Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: Furious Mattress


By Malthouse Theatre.

Furious Mattress is a fun example of the Family Comedy genre made popular by such Hollywood laff-fests as Uncle Buck, What About Bob? and The Exorcist. In these tales the comfortable domestic sphere of an ordinary family is sent spinning by the arrival of a wacky outsider who teaches everyone a lesson about life, love and the true meaning of family. Sometimes among the laughs there’s a more affecting moment or two in which a character discovers resources within themselves they never suspected of existing. Or, in the case of Furious Mattress, a giant rat crawls out of their nether regions and does unspeakable things to a man in shorty-shorts.

This is the kind of play that shows how funny violent and drawn-out manslaughter based on true events can really be. Reactions to this production have so far spanned the spectrum from WTF? to WTF? and I suppose my response is somewhere in the middle there. It’s definitely a confusing work of theatre, but I honestly think it’s a confused work, too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: Mamma Mia!


I call it Webber’s Inverse Law of Expectation: the more inappropriate a musical sounds on paper, the more successful it will be. Buncha cats jumping around to T.S. Eliot-inspired poems? WIN! Victor Hugo given an cheese enema? INSTANT CLASSIC! Neon dancers on rollerskates playing trains? MOST POPULAR MUSICAL IN GERMANY!

If you were feeling particularly belligerent and uncharitable you could point out flaws in the Law, but trust me: no one is above the Law. This is because it is what Musical Scienticians call a stochastic process, in which improbable successes alter the likelihood of future outcomes – the Law is constantly redefining itself. That’s why the proliferation of dumb-sounding projects (pretty much anything with “The Musical!” in the title) usually now end a little limply. It’s why things like Jersey Boys and Wicked can slip through the gate – even though they sound like perfect fodder for a musical and should therefore spin off into oblivion, they appeared after a period in which sounding bad actually sounded good – what is known as the Musical Apoapsis or point furthest from Webber’s all-consuming star.

All of this rubbish is really the only way I can explain the seismic disappointment that is Mamma Mia. The recipe is just right: the timeless songs of ABBA; a decent story with a central mystery and plenty of broadly-carved characters; a sunny, nostalgic setting amid the Greek Islands. But mix the ingredients together and it all comes off a bit like the time I tried to invent an original Swedish husmanskost by blending my favourite Nordic ingredients of sauerkraut, lingonberries and stewed brown beans and washing it all down with many hearty drafts of beer. My stomach felt as heavy as a flatpack IKEA set and the next day I had a personal encounter with Njord, Norse god of wind.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: Farragut North

By Red Stitch Actors Theatre.

Farragut North follows a pretty basic story: guy gets greedy, brings about own downfall. Universe also has it in for him a bit. I think this is what we call Tragedy. It’s what dominates narrative-based theatre and I was thinking about how we really are still beholden to the old comedy and tragedy models of narrative when it comes to theatre. Either people have differences and then get over them, or someone gets done over by their own hubris. Is that all we’ve got?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

An Interview with Will Eno

Will Eno is a playwright from the imaginary land of Brooklyn. He is best known for his international sensation Thom Pain (based on nothing) and has furthermore written a number of other works that have earned him a very fine reputation. He must not, therefore, be trusted. For it's often said that, due to their inherent moral poverty and actual emptiness of purse, earning the favour of playwrights is like taking candy from a baby. To this I agree with the following condition: only if it's a baby ninja. Because playwrights will appear all fawning and obedient to your face and next thing you know you're appearing in their latest High Street play as a clowning buffoon who spends all day sitting in his soiled underwear on the kitchen lino quoting Bertrand Russell. We all know this from personal experience though we rarely admit it in polite company.

Mr Eno was kind enough to engage in the following semi-mystical and emotionally charged exchange on the eve of an Australian tour during which he will hold masterclasses with some of our finest writers and also witness the Australian premiere of his one-hander Lady Grey.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: Lloyd Beckman, Beekeeper


By Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes.

The title of this one-man show didn’t seem very promising to me. I was predicting a show about a character who’s a beekeeper. I don’t think I was being unfair in this presumption and really, if I went to see a show called Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper that didn’t feature someone doing a large amount of beekeeping, I could be justifiably put out. But beekeeping didn’t sound that promising a hook upon which to hang a whole show. How wrong I was.

First up, this is a wonderful piece of theatre even without the bee biz. But I’m not going to lie to you: there’s quite a hefty bit of beekeeping and beekeeping-related behaviour involved. It turns out, however, that this detailed discussion of apiaries and extraction processes and the life cycle and social relationships of the bee is fascinating. The entire opening section of the piece features performer Tim Stitz as Lloyd taking us through an extended lecture and demonstration on honey-making and the sophisticated world inside the hive. It’s great. And it’s educational. Don’t scoff. That’s something rarely praised in discussions of theatre, but how often do you look at a show in advance and subconsciously think ‘I am going to learn nothing from this experience’? 

But all of the beekeeping gives way to a much larger and more emotionally focused work. Lloyd was Stitz’ paternal grandfather and through him the performer’s own family history is explored in a deeply loving but not untroubling way. I won’t give away the various painful events that Lloyd faced over his years but what is most striking about the work is how the focus is less on these events themselves and more on the way Lloyd (and his grandson, who is now playing him) reacted to these events, became shaped by them in ways that may have taken years or decades to become concrete.

The design is as affectionate and generous as the rest of the show, a wonderful evocation of a visit to an elderly relative’s home (complete with lollies and drinks and countless couches and cushions and armchairs). It’s one of those rare evenings where the little La Mama space is totally transformed into something else. Hurry up and see for yourself as it’s selling out fast.

At La Mama until Feb 14 with a few extra shows now on sale to keep up with demand - Acts of Deceit at the Courthouse has also been extended after the great reviews it's been getting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Review: Acts of Deceit


By Dirty Pretty Theatre.

Before I forget: this is a really very rather outstanding piece playing at the Carlton Courthouse. It's a play, a play play, so don't expect any radical experiments with form or anything. But as a play it's just superb and does well what straight-up narrative theatre does best.

It's adapted from a 50s novel by James Baldwin, although Gary Abrahams has felt free to take great liberties with the source material. This is for the best, as he's really distilled the core themes of the book while injecting certain new elements that make it fresh and contemporary. 

The story sounds pretty familiar on paper: a guy engaged to be married has a torrid affair with a barman (in Paris of all places) and then watches his whole life crumble as a result. Abrahams really gets into the emotional complexities of this scenario, though: each character is so much more than just a narrative function, and is rendered in beautifully contradictory detail. This is Abrahams first show as director and writer/adapter (I've seen him perform as an actor plenty of times, though) - he's most definitely worth following for his dramaturgical talents, if this one's anything to go by.

The design of the piece is lovely, with a soft chiaroscuro light that evokes an old sepia photograph and an unusually-arranged set that's quite effective. The performances, too, are really top notch, with special mention going to Terry Yeboah. Yeboah has always had promise but I've never seen him hit his stride the way he does here, with several later scenes that just tear you up.

Finishes this Sunday at the Carlton Courthouse, so get a move on.

Reviews: Writing Angus, Searching for David


Andrew decides to write a play in order to get over this ex-boyfriend who broke his heart. I know, I know, it’s one step away from writing poetry to express your pain at how your parents don’t really listen to you or let you go out on school nights. But let’s give our Andrew a chance. He begins writing a play about Angus who is clearly an ego-projection of himself and following the ‘write what you know’ dictum ends up penning a piece that is entirely based around ‘Angus’ inability to get over this boyfriend who broke his heart. I don’t think Andrew’s gunning for any Green Room awards or anything.

Anyway, it turns out that ‘Angus’ doesn’t really want to carry all of this baggage and so he becomes a character in search of a better author or at least a way to get over that terrible breakup (since Andrew clearly doesn’t want to move on but just keeps harping on about it). Woah! Self-aware characters debating the nature of their existence with their creators? Shit just got real, folks.

It would take longer to tease out the various complications and repetitions of Writing Angus than is really warranted here. It’s not the best show, but it’s of modest ambition (will Andrew get over his ex? is really the only question being asked). There’s a very youthful vibe to the affair which means that the lack of polish demonstrated by some of the performers is made up for by a lot of energy. The exception is Jack Angwin as Andrew, whom I saw in last year’s Short & Sweet and have been pretty impressed by. He’s got a good range and is worth watching.

Daniel Lammin wrote and directed the piece and it shows – it’s about half an hour longer than the premise warrants and could do with some serious dramaturgy. If we’re going to care about playwright Andrew’s deep emotional struggle for more than an hour and a half, we’re going to need playwright Daniel to write some really, really convincing drama. Sometimes he gets close: the scene where Angus and his ex go and have fish and chips on the beach is pretty good, and the bits where he gets hit by a Frisbee were cute enough without having to watch the character and author step back to discuss the writing convention of the meet cute. But then again, on closing night the audience was largely composed of people who couldn’t have been out of their teens, and the house was packed. They really seemed to enjoy it, which goes to show that even if you’ve seen something done often and better elsewhere, there will always be people who have yet to discover it for themselves the first time around.

At La Mama. Season ended.


By Out Cast Theatre.

Another show with writer/director issues is Steve Dawson’s latest. Dawson has been on the scene for years and has a strong reputation for producing Midsumma comedies that announce their intent in bold typeface: Big Dicks on Stage, Adventures of Butt Boy and Tigger, Four Queens in Hawaiian Shirts. I’m not sure why he decided to venture into strange new territory by writing a play about Michelangelo’s creation of David, and I’m not sure it works. Like Writing Angus, it’s a pretty modest little piece that’s entertaining enough. It’s hamstrung by some odd choices, however: foremost is the language, which is for the most part that kind of stilted “old timey” talk you get whenever somebody sets a scene before 1900. It’s like how in cinema anyone of any race speaking outside of a contemporary milieu does so with a British accent. I don’t know why ancient Egyptians, Arthurian knights and evil alien sorcerers are all supposed to have adopted the Queen’s English as a universal standard. But there you go. In Searching for David, this banter is occasionally interrupted by odd anachronisms, such as when a character compares something to a smashed crab, which is a particularly Australian colloquialism. 

But if you get past stuff like that (which isn’t hard), and the fairly stiff performances all round, this is a reasonably diverting number. I really liked the set and there were a few jokes that drew a chuckle. There ya go.

Mechanic’s Institute Performing Arts Centre, until Feb 13.