Blame it on Frederick

It’s the end of the world in this brand new venue – Norm – in Brunswick, and two time travelling detectives arrive on a desolate planet to track down Frederick, the last man on earth.  And apparently he’s to blame for this apocalypse, a fact that, after a bit of poking and prodding, Frederick is only too happy to share. Told mostly in monologue and reenactments, Frederick recounts how his habit of seducing women at bus stops (especially the ‘crazy’ ones) and not speaking to them in the morning, brought about a mass revenge from womankind in the form of stealing all of the books from men’s bookshelves that were put there as a seduction technique to seem deep and sensitive to women in the first place, before hiring said books back to said men at hideously inflated prices.  Chaos ensues spurred by a galled patriarchy.

This show will not be the hit of the festival, but nor was it a show that fulfilled my worried expectations when I saw the space.  It is sometimes offputting for the front of house staff to be a vague presence, and for a free show to start fifteen minutes late, but despite a rickety start the theatremakers show promise, with some rather lovely passages, and a thoughtful concept driving the piece.

I would suggest that the actors should have been given more in developing their characters early on, as it sometimes seemed like they were being treated more as mouthpieces for the script rather than interesting characters in their own right. The projections, which seemed a cornerstone for this show were thoughtful pauses that gave the limits of the venue an extra dimension.  It is that distance between performance art, where actors as moving props is sometimes permissible, and theatre, where actors are integral to a complete performance, that needs to be worked on for new shows such as these.

The general execution of the show was indeed shambolic, but not unforgiveable, especially in the context of Fringe, when artists are supposed to be trying new things out. This was not groundbreaking theatre, but showed some interesting ideas that should be developed further.

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Life and Times (Marathon)

Nature Theater of Oklahoma, I could kiss your ten hour long verbatim musical disco soviet barbecue locked room alien abduction arses, every last one.  Life and Times, so far in four parts and on Saturday strung together into a ten hour marathon session covering the first 18 years of a subject’s life, kicked so many goals that it’s hard to know where to start.

The script for Life of Times was taken verbatim from a series of telephone conversations with a woman, asking her to tell the story of her life.  Every ‘um’ and ‘ah’ is there, and for the first two parts of Life and Times, the exact details of this woman’s life is turned into a musical.  But these are musicals stripped down to their barest forms.  Part one had the singers in soviet-style gymnastics uniforms, dancing and singing in no relation to what is actually being said.  The audience eased into the hilarious, confused stories that come when trying to recall first memories.

Part two and all the actors are dressed in colour-coded Adidas tracksuits, dancing still in a non-sequitor but slightly more interpretive way to the story of the same character in elementary school, moving on to junior high.  Some of the stories take on a darker tone as she starts to take part in the world, confusion and depression sneaks in.

Part three and four are mainly spoken, and the setting is changed to the recreation of a locked room murder mystery.  The actors recreated the dramatic tropes and characters of a classic mystery, while still speaking the script of the telephone conversation, the storyteller now recounting her final years of high school, her first boyfriend, drugs and alcohol.

It was by this point that everyone was slightly hysterical.  We had been living and breathing this show for a little over eight hours, with even the actors present for the barbecue dinner, serving us hamburgers.  Being submitted to so many hours of one woman’s speech patterns, her inflections, doubling back and recounting of key friends and relatives, made you think you were being brainwashed.  This, along with the wincing recollections of your own growing pains that the script inspired you to think of, and you were really starting to space out.  The ending was coming up, and it was impossible to think of how they were going to finish this. The reward the audience received for sticking by a now hypnotic storyline was a truly bizarre twist they pulled off completely ﹣ but you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how.

The Life and Times marathon was a once in a lifetime experience, beautiful and convoluted and simple at the same time.  There are plans to turn this into a 24 hour play, and when that happens I will be there.

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Freeway: The Chet Baker Journey

Chet Baker was the ultimate screw up – with film star looks, the softest voice and crooning trumpet, he was meant to take over the world, but instead ended up defenestrated before he was sixty.  In Freeway cabaret star Tim Draxl has created a retrospective work, channeling Baker in every way except for the chaotic and destructive persona that crept behind him his whole life, the ultimate example in modern society’s struggle to look at the ongoing feud between genius and disaster.

And Chet Baker was a disaster, churning his way through addictions, prisons and women, leaving his figure at the age of 58 ravaged and ancient.  It’s understandable how hard it was for Draxl, with a stellar cabaret background and astounding four piece ensemble, to cover the whole story to a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience.  The addictions and fast cars (and the emphasis by Draxl, whether it is to make him more palatable or not, is on the fast cars) shapes the Chet Baker legacy. To me the problem of Baker is finding a way to reconcile the smoothness, the coolness of his jazz with his troubled life behind the scenes.

Which makes Draxl’s position so difficult; his performance is engaging and flawless, and that’s just the point.  When the lights change and he becomes Chet narrating his life, you can see that he, a seasoned cabaret performer, understands, connects, with so many parts of his life.  But when he is narrating Baker’s life to the audience, and sometimes even when he is singing, when Draxl is singing Baker almost note and sultry-perfect, when he is scored along with is amazing, seasoned backing band, even though you are enjoying yourself, part of you nostalgic for why you connected with Baker in the first place.  Though Draxl and his ensemble give a remarkable performance, and the recounting of his life is informative without being overwhelming, when watching Freeway, you do find yourself searching for the more definitive cracks, that made the light get in.

Freeway played played in the Fairfax Studio at The Arts Centre.

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Tribes, as produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, creates an engaging family portrait that – despite falling into the pathways of constructed family dysfunction – constructs a narrative that reaches outside of the domestic unit and into the world of the Deaf community, reflecting the suffocation that sometimes comes with those who ‘try to do their best for you’.

An upper middle class family of Jewish intellectuals, the family unit in Tribes use argument and verbal patter as their main form of communication and identification. At least, this is the way they would all like to tell it, the exception being the youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts), who was born deaf and who spends most of the time sitting silently amongst the chatter – an act his relatives take for complicity in the family dynamic. This changes when he meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), a woman heavily involved in the Deaf community. Born hearing, but having deaf parents, she is in the middle of losing her hearing completely. This relationship opens Billy up to the Deaf community, which his parents have deliberately kept from him. In their view, connecting Billy with people who are like him would ‘hobble’ him somehow, pushing him down the path of hearing aids and speech therapy.

For many, this play would act as an introduction to the politics and prejudices surrounding deafness, as well as Deafness. Billy’s increasing awareness of how his family’s good but severely misguided intentions have caused him to miss out is thoughtfully set up in the first act – although the increasingly horrible commentary from his father, Christopher (Brian Lipson), on what he thinks of the Deaf community is often almost too much to take in order for a point to get across. But that is what this commentary, this talk, reveals itself to be; this bluster with lack of tenderness means that not only is Billy’s deafness discounted, but so are the opening paragraphs of his mother Beth’s (Sarah Peirse) first novel, and so are the increasing voices in his brother Daniel’s (David Paterson) head. The family is bound in the field of linguistic battle, but no ground is ever given in the name of empathy; they can argue until they’re blue in the face about the free play of signs and signifiers, but the only signing that Billy is truly interested in is summarily dismissed as a dull pantomime, a pale imitation of the English language.

It is the entrance of Sylvia that interrupts and awakens Billy, and Alison Bell encapsulates the heart of the show with her brilliant performance. Her character pulls all the threads together, with her knowledge of hearing and not hearing, as well as being the outsider who must be begrudgingly accepted into a home that defines itself through verbal cruelty, an act she equally dismisses and struggles to protect herself from. Bell has created a restrained and utterly engaging performance, gathering the audience as well as the family around her, hanging on her every word as she is transformed from a conduit for Billy and a representation of the Deaf community to the very woman who both embraces, and disassembles, the motivations and affectations behind the family’s very dysfunction.

I was greatly encouraged to watch a domestic ensemble piece coming out of the MTC. With an increasing, and occasionally worrying, trend towards spending more time on sets than scripts, this was an interesting and engaging piece of theatre, performed by a tightly bound, very talented ensemble that hopefully has scratched the surface of a few issues that, up to now, have not been properly explored. One jarring note was the ending, which felt oversimplified, in some ways embarrassing an up-until-then well written script.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

By Nina Raine
Director: Julian Meyrick
Set Design: Stephen Curtis
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer/Sound Designer: Tim Dargaville

Cast: Alison Bell, Julia Grace, Brian Lipson, David Paterson, Sarah Peirse, Luke Watts

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
4 February–12 March, 2012

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After All This

After All This is an awkward, yet ultimately brave attempt to deal with questions of morality and mortality. The work, which had a short season at this year’s Melbourne Fringe, was created by Elbow Room, who are devising a multi-part work over the next year entitled Now More Than Ever, of which After All This works as both a warm up and a component.

The play is in three parts. The first features two children, played by adult actors, dealing with the early fumblings of religious belief. The second deals with mathematician George Price, and acts as a precursor to the loss of his atheistic ‘faith’, and religious conversion after publishing an equation that attempted to explain the biological and genetic background to the concept of morality. The third deals with a mass suicide in the USA in the late 1990s. In this the cast explains, as a collective, that although their faith is strong enough to go to the ‘next level’, they cannot explain it to those who are not receptive, i.e., the audience.

The initial scene in the play was worrying to me. My pet hate is contemporary theatre and literature using the concept of ‘the child’ as an extended metaphor of some sort of deep seated modern existential crisis. The ultimate culprit of this is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, the ultimate children’s’ movie made for adults terrified of growing up. Both the opening scene of the play and the film make a misconception of the actual behaviour of a child. They do not go through existence with a sense of ‘wonder’; or if they do, seeing a toaster and seeing a unicorn exists on par. Everything is new to them. Surprise and wonder have to be justified to the letter to write from the point of view of a child, or else the purpose behind using someone that age becomes transparent – the writer, timid about becoming profound, worried about expressing any sort of concrete idea about the piece’s themes – mortality, morality, religious life – instead retreats into a manufactured innocence, as if they have forgotten the height and depth of emotions one feels as a child.

That being said, I was immensely relieved when we got on with the rest of the play. Although this withholding of resolution, or at least this lack of bravery in trying to come to terms with the questions being raised, permeated the rest of the scenes, Elbow Room were still posing interesting ideas, and did so with an excellent use of space. The middle scene about the mathematician was especially interesting in the sudden appearance of a Shakespearean ‘fool’, that informed both the audience and ourselves of Price’s fate. Evening out the delivery of some of the lines from the cult members would have been better in the final scenes, but overall – and playing to the impenetrable attitude towards the themes of the play – was effective.

I was greatly encouraged by seeing this production. A lot of contemporary art seems to be lending itself to superficial ideas or pop philosophy to reflect a fear of growing up spiritually. I felt that Elbow Room had the space to really go for it

in order to come to terms with their questioning of the human condition. Instead of pulling their punches, the company has the potential to knock us for six.

Rating: Three stars

After All This
Devised by Elbow Room
Dear Patti Smith, Lv 2, 181 Smith St, Collingwood
September 27 – October 1 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

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The History Operation

The History Operation, playing at the Lithuanian Club during this year’s Melbourne Fringe, is an interesting, if at times overly oblique piece of theatre following a mysterious man’s attempt to unpack a woman’s madness.

Josie is a shut in, completely immersed in a disturbed state that the mysterious Alan is trying to help her out of. Or so he tells Sid, Josie’s suspicious brother, who seems to have only turned up because her rent has gone unpaid and there are bailiffs trying to break the door down. Because of the oblique answers Alan gives, as well as the frequent interruptions of Josie in various states of distress, it becomes more and more unclear as to what is really going on between this trio, and why Sid has come to the house.

I very much enjoyed, to an extent, the vague allusions and inexactness that packed the script. It made the audience something that they are rarely allowed to be in live theatre – detectives within the story. Who exactly is this Alan character; why has the seemingly neglectful Sid appeared; why is Josie trapped in a historical fugue, a fugue that Alan, instead of trying to draw her out of, journeys further into with her? Sid’s accusatory tone towards Alan, unable to believe that someone is capable of acting out of the goodness of their heart, reflects his own feelings of guilt at abandoning his sister, especially when it is hinted that the reason for her madness lies in past wrongdoings on her brother’s part.

This vagueness and allusion, however, ended up going too far. We sat there expecting something a little more to be communicated, for us to be drawn into the story a little more past the initial detective story. If the whole unravelling of the mystery was never to be forthcoming, at least a better depth to the characters could have been given. Admittedly, a fair amount is revealed towards the end of the piece about the source of Josie’s madness, but again the dialogue, almost entirely written in oblique references, made this hard to follow and decidedly anti-climatic. Within this tailed off ending I got smackings of No Exit, or an attempt to hint at it, but with a dearth of hard questions on morality or human action, I was left dissatisfied with the attempt.

Rating: Three stars

The History Operation
Directed by Erin Kelly
Written by Tim Wotherspoon
Lithuanian Club, North Melbourne
September 23 – October 8 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

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The Accident

Solo performer Jonno Katz tells the story of two brothers through dance, mime, and onstage transformation with his one man show, The Accident. Sebastian and Roy are brothers, without parents and relying only on each other. Sebastian, the younger brother, is a street statue who is creatively stalling. He turns to Roy, who he worships, to fund a new conceptual installation: a shit machine, a working version of the human digestive system. Roy, who doesn’t see the art but sees dollar signs from commodifying the work, agrees, and proceeds to destroy the integrity of the project by selling off ideas and cutting corners. Meanwhile his girlfriend Emily is distraught at his less than elegant marriage proposal and Sebastian, in an attempt to be the good guy in the situation, makes it so much worse.

Katz is a consummate performer. His use of dance, clowning and physical theatre to dress the story is bold and expressive, often saying more in a few movements than the script itself. His use of a recurring motif – miming an old man with a walker moving towards a light – is a welcome pause in the show, although sometimes this over-enthusiasm for the physical makes the production more elaborate than it needs to be.

Reliance on pre-recorded music is always difficult, especially in a new space, and some of the choices seemed to drown out the meaning of Katz’s movement, or literally drown out some of the spoken word sections. It has obviously been sound-mixed to fill the (at first overwhelmingly) large space, but it is soon demonstrated why such a big venue has been chosen. Katz fills it admirably, but, dressed as he is – and with justification – in a white shirt and black pants, there is always the risk that he is about to plunge into the space and disappear.

The story that is told is interesting, if at times confusing, and juggling the demands of the script as well as the intense physical demands of the piece is a challenge that Katz rises to, but doesn’t always pull off. The portrayal of Emily is frustrating due to her often clichéd construction, which paints her as stupid, shallow and vain. There is more of an emphasis on what she says than physically portraying her relationship to the other characters, whereas a lot was revealed about Roy and Sebastian’s relationship by simply showing Roy stomping along in the park with Sebastian pattering after him.

If the execution of the story of The Accident had been pared down, and had the execution of the piece been a little less ambitious, this would have made for truly enjoyable theatre. As it is, it’s a little overwrought and overdone, but with great potential.

Rating: Three stars

The Accident
Devised and Performed by Jonno Katz
Directed and Choreographed by Irene Sposetti
The Space Dance and Arts Centre, Prahran
September 22 – October 8 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

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