Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Theatre: Master Class (★★★★)

by Terrence McNally
directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher
starring Amanda Muggleton
and featuring Dobbs Frank, Kala Gare, Jessica Boyd, Rocco Speranza
Subiaco Arts Centre until December 17

There’s a transfixing moment late in the first act of Terrence McNally’s Master Class where the great diva Maria Callas stands caught in the spotlight, arms outstretched, with the balconies of La Scala, the opera house where she reigned as queen for a headstrong, headlong decade from 1950, projected behind her.
Transfixing, because the actor caught in that spotlight is the star Amanda Muggleton, and she is the queen of the stage she is playing on – the Hole in the Wall Theatre (now, prosaically, the Subiaco Arts Centre) – and has been since 1988, when Raymond Omodei (who was in the opening night audience) brought her to Perth to play Shirley Valentine.
And that is the hook of this show, and what makes it such a joy and a celebration despite what is often an overwrought and factually unreliable script.
Off the page it is a master class by the great soprano, now faded and maudlin, combative and overbearing. But it’s another master class as well. Muggleton’s.
She may have already outlived her character by, oh, a decade or so, but she is not faded, not a bit, and remains one of our most generous and formidable stage presences.
So it’s a sort of double act, Callas and Muggleton, and the actor displays her great gifts, an ability to both capture a character, to show us its height and depth, and to concurrently run a commentary on it in a kind of conspiracy with her audience. So a Callas aside, or a Callas trip into the audience looking for victims, is Muggleton’s as well. You can almost hear her whispering in our ear.
The mechanism for this removal of the fourth wall between us and her/them is the director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s literal reading of the master class – so we are at it, not at a play about it; we are characters, albeit passive extras, in the story.
Thus rendered defenceless, Callas/Muggleton have their way with us, cajoling and pleading, skewering their unfortunate students, the sopranos Sophie De Palma (Kala Gare) and Sharon Graham (Jessica Boyd and the tenor Tony Candolino (Rocco Speranza and Callas’s peers, including, and with particular relish, our own monumental Joan Sutherland.
The singers hardly get a note in edgeways, and the accompanist Manny Weinstock (Dobbs Frank) knows better than to try.
All of which leads to two marvellous set pieces where, with Callas’s recorded voice soaring in the darkness behind the spotlight, Muggleton first speaks the translated libretto of Bellini's La Sonnambula with all the passion and drama of the sung version and, later, uses the aria from Verdi's Macbetto to tell her own tragic story, the loss of her career, her lover Aristotle Onassis and her unborn child.
The music, which also includes Puccini’s Tosca, is gloriously over-the-top (and when the young soloists get to show off their pipes in the curtain call, there’s more Puccini  – yes, Nessun Dorma for the tenor – and the ridiculously impossible Der Hölle Rache from Mozart’s Magic Flute).
Perth is always a better place when La Muggleton is on one of its stages – especially this one.
Don’t be late for class.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Theatre: My Robot (★★★½ )

By Finegan Kruckemeyer
Barking Gecko Theatre Company
Directed by Matt Edgerton
Designed by Ilsa Shaw
Lighting design by Chris Donnelly
Composer and sound designer by James Luscombe
Robot designer Steve Berrick
Performed by Arielle Gray, St John Cowcher and Sarah Nelson
State Theatre Centre Studio
Until November 28

So much of children’s theatre – of all theatre really – is about the journey from here to there, from the unbearable past to a desirable future.
One of the things that makes the extraordinarily fecund Finegan Kruckemeyer’s My Robot different and interesting is that when the play starts its hero, the feisty, ever-so-slightly nerdish Ophelia (Arielle Gray) has already arrived at her destination – and she’s not at all happy about it.
She has just moved to the seaside with her parents (St John Cowcher is her father and all the show’s other characters – we never meet her mother) and while dad is thrilled by their new surroundings, Ophelia pines for the mountains and friends of their former home.
The play’s other point of difference is right there in the title. A functioning robot character called Olivetti (designed by Steve Berrick and wrangled by Sarah Nelson) is Ophelia’s sidekick and lifeline.
She finds Olivetti – or the pieces that will make it up – in a box in a dumbwaiter that connects her room to the café below owned by the haughty, censorious Ms Ogilvie.
Ogilvie’s stink eye isn’t the only challenge Ophelia faces. There’s the town bully, Otis, who wants to cajole her into admiring the seaside town while trying to get her out of it. And there’s her neighbour, Orson, whose allergies and agoraphobia shut him up in his room away from life.
But Ophelia isn’t easily daunted, and once she puts her toolkit to work and builds Olivetti, she’s a force to be reckoned with. As is the little robot, whose powers of telekinesis elicited gasps of delight from the young (and not so young) audience.
Things proceed in typically engaging Kruckemeyer fashion, with all the real set backs and hard-won triumphs he is a master of, until Ophelia, in true Grace Bussell style, daringly affects a rescue from the wild sea and brings everyone and everything to a highly satisfying conclusion.
There’s no beating Arielle Gray if you want feist, adorability and that pinch of nerdiness, and Cowcher shows yet again what a terrific character actor he is. They are both stars, and its wonderful to see them so committed in a show for children. Barking Gecko’s award-winning production values are all on show (Isla Shaw's storybook design, with Chris Donnelly’s lighting and James Luscombe’s music and sound), and Matt Edgerton directs the whole process with precision and ease.
It would have been nice if the budget could have stretched to a second character actor to create more colour and movement (and maybe allow mum to make an appearance), and Olivetti, achievement as it was, was a little cumbersome to excite an audience used to R2D2 and its lively successors.
Those minor issues aside, My Robot comfortably clears the bar set by what now must be regarded as Australia’s leading theatre company for children and young people. We should be grateful for having them here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Theatre: Let The Right One In (★★★★½)

by Jack Thorne
based upon the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director Clare Watson
Set and costume designer Bruce Mckinven
Lighting designer Richard Vabre
Composer and sound designer Rachael Dease
Featuring Sophia Forrest, Stuart Halusz, Ian Michael, Rory O’Keeffe, Clarence Ryan, Maitland Schnaars, Steve Turner and Alison van Reeken
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until December 3
The last production of Black Swan’s 2017 season marks the completion of the extended and orderly transition from the company’s long-time artistic director Kate Cherry to the leadership of Clare Watson.
During the transition, Watson has gained the trust and friendship of Perth’s theatre community, and, as her much-anticipated 2018 season demonstrates, her board and Black Swan’s sometimes tricksy and disparate stakeholders.
But can she deliver in her own right as the director of a whopping main stage production in the signature theatre of her new town? Well, as we have just discovered, 61.9% is the new benchmark for overwhelming success, and Watson’s splendidly executed and often downright thrilling Let the Right One In does way, way better than that.
We didn’t need to wait long for those thrills to start. The first sights and sounds – Blue Oyster Cult’s smashing Don’t Fear The Reaper (just the opening salvo of Rachael Dease’s soundtrack of 1980’s hits and her own haunting compositions), and Bruce Mckinven’s Rubik’s Cube of a set, animated by Richard Vabre’s lighting and Michael Carmody’s projections, set the senses racing, and the first scenes, an ominous voice-overed narration and, not long after, a bloodlettingly brutal murder, set the nerves on edge.
So, within minutes, it’s apparent that Watson knows her stuff and recruits her staff wisely. Within a few more it’s obvious she has cast just as astutely – and, in the case of her two young leads, with some inspiration.
The business in and around Mckinven’s cube by the cast, supported by Claudia Blagaich and Meabh Walton’s stage management, is adeptly paced, and Rohin Best and Tim Collins’s sound operation is of exemplary clarity and quality.
In such good hands, Jack Thorne’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and screenplay could hardly go wrong.
As much young romance and teen revenge tale as horror, Lindqvist’s story exposes the unpreparedness of smug, well-ordered suburban society to deal with that which lies beneath and beyond – be it phantasmagorical or all-too-human (as Edgar Cooke and the Burnies have shown us).
Which makes Let the Right One at its heart a grim tale, and Watson is wise to take it seriously. Sure the final flight of the young ill-matched lovers, the boy Oskar (Ian Michael) and the undead Eli (Sophia Forrest) after the destruction of their pursuers and tormentors has a redemptive quality, but the drained corpses they leave behind, and the hunger that will never leave Eli, are not a good fit for cartoon treatment.
Rather like Michael Lehmann’s ’80s cult classic Heathers (there’s something about that decade) it pays to play things straight, even when Eli is wrapped around her victims’ heads like an octopus and doing some extremely unwelcome necking (movement director Claudia Alessi and fight director Andy Fraser are kept busy throughout).
Rory OKeeffe and Clarence Ryan as the school bullies who make Oskar’s life hell are deliciously odious and ripe for come-uppance, while the seasoned core of the cast, Stuart Halutsz, Maitland Schnaars, Steve Turner and Alison van Reeken are exceptional without exception.
I understand that a vampire can only come in if invited, and Sophia Forrest’s Eli is certainly the right one. Tough and sexy, needy and very scary, she clambers over this play – and its set – with remarkable surety and athleticism. Ian Michael’s singular quality shines again here. He makes Oskar vulnerable, complex and surprising, and shows that weakness, like beauty, is only skin deep.
Let the Right One In is a mightily auspicious start for Clare Watson and the new phase of what is now her State Theatre Company. 
Don’t miss it.