Monday, 11 March 2019

REVIEW: 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman

Andrea Katz (at piano), Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn & Lisa McCune
in 33 Variations. Photo: Lachlan Woods

In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, sent a waltz of his creation to all the important composers of the time, including Ludwig van Beethoven. He wanted to publish the collection of variations and Beethoven at first refused to be involved – and then he ended up writing thirty-three variations on Diabelli’s waltz.

In the present, musicologist Katharine Brandt is obsessed with trying to understand why Beethoven chose to write such a feat of musical composition. But as she gets ready to travel to Bonn in Germany to continue her research, she is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – and her daughter Clara wonders if her mother should even be going.

As Katharine’s body begins to deteriorate, we see her suffering paralleled with Beethoven’s frustration with the Diabelli Variations – and his struggles with losing his hearing. The deeper Katharine studies the great man’s work, the harder it becomes for her to understand his motivations.

Producer Cameron Lukey has assembled an all-star cast for this production in Melbourne, led by Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Ellen Burstyn in the role of Katharine Brandt. It’s unusual for such a high-profile overseas actor to be cast in a local production, rather than visiting with an international touring show; the opening-night audience showed their appreciation with entrance applause – something I’ve only ever seen happen at Broadway shows.

Burstyn is joined by Lisa McCune, playing Katharine’s daughter, Clara. They are a strong match on stage, sparring throughout even as Katharine’s health deteriorates and the pair can’t agree on her end-of-life plan. Toby Truslove plays Katharine’s nurse who later becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and he’s predictably goofy, throwing in some welcome physical comedy in amongst the heavy drama.

William McInnes is commanding in the role of Beethoven, veering between arrogant and tortured genius and finding his way to composer who is suffering – a transformation that is surprisingly affecting. He gets to argue with Francis Greenslade as Diabelli and Andre de Vanny as Schindler, his assistant. As the play progresses, Beethoven becomes less of an enigma and more of a man that Katharine can understand and relate to.

Moises Kaufman’s script is strong, really digging into Katharine and Clara’s relationship – one that is difficult to watch at times, as Katharine confesses that she’s scared that Clara will only ever be mediocre. And the role of Katharine is such a gift for a female actor who is now in her eighties.

Dann Barber’s set is striking on first entering the theatre; two levels, lots of classic arches and metallic railing that looks like a musical stave. Slowly, over the course of the play, it reveals further depths and the use of digital screens and cameras was effective, especially during the sequence when Katharine is undergoing scans at the hospital.

Pianist Andrea Katz is on stage the whole time, playing the different variations exquisitely, though she’s also used effectively during dramatic moments when Beethoven loses his temper or Katharine is lost in the music.

There were a few dialogue stumbles on opening night and the doors on the set sometimes didn’t quite close as they were supposed to. But director Gary Abrahams’ vision for the play is as clear and precise as the notes in Beethoven’s sketch books; a grand, perfect façade can belie an inability to communicate – which is the greatest tragedy of all. For an artist and for a parent and child.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

REVIEW: Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice

The cast of Jersey Boys
Photo: Jeff Busby

Jersey Boys is a documentary-style musical about the lives of the original four members of the 1960s Rock & Roll band, The Four Seasons, and its lead vocalist Frankie Valli. It charts the band member’s early days in New Jersey through its rocky early years, where they borrowed money from mobsters to record their first singles, through to national and international fame. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005, beating The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer.

I’ve seen most of the Tony Award winners for Best Musical from the last twenty years and this one might well be the laziest in terms of script and production, but the songs of The Four Seasons are so iconic, seeing some of the band’s original magic recreated on stage was a lot of fun.

The show opens with a cover version of their 1976 hit “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by a French rap artist, Yannick. It’s a fun way to acknowledge that the band’s songs are remembered and reinterpreted – but it’s the only such example in the whole show. And it isn’t a song from the period of time this show is focused on, which is mostly set in the early 1960s. I guess the song title makes it more relevant to the time, if not the version of The Four Seasons the show depicts.

The show is divided into four parts, predictably titled for the four seasons, narrated by a different original member of the band. There’s so much narration in this show, it’s hard to really get to know these men as people – and the notion that different perspectives might create drama or alternate recollections isn’t really explored.

Cameron McDonald’s performance as Tommy Devito is the stand-out, with his convincing Jersey accent bringing to life the shadier side of the band’s history. He’s the first narrator of the evening and he sets a strong tone that’s unmatched later in the show.

The key relationship is the friendship and loyalty between Franki Valli (Ryan Gonzalez) and Bob Gaudio (Thomas McGuane). The two men formed the legal entity The Four Seasons Partnership in 1960 which continues to this day. Gonzalez and McGuane do a great job of transforming from young kids out of their depth into strong friends who continue on together long after the band loses Devito and Nick Massi (Glaston Toff) and evolves into Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.

Gonzalez is also able to find Valli's falsetto, bringing an authenticity to his role as the lead singer.

The set is uninspiring – metallic staircases, chain link fences and a big digital screen that contains Lichtenstein-esque illustrations of moments that are happening on stage with the live performers. None of the theatrical wizardry really adds anything to the show, outside of the kind of lighting queues you would expect to complement a band performing its most famous songs.

The second half of the show is stronger overall, because its hit ratio is larger and it feels more and more like a concert. The narration doesn’t go away, but it fades into the background until the finale where each of the lead characters takes a moment to update us on their lives since the 1960s.

The female characters are poorly drawn and badly used. Effectively the show has Frank Valli’s wife, a series of “conquests” for the men, a girl group that is referred to as “infinite possibilities” for the four boys – and later we meet Valli’s daughter, whose purpose in the narrative is to die and give Valli something to be sad about. For a “documentary”, this musical doesn’t care much for interesting portraits of people at all, but especially not women.

Jersey Boys might be of interest if you remember the period or you really want to see the songs of The Four Seasons performed live – I cannot fault the musical performances. Or if you want to add it to a list of shows that have won Tony Awards for Best Musical that you have seen.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

REVIEW: Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn

The ensemble cast of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play play
a company of actors re-telling The Simpson's "Cape Feare"
Photo: Sarah Walker
How well do remember the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob gets out of jail and tries to murder Bart? If you needed to tell the story, could you? Do you remember any of the jokes or set-pieces? How about the film references contained within?


In the first act of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a group of survivors in a post-Apocalyptic America gather together around a fire, trying to remember the details of “Cape Feare”, the second episode of the fifth season of The Simpsons, which first aired in 1993 and has been replayed thousands of times since.

The grid is offline, nuclear power-plants have melted down, and in the weeks and months after this world-wide disaster, people are telling stories to pass the time and to connect with each other. This is and isn’t people telling ghost stories around a fire; the details are important, and this TV show is haunting them.

Telling stories and passing them on is a recurring trope in fiction about the end of the world. Beyond survival, people want to remember the world that has come before and recount the stories they remember from childhood. But in the early twenty-first century, we aren’t trying to piece together The Odyssey or a childhood tale like The Faraway Tree, we are putting pop culture back together and resurrecting the seminal work of Matt Groening.

“Cape Feare” is itself a parody of the 1991 film Cape Fear, which is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name – based on the novel The Executioners by John D. Macdonald. And this episode doesn’t just reference this lineage, it sketches in nods to another film starring Robert Mitchum (lead actor in the original and a cameo in the 1991 film), Night of the Hunter.

The survivors are trying to piece together an episode of television that is already pieces of other broken narratives. The world has ended and nothing quite fits together anymore. And even as they have established a routine and precautions, these people are on edge – who knows the loyalties of other survivors when they approach their camp. As fun as references to The Simpsons are, there is a palpable dread by the firelight.

Lightning Jar Theatre have a reputation for solid productions of recent plays that might not find their way onto Melbourne’s main stages. After Stupid Fucking Bird and Venus in Furs, they have turned their focus to a meta-theatrical wonder that is about storytelling and inheritance; about culture and cultural capital. It’s a gem of a play by Anne Washburn.

Act one meets your expectations; this is a kind of story-telling comfort food. Washburn picks a show many of us know and an episode that is considered a classic. As Matt (Dylan Watson) tries his best to re-enact something most of us are vaguely familiar with, we’re with these characters around a campfire – a classic storytelling setting – but it’s a fire in a barrel, which is a touchstone image for the end-of-the-world.

As you might expect from The Stand or The Walking Dead, an approaching stranger is the key narrative driver in this first scene. Does he bring salvation or death? Does he bring news of the rest of the world or the Sideshow Bob punchline that Matt has been looking for?

Act two is seven years later and stories are things to trade and sell. The survivors are now a theatre company. Yes, The Simpsons episodes are the headline act, but there’s also a kick-arse montage of music-video moves – and ads trying to sell the hope that you might find a can of Diet Coke out there somewhere.

Here Emma Choy’s Colleen is in charge as the director of the ensemble. She’s struggling with how to build frivolous entertainment in a world where everything has portent and meaning. Years after the fall of civilisation, is it time for people to start wanting things again? Petty jealousies are starting to spring up and this feels much like the world getting back on its feet, but darkness still lurks at the fringes.

Act three is much further into the future and the theatre is transformed into something otherworldly. As the survivors become more and more disconnected from the earth that was, the snippets of story and memory, dream and music video are mashed-up to a point where characters take on the mantle of the iconic and the sacred.

In this post-electric world, the central form of dramatic art becomes theatre again. With film and television gone, people are telling stories in the only ways they can; each act adding more and more theatrical devices to the mix.

Under the superb direction of John Kachoyan, Mr Burns is a celebration of theatre itself – and watching the evolution of that throughout the production is quite stunning. There’s an assured focus in act one, warmly and effectively lit by Richard Vabre. Dylan Watson’s Matt is strong as the central figure here, the other survivors supporting him as he tells a story they’ve seen and heard before.

Act two’s rolling sets by Sophie Woodward bring us into the world of repertory theatre, her costumes alluding to The Simpsons but faded because of memory and twisted due to post-Apocalyptic budget restraints. Julie Grenda’s choreography takes centre stage late in the piece, showcasing dance moves that will outlive us all.

Lightning Jar’s ensemble of actors impresses in a section that is more animated and comical than the first. Victory Ndukwe’s quiet restraint in act one gives way to moments of hilarity here. Mark Yeates brings the kind of cackling joy you expect from Sideshow Bob. But Emma Choy is the standout here – giving us a real sense of trying to keep things together, even as she doesn’t understand how these plays fit into the world anymore.

While the cast is strong overall, though some of their American accents are shaky, especially early on. Perhaps they relaxed into it, maybe my ears did, but it was a pity this was such a problem. I often think that eschewing accents is better than bad ones, but for this particular play it might have presented other problems if we’d heard these lines in ‘Strayan.

I felt the length of the play a couple of times; the long transition into act two made it feel like the show was starting again once the lights were back up. And while the third act is striking visually, and the threads do draw together neatly, it doesn’t reach the apotheosis the script is aiming for. The play evolves into a musical, but the production doesn’t quite nail all the required elements – though Woodward’s costumes are stunning.

Andrew Patterson’s musical direction is wonderful, but some of the actors struggle with the songs. I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics – which is not a problem I had with dialogue earlier in the show.

There are a lot of great ideas in Washburn’s play and it’s a striking story about telling stories. Lightning Jar Theatre’s production might be a little rough around the edges, but when it works, it works – I just wish I had engaged with it more after interval. I’d heard a lot of great things about this play from when it was produced in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney. I guess sometimes hearing tales of how great something is over and over might set expectations too high.

But sometimes you have to see that story told for yourself, because hearing about it is not enough.


Sunday, 10 February 2019

REVIEW: Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow

Marcus McKenzie & Olivia Monticciolo in Sweet Phoebe
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Frazer and Helen are a middle-class married couple with A-type personalities who do everything a thousand percent. They are in complete control of their burgeoning design careers and their marriage is solid. They check in with each other, they are supportive and attentive. And they set aside time for sex. Everything in their life is moving like clockwork.

When their friends, who are off to a retreat for a week for couples counselling, ask Frazer and Helen to look after their dog, Phoebe, Helen says yes, to Frazer’s annoyance. But soon enough, Frazer and Helen have bonded over how great their marriage is, how sad they are for their friends – and Phoebe becomes another goal, another routine to tick off their list of daily accomplishments.

Everything is going well until Phoebe gets out and runs away.

Michael Gow’s play is twenty-five years old and is definitely a period piece, which Red Stitch’s new production embraces. Not that it’s embarrassing early 90s clothing, but it does drop the characters into a minimalist set of black marble with a bright red feature arch. The cluster of neon on the corner feels like a leftover piece of the 80s, but that’s what the early 90s was.

Previous productions I have seen have tried to make Frazer and Helen likeable at the start, before Phoebe goes missing – and it’s after that you are left to figure out how long to feel sorry for them. Director Mark Wilson’s take on the text is far darker; he has no sympathy for these people, whose all-consuming passion for work is what makes them unable to look after a dog or each other.

Laura Jean Hawkins’ set is a black void, with cuts of red and sharp edges. This home is cold, austere, uncomfortable. When Frazer brings Helen a vintage “Bless This House” sign, it’s a literal sign of warmth that is only there to be destroyed. Laura Mibus’ lighting design is intuitive and particular; a spot finds Helen’s classic moment of triumph, but colder boxes of light isolate Frazer during his loss of control late in the play.

The performances by Marcus McKenzie and Olivia Monticciolo are so full-on that it’s hard to find any sympathy for them as life spirals out of control. But the further into the story we plow, the more fascinating these portrayals were. And once their trust in each other begins to crack, McKenzie and Monticciolo are stunning. Wilson’s vision for this piece is remarkably clear once all hope seems lost and Frazer & Helen self-destruct.

Overall, the play started to drag late in the piece; starting with such heightened emotion, pushing further and further and further into this suburban heart of darkness became overwhelming. It was exhausting. But for a twenty-five-year-old play that could easily be done as a bland middle-class “missing dog” story, I appreciated Mark Wilson’s insistence in pushing everything to the edge and well over it.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

REVIEW: Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine

Ursula Yovich, writer and star of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

 “I am angry. That’s what rock is supposed to be. Full of pain.”

Barbara and her sister René front a band called The Camp Dogs when Barb can book gigs, which is sometimes just busking. Meanwhile, René loves an audience so much, she does a Singing Sheilas cover show at the casino. They’d love to have steady work together, but they know what the music industry is like. That’s where the anger comes in.

The Malthouse audience (“they’ll touch anything”) enters the Merlyn theatre to find it’s been turned into a low-rent music venue, complete with sticky carpet, a chalk board to announce the band and the happy hour specials, and some terrible furniture to seat some lucky audience members. We’re here for the gig and the stories in between the songs, but there’s more to Barbara and the Camp Dogs than listening to rock’n’roll in a space that feels like a hipster pub.

When René talks about anger early on, it’s a laugh line. She’s rolling her eyes at her head-strong sister yelling at the venue managers that pay them and people in the industry that might be able to help them. René doesn’t want to rock the boat – at least not until they get a gig on a yacht, which Barb might have only booked because the owners thought they were Indian.

Barbara knows, though, that as good as she and her sister are, the music industry isn’t looking for new Aboriginal talent to play bigger venues. “They pretend it’s all about merit when it’s really all about what they think they can sell to suburban Sally and her dick-shaped hairbrush.”

The show we’re watching isn’t just the drama and comedy of these two sisters’ lives though; some of it is a pure rock show, with driving songs of love, passion and outrage. Songs borne of everything these two have been through – sharpened by Barbara’s anger.

Writers Ursula Yovich (who also plays Barbara) and Alana Valentine have joined with musician Adm Ventoura to craft the songs which rock out in the venue – sometimes to rhythmic clapping and stomping of feet and sometimes to quiet reflection. The concert part of the show is worth the price of admission alone, but the behind-the-scenes moments elevate this to something truly special.

Elaine Crombie (René) and Ursula Yovich (Barbara) are charming, hilarious and devastating in their portrayal of two sisters, whose family life has been rough and who can’t quite make a living at what they love. Their powerful singing gives way to equally striking dramatic performances as they travel to Darwin for a gig (which the poor Camp Dogs have to pay to get to) and then hit the road to visit their dying mother.

Anger is the driving force behind Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Barbara knows that being the best singer/songwriter in a country that has systematically oppressed its Aboriginal population means that she’ll always struggle. She and her sister sing of standing in the sun and not giving an inch, but as their journey progresses, we can see that their country continues to stand in their way.

It’s often said that comedy is used as a trojan horse to get audiences to hear uncomfortable truths. There are plenty of laughs in Barbara and the Camp Dogs but the real trojan horse here is the rock music. The audience is whooping and cheering the singing and the on-stage band, but slowly, surely and expertly – under the superb direction of Leticia Cáceres – we are let in on a story of pain and anger. Another wake-up call for an audience and a population and a country that should have heard this and done something about it a long ago.

Anger. It’s what rock is supposed to be. It’s what makes this show come alive. An outstanding achievement.



The set of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

Thursday, 7 February 2019

REVIEW: Merciless Gods by Dan Giovannoni

Paul Blenheim and Charles Purcell in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Red curtains adorn the back of the stage. A slice of blue cuts through the black. The playing space is intimate, at first crowded by a group of friends at a dinner party, telling stories of revenge. It’s petty to begin with and then it becomes a game of one-upmanship. And even though these middle-class people are safe, the stories of a travel-writer mate become stomach-churning.

This is the introductory tale in Christos Tsiolkas’ short-story collection “Merciless Gods” and it’s the opening piece in the stage adaptation by playwright Dan Giovannoni and Little Ones theatre company.

Tsiolkas is merciless with his characters, always. He paints stunning portraits of the cultural spread of Australians, men and women, gay and straight. The lives they lead might be bleak, but they are always suffused with truthfulness and occasional – very occasional – moments of tenderness.

Giovannoni has transformed several of the “Merciless Gods” short stories into short plays. Groups of friends. A family with a dying father. A mother coming to terms with the loss of her son through watching porn. A married couple dealing with an overbearing matriarch. A junkie suffering withdrawal and moments of clarity. Not all of these people are at the fringes of society, but they are often at the end of their rope.

Little Ones have a reputation for beautifully-wrought queer texts (or queered texts). The decadence of their Dangerous Liaisons. The simple beauty of their Nightingale and the Rose. Their camped-up Abigail’s Party. And a silent, lustful Dracula.

In comparison, Merciless Gods is almost austere. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, but piercing. Set and Costume Designer Eugyeene Teh reminds us we are watching theatre with that bold red curtain, but costumes the actors in the everyday. Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis’ work is brilliantly subtle, as always – a creeping shadow or a shaft of light; characters cocooned in shadow or inching toward daylight.

This production has previously played at the Northcote Town Hall, but was designed for the stage at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney. Griffin is a very intimate space. That slice of blue at the Fairfax Studio is the entire stage at Griffin.

Some of the stories in the first half felt a little overwhelmed by this new space; the choice of having actors face away from the audience is barely a problem at Griffin, but from further back at the Fairfax, parts of the dialogue were muffled or lost. This was less of a problem in the second half – where at least a couple of the pieces, like the final two monologues, felt perfectly suited to the void of darkness before we are overwhelmed by light.

The ensemble of actors are regulars in Little Ones’ productions, with the exception of Stefan Bramble, who is new to this season of the show. Jennifer Vuletic is given several chances in a variety of roles to command the stage. Paul Blenheim is heartbreaking as the junkie, remembering the man he loved. Sapidah Kian is remarkable throughout the night and pulls everything into focus in the last piece.

As tough and rough as the characters are, director Stephen Nicolazzo has created polished theatrical jewels from their lives. Out there against the blood red backdrop, he and the Little Ones team have brought Tsiolkas’ words to queer, passionate, troubling, affecting life. Merciless Gods is remarkable.



Sapidah Kian in Merciless Gods
Photo: Sarah Walker

Monday, 4 February 2019

REVIEW: Cock by Mike Bartlett

Matthew Connell (John) and Marissa O'Reilly in Cock

John has been with his boyfriend for seven years, so it’s a surprise to them both when John meets and falls in love with a woman. But is it love or is it infatuation? Or maybe it’s just the allure of something different or a kind of normalcy that society has convinced him he really wants?

Mike Bartlett’s Cock is a brutal play about society’s expectations – the kind that is bred into us – and a man who cannot make a decision. This production, directed by Beng Oh, is fast-paced and never lets up long enough for the audience to catch its breath. One minute, John and his boyfriend’s relationship is breaking down. The next they are reconciling because the woman John has fallen in love with is following him, stalking him.

Or is that the lie that John tells his boyfriend to make everything seem better? Like when John tells him that the woman is “manly” – as if that might soften the blow, as if you can ever soften the truth that you’ve cheated on someone.

I first saw Cock at the Melbourne Theatre Company five years ago, where I had a lot of sympathy for John. I identified with the character because he was torn between what society expected of him and what he thought he really wanted.

There’s a moment late in the play where John’s boyfriend’s father says John must choose what he is – as if he must be gay or straight, one or the other. Even for an older man being enlightened enough to accept his son and his boyfriend, he can only see the binary – gay or straight. John knows enough to know that he might not be one or the other – he might be a stew.

This production, first staged at the Meat Market in 2018, embraces the battle at the heart of the play. It’s not one cock fight, though. It’s a series of increasingly tough clashes between John and his boyfriend, John and his girlfriend – and a battle royale at the end with everyone head-to-head.

Matthew Connell’s John is the epitome of indecision; not that the performance is unclear. This John is suffering, not because of the choice everyone expects him to make, but because he’s clearly in an abusive relationship. John is a tough character to like, but Connell embodies a man who has lived so long with a man who treats him badly, that you understand why he cannot make up his mind.

John’s boyfriend (Shaun Goss) and girlfriend (Marissa O’Reilly) are both more complicated than they first seem – and absolutely flawed, too. The rapid-fire dialogue sometimes makes it hard to engage with anyone emotionally, but there’s something very watchable about Goss’ on-edge boyfriend and O’Reilly’s stuck-in-her-head girlfriend.

Scott Gooding as the father is a breath of calm fresh air in the middle of the battle, but he’s also stuck in his ways and hampered by how society has raised him.

It struck me on this viewing of the play that this very clearly isn’t a play about bisexuality – it’s about the how false the choice that John faces is: the idea that he has to choose between a man or a woman. Never once does he consider choosing himself by choosing to be single.

And none of the others consider this either. Society has trained us to think we must be in relationships, even bad ones – and we’ll fight to the death not to be alone, even if it makes us unhappy.