No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Month: July, 2011

Review: Pie

Pie by Gabrielle Griffin. Photo Heath Britton.

In the house of a purple gauze tent, a woman (Gabrielle Griffin, who conceived, devised and performs the work) counts money and squirrels it away in a box.  Under the ticking of a clock, she pulls out a pastry dish from a draw in a wooden cabinet, its glass cupboards filled with eggs, and proceeds to make a pie.  Out comes a puppet (designed and constructed by Rid Primrose) who checks the money in what is her box, and administers Griffin for the few coins she has taken.

What follows is Pie: a play I don’t quite know how to explain.  Structurally, there is little in ways of plot.  In fact, I am still not certain if the show was essentially following a structured plot, or if the scenes were simply thematically linked rather than lineally. Either way would be justifiable and fine in the context of the production, but it is the ambiguity that is not resolved, an uncertainness of time framing which has left me puzzled.

A word-less performance by Griffin is supported by her tender, skillful and considerate use of puppetry (there was one particular moment where the puppet climbs a ladder, and the swing of her leg up a step, a slight reverb and then rebalance in the hip struck me with such humanity it would be mundane in any other situation), but without a narrative or a history to the characters or their relationship most scenes threw up more questions than they answered.  I couldn’t explain to myself what a Ferris wheel was supposed to represent; I was confused if pills were fertility pills or The Pill; I didn’t know if scenes were dreams or reality within this world.

I thought perhaps it could be the fact that reproduction isn’t a thought or an issue in my life at the moment.  But I don’t think that precludes me from the understanding of the subject matter.  It’s a work that would certainly be easy to have a response to if reproductive issues were front and centre of your life, but I don’t think that goes hand in hand with it being inscrutable if they are not.

Letting these issues go, though, the production sits within a attractive design, changing to create new interesting surrounds throughout the production.  Through the gauzed tent design (Gaelle Mellis and Wendy Todd), the lighting (Mark Penningon) refracts in such a way to create rainbows of light glittering through the walls.  The use of shadows, while sometimes enigmatic within the narrative, formed compelling images.  Black and white animated projections (animation by Luku Kuku, projection design by Cindi Drennan) are at times clear in their intent and purpose to the show (sands through an hour glass), and at times not.

Composition and sound design (Catherine Oates and Belinda Gehlert) used a variety of styles, from the ticking of a clock, to the tango, to fairground music, to differentiae each scene.  This sound aids in the movement and responses between Griffin and her puppet, and gently pushes the pace along.

At just under an hour, Pie doesn’t outstay its welcome: there is enough in the design elements and Griffin’s work with the puppet that the production is a gentile divertissement.  Yet, I came away with the pressing question: if I didn’t know it was about reproduction, how long would it have taken me to have worked that out?  In the scenes and the structure I unfortunately lost too much to really comprehend the story Pie was trying to tell.

Vitalstatistix presents Pie, conceived, devised and performed by Gabrielle Griffin.  Design by Gaelle Mellis and Wendy Todd; lighting design by Mark Pennington; projection design by Cindi Drennan; composition and sound design by Catherine Oates and Belinda Gehlert; rehearsal director and dramaturgy by Kat Worth; puppet design, construction and consultancy by Rod Primrose; animation by Luku Kuku; outside eye and dramaturgy consultant Maude Davey.  At the Waterside Workers Hall until August 6.  More information and tickets.

Review: Aleksander and the Robot Maid

This review originally appeared on

Aleksander and the Robot Maid, Drop Bear Theatre’s new steam-punk adventure for children explores a technologically advanced age. But, instead of the future, we’re taken back to industrial-revolutionist Russia in an alternative history: one with robots.

Young Aleksander (Tim Kurylowicz) is moving from the country to the big city Robotica with his guardian Miss Katarina (Sarah Lockwood). Here, they never need work again: the robots will do everything they require. While Miss Katarina cannot wait for her life of relaxation and luxury, Alek isn’t so sure: what will he do all day, when he has nothing to do at all? Aunt Lychova (Margot Politis) warns Alek of the dangers of getting to close to the robots, under the care of the menacing Mr Whipp (Andrew Brackmann) and tells him to take his peppermints for his health. Left without a father after a robot-mishap, Alek is at first scared of the robots, but then befriends one he calls Daisy (Carolyn Ramsey, remarkably expressive as she jerks around the stage, head concealed in a cardboard box.). Aunt Lychova is less than supportive of this friendship, as she strives to make Robotica the utopia she dreams it to me.

For ages eight and up, Caleb Lewis’s script directed by Ali Gordon, is frequently quite menacing, but always maintains a steady heart through the burgeoning friendship of Alek and Daisy. Lewis deals with many familiar stands of work for children, exploring the ideas of who and what exactly is human; what makes us us, and what defines the other?

Marin Curach and Tomy K C Leung’s set is simple, initially, as just a single box is moved around the space to create the different locations, and the strength of the design in the illustrations melding the industrialist Russia with robots shown on overhead projector by Matt Huynh.

In the second half, though, as curtains are pulled away and the set can literally come to life, the excitement of the script is finally realised in an excitement of design. As it stands, the production would benefit from some significant tightening and a slightly faster pace. The piece is at is strongest as Alek moves towards finding out more about the hidden side of Robotica, the secrets kept by Aunt Lychova, and the threat of robot-handler Mr Whipp.

Occasionally, the play moves off this primary line, spending too much time away from the mystery and the friendship of Alek and Daisy. Additionally, some ideas aren’t fully explained in the current script: it is clear that the peppermints Aunt Lychova forces on Alek have some quality which perhaps discourages a connection with the robots, but their purported purpose or action isn’t explained.

These are minor quibbles though, in a play filled with heart and joy of young friendship and seeing through the lies of authority and differences in status. Lewis surrounds this story with darkness and fear, and while he and Gordon do take the piece in to some very scary places, it’s an exciting and invigorating type of fright, where Alek’s bravery sees them through the day.

Drop Bear Theatre and the Seymour Centre’s The Reginald present Aleksander and the Robot Maid by Caleb Lewis.  Directed by Ali Gordon, composition by  Scott Gillespie, design by Marin Curach and Tomy K C Leung, lighting design by Sophie Kurylowicz, Illustration by  Matt Huynh, stage manager Lydia Nicholson.   With Andrew Brackman, James Deeth, Tim Kurylowicz, Sarah Lockwood, Margot Politis and Carolyn Ramsey.  In the Reginald Theatre.  Season Closed.

Thoughts: La Sonnambula

Or: Musings on an opera, from someone going for the first time.

La Sonnambula

For my first foray into the world of opera, I and a group of friends made our way to La Sonnambula by State Opera South Australia.  I mainly enjoyed the evening.  The design was gorgeous, the singing outstanding, the event fancy, but I came away feeling no connection to the (near non-existent) plot.

Designer Richard Roberts uses a wooden box set to create a simple canvas for all locations to be suggested though the use of set pieces and lighting.  The three wooden walls are made of separate slats, moved to create entry/exit points or to represent tree trunks in the forest scene, before the back wall is entirely removed and replaced with a turning mill in the second act to great effect.  Built upon the near-constantly revolving stage is a wooden platform, sloping down towards one corner, which helps to add a dimension of movement to this otherwise very static piece.

Roberts’ simple set creates a winsome frame for the performance, with scope and setting further added by Matt Scott’s lighting.  Scott subtly uses the lights to indicate passage of time – as the warm yellow of sunset melts away into the blues of dusk – and place – the forest of act two sees the stage awash in green.  Light focus is also used to heighten the tension of the romantic escapades.

La Sonnabula was written by Vincenzo Bellini in the bel canto tradition, which means “beautiful singing” (thank you, program).  The music is beautiful, with particular note going to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s string section, superbly lush under the refined singing of the cast.  Emma Matthews in the titular role is stunning, her high soprano voice playing over the music with ease as she seems to not pause for breath.

But, when you combine such beautiful music to what is really a terribly stupid plot, the piece fails to have any emotional resonance.  With such a strong commitment to the beauty of the music, even at times where there should be tension or stress between characters, Bellini never lets go of an elegance or a refinement which allows all emotions to skim along the opera at the same level.

Sitting in the gods, we had a good angle to take in both the staging and the surtitles without neck cramming.  I was shocked at how many syllables Italian seems to have.  Or, perhaps more accurately, how many syllables opera can add to a simple sentence.  It was some ways confusing: we are always reading a step or two in front of the action, and it was sometimes hard to differentiate which character was singing which line.

I spent much of the production surprised as to why the performers weren’t dancing.  When I sit in the Festival Theatre, it’s for the ballet more often than not, and with ballet being one of my great loves, I very strongly associate orchestras with the ballet.  I don’t think I’ll be forsaking my love of ballet (or theatre) for the opera anytime soon, but if the opportunity came up to go again I wouldn’t say no.

And now: A new adaptation!  La Sonnabula Abridged (and in English) 

The Players:

Amina – An orphan, and therefore the prettiest girl in the village. Loves Elvino.

Elvino – The wealthy catch of the village.  Loves Amina. 

Count Rodolfo – A count. Loves women.

Lisa – An innkeeper.  She wears red, so you know she’s a hussy.  Loves Elvino.

Teresa – Amina’s adoptive mother.

Alessio – A bit part.  Loves Lisa.

Notary – Old man, comic relief.

The Villagers – Slightly off their collective rocker.

Act One

Scene One: A pretty Swiss-Alpine hamlet.

Lisa: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me.  Why doesn’t Elvino love me like I love him?

Alessio: I love you Lisa.

Lisa: You’re boring.  Go away.

Villagers: Yay!  Amina’s getting married to Elvino!  She’s our favourite!

Amina enters.

Amina: Thanks villagers!  You rock!  I love you adoptive mother, because I’m an orphan.  Thanks for the music Alessio, sorry you got such a raw deal with Lisa.

Elvino enters.

Elvino: Sorry I’m late!  I asked my dead mother’s grave if we can marry, and she said go for it! Read the rest of this entry »

A brief note on our new ADs

I am so excited by the current changing of the guard in Australian theatre. I’ve posted links to speeches by Marion Potts of Malthouse before and I just find her ideas about art, theatre, and the creative avenues we can go down compelling and inspiring; a couple of weeks ago I briefly met and spoke to Ralph Myers in the Belvoir St foyer, a theatre which has such a strength in programming this year, and he had a fantastic energy about him and brilliant thoughts to theatre; and tonight, I again briefly met Wesley Enoch of the Queensland Theatre Company after hearing him speak on a panel on the ‘Significance of Indigenous Art in Contemporary Society’ at the Festival Centre, and he is bring such a strong vision and exciting direction to that company.  We might be at the start of something big.

Review: Speaking In Tongues

Andrew Bovell is probably Adelaide’s most well-known and respected playwright.  His most recent play, When The Rain Stops Falling opened at the 2008 Adelaide Festival of Arts, before touring Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, finishing in Alice Springs.  Other productions played in cities including New York and London, and perhaps most astoundingly, it will be getting a new Australian production with Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2011 – a second main-stage production of a new Australian work in just four years.

Speaking in Tongues is receiving somewhat of a revival this year in Australia with the 15th anniversary of its original production at Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney, and now playing at the State Theatre Company of South Australia.  With these productions helmed by the younger generation of directors with Sam Strong and Geordie Brookman, respectively, I think this truly marks the transition of the play into an Australian classic, taken into the arms of a new generation.

Bovell is known for his tricky use of language, his stylized and theatrical overlapping and intertwining of dialogue, repletion over scenes which sit lineally in a play, and scenes which overlap within it.  He deliberately withholds from his audience, secrets coming forth with the unwinding of the play and the densely packed dialogue.   But for this theatricality and coincidence, Bovell still manages to create characters that seem to naturally express themselves in their Australian idiom.

The play is best known for its adaptation in to the fantastic Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence, which takes the disparate and overlapping themes and stories of the play and shifts them into a linear narrative.  When comparing the film to the stage, it’s a beautiful representation of how powerful the characters and stories are when left to do their thing in a more traditional setting.  When comparing the stage to the film, it is a beautiful demonstration of how Bovell’s manipulation of language can enhance the stories of suburban Australia.

Lantana Movie Poster

But from these stories of suburbia, perhaps bizarrely, for Speaking In Tongues you need to almost disengage slightly from the dialogue.  From the back row of the stalls of the Dunstan Playhouse where I watched Brookman’s production, while watching scenes where the characters speak over and with each other, when straining too hard to figure out exactly which half of which couple was speaking which line, the overall feelings and intent of the characters is lost.  It was through stepping back slightly from the lines themselves, you can appreciate the characters through the actors’ presentation, rather than the true lines.

Perhaps it was this slight stepping back, perhaps it is my age and so my lack of stories of heartache and relationships, but I came away from the production having enjoyed seeing and listening to a great play (Australian or otherwise), but never feeling like I truly connected with the characters.  A sense of remove between the play and myself never left.

With a cast of four playing some nine characters, here some actors are more successful than others at differentiating between roles.  Leeanna Walsman is the standout in Jane and Sarah, creating the both most contrasting characters between acts, but also the most compelling.  From the slightly fuddy “plain Jane”, trying desperately to please everyone, as words and thoughts start to slightly trip on their way out of her mouth to the strong Sarah, confused about her choices in life, but not afraid to stand up and speak out for herself, Walsman simultaneously exudes the vulnerability of her characters, and the strength of herself as a performer.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid

"Do you think your wife would ever do something like this?" (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

The other three actors have the disadvantage of less contrast between their characters in each of the parts in the script, but, by the same token, don’t bring out as strong a difference as perhaps could be found.

Chris Pitman’s Leon and Nick speak with the same speed, pattern, and vocal inflections, with Nick transferring the vocals further up the nasal cavity, creating an all-together rather whiney man.   Pitman also occasionally has the tendency to ham things up: when Leon finds out he is talking to the man whose wife he slept with, the pain in his chest has him almost staggering to the corner of the stage.

Lizzy Falkland and Terence Crawford both give solid performances, but fail to be compelling.  Falkland’s Sonja and Valerie are both cold and removed from the other people in their lives, looking down at everyone with a clinical detachment, and an air of judgment in the same manner.  Similarly, there is nothing discernable between Crawford’s Peter, Neil, and John; his performances in all roles are fine (although at times an avoidance of eye contact becomes irritable), but simply fail to stand up to the neatly drawn differences Walsman has found.

The cast work well together as a unit, and there is never confusion as to who is playing what character: costumes are changed, names are used liberally in Bovell’s script.  It simply feels there was more to explore in the multiple roles than most of the cast have currently found.

The strength of this production lies in its second act.  Just on a text level, it is more satisfying, as the stories start to have resolutions and the strands pulled together.  But in Brookman’s production, it is also the second act where the design elements – set by Victoria Lamb, lighting by Geoff Cobham, and sound by DJ TR!P – are exposed to their best advantage.  Brookman’s productions always have an interesting eye to them, and this is in no small part to the design teams he surrounds himself with.  Cobham and Lamb are two of the strongest designers working in Adelaide, and working together here they have crafted setting of extraordinary beauty.

Lamb’s set seems to sit somewhere between old slate tiling, edges smashed away and chipped, seemingly exposing the granite layering as it moves towards the audience, and morphing into an old wooden jetty, smoothing away with age and sea salt as the flooring literally stretches up the stage, curving away as it starts to fade in to the back of the proscenium.   There is one moment, almost separate from the rest of the show, where during a set change the set is backlit in purple exposing the silhouette and the true craft of the design.

Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"She's not going to phone." (Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

As is to be expected of just about everyone involved – Bovell, Brookman, and Cobham – lighting is suitably moody.  Cobham lights with great dexterity as he lights the set and characters right down to hand-held bike lights, illuminating just faces in the otherwise dark.   While stunning to look at, Lamb’s set is stagnant and simple in its transformation between scenes, and the production largely relies on Cobham’s dynamic lighting to illuminate shifts in location.  An occasional shaft of light, pointing away from the stage, above the actors, and into the audience, can be distracting, but overall Cobham’s lighting brings a new layer of mystery to Bovell’s work.

After a noticeably quiet first act, where DJ TR!P’s composition is mainly incidental and playing between scenes rather than over them, in the second act the power of sound design is exploited.  When given this space to play with the actors and the script, rather than around them, DJ TR!P’s sound dramatically enhances the strength of Brookman’s production.  And here, where electronic music melds with instrumentals, where a deep thud can resonate throughout the audience, and where the breathing of characters eclipses the theatre – here, DJ TR!P can demonstrate the true power of silence.

As a stage play, Speaking In Tongues draws its strength from intersections of lives.  As a production, here it truly shines when the theatrically of Bovell’s script allows for the theatricality in the exploitation and integration of set, sound, and lights.

In Bovell’s script, the layers of incidental stories of one act are peeled away into the stories of act two, as lives intersect in ways that are seemingly of no great meaning.  But these stories have meaning, because they are the stories of another person – in this we explore outward layering stories of our world, one person’s anecdote is another person’s life.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"I have to go now." (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

But, for all this, here I never lost the sense of remove from the characters or production.  Speaking In Tongues is undoubtedly an important and interesting piece of writing; Brookman’s production has many strengths and I enjoyed the production, and especially the performance of Walsman.  I wonder if between the theatricality of the script and the theatricality of the production, connections with characters were lost.  I found myself distanced; perhaps somewhere between the dense script, the doubling of characters and the beautiful design there was room to pull myself back just a bit too much and so the total strength of any element wasn’t fully explored.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Speaking In Tongues by Andrew Bovell.  Directed by Geordie Brookman, design by Victoria Lamb, lighting design by Geoff Cobham, composition and sound design by DJ TR!P, chororaphy by Andienne and Andrew Gill, Southern Cross Tango.  With Terence Crawford, Lizzy Falkland, Chris Pitman, and Leeanna Walsman.  At the Dunstan Playhouse until July 24.  More information and tickets.

Breifs: A Cabaret Festival Wrap-Up

It seems time got away from me during the Adelaide Cabaret Festival!  I meant to be a lot more active in my writing, but life got in the way, and then this amazing opportunity came up and took out a slab of time.  So!  For the things that escaped my blog in the three weeks, we have today’s quick catch up.

After his fantastic opening night, Nadler continued his crazy antics in the piano bar.  I have had my fill of Somewhere Over The Rainbow for quite some time, but The Magnets certainly did a fantastic rendition.  Caught up with Adhocracy I didn’t see a lot on the opening weekend, but I did get to Ansuya Nathan’s Long Live The King which was a fine show marred by some terrible sound issues.

Nadler’s show proper of the festival was Mark Nadler’s Crazy 1961.  The most interesting part of the show was learning how all these historical events were linked at the same time.  I was surprised that I knew more of the history of the year than the music, and I wasn’t surprised that three of the four songs I recognised were from a musical (Carousel), a movie (Breakfast At Tiffany’s), and a movie musical (101 Dalmatians).  It was great to see Nadler in a different element, and a little more subdued than the Hootenanny (and wearing a suit and drinking water!), but then to see that same joy and energy come out when he truly got to pound away at the piano, and some craziness come out when he performed the top 50 songs of the year in five minutes.

Read the rest of this entry »

A quick exciting word.

I have a lot of writing to catch up on and post, which I will hopefully make a dent of this weekend, but first some news: I’ve had my first article published on paper, for people to pick up and read at their will, for all of July around Adelaide.  So, if you see The Adelaide Review lying around, make sure you pick it up and turn to page 24, where you can read all about the Australian Dance Theatre’s collaboration with AC Arts dance students in Worldhood.

A World Of Dance - Adelaide Review 2011

Alternatively, you can read the article online here.

As much as I love the power and the freedom of the internet, I am so excited to have my work in print.  It is truly astonishing to me.  Thank you to everyone who has supported me over the past year or so, I couldn’t have done it without you. Hopefully the first of many!