DETROIT

Darlinghurst Theatre Co/ Eternity Playhouse

22 July – 16 August

Playwright – Lisa D’Amour

Director – Ross McGregor

Cast – Lisa Chappell, Ronald Falk, Claire Lovering, James O’Connell, Ed Wightman

Synopsis – Ben and Mary live in a decaying suburb hard hit by economic downturn. He’s lost his job and she’s discovered alcohol. They fire up the barbecue to welcome the arrival of new neighbours; a couple broke and fresh out of rehab. As the night wears on confessions are shared, inhibitions are shed and Bacchanalia ensues.

Review – In director Ross McGregor’s note in the programme he brings up several points of interest for himself on why he loves this play and the questions it raises. He also goes on to mention the asking of textural questions during rehearsal and the finding of the right answers within the play. I left this production with a lot of questions myself and they weren’t the kind you wish your audience to leave with. My questions were, ‘What was that about?’ ‘Why is it on this stage?’ and ‘Why did director and theatre company see the relevance of this story to their audience?’ Detroit is so clearly a story for an AMERICAN audience whose understanding of the history and plight for this city and their recession hardships is an integral part of, their, personal national pain and struggles, with Detroit itself having a long history of personal disintegration. Playwright Lias D’Amour has written a comedy sitcom style play full of sentimentality that is a heart to heart story about a part of her “American family”. This play is not universal and is limited by its context and its content which keeps it relevant only within its borders. I can not see why Darlinghurst Theatre company chose this production. Out of the wealth of material that is available I just do not see its merit for an Australian audience or stage.

I have made it customary to do my best to find the plays I review and read them before seeing them, I feel this gives me a stronger understanding of how the play is written in its format, rhythm on the page and the playwrights intentions within the text both in dialogue and stage directions. It also allows me to best give, I feel,  a more solid and accurate review on a directors interpretation of the work. Reading what I was able to find online, I got a good sense of what kind of play this was and my stomach sunk slightly. Darlinghurst Theatre Company seem to heavily favour American work, which is fine if that is their true mandate, but the negatives of choosing vastly American literature is the risk of choosing work that falls completely flat on an Australian stage. With actors who more than often (especially when the work is sitcom comedy) develop character work that is way over the top, hammy, obnoxious and linear. We all know American’s are loud personalities but the depth of personhood must not be sacrificed by being grossly over the top in dramatisation, there must be room for light and shade, the subtle notions live in all people. In this case with the characters of Detroit, I just did not get any true sense of who these characters REALLY were…which made me question what the story was essentially about, and ending with me wondering why I should care. There seemed to be a lack of exploration of what is NOT being said, which was troublesome and probably was the cause of clunky, awkward line delivery.

Act one provided plenty of laughs with one liners and physical banter that was impossible not to giggle at. The tempo of the comedy I observed started a little nervously and thought perhaps it would become more comfortable as the play progressed. Though the audience had plenty of moments where they indulged in the moment, the tempo overall felt off, with pauses that went on for too long, and actors who weren’t really sure how to deliver certain parts of dialogue. The text feeling rather racket balled from character to character and actor having a swing at it as hard and as fast as they could. Whatever questions were raised in rehearsals I’m not sure if they were really answered with full conviction; they didn’t translate well on stage at all, it was all rather awkward and unclear. Not being a fan of the play itself as it is on paper, it was a struggle to embrace it in its performance.

Act two of the production was flatter than the first with a long sentimentally detailed monologue delivered by Ronald Falk, which bored the audience and too appeared to bore the other actors listening on stage. There was nothing in Act one that set us up as an audience to give a care about what this character had to say, especially considering it’s the first time we knew this character to even exist, his stage time being a whole 15 minutes. A difficult task to do for any actor, to win over an audience with a monologue that paired as an introduction to himself that was full of his characters personal sentiments, memories and relations to other characters and to the city in question, Detroit. In my opinion this is a huge fault in the script which highlights poor use of exposition by D’Amour. The actions of both set of couples came across murky, dramatic tension was weakly milked which gave no room for the audience to grow sympathy for any of the characters. Most of all this play lacked any suspense that sparked the right questions for an audience or generated any curiosity or mystery within the comedy or the dramatic climaxes of the play.

Though all actors involved gave rather passionate performances, and the set by designer Tobhiyah Stone Feller was versatile and fulfilled the scripts requirements. This play lacked solid conviction, and understanding for the audience. You just really really needed to KNOW the context as an audience member to grasp its purpose for being…And though McGregor attempted to do this with a radio style sound scape as an interlude (as you will) it wasn’t enough to get the audience to a starting point of sensing the stakes or state of this place called ‘Detroit’ and the people who inhabit it. McGregor would have done best to take the advantage the playwright gives by placing this story in a town that an Australian audience, and his actors would have been able to grab hold of with much more conviction and understanding. Even better, chosen a different play entirely.

Photo credit: Helen White

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GRACE

Pulse Group Theatre

7-26 July

Play by Craig Wright

Directed by Billy Millonis

Performed by Joseph Addabbo, Jeremy Shadlow, Dudley Hogarth and Nikki Waterhouse

Synopsis –

Christian sweet hearts since Bible Camp, and wide-eyed married couple, Steve and Sara, put their livelihood on the line when they move from Minnesota to Florida to pursue Steve’s dream of opening up his own chain of gospel themed motels.

But when Steve’s plan starts to head on a downwards path, and Sara finds herself captivated by their neighbour Sam, an ex NASA researcher whose past has left him both figuratively and physically wounded, their perfections and faith are put to the ultimate test of fate.

Review –

Grace is the Actors Pulse Studios first inaugural production, which is great for the independent circuit which now has one more potential space to produce their work. Though there was nervous energy in the air with a slightly late curtain up, the nerves in the corridors did not translate onto the quaint Pulse Studios space. A terrifically cast production by director Billy Millonis, it was refreshing to experience well embodied text that translated into this casts physicality wonderfully, there was a true sense of diligence to their characters physical language not just their dialogue, it felt real and utterly believable, and not lazy which seems to be a common ‘thing’ in a lot of theatre I have seen lately.

Joseph Addabbo, plays evangelical business man, ready to build a host of Christian chain motels, Steve. Addabbo’s character has a relentless tactless drive about him, his saving souls mission and will to extract finances from whoever comes his way to help his own road to success makes for an eyebrow raising kind of character. Addabbo made this sneaky character impressively funny. My only gripe with these evangelical characters (in general) that are written into plays; un certain if it is in the text or it is a director/actor choice, is that they are always portrayed with a real sense of hyper reality/twilight approach in mannerisms and delivery. It maybe the result of researching evangelical preachers online or Christian TV perhaps and maybe not ever having personal encounters with evangelical christians in reality that causes this kind of person to be portrayed to an audience as members of society who are living in a bubble and on another planet to everyone else. I don’t think I have ever seen a ‘Evangelical Christian’ portrayed with out cultish perspective. It doesn’t make for an interesting watch in that regards as audiences seem to automatically get told that THIS character isn’t ‘normal’ this character has a warped sense about themselves, the world and others. Which is probably true in essence perhaps but makes for a very one-sided linear person. It would be far more interesting to see this kind of character less animated and caricatured, it would also make for a more grounded performance making the dramatic peaks more unexpected, and relatable giving an audience means to decide for themselves this characters social standing and human right. In saying that Addabbos performance was passionate and enjoyable to watch, I just craved a different angle than the same old angle that is taken with these “hallelujah” characters that causes audiences to alienate or write off the character too quickly.

Nikki Waterhouse, played the ever lovely and obedient wife Sara with clarity and charm. Waterhouse was delightful to watch, her presence and subtle approaches to physicality were genuine and lovely. I highly enjoyed watching her portray this character, she was captivating with a wonderful grip on naturalism. Waterhouse was gentle with her character making the moments where she punched it up a notch in dramatic tension evermore emotionally tangible for her audience making her character easy to believe and easy to love regardless of her characters naivety and weakness. Waterhouse is a talented actor who I wish to see more of in the future.

Jeremy Shadlow as the suffering and scarred neighbour Sam gave a hugely heartfelt performance, a beautiful ying-yang of gentleness and anger within his emotional and physical portrayal of this broken character. Shadlow and Waterhouse had a great chemistry on stage that made for an intimate performance that was blush worthy and real. Shadlow gave a performance like a Bull in a fighting pit, a calculated and powerful performer.

Dudley Hogarth, who plays an elderly German pest exterminater showed both his comical and dramatic abilities, giving the audience the best of both worlds making them laugh and successfully taking each of us on a storytelling journey that reveals horrific circumstances that pulled at the heart-strings. Hogarth is a seasoned performer whose wealth of theatrical experience and capabilities as an actor made his character a favourite and a crowd pleaser.

  
Director Billy Millonis did a good job in a space that is quite restricting architecturally. His staging choices at the beginning were a little unclear, as the one space which is left unchanged throughout was used as two separate apartments with characters walking in the space, sitting next to each other and moving in the space together but not necessarily in the same apartment as such. It didn’t take long to figure out that there were times his direction indicated they were in separate spaces and not in the same apartment together, it took a little figuring out. Once this was established it was much easier to understand what was taking place, the subtlety of this could have been tweaked slightly with stronger lighting choices right from the get-go as it was a little foggy at the start. The only other part of the production that made it lose its impact and rhythm was the scene changes which went on for extended periods of time that were slightly unbearable and interrupted the audiences focus which had them chatting between scene changes…not an ideal or wanted situation.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by Pulse Group Theatres first production in that space to the public. Grace is a well written play by Craig Wright with interesting characters and a gripping narrative. Strong casting by Millonis with strong believable performances from a gracious and committed cast. An enjoyable production all round.

BAJAZET

Pinchgut Opera

Angel Place Recital Hall

4-8 July

Music by Antonio Vivaldi (1735)

Libretto by Agostino Piovene

Conducted by Erin Helyard, directed by Thomas De Mallet Burgess, designed by Alicia Clements

Sung and performed by Hadleigh Adams, Christopher Lowrey, Emily Edmonds, Russell Harcourt, Helen Sherman & Sara Macliver

with the Orchestra of the Antipodes

Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Synopsis – The action takes place in the Royal Palace where Tamerlano is holding the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet prisoner, in the days immediately following the Tartar victory over the Ottoman Empire

Review – Pinchgut Opera are a dynamic young opera company whose mandate is to put very rarely heard of operas into the spotlight. I love how Pinchgut started out, over a cup of coffee with people passionate about their craft who had an idea, pulled a team together and just made it happen. This and their desire to expose Australian audiences to rarely performed ancient pieces is interesting and exciting. Their wish to allow the music be the hero and the set to be a non invasive support to the music, is also different for opera which as a whole as an art form is often extravagant in set and costume design. Reading up on Pinchgut was a rather refreshing discovery!

Bajazet is a story of power, empire, love, war and the survival of the fittest. Watching the story unfold was a captivating historical reminder that the times of 1735 (as when this opera was written) was full of such a vastly different set of social and political laws making those times seem like a fairytale. It had me thinking about audience perspective and how modern, current, gripping, maybe even edgy this would have been for an audience in those days who would have been influenced socially by this kind of story. I wondered how it would have moved them emotionally and what the impact would have been on them compared to us 21st century folk whom live with a whole other set of immediate and distant concerns individually and socially. Opera is a powerful art form, it is not everyone’s taste but it is impossible not to appreciate its ability to allure, captivate and transcend understanding through physical gesture and song. Like most music does it touches that mysterious core that lies in all of us soul and spirit.

Bajazet in the hands of conductor Erin Helyard was a real treat. Helyard in appearance and composure brought a youthfulness and unique style all of his own that beautifully contrasted the ancient instruments played by the talented Orchestra of the Antipodes. Helyard was sensational to watch, his conducting style caressed and snapped Vivaldi’s engaging score masterfully. Conducting has always fascinated me, this physical direction of soft sways, small beats and intricate commands for singer and for musician that completely inform how the music is interpreted and performed. Helyard did a hell of a job at not only branding this piece with his own unique pizzazz he honoured the ancient nature of the piece.

Bajazet too had a smorgasboard of fine opera singers whose individual capacity and vocal artistry was liquid silk to the ear. The dedication in performance and skill was breathtaking to witness especially when one does not see as much opera as one would hope, like myself, it makes the experience that much more heightened and brilliant. Musically Bajazet holds its own, unfortunately when it comes to the production side most predominantly in set and direction it falls short quite considerably. This is my first Pinchgut production but have viewed all their videos on past shows which showcase strong reflections of their mandate that set and costume not get in the way of the music, with Bajazet this was not the case, both direction and set were very much in the way of the music and I sadly can not sing my praises like that of conductor, musicians and singers. The set got in the way all of the way through, with unneeded set dressing, vastly un used and large props such as a giant empty book shelf that said nothing and added nothing to the story. The continuous and painful moving around of props were fidgety which often distracted from the action that was taking place. It was cluttered and not well designed, the colour scheme felt lost and at times the performers seemed stifled and awkward with so much to take on and off and adjust to. The sound of plastic cups bouncing off the floor in a moment of heated drama too was cringe worthy and cheap. I also felt some of the entries and exits of cast were confusing and random as they sometimes seemed to come conventionally through a door and then float through walls or gaps in the set. It was confusing with any symbolism really lost in the unclear execution. It just didn’t bring this Opera to life, less is most definitely more which most of Pinchguts former productions have done from what I have seen strikingly well. Bajazets set gave the eye nowhere to establish itself with items like the chandelier in the second act cutting off the subtitles from the viewer, becoming an eye sore rather than a powerful symbol.

Bajazet is high stakes drama lead by a company of musicians and singers that take you on a historical voyage that is both culturally stimulating and speaks to the soul. It’s a shame both set and direction did not manage to make the same impression. In saying this, Pinchgut Opera are a great company worthy of their audience and your time, I love what they stand for and what they set out to achieve.

AVENUE Q

Presented by LCW

on at The Enmore Theatre 2-18 July

Music and lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx

Book by: Jeff Whitty

Director: Jo Turner

Cast: Shauntelle Benjamin, Julia Dray, Kimberley Hodgson, Madeleine Jones, Owen Little, Matthew Predny, Nicholas Richard, Justin Smith, Riley Sutton and Rowena Vilar

Synopsis –  Avenue Q tells the timeless story of a recent college graduate trying to find his way in the world. Set in New York City all the way out on Avenue Q (he couldn’t afford anything better), we are introduced to fresh-faced Princeton as he struggles to find his purpose: meeting friends, finding love, losing love, and finding it again, along the way. Inspired by the beloved children’s show Sesame Street, Avenue Q creates a puppet-filled world that is a little more reflective of the difficult, R-rated realities that we face when we learn that real life isn’t as simple as we dreamed it might be – but perhaps, suggests Avenue Q, life is all the more colourful and worthwhile for it.

Review – It’s a big Tony winning Broadway musical, it’s American satire comedy, it’s R rated puppetry. Its music is top-notch, clever, funny and a huge crowd pleaser. Avenue Q is no doubt a success story. It’s autobiographical nature by musical theatre talents Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx make this show poignantly relatable to anyone who has gone through the reality ringer of their twenty-thirty somethings. The success is in its audience palatability and the bold concept of saying, (well singing out loud and unapologetically) the taboo topics we know we all think about but don’t always discuss around a dinner table. Songs like ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ and ‘Schadenfreude’ point out what we all can’t deny is a little bit gospel in our western society. All sung tongue in cheek and with Sesame Street influenced puppets, it is very hard to be serious about much unfolding before your eyes, it’s a complete cack! Avenue Q has been around the tracks awhile now, opening Off-Broadway in 2003, with much acclaim from American critics. I dare say specifically New York based musical theatre is often saturated in Jewish humour, which I always find kind of goes over the top of most Australian audiences and always feels way left field for an Australian audience. Regardless, this Australian cast did a smashing job at bringing this production alive crossing all their i’s and their t’s as you must with big shows like this. There is often very little room for changes, they are text-book productions. Some amendments were made to bring this American comedy a little closer to home, changing names from New York areas to audience known Sydney suburbs made original one liners go from potential flop to laugh. This was executed a few times, I can’t say I think it adds anything to the production except the cheap laugh which is understandable when a show is so far removed from its original climate. I’m sure the same methods have been done in other countries with this show, it’s not all in common. A stab at our current government got the biggest laugh of all, a tactic The Rocky Horror Picture Show also used which was received with applause by both audiences. 

The comedy though entertaining does feel like it’s beginning to become a little stale, the clichés are bulging and the shock value of the lyrics, (though no doubt funny) too feel like they are beginning to lose their edge with its age. Lucky for us as Australians the humour is not lost on us due to our exposure to American comedies like Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. We are accustomed/have an understanding of the culture behind the humour. It satisfied a lot of appetites that were there for a good laugh and a good time.

For a huge show that requires a vast amount of skill levels from its actors, this Australian cast of Avenue Q outshone themselves. Each cast member presented strong vocal ability, comic timing and smooth sailing puppetry skills. It was quite evident they were all having the time of their lives on that stage with no signs of opening night nerves. Stand out performers for the night was most definitely Rowena Vilar, who played with tremendous humour Asian cliché Christmas Eve, Vilar’s vocal range and singing ability is an envious talent. She showcased her strengths as a performer and a vocalist flawlessly. Matthew Predny whose puppet friends were Princeton and Rod showed versatility and a comic timing within his puppetry that was delightfully embraced by his captivated audience. Nicholas Richard too with puppets Nicky and Trekkie, displayed an ability to disguise his voice remarkably well to that of Sesame Street stars Ernie and Cookie Monster, superbly played.

Madeleine Jones, as Lucy T Slut/Kate Monster gave an equally humorous and well-rounded performance, also showcasing a strong vocal talent and puppetry ability. Julia Dray as Mrs T/Bad Idea Bear and Owen Little didn’t disappoint with their performances which were seemingly smooth sailing with strong stage presence and energy. Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman carried herself from strength to strength in her performance, she embodied the Diff’rent Strokes celebrity in her stride making for a laugh out loud performance. Familiar TV personality Justin Smith Brian brought a performance worthy of a laugh, showcasing his natural comedic ability with a comfort on stage that was grounded making for a likeable performance. A strong capable cast who showcased that Australia possesses a healthy musical theatre talent equal to their overseas peers.

All in all director Jo Turner and producer Luke Westly bit off a huge bite in undertaking a production such as this. With strong casting on their side and embracing the fun that the show represents have managed to pull together a professionally finished production they should be proud of. Though the show in itself as a book and musically feels like it’s beginning to date, you appreciate the originality of the concept and the cleverness in the shows execution. Well worth seeing purely for a laugh!