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.              

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Theatre: Bali (★★★★)

The Last Great Hunt
Written and performed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs
Subiaco Arts Centre
Until October 28
Chris Isaacs and Jeffrey Jay Fowler
The adventures of Corgan and Jimmy
Dinky-di tales of two true blue boys…

That mightn’t be exactly how the title song from Barry Humphries’ epochal ’70s satire “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie” went, but it’s appropriate enough for the continuing story of Perth’s BBSF and BBGF. And Now, like Bazza, the fag and the stag have that most satisfying of stamps of public approval – a sequel.
This time the boys are on Australians’ favourite holiday isle, but, of course, like 2015’s hit Fag/Stag, this is no mere romp in an exotic location.
Like its predecessor, Bali is a razor sharp, witheringly witty and technically brilliant take on contemporary Australia, its mores, expectations and hypocracies.
Chris Isaacs’ Corgan (the stag) and Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s Jimmy (the fag) are in Bali for Corgan’s mum’s sixtieth, and Corgan has picked up the tab for his skint friend.
As Polonius would warn you, that’s bound to be a risky proposition, and it gets even more so when Corgan’s GF won’t pick up when he calls her, and Jimmy has picked up a gaucho amigo who comes complete with a crush.
As things heat up around and between the boys, we learn a lot about both of them – and it’s far from fun and games.
It doesn’t pay to be too judgmental, though; if you don’t recognize parts of yourself in Corgan and Jimmy, perhaps you should take a long, hard look in the mirror they are holding up to us.
Isaacs and Fowler are fine writers and polished performers, and they smoothly, and hilariously, pull off the often-tricky feat of telling two versions of the same story simultaneously, like the Rashomon Effect on speed. The acrobatic dialogue, and the laughs, keep coming, even when their darker purpose is revealed.
On the strength of Bali, there’s no reason why, like Martin and Lewis or Hope and Crosby, Corbin and Jimmy, won’t pop up again.
When they do, I’d like to see Corbin given a little more smarts and awareness than he has in Bali; there’s a little gap growing between him and the vivacious Jimmy that could do with closing so he doesn’t become merely – forgive me for this – a straight guy.
But that’s a word of caution, not a criticism; indeed, there’s precious little to criticize in this stellar outing by two of the brightest stars of Perth’s stage.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Theatre: I Am My Own Wife (★★★★)

by Doug Wright
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director and sound designer Joe Lui
Set and costume designer Cherish Marrington
Lighting designer Chris Donnelly
Voice and Dialect coach Luzita Fereday
Performed by Brendan Hanson
STC Studio
Until October 29
(pic: Daniel J Grant)

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama; it’s perhaps a little more surprising that it won the Tony Award for best play the same year.
I say that because we associate the Pulitzer primarily with journalism (although its drama prize is an august award voted on by distinguished theatre critics), and Wright’s work feels as much a long-form character piece, in, say, The New Yorker or on This American Life, adapted for the stage, as a fully formed play.
That’s not to say that its subject, the German transgender personality Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, isn’t a fascinating character, or that her story lacks drama – the mere survival of a public transvestite under both the Nazi and East German regimes could hardly be without that. It’s more that its dramatic form is more akin to reporting a life rather taking us inside it.
This is partly because Wright’s narrative vehicle is the story of his research into, and extensive interviews with, Mahlsdorf shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wright’s various tribulations – his grant funding running out, his disconcerting discovery of Mahlsdorf’s connections to the Stasi – are incidental to the story and add little to it.
But left to her own devices – and those of Brendan Hanson, who plays Mahlsdorf, Wright and perhaps a dozen other characters in a tour de force performance, and the director Joe Lui, whose conviction and command clicks into gear as soon as they get her alone – the show lifts instantly and to great heights.
Hanson is a natural fit for Charlotte; he has the charisma and subversive Kit Kat Klub glamour for her (I can’t see the Emcee in Cabaret on his resumé – some producer has missed out there) and this allows him to give a surprisingly understated performance with moments of quiet tenderness quite without the histrionics and flounces you might expect from Mahlsdorf and the terrifying world she navigates through. Hanson is capable of hugely entertaining extravagance – it’s a credit to him, and to Lui, that this performance is almost entirely devoid of it.
This restraint is echoed in Cherish Marington’s set of high vertical panels that loom over Mahlsdorf’s domestic collection, and the little gay nightclub she operated in the basement, like the searchlight pillars of the Lichtdom at the rallies in Nuremberg (though, happily, there is not a swastika or hammer and sickle to be seen). Chris Donnelly’s lighting design creates angular glimpses of figures in side streets and cells, bursting into garish colour to frame the talk show interrogation of Mahlsberg’s ambiguous past.
While I Am My Own Wife could be a more dramatic and gripping play than it is, its window into the queer demi-monde of totalitarian Mitteleuropa, and Brendan Hanson’s marvelous performance, makes it a considerable success and well worth your seeing.       

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cabaret: Chiquitita and Fernando (★★★½)

Adele Parkinson and Darren Mapes
Downstairs at the Maj
4 – 7 October
The cabaret season Downstairs at the Maj is a welcome, and underappreciated, respite from the serious stuff up on street level. While a fair bit of its programme can be formulaic, it has a habit of throwing up little gems, sometimes from unlikely places.
Adele Parkinson and Daren Mapes’s Chiquitita and Fernando is one of them.
It’s fairly obvious from the title what you’re in for: an hour and a bit of Abba and a few bits and pieces of Scandipop from Roxette and Ace of Base, among others.
What you mightn’t have expected is its tongue-in-cheek shenanigans and a wacky story laced with on-and-off stage mischiefs.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Proximity Festival

Curated by Kelli McCluskey and Sarah Rowbottam
Cathedral Square until November 5
Tyrone Robinson (pic: PAVLOVA)
I’m something of a Proximity veteran, having tramped around the Blue Room, PICA, the Fremantle Arts Centre, AGWA and, now, Cathedral Square since 2012 in search of the amusement and however big a slice of enlightenment you can get from a quarter hour or so in the hands, or at least the company, of a single performer.
That’s the idea of Proximity; an encounter of one performer with an audience of one, multiplied anything up to twelve (this year a more manageable nine) times, in one precinct.
It’s a challenge for performers, their curators, Kelli McCluskey and Sarah Rowbottam, the producer Megan Roberts and stage management, led by Donelle Gardiner. There’s no disputing it’s also a challenge for the audience.
That challenge for us isn’t logistical – the Proximity team know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, and you’re shepherded from site to site with practiced skill and a small army of vollies.
It’s more about what you do when you get there. There are some pieces that require your proactive interaction with the artist, some where the artist leads and guides that interaction and some where you need only observe proceedings.
The trick is knowing what you need to do, if you need to do something, and the success of a piece often depends on how clearly that is communicated.