of much weaker co-players and a dismal lack of chemistry with his leading lady. His command of The Bard’s incredibly demanding lines are truly breathtaking.

It was unfortunate that the first (of three) hours felt disjointed and unfocused, but the cast eventually warmed up, lost their nerves and started relishing in their roles. It is only when they are enjoying the play and losing themselves in their individual moments that the audience is drawn in and suspended in time. Shakespeare is not everyone’s cup of tea, but witnessing actors in states of bliss performing their hearts out is always a sight to behold.

Fury (Sydney Theatre Company)

Fury_716x402_3[1]Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 15 – Jun 8, 2013
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Andrew Upton
Actors: Sarah Peirse, Robert Menzies, Harry Greenwood

Theatre review
Murray-Smith’s new work is complex and nuanced, exploring the anxieties of contemporary middle-class Australia. A broad range of themes are explored, from class and racial politics, to marriage, parenting and the education system.

The performance commences disappointingly with a young actor seemingly unsure of her role in the plot, yet distractingly forceful with her facial expressions. Thankfully she exits early on and allows for the stronger players to take over, but her subsequent appearances do nothing in assisting with the development of the story.

On the other hand, Sarah Peirse is wonderfully compelling in the lead role. Her thorough understanding of the character’s world and the writer’s words are impressive and she provides the audience with a generous dose of drama that is both profound and entertaining. At times, however, it looked as though she would have benefited from a less minimal set. The bareness of the stage might have established the coldness of the intellectual “ivory tower” in which the family resides, but it also demanded too much of the actors who looked stranded in empty spaces for so much of the play’s duration.

Upton’s direction is particularly strong in conveying the play’s crucial ideas. Some complicated ideas are staged and performed with palpable clarity, and this is a great achievement. Less successful are the lighter moments, especially in the first half, which come across contrived and tired. There is however, no doubt that the strength of the “important scenes” more than make up for those momentary lapses.