Sunday, September 16, 2018

Cabaret: #Val: A Glitery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums

John O’Hara
Accompanied by Andrew Kroenert
Downstairs at the Maj
13 – 15 September
John O’Hara. What a guy!
Raised on the Canning Highway Avenue of the Stars (Dave Faulkner at the Manning end, Dave Warner at the Bicton end), O’Hara schooled at Melville Primary and John Curtin College of the Arts, studied at WAAPA and has gone on to star on stage (Cats, Rocky Horror, Wicked, Priscilla) and cabaret, all over the place.
He’s back home, in more ways than one, with #Val: A Glittery Ode to Queer Men and their Mums, the story of his growing up, his coming out and the songs that helped him do both.
Those who’ve seen him on the Maj’s basement stage before, in Dedications (2015) or last year’s A Very Merry Christmas (there were plenty of comebackers in the audience – always a good sign) would have known they were in for a fine time in the company of a dead snappy performer.
I think they’d have also known they were in for more than that – because O’Hara’s cabarets are rare commodity in that glittery world. They are about things.
A fair swag of the songs of #Val are, in a sense, predictable. Gaga’s Born This Way, Scissor Sisters’ Let’s have a Kiki, an all-time gay anthemfest  (I Will survive, Raining Men, Strike A Pose, Dance With Somebody…), George Michael’s Freedom, even the Barbie theme song, Get Your Sparkle On (we did).
But it’s the songs we don’t expect, and the way he gets inside them that we’ve never heard before, that makes O’Hara such a compelling performer. Who’s gunna to do the little tearjerker Baby of Mine from Disney’s Dumbo, Cher’s gun-totin’ Turn Back Time, or, of all things, Farnsy’s You’re the Voice?
But he does, and owns them all big time.
And when everything he’s trying to do and say comes completely together (much credit due here to his accompanist – well they’re a duo, really, Andrew Kroenert), in heartbreaking, revelatory versions of TLC’s Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls and Sia’s Titanium, it’s like you’ve never really known what they’re about until now.
That’s the strength, but also the one weakness, of #Val. The story of a gay boy growing up and into is skin, his relationships (with his fabulous mother, of course, his straight brother, his absent father) is funny, sweet and makes all the points it needs to.
The extrapolation into the history of the LGBIQ struggle way back to the Stonewall Uprising and the death of Marsha P Jackson is understandable and legitimate, but it confuses O’Hara’s narrative and dangles him on the crumbly edge of polemic.
But what the hey. That’s just me. John O’Hara, “Australia’s John O’Hara”, gives as good an hour as you’ll get to spend on this side of the footlights.
Don’t miss #Val. Don’t miss anything he does.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Theatre: The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish

Created and performed by Frieda Lee and Sam Hayes
Blue Room Theatre
Until 22 September

The sea, the things that swim in it and those who catch them is the world of Frieda Lee’s The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish. It’s a powerful and cruel world, and Lee’s play is a striking, heart-wrenching response to it.
Her play is shaped like a parable, and within it the horrors of modern quasi-slavery,  and the fragility of life and family are explored.
She tells the story of a little fish (Lee) the wife and the mother of the child of the fisherman who caught him (Sam Hayes).
They are the little fish, and their inconsequential, expendable lives are buffeted by the avaricious, the capricious and the brutal (many of the incidents are drawn from the real-life stories of indentured fishermen in Thailand and other South-East Asian countries).
Lee is both the little fish and the narrator of her story, and she weaves the dual role together effectively. She is an actor of great passion and intelligence, and gives a memorable performance.
Her husband Hayes plays six supporting characters as well as the fisherman, and demonstrates his versatility as well as his power in the performances.
Hayes has the rare gift of being genuinely menacing on stage (as he showed to frightening effect in last year’s A View from the Penthouse, which, incidentally, returns in an extended version with a stripped-down title later in the Blue Room Season).
In Little Fish he also shows his capacity for tenderness and arch comedy.  Hayes is an actor I’d go a long way to see.
The quality of the performances, well supported by Maeli Cherel and √Čtain Boscato’s set and costumes, Isaac Diamond’s sound and Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting designs, drives the story of Little Fish to its fateful conclusion.
There are some rough patches along the way ­– a diversion involving  a capricious wealthy woman and her boyfriend who take Little Fish in is overlong and meandering, and I felt the show needed more of a sense of the sea to give it mystic and mythic power – but The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish remained engaging and engrossing theatre.
And the ending is absolutely shameless. You’ll adore him! 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Theatre: TILT 2018

WAAPA  3rd Year Performance Making Students
Blue Room Theatre
Until September 8

(l-r) Zachary Sheridan, Tamara Creasey, Christopher Moro and Elise Wilson in Cookies and Cream
The forays by WAAPA’s Performance Making course’s graduating class to the Blue Room Theatre for the double-head TILT programme have become an annual highlight.
That’s in part for their own sake – eight short pieces over two nights with the freedom, expressiveness and self-indulgence (not always a bad thing) that, maybe, will never come again, will always reveal some delights.
It’s also a window into the future; what these young theatre-makers are interested in, and how they deliver it to audiences, will more than likely be the matter and method of the independent stage in time to come.
There’s a very direct pay-off from that – along with a trap for young players. Some of the best (or, more correctly, more substantial) Tilt bits have quickly gone on to become fully-fledged productions at the Blue Room, albeit with mixed results.
The problem, the challenge anyway, is converting a 25-30 minute piece into the hour or so alternative theatres, fringe festivals and the like trade in.
Sometimes these short shows are exposed as skits when a longer format calls for more character development and a more sustained narrative. Sometimes they leap that tall building with a single bound.
Last year’s showstopper, The View From the Penthouse, is a case in point. It’s slotted to return, with a longer running time and a shorter title – just Penthouse – at the end of next month in the Blue Room.
From what I saw last year, I’d advise you to crawl over broken glass to see it – but that trap is baited and waiting.
So, to this year’s Tilts.
Courtney Henri and Jordan Valenti’s play-within-a-play about street performers, a flying whale and surface tension, Fluke, was deftly managed and sweet, without quite nailing its allegory or compelling our attention.
Evelyn Snook, in her Work in Progress, certainly does. A small, sad portrait of a girl battling depression and inertia (“Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you do today is breathe”), it’s beautifully written and winningly performed.
The evening’s closer, and its most striking performance, was Girl & Thing, a kinetic, sometimes frightening dance piece devised and performed by the busy Henri and Marshall Stay, who also delivered an impressive video and sound design (with Ash Lazenby). Henri is an extraordinary sight, diminutive, a shock of hair and a frenzy of movement, sometimes defying your senses to keep up with her. I’m tempted to wonder whether Henri and Stay always knew what they were saying in Girl & Thing, but if the language they used to say it was sometimes incomprehensible, the effect was certainly mesmerizing.
I’m cheating. The best was first, not last, but I’ve saved it anyway.
Cookies and Cream (or, as its writer Zachary Sheridan and director Amelia Burke would have it, “however the diddly is done”) is everything you could want in forty minutes of alt-theatre. Smart, screamingly funny, did-she-really-SAY-that-ish, snappy, crackly and poppy, it’s the antidote to whatever ails you.
And, among the terrific cast of Sheridan, Christopher Moro and Tamara Creasey, a star is born in Elise Wilson – anyone who loves the work of The Last Great Hunt’s fabulous Arielle Grey is gong to really love this gal.
Cookies and Cream will be back. You can bet on it.
The second programme (which ends this Saturday 8) may not have a firecracker like Cookies and Cream, but it’s textually more substantial than the first.
The opener, The Painfully True Story of the Show we Couldn’t Make, devised and performed by Noemie Huttner-Koros, Karina White and Snook is a backstage procedural about, as the title suggests, the difficulty – and even the validity – of nice, young, white folk making theatre about people without their privileges. It’s a good and worthy idea, blunted by an overabundance of long, meaningful looks and some lengthy, problematic recorded segments that had plenty of verbatim but not enough theatre.
Dad is Isaac Powell, Jarryd Prain and Stay’s emotional paean to those strange creatures that fathered us. It’s, perhaps, a little repetitive, but it sneaks up on you, building bit by bit to a touching, insightful kind of father-son catharsis – and a pillow fight. It’s performed with energy and commitment and should both extend and tighten up nicely if it goes around again some time. The pillows are inspired.
Clare Testoni has made quite a splash over recent times with her combination of shadow puppetry and fairy tale-telling, and it’s a lode that Chloe-Jean Vincent, co-creator Madeleine McKeown and co-writer Valenti mine effectively in Where the Woodsman Cannot Find You. Working with the fairytales The Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Vincent and fellow performers Henri and Stay deliver a multi-media take on the stories, and the head of the girl imagining them, that is tightly-drawn, funny and sometimes genuinely scary.
Who knew the story of Ada – Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and, some claim, the writer of the first computer programme? Wikipedia, naturally, the writer and director Huttner-Koros, clearly, and now all of us who saw her smarty staged and delightfully composed little bioplay about this extraordinary (Queen) Victorian woman. Played with corseted good grace by McKeowyn, well supported by Snook, Burke, Creasey and White, Ada is another tilt that could easily re-emerge as a fully realized-piece in a Spiegeltent near you sometime soon.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (★★★★½)

By Simon Stephens
National Theatre of Great Britain
His Majesty’s Theatre
Until August 18

 All serious theatre is an exploration of the human mind and its mysteries, and good theatre attempts to illuminate, but not explain, it and them.
Explanation is a task for lectures, illumination for the stage.
That’s what makes Simon Stephen’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time among the best of plays.
It’s the story, adapted from Mark Haddon’s much-loved novel, of a courageous 15-year-old, Christopher Boone (Kaffe Keating), who triumphs over the weaknesses and deceits of his parents (Stuart Laing and Emma Beattie) and the terrors of loneliness and alone-ness to achieve what seems an impossible goal, and at least begin to repair the mess those around him have made.
This is as fine, entertaining and insightful a couple of hours as I can imagine, and it would be curious of you to miss it. 

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Theatre: Julius Caesar

By William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
August 8-11

Julius Caesar is a problematic play, and this is a problematic staging of it.
I’m not quite sure why Bell Shakespeare have taken it out on the road so soon (seven years) after they last mounted it, and I couldn’t find anything in particular compelling about it to have forced their hand.
Whether we’re to make anything of its extensive gender and ethnic impartiality (five of the historical and original male characters are played by women; Caesar by an African American), there’s nothing especially ground-breaking about it – indeed a major “drawcard” of Bell’s last crack at Caesar was the casting of Kate Mulvany, who also delivered a terse, concertinaed adaptation of the script, as Cassius.
Which leaves us with the problems of the play, and how Bell dealt with them, and it’s a mixed report card.
The elephant in the room (okay, allow me a little Hannibal joke) is Julius himself. The play is mistitled, of course – it should be Antony and Brutus, but Shakespeare obviously was saving the latter part of the title for Cleopatra. Julius is, after all, merely the victim of the play’s pivotal moment, and that happens fairly early on in the piece.
Before it, he does nothing other than ignore some ultimately good advice, change his mind a couple of times (so much for being “as constant as the northern star”) and wander into a one-way knife event.
He’s barely more important, either to his play or the parade of Shakespeare’s characters, than Duncan in Macbeth, and no-one has ever thought to re-name the Scottish Play after him.
Bell’s last Caesar, Alex Menglet, played him like an ailing Russian oligarch, which was a bit comic but made some useful points about the unsuitability of any individual to claim the entire apparatus of a modern state for themselves.
I could find no similarly useful points in Kenneth Ransome’s awkward portrayal of the general who  would be king.
On the other hand, Sara Zwangobani’s Mark Antony did bring something to her role. She stripped Antony’s great “friends, Romans, countrymen” of much of its rhetorical flourish and left it as the prowling, snarling incitement to slaughter it is.
Perhaps the production’s best – and most surprising – moment was the argument and reconciliation between the conspirators Brutus (Ivan Donato) and Cassius (Nick Simpson-Deeks) in IV.iii. They squabble and flatter each other like the doomed children they are while the pincers of the vengeful Antony and ambitious Octavius (Emily Havea, effective as a Prince on the cusp of her purple reign) close in on them.
From the end of Antony’s speech on, the playing out of Julius Caesar is as weakly constructed and written as anything in Shakespeare.
To their credit, Donato and Simpson-Deeks at least made it worth sitting through.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Theatre: Improvement Club

The Last Great Hunt
Written and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler
Performed by Gita Bezard, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs, Frieda Lee and Mararo Wangai
Set and costume designer Sally Phipps
Sound and Lighting designer Joe Lui
22 June – 7 July

Groucho Marx swore that he would refuse to join any club that would have him.
The protagonist (perhaps not quite the perfect description) of Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s Improvement Club has an antonymic problem; he wants to be in a club and has a gift for starting them – he just struggles to stay in them.
Adam’s (Chris Isaacs) error is constitutional; the stated purpose, or at least the marketing pitch, of the clubs he founds is Improvement. The catch is that he has no real interest in that purpose. He just wants a way to get to hang out with people who would otherwise shun him.
They – Cameron (Gita Bezard), Dylan (Frieda Lee) and Blake (Mararo Wangai) – discover soon enough that improvement, to Adam, is measured in quantity, not quality, and reject, first, his leadership, and then him.
He tries again and again, searching for ways to ensure his primacy and survival, each time failing in the face of his own shortcomings and the ambition of others.
If you’re detecting the odour of allegory, you’re on the money.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Theatre: Tale of Tales ★★★★½

Written, directed and performed by Clare Testoni
with Paul Grabovac
Sound design by Joe Lui
Lighting design by Rhiannon Peterson
Blue Room Theatre until May 9
Tale of Tales is a small, brilliant gem of storytelling, and a breakout achievement for its deviser and performer, Clare Testoni.

Testoni’s previous work, including The Beast and the Bride and West of the Moon, has explored her interest in fairy tales, but any concern that her imagination and talents are confined to and by them is quickly dispelled in Tale of Tales. 
She uses the fairy tales collected by Giambattista Basile in the 17th century (which include the earliest known versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella) as a jumping off point for a wider and deeper story of four generations of her own family, the rise of Fascism in Italy and the resistance to it, the flight of many Italians to Australia and their fate here.
It’s a passionate statement against fear and prejudice, and especially the practice of interment that is often its consequence. The parallels to the same practices in our own times are clearly and powerfully made.
It’s also the true love story of her great-grandparents, Sante and Antoinetta, and their strange, sad parting and estrangement. Their story is paired with Basile’s The Princess Who Couldn’t Laugh or Cry, The Crystal Tunnel, The Dragon and the Flea and others. The narrative technique give Basile’s stories new life and meaning – it’s a lesson in the purpose and power of fairy tales as well as a wonderful device for the telling of her own story.    
Testoni is a shadow puppeteer, and she takes her craft to a new level. Working alongside the excellent actor Paul Grabovac, shining torches on tiny cutout figures on tables, she throws silhouettes of people and places – villages and cities, internment camps – onto the white-papered walls of the stage.
The images have a magical three-dimensionality, and move with an almost cinematic quality. They are interspersed with family photos and archival material, some very shocking, of Mussolini’s Italy and internment camps.
Tale of Tales is an honest show, and a heartfelt one; as Basile says in The Sun, the Moon and Talia, “a story left untold is destined to repeat itself.”
It’s a good thing, then, that Clare Testoni has told hers – and that she’s done it so very well.

This review has been archived by The Press Reader (link here)