Friday, July 12, 2019

Theatre: Floor Thirteen


By Elise Wilson
Directed by Marshall Stay
Performed by Kylie Bywaters, Tamara Creasey, Courtney Henri, Christopher Moro and Jordan Valentini
Blue Room Theatre
Until 13 July

Elise Wilson is on some sort of trajectory. The 2018 WAAPA performing arts graduate dashed downtown from the Mt Lawley campus to the Blue Room where she’s been making waves as an actor in shows like Hive Mind and Grace (with much more to come this year). Even some of her purposeful performances as the theatre’s usher during the fringe stopped the chatter in the Blue Room’s foyer – now that’s an achievement!  
She’s also found time to write, and Floor Thirteen, her first full-length play, is the result. It’s an auspicious debut.
A young, smart and aspirational lawyer, Phoebe (Kylie Bywater), is heading home from a party at her client’s apartment to celebrate his win in the big court case she’d been working on. She’s more than a little drunk, and much more than a little unsettled, so the last thing she needs is the lift to stick, somewhere between the fourteenth and twelfth floor.
Help is at hand, and soon a reassuring technician’s voice is keeping her calm while he sorts out the problem.
But calm isn’t on the agenda for Phoebe’s night, and the reason isn’t because she’s stuck in a lift. It’s what has happened that night, before she got in the lift, that has got her seriously unglued, and it’s finding out why that was – why that really was ­–­ that is Wilson’s story.
Floor Thirteen is about memory, how we build it and how it peels away like onionskin to expose the truth.
Wilson has worked closely with the producer/director/designer Marshall Stay and Bywaters, also recent WAAPA grads, and the result – the core of the production – is tight, clear and tense. Stay’s set, an all-but-transparent box representing the lift is a perfect performance space for Bywaters, and she brings Phoebe to nervy, jagged life. Stay’s ever-so-slightly-distorted soundscape and Scott McArdle’s lighting design amplify the uneasy energy and edginess of the text, and Bywaters’ performance.
However, there’s more to Floor Thirteen than one actor playing one stranded woman; as the unstable layers of Phoebe’s memory of events are exposed, they are performed as tableaux by an ensemble of performers – Tamara Creasey, Courtney Henri, Christopher Moro and Jordan Valentini – circling the lift. They silently mouth the conversations Phoebe remembers, or concocts, and give physical form to the shifting reality of events.
It’s tightly devised (“movement dramaturgy” – a new one for me – by Jessica Russell) and performed, but I’m not convinced it adds materially to the text or our understanding of its voice.
I’ve great admiration for the performing arts course at WAAPA, and the work it does to train students across the range of disciplines involved in theatre making. Because of the mix of forms and performance it employs, Floor Thirteen felt like an extension of that work, and that training, rather than a fully autonomous production. .
Whether that makes for the best use of these talents, or whether it best serves the text, is an unanswered question.  I left Floor Thirteen feeling I’d like to see it again, but this time with just the story, the actor and the technician’s disembodied voice, to make that judgement.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Theatre: The Double ★★★★

Written and directed by Clare Testoni
Lighting designed by Rhiannon Petersen
Sound design by Jou Lui
Performed by Phoebe Sullivan, Amanda Watson and Michelle Aitken
Blue Room Theatre
Phoebe Sullivan meets her double
The Blue Room theatre has broken with tradition and combined both its 2019 seasons (not counting its Summer Nights fringe festival and Winter Nights development offerings) into one year-long celebration of WA’s independent contemporary theatre.
Whether that’s clever marketing or sheer one-upmanship, the fifteen productions from now until December shape as an impressive, attention-grabbing body of work.
And its opening production, Clare Testoni’s sci-fai fable, The Double, is a perfect pilot for the series.
Testoni has made a quantum leap as a deviser and executor of theatre over the past couple of years, exploiting her skill as a shadow puppeteer, image-maker and imaginative interpreter of fairy tales.
Through it her work has become provocative, sophisticated and highly entertaining. Her developing power was demonstrated last year by Tale of Tales, a highlight of the Blue Room season, and the startling intergalactic panorama she created with Tim Watts for The Last Great Hunt’s Stay With Us.
The Double is even more ambitious, incorporating digital imagery and masking in the Faustian story of a struggling actor who sells her image to a megalithic corporation, risking her identity and soul in the process.
It’s richly intriguing to see how Testoni has used her skills and interests in new ways, so that you’re rarely aware that The Double essentially remains puppetry and her story a fairy tale.
Her three actors, Phoebe Sullivan, Amanda Watson and Michelle Aitken, morph skilfully into the central character, Victoria, her computer generated doppelganger, Vivy, and the relatives and friends, agents and corporate geeks who regale her (Aitken, in particular, is strange and compelling).
We most often see them as distorted projected images, accentuating the shape-shifting, manipulated realities of modern marketing and image creation. Testoni, who also directs, handles the metatheatrics of this process with aplomb
The story progresses with unhurried clarity through all this technology and theatrics, even if it finally doesn’t yet quite achieve its emotional potential. It provides a solid platform for Testoni’s Cartesian thesis on the reality of self in a digitally generated world,.
In fairytales and science fiction, the creator has to go beyond present reality to fetch her story, but, for The Double, Testoni doesn’t have to go too far to find it.
So much so that I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched this pertinent and excellently delivered production, how Gabrielle Miller must feel when she sees herself, everywhere, as the Trivago Girl.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Theatre: You Know We Belong Together

Julia Hales
by Julia Hales with Finn O’Branagáin and Clare Watson
Black Swan Theatre Company
Directed by Clare Watson
Set and costume designer Tyler Hill
Lighting designer Joe Lui
Composer and sound designer Rachael Dease
Performed by Julia Hales, Joshua Bott, Patrick Carter, Tina Fielding, Mark Junor, Melissa Junor, Lauren Marchbank and Hermione Merry
Heath Ledger Theatre until March 31  

There is wonderful warmth about You Know We Belong Together. It envelops the audience, creating a shared, joyous experience of the rarest kind in theatre.
Its lead artist Julia Hales has Down Syndrome, as do her co-performers Joshua Bott, Patrick Carter, Lauren Marchbank, Tina Fielding, Melissa and Mark Junor.
Hales’s research into love and belonging for people with DS blossomed with the contributions of the writer Finn O’Branagáin and director Clare Watson into a genuinely impressive piece of verbatim theatre about life, family, hopes, desire, dreams and the part DS plays in all of them.
Much of the show consists of pre-recorded interviews with the performers about these life matters. (It’s important to realize that life expectancy for people with DS has gone from 25 years as recently as the 1980s to over 60 today, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges and opportunities.)
But let me dispel any suspicion that this is a dry, worthy, didactic piece – far from it. It overflows with happiness and real charm as these lovely and loving people tell us their stories. Some of them – the gorgeous romance of the Junors from Augusta is an outstanding example – are deeply moving; others are funny, sexy and sad.
It’s simply and shrewdly designed by Tyler Hill and lit by Joe Lui. Rachael Dease has composed an effective, unobtrusive soundtrack for the show. 
These are stories of people who are as whole and emotionally alive as any of us.
Hales’ obsession with the eternally-running TV soap Home and Away locates and drives the show. Her real friends meet in the Summer Bay café of her imagination; its beach and the real one near her family’s Eagle Bay holiday house fold together in her mind. Her own tragedies and the melodramatic happenings in the fictional lives of H & A reflect each other, and the final scene (I won’t spoil the surprise and sheer euphoria of it) wraps and ties a ribbon around this little gift of a play.
This season is an extended encore of the show's premiere at the 2018 Perth Festival. It's success there has also earned it a relocation to the mainstage Heath Ledger Theatre.

 It was a a delightful and touching show on its first outing (this review is essentially the same as it was then), and has lost nothing this time around.     

Friday, March 1, 2019

Theatre: RE-MEMBER ME ★★★★

Dickie Beau
Studio Underground until March 3

Lip Sync. That imitation of live we associate with Milli Vanilli and dreadful drag acts approximating what the mouth does when singing, oh, you know, Total Eclipse of the Heart. If you can’t sing it, sync it.
It’s not something that should be seen on polite stages.
Until there was Dickie Beau.
Mr Beau has made lip sync an art form, and he brings his extraordinary felicity with it to a riveting remembrance of Hamlets past that is, at once, a fascinating quiz show (whose was that voice?), a forensic deconstruction of actors and their most prized role and, ultimately, a sad, loving eulogy for a glorious talent lost to the scourge of AIDS.
He has interviewed actors, agents, directors and critics (I’m pleased he gives more recognition to the significance of our beleaguered occupation in the ecosystem of the theatre than is customary!) and plays their responses back lip-synced, with uncanny verisimilitude, every half-cough, glottal stop and stammer captured exactly. His recreation extends from the lips to the eyebrows, the tilt of the head, the gestures of hand and body to create an almost spooky facsimile of the original. The result is mime of a unique and daring kind.
It’s a great entertainment, of course, excruciatingly funny and camp, but it somehow transcends fun and games and, ironically, gives both authority and ephemerality to what is said and those who say it.
Two long sequences of Beau filmed as different people projected in a row (There’s Gielgud – the only voice Beau didn’t record himself – and McKellan, the agent John Wood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s dresser Stephen Ashby and the directors Richard Eyre and John Wood) speaking about the stage, and Hamlet particularly, reminded me of the wry and touching Nothing Like a Dame, with Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith reminiscing to camera, occasionally to each other, about life in the theatre.
For Beau to elicit his subject’s often raw responses, then capture them so precisely, is a singular achievement (even if the filmed segments occupy a little too much of the show’s hour).
When their conversation turned to Ian Charleson, the Scottish actor who became a star in Chariots of Fire and played Hamlet, memorably, twice before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 at 40, the show shifts into a lower, more sombre, gear.
Beau wanders the stage, fitfully trying to reconstruct figures from body parts scattered around it, while a figure of Andrewes lies on his hospital deathbed behind him. Beau is saying a lot here – about the transitory nature of life and beauty, about gay culture, about what’s real and what’s illusion.
If you’re not ready for it, it’s unsettling and indigestible, but Beau’s thesis, drawn from the character of Hamlet and that of those who play him – or lip sync those who do –is far more ambitious than first meets the eye.
I was startled, and thrilled, by the conclusion of RE-MEMBER ME; the great lines, not from Shakespeare, but from T.S. Eliot (who, as Beau reminds us in the programme, was no fan of Hamlet): 

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Dickie Beau will never be Prince Hamlet, but his peculiar talent, and the use to which he puts it in RE-MEMBER ME, shows that he is no fool.
 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Theatre: A Ghost in My Suitcase ★★★½

Barking Gecko Theatre
Heath Ledger Theatre until March 3

Perth’s terrific theatre for young people, Barking Gecko, has been a frequent contributor to the Perth Festival, and it’s only fitting that it’s latest production appears in a year that has seen something like ten “Made in WA” productions gather critical acclaim and, even more encouragingly, box office numbers.
A Ghost in My Suitcase deserves both. The story, adapted by Vanessa Bates from the novel by Gabrielle Wang,  of a Chinese/French-Australian girl, Celeste (Alice Keohavong) who returns with her mother’s ashes to the small town of her family and the house of her Por Por – grandmother – Madame Bao (Amanda Mar) in China is entertaining — for both its younger and older audience – and enlightening about the culture and mores of both our countries.
Her adventures, her rivalry and eventual alliance with Ting Ting Shen (Yilin Kong), the great-grand-daughter of the man who ruined her family, is told in a style familiar to lovers of Sino-swashbuckling cinema and the supernatural elements it often contains.
While the narrative falters occasionally, and the climactic battle is a little underwhelming (especially in comparison to what has gone before) and predictable, the story of ghosts, ancient feuds and the triumph of courage is well told, gripping enough and lots of fun. I’ll leave the details for you to discover when you go!
What makes this show is its gorgeous imagery projected onto boxes expertly manoeuvred into position on an otherwise bare stage, the expressive soundscape created by the ubiquitous Rachel Dease and the fine performances by all three cast members.
The cleverly devised, knockabout staging of the show by co-directors Ching Ching Ho and Barking Gecko’s departing AD Matt Edgerton is illuminated by the visual design of media artist Sohan Ariel Hayes, richly coloured and textured, evocative and often remarkably three-dimensional. One scene, as our heroes float through the canals of Zhujiajiao Water Town is as cunningly constructed as it is breathtaking.
Keohavong, Ma and Kong are all excellent, and well supported by Freida Lee and John Shrimpton in the plays minor roles. The lithe, athletic Kong, a dancer by training and previous experience, is especially effective in a performance straight out of the wuxia playbook.
A Ghost in My Suitcase has already gathered many admirers on its journey to the Perth Festival. The short season here will win it many more.   

Friday, February 22, 2019

PERTH FESTIVAL 2019


The Magic Flute ★★½
Komische Oper Berlin and 1927

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until Feb 23
This is the first opera I’ve been to. Ever. I’ve always considered it mutton overdressed as lamb.

The motivating reason I’m here is 1927, the innovative British theatre company who co-created this production with the Australian director Barrie Kosky,.
For newcomers to the art of theatrical illusion that 1927 specialise in, the staging of this Magic Flute is undoubtedly novel and exciting.
But once the novelty and excitement wears off, the exercise becomes disjointed, schizophrenic and, surprisingly, a little dated.
(Link here to the complete review)
 

Wot? No Fish!!  ★★★★

Danny Braverman
STC Studio until Feb 24
The stories of the great ones are carved in stone.
Around them teem millions of people with lives that pass unknown, their stories unnoticed and then forgotten, the evidence of their joys and sorrows, their increase and decrease, the circumstances of their coming and their going reduced to a few dusty lines in government files, a photograph album soon to be discarded or fading from living memory.
Since 1926 when he married his beautiful next-door neighbour Celie, Danny Braverman’s great-uncle, Ab Solomon, had taken home his payslip from the shoe factory where he worked, and given it to his wife with the housekeeping inside and a simple drawing or a painting on the outside.
Braverman tells Ab and Celie’s story in the simplest possible way, projecting a selection of these little doodles on a screen while commentating – and often speculating – about what’s happening in them.
The story of Ab and Celie that Braverman tells with good humour, taste and emotional precision is a window into the world of real people that will survive, in our common humanity, when all the statues have crumbled and there is nothing left of the great ones they memorialise but names.

(Link here to the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

Lé Nør  ★★★★½
The Last Great Hunt
PICA until Feb 24
Lé Nør is the most ambitious work yet by The Last Great Hunt. It’s also the first time that all six members of the West Australian company have combined their talents as devisers, operators and performers in one production.
The result is awe-inspiring.
Here’s the bare bones: Lé Nør is set on the imagined North-Atlantic island city-state of Sólset (from now on I’m going to dispense with the accents and umlauts; more on them later) that has endured a terrible seven-year drought that has reduced its inhabitants to water-hoarding, water-blackmailing obsessives. When the rains finally come, they keep coming. Before long the little island faces an even more existential threat.

That’s the last you need bother about the plot. It’s the how, not the what, that this thing is about.
It’s a deep dive into a world transformed by the lens of a camera; a stage show that becomes, more completely than anything I can remember, the Grand Illusion, the making of cinema.
It’s a technical achievement, with a personality and charisma, like nothing we’ve seen from a West Australian company.
With Lé Nør the Last Great Hunt have confirmed their individual and collective stardom, and their mastery of their craft. Now it’s time for the real fun to begin.
(Link here to the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

The Great Tamer  ★★★★½
Dimitris Papaioannou
Heath Ledger Theatre 

Dimitris Papaioannou, best known as the creator of the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, is by training and inclination a visual artist, and The Great Tamer is most satisfactorily approached as an animated work of art.
This is a world without words, and without narrative. It’s Plato/Socrates’s world of forms, of timeless ideas, of sight and appearance, the original Twilight Zone.
It’s Papaioannou’s playground; it’s where Estragon and Vladimir wait and Lear is exiled. It’s Beckett and Eliot and Shakespeare distilled, first into images and then to thought.
It’s no surprise, and no accident, that Papaioannou’s final image is of a skeleton breaking apart into rubble like a ruined Greek statue. It’s skull rolls off the stage and comes to rest against – a book.
Perhaps waiting, in the marvellous game of The Great Tamer, for a Danish prince to play with.
(Link here to the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)    
 

Opera: The Magic Flute ★★½

Emanuel Schikaneder and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Komische Oper Berlin and 1927
Directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until Feb 23

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. (There are quite a few of them, in fact, but more on that later).
This is the first opera I’ve been to. Ever. I’ve always considered it elitist, wastefully expensive and artistically heavy-handed, despite some gorgeous music. Mutton overdressed as lamb.
But here I am at the Maj (a woman all but next to me confided her ticket had cost more than her flight from Melbourne to see the show), feeling a bit of a fraud. If you want to stop reading now, I completely understand.
But hang on a second. The motivating reason I’m here is my admiration for 1927, the innovative British theatre company (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, The Animals and the Children took to the Streets, Golem) who co-created this production with the Australian director Barrie Kosky, and they had never seen an opera either when he approached them to collaborate on the project. Didn’t even know what The Magic Flute was.
So I may be a neophyte, but I’m not alone.
For newcomers to the art of theatrical illusion that 1927 specialise in (you only have to look as far as The Great Tamer and Le Nor in this Perth Festival for other examples) the staging of this Magic Flute is undoubtedly novel and exciting.
But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an end in itself.
Once the novelty and excitement wear off, once the sight of singers suddenly appearing like climbers clinging to a rock face who suddenly feel the urge to sing loses its impact, the exercise becomes disjointed, schizophrenic and, surprisingly, a little dated.
The pace of Paul Barritt’s brilliant hallucinogenic animations on the opera’s vertical stage is at odds with Mozart’s repetitive score and Emanuel Schikaneder’s plodding, ludicrous libretto. Left with too much time on its hands, even they become tedious.
There is also an overlay of references, from Mozart/Schikaneder’s Masonic rantings, Egyptian and Greek mythology and other baloney to Barritt’s Weimar/silent movie era/Disney (hence the aforementioned Dumbos)/Wizard of Oz/pop-art incursions that ends up being overloaded, messy and confusing.
It also leaves the cast (notably Kim-Lillian Strebel and Adrian Strooper as the Orpheus and Euridyce-like lovers Pamina and Tamino, Tom Erik Lie as the comic Papageno and Aleksandra Olczyk as the Queen of the Night – she of the glass-shattering aria) somewhat sidelined, like kids not picked for a game in their own playground.
In the end, despite some individual images that are genuinely astounding, despite some impressive singing (from Strebel in particular) and some lovely music, the result is less than the sum of its parts.
It left me, untutored newcomer as I am, in a strange state of mind: overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time.