Shorter and Sweeter 2004

It was time to catch some more theatre. I scanned the What’s On Guide and something leapt out at me. It was the Shorter and Sweeter season at the Studio theatre, Sydney Opera House.

For those not in the know, since January 2002 there has been an annual short play festival called ‘Short and Sweet’ at the Newtown theatre in Sydney. In an inspired decision, Mark Cleary, the Festival’s Artistic Director, has put together this current show which features a selection of eight favourite pieces from the canon of Short and Sweet works.

I walked into the Studio Theatre, one of the best theatre spaces in Sydney, with a positive attitude. I wasn’t going to set the bar too high, if it was an entertaining night, and at least a couple of the eight plays worked well, I’d leave as happy as Larry. It would only be if all of the plays were lousy, and the actors pranced around like lost sheep, would I go home and kick the cat!

The news is that there was no need for the cat to hide under the sofa. Sure the night was a little bit of a mixed bag, but there was good stuff in it.

One of the pieces had me in absolute stitches, and was worth the price of admission in itself. The piece was Mrinalini Kamath’s ‘The Sum of All Parts’, directed by Megan Finlay and played by Bryan Moses, Craig Anderson, and Alison Barnes.

The setting is a young woman’s living room. In through the door walks a young couple. The woman leads the guy over to the sofa. It is easy to work out what’s going on. The gal is as horny and hell but the guy keeps on keeping fending her off. It isn’t long before she asks him what’s up, is he gay and so on…The guy comes out with his problem and herein lies much of the comedy.

He tells her that the libido part of him has split from him and become another person. At this time, onto the stage walks his libido in the shape of an ugly, fat, ocker looking guy, who falls onto the sofa and starts hoeing into his takeaway muchies.

She is ofcourse aghast at seeing this part of him. Any way now that the truth has come out, the couple get down to some serious canoodling. The only thing is that when the lovemaking starts to get serious Mr Libido comes over from the sofa and wants some action. As soon as this happens she is completely turned off. A huge exercise in frustration! This was a hilarious vignette which was superbly played out.

One of the features and in fact one of the delights of ‘Shorter and Sweeter’ was its hugely varied program. Christophher Johnson’s ‘Borys the Rotweiler’ was a good comic performance piece for actor Winston Cooper . Cooper was irate Borys who was having a battle with the dogs’ next door.

Van Badham’s piece ‘An Anarchist at Dinner’, directed by Emily Weare and starring Sandie Eldridge, Rebekkah Moore, Alison Barnes, Winston Cooper and Sean Kennedy, was a quirky piece about a yuppie dinner party that goes very wrong.

The most haunting play in the collection was Alex Broun’s ‘The Gift of The Gun’ . This play was directed by George Ogilvie and was performed by Jonathon Elsom and Sean Kennedy. The scenario is a complex one. A gigolo comes to an gay old bloke’s house. He expects to perform some sexual favours and then quickly exit. Imagine his delimma when the old codger doesn’t want sexual favours but offers him a huge wad of money if he will take his gun and kill him, and he has even worked out a way of making it look like suicide, so there are no repercussions.

The suspense builds up well as the young bloke comes to the point of making his mind up. George Ogilvie’s direction was flawless. The performances were well honed, Jonathon Elson as the world weary old bloke and Sean Kennedy as the punky young guy who finds himself into something way too deep.

There was other vignette that I enjoyed. This was Jane Bodie’s ‘Through’, directed by Katy Alexander, and astutely played by Winston Cooper and Rebekkah Moore.

This play was a bit of a revelation in the way that the playwright has captured the brief history of a relationship between a man and woman with just two performers and an empty stage apart from two chairs. I particularly admired the way that Bodie didn’t write a happy ending. The couple aren’t together in the end, and the woman gives her new born child his christian name.

I found Shorter and Sweeter’s other three plays empty sort of experiences. Angus Strachan’s ‘Tea’ was strong enough thematically being about a middle aged couple having a serious discussion over tea. The wife is trying to get the husband to have the courage to bring up an issue with their grown up daughter. The husband tries to do a dance of avoidance but in the end is ensnared.

The remaining two pieces, Mark Cleary’s ‘Per Second Per Second’ about a woman jumping out of an aircraft some 3000 metres above land and coping with the thoughts racing through her mind, and Benito Di Fonzo’s ‘Pokie Face’ about a father and son taking on poker machines at an RSL Club, failed to excite.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ was one of John Hughes’s comedies that he made whilst in his prime. It was another film that was something of a revelation. It showed how much wonderful comedy could be made out of having two extremely unsuited people being made to live out of each others pockets for a while.

Think ‘The Odd Couple’ with the same kind of pathos and good humour. Steve Martin and John Candy play characters caught up in the US traffic log-jam trying to get home for Christmas. Whichever method of transport they use, whether it be by boat, train or plane, new impasses are reached. And..no matter how much they may try to lose each other it always ends up that they land up next to each other.

There are some hysterical scenes. Steve Martin totally going off at a female airport counter clerk when she is too officious and can ‘t get him on an urgent flight. Martin kissing Candy on the eralobe thinking whilst he was fast asleep thinking that he was in fact his wife.

In the end though what I will remember about ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ was that it was a film with a lot of heart.
There are some truly touching scenes as the film moves towards its climax. When Martin realises that Candy does not have a home to go to for Christmas, that his wife had died many years previously, and invites Candy over for a Christmas dinner with his family it’s a scene that really grabs the heart.
All in all, with its rich vein of comedy and a heart of gold, this was a very fine film.

Tomorrow We Move

It was that time of the year again for the Jewish Film Festival. I always try and catch a few films every year.

One of the films I chose was Chantal Akerman’s ‘Tomorrow We Move’. The scenario appealed to me. The film is about a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Charlottte’s mother Catherine, moves in to share her small studio apartment after the death of her husband. The tensions soon mount between this creative couple as they have to share the one small space; Charlotte is a stressed out writer, trying to write a new erotic novel, Catherine is a music teacher, and has brought with her her grand piano.

The deal that I cut was that if the movie had a good play around with the claustrophobic, mature mother daughter relationship then I’d be happy with my ticket. It felt like there would be plenty of room for comedy and even pathos.

Well…I’m afraid that the verdict isn’t good. With ‘Tomorrow We Move’ I felt ripped off. The title was a misnomer. Sure Charlotte and Catherine do move in the end. The thing is that the movie doesn’t really move…anywhere. It is a long time since I’ve seen a film that had so little action. It was made worse that the film went for just under two hours.

There was no real conflict, nothing substantial at stake, to keep audiences interested. No wonder that so many people in the audience walked out by half way through the film. The most exciting that the film got was the tensions that Charlotte felt trying to write her erotic novel with her mother no w hanging around. Well I guess there was a bit of interest when the ‘couple’ started showing people around their apartment but they weren’t really very interesting characters, unfortunately.

There were only very slim pickings to get from this film. They related mainly to one good central performance. I enjoyed Sylvie Testud’s performance as Charlotte. She was a fun, impish sort of character.

Summing up, it’s sad to say but this film was a bit of a yawn. It never really got out of first gear. How this film made it into a film festival program is a curious aberation.

De Lovely

Irwin Winkler’s film ‘De Lovely’, a film on the life and times of Cole Porter, had a strong impact on me. It was by no means a perfect film but I found it challenging.The setting is non-naturalistic. Cole Porter is sitting in the stalls of a theatre with the plays director as they commence watching scenes from the new musical play about his life. They argue with each other over where a good starting point for the play should be. For the next 2 hours the audience is swapped between Porter’s unfolding story and the old Porter’s reaction to it.

I have to admit that the biographical genre is one of my favourite genres. ‘De Lovely’ is one of the best of its kind. Here are my impressions of this portrait.

Wealth comes to the forefront. He was a man of enormous wealth, and lived in the most luxurious of estates. In this sense, he was not like a mere mortal, money was never a problem. Lucky him!
In another respect he was also not very human. Porter came across as a man with infinite talent. It seemed to take him no effort at all for him to come up with a great pop tune.
He was a man who loved to party. The parties he threw at his houses were nothing short of lavish. And of-course a great deal of alcohol was always on tap.

The portrait given shows a man who was extremely self centered. I guess many people would consider that a typical trait of the artist. In this warts and all biography, there are many scenes of unashamed selfishness, times when he left his wife at home whilst he would stay out late and have sexual encounters.

Humble Boy

The Ensemble Theatre’s latest production is the British play by Charlotte Jones ‘Humble Boy’. The play is being performed at the Seymour Centre’s York theatre.
The scenario features a popular narrative hook. The life of a young man is turned around when he has to come back home to his father’s funeral. Felix loved his late father James but has never been close to his mother Flora. His ambivalence to his mother is brought into sharper focus when he finds out within a few weeks that his mother is already having an affair with a local man, George, whom he has never liked.

‘Humble Boy’ has a broad canvas, with the ‘Humble Boy’ at the centre. Felix is an astrophysician. He lives totally in his head. Felix doesn’t know how to relate to people on an emotional level. The play charts the course in Felix trying to find some balance in his life.

‘Humble Boy’ was a middle range theatre experience. The actors each played strong character types well. There were some very poignant scenes especially concerning mother Flora. Steve Rogers, one of our strongest local actors gave a touching performance. Sandra Bates’s direction was tight. Mark Thompson’s garden setting was exceptional.

I will remember this play for an unusual choice made by one of its main characters. One of the plays’ main storylines of the play was Flora’s love triangle. In a surprising decision, Flora decides that, in the end, she doesn’t want George, even though the third part of the triangle is no longer an issue, with her husband having passed away. George sulks rather than slinks out of the action.

Into The Woods

It had been a long week and I was determined to make the most of my Friday nights entertainment. I went to see the New Theatre’s opening night production of Stephen Sondheim’s Ínto The Woods’ directed by Pete Nettell.

I made a pact. As long as this show was entertaining and had a bit of punch then I’d give it the thumbs up. My mood was buoyed when I got to the theatre. There were a throng of people in the foyer and people were flowing out onto the street.

It ended up being a good night which had a lot to do with director Pete Nettell
putting together a good, solid package. The production featured a large cast, with over twenty performers. Sure there was a mixture of quality still everyone gave their all.

The performers did well with the large number of show tunes. Both the slow, emotional numbers and the big chorus numbers were handled well. My pick of the cast were:- Sigrid Langford- Scherf, a Wollongong Uni graduate, who was a delicate Cinderella and had a rich singing voice, Maria O’Hare, an ACTT grad who gave a quirky, comic performance as Milky White the Cow, Jennifer White a Nepean grad who was a confident and passionate Baker’s wife, Nikki Aitken a cheeky Red Riding Hood, and the iconic Jeannie Lewis as the Witch.

The play featured some strong production values.
Wayne Harris’s set was a good showcase for the evening. This was the first time in my experience that I can remember that the New’s ceiling was replete with a large expanse of fairy lights. Another production feature that was the use of booming, reverberating sound effects that rang around the theatre after interval to indicate the foreboding presence of the Giant. These effects were also aided by a flashy lighting design by Spiros Hristias. The bright costumes were designed by Grant Buchanan and Tim Elkington. The taped musical backing worked well, provided by Kathy Peterson- piano, synthesiser, Fiona Gardner- synthesizer and Sarah Cameron- piano.

SCENES FROM A SEPARATION

I guess everything comes down to versions, interpretations. The news we see everyday, the history books we read, there is no such ‘animal’ as pure objectivity. So why should it be any different when we turn our minds and hearts to relationships. It is with this notion in mind that Andrew Bovell and Hannie Rayson have written the play ‘Scenes from a Separation’, currently playing the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.
The scenario looks behind the scenes of a marriage breakdown between publisher Matthew Molyneux and his wife Nina.
The drama is divided into two Acts, in the first half the break-up is told from the husband’s side, after interval the wife’s version is enacted.

Its new production, ‘Scenes from a Separation, written by Andrew Bovell and Hannie Rayson, delivered an intense, edgy, multi-layered view of contemporary relationships.

9 November 2004

ART

French playwright Yasmina Reza’s play ‘Art, which opened in Paris in 1994, is considered a modern classic.

In ART, Serge has gone out and bought a modern work of art for $200, 000. The thing is that the canvas is simply filled with paint with white lines through it. Serge is content with his purchase except for not being able to make up his mind where he should display it in his flat.

And there’s just another thing, his best friend Marc is giving him a hard time about the purchase. Marc can’t believe that he has spent so much money on something he considers is a worthless painting. Marc then involves Yvan, the other close friend in the group, in what becomes a great debate about the painting.

Reza’s play is a bit of a revelation. Why? Because with her artistry, such a simple idea becomes such thought provoking theatre.

The play conjurs up a plethora of debates-the value of modern art…the superficiality of bourgeois society. Its main subject and theme is friendship. The blowtorch is well and truly set to it. How honest are our communications with our friends…how conditional are our friendships really…and how tied up with conventional expectations are they?!

Structurally ART builds’ beautifully. The play starts off at a bit of a canter but it gathers pace and features an eloquent ending.

The current Ensemble production does justice to Reza’s pearl of a play. Sandra Bates’s direction is respectful and tight, and the performances are accomplished and confident,

Daniel Mitchell as Marc, Mark Kilmurry as Serge, and Brian Meegan plays Yvan. John House’s simple design with the one set to ‘cover’ the living rooms of the three flats was effective.

Martin Kinnane’s lighting design was great and an important feature of the play.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring

Are you in the mood to get away from it all? Feel like a trip somewhere. Well if you can’t really afford to an alternative is to see the new Korean film ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring’. This was a film that couldn’t be further away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. The setting is a remote and picturesque mountain lake in a South Korean wilderness preserve. It is within this setting that an elderly Buddhist monk and his protege, a young boy, live out an existence in a small wooden house on the lake. The monk teaches the boy in the ways of life, bearing in mind Buddhist teachings.

I connected strongly with this film and many scenes within it. The monk forcing the boy to be weighed down with a stone after he has cruelly tied stones to innocent animals he has been playing with in the bush. The scene when the monk finds out that his protege has been having an affair with a young woman who he has been healing, and he forces her to leave..how gutted the young man is…the lecture that the monk gives the young man about the evils of lust….the scene of the monk stoically ending his life…the scene of the young man climbing the mountain top with a buddha statue, and leaving the buddha there to watch over his home on the water

Forgive the commercial term but this film was a good package. A serene and mystical setting…an intelligent narrative…and a
exquisite orchestral soundtrack made this one of the most special and wistful offerings of the year.

Green Card

Aussie Peter Weir’s 1990 romantic comedy ‘Green Card’ still holds up well today. It is about what ensues when the lives of two very different people are thrown together.

In ‘Green Card’ Frenchman George and American Bronte agree to a marriage of convenience for practical reasons. George has been offered a great job in the states but he needs a work permit, a Green Card. If he is married he will automatically be eligible for a permit. Bronte, a keen gardener, has found the perfect flat with its own greenhouse, but it is only available to married couples. Barely knowing each other George and Bronte agree to live together and get married- platonically- and their only hurdle is the local immigration department.

Ok, that’s enough of a boring plot description! What’s ‘Green Card’ like?! Here are some prompts.

Think romance…this film has a soft, mushy heart. It has one of the most stirring finishes in cinema, featuring one of those great enigmatic endings.

Think the comedy of ‘odd couple’ dynamics. Bronte is conservative, reserved, arch. George is a provocateur, and often deliberately outrageous, especially to Bronte’s far too straight and try hard boyfriend! There are some hilarious scenes such as when George does a little bit of improvising on the piano at a one of Bronte’s friends parties’, and Bronte hides her face in her hands in embarrassment.

Think suspense and real involvement with the main characters. The crunch scenes when George and Bronte have their big interview with immigration, and have to improvise like hell and hope for the best.

Summing up, to use an analogy, ‘Green Card’ felt like a favourite winter jacket that fitted just right.

Russian Doll

‘Russian Doll’, made in 2001, is one of the best Australian films made in recent years. The film features a strong storyline with a good Aussie cast. Hugo Weaving played the main character Harvey, a private investigator and want to be writer. His life is in a state of turmoil when he finds out that his girlfriend is having an affair. He is further thrown when he agrees to do a favour for his best friend Ethan (David Wenham).

Ethan is having an affair with a beautiful young Russian woman, Katia (Natalie Novikova). Katia’s story is that she came out to Sydney as a mail order bride only to discover that her husband to be had suddenly died of a heart attack. Katia befriends Ethan, and he soon becomes more than a shoulder to cry on!
Ethan soon realises his happy marriage with Miriam (Rebecca Frith) is at risk unless Katia can be controlled. He asks Harvey to take her on as a roommate and to wed her in a marriage of convenience. Harvey agrees when Ethan sets him up with plenty of money so he can give up his day job and spend his time writing his great Australian novel. It doesn’t take Harvey too long into the arrangement to know that he is going to have his hands very full coping with Katia!

This was a clear case of the filmmakers, writer/director Stavros Kazantzidis and co-writer Allanah Zitserman,knowing the kind of film they wanted to make, and carrying it off with class. They have come up with a clear blueprint, a good recipe, that makes for a charming, entertaining screwball romantic comedy.

The classic ingredients are all here:- the kooky female lead Katia ala something that Goldie Hawn would have played in her prime… the straight laced, conservative male, a part that would have suited someone like George Segal…a storyline that could have come out of ‘When Harry Meets Sally’-
friends becoming lovers on the rebound, breaking up and then getting back together again…Have you got the picture?!
As well as its many layers, ‘Russian Doll’ has many riches. Most of them relate to good performances from a strong cast. Natalia Novikova shines as the kooky Katia, Hugo Weaving gives his usual good performance. The only star that didn’t shine, so to speak, was David Wenham as Ethan. I found him a little miscast, his performance was stilted.

There were some strong supporting role performances. One of Australia’s best actresses Rebecca Firth was great as Ethan’s naive, homely wife, Miriam. Sasha Horler gave a charismatic, comic performance as one of Katia’s devious, horny Russian girlfriends, and had a wonderful quirky Russian accent.

One of the pleasures of the film was that it was set around Sydney and it was great to see Sydney icons such as the nightclub spot, ‘The Russian Coachman’ featured. Summing up, I strongly recommend ‘Russian Doll’. Take out on DVD one night, have a few glasses of wine, sit back on the couch, and enjoy a well made, feel good local movie.

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