The Crucible (Melbourne Theatre Company)

Melbourne Theatre CompanyVenue: Southbank Theatre (Southbank VIC), Jun 22 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Sam Strong
Actors: David Wenham, Brian Lipson, Sarah Ogden, Anita Hegh

Theatre review
David Wenham headlines this production of The Crucible, and predictably garners widespread attention and brings good numbers into the theatre. He is adequate in the role of John Proctor, but is subsumed by the size of the stage and hall, and also by some of the more “theatrical” in the cast. Wenham is perhaps more suited for a more naturalistic setting, and on filmic close ups, but this staging of an outlandish tale in a large auditorium seems not to be the best showcase of his talents.

There are efforts in the set and lighting design to visually shrink the stage into small rooms, but while effective in that regard, the actors performances sometimes become overly subtle for the size of this production’s audiences. Sections seem to drag on while characters have intimate exchanges that are unable to reach out beyond the first few rows. The pivotal scene towards the end of the play where the Proctors discuss their mortality lacks the dramatics and gravity necessary at such a crucial point of the tale.

Accordingly, it is the more vivid performances that shine. Brian Lipson plays Judge Thomas Danforth, and Sarah Ogden, the Proctors’ maid Mary Warren stand out and are thoroughly engaging and entertaining. In comparison, it becomes clear that they possess a style that is necessary for the language of the writing, and also for the space in which this production takes place. None of the actors are weak, but this production seem to demand a level of heightened drama that eludes many of today’s performers.

Interestingly, Arthur Miller’s text remains relevant. Its warnings of the power ascribed to the “loud minority” in our societies resonate, especially within the context of religious extremism. It also discusses the dangerous culture of “wowserism” and that too, applies easily to contemporary society. An interesting coincidence occurs with a line from Danforth,  “But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not?”, drawing an irresistible parallel to an Australian political leader’s use of the same term “invisible” last week to describe (and diminish) carbon emissions in the debate about climate change. Great plays may age, but they no doubt hold great lessons for any generation, and it is for the theatre makers to bring forth these learnings.

My Life In The Nude (La Mama Theatre)

maudeVenue: La Mama Theatre (Carlton VIC), Jul 3 – 21, 2013
Devised and Performed by: Maude Davey
Director: Anni Davey

Theatre review
Maude Davey is a living legend in the Melbourne burlesque scene, having performed over 20 years in varying stages of nudity, combining various forms of theatrical disciplines. In this swan song My Life In The Nude, Davey takes an intimate look back at that career, presenting memories in monologue sequences, as well as performing key burlesque/cabaret pieces, almost in a “greatest hits” format. She reprises a 1991 competition winning work involving a secret strawberry, which kick started her work exploring nudity, and goes through a phenomenal repertoire, culminating in an emotional Butoh-style work about ageing, with a character reminiscent of Grizabella from the Cats musical.

Even though every sequence is meticulously choreographed and always packing a powerful political punch, tenacious in the representation of queer and feminist ideologies, it is ultimately the presence of the artist that makes the show the masterpiece that it is. Davey’s craft is honed to perfection. The audience simply has no where to run when she is onstage, lost in her charisma, her humour, her every gesture and every poignant utterance. Davey imbues each moment on stage with great reverence and generosity, and it is in that spirit of giving of her self that we find ourselves in awe and in the receiving end of a rare gift, not just of masterful showmanship but also of sheer naked humanity.

Say Hello First (Cupboard Love)

sayhellofirstVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jul 2 – 27, 2013
Playwright: Danielle Maas
Director: Jason Langley
Actors: Danielle Maas, Joe Kernahan

Theatre review
Not all subject matters and themes can be universal, but a performance needs to know its audience if it intends to communicate (and one would argue to keep your show in your living room should communication not be of any concern). Of course, we would like to think that there are shared fundamental truths in our human experience that connects between lives, but sometimes, one man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison. Say Hello First concerns itself entirely with romance and its implications on one’s self-image. It assumes that these themes are intrinsic and elemental, but for those who do not appreciate them quite so naturally, this play can present quite a challenge. There is no exploration into the autobiographical protagonist Danielle’s huge interest in the idea of “boyfriends” and her insistence at utilising them as mirrors into her own existence, and this is problematic for some audiences who might fail to understand this fixation. Appropriately, she is left stranded at the end of the play, bewildered by the inexplicability of it all.

From a technical perspective, design elements provide a gravitas to the production. Lighting and set are accomplished with a good level of professionalism. There is a strong reliance on projections, and those visuals are thoughtfully curated and presented. The set makes good use of the studio, establishing a space that enhances the intimate quality of the actors’ performances, and also provides an aesthetic that is delightfully whimsical (a quality the script seems to crave).

Joe Kernahan plays the objectified male through many different guises with great confidence, and brings a sense of lightness to the proceedings. Watching an actor have fun on stage is always a joy, and Kernahan certainly comes across as though there is nowhere else he would rather be. His dedication is impressive and along with his charming, spritely demeanour, would surely see him feature in more substantive work in the near future.

The Twelfth Dawn (Old 505 Theatre)

twelfthdawnVenue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 3 – 28, 2013
Devised and Performed by: Kerri Glasscock, Gareth Boylan, Michael Pigott

Theatre review
This original, unorthodox work tells a story to your heart first, before your brain is allowed to discover the logic behind the emotions. It is at times a dance performance, sometimes a surrealist exploration, and on occasion naturalism sets in when you least expect, but through some unfathomable genius, all these forms are blended together seamlessly. The Twelfth Dawn takes its audience on a journey of the senses and emotions, but removes the reliance on conventional, narrative driven storytelling. A key to the effectiveness of the work, is the empathy its players are able to elicit from the audience in spite of the lack of a story. It is a very pleasant surprise that experimental theatre can look so real and feel so emotional. Within this realm of avant-gardism, all three artists are of the highest calibre.

Michael Pigott creates a character palpable in its authenticity, relying on his extraordinary physical dexterity as well as restrained but precise facial expressions. Kerri Glasscock’s capacity at portraying intense emotions anchor the work in a place that is dark and honest. The level of fragility and vulnerability that she brings to her performance is confronting yet seductive. Gareth Boylan provides the bridge between the audience and the stage action. His timing is impeccable, jumping in and out of the world in which “the couple” inhabit, breaking tensions and moving courses.

The theatrical arts is at its best when all the actors’ facilities, beyond words and speech, are employed, and The Twelfth Dawn is a prime example of what can be achieved. It is disappointing to report that there were less than ten in the audience last night, presumably because an “important sporting event” was taking place simultaneously. It is however, incredibly fortunate that Sydney can give rise to the production and staging of a work of this quality, even if it does struggle to find a bigger audience.

Haus (Black Raven Productions)

Haus at the Tap Gallery 9th 14thVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Jul 9 – 14, 2013
Playwright: Dimitri Armatas
Director: Dimitri Armatas
Actors: Ruth Murphy, Jorjia Gillis, Paddy Lester, Zacharie Di Ferdinando

Theatre review
A small stage, at a small venue, telling a little tale, set in a tiny cellar, with simplicity and elegance. This is bare bones theatre, but with charming and meticulously thought out set and props. The script fits in perfectly with the space. All the action convincingly surrounds a table, content in the production’s budgetary and spacial limitations. Some effort is made with lighting to provide variation in mood and tone, but while design is effective, its realisation is unsteady. Perhaps the equipment lacks the flexibility required for its desired effects.

The story itself is a dramatic one, set in Nazi occupied Poland. The central theme of family allows some level of identification but the historic nature of the work is alienating. A good amount of tension and emotion is achieved, principally through the determination and stamina of actor Ruth Murphy, but one questions the relevance of a tale that seems to bear no contemporary parallels, and no obvious allegorical applications.  Additionally, the female characters are bewilderingly weak, and their powerlessness is discomforting and distracting.

Jorjia Gillis is miscast, but shows great potential. Although lacking in maturity, she has good presence and displays an unwavering devotion to her matronly character. Similarly, Paddy Lester shows great promise with a natural charm and has good physical agility that seems to elude most young actors. The aforementioned Murphy is a real talent, taking charge of the entire play through sheer grit and with meaningful clarity. Her thorough understanding of the play’s inner workings shows a very intelligent actor who understands not just acting, but also writing. She outshines other members of the cast at the play’s climax, and performs with such intense emotion that one is reminded of early twentieth century German Expressionism, which is completely delightful and suits perfectly the context of the work.

Director and playwright Dimitri Armatas is a brave young man with an idiosyncratic vision. Artists with original voices stand the test of time. There is no doubt that his creative facilities will flourish and the Armatas voice will reverberate for years to come.…

Top Girls (New Theatre)

New TheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 9 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Alice Livingstone
Actors: Sarah Aubrey, Claudia Barrie, Julia Billington, Maeve MacGregor, Ainslie McGlynn, Bishanyia Vincent, Cheryl Ward

Theatre review
Top Girls first appeared on the English stage 31 years ago in the Thatcher era. While feminism has evolved since that time, it is a concept that remains relevant, and to many, still a critically meaningful one. This landmark play is known to posit individual career successes of women as being similar to or even an extension of traditional patriarchy, thus retarding the gains of a common “sisterhood” movement. Times have changed, and Alice Livingstone presents a less critical view of that individual success, although carefully retaining the original intentions in espousing the importance of the collective, as though acknowledging that women’s choices today are all valid in their wild variances.

The surreal first act presents a group of historical women at a dinner party, all talking over one another, as if presenting monologues to very uninterested, self-absorbed listeners. This makes for difficult viewing, but establishes a context for the narrative that follows. This sequence also introduces the actors who very efficiently take over the space with tremendous confidence and in spite of the arduousness of the script, are all fascinating, convincing and importantly, very vigorously rehearsed. When the more conventional narrative begins in Act Two, these women seem to burst into life, presenting characters that are all flesh and blood where everything they say and do seems completely real. Livingstone has a knack for making every second count and every line meaningful. This is a group of actors who cherish every word, and nothing is left to waste. It is indeed an irregular occurrence at the theatre that one gets to be lost in the events unfolding, enthralled in all the action, hungering to see what is about to happen next. Julia Billington and Sarah Aubrey’s sibling rivalry, along with Claudia Barrie and Maeve MacGregor’s youthful innocence are at turns heartbreaking, and glorious.

Getting wrapped up in all the drama, however, runs the risk of distracting from the political arguments of the work. The lack of distance from the show’s magnetic characters almost encourages the audience to wallow too deeply in their individual turmoils, without an opportunity to “see the forest for the trees”. Does the enjoyment of a work like Top Girls have to muffle its subversive reverberations? Or is its agenda able to affect its viewer unconsciously? Regardless of the “big message” that this production’s audience may or may not receive, they will undoubtedly leave this theatre thoroughly sated and utterly invigorated.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Burley Theatre)

earnestVenue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Jul 11 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Brandon Martignago
Actors: Michael Whalley, Kurt Phelan, Katie McDonald, Paige Gardiner, Andrew Benson, Tamlyn Henderson, Ana Maria Belo

Theatre review
Mason Browne has design credits for this production, and his work outshines all other components. Every visual aspect is beautiful, witty, thoughtful and sometimes quite sublime. The backdrop, costumes, furniture pieces, and even the colour palette of sweets on a cake stand, are delightful and faultless. He helps situate the play in a comfortable space between late Victorian England and modern day Sydney, which allows the show’s audience to effortlessly identify social and class mechanics which are crucial to the narrative.

Director Brandon Martignago has a flair for high camp, and his approach to comedy is dynamic and effervescent, so it is indeed these elements that he is able to extract best from Wilde’s writing. This production is best at its raucous moments, but falls down when the jokes are subtler and require more nuance. Martignago does interesting work, but needs to be more diligent in his casting. His actors all fit perfectly the physical requirements of this visually stunning show, but only half of them are able to deliver Wilde’s lines with enough complexity and skill.

Michael Whalley, Katie McDonald and Ana Maria Belo are stand outs, delivering hilariously broad comic moments, as well as clear character developments that move the plot along. Whalley is particularly strong and immensely likeable as John Worthing. His Noël Cowardesque voice is charming, and while he is usually playing the “straight” amidst the chaos, it often is his groundedness and well-timed reactions to the other players that help keep the story in the right trajectory.

Burley Theatre is an important figure on the Sydney stage. Its flamboyance and emphasis on beauty and production values are refreshing and well-received, and other groups should take heed.

Arafat In Therapy (Jeremie Bracka)

brackaVenue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), Jul 10 – 14, 2013
Playwright: Jeremie Bracka
Director: Pip Mushin
Actor: Jeremie Bracka
Music: Tomi Kalinski

Theatre review
Of course one gets trepidatious about the prospect of seeing an Australian Jewish actor tackling the role of Yasser Arafat as the show’s title would suggest, not knowing whether it would be an exercise of flaccid diplomacy, or disturbing controversy. Fortunately and very quickly into the performance, it does become clear that Bracka does not play Arafat for the entire duration, but prides himself on taking on a multitude of roles, switching at lightning speed between ages, accents and nationalities with extraordinary savvy and confidence. The biggest laughs, and there are many, come from Bracka’s uncanny ability at mimicking distinctive characteristics of familiar archetypes. He approaches all his characters with generosity and affection, which frees the audience into states of joyous laughter in spite of the frequently sensitive contexts.

Mushin’s direction excels at creating clear demarcations between Bracka’s many different characters. The audience is never left unsure about who is speaking, even though no costume changes or dramatic lighting effects are used. Careful and purposeful design with the actor’s positions, gestures and voice elevate this one-man show into a fast-moving, and thoroughly entertaining romp through many different times and spaces. The subtle, restrained use of music is cleverly utilised, and adds to comedic and dramatic effect whenever it is introduced. Sound in the new NIDA theatre is simply splendid. The set however, could probably add more to the show. The three pieces of furniture are sometimes distracting, and in fact all rather ugly. Bracka is uncomfortable sitting on the castor wheeled table, and is visibly distressed when having to move the items to their fluorescent marked spots.

It is noteworthy that the production does work for general Australian theatregoers even though it is concerned with sociopolitical events in Israel and the Middle East. A good understanding of those histories and conflicts would probably allow a greater insight into the nuances of the show, but its structure and plot are crafted well enough so that less aware  audiences would still enjoy every minute of this fascinating performance by a very funny Aussie.

Relative Merits (Lambert House Enterprises)

Les SolomonVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 14 – 28, 2013
Playwright: Barry Lowe
Director: Les Solomon
Actors: Jeff Teale, James Wright

Theatre review
This 20th anniversary production of Relative Merits provides nostalgic value in abundance. The early 90s was a time when the Australian gay movement had reached its peak. The Mardi Gras held stronger socio-political meanings, and Sydney gays were still waiting for Ian Roberts to come out of the closet. Thankfully, some of the play’s content is outdated, such as the depiction of HIV and AIDS, which understandably colours its melancholic conclusion, but most of its themes still ring true and judging from the audience’s response, very much appreciated.

There were two moments of “television news reports” that seem overdone and probably would have been less intrusive as audio-only “radio broadcasts”, but lighting design was thoughtful and sensitive. The show’s staging is interesting, making good use of the awkward space that the theatre provides. The actors are forced to move around, encouraging a more physical performance than the script actually demands. This assists the young actors, and prevents them from being left with too many stagnant monologues. The director Les Solomon is particularly effective in the highly emotive passages (which are many). It is impressive to see the two young men deliver passionate and moving performances, not just drawing the audience into the drama of the work, but also displaying a reminder of the intensity that was fundamental to the political atmosphere of the time.

The actors are quite clearly inexperienced, and they do play things very big and loud, but their performances are compelling and serve the story very well. There is a lot of dignity and purity in their work. Their depth of understanding of the text is admittedly surprising, and it is the very clear and earnest telling of their stories that is the highlight of the show. The intimacy created on stage is undoubtedly moving, and is a real accomplishment with all due credit to both players and their director.

Tiger Country (Little Spoon Theatre Co)

Little Spoon Theatre Co.Venue: Sidetrack Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jul 3 – 13, 2013
Playwright: Jonathan Gavin
Director: Lara Kerestes
Actors: Leighton Cardno, Wade Doolan, Karli Evans, Lara Lightfoot, Matt Stewart

Theatre review
Advance promotional imagery for Tiger Country has been polished and seductive in spite of its “rough as guts” subject matter. Accordingly, visual design of this production is also exceptional. Most costume pieces are well thought out, helping to  materialise some of the most frightful and revolting characters on the Australian stage. Set design is innovative, efficient, and creates the appropriately sinister and vulgar mood in which all the action takes place. Lighting design is sophisticatedly intelligent, operated accurately and sensitively by the show’s crew. Design and stage management for this low budget production is truly incomparable.

Disappointingly, the performance feels under-rehearsed even though the actors do genuinely display a good level of commitment and discipline. Lara Lightfoot stands out with a certain interior authenticity that matches her character’s physical crudeness. In addition to the fragility inherent in the script, she brings strength and bravery that help create a fascinating and multi-dimensional role.

The pace of the entire piece feels monotonously slow, which is more fitting in its darker moments, but the show fails to buoy up in several key scenes that need to be contrastingly lighter or louder. Perhaps several edits should have been made for things to be more taut and tense. The plot tries to gravitate toward a central character, “Chuckles” who takes centre stage at the conclusion, but too many sub-plots and support characters dilute and distract from what would have been a more gratifying and direct narrative.