Monday, 24 December 2012

Thank you, 2012: Taking my theatre to new places

Painting with Words & Fire in Melbourne

As you might have seen from my Favourite Theatre 2012 list, I saw lots of theatre in lots of different places this year. I also had multiple productions of my own work across four different cities: Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and a reading in New York City.

First of all, I’d like to thank my collaborators in the Wooden Leg – our little theatre company, that’s still learning to make theatre but has plans for the future, so look out! Thank you, Wallis Murphy-Munn, Andrew Dodds and Hayley-Lawson Smith for challenging me, supporting me and giving of yourselves in the form of new works we will develop over the course of 2013.

And in chronological order:

Thank you David Attrill and Erin McMullen for their work on Like a House on Fire, as part of Short & Sweet Sydney 2012.

Thank you – please don’t let me forget anyone – Renee Palmer, Christine Husband, Adrienne Sloan, Andre Stefan White, Ryan Hodge and the team at Revolt for their work on Painting with Words & Fire. Also, a hat tip to Amy Jenkins and Fiona Bulle for their contributions and support along the way.

Thank you to Richard Di Gregorio, Chris Broadstock and Ephiny Gale for all their hard work taking Richard Di Gregorio: On Time to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. And thanks also to Jane Howard for some venue reconnaissance in the early planning stages, which I guess happened last year – but whatever, go Jane!

Thank you to Laura Iris Hill, Robert Gonyo, Hannah Finn and Rebecca Burton for the remarkable effort they put into a reading of Painting with Words & Fire at Primary Stages in New York City!

And thank you to Clara Pagone, Anna Burgess, Sean Scanlon and the Short & Sweet Melbourne team for a fun ride putting on Eight Minutes. It really was a thrill to play around with space and format, have our actors mingle with the crowd before our show opened act two.

Thank you to Tom Conyers, Nicole Taylor and Anthony Noack for continuing support in our little writers group – helping each other to make our work better before directors and actors get their grubby little hands on it.

Apart from an appearance of Poems a Dead Boy Wrote at Short & Sweet Sydney in February 2013, there are no other concrete plans for productions of my work in the new year. There are vague plans. There are scripts to be finished. There’s development to be done. Directors to talk to. Theatre companies, too.

Work continues until new shows will inevitably see the light of day.

Thank you to friends, family and audience members who supported my shows by coming to see them. And by giving me great feedback. And for enjoying yourselves. And for telling others about my work. And for taking a chance by promoting me to other audiences.

And, finally, to the Melbourne theatre-making community. I saw a lot of theatre in Melbourne this year. I loved a great deal of it and admired a great deal more. But beyond seeing such great work from so many of you, I am indebted to you all for inspiring me with your generosity; from talking to me frankly about your creative process, to inviting me to meet fellow artists and collaborators, to letting me know how appreciative you are of my work and my support.

I make theatre because I have to make theatre; I write because I can’t not write. I am so grateful that you have all made it easier to do what I love and to love what I do.

See you in 2013.

Painting with Words & Fire reading in New York

Sunday, 23 December 2012

My Favourite Theatre of 2012


This year, I saw shows in Adelaide, New York, Sydney and Melbourne. Here are my Top Ten, Runners-Up and Honourable Mentions.

They are listed in alphabetical order. I didn’t want to torture myself by having to rank them.

THE TOP TEN

BOY GIRL WALL - The Escapists, Melbourne Theatre Company
A smart, insightful, cleverly-written, engagingly-performed monologue about a Boy, a Girl and the Wall in between them.


THE BOYS - Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney
Sam Strong’s powerful production of the heavy-hitting Australian classic. A tour-de-force for everyone involved.

INTO THE WOODS - Public Theatre, New York
Any show, even one of Sondheim’s best, might not be able to live up to the expectation I had for wanting to see it in Central Park so badly I based my trip to New York around when it was playing. It exceeded expectations.

ONCE - Broadway
The perfect little movie is developed into a perfectly crafted immersive stage musical. A revelation.

ON THE MISCONCEPTION OF OEDIPUS - Malthouse
The Oedipus myth fully interrogated by artists at the top of their game. Kudos Zoe Atkinson, Matthew Lutton and Tom Wright

POMPEII, L.A. - Malthouse
Declan Greene and Matthew Lutton combine their considerable talents into a searing depiction of celebrity and tragedy and rising stars being destroyed in front of our eyes.

PALE BLUE DOT - Optic Nerve
Optic Nerve’s collage of stories about space, time and space-time which hit many of my favourite subjects and combined them into a piece of theatre that I won’t soon forget.

SONS & MOTHERS - No Strings Attached, Adelaide Fringe Festival
Sometimes theatre-makers try every piece of artiface at their disposal to move people. No Strings Attached, an ensemble of disabled actors, tell simple stories of their lives and their mothers and there was not a dry eye in the house.

SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL - Belvoir, Melbourne Theatre Company
This classic of the Australian stage is returned, in top form, from a production that began at Belvoir in Sydney and returned to the play’s spiritual home at the Melbourne Theatre Company. An incredible experience.

TOP GIRLS - Melbourne Theatre Company
A classic of modern theatre, this thirtieth anniversary production directed by Jenny Kemp was sharp and pointed and poignant; this ensemble of actors rivalled any I saw in any show this year or ever.


THE RUNNERS UP 

ANGELA’S KITCHEN - Griffin, Malthouse
Paul Capsis’ mesmirising ode to his grandmother, her kitchen and the family she raised.


THE BLUE ROOM - 5 Pound
Jason Cavanagh’s beautiful production allowed actors Zak Zavod and Kaitlyn Clare to shine in the darkness.

EVERYNIGHT, EVERYNIGHT - Frank Theatre
A haunting, heavy production of Ray Mooney’s important prison drama by new company, Frank Theatre.

THE GOAT (OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?) - 5 Pound
Edward Albee’s black comedy made seriously voyeuristic by Christine Husband in the Collingwood Underground Carpark. (I didn’t see the transfer to the Owl and Pussycat.)

THE SEIZURE - The Hayloft Project
The Hayloft Project continue to bring sharp, intelligent theatrical reimaginings of classic texts to the independant Melbourne stage.

THE TEMPTATION OF ST ANTHONY - Four Larks
Four Larks had a mainstage show at the Malthouse this year, but it was this return to their junkyard opera roots that really shone.

TRIBES - Melbourne Theatre Company
Julian Meyrick’s stunning production of Nina Raine’s new work about inter-family communication and an interloper.

UTA UBER KOOL JA - Adelaide Fringe Festival
This hilarious and ultimately moving site-specific work was another highlight of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. Find Uta in a hotel room near you.

THE WILD DUCK - Belvoir, Malthouse
Simon Stone beautifully rewrites Ibsen’s classic work for a modern audience and a modern sensibility. The debate about re-writing classics will go on forever, but in the plus column is haunting productions like this.

THE WELL - La Mama
Robert Reid’s devised work with an acting company plucked from the Monash Student Theatre told the story of the end of the world in a way that was beautiful, haunting, hilarious and visually stunning – often all at the same time.


THE HONOURABLE MENTIONS

THE BOOK OF MORMON - Broadway
An hilarious, crass musical satire.


CHOIR GIRL - Attic Erratic, Melbourne Fringe Festival
A beautifully designed, wonderfully written cabaret experience.

5 POUNDS OF REPERTORY THEATRE - 5 Pound
I couldn’t go past mentioning this extraordinary achievement by 5 Pound theatre – 5 actors, 5 directors, 5 plays, 5 weeks. I missed one of the plays, but I supported this one all the way – and Melbourne audiences seemed to embrace this amazing ensemble of theatre-makers.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - Her Majesty's Theatre
Sondheim at his most farcical under the clear direction of Simon Phillips and starring Geoffrey Rush and a whole host of great comic actors and musical theatre stars.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER - Broadway
A visually inventive and smart retelling of the Peter Pan story.

RHONDA IS IN THERAPY - Hoy Polloy, 45 Downstairs
Bridgette Burton’s play is smart and funny and very insightful look at a woman dealing with the loss of a child.

THE UNSPOKEN WORD IS “JOE” - MKA, La Mama
As described in the press release, this is Zoe Dawson’s “really good” play about the reading of a really good play. Really.

*

And that, as they say, is that. Some amazing theatre in all the places I visited this year.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Eight Minutes: Production Photos by 3 Fates Media

My latest short play, Eight Minutes, opened at Chapel Off Chapel this week as part of Short & Sweet Theatre 2012.

3 Fates Media is the official photographer of the event - their website, their Facebook page. Check them out if you are after portrait photography, video production or theatre photography. More details on their website.




Actors Sean Scanlon and Anna Burgess in
Eight Minutes

Being the first show after intermission is fun - and Theatre Week B is entirely different to Theatre Week A. There's a lot more "off the wall" stuff this week.

I'm very proud of this little show. Director Clara Pagone has really brought Eight Minutes to life in an exciting and innovative way - and Sean & Anna have found some thrilling ways to embody these characters' stories.

Two more performances tomorrow: 1:30pm and 7:30pm. Come along, check out 10 bite-size shows and vote for your favourite. And join us in the bar for a drink after.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

You only live twice: SKYFALL and the resurrection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond


Spoiler warning for the entire Bond franchise - books and films, but specifically for Skyfall. See it before you read this review!

*

I’ve been a big fan of James Bond since high school, back in a time when the only way to see the movies was when they appeared on television; for some reason, they were never all available on VHS to hire and never to buy. In between seeing the movies on TV and waiting for the next ones to be released (the first Bond film I saw on the big screen was The Living Daylights), I read the original Ian Fleming novels, most of which I bought from second hand book stores.

So, as much as I see problems with both the books and the films, each iteration is of its time and I’m still drawn to the character in a similar way to when I was twelve years old. I just have so much fun with them. But I also adore the character and the world Fleming created. And it’s nice to see his original vision respected, while James Bond continues to grow in the twenty-first century.



Ian Fleming killed James Bond twice. The first time, in the fifth Bond novel, “From Russia With Love”; struck down by Rosa Klebb’s poisoned knitting needles. James Bond falls “head long into the wine-red floor”. End of novel. Fleming didn’t want to write 007 novels forever, so the agent was dead.

But his popularity flourished after President Kennedy put the latest Bond book on his reading list. 007 didn’t stay dead, and in “Doctor No”, Bond is recovering from tetrodotoxin poisoning and sent, by M, to Jamaica to recover. Then he gets pulled into the story of the villainous titular character.

Bond dies for a second time in “You Only Live Twice”, the eleventh Bond novel. The book is about 007 taking revenge on Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE and the villain behind the death of his wife Tracy, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Fleming didn’t leave the reader in suspense this time, though. Bond was still alive, but without his memory, living in Japan with Kissy Suzuki.

But MI6 thinks he’s dead and M writes a three page obituary for him. Much of James Bond’s pre-007 history is first referenced in this ode to an agent by his boss. And just as M did in that 1964 novel, so must Judi Dench’s M pen an obituary for Daniel Craig’s James Bond in the latest film of the fifty-year-old franchise.

Bond, after a thrilling chase through Istanbul, is fighting a man who is in possession of a harddrive stolen from MI6. They are on top of a train, and another agent – Eve, watches on. M, back in Britain, but listening to everything on her headset, urges Eve to shoot the man Bond is fighting – even though Bond is at risk of being shot himself.

Bond is hit. And he falls from the train and into the river under the bridge the train is now passing over. 007 is dead. Cue the opening credits and the stunning title song by Adele.


In some ways, Skyfall feels like another reinvention of the franchise, after the successful reboot of the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, followed by the unfairly maligned Quantum of Solace. But, for me, Skyfall fulfills a kind of promise – both through the evolution of the character, as well as in re-establishing the icon. With each of the Daniel Craig films, more and more of classic Bond iconography appears and by the end of this latest film, it feels like we’ve stepped back in time. But not in a regressive way.

After the first twenty films and forty years of the franchise, culminating in Die Another Day – a terrible film that highlighted the absolute excesses of Bond films (and action movies in general), EON Productions and MGM were fortunate enough to finally get the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale”. That novel had already been adapted twice – once as a TV special in the 1950s and once as a spoof of Bond films in the 1960s.

After all this time, the character could be introduced to audiences properly, through his first full mission as a Double-0 agent.

Every time a new James Bond is cast, the producers look back to Fleming to remind themselves of the essence of the character:

-          George Lazenby’s completely-faithful-to-the-novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after You Only Live Twice’s villain’s volcano lair
-          Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die, one of Moore’s more faithful offerings, after the camp silliness of Connery’s quick return in Diamonds Are Forever
-          Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights, which uses a Fleming short story as a jumping off point, after Moore’s stint turned the character and the franchise into a joke factory
-          Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye had to relaunch the franchise, after the disappointing box office of Licence to Kill and a six year hiatus, so it didn’t need to get back to Fleming so much as remind the world that Bond existed. It did just that and became one of the highest grossing Bond films to that point

Finding the essence of the character seems key, but it’s not always what a film audience expects. Dalton’s Bond was probably closest to Fleming’s character since Connery’s first two films and, perhaps, Lazenby’s one-shot. But the brutality of Licence to Kill seemed to put people off. What a difference another two decades would make. Fleming’s Bond is a brutal, humourless government agent – a “blunt instrument” and killer with a sense of style. I don’t think any of the actors fully embraced that or were allowed to until Daniel Craig and Casino Royale.

James Bond:
a sketch commissioned by Ian Fleming
Over the years, Fleming’s entire Bond canon has been plundered for titles, plots, characters – sometimes mixed up in a blender before the finished product is served. The Roger Moore films were less and less concerned with being faithful to the source material, so there were elements of the novels which could be picked up and used later. The “He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him...” subplot about CIA ally Felix Leiter being fed to sharks in Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” did not appear in the film version of that book, but was later used in Dalton’s Licence to Kill, as the impetus for a revenge film.

By the time Brosnan was on the scene, the 1990s neutered the character and there was practically no Fleming left to use. Goldeneye was the name of Fleming’s home in Jamaica, where he wrote the Bond novels. The World is Not Enough is the phrase Fleming put on the Bond family Coat of Arms in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. The man was long since an icon, though there are occasional whiffs of Fleming’s hard-man character in the Brosnan movies; an injured Bond in The World Is Not Enough and pointed exchanges like one from Goldeneye:
Natalya: “How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?
Bond: “It’s what keeps me alive.”
Natalya: “No. It’s what keeps you alone.”
Casino Royale is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Fleming novel, with a few action set pieces thrown in for modern day audiences. But the relationship between Bond and Vesper is key to the book and to the 2006 film, building a foundation for this new-but-old direction for the franchise to take. Asked if he wants his maritini shaken not stirred, Craig’s Bond says he doesn’t care. But even his love of martinis evolves in the three Craig films: from inventing the Vesper martini, to getting hammered on them in Quantum of Solace, to leaving them behind for the classic shaken-not-stirred in Skyfall.

Vesper's betrayal of Bond is key to understanding the hardened-heart of this mostly mysterious character. Fleming's novel finishes with the line, "The bitch is dead." The film challenges Bond's simplistic summation of Vesper's motivations, leading directly to Quantum of Solace. It's Fleming for another era.

Casino Royale allows a moment to appreciate Bond in a tux, throws in both the modern Aston Martin DBS as well as the classic DB5, which debuted in Goldfinger forty years earlier. Quantum of Solace allows for several threads of continuity, making it the first cinematic sequel in the franchise’s history. But Fleming’s novels were filled with continuity – Bond is often recovering from one novel in the next, or a “Bond girl” might be hanging around in the next book, before he moves on to the next. And Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” is a direct sequel to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Skyfall ups the ante by introducing Q branch, Q and Miss Moneypenny – as well as an office for M, which I don’t think we’ve seen since the Brosnan movies.

The film also uses tidbits from Fleming’s obituary for James Bond to finally explore the character’s backstory – the death of Bond’s parents and an allusion to his troubled childhood and why orphans make the best agents. Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – long time Bond writers and big Fleming fans – have dropped in just the right amount of classic Bond, while John Logan – new to the series – sculpts another revenge film. Yet unlike Bond seeking revenge in Quantum of Solace (or Licence to Kill or “You Only Live Twice”), this time it’s an ex-MI6 agent, the villainous Silva, seeking revenge for how he was so callously treated by Judi Dench’s M years earlier.

(Note: CR gave us Mr White; QOS gave us Dominic Greene; Skyfall gives us Raoul Silva. Fans have long talked about a return of Blofeld to the series, but are we being led along a colourful path to the return of Auric Goldfinger?)

After fifty years, there’s no doubt the James Bond series of films will outlive us all. The character is too iconic to fade away – and the audience seems to have as much fun with Skyfall’s allusions to the past, as it did with the brand new elements. The return of the classic DB5 and the joke about exploding pens seemed to excite as much as anything else in the film. 

The roles played by Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris are fully-fleshed out, bringing some extra resonance to the story right at the very end. And villain Raoul Silva is Fleming-esque for many reasons; firstly, the homoerotic tension with Bond and, later, the moment where he exposes his physical scars - as memorable as Doctor No's metal hands or Blofeld's syphilitic scars. Javier Bardem does an amazing job, especially as he faces off with Judi Dench's M.

And the film looks unlike any Bond film. Even Quantum of Solace, so gorgeously shot by director Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, isn’t quite as stunning as a film under the auspices of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. The fight in Shanghai is beautifully choreographed and filmed. But the desolate moors of Scotland and the flame-filled finale are also exquisite.

The score is also a lovely combination of Thomas Newman and Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, as well as riffs from the Skyfall title song.

This is the third act in the re-imagining of James Bond, without forgetting about the past. The producers are being bold in their choices, much like Fleming often was. While the classic pieces have fallen into place, the film doesn’t quite fall into the formula of the pre-Craig films. In some ways, this story is more about M than Bond – and the villain gets a plausible revenge motive. Judi Dench gets to really sink her teeth into a role she's been playing for nearly twenty years - the last holdover from the Brosnan era.

Fleming’s novels didn’t always adhere to formula. “From Russia With Love” doesn’t feature Bond until halfway through the novel. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is told in first person, from the Bond girl’s point-of-view. And his short stories were often character studies, digging deeper into the Bond persona. While his family life was established in “You Only Live Twice,” his professional backstory comes out in the “For Your Eyes Only” and collection of shorts.

Skyfall deals a lot with death and resurrection. It looks unflinchingly at the past and reminds us that even though Bond is getting on (Craig is all of 45, but they’ve made him look older here), suffering from his time in the service and his premature death, that sometimes older and wiser is better. It’s hard not to see that as a comment on this series of films themselves; where the bold reboot injected a youth and vigour into the franchise, the regaining of classic iconography and elements has finally resurrected the Bond that has not only existed on the big screen for fifty years, but in print for nearly sixty.

The title song opens with the line, "This is the end..." But James Bond Will Return.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Announcing the Director and Stars of "Eight Minutes" - Short & Sweet Melbourne 2012

There are three basic ways to experience a Short & Sweet Festival:

1) As a wildcard, performed once (or twice) - with all your work focused on that one (or those two) performances to impress an audience
2) As a Top Thirty play - five performances spread over a week, a decent but short season to show off your ten minute play, put together in a handful of weeks by writer, director and actors that are basically thrown together randomly
3) As an Independent Theatre Company submission - where an independent theatre company presents the show as a group, able to handpick their director and have more discretion over casting, production, etc.

And as I've been involved in three Short & Sweet Festivals in Melbourne now, I've progressed through each of those experiences. They all have their pros and cons, but for me, developing this project with The Wooden Leg team has been the most fulfilling to this point thus far.

Wallis, Andy, Hayley and I got to decide which play we were going to submit. We got to throw down a list of directors' names and invite them to pitch ideas. And once we had a director, we got to talk about how we saw the show, what we wanted to say with the show and who we wanted in the show.

And now we have our director and two cast members, here they are in all their headshot glory...

Director - Clara Pagone

Adam - Sean Scanlon

Eve - Anna Burgess

And the final star of the show...

Earth
You are cordially invited to witness its destruction.

Eight Minutes by Keith Gow is on as part of Short & Sweet Melbourne 2012 as part of Theatre Group B:
Wed Nov 28 7:30pm, Thur Nov 29 7:30pm, Fri Nov 30 7:30pm, Sat Dec 1 1:30pm and 7:30pm

Buy your tickets here!

Monday, 22 October 2012

“Fate Will Twist The Both of You”: Twenty Year School Reunion and the party next door...


Twelve months ago, I premiered a short play of mine at The Owl & the Pussycat in Richmond. Titled You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia, the play was about how you can’t always live up to the dreams you had when you were fifteen years old. It’s definitely the most autobiographical of all my plays, dealing with one character at age 15 and at age 35, interrogating himself about where he’s been and where he’s going. It’s about finding your feet as a kid and finding your comfort zone as an adult.

Paul Knox and Tom Carmody,
You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia
September, 2011
There was some fun to be had in the fifteen-year-old not understanding references his thirty-five-year old self makes. And some drama in the conflict between how the character had been as a teenager and how he’d wished he’d been. And the show was done in the round in the Owl & the Pussycat’s then-gallery space, as if the crowd was surrounding two kids fighting in the schoolyard.

After the show, if we weren’t drinking at the Pussycat, we’d head next door to Holliava to talk about how that night’s performance had been and how people had reacted. The play gets emotionally raw at certain points – with thirty-five-year old David throwing his fifteen-year-old self to the ground. The bully inside had got the better of him.

Twelve months later, on the night The Owl & the Pussycat celebrated its third year as a gallery and theatre, Holliava – the bar next door – hosted the twenty year school reunion of Highvale Secondary College’s class of 1992. It was time for me to see some people I hadn’t seen for many, many years.

I remember when the invitation came for the ten year reunion. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see those people again. My life hadn’t changed so much. I was still living at home. I have a feeling I was away the weekend it happened, but that was a decade ago. All I know is that I missed it, but at the time it didn’t feel like such a big deal.

When the invitation for twenty years came around, I was less in two minds. I felt like it was time to find out what these people had been up to – even though some of us had reconnected on Facebook in the past few years, that wasn’t the same as seeing them in the flesh and chatting about old times and what everyone had been up to in the intervening two decades.

Me in 1991.
As you might understand, even from the outline of You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia, high school wasn’t always a good time for me. I think most people liked me and I liked most of them. I was shy and didn’t necessarily feel like I fit in. I was picked on by bullies, but I was defended by most people – even if we weren’t close friends. And while I had close friends in high school, but we lost touch soon after.

It was easier to lose touch in 1992 – no mobile phones, no text messaging, no internet, email or Facebook. But, in a way, leaving high school was a nice way to clean the slate and start again.

Once I RSVP’d to this year’s event, I was pretty excited about who might be there and what might have happened to people I wasn’t able to find on Facebook. In the week before the reunion, a few people asked me if I was nervous, but I really wasn’t. I’m comfortable with who I am. I’ve got a pretty great life most of the time. And, you know, if I was really bored, I could always go next door to the party at the Owl & the Pussycat.

And I wasn’t nervous... until I was approaching Holliava, only a few paces away. My heart started to race and while I never considered walking past, I did suddenly wonder – what if I don’t remember anyone’s names? What if they don’t remember me? What if I’m suddenly as awkward as I was back then?

But then I took a deep breath, walked inside – and headed straight for the front bar to grab a drink before venturing out to the beer garden that was reserved for us old Highvalians. Well, not old – but you know what I mean. Older. The best thing about high school reunions, even if you’re reminded about how old you’re getting – everyone else is in the same boat!

Any nervousness dissipated as soon as I walked in and started to talk with Rachael and Tracy and Natalie, who had organised the event. And Stuart, who had lived five minutes down the road when we were growing up and had been a really good friend since grade five in primary school. But we’d lost touch. I’d lost touch with everyone. And apart from a couple of people I’ve bumped into over the years and caught up with post-Facebook, I really hadn’t seen most of these people since we’d graduated in 1992.

Many of the conversations in the early part of the day were the same – where are you living? What work are you doing? Married? Kids? I got pretty expert in giving a precis of my life – single, no kids, working for an IT company but really I’m a playwright, living in Bayswater. And the conversations flowed from there. We gravitated toward people who we knew better back in the day, but as the day moved on, I found myself saying more to some people than I ever had during our six years at high school.

Sharon and I spent a lot of time saying wow. Nils, Lisa, Stuart and I talked about how our parents are still living in the same places they had since we all grew up within walking distance from each other. Adam, Aleysha, Stuart and I talked about our sisters, who are all two years younger than us and all went to Highvale, as well. And it’s only two years off their twenty year reunion, so they are getting old, too!

Some genetically lucky people looked exactly the same as they did twenty years ago. Others – most of us – have age lines and worry wrinkles. Some people are wearing glasses. Others are wearing beards and a hat – oh, wait, that’s me. Some boys have lost their hair and others have shaved it off in defiance.

Some people I recognised as soon as they walked in the door. Others, well, I’m glad we all had name tags. Happily, though, once the synapses started firing, once I had commited all those names to memory again, I started to remember things I never even knew were in the recesses of my mind. Parties we’d all been at. Bus trips we’d taken. Things about one another’s families that I’d long since forgotten.

And, most importantly, or most embarassingly, the lyrics to Mr Big’s “To Be With You” surfaced from our collective unconcious – which was recited, misremembered and drunkenly sung much later in the night. If only the DJ at Holliava had had the balls to play it over the sound system – I think we might have all actually disappeared back in time, rather than just happily reminiscing about it.

As the night wore on, the crowd got thinner but the conversations got more intense. Or at least a little more detailed. And only once did I consider leaving this gathering for the Owl & the Pussycat party. I did slip out for a cameo appearance and a free beer from Jason next door, but quickly got back to pretending I was still in high school. Finally hanging out with all the cool kids.

More than once we talked about how close the class of 1992 were – and those that said that weren’t wrong. I may have had tough times, but I think we all do as kids. It was a close group of people – as proven by the groups who did stay in contact for all these many years since. And others said it was amazing how much we shared and remembered, when all most of us had in common was that we went to the same high school from 1987 to 1992.

I don’t know if we’ll see each other again for another ten years or if some of us will keep in contact because of this one drunken reunion we’ve just had. But even if we do disperse until we’re – shudder – forty-eight years old, at least this Saturday was fun, funny and totally worth doing. And those nerves of mine, like those bad memories of high school, were left at the front door of Holliava – where I hope they stay.

And, you know, in a few years time, I’m sure I’ll think of a high school reunion play worth writing.

Thanks to all those who went. Boo to all who stayed away.


Or, as Mr Big sang, "when it's through, it's through, fate will twist the both of you / So come on baby, come on over, let me be the one to show you..."

Friday, 7 September 2012

“A mote of dust suspended in a sun beam”: Optic Nerve’s PALE BLUE DOT

Pale Blue Dot - see it? In the sunbeam on the right?
That's Earth from 6 billion kilometres away


The cinema has a grand tradition of science fiction that is cherished and respected, lauded and revered. The genre seems quietly overlooked by theatre. Where are the great plays about scientific discovery? Where are the great plays of specualtive fiction? Please, if you know of any, recommend them to me. It’s certainly a wish of mine to try my hand at science fiction on stage.

Optic Nerve’s Pale Blue Dot is a mix of fact and fiction – an ode to science, which reveres its grandeur while also poking and proding its humanity. A collage of stories about the infinity of space and the limits of photography and art at capturing such epic majesty.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a photograph taken by the Voyager space craft in 1990, a photograph of Earth not taken for strict scientific purposes but as a picture of perspective. Carl Sagan fought to have the photograph taken, just as early astronauts postponed sleep for mere minutes of “sight seeing” in space – human need over scientific necessity.

The play fictionalises the stories of Carl Sagan and his wife Annie Druyen, and their role in creating the “golden records” – pressed gold archives of songs, sounds, greetings, music, images and brainwaves that were sent on Voyager as a depiction of Earth. The experience of watching this production feels pressed into me, just as these images, sounds and songs of Earth are pressed into those records.

There is also the story of a French New Wave filmmaker, a war photographer and a child – and the ebb and flow of these characters and their reaction to light and movement, reflecting the many different emotions contained in the record of Earth that is “Pale Blue Dot”.

Entering the theatre, I knew little of Optic Nerve’s work but a lot about the premise of this play – given the title alone. The glossary in the programme, with its definitions of the titular photograph, the Golden Records and Voyager, etc., suggests the general public aren’t as familiar with Carl Sagan’s work as I am. Space exploration is a keen interest of mine. A subject that fascinates me. And a genre I have and will always try to write in.

But knowing the subject matter and having a preconcieved notion of what may lie in store could easily have worked against this production. What if I didn’t like the depiction of Carl and his wife? What if I thought the metaphor was overused or the importance of the photograph were diminished? What if the collage was more a mess than a cohesive experience?

The work of a smart, inciteful cast of actors and a strong director respected the material – they found a way to capture this vast subject matter and distill it into a 75 minute meditation on light and photography, space and infinity. Distilling the essence of “Pale Blue Dot” into an extraordinary theatrical experience.

Theatre, at its best, feels universal but plays to the personal. As a theatre-maker, I want my audience to understand and empathise. As an audience member, I love to feel like the play is talking directly to me. This show, in particular, felt like it hit many of my buttons – my passion for space exploration, my wonder at the universe, my general interest in photography and my intrigue in the life of war photographers – who choose to be observers, their camera sometimes distancing themselves from the hand that reaches toward them.

And light. And constants. And space. And movement. And memory.

In a very insightful Q&A forum after the show, hosted by an astronomer, there was a discussion about finding a way to draw this vast subject matter into a coherent piece of theatre (stemming from a question of mine). But there was also a discussion about how science and theatre are similar – and how they can support each other through shows like this. And how the limits of both can inform each other; science is dictated by certain universal laws and theatre is defined by its ephemeral nature.

To creators and performers Stephen Phillips, Lachlan Woods, Luisa Hastings Edge and Ben Pfeiffer – whose collaboration on and off stage are second-to-none. Director Tanya Gerstle, whose wise choices kept the show in the precise focus it needs to be. And the entire crew – particularly Russell Goldsmith and Tom Willis, whose sound and production design were the icing on the cake.

Thank you.

Pale Blue Dot finds the human inquistiveness behind the scientific principal and conveys it to the audience in a carefully judged, beautifully captivating piece of theatre. As the great Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And any greatly concieved, exquisitely produced piece of theatre is indistinguishable from magic, too.

*

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


Pale Blue Dot is on at the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse as part of the Helium season until September 15

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Quoting himself, badly: Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom

A long time ago, I was told not to use a famous quote to open a play – because I was setting myself up for comparison and dooming myself to failure. Quote Shakespeare or Proust or Freud, but do it somewhere in the middle, where it rolls off the tongues of your characters and not as the first impression the audience has of your work.





Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom doesn’t open with a quote as such, but it does – just as his Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did 6 years ago – open with a Network-like “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” scene, setting up comparisons between Sorkin and Paddy Chayefsky, as well as between the two narratives.

For me, though, the problem here is not this direct comparison but the shorthand way that Sorkin is telling and re-telling stories. Two later episodes (“Amen” and “The Greater Fool”) climax with Sorkin repurpsoing other people’s endings to finish his stories – as if acknowledging the lifts from Rudy and Oliver Twist is enough to absolve him of cheap narrative resolutions. And narrative theft.

For a guy who not only steals from the greats, he also steals from himself. A lot. 


Is stealing from himself better than stealing from other people? Not much. When he steals from himself, I already know I’ve seen those stories done before and done better. When he uses the same jokes, the same punchlines, the same character histories, the same narrative structures, devices and resolutions, it’s a bit tiresome.

When his laziness transfers from resuing dialogue and retelling stories to the way he draws The Newsroom’s female characters, it’s pretty distasteful. Every one of the main female characters in his HBO show can be described this way: professional women who are supposedly brilliant at their jobs but cannot wrap their (air-)heads around simple technology and are regularly downright ditzy, most often in front of or because of men.
If that character description was isolated to one of his female characters, that would be fine. If that character description applied to one of his male characters, I’d feel like he was treating characters more equally. There are two pratfalls in the pilot episode – one each from Jim and Maggie, but the difference is, Jim is never revealed to be incompetent in his job or around simple technology. And while he’s not great at relationships, he doesn’t seem to be an emotional basketcase like every woman on the show.

The one exception might have been Jane Fonda’s character of Leona Lansing. She is competent at her job and is never shown to be emotionally compromised or incompetent around the use of emails or the internet or simple tasks related to her job. My only disappointment is her emotional reaction in the season one finale to the actions of her son, Reese. If Sorkin’s women were more rounded, I might have enjoyed watching a hard-nosed, take-no-shit CEO being reduced to tears by her child’s terrible actions in the name of business. So I’m not saying this turn was the wrong choice, so much as it seems to confirm a Sorkin bias – women are good at their jobs until personal relationships become involved. Then they are a mess.

Sorkin got a lot of crap for his portrayal of women in the film, The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook. I defended him at the time for a couple of reasons. One, sometimes a writer is drawn to characters like the ones in this film who actively treat women badly or to write in a millieu where female characters are marginalised. It’s hardly surprising that this film and that story had little time for women in the narrative.

The second reason I defended Sorkin at the time – and the reason The Newsroom’s poorly drawn female characters stand out to me – is The West Wing. For me, that is the high watermark of his career – especially on television. His feature film high watermark for me is A Few Good Men, with the note that I am one of the few who finds The Social Network to be overrated – especially in the canon of David Fincher movies.

I rewatched the pilot of The West Wing this week. It’s a very strong opening episode with a tight script, whose clockwork like structure introduces the cast with precision and a good mix of politics and laughs. The opening scenes are quiet in comparison to the opening rants of Studio 60 and The Newsroom and, in a show about politics, doesn’t feel too heavy handed in its messages. Unlike his current show, I rarely felt like The West Wing was talking at me and never that it was ranting. Unless maybe Toby was speaking, but he’s just one of those people. And even then, I never felt patronised.

Of course, as Sorkin’s mouthpiece in his new show, Will McAvoy is a bully and patronising and his rants form the raison d'ĂȘtre of most episodes. Sorkin has a point he wants made and McAvoy makes it. Even as Sorkin’s liberal bias is scattered through all his shows, his news show feels much more designed to tell us things – about its premise and its characters opinions – than any of his previous work.

But while the introduction of CJ Cregg on The West Wing involved trying to pick up a guy, with the scene ending in a pratfall, the cast of female characters in the show doesn’t feel like Sorkin’s used a cookie-cutter. And that opening scene only depicts one part of CJ – her inability to balance career and a personal life. In the scenes depicting CJ at her job, she is the paragon of professionalism.

The doe-eyed Donna and the poorly-conceived Mandy feel like complex, complicated and entirely different characters from each other - compared with MacKenzie, Maggie and Sloan on The Newsroom. And that’s only taking into account the major female characters in the pilot of Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes of the White House series. Even Lisa Edelstein’s call girl character is allowed more dignity and smarts than MacKenzie or Maggie ever are.

This is the reason his new show frustrates me – because I know he can do better. I’ve seen him write complex, complicated and compelling ongoing narrative drama filled with a cast of fascinating characters – many of whom are great at their jobs and terrible at their personal lives. But at least that trope never seemed to condemn anyone to a single-dimension or a repetitive storyline.

I’m not sure that Sorkin’s male characters in The Newsroom fair that much better – though none of them are the same as each other, they are Sorkin types that he’s written and worked with before. We haven’t gotten to know many sides of Jim or Don or Charlie – and what we do know of Will doesn’t stop me thinking he’s a bully and an arse.

There were small hints at great drama in the first season of The Newsroom but they were few and far between. None of the episodes were entirely successful – many are hamstrung by poorly written relationship dramas or saddled with Sorkin paying homage to other better written stories by other people and himself.

And even for a man who wrote a television series about hard-working politicians who are noble in their pursuit of serving the people, the very premise of The Newsroom is a little too idealistic – fixing the mainstream media – for me not to marvel each week at how much disbelief I have to suspend.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A New Light: Melbourne Theatre Company 2013



The launch of the Melbourne Theatre Company's 2013 season - under the leadership of new Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, accomplished a lot. A new logo - neon. A name for the MTC theatre building - the Southbank Theatre. The Open Door initiatives: shows for young audiences, Pathways for emerging artists and Neon - a thrilling studio season.

Oh, yes - and the eleven plus one shows that make up the MTC's mainstage season. Including another brand new initiative, Zeitgeist - more on that in a moment.

While the umbrella title for the season is "A New Light", the theme of the launch was inclusiveness. 

We have household names like David Williamson, alongside other mainstage regulars like Johanna Murray-Smith and Allison Bell and Robyn Nevin, presenting work with Sam Strong, Simon Stone, Alkinos Tsilimidos and Nadia Tass.

And the incredible Neon initiative, allowing The Haylot Project, Sisters Grimm, The Rabble, Fraught Outfit and Daniel Schlusser Ensemble to present brand new works, supported by the MTC but without artistic interference.

Plus the Pathways commitment to supporting emerging artists through readings and commissions.

And two shows specifically designed for young audiences - Beached and I Love You, Bro. Along with the "plus one" show in the main season, The Book of Everything.

The collective energy of this new direction excites me more than any one particular project. Sheehy wants his season to breathe and allow for surprises. Zeitgeist is an attempt to keep the door open for very fresh new work to presented on the main stage, without being constricted by the long lead time of planning a season this far out. The show will not be selected until the new year and allows Sheehy to slip in something new, something unexpected, something fresh. It's part of the subscription season, but it's a question mark - and that's thrilling for a state theatre company.

Beyond the thrill of Zeitgeist, the mainstage season may be selected, but many remain cast free at this point. I am so used to shows being sold at the launch with leads locked in place, but a couple of shows have no actors attached at this point at all.

What am I most excited about?

The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Directed by Sam Strong. Starring David Wenham. Strong described it as a kind of perfect storm for him - and it seems for an audience, too, given all of those elements.

Simon Stone's The Cherry Orchard (after Anton Chekov). Starring Pamela Rabe. Given my aversion to Chekov, this seems like the ideal solution. For me, at least. And with Rabe? Yes. Just, yes.

Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz Directed by Strong. Starring Robyn Nevin. It might sound like Nevin is typecast here, but who cares?

Solomon and Marion by Lara Foot. Directed by Pamela Rabe. Starring Jacki Weaver. Yes, Jacki is coming back home. Cannot wait.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Broadway, Off Broadway & a Cabaret Show: Adventures in New York Theatre

Once - one of the highlights of my trip
and my theatre-going year


There are forty theatres that comprise the world famous Broadway. Altogether, there are over 230 theatres in New York, if a talking tour bus is to be believed. And what of cabaret venues and non-traditional performances spaces? New York must be the city with the highest concentration of live performance in the world. It’s hard enough to keep tabs on everything that’s happening in Melbourne’s theatre scene. In New York, it’s impossible.

Which is why New York is so enticing, but also so tricky. How can I even sample everything the city has to offer? Can I avoid the temptation of Broadway itself, with its shiny marquees and Tony Award Winner notices plastered everywhere? Where do I begin Off Broadway? Whose recommendations do I take?

This trip was inspired by a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods – a transfer of a production from London’s Regents Park to New York’s Central Park. I’ve always wanted to see one of the Public Theatre’s shows at the Delacourte, so why not fly half way around the world to see one of my favourite shows in a production that was acclaimed in London?

But attending a “Shakespeare in the Park” show means landing in the middle of a New York summer (sweltering), arriving too early for a swathe of new season Broadway shows (starting up in September) and finding a lot of curated theatre companies taking the summer off (this is true in Melbourne, too – try finding anything much opening in December or January). And, for some reason (the economy?), a lot of major Broadway shows didn’t even last through the tourist-heavy summer season.

For a city with so much choice, the selection was somewhat narrowed. Not that I’m complaining; it meant the possibilities were less overwhelming. Here, then, is some short reviews on shows I saw in New York between August 1 and August 11, 2012. In chronological order, because ranking them proved to be, there’s that word again – impossible.

Avenue Q – New World Stages (Off Broadway), August 1, 2012

I hadn’t planned on seeing this but first night in town, we failed to win The Book of Mormon lottery and it was Audra McDonald’s night off from Porgy & Bess – and by the time it came to choose a show, TKTS was offering only a handful of things I even wanted to see. Expectations of what I wanted to see and what I ended up seeing was as fluid as my plans for other places I wanted to explore in New York City.

Having seen the Australian production, there were no real surprises in this transfer from Broadway back to Off Broadway, where the show had begun its life. I did enjoy the fact that this cast didn’t need to fake their American accents (which is something transfers to Australian stages sometimes have to contend with), but as with RENT later in the week, there were no real stand-outs in the cast. Every performer was solid, but none of them grabbed me especially.

Trivia: “Fox News is only for now!”
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2004

Peter and the Starcatcher – Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Broadway), August 2, 2012

I wasn’t sure about seeing this show, but I’m so glad that A) we listened to recommendations and B) won the ticket lottery. It’s billed as a prequel to Peter Pan, but I feel like it’s a celebration of storytelling and the wish-fulfillment of Peter Pan rather than really being a precursor to J.M. Barrie’s story. Given how well the show uses theatrical tricks to tell its story – narration, direct address, mime, music, songs, puppetry, the list goes on – it’s also a celebration of live theatre in all its glory. 

The large cast is nearly all men, playing men and women, telling the audience a story and acknowledging how well the story is going as it progresses. While we didn’t get to see Tony Winner Christian Borle in the role of Black Stache, his replacement (Matthew Saldivar) is quite wonderful. Adam Chanler-Berat and Celia Keenan-Bolger are incredible in the roles of Boy and Molly but the production itself brings the story of the telling of a story to grand, imaginative life.

Trivia: I didn’t see a lot of actors this time that I also saw on stage in 2010. Chanler-Berat played Henry in Next to Normal, though.
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play 2012, it lost to Pulitzer Prize Winner, Clybourne Park

Into the Woods – Delacourte Theatre, Central Park (Off Broadway), August 3, 2012

I was only slightly worried that travelling to New York to see a new production of an old favourite would put slightly too much pressure on the show to get it right. I was more worried that I would stand in line all day and still miss out on tickets, but that’s what you have to go through to get tickets to the Public Theatre’s free shows at the Delacourte Theatre in Central Park. And that seven hours in line in Central Park... well, there are worse places to sit and read and chat while waiting for free theatre tickets.

There’s been some changes to the show and, for me, they make the show even stronger than it was before. And putting a show called “Into the Woods” into a park... that’s a great idea that worked perfectly. I mean, just the opening moments of the show, where the pre-recorded squawk of a bird dovetailed nicely with a flock of birds alighting from the trees in the park... I mean, you can’t script that. Well, you can – but then it’s not quite as magic as that moment was. Art and nature, working in tandem.

There’s also a pretty amazing cast. Donna Murphy as the Witch. Dennis O’Hare as the Baker. Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife. Sarah Stiles as Little Red and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf, their scenes together stealing the show. Chip Zien, the Baker in the original Broadway production, playing the Mysterious Man.

And the theatrical trickery that brought to life the Wolf in Granny’s bed, the rise of the beanstalk and the Giant’s Wife were... extraordinary. I was ecstatic from the opening strains of music and gobsmacked at how well those changes to the book and the narrator made the final moments of the show even better than they ever have been. I mean, seriously, I flew halfway around the world to see a production of Into the Woods that improves on perfection. How lucky was I?

Trivia: the Regents Park production is available to download
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Musical 1988, it lost to The Phantom of the Opera (!!!!!)

RENT – New World Stages (Off Broadway), August 4, 2012

The original production of RENT closed in 2008 and I had hoped to maybe catch the 2009 US tour, if it extended into 2010, but it did not. So my first visit to New York was practically RENT free, though I did get to visit the Life Cafe briefly, which has since closed down. Meanwhile, RENT has returned to New York, Off Broadway where it began its life.

The production is directed by Michael Greif, who directed the original production – and so it doesn’t feel entirely different, just a little bit tweaked. A little bit polished. Maybe too polished. The set is certainly a marvel of black metal scaffolding that evokes New York’s ubiquitous fire escapes. The costumes feel closer to modern, without clashing too much with a show that’s set in the early to mid 90s. The appearance of cell phones seems odd, but not the kind of progression that seems too at odds with the passion and emotion of the show.

It was great to see this iconic New York show in New York. It was fun to see it knowing the places the characters were talking about – “the enemy of Avenue A” and “they say that I have the best ass below 14th Street”. And the cast was solid, if not spectacular. It’s odd to come out of RENT not talking about stand-outs in the cast. I’ve seen problematic interpretations of Mimi, but I’ve never seen one that seemed so by-the-numbers. I loved Maureen, but I think I always love Maureen. Mark was strong, but Roger was too baby-faced to be a rock star.

But the show is strong. The songs are still full of passion and defiance. And the show is so full of detail and layers, I’m still seeing and hearing details that have alluded me before. Or, if not alluded me, things I haven’t focused so closely on before.

Great show, strong production, with a solid if not spectacular cast.

Trivia: this production had an Alex Darling instead of an Alexi Darling, unless perhaps the regular Alexi was out and they shuffled in a guy from the ensemble for the night? I think Mark might have referred to him as Alexi at one point:
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 1996

The Book of Mormon – Eugene O’Neill Theatre (Broadway), August 4, 2012

Just getting to see this show is an adventure. It’s sold out months and months in advance, unless you’re willing to pay premium prices to ticket re-sellers or scalpers. But they do offer a front row or box seat lottery (which gets around 300 entries every day!) and 28 standing room only tickets, if you are willing to stand in line for several hours to get them. We tried the lottery three times, but at the end of the third failed attempt, we were already in the line for the standing room only tickets and we managed to get those, so – yay! As much fun as the lottery was, I didn’t want to spend half my trip organising time to be there for the lottery.

The show itself? Well, what would you expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park and Team America? Well, you get exactly what you would expect – profane language, biting humour,  catchy songs and a little bit of a moral at the end, though it’s suitably ambiguous and perhaps a little soft given how wrong some of the early songs are. I know South Park often ends with a lesson for the boys – and this is Broadway after all, so a happy ending is almost required. But damn, if the satire doesn’t suffer for that.

But, boy, the show is a hell of a lot of fun. I mean, making fun of Mormons seems like a easy target – but Parker and Stone are smart guys and it’s not just about poking a religion but having a laugh at institutions and beauracracies. Laugh, I almost didn’t stop the whole way through.

Trivia: Disney seems okay with the show making fun of The Lion King, but given the dodgy costumes for Yoda and Darth Vader, it seems Lucasfilm has no sense of humour
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2011

Impromptu Molly Pope – Duplex (Off Off Broadway), August 6, 2012

After missing her at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2010 and hearing such great things about her from New York friends ever since, it was a lovely coincidence that Molly Pope announced an impromptu concert at Duplex on our first Monday night in town. I mean, Monday nights are basically dark on Broadway, so it’s not like I was going to see a show that night! And boy, a last minute show that’s free entry? Count me in!

I am so glad this happened. Pope is a great singer, very entertaining – and can knock back shots of Jamesons with the best! The variety of songs was impressive, as was her emotional engagement with one or two of them. The surprise appearance of her husband in the audience (or does he always/often attend her shows so he can be a punchline) was great. And a crazy rendition of a Ke$ha song to round out the night? Fantastic!

Also, filling even a small cabaret venue with less than a day’s notice? Wonderful.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man – Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre (Broadway), August 7, 2012

I will admit, that it was the star-studded cast that lured me to the Gerald Shoenfeld to see this play. (Just as another star-studded cast at lured me to A Behanding in Spokane at the Shoenfeld in 2010.) Now I’d have loved to have seen the original line-up for this revival, but I was still ecstatic to see James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos and Kristin Davis all sharing the stage. Seeing them leave the theatre after the performance – filled with people exiting the theatre and throngs of theatre-goers and Darth Vader fans waiting in the street to see James Early Jones appear – that was pretty special, too.

After the passing of Gore Vidal only a few days earlier, I did a bit of reading on the history of the play and previous productions. And I went in wondering how well a political play from 1960 would work in 2012. Too well, probably. This play could have been written now and still felt vital and significant in what it has to say about party politics and how politicians act and how their pasts can haunt them.

And the cast, beyond being star-studded, were excellent in their roles. I could not fault Earl Jones, Larroquette or Davis. John Stamos surprised me, though he strikes me as perfect to play a sleazy manipulator. I wondered if perhaps Shepherd were a little bit understated in the role, but I think the quite, reserved political wife with no knack for public speaking probably required holding back.

One of the highlights of my theatre-going trip.

Trivia: Ronald Reagan auditioned for a role in the original Broadway production and Vidal knocked him back, suggesting he didn’t seem suited to playing the role of a Presidential candidate
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play in 1960, but lost to The Miracle Worker. Nominated for Best Revival of a Play in 2012, but lost to Death of a Salesman

Dogfight – Tony Kiser Theatre, Second Stage (Off Broadway), August 8, 2012

Once in a while, a play or a show or a film comes along that gets great reviews, entertains audiences and I just loathe. This musical version of the film Dogfight is one of them. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the first act. There are some great songs, lovely choreography and two stand out performances by Lindsay Mendez and Annaleigh Ashford. The men are put through their paces with great ensemble songs, but none of the characters really make an impact. It’s hard, of course. The men in this piece are pretty loathsome and hard to like. The women are better defined – and perhaps that was a choice by the creators, allow them to be defined by their layers. 

But when you tell a story like this and allow most of the characters to be blank slates, it’s difficult to know what the point is. Is the show saying that all men are alike? The male characters seem pretty interchangeable. Is it pitting the complex female characters against a kind of unthinking, unfeeling mysognist mass and trying to make a point about sexual politics? It’s hard to say because... the story is a mess beginning in act two and the songs seem to only appear at random. The entire second act made me wish the show had been adapted as a play, rather than a musical. Then maybe the show could have showcased fully-fledged characters dealing with very difficult situations.

If there’s one thing that defined many of the shows that I saw was a great sense of stage craft – and I think this production gave a great sense of time and place with a set that seems cold and sparse but begins revealing more and more of itself throughout the show. If only the characters and the story were allowed to do the same.

Once – Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (Broadway), August 9, 2012

The stage version of the Oscar-winning film Once, begins before all the audience has had a chance to enter the theatre. The cast is already on stage, singing and carousing and dancing up a storm - hey, the charcters are Irish, what do you expect? The set is a bar. It's a working bar. And while the Jacobs theatre continues to fill, audience members who aren't at the bar at the back of the theatre, or in their seats, are on stage clapping and tapping their feet and buying a drink AT THE BAR ON STAGE. It's immersive theatre on Broadway.

The songs continue, the audience are ushered (technically stage managed) back to their seats eventually and the house lights remain up while the cast of ONCE continue to entertain and serenade us - the audience as characters in the show, as people packed into this bar, being entertained by the locals. And while the line between audience and cast must be drawn eventually, the lights down on the audience is a slow fade - but the energy remains from that moment and throughout the show. We are there. We are with these characters all the way.

I loved the film version but this warms my little theatre-making and theatre-going heart like nothing else I've seen on this trip. Where Into the Woods was big and grand, Once is small and simple and warm and inviting and passionate and inventive and beautiful and charming and touching and sweet. And the lead actors, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milotti, are incredible actors, singers and musicians. The entire cast, in fact, play instruments throughout the show. But unlike the cold precision of John Doyle’s actors-playing-instrument adaptations of Sondheim, this makes Once feel all the more genuine and touching and tender. Like we are there. In those rooms. In that pub. Singing and dancing and carousing. Watching a guy and a girl make great music together and maybe, perhaps, fall in love.

Perfection.

Trivia: Both this time and last time I went to New York, I got to go on stage. At the bar before Once and as part of the post-show rendition of “Let the Sunshine In” after Hair. Could this be part of the reason both shows were at the very top of my favourites from each trip?
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2012

Heartless – Signature Theatre (Off Broadway), August 11, 2012

The Signature Theatre’s seasons are driven by presenting the works of contemporary America playwrights – occasionally leading to a programme of a full season by one writer. The other thing the Signature Theatre is known for, is the inexpensiveness of its tickets. Given how great the theatre space is, I love that a playwright-driven, cheap ticket model can work for a theatre company. But it seems to.

Sam Shepard is one of the great contemporary American playwrights. True West is one of his most well-known plays and one of my favourite plays, so it was exciting to get to see a performance from the premiere season of his latest play, Heartless. Bonus points for the production starring Gary Cole and Lois Smith.

Shepard is a well-known actor, too – and his plays always serve the actors on stage. Even when I thought the narrative was losing focus, the actors never did – sinking their teeth deeper and deeper into their characters and giving astonishing performances all round. Gary Cole has always struck me as being a chameleon that hides behind a very clean-cut, fresh-faced looked. He’s a character actor who looks like a leading man. And yet I’ve never seen him become as unhinged as he gets to in this play.

It was also one of the few shows I saw in New York that really needed me to think about it afterward. Not that other shows I saw were shallow; most of them are not, but most of them I have seen and thought about before. This was a brand new work from a great playwright that didn’t tell an easy story at all – and certainly not in an easy way. And I was thrilled to see it in its first production.

One Man, Two Guvnors – Music Box Theatre (Broadway), August 11

I was all set to see Audra McDonald in Porgy & Bess this night, but she was off sick and it was after seven and we needed to make a very last minute decision on what tickets to pick up at TKTS. I heard great things about this show and particularly James Corden in the leading role. And why not have one great big laugh for my last show in New York for this trip?

While the show is based on the classic commedia dell'arte play, The Servant of Two Masters, that’s really just an excuse to use a classic comic structure to put a British sitcom on stage. And I guess that’s where everyone’s mileage may vary. It’s bawdy and base and silly and full of prat falls and bad puns and audience interaction – and it’s not the very best of Britcom, but it is hilarious for much of its running time.

And recognising James Corden with a Tony is not entirely unwarranted... though James Earl Jones was marvellous in The Best Man and I imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman was amazing in Death of a Salesman. In fact, James Corden makes the show work. I’m not sure I can imagine the show working without him – so I’m glad I saw him in it and didn’t wait for 2013, when the show will tour Australia without him.

The rest of the ensemble were great and the supporting band were fabulous. It all felt a bit padded out – a variety show more than a play. But when the variety is this entertaining, it’s hard to complain.

Trivia: Some of the “audience interaction” seems spontaneous but is actually tightly scripted – and I wonder if people know the sandwhich joke now and come prepared.
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play 2012, it lost to Pulitzer Prize Winner, Clybourne Park

*

And that was that. The absolute highlights were Into the Woods and Once but nearly all of these shows I found worthwhile seeing. There were other nights and matinees I could have filled with more shows, but this was a good amount to balance out days of visiting museums and galleries and wandering the streets of New York soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating a city for its vibrancy both on and off stage. Five stars.