The Beauty Queen Of Leenane

Mandy McElhinney and Judi Farr ‘spar’ in ‘The Beauty Queen’. Pic Tracey Schramm.

Christabel Sved’s revival of Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The Beauty Queen Of Leenane’ is an outstanding production of a terrific play.

McDonagh’s play hits the bullseye, slam-dunks the basketball, rattles the stumps, kicks the goal, as he tellingly charts the story of a huge battle of wills that takes place between a very difficult, domineering elderly mother, Mag and her unfulfilled spinster middle aged daughter Maureen as they live out their days in their run down home in the sleepy country town of Leenane, Ireland.

From the start, Sved’s production is right on target. Audiences come in to be greeted by William Bobbie Stewart’s comprehensive, superb set of the dilapidated home, lost in another time and place. Edgy music, chosen by Max Lyandvert, filters through the theatre.

McDonagh gives the two leading actresses great, meaty roles to play, and they ‘nail’ them. Judi Farr embodies the role of Mag; grotesque, selfish, manipulative, dishonest. Mag will do anything to keep Maureen under her thumb. Mandy McElhinney is the set-upon, frustrated Maureen who know that she is trapped and will do anything, including leaving her mother behind, to make a life for herself.

Darren Gilshenan and Eamon Farren play the two other roles, those of the brothers Dooley. Gilshenan gives a moving performance as the ‘last chance’ gentleman caller, Pato Dooley, in a part reminiscent of two great Tennessee Williams characters, Mitch in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Jim O’Connor in ‘A Glass Menagerie’. Eman Farren impresses as his brasher, more impetuous and a little twisted brother, Ray.

Sved’s production brings out the humour, albeit very dark, in the piece, and there are some very funny moments. A highlight of the production was Verity Hampson’s evocative lighting design that contributed greatly to the play’s impact.

Christabel Sved’s production is currently playing Wharf 2 at the Sydney Theatre Company until the 13th March, 2010 as part of this year’s Theatre In Education program. This is a production that a student of good drama of any age should appreciate! Though mainly catering for school audiences, there are some evening performances available to the general public. It is best to contact the Sydney Theatre Company directly to obtain performance times.

Up In The Air

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in ‘Up In The Air’

Jason Reitman’s ‘Up In the Air’, adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, is a very contemporary, thought provoking film that has people thinking and talking about it long after the lights come up

George Clooney plays the main character, Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to fly around America firing people who he doesn’t know, for corporations that do not have the moral fortitude to do it personally. For Bingham, the job is as appealing as being an undertaker, however it presents him with a great lifestyle. This lifestyle comes under threat when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a new graduate that Bingham’s company has taken on, proposes that the company take a new approach and fire the employees via the internet.

Yes, ‘Up In The Air’ is about how dark and insipid capitalism has become. The film is full of footage showing employees in different forms of distress as they callously receive the news. The new method of firing by the internet is tried out, with even frostier results.There’s even a scene showing the company manager Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) getting excited as his company has to expand due to the financial meltdown taking greater hold.

‘Up in the Air’ is also about how people’s private lives are becoming frostier with the fast pace of modern life. Bingham has lost the notion of having a close relationship with his nomadic lifestyle. During the course of the film he becomes close to Alex Goran, a beautiful, sophisticated woman, and he starts to get the feeling he might want more however Alex has her own issues. In another scene Natalie Keener finds out that her partner has broken up with her when she receives a text message.

Reitman’s fim is well made with great performances by a fine ensemble cast. ‘Up In The Air’ poses a big question. In our hearts, even though we live such sophisticated, technologically advanced lives, are we better off?!

Ninety

Brian Meegan and Kate Raison in ‘Ninety’. Pic by Steve Lunam.

Acclaimed Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s play has an intriguing premise. Art restorer Isabel has never really moved on after the dissolution of her marriage to upcoming actor William. Isabel hears on the grapevine that William is about to remarry a young french starlet. At the ‘eleventh hour’, she gets in touch with him, and asks that they meet up. She tries to coerce him to cancel the marriage and come back to her. William agrees to meet up with her, at her home. He gives her ninety minutes to make her case.

Murray-Smith’s ticking clock drama comes down to being a traditional story about a man and woman going over their relationship trying to work out where they stand, and what this crazy thing called love is all about. There are the peaks in their encounter as in the time when they travelled around Rome, and then there are plateaus as in when William tells Isabel he doesn’t like her, let alone love her!

Sandra Bates’s current revival of ‘Ninety’ (the play was originally produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company in August, 2008 at the Malthouse) tells the couple’s story with sensitivity, and at times humour.

The two hander is well played by husband and wife acting team, Kate Raison as Isabel and Brian Meegan as William. They captured their characters personalities well, and delivered some trademark, classy Murray-Smith monologues with panache.

Nostalgic and authentic, ‘Ninety’ plays the Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli until April 3, 2010. ‘Ninety’ shares the Ensemble Theatre space with Donald Margulies’s ‘Brooklyn Boy’. It’s best to contact the theatre directly for session times.

‘Short and Sweet’ goes to NIDA

The cast of ‘Waiting for Mamdouh’. Pic by Jom

The ever expanding ‘Short and Sweet’ play festival now includes heats of the event being performed at NIDA Parade’s Playhouse theatre. I went along to see the opening week at NIDA.

Perennially, the most attractive aspect of this festival is the wide variety of ideas that playwrights come up with for their mini plays. Week 1, held at NIDA between February 9 and 13, was no exception. These were my picks from the night:-

Kuranda Seyit’s piece ‘Waiting For Mamdouh’ was a moving piece about Maha Habib’s anguish as, together with her four children, she waited for her husband Mamdouh to come home after being taken away by ASIO. What made the piece more moving was that Mamdouh Habib played the lead role himself.

Victorian playwright Tim Hehir’s ‘Pride and Prejudice- In Ten Minutes Flat’ was a lot of fun. I guess Hehir must have been inspired by plays such as the madcap ‘Shakespeare in 90 Minutes’. Hehir’s play has been chosen to go through to the finals.

Lismore playwright Bette Guy’s ‘Hibiscus Memories’, Bette traveled down to see her play performed, was a poignant play on the all too familiar story of a remaining parent being pushed to leave the family home and to go into care by her children after her partner dies.

Elisabeth Pulsford’s ‘Superfossils’ was a darkly comic piece about the residents of a nursing home, all of whom have seen much better days, who hatch a plot to escape.

Aoise Stratford’s piece ‘The Closet’ was an imaginative, comic piece where kids toys take on a life of their own, after being ‘expelled’ and made to live in the closet. The cast, Kevin Curley, Anthony Hunt and Simone Oliver, had a great time.

Jackie Greenwood’s entertaining ‘Russell Crowe, Gupta and the Dalek’ was a lot of fun featuring a suitably gruff Russell Crowe caught up in a rickshaw driving along the streets of Calcutta with a garrulous taxi driver and a very cheeky space alien.

The Gala Final of Short and Sweet takes place on the 13th March at the Parade Theatre, NIDA.

Spring Awakening

Andrew Hazzard and the cast of ‘Spring Awakening’. Pic by Brett Boardman

The Sydney Theatre Company has chosen well in bringing Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2007 Broadway hit musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s classic 1891 play, ‘Spring Awakening’ to Sydney.

‘Spring Awakening’ is a classic, terrific play about the tumultuous nature, the heaven and hell of adolescence. Wedekind covers so many of the issues and conflicts that young people commonly go through. It’s all there… guilty masturbation scenes, sexual identity confusions, problems dealing with authority figures… The addition of a punchy, rock music soundtrack, with the song lyrics expressing how the kids feel, adds force to the play, and gives the show a great contemporary edge.

Geordie Brookman directs a talented, large cast, who clearly identify with the material, to vividly bring Wedekind’s vision to life. There are so many highlights. The boys getting together to sing the angry, ‘The Bitch Of Living’, about how frustrated they feel about having to conform to society’s expectations. Melchoir’s bellowing ‘Totally Fucked’, conveying his angst about his radical, unconventional musings being discovered by his teacher, awaiting the reprisals to follow.

Along with the drama there are scenes of great humour including Georg’s (Edward Grey) attempted seduction of his buxom music teacher Hanschen (Jamie Ward). The redemptive final song, sung by Ilse (Angela Scundi) and the company, sees the show go out on a high, soaring note.

The leads are great. As the rebellious, intellectual Melchior, Andrew Hazzard gives a strong performance. Akos Armont impressed as the tormented Moritz and features in another of the show’s highlights, delivering a soulful rendition of one of the show’s stand-out ballads, ‘I Don’t Do Sadness’. As Melchoir’s lover Wendla, Clare Bowen shows off a sweet voice, and gives a poignant performance.

This ‘Spring Awakening’ rocks! Geordie Brookman’s Sydney Theatre Company production plays the Sydney Theatre until 7th March, 2010.

That Face

Susie Porter and Kenji Fitzgerald in ‘That Face’. Pic by Brett Boardman

The subject and target of British playwright Polly Stenham’s play ‘That Face’ is a dysfunctional family, leaving a portrait that sends chills up one’s spine.

At the centre of Stenham’s family’s dysfunction is mother Martha (Susie Porter). Suffering from mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction, it only seems to be a matter of time before she will have to return to hospital. Martha is inappropriately ‘leaning on’ her house-bound adolescent son Henry (Kenji Fitzgerald) to protect her. This causes a dreadful and dangerous see-saw of co-dependency.

Martha’s husband, wealthy businessman Hugh (Marcus Graham), has left her to live in Hong Kong and has married a much younger woman. Their daughter Mia (Emily Barclay) has been shuffled off to an elite boarding school.

Things come to a head after Mia is expelled from school after having been ‘charged’, together with girlfriend Izzy (Krew Boylan), of drugging and torturing a fellow student, Alice (Laura Hopkinson). Hugh flies back home to try and rescue the situation only to find his family in a state of complete uproar.

‘That Face’ is about how far, and how terribly, things can go wrong! It’s rare to see such vulnerability exposed on stage.

Marcus Graham’s suave, handsome Hugh has to face the music after having, long ago, put his family in the ‘too hard basket’. Susie Porter’s Martha is a bundle of insecurities and expletives that she recklessly heaps on her son. In one shocking scene she shreds all his clothes into tiny strips. The malicious behaviour of Emily Barclay’s Mia towards Alice stems from the neglect that she has experienced from both her parents.

And at the centre of the drama, the primary victim, is Henry. At way too early an age he has become his mother’s carer. His fragile young life has been cruelly skewered by his mother’s out of control behaviour. As the play comes to a close the stage moves inevitably from a battlefield to a wasteland. The scenes with Henry, his mother’s little soldier,desperately clinging onto his mother, are heartbreaking.

‘That Face’, in a production well directed by Lee Lewis and staged by Brian Thomson, is superbly played by the cast. This is one family that one does not survive intact. ‘That Face’ plays upstairs at Belvoir Street until the 14th March, 2010.

It’s Complicated

Merryl Streep as Jane in ‘It’s Complicated’

In the new American film ‘It’s Complicated’, written and directed by Nancy Meyers, Merryl Streep plays Jane, a well to do middle class, middle aged woman, torn between two lovers. The two lovers are her ex husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who after dumping her for a younger woman some nine years previously, falls in love with her all over again, and Adam (Steve Martin), the architect she has recently employed to make fresh home renovations. The film’s denouement hangs on the choice that she needs to make between, putting it bluntly, the old and the new.

Meyers ‘It’s Complicated’ is major league romantic comedy. Above all, this is a hugely entertaining film. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a film that has had so many genuinely clever and funny scenes.

Hardcore

The cast of ‘Hardcore’ in action

The New Theatre’s play for this years’ Mardi Gras Festival is British playwright Jonathon Hall’s ‘Hardcore’, in a production directed by Mackenzie Steele.

Hall’s play takes the audience into the world of gay adult films and features four young guys trying to make it in the world of blue movies. They are a motley crew. Craig is the most experienced, having made two previous movies and having won the ubiquitous Stiffy award for most promising newcomer. Kevin is a struggling young straight actor needing work, who decides to audition, believing that it will challenge his acting skills! 25 year old Robert is keen for new experiences and has put it down amongst his things to do before you die list. Martin, newly arrived in the country, is hoping to meet the man of his dreams.

This is an engaging, fun night in the theatre without being a stand-out. The show worked as a sex comedy with a dramatic undertow to it, as the playwright explores the relationships that develop between the characters, and goes some way into delving into the dark background of its characters. A lot of fun comes from the different moves and body shapes that arise during the filmmaking. The action moved easily between the different settings; the audition stage, the characters in their private lives, the shoot, and the aftermath.

The cast of four, Jens Bohnsack, Mark Dessaix, Julian Lovick and Daniel Nemes gave energised, well developed performances. Tony Youlden’s lighting design was particularly effective in the play’s darker scenes. The feature of David Marshall- Martin’s set was the large blue movie posters that ‘stood over’ the stage.

‘Hardcore’ plays the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown until 6th March, 2010.

Brooklyn Boy

Brandon Burke and Matilda Ridgeway in ‘Brooklyn Boy’. Pic by Steve Lunam

Leading Jewish American playwright, and one time Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner for his play ‘Dinner with Friends’, Donald Margulies’s play ‘Brooklyn Boy’ tells an engaging, bittersweet ‘coming home’ story.

‘Brooklyn Boy’ starts with middle aged novelist Eric Weiss finally achieving the success he has been striving for so long. His semi-autobiographical novel Brooklyn Boy has made the bestseller list. He is living the high life, schlepping around doing guest spots on television talk shows, and signing autographs at book launches. In the midst of this ‘purple patch’ he has to return to his home town. His father Manny is in the final stages of his illness at the local Maimonides hospital. He goes to visit his father armed with a copy of his book, only to find that his former shoe salesman father is much more interested in when Eric will produce his first grandchild!

‘Brooklyn Boy’ combines drama of depth and substance with some feisty and fast Jewish humour. The play is staged as a series of tense encounters, with important players in his life that build on each other to create an emotional climax. The crux of the play is in the challenges that returning home brings for Weiss. Some of the big issues that Weiss has put to one side as he made his adult life come to the surface and the question becomes whether he can now deal with them.

Ever since Weiss left home after school to go to Columbia University, Weiss has played down having any religious beliefs or any strong Jewish identity and has even married out. Weiss meets up with Ira, his closest friend at school, who has since become orthodox. Ira tries to get Weiss to reconnect with his Jewish roots, and the two old friends argue heatedly. One of the play’s big dramatic scenes sees Ira trying to persuade Weiss to recite kaddish for his late father with Weiss reacting angrily, throwing his yarmulka onto the floor.

Anna Crawford’s debut Ensemble production is a forceful one. The cast serve Margulies’s colourful array of characters well. Brandon Burke is compelling in a demanding leading role that requires him to be on stage for the length of the performance. Michael Ross plays Weiss’s gruff, ailing father, and Daniel Mitchell plays his pushy old friend, Ira. Matilda Ridgeway is Alison, a precocious young woman eager to bed down a famous author after he flirts with her at a book signing. Lenora Smith plays two roles, Weiss’s distant wife, Nina, and his schmoozy Hollywood film producer, Melanie. The cast is rounded out well by Leigh Scully in a good cameo comic role as Tyler, an ambitious but not very bright young actor.

‘Brooklyn Boy’ plays the Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli until March 6, 2010.

Six Characters In Search Of An Author

Pirandello’s characters acting up. Pic by Manuel Harlan

Rupert Goold radical restaging of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 classic play ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ stands out as one of the highlights of this years’ Sydney Festival.

The play has been substantially reworked by Rupert Goold and Ben Powers new interpretation. Pirandello originally set the play in a theatre rehearsal room, the play has been reset in a film set. The play with a play structure of the original play has been replaced by a documentary within a documentary format, with the documentaries running as separate storylines that come together at the end. The changes gave Pirndello’s play a fresh, contemporary edge.

Catherine McCormack gives a great performance in the leading role as the Producer, a passionate, intense documentary filmmaker. The piece starts with her, embroiled in her latest project, a documentary on a terminally ill young man facing his last days at a clinic that offers patients the option of assisted suicide. A tormented middle man barges in on her film set, together with five members of his family. The father rushes up to the Producer and tells her that his family’s unusual story has to be told and that he is convinced that she is the best person to tell their story. In the end, the Producer agrees to take on their ‘project’ on top of her current work.

It is the Producer’s struggle, her journey, to make powerful, authentic stories from her material, and her characters, that is at the heart of ‘Six Characters’.

Rupert Goold’s production uses all the resources of contemporary theatre to create a rich, provocative experience. Goold wins strong performances from his cast with highlights being Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of the troubled, pushy Father, and Denise Gough was striking as the disturbed, volatile stepdaughter, marked by her manic laughter as she skated around the stage with one roller skate.

The cast move around well on Miriam Buether’s impressive set. The production integrated video footage, a leap into opera in the play’s most dramatic scene, and included a dark soundscape by Adam Cork.

A production from Britain’s Headlong Theatre Company production, ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ plays the York Theatre, the Seymour Centre until January 31.

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime

The cast of ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’

Oscar Wilde’s 1921 short story, ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’, in a fresh adaptation by Constance Cox, tells a very humorous, irreverent story, as one would expect from one of the world’s greatest writers and humorists.

In Wilde’s story, Lord Arthur Savile’s wonderful, blessed life is turned on its head after a meeting with highly regarded clairvoyant, Mr Podgers. Podgers looks into Savile’s future and tells him that he is going to commit a murder, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. The news leaves Savile distraught and he tries to work out a way to incorporate a murder into his life!

Lord Savile decides on a life of crime. He will commit a murder, find a murder weapon and a victim, as soon as possible, and involves his trusted confidante and butler Baines in his plans. Once the murder is out of the way, he can then happily marry his sweetheart Sybil, and they can then live a pure and happy life together.

Timothy Bennett’s production for the Genesian theatre company serves this very playful piece well, and the audience lapped it up with plenty of laughter. Bennett plays the piece very droll, wry and deadpan, and the largish cast do well with it. Daniel Felkai gave a pleasing performance in the leading role, with his character, hardly a Macbeth like figure, having great difficulty in carrying out the deed. Felkai was well supported by Robert Drew as Baines, his butler and confidante.

As Herr Winkelkopf, Tom Massey gave a good, mad professor kind of performance in the show’s most obviously comic role as the bumbling explosive expert, Herr Winkelkopf.

As the swarmy Mr Podgers Bendeguz Daniel Devenyi-Botos made a suitably creepy villain. Rodney Stewart gave a good turn as the good natured, bumbling Dean of Paddington. Danielle Dormer did some nice comic way as the cockney housemaid Nellie forever announcing unexpected visitors.

Peter Henson’s set and costume design was a highlight with a strong, traditional stage design for the Savile living room and flamboyant costumes, wigs and hats for the cast. I’ve never seen before a hat with a couple of pigeons perched on it. Now I have!

Timothy Bennett’s production of ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ plays the inner city Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent Street, Sydney, until the 27th February, 2010.

Bright Star

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s ‘Bright Star’

With her new film , ‘Bright Star’, Jane Campion has chosen to make a classic based on true life love story.

‘Bright Star’ charts the course of the love story that took place in the early nineteenth century between the great English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his mistress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Theirs was not the case of love at first sight. To begin with, Brawne couldn’t stand the brash, young poet with a burgeoning reputation. By the end, Brawne could not keep her mind from having thoughts of him.

What sucks one in about ‘Bright Star’ is that, through the film, there’s so much conflict and tension bubbling away under the surface. The love triangle that develops between Keats, Brawne and Keats’s best friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) is beautifully played out. Paul Schneider gives a great performance as Brown, his expressions are classic as
we see him become increasingly aggravated by the pert young Brawne coming to visit Keats at their home. Campion alludes to more than a hint of Brown having homosexual feelings towards Keats!

Kerry Fox gives a memorable performance as Fanny’s very concerned mother who grows ever more anxious as the relationship between Brawne and Keats intensifies. It’s not hard to work out where Mrs Brawne is coming from. She has brought up her middle class family well and she doesn’t want her beautiful daughter getting too involved with a poor, struggling poet.

For Mrs Brawne there’s worse to come. Already frail, Keats develops life threatening tuberculosis. His Doctor says that his best chance of survival is if he goes to live in Italy. Fanny’s feelings for Keats become more anxious and stronger. At Fanny’s behest when Keats’s health deteriorates, Ms Brawne allows Keats to stay in the family home till he improves. Ti Mrs Brawne’s further anxiety the couple are even talking about wanting to get married!

It’s a classic story line, and with it Campion artfully crafts a very superior romantic movie. For a few hours we are taken into, and left to immerse ourselves, in this deeply romantic world complete with a lovesick heroine, beautifully played by Abbie Cornish, some stunning cinematography by Greig Fraser and rich orchestral classical music. If you are a romantic, ‘Bright Star’ will shine for you!

The Fence

Kelton Pell as Mel in Urban Theatre’s ‘The Fence’. Pic by Heidren Lohr

Urban Theatre Projects have chosen a painful, raw subject for their current production, ‘The Fence’, conceived and directed by Alicia Talbot. ‘The Fence’ is based on people who have spent their childhoods removed from their families, either being identified part of the Stolen Generation or as part of the Forgotten Australians, whose childhoods were spent in institutional care. The characters, now middle-aged and trying to make the most of their lives, are still strongly affected by the lack of belonging that they have felt from an early age.

The events of the play take place over one night in the home of Mel (Kelton Pell) and Joy (Skye Quill). The evening starts off as an average sort of night. Joy is making dinner, Mel is watching television. Their house, as usual, is a bit of a drop-in centre. One of their friends Lou (Helen Dallas) is staying with them at the moment as she recovers from another man leaving her with a broken heart. Another friend Chris (Richard Green) is over, as he often is, because he needs time away from the three women he shares house with. The evening changes course when Mel’s older sister Connie (Vicki Van Hout), who hasn’t been around for a long time, comes to the door, expecting to stay. Mel is welcoming, sort of, but Joy isn’t pleased; Connie can be a troublemaker.

Conceptually, ‘The Fence’ was a strong piece. The show is presented as an outdoor theatre event with plenty of atmosphere. The staging primarily featured a demountable home and shed with a spectator stand-set up for the audience. The audience was greeted, in true Koori tradition, with a log fire burning in front of Mel and Joy’s home. The venue had plenty of resonance for the cast; the grounds on which the actors performed were part of a girls’ orphanage that originally stood there. There was a good use of classic popular music numbers, such as Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, to reflect the action.

Still, for a piece with such a strong theme, I expected more dramatically. The storyline lacked dramatic fire. Issues were raised, such as Mel borrowing money from his big sister that just seemed to disappear into the ether. The performances didn’t feel sharp.

‘The Fence’ plays 24 O’Connell Street, Parramatta, a short walk from the Parramatta Riverside Theatre, until the 30th January. Theatregoers pick up their tickets from the Parramatta Riverside Theatre and take a short walk across to the venue.

Optimism

Frank Woodley and Francis Greenslade in ‘Optimism’. Pic by Jeff Busby

Writer Tom Wright and director Michael Kantor have teamed up to stage their contemporary adaptation of the great French writer Voltaire’s classic novel ‘Candide’ with their production ‘Optimism’ currently playing at the Sydney Opera House.

Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ amounts to a parable debunking the popular Leibnizian philosophy of the time, that ‘life is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire’s main character is Candide, an exuberant, optimistic young man who has lived a very blessed existence. He has been raised in the home of a Baron , and amongst his many privileges he has had his own private philosophy tutor, Dr Pangloss(Barry Otto).

Candide’s life changes course after he is expelled from the Baron’s home when he is discovered to have made a pass at the Baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunegonde (Caroline Craig). As a way of mending his broken heart Candide decides to go travelling the world. The harsh experiences that he encounters on his travels, including brushes with war, plague and natural disasters show him a side of life that he hasn’t seen before and he is compelled to put down his rose coloured glasses.

Kantor’s production tells Voltaire’s incisive parable in a very playful, entertaining way. The style is madcap, post-modern, surreal. The cast are zanily costumed by Anna Tregloan. Frank Woodley’s Candide is dressed as a clown, and he also doubles up as a stand up comic. The show is part musical with pop songs interspersed through the show. One of the more bizarre moments has Barry Otto singing, more to the point yodeling a Frank Ifield song, and inviting the audience to sing along.

The defining moment of the production was when Candide walked to the front of the stage and described how he was now beginning to see God as a kind of manic toddler experimenting with his world.

Frank Woodley as the perplexed Candide, Barry Otto as the deprecating Dr Panglass, and David Woods as Candide’s erudite companion, Martin were my pick of the cast.

Anna Tregloan’s set featured a silver metal façade of an airplane, and the stage was predominately laid out as the cabin of a plane with airhostesses running amok as Candide jets-sets around the world.

A joint Sydney Festival, Sydney Theatre Company, Edinburgh International Festival and Malthouse production, Michael Kantor’s production of ‘Optimism’ plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until the 20th February, 2010.

The Arrival

Jarod Rawiri in Red Leap Theatre’s ‘The Arrival’. Pic by John McDermott

New Zealand’s Red Leap Theatre company is currently presenting its stage adaptation of ‘The Arrival’, the award winning graphic novel by Australian writer Shaun Tan, at CarriageWorks.

‘The Arrival’ tells the story of an anonymous young man, brought up in an oppressive country, who seeks a better life for his wife and his child. He leaves his home country and goes traveling with the aim of re-establishing himself in a new country and then bringing his family over.

His Odyssey is an eye-opening, painful and pleasurable one, as he tackles indecipherable languages, peculiar customs, bizarre foods, odd work practices, curious animals, and stunning architecture and landscapes.

The colour and breadth of the immigrant experience has inspired many a writer. What makes ‘The Arrival’ special, and gives it its eloquence and poignancy, is that the two artistic directors of Red Leap, Julie Nolan and Kate Parker, tell their story though the use of visual theatre.

Words do not get a say in this work, the story is told by an ensemble cast of nine performers who give their all to telling the story, helped by the rich use of music (Andrew McMillan), lighting (Jeremy Fern), set (John Verryt), costumes (Elizabeth Whiting), puppetry and animation.

A Sydney Festival event, Red Leap Theatre’s production of ‘The Arrival’ plays Bay 17 at CarriageWorks until January 17.

BALE DE RUA

BaleDeRua

A company of fifteen Brazilian street dancers , BaleDeRua, are currently igniting the Concert Hall stage, a venue that is usually the preserve of classical music. The BaleDeRua (translates as street ballet) are in Sydney to present their new show as part of this year’s Sydney Festival.

The BaleDeRua story is an amazing one. The Company started started from the streets of Brazil, in particular the village of Uberlandia, with Marco Antonio Garcia being one of the founding fathers. Garcia learnt his art on the streets of Brazil from when he was twelve years old. In a remarkable journey the guys, there is only one female dancer, have come from the poor streets of Uberlandia to play some of the world ‘s main stages, that now includes the Sydney Opera House. In a further step, the Company, back in 2007, established its own Cultural and training centre, the first of its kind in its home town.

The mission statement of BaleDeRua is crystal clear:-‘We want to talk about our country, our culture, our traditions, we want our shows to sweat Brazil, that which is the roughest and the most beautiful, the most musical and the most contradictory, the most colourful and the most human, This our Brazil, the Brazil we love’.

In their 75 minute show the dancers celebrate their survival and growth. There were some great highlights, my two favourites: When one of the dancers raised himself aloft in handstand style and then spun himself around like an express dreidel. The other great moment was when each of the dancers did a solo contemporary. breakdance or hip hop piece, showing off their skills.

In the vein of Walt Whitman they truly do sing their bodies electric! As the picture above shows the production ends with sprouting of huge roses on the stage as the drum beats persist, an exhilarating climax!

The show reminded me of the young guys who do their break dance moves on the forecourt of the Bondi Beach pavilion! They”re talented, and the guys get plenty of support. The atmosphere is great still ‘BaleDe Rua’ with its professionalism is in another league all together!

‘BaleDe Rua’ plays the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House until the 17th January.

Crestfall

Eliza Logan as Alison in Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Crestfall’. Pic by Ella Condon

Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe play ‘Crestfall’, currently having a run at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, presents one dark, nightmarish world.

We find ourselves in a township in the shadow of The Bonelands, a filthy abattoir in which men are driven by their bestial urges and the women are around to provide the sex and the housekeeping! The playwright focuses on three women from this small township; Olive, a serial slag involved with most of the men in town, including the legendary pimp, Inchy Bassey, prostitute Tilly who is jealous of Olive’s intimacy with Bassey, and Allison, the mother of a brain damaged child and the wife of one of the many men that Olive sleeps with.

In ‘Crestfall’ each of the three women, respectively, tell their story of events that take place over a frenzied twenty four hour period that change their lives forever.

In your face, torrid, that’s my best way to describe the ‘Crestfall’ experience! This is no polite, middle class theatre with a cushy ride for the audience till curtain time and then off to dinner and chat, people were reacting strongly to what was happening on stage. Put it this way, it wasn’t Barry Kosky, but it was getting there!

At the helm, Shannon Murphy steers the whirlwind play’s (‘Crestfall’ runs 80 minutes straight through) course well to a powerful climax. The cast were excellent; Sarah Snook as Olive, Eliza Logan as Tilly, and Georgina Symes as Allison. The roles are very demanding emotionally. God only knows how they manage to ‘dive down there’ every night! Actors sure do deserve all the plaudits that come their way!

Rita Carmody’s apt costume design and minimalistic set, featuring one chair centre stage and some lights in the corners, worked effectively.

‘Crestfall’, a joint production of Griffin Independent and Bareboards, plays the Stables theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross until January 30.

Short and Sweet Opening Night 2010

Lawrence Lowe and Rosemae Monte in ‘The Pink Dress’

The annual Short and Sweet Festival kicked off at the Newtown Theatre last night with a selection of ten short plays. This was a very patchy start to the Festival!

These were my picks of the best of the ten pieces:-

Vee Malner’s ‘Aerobic Blues’, neatly performed by Lynden Jones and Samantha Hickey, a cleverly written piece about two people who had been romantically slighted by the same person and decide on revenge!

Steven Hopley’s ‘The Last Biscuit’ was another clever piece about a dating couple who have had dinner and are silently sitting on the sofa watching television. Over the theatre’s loudspeaker system we hear the thoughts racing their heads and the actors also express how they are feeling with their body language. This was a well played poetic piece.

Peter Holland’s ‘All Hail’ was a clever piece about a wife’s ruthless ambition to get her husband to fulfill his acting ambitions.

Pat Brennan’s ‘Putting your best foot forward’ was another clever piece about two men in a theatre dressing room as they put on their make-up before going on stage. The interest in their story comes from one actor being a veteran and the other performer is just starting out. There’s a neat twist in the ending.

Then there were the plays that had interesting ideas but never really took off! Amongst these were Nakkiah Lui’s ‘The Prisoner and The Soldier’, Donna Garofali Parise’s ‘Afternoon Tea with Scones’, Craig McNulty’s ‘The Pink Dress’ and Frank Davidson’s ‘A Match Made in Heaven’.

Finally, there were two plays, Erika Stoffels ‘The Regal History Of Our Willy’ and James Searles’s ‘Embedded’ that lacked any discernible vision or direction.

A large cast of actors worked hard to bring the writers work to life. My pick of the performers were Michele Anderson in ‘All Hail’, Cindi Knapton in ‘Afternoon Tea with Sex and Scones’, Andy Leonard in ‘Putting Your Best Foot Forward’, and Lynden Jones and Samantha Hickey in ‘Aerobic Blues’.

Short and Sweet’s Week One at the Newtown Theatre plays until January 10. The gala finals will be held at the Parade Theatre, NIDA on Saturday March 13.

The Book Of Everything

Julie Forsyth and Matthew Whittet in ‘The Book Of Everything’

The upstairs theatre at Belvoir Street is normally home to dark, complex, often politically based adult theatre. Company B’s new family friendly production, ‘The Book Of Everything’, presented together with Kim Carpenter’s Theatre Of Image’, makes for a refreshing change. Company B’s outgoing Artistic Director Neil Armfield is currently presenting Richard Tulloch’s adaptation of the Dutch writer Guus Kuijer’s children’s novel.

‘The Book Of Everything’ is troubled, intelligent nine year old Thomas Klopper’s story. The precocious Thomas is an independent thinker and starts keeping a journal, his ‘book of everything’. As the play unfolds we soon work out that the crux of Thomas’s problems lie in his troubled home life. His father is a domineering, authoritative figure who forces his zealous Christian beliefs onto his family. Worse, Thomas and his sister, Margot, often see their parents argue, and sometimes see their father slapping their mother into submission. Until the problems at home are resolved, Thomas’s imaginative and bright spirit will not truly fly.

The renowned Dutch writer’s involving storyline comes alive in Neil Armfield’s artful, warm hearted production. Armfield’s production tackles the play’s challenging themes and still at the same time manages to have a wry, light touch.

Music is an integral part of most Armfield productions and this was very much the case here with musician Iain Grandage accompanying the action, inspiringly playing a way at piano, cello and drums, accompanying the action, on a raised platform far stage right. As well, other members of the cast tinkered away at instruments during the show.

There were some good interactive touches with Julie Forsyth, amongst other actors, handing out tiny green frog balls to kids at interval and directing them to throw them down onto the stage after the break, imitating a biblical like frog invasion! One of the play’s funniest moments was when the Jesus character was helping to sweep the floor after the frog invasion and made the clever pun, Jesus swept!

Armfield wins good performances from a strong cast. Matthew Whittet gives a wistful, moving performance as Thomas. Veteran performers Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth shine respectively as Thomas’s repressed father and his eccentric, witchy neighbour Mrs Van Amersfoort. Yael Stone was a luminous presence as Thomas’s ‘crush’, a beautiful, mischievous sixteen year old girl with a squeaky leather leg.

The play was brilliantly staged by Kim Carpenter with the lynch-pin of the set being a large book standing at the back centre of the stage. The book featured thick cardboard leaves and as each scene changed a cast member would turn the page revealing the set for the coming scene. Some of the cast would perch on rungs of the tall ladders situated on both wings of the stage when they weren’t part of the onstage action.

‘The Book Of Everything’ plays the upstairs theatre at Belvoir Street until January 31.

Tot Mom

Essie Davis and Genevieve Hegney in ‘Tot Mom’

Oscar award winning film director Steven Soderbergh’s much anticipated stage production ‘Tot Mom’ is currently playing the Wharf 1 theatre at the Sydney Theatre Company.

‘Tot Mom’ is based on a criminal court case that is currently going through the American courts. In June 2008 in Florida, two year old Caylee Anthony disappeared and after a high profile police investigation her deceased body was found and shortly thereafter her mother Casey was charged with her murder. Casey Anthony is currently in remand in prison and there is a pre-trial hearing to be held early this month.

The media has followed the Anthony case obsessively, and in his play Soderbergh focuses on the coverage given to the case by celebrated local media commentator Nancy Grace in her popular nightly CNN television show. Soderbergh’s production is basically an extended compilation version of the Nancy Grace show from when the story first broke.

The audience is greeted with Essie Davis as Nancy Grace holding court on a series of large monitors at different angles raised high above the stage. The supporting cast are at stage level and play a vast array of characters who Grace hooks up with as she endeavours to get to the bottom of the case. Soderbergh respectively spotlights them as they come to the front of the stage when Grace seeks their ‘expert’ input.

What we have, in effect, with ‘Tot Mom’ is a striking depiction of a full-on media circus with Grace as the petulant ringleader. Essie Davis gave a great broad southern drawl performance as Grace, a performance that she delivers from an off-stage studio. Her portrayal was filled with resonance, bringing back memories of media hosts running with big news stories, living off adrenaline and ego, cutting in and away from commentators as they please.

I wish I could say that I loved ‘Tot Mom’ but it just isn’t the case. I am a huge fan of Soderbergh’s movies. Yes ‘Tot Mom’ is a clever, and in its own way powerful piece of theatre, however I found this production clinical, a bit frosty, clinical and unsatisfying! The play with Soderbergh using a cut and paste approach, taking his material from court and television transcripts, was workmanlike rather than inspired. There was potential for much more, especially from a talented supporting cast who were given caricatures to work with rather than flesh and blood roles.

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Tot Mom’ plays the Wharf 1 theatre, Sydney Theatre Company until Sunday 7th February, 2010.

Mao’s Last Dancer

Chi Cao Li and Camilla Vergotis in ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’

Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Li Cunxin’s memoirs ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ has been one of the success stories for Australian cinema in 2009. The movie has done extremely well at the box office since its release at the beginning of October and recently won this years’ AFI News Limited Reader’s Choice Award for most popular film.

Li Cunxin’s life story, his extraordinary journey from being born in January 1961 into a poor family in the Shandong province in China, to achieving acclaim with the Houston Ballet company, to his painful defection to the West that made world-wide news, to his new life in Melbourne Australia where he has changed careers and become a senior stockbroker, is the perfect vehicle for an inspirational bio-pic.

Beresford brings ‘The Peasant Prince’s’ amazing journey memorably to life. Jan Sardi’s astute screenplay that toggles between different periods in his life work effectively. Christopher Gordon’s sweeping AFI award winning score gives the film plenty of atmosphere. Beresford uses three fine actors to play the role of Li Cunxin at different stages of his life; Huang Wen Bin as the child, Chengwu Guo as the teenager and Chi Cao Li as the adult.

There are some fine performances in the supporting cast; Joan Chen as Li’s mother, Bruce Greenwood portrayal of the visionary director of the Houston Ballet company who sees and mentors Li’s potential, and two fine actresses, Amanda Schull as Elizabeth and Camilla Vergotis as Mary, who play the two women in his life.

‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ builds up to a memorable climax that lyrically completes Li’s main journey. This is a film to enjoy and savour!

The Informant

Matt Damon as the troubled Mark Whitacre in ‘The Informant’

Are you in the mood to see a genuinely intriguing film? If you are, then go see Steven Soderbergh’s new movie ‘The Informant’!

‘The Informant’ is adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s best selling 2000 book, ‘The Informant’. Eichewald’s book tells the story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) an Ivy League PH.D who was a rising star at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s when he became informant.

Whitacre furtively gathered hundreds of hours of video and audio tape documenting his company’s involvement in price fixing which he then handed over to the FBI. His actions earned him the distinction of being the highest ranked executive ever in American corporate history to turn whistleblower.

Do not go into ‘The Informant’ expecting another in the long list of films depicting lily-white, moral crusading whistleblowers! Mark Whitacre doesn’t fit this description, at all. As the FBI investigation into ADM broadens it is revealed that Whitacre himself is anything but squeaky clean and that he is even more corrupt than his colleagues. The FBI agents that have been supporting Whitacre are driven to exasperation by each new revelation about their former ‘favourite son’!

Above all, ‘The Informant’ is a fascinating character study. How does one understand a man like Whitacre?! One moment he is incredibly naive expecting ADM to promote him after he has done the dirt on them, the next moment he is lying to senior attorneys that need his honest answers. The medical diagnosis of severe bi-polar feels like it’s only one part of the picture. This guy is on the same enigmatic level as Frank Abagnale Junior of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Catch Me If You Can’ fame!

Soderbergh tells the story in a detached, comical style that features a tongue in cheek, jazz soundtrack. It’s as if he can’t believe this guy himself. Matt Damon’s performance as Whitacre is sensational as is Melanie Lynskey’s performance as Whitacre’s beleaguered wife Ginger who goes the whole nine yards for her husband.

Parkie

Amy Correia and Matt Hopkins in Daniel Hayward’s ‘Parkie’

David Koumans’s production, for the Woof/meow theatre company, of Melbourne playwright Daniel Hayward’s promising first play ‘Parkie’ is the inner city fringe theatre, the Tap Gallery’s final play of the year.

Hayward’s play is an original, engrossing work that takes us into a whole other world. This is the world of life in a caravan park named Clybucca, a quiet, run-down caravan park located on the pacific highway in northern New South Wales.

Popular folklore says that there are only three kinds of people who live in caravan parks. They are the Tuckers, the people who only stop in for a day or two, the Mosies who just mosie about, and are usually running away from something or someone, and the rest are the Parkies, who live there, and call the park their home.

Hayward sets up a whole drama that sweeps Clybucca. Teenager Brenda, the daughter of the park owner, and Adam are Parkies and best friends who lead relatively uneventful lives. Their characters complement each other; Brenda is a sparky, vivacious character whereas Adam is more quiet and contemplative. On to the scene comes Jake, a handsome, confident young guy who is on way through after completing a stint of army service. Jake has raging affairs with both of them and then absconds.

As the drama unfolds, ‘Parkie’ reveals itself to be a play about the challenge of self acceptance. It is fair to say that we all discover easy and difficult aspects about ourselves. Whereas most people can cope with this ‘process’, there are some who won’t accept the more challenging parts of themselves, and aren’t able to move on. ‘Parkie’ is a portrait of one such man.

David Koumans’s production serves Hayward’s play well, authentically recreating the Clybucca world with simple and effective staging. He wins good performances from his cast who present four distinct, credible characters each going through their own journey. Matt Hopkins gives the stand-out performance in the pick of the roles as the volatile, tormented Jake, Nathaniel Scotcher plays the down to earth Adam, Amy Correia is the bright, perky Brenda, and Mat Lynch is the troubled Matt, just out of prison.

Daniel Hayward’s ‘Parkie’ plays the Tap Gallery, 278 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst until December 20.

ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR

Mark Owen-Taylor and Danielle Carter in an Indian arm wrestle. Pic- Steve Lunam

For its final production of the year the Ensemble Theatre have gone for a play from Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s rich body of work, his 1972 comedy of social mores, ‘Absurd Person Singular’. This play is one of the most frequently performed plays in his repertoire.

‘Absurd Person Singular’ has given audiences plenty of joy over the years with its portrayal of the colourful interactions between three very different and fiercely competitive couples. They joust socially at each other’s houses, with the action centred inside their kitchens, over three consecutive Christmas Eves.

Ensemble audiences will enjoy the current revival directed by Andrew Doyle but it could have been stronger! The high points were Danielle Carter’s, as Eva, poker faced portrayal of her bland suicide attempts in the second Act, Mark Owen- Taylor’s flamboyant entrance as architect dandy, Geoffrey Jackson, Belinda Giblin’s turn as the ageing beauty turned lush, Marion, and Barry Langrishe’s energetic work as Ronald. Less impressive were Teo Gebert’s unconvincing, hammy portrayal of Sidney Hopcroft and Octavia Barron-Martin could have done more with Jane.

Claire Moloney’s set depicted the different worlds of the couples well. Jane and Sidney’s ultra modern kitchen for the social climbers, Eva and Geoffrey’s messy kitchen reflecting Eva’s poor state of mind, and Marion and Ronald’s run down kitchen with its broken down heater and gas stove reflecting leaner times for the once affluent couple.

Andrew Doyle’s production of ‘Absurd Person Singular’ plays the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli until January 16, 2010.

A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S DREAM

Elizabeth Blackmore and Gareth Davies in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Pic Heidrun Lohr

The final production, in another successful year for the B Sharp program, is Company B’s Artistic Associate Eamon Flack’s production of the most playful of the Bard’s comedies, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

This was a high spirited production with a cast of nine giving their all to a very receptive audience, including some school-kids who enjoyed their slice of live Shakespeare. At one time there was even an attempt by a few people to start a Mexican wave!

In the carnival like atmosphere there were some fine moments. My pick… Katherine Cullen as a longing Queen Titania giving a sensual rendition of Whitney Housten’s ‘I want to dance with somebody’….Tim Walter tinkling away at the casio keyboard and singing Leonard Cohen’s classic ballad, ‘Dance Me Till The End Of Love’…Puck, in frustration, dunking of a couple of the Athenians into a large red bucket filled with the magic love potion…At the close, Katherine Cullen, together with Tim Walter, looking rightly regal as the King and Queen enjoying the comic mayhem of the Mechanicals performance of Peter Quince’s ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

Charlie Garber played the plum role of Puck, the play’s prime mischief maker. Flack in his program notes, puts it succinctly when he says of Puck, ‘Puck creates the chaos, rescues everyone from it, and then demands applause’.

Applause, lots of it, Garber gets, as does the rest of the company, for a memorable night’s entertainment. Applause too goes to Alistair Watts for a set that works well in the intimate downstairs space. The front stage area is a grassed area where the action takes place, at the back is a curtain of strips of silver tinsel. The cast managed quick costume changes in the tiny space behind the curtain. Late in the play one of the cast opened the curtain to reveal a reflective ‘wall’, which with the bright lighting, leant a shimmering effect to the tinsel.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ plays the downstairs theatre at Belvoir Street until Saturday December 20.

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