Review: Once (The Gordon Frost Organisation / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Princess Theatre (Melbourne VIC), from Oct 1, 2014
Playwright: Enda Walsh (based on film by John Carney)
Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Tiffany
Cast: Tom Parsons, Madeleine Jones, Anton Berezin, Ben Brown, Gerard Carroll, Colin Dean, Brent Hill, Keegan Joyce, Amy Lehpamer, Jane Patterson, Greg Stone, Susan-ann Walker,
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Once is probably not the first musical that makes understatement its central intention, but it is certainly the most celebrated of the kind. Enda Walsh’s quietly sentimental work is not ambitious in a conventional sense. There are no stunning set changes or breathtaking costumes, nobody dies and no predictable resurrections occur. Instead, it is determined to find poignancy and emotional resonance through story, characters and songs. There is a distinct and appealing simplicity to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical compositions that make an impact in the absence of ostentatious spectacle, and Walsh’s ability to create affable yet colourful personalities make for a show that is powerfully endearing.

Direction by John Tiffany is sensitive to the melancholic sensibilities of the work, although the presentation of a large scale production in muted tones is sometimes clearly challenging, especially in the few, but important, scenes where music acquiesces to dialogue. An inordinate amount of versatility is required of the performers, including the ability to play instruments (accompaniment is provided by the cast itself) and in the case of leading man Tom Parsons who is a highly impressive vocalist, but a less compelling actor, several crucial sequences of emotional gravity tend to feel weaker when he communicates without the aid of music. His counterpart Madeleine Jones is more evenly talented, and she executes comedic aspects with an elegant flair. Tiffany handles lighthearted moments brilliantly, allowing an intimate connection with its audience that elevates the musical to something quite visceral, and spiritual.

The humorous role of Billy is played by Colin Dean who has the kind of eclipsing presence that wins our hearts with minimum effort. His authenticity is compelling to watch, and the confidence he displays gives his work an uplifting quality. Also memorable is Amy Lehpamer as the fiery Czech, Reza. Lehpamer is a quadruple threat who inspires with proficiencies in singing, dancing, acting and on the violin. Her comic timing is a marvel, and even though the supporting role is a small one, the vibrant performer finds opportunities to steal the limelight with delightful results.

The production is finely balanced, relying heavily on the shifting elements of live performance on each night to make the experience rewarding, leaving little room for complacency. The silences in the show mean that imperfections can become glaring, even if they are few and far between. Choreography by Steven Hoggett is effective and beautiful at times, but also awkward and overdone in certain numbers. The cast moves well, but when gestures become elaborate, the performers tend to appear uncomfortable. The story of Once talks about art and aspiration, dreams and conviction, and the way life can be designed by one’s own imagination. It swims against the tide with an unusual determinedness and audacity, to create something original, moving and thoroughly surprising.

This Is Beautiful (The Public Studio)

The Public StudioVenue: Tower Theatre at Malthouse (Southbank VIC), Jul 19 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Ming-Zhu Hii
Director: Ming-Zhu Hii
Actors: Jing-Xuan Chan, Pier Carthew, Terry Yeboah

Theatre review
Expecting experimental work in any art form to entertain is usually a lost cause, and performance art pieces are rarely crowd-pleasers. This Is Beautiful is composed of three performers spouting endless existentialist questions about the arbitrariness of life’s big meanings. There is no obvious context, and clearly no narrative for which to situate these characters and their constant inquisitions. The small amount of movement and facial expressions they produce seem to be guided by those big questions, giving the impression that the entire 50-minute piece is about one idea.

These questions are not frivolous ones, in fact, one could argue that they are fundamental and relevant to all lives. Only problem is, you would either have already thought about them a thousand times and are quite happy to leave them behind, or they are simply of no interest to you and a night at the theatre would take a lot more than three strangers’ declarations to change your mind.

A big element of this production is the video that plays throughout, which adds dimension to the activity in the space. They provide an interesting abstraction to the repetitive themes, and are visually captivating in their own right, providing variation and colour to the austerity of what is unfolding in the flesh.

It is interesting to note that the three performers are of different ethnicities, and that it takes an experimental work of this nature for this multi-cultural amalgamation to materialise onstage. They make a beautiful picture together, creating a landscape of purity and unison. It also conjures up the notion that this combination of skin colours seems to face constant resistance in mainstream Australian narrative-based storytelling, in theatre or otherwise.

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.

Robots Vs Art (La Mama Theatre)

ImageVenue: La Mama Courthouse (Carlton, VIC), Apr 17 – May 5, 2013
Director/Playwright: Travis Cotton
Actors: Daniel Frederiksen, Simon Maiden, Natasha Jacobs, Paul Goddard

Theatre review
This tale has been told many times before. Man is again at threat of being consumed by its own Frankensteinian monster, but this retelling is still intriguing. While the play’s ideas are not original, they are updated with the hue of current human concerns that make its theme engaging. Its most successful moments revolve around the story’s robotic autocracy attempting to make sense of art and human emotion. Although exaggerated, this portrayal of government comes across convincingly and comically similar to our daily experience of leaders in civilisations today. Less successful, however, is the attempt to end the play with the human race escaping obliteration, which comes across tragically unconvincing.

Dance Of Death (Malthouse Theatre)

Venue: Beckett Theatre at Malthouse (Southbank VIC), Apr 18 – May 19, 2013
Playwright: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, English text by Tom Holloway
Director: Matthew Lutton
Actors: Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory, David Paterson

Theatre review
The players are brilliant. They are charismatic, humorous, agile and precise. From the very start, the audience is eating out of the palm of their hand, keen to see what unfolds. Their depiction of a dysfunctional marriage (to put it mildly) is fascinating and thrilling, but it is a struggle to find more than great entertainment value from this production, which is curious as the play does go into very dark places. Its last third turns more serious, but this is where the show loses focus, and the crowd is left bewildered as to what is being conveyed.

Production values are wonderful. Sound and music, set and props, and lighting all felt flawlessly executed and artfully created. This is a loud and dynamic, yet elegant production, which theatre-goers will enjoy even if its ending fails to match u up to its astounding start.

Cowboy Mouth (Exhibit A: Theatre)

Venue: Goodtime Studios (Carlton VIC), Apr 1 – 28, 2013
Playwrights: Sam Shepard & Patti Smith
Director: Emily O’Brien Brown
Actors: Belinda Misevski, Benjamin Rigby

Theatre review
This is a little-known play for good reason. The script is incredibly messy, as one would expect from a work created from the depths of intoxication. O’Brien Brown’s direction is intelligent, keeping emphasis on performance, emotion and mood, rather than story. Misevski shines brightly in this intimate staging. She is fearless and focused, presenting to the audience at close proximity, a character covered in open wounds. Her performance is intense, but also varied and colourful. A reminder of the great importance of “small theatre” productions.