Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors by Craig Ilott and iOTA

Smoke and Mirrors by Craig Ilott and iOTA.  Directed by Craig Ilott for the Sydney Festival at The Famous Spiegeltent, January 6 – February 6, 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

This is the second time around for Smoke and Mirrors at the Sydney Festival.  It is definitely worth a return visit.  Refreshments served at the open-air bar from 5pm for a 9.30pm start, and queueing to get the best GA seats (be there by 8.45pm), ensures that the whole of Hyde Park buzzes with anticipation even while the band inside tunes up and rehearses.  It feels exactly like a Festival – just as it should. 

The mix of circus and song is held together in the story of a surreal dreamer – SS – whose fantasies of escape – running away to the circus – become smoke and mirrors, hiding reality as much as revealing, reflecting the mask that is ‘slipping from your face’.

The musicians, led by Tina Harris, are outstanding as composers and performers – not surprising when you see their training, qualifications and experience in theatre and film productions.  iOTA, playing SS, brings a certain Rocky Horror Show style to the character in his ringmaster role, but never in an imitative way.  Smoke and Mirrors is original work.  The tumbling, balancing and trapeze episodes are often surprising, even at times startling.

I think two women performers were the standouts of the night – Queenie van de Zandt as an ultimately sad seducer and Kali Retallack on the trapeze. 

By developing a character and using timing and mood, working closely with the band, Kali turned what otherwise might have seemed the usual kind of solo trapeze act into an expression of the show’s theme.  Her work was not fantasy – there was no safety net – but would we all imagine we would dare to emulate her skills?

Queenie’s final appearance, and especially the quality of her singing, was absolutely stunning.  Her last long note actually silenced the Spiegeltent briefly before a great outburst of spontaneous cheering and applause.

And yet, at the end of the night as we walked across a balmy Hyde Park, my wife and I recalled La Clique at the Sydney Festival in 2007.  It was more surreal, more original in concepts, the circus acts were more sophisticated, and Mikelangelo brought a greater ironic humour to the same basic idea – running away to the circus – than iOTA.  But of course it’s only critics like me that worry about such things.  Just enjoy!

If you haven’t got tickets yet, The Tix for Next to Nix booth is located at the bottom of Martin Place, near George Street.
When is it open?
January 9-30
Daily from 8am to 12 noon.
The booth will close early if tickets sell out before closing times.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Summer Bunch of Children’s Plays

There must be something about the summer, but in the past weeks I have found myself at three different children’s theatre productions.

The first, part of the Sydney Festival program for 2011, was Snow on Mars, staged at the Seymour Centre by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image and directed by Gale Edwards.

This production, filled to the rafters with lively children, was almost in the order of professional overkill, with highly skilled members of the physical theatre company Legs on the Wall performing death-defying (though thankfully with harnesses in place) feats to signify what astronauts do in space, and professional actors like Deborah Kennedy (a very young grandma) and Tom Burlinson (the on-screen Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas).

Carpenter’s trademark visual imagery was evident in atmospheric skyline and the tiny model caravans that conjured up a remote caravan park where 12 year old Waylon (physical theatre performer Rick Everett) plays out his dream of becoming an astronaut with his friend Gabi (Daniel Jackson) against an unstable family background. The acting team was completed by Elliot Weston as Waylon’s country singer dad.

The concept is Carpenter’s, the script is Richard Tulloch’s, their second collaboration for this company. Visually magical, Snow on Mars was conceived by Carpenter to be equally suitable for children and adults. I would question this, for while most adults who take children to such plays go in a spirit of good humour, the subject matter with its strong message of following your dreams, is plainly for the young. At one point for instance, the question arises as to what subject Waylon might follow for his school project. “Space!” quite a small audience member in time-honoured kids’ pantomime fashion. He was right, but the interaction belonged firmly in the arena of children’s theatre, quite unlike Carpenter’s play Little Beauty, created for Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010.

Back in Canberra at the Canberra Theatre’s Courtyard Studio, I tackled Free Rain Theatre’s production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, directed by Jordan Best. With a script and songs written by Peter Best, who composed the music for everything from The Adventures of Barry McKenzie to Crocodile Dundee and Muriel’s Wedding, it could hardly have gone wrong. Best, now a grandfather, addressed his play firmly to the very young and one of the most attractive features of the production was that it simply told a story through songs, so you knew where you were.

There was scope audience interaction, though such little children Where reluctant to warn the bears about Goldilocks or vice versa. The play was dominated by three very funny bears, (Jim Adamik, Kiki Skountos and Brendan Kelly) so that Alex de Toth, though ostensibly a child, was in danger of falling victim to the adage that one should get never act with animals.

Well-judged for its age group and totally without complication, Goldilocks and the Three Bears demonstrated how wise it is to use good performers when playing to the very young, and how in the end, this practice can not be called overkill. Children, as the cliché goes, are the audiences of the future and they deserve respect.

There is no mystery about the purpose of Snow on Mars or Goldilocks—both involved experienced performers putting on shows for child audiences.

Not so with Hansel and Gretel, presented at Belconnen Theatre by Ickle Pickle Productions. Here was young people’s theatre with a different purpose in mind—involvement.

Director Justin Watson has settled into a workable holiday formula which involves taking mixed casts of experienced and inexperienced actors and training them up to take part in shows that a largely aimed at sympathetic relatives.

We should not expect backing acting standards comparable to that in professional shows, so there are only a small handful of actors who really get into their roles. But this is a joyous experience to all those involved and you can see it in their faces.

With set designer Wayne Shepherd cooking up a fantasy Black Forest backdrop and Canberra scriptwriter Peter McDonald turning out his fourth play for the company, the stage was set for fun.

McDonald’s formula is to use a well-known fairy tale and update it, but in Hansel and Gretel he takes this formula over the top. The two little innocents are supposed to be from an impoverished family but this merely means their iPod batteries are running down. The Wicked Witch is really a frustrated chef determined on getting into Masterchef and any cannibalistic undertones are swept away in the parody. I found McDonald’s puns and corny jokes increasingly tiresome, but then I wasn’t the target audiences – the parents were.

Thesethree  very recent theatrical experiences had me thinking, for whom does children’s theatre exist? For eager young participants on stage? Floodtide working parents helping their children to an arts experience? Or for young audiences looking to experience the magic of theatre? The answer, no doubt, is all three.

-Snow on Mars, at the Seymour Centre by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, 7 to 16 Jan January.

-Free Rain Theatre’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Canberra Theatre’s Courtyard Studio, 13 - 22 January
-Hansel and Gretel, presented at Belconnen Theatre by Ickle Pickle Productions. January 14 -29.

Helen Musa

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bigger Than Jesus by Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks

Bigger Than Jesus by Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks.  WYRD Productions, Canada, presented by Sydney Festival and Sydney Theatre Company.  Performed by Rick Miller at Wharf 1, January 18-29 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 18

As a confirmed atheist, I think the god-botherers who were demonstrating outside the theatre when I arrived have nothing to fear from Rick Miller.  For me, however, his attempt to enlighten us about the truth of the Jesus story is disappointingly shallow.  The show is a great example of how cleverly devised theatre and skilful performance can impress and excite positive responses from an audience, even though the material is inconsistently developed.  I heard Canadian accents in the audience on opening night.  Maybe the most enthusiastic applause contained some degree of cultural bias.

Theatrically, the way Miller and Brooks (as director) incorporated live video, pre-recorded screen images, recorded sound, live amplification and unamplified voice was especially inviting.  Perhaps the most original device was to use three cameras set up in what looked like a laptop (really a box of props).  Miller could present himself as one character on screen front-on when facing the centre camera, talking to a different character when he turned slightly side-on towards another camera, while what we saw was both ends of a Skype session in real time.  Another very funny sequence was his presentation of the Last Supper, videoed live as Miller manipulated models of the characters.  It was like watching the makers of Wallace and Gromit at work and seeing the end result on screen at the same time.

Miller’s voice and movement work was also highly expert, enabling him to play a considerable array of characters from an unassuming Jesus according to John’s Gospel, a fascinating post-modern hot-gospeller (probably as mad as the John who wrote Revelations), through to singing the sentimental Jesus we know so well from Jesus Christ Superstar.  Seen from this point of view, Bigger Than Jesus, including the reference to John Lennon – another charismatic John – was consistently entertaining.

But I came away dissatisfied because Miller himself, or at least Miller in his role of Jesus watching all that has been done “in my name” since his birth in the year 4 Before Christ and the writing of the gospels by biassed supporters “between 40 to 60 years” after he died, appears to present Christ as if he is still around today.  As an atheist humanist I have no problem with agreeing with the message that we should love one another and behave towards others as we would wish them to behave towards us.  But Miller’s ending takes us back to the Catholic mass and the Eucharist ceremony with such feeling that I could not escape the idea that I was meant to put aside all the critical commentary in favour of simple faith in Christ and his message, as if this will carry the day.

I felt cheated because the work began by seriously criticising the likelihood of the Jesus story ever having happened in reality, setting us up for an argument which was never properly followed through.  It was as if Miller and Brooks had never understood George Bernard Shaw, whose St Joan proved that an atheist can appreciate the value of genuine religious belief. Bigger Than Jesus is a philosophical mess in comparison.

Interestingly, since the placards of invocations against the Sydney Theatre Company for presenting this work of the devil had gone from Hickson Road when I left the Wharf after an hour and a half, I can only assume those so bothered had either found out the truth about the ending, or, being post-modern themselves, had given up trying to insist on the absolute truth of anything any more.