Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Theatre: Fringe World

Thanks to the nice folks at Artrage, Turnstiles got to take the Perth Fringe head on – twenty-nine shows between January 30 and February 16! I was never going to make them all but, aided by a vow of alcohol abstinence for the month, I managed a commendable twenty-two (plus a few PIAF shows). Some of my loyal handbags took up the slack when I faltered, and I'll shamelessly claim their insights as my own.So here follows  micro-reviews of those shows for your interest and information, along with links to full reviews in the West Australian and from other sources.
Let's start with three strong productions, two local, one South African, that closed out the fringe: the terrific and touching ...miskien (link here to my review in The West)  and the fresh and interesting Persians (link here  to my review in The West)  I also had a whale of a time at Pollyannathe latest outing by the crew that brought the world Alvin Sputnik link here  to my review of that one in The West. 
There is much to be said for deep conviction, and the British playwright Richard Fry, whose The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts is a fantasy on the wasted potential of young gay suicides, has it in spades. It's inspiring, if sometimes a little uncomfortable, to be exposed to such passionate commitment, especially when the piece (all in verse) spins off into increasingly wild speculation of a golden future age of love and kindness led by these same, lost kids, had they lived. I can't say it always worked for me, but you have to admire the attempt, and Fry's intense, heart-felt performance.  

I spent an enthralling hour at (or, more correctly, in) Proximity at the Blue Room, seeing (that's not exactly correct either) four of the twelve performances that make up this one-on-one experience. The pieces I saw, Russya Connor's How Close Do You Want MeNikki Jones's Ush and Them and Fragmentation 1.2 by Hellen Russo each affected me differently and posed different questions: as an audience member, are you an onlooker or a participant, do you acquiesce or respond, do you go where you're led or find your own path? Are you a judge? Are you a voyeur? All of which set me up for Janet Carter and Flush, where I played some brilliant hands of poker, but only after it was too late. 
Another Blue Room innovation for the fringe was New Two, a series of two-hander vignettes that concludes with performances on Feb 18. The three short pieces I saw last week, an extended skit called Oh, What a Busy Day by Siobhan Crabb and Isabella Moore, an undeveloped idea by Trushna Mahisuri and Michelle Sowden and an interesting, but barely-formed, work by Madelaide Paige and Renee Stanstall, seemed more an opportunity for some young talent to strut their stuff than a concerted and curated attempt to provide a genuine entertainment.      
Frisky & Mannish
The British duo Laura Corcoran and Matthew Floyd Jones have quickly become royalty in the new genre of fringe-pop, taking their Frisky & Mannish franchise to sell-out success around the world. The season of their third show, re-titled and somewhat localised for Aussie audiences, Pop Centrelink was no exception. It's loud, fast, supersmart and tight as a fish's arse (in the best possible way), so if you want to learn how to have a career in pop and see the next monster boy band created in front of your eyes, sign up now!
The retired salt who brought us Eric's Tales of the Sea – a Submariner's Yarn tells stories of his days beneath the rolling main that are amusing, and certainly interesting, enough. Whether they constitute comedy, though, is a nice point. They're more like an after dinner speech ("Go on, Eric, tell us about the time you jumped on a shark's back, mate!") than a performance you'd pay to see, at least without the aforesaid dinner first. Still, good on him – and the two other retired submariners in the room; I wouldn't do what he did, and is doing, for quids. 
Meow Meow
Nothing I could say would discourage Fringe dwellers from packing the Spiegeltent  for Meow Meow in Feline Intimate, and I haven't the slightest inclination to burst her ever-expanding bubble. The multilingual WAAPA and Melbourne Uni law graduate and now international cabaret star gleefully subverts the genre she celebrates in a sly rather than slick performance of high sexy quality. I've got the same reservation as others of my ilk (it's a longing rather than a criticism, really); she's such a fine, emotionally intelligent singer, of her own songs and others', that one day it would be nice to see her throw away the lingerie and gagging and just do some tunes.
The busy LA comedy trio of Richard Maritzer, Patrick Hercamp and Ryan Adam Wells, trading under the name Sound & Fury, bring Doc Faustus, their spoof-pastiche of the Faust legend and the Western movie genre, to the Metcalfe for an extended fringe season. They, like it, are amiable, seasoned and smart, but the show is hardly life-changing, and not nearly funny enough to justify its self-proclaimed soullessness. Both the Western and Faust spoofs sort of work, but only sort of, and their juxtaposition brings precious little new to the table.
You can hardly bear to look at Evelyn (Summer Williams) and Polly (Ian Bolgia), the sisters whose excoriating mutual loathing and dependancy is at the core of Polly's Waffle. The characters are display homes for society's obsession with pornography and gluttony, and while the show's limited vocabulary inevitably becomes somewhat repetitive and tedious, the energy of the incendiary Williams and Bolgia never flags.
Renee Newman-Storen had little but scraps of reviews and stories to go on when she brought the life of the forgotten Australian actor Virgie Vivienne to the Blue Room. From these bits and pieces Newman-Storen imagines a courageous, resilient and ingenious woman, and the tough lives she and those she came across lived. Virgie is a revealing look into our past that, unlike some other, bigger, productions, succeeds as entertainment as well as history. Link here to the complete review in The West.
Later in the Blue Room I saw Sleepyhead, a stilted and clumsily staged crime story set in an isolated farmhouse occupied by two girls and their abusive father. For all its maladroitness – and despite one irrelevant and unnecessary monologue that did nothing but leave you revulsed – it did develop a certain harrowing momentum, largely due to effective performances by Amy Murray and, especially, Louise Cocks, as the physically and emotionally damaged sisters.   
Neil Watkins

The Year of Magical Wanking at the Metcalfe is savage, obscene and confronting, and I hereby issue every warning about content imaginable, even for consenting adults.
So why is this a candidate for best show at this year’s fringe? Because, simply, it’s a beautifully written, directed and performed work in the great tradition of Irish theatre and literature. Composed entirely in verse, and recited with unhurried grace by Neil Watkins, the formal poetry of the language both undercuts and accentuates the sordid world it describes. Watkins’ spare elegance of physical expression – though his eyes tell a thousand stories – draws your attention to words and the cadence of his telling them with remarkable clarity and definition. His oratorical skill is so complete that for long periods you forget you are listening to a poem, until a beautifully placed rhyme or beat brings you back into the rhythm of the language. Link here to my complete review in The West.
There's not many comedians can claim to have changed the world, but Josh Earl, in his own small way, has done just that. As he explains in Josh Earl vs The Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book, his agitation played some part in the re-issuing of this towering cultural icon. In sixty minutes of tender, nostalgic humour and song, the baby-faced Earl explains why the book was and is important to him, and all of us. There were dollops of recognition and remembrance among with lashings of laughter in The Spiegeltent as Earl took us through every cake in this precious, irreplaceable bible of Australian childhood and parenthood. Link here to Craig McKough's take on F & M and Josh Earl in The West.       
There’s a line in Jane Raitt’s Checkout – the Musical that aptly sums up the show. It came 60 minutes in, from Rhoda Lopez: “We’ve been here for hours – I want out!”. Never was a truer word spoken.
Incredibly, this truly mind-numbing spectacle meandered on for another 40 minutes in the Treasury Postal Hall. What, at best, might have made a skit in an undergraduate review had somehow blown out into a full-blown chamber musical (it’s about various bizarre shenanigans at a supermarket, but you really don’t need to know). At least incredulity keeps you awake.
We hurtled bitterly towards the Treasury Cabaret and our date with Odette Mercy’s Heartbreak Dance those 40 minutes late. What a shame. Mercy is an engaging host, and the songs and stories her guests told of heartbreakers, the heartless and heartbroken were as stylish as they were varied. Particular highlights were the Adele-style belter from Clare Nina Norelli and a gorgeously bent, whimsically illustrated tale of schoolyard obsession and rejection from Briony Stewart.
Next up was Dirk Darrow NCSSI, the private detective spoof by comedian and magician Tim Motley – a winner from start to finish. Motley looks like Brad Pitt playing Maxwell Smart and sounds like Lionel Hutz, and he, and we, had tons of fun with the genre and the sly sounding-board it gave him for observations about his native America, his adopted Australia and the audience members he gently victimised.
Back into the Treasury Cabaret for The Burlesque Garden. Sadly, you could see the performers’ heads – just – over the people in front of you, but at a burlesque show that rather, um, misses the point. Some overbearing, unfunny introductions by MC Lady Velvet Cabaret didn’t help matters much. Link here for the full story of my Treasury marathon.
The real half-brothers who, as the fictional half-brothers Fletcher Jones and Roger David, make up Smart Casual may not exactly be Australia’s answer to Flight of the Conchords, but they give it a red hot go. Their show, Brothers with Arms, also at the Metcalfe, was funny, polished and affecting. Great songs too.
Link here and here to Belle Taylor’s reviews of both Doc Faustus and Brothers with Arms in The West. 
  The LA-based comedy writer Brian Finkelstein's (Ellen, The Moth LA) stories of the three strikes he participated in - at a Pepsi plant, a Ralph's supermarket and, most famously, the Hollywood writer's strike of 2007/8 – are hilarious, sardonic yet surprisingly sincere. Surprising only because, like Larry David, he decidedly doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, but it's in good working order throughout. His occasional forays into the history of U.S. strikes may go over a few heads, but back in the here and now, Three Strikes at PICA was a winner from go to whoa.  
The talented actor James Helm and director Michael McCall do their level best, but Missing, at the Blue Room, lacked both accuracy and engagement. No-one says you have to like Jack Murphy, the play's supposedly homeless anti-hero, but you've got to feel something for him. Basically, he's a boring wanker, and I was glad to be finished with him.
I was sorry to hand my copper's badge from Pollyanna in (and along with it, metaphorically, my Fringe World media pass). The whole fringe festival, often good, occasionally bad and very rarely ugly,  was an unpredictable adventure I’ve greatly enjoyed being on. It was great to see that, judging by the crowds pouring in and out of venues and enjoying the fringe watering holes (if only), I was far from alone.


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