Sunday, February 27, 2011

PIAF: Aftermath

New York Theatre Workshop
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Directed by Jessica Blank
Featuring Omar Koury as Fouad, Fajer Al-Kaisi as Shahid, Leila Buck as Basima, Maha Chehlaoui as Fadilah, Ramsey Faragallah as Rafiq, Rufio Lerma as Asad, Ryan Shams as Yassar, Ted Sod as Abdul-Aliyy and Rasha Zamamiri as Naimah.
Octagon Theatre
25 February – 1 March, 2011

An impressive thing happened at the end of Aftermath, Jessica Blank (who also directs) and Erik Jansen’s sombre recounting of the stories of Iraqis displaced by the 2003 invasion of their country and subsequent events.
The warm applause as the actors took their bows seemed to grow into an emotional display of fellow feeling that brought the audience to their feet. I think we were applauding the real people portrayed by the excellent cast and, for that moment at least, for us the actors had become the characters they portrayed. That’s a rare achievement for Blank, Jensen and their company.
The University of WA’s Octagon Theatre isn’t always a great drama venue, but in this case its other life as a lecture hall made the leap from performance to reality even more convincing.  
The other achievement that all verbatim theatre strives for is to make something that couldn’t be better created by documentary filmmakers, with all the resources they can bring to bear to the subject. In this Aftermath also succeeds impressively, in no small part because the spare design by David Lander (lighting), Richard Hoover (stage) and Gabriel Berry (costume) draws us into the reality of the characters and what they have to tell us. 
The actors, who sit or stand on stage throughout the performance, step into the light in couples or separately, sometimes with the translator, sometimes alone, to tell their stories. The effect is simple, stark, honest and convincingly untheatrical. Blank drives this home with the inspired decision to have the actors hold up actual photographs and maps to illustrate their stories. They are far too small for us to see any detail, but the tiny flash of a lost face, or the red slash of blood, is as heartbreaking, and more real, than a projected image on a screen.
There are four million Iraqis refugees worldwide, many living in neighbouring countries like Jordan, where Blank and Jansen recorded these stories. The people we meet – two couples; the cooks Fouad and Naimah; Asad, a theatre director and his wife Fadilah, an artist; Rafiq, a pharmacist; Basima, a wife and mother; Yassar, a dermatologist and Abdul-Aliyy, an imam – are introduced to us by their interpreter Shahid. Some ask if we would like coffee or tea; it is clear we are meeting people for whom ingrained courtesy contests with guarded caution as they greet their American interviewers.
They are of all religions and classes (though most are middle-class professionals), their memories of Saddam’s Iraq those of people who’d learned to successfully navigate the tricky, dangerous but ultimately manageable caprice of dictatorships.
Not all doom and gloom: Shahid (Fajer al Kaisi), Naimah (Rasha Zamamiri) and Fouad (Omar Koury) celebrate an Iraqi goal against the old enemy, Australia
Sometimes their picture of Ba’athist Iraq seemed rosier than we can accept, much like East German ostalgie. But, as Asad explains, it’s a symptom of a national post-traumatic shock: “If everyone has a problem, it’s not a problem – it’s life”.
Reality or not, it all ended when the American bombs began falling, when the streets turned to kill zones, when the police became militia death squads, when justice became a blindfold and a bundled trip to Abu Ghraib. The Saddam jokes Shahid tells become fantasies of a much darker cloth; even the glib, Westernised Yassar recoils when he hears George Bush declare that America will fight “the sons of Al-Qaeda on the soil of Iraq”.
Fear and disbelief soon turn to horror. The imam is imprisoned and tortured, a nephew is gruesomely executed in his home, an explosion wipes out a family and leaves the survivor disfigured and distraught.
Eventually they flee in the face of a simple equation: those who will kill you are your enemies, and in this new Iraq they have no friends. They leave their homes and businesses to looters and profiteers, their loved ones to the earth.

"I thank people for their feelings, but for 
some crimes, apologies are not enough"

Fortunately for our understanding of the enduring legacy of these terrible events, and the price we may yet have to pay for them, Blank and Jansen don’t leave Asad and Naimah, Fadilah and Yassar when they escape across the border. From their exile, they still have questions no one will answer, and a rage whose fires cannot be quenched by platitudes. Rafiq agonises over the murder of his nephew Akram, “I just want to understand. Who is the criminal? Who is the suspect? Who is the judge? Who is executing the case?” But Abdul-Aliyy goes an important, ominous stage further: “I thank people for their feelings, but for some crimes, apologies are not enough.”
Aftermath is unsettling and purposeful theatre, with messages we would be unwise to ignore. Other Perth festival shows will attract bigger audiences, but none are better crafted, or offer more rewards to those who visit. 

The West's Robin Pascoe was similarly impressed with Aftermath link here.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

PIAF: Trust

A project by Falk Richter and Anouk van Dijk
His Majesty’s Theatre
Until March 2

Hey, you! Turnstiles!! AUFWACHEN!!
Turnstiles was taking something of a busman's holiday, sans reviewer's cap, at the Maj on Thursday night.
Nevertheless, one line from Schaubühne Berlin's intense and striking Trust particularly stuck in the mind. Bob Dylan once declared that "money doesn't talk it swears". Thirty-five years later, Trust provides a cold, calculated update: “Money prefers to live on without us”. 
In this country we have so far been spared the worst horrors of the new politico/economic paradigm that has arisen since the GFC, which says bankrolling the big and wealthy is a virtue while protecting the small and poor is a vice. But that's perhaps a happy accident rather than the result of any humane intent.
It’s the consequent, grinding collapse of personal confidence and trust Richter and van Dijk record here in movement, music and words. 
Their technique (a dangerous one, I must warn you, for the sleep-deprived) is to elevate movements into dance, sounds into music and words into poetry through repetition; it gave the work a formality that survived even its sometimes chaotic action. 

The West Australian's Robin Pascoe link here and Theatre Note's Alison Croggon (link here to her reviews of both Trust and Aftermath) were there. 

PIAF: My Bicycle Loves You

Legs on the Wall
Directed by Patrick Nolan
Regal Theatre
Until February 26

Alexandra Harrison takes off in My Bicycle Loves You
Whether by design or happy coincidence, My Bicycle Loves You, the second of the Australian world premieres (shared with the Sydney Festival) that form the core of this year’s Perth Festival theatre program, has much in common with one of PIAF’s great successes, Donka: A Letter to Chekhov.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

PIAF: Martha Wainwright

Beck’s Music Box
February 21, 2011

Martha Wainwright’s career so far – the part of it that sells out two nights at Beck’s Music Box, anyway – has been a series of spectacular vignettes with a compelling back story.
Wainwright worked her way through 11 of the 15 tracks on her 2009 album of Edith Piaf’s lesser-known songs, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, á Paris. Two weeks ago, on stage in San Francisco, she conceded that they “get boring” after a while. She was right.
Things improved markedly when we were treated to some of her own material and a selection from her late mother Kate McGarrigle’s peerless repertoire. But there was too little of it, only a few songs, and we were back with more from the Piaf album to wind up the show.
I suspect, judging from the enthusiasm of the applause at the end and for the encore, that I may be in a surly minority of people underwhelmed by the show. I’m sad about that – I’m an unabashed fan and look forward to what Martha Wainwright does next.
But I’m more disappointed for the audience, not for what they were given, but for what they missed. 

Click here to read the complete review in The West Australian 

Monday, February 21, 2011

PIAF: The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac

Beck’s Music Box
February 18, 2011

Taylor Mac, the New York drag artist, charmed and (albeit gently) confronted a happy festival crowd on Friday night.
Choosing cozzies seemingly at random from a pile on the stage, and picking away adroitly on the ukulele, Mac worked through his themes of societal paranoia and the pitfalls of homogeneity with considerable power and sly theatre craft.
Sly, because Mac is often not what we expect him to be, and is often not doing what he says he is doing.
This is clear from the start, when he warned us that if we'd come to see a man in a dress miming Abba songs, we were in the wrong place. That established, he gleefully announced that he liked to kick things off with some jokes about 9/11.
There were no jokes about that hideous day, though; Mac used the mere threat of them as a jumping-off point to poke pins in the "bubble of preparedness" he said had been constructed around his country since.
Standing in a pool of white light that did not change or move all show (a metaphor for the past 10 years, he said), Mac took aim at the 24/7 media and ripped into the bible-belt States ("South Carolina is like Bunbury, or worse").
The Paris of the South-West wasn't his only local target; the Belltower ("People spend money on the strangest shit") and the member for Curtin also came in for rough treatment (“I'm usually a nice queen, but you guys are bringing out the beast in me," he chortles). During a scandalous song featuring the wife of the former US vice-president, Mac asked us to imagine Ms Bishop when he sang of Lynn Cheney.
It's these original songs that set him apart from his purported genre. This was no Danny La Rue act; indeed, Mac is really an artist in drag rather than a drag artist. A song flashing between the birth of a friend's son and his own sordid adventures across town, and a "list" song detailing the faults and foibles of past lovers, had the narrative counterpoint and attention to detail of the best Broadway lyrics.
At the end, after offering to swap "our" Bishop for "his" Palin, Mac sat, bald and exposed, on the stage stairs outside the pool of light to sing that we had nothing to fear but fear itself.
His message, and the way he had chosen to give it, finally became clear.
This was a fine and fun show, but it could have been much more — the Music Box is a perfectly good venue, but perhaps for a different kind of act. Mac suggested as much himself when he wondered aloud whether we thought we were there for James Taylor, not Taylor Mac.
I couldn’t help but think, a little ruefully, that across town in the fringe festival's Spiegeltent, Mac’s enjoyable and clever entertainment would have ratcheted up a pile of notches to be a powerful and memorable one.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian of 20.2.11 link here 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Perth Fringe Festival: The Freak and the Showgirl

featuring Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz
The Spiegeltent
February 14 - 20, 2011

Do you know how sideshows got their name? In a great carnival, rides and other respectable attractions lined the main thoroughfare, traditionally called The Midway, while the alleys that led away from the bright lights were the domain of the boxing tents and fortune tellers, the burlesques and bearded ladies – quite literally, the side shows.
Mat Fraser tells us this during a segment of The Freak and the Showgirl when it reaches above mere prurient curiosity and grabs our attention and respect. He recreates the life and act of Stanley Berent, “Sealo the Sealboy”, a 1930s carnival attraction afflicted, like Fraser, by phocomelia, with sympathy and insight.
From there, the show took off, and the more outrageous he and his partner Julie Atlas Muz became – and this is VERY outrageous stuff – the more the all-but-capacity crowd lapped it up.

Monday, February 14, 2011

PIAF: The Red Shoes

Kneehigh Theatre
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice
Designed by Bill Mitchell
Music by Stu Barker
Featuring Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska, David Mynee, Robert Luckay, Mike Shepherd with musicians Stu Barker and Ian Ross.
Octagon Theatre
11 – 19 February, 2011

Kneehigh Theatre’s The Red Shoes is a thoughtful and engrossing part of a Perth Festival drama programme that has made every post a winner in its first week.
The Cornish company’s singular house style arises because, in many ways, Kneehigh operates like an old world village, and its productions are that village’s morality and mystery plays. Their stories are drawn from folk and fairy tales (this one, of course, by Hans Christian Andersen) and performed, as it were, by the villagers themselves. One is reminded of the Rude Mechanicals and their Pyramus and Thisbe.
If Kneehigh is a village, though, it is one with some dark memories. As Emma Rice, the play’s adaptor and director says, “They have seen things they shouldn’t have seen. They need to tell the story.”
That haunted look, that remembered foreboding, infects the play. We have seen these faces before in our last, terrible century, in terrible places.
The actors, dressed only in grubby underwear volunteer to play the characters with more resignation than enthusiasm; when no one raises their hand, the master of ceremonies Lady Lydia (Giles King), the only character with a proper name, allots the roles to them. Their costumes, such as they are, are handed to them in old cardboard suitcases with their part (“The Girl”, “The Butcher”, “The Old Lady”) stencilled on them. When they are not in their roles, they hang about the stage, doing odd jobs, listening in, waiting.
The story is a familiar one: “There once was a girl. And she was pretty. And her mother died”. The girl (the mesmerising Patrycja Kujawaska), with her cardboard suitcase, drifts to the city where she is found and adopted by a rich, blind, old lady (Dave Mynne). The lady cleans her up (a hilarious shower scene ensues), teaches her manners, buys her clothes – and her choice of shoes. The girl falls under the spell of a red pair. A magic, diabolical pair. She chooses disastrously.
The girl dances in the red shoes, and scandalises the local church by wearing them to Sunday service. She flirts with a soldier (Robert Luckay), she dances as the old lady lies dying. The dance becomes her life; the red shoes will not come off, and she cannot stop. In pain and desperate, she pleads for help but none can or will be offered. In her extremity, she goes to the local butcher (Mike Shepherd) for the bloody remedy he can give her with his knives, saws and choppers.
But even then the dismembered red shoes still pursue her, dancing in the air around her as, in her wooden clog-feet and crutches, she seeks and fights for the peace and stillness they have taken from her.
It’s a sad and gruesome story, and Kneehigh tells it with candour and a certain kindness. We are permitted to avert our eyes – although not our ears – from the terrible act at the centre of the play, and the girl, although wilful and self-absorbed, is more a victim of the shoe’s allure than the author of her own downfall.
For that reason, I didn’t find The Red Shoes especially grim. Indeed, there’s great humour in the play, and it’s expertly delivered by Rice and her cast, most of whom are long-standing members of the company – Shepherd and Mynne since it started in 1980 – and deeply imbued with its performance style. King, performing in drag, has a louche glamour and a reassuring way of reminding us that this is a fable and a show, not life. Kujawaska, wide-eyed and wordless, can turn from entrancement to terror in a flash with total conviction; it’s a role that demands physical stamina and emotional strength, and she has both in spades.
The technical aspects of the production are nowhere near as rough around the edges as they appear. The music, performed live by its composer, Stu Barker, and Ian Ross, is seamlessly integrated into a pre-recorded sound design by Simon Baker. The costumes, though spare, are effective and efficient (there is much quick-changing needs doing). I’m not sure, though, that the Octagon is the perfect theatre for this show; it would have more impact if the audience was below the stage rather than above it in lecture-theatre seating, but we must use what we’ve been given in this town, so let’s not pick hairs. 
A last word about the play’s suitability for young people. Obviously there are “elements of horror” and it’s at times a harrowing story. I can’t, though, see why kids who are familiar with unsanitised versions of popular fairy and folk tales or the work of Roald Dahl or Lemony Snicket, let alone modern cinema blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, won’t breeze through without distress.

Link here for Robin Pascoe's take in The West.     

PIAF: Donka: A Letter to Chekhov

Written and Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca
Featuring Moira Albertalli, Karen Bernal, Helena Bittencourt, Sara Calvanelli, Veronica Melis, David Menes, Beatriz Sayad and Ronaldo Tarquini
 His Majesty’s Theatre
12 - 19 February, 2011

There are times in Teatro Sunil’s exquisite Donka: A letter to Chekhov when you can feel your heart literally rise in your chest.
Sometimes it’s because of the sleight of hand and body conjured up by writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca and his troupe of staggeringly talented acrobat/actor/clown/musicians. Sometimes it’s in response to the glorious music – performed live or pre-recorded – of Maria Bonzanigo.
Sometimes it’s the sheer beauty of the thing — the curtains and screens outrageously illuminated by Hugo Gargiulo; the linen, silk and tulle of Giovanna Buzzi’s gorgeous costumes.
Often it’s all of these, combined in service of Finzi Pasca’s light-as-air inspiration to create as funny, free and beautiful a piece of theatrical entertainment as you will ever see.

Click here to read the complete review in The West Australian 

Okay, okay, you can't please all the people all the time. Here's John Kinsella on Donka in The Australian.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Perth Fringe Festival: The Problem with Evil

Devised and performed by Leon Ewing
PICA Performance Space
February 9, 2011

The political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” while covering the 1961 trial of the Nazi monster Adolf Eichmann.
At the risk of trivialising her insight, the problem with Perth audiovisual performance artist Leon Ewing’s Fringe Festival show about evil is, also, its banality.

Monday, February 7, 2011

PIAF: Waltzing the Wilarra

Written and composed by David Milroy
Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company
For PIAF 2011
Directed by Wesley Enoch
Musical Director Wayne Freer
Featuring Ernie Dingo, Jessica Clarke, Kelton Pell, Irma Woods, Ursula Yovich, Trevor Jamieson, Tim Solly and Alexandra Jones. David Milroy (guitar), Wayne Freer (bass), Lucky Oceans (pedal steel and accordion), Ric Eastman (drums) and Bob Patient (keyboards)
Subiaco Arts Centre
3 Feb – 6 Mar, 2011

The world premiere season of David Milroy’s Waltzing the Wilarra is an auspicious start to the 2011 Perth International Arts Festival’s theatre program.
Set in post-WWII Perth, the musical drama tells of a mixed-race dance club operating under the watchful eye of its MC and manager, Mr Mac (Kelton Pell).
Mr Mac has reason to be careful; Aborigines live under a regime of curfew, identity paper checks, no-go zones and nights in the lock-up. The races mix rarely, apart from in master/servant relationships.
In the club, though, there are black/white relationships of other kinds, despite the opprobrium of society and the law, such as the marriage between the club’s Aboriginal star, Elsa (Ursula Yovich), and the deeply damaged returned digger Jack (Tim Solly).
Trevor Jamieson and Ursula Yovich are
stunning in
Waltzing the Wilarra (pic: Jon Green) 
Elsa’s Aboriginal stage partner, Charlie (Trevor Jamieson), has grown up like a brother to Jack but can’t deny or hide his affection for her. He, in turn, is pursued by Fay (Alexandra Jones) a white girl from the western suburbs who has been nannied since birth by Elsa’s mother, Mrs Cray (Irma Woods).
It’s a combustible mix, and someone’s bound to get burned. The first act leads inexorably to the tragic outcome of these tangled lives.
After interval we return to the club 40 years later and, for some minutes, we watch a young, pregnant woman (Jessica Clarke) re-arranging its furniture. It’s an oddly mesmerising ritual (the subject of much conjecture and debate after the show), but it serves Milroy and director Wesley Enoch’s audacious purpose of breaking the first act’s spell and preparing the audience for what is to come.
As the now much older surviving characters file in to a “reconciliation event” the day before the old hall is demolished, we find ourselves in a very different play. Instead of song and dance we have tightly scripted dialogue and biting social comment – nothing is sacred here, including “welcome to country” ceremonies and other shibboleths of the age of reconciliation. We have deeply-felt anger, grief and emotion as the characters work through the painful tatters of their lives towards truth and real, human, reconciliation.
This is a terrific, stylish production, and Yirra Yaakin has marshalled a powerful, charismatic cast for Enoch to work with. All the performers are outstanding, with Jamieson and Yovich remarkable both as the young, talented Charlie and Elsa of the 1940s and the haunted old couple half a century later. Most of the cast have star musical turns, with Clarke and Jones’s hilarious bathing beauty contest vamping and Solly’s striking Nick Cave-like ballad, “Criminal Love”, especially notable.
It’s always wonderful to see our National Living Treasure Ernie Dingo back home on a local stage, and he is his customary sagacious and hilarious self as the play’s chorus, Old Toss.
The music throughout is instantly memorable, especially in the hands of a white-hot five-piece band including Milroy and musical director Wayne Freer, along with musical luminaries Lucky Oceans (that man again!), Ric Eastman and Bob Patient.
The show looks sweet, the dancing’s elite, and the Subiaco Arts Centre space gives it just the intimacy it needs.
The raucous standing ovation and the contented look on her face after the show suggests that PIAF artistic director Shelagh Magazda’s last Festival has its first hit a week before it officially kicks off.  
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 7.2.11 here