25 November 2014

GET INVOLVED: What Melbourne loved, 2014

It's nearly time for the third "What Melbourne loved" series.

Calpurnia Descending. Photo by Brett Boardman

In the many years that I've been writing this blog, this is the most popular thing on it and easily my favourite thing to collate, edit and write.

It's open to everyone.

If you want to be involved (and haven't been emailed or joined the Facebook event), please send your contribution to Sometimesmelbourne AT hotmail DOT com. All you have to do is answer:

What was your favourite theatre moment in 2014?

It could be a show, a conversation in a foyer, a lighting design moment that made you shiver or anything.

And include a jpeg image with photographer credit (if needed).

The series will be starting in December and I can tell you that the first day will be cast members of Calpurnia Descending (which I suspect will get a mention or two).

What Melbourne loved in 2013
What Melbourne loved in 2012

Review: Calpurnia Descending

Calpurnia Descending
Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company & Sisters Grimm
14 November 2014
Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
to 30 November

Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo by Brett Boardman
As Pennsylvania Avenue opened at the MTC, I know I wasn't alone as I wondered why. But they've just announced extra performances, so I think we know the answer. Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened and restored the faith of us who wonder why mainstage shows like to be safe.

Calpurnia Descending has already had a run in Sydney, but this is the first time the locally-adored punk camp Sisters Grimm have had a main stage show in their home town. 

And it has enough subversion, heart and guts to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Like their maiden aunt at the MTC, Calpurnia Descending is also set in East Coast America, in New York, and also worships divas. Ash Flander's American hometown gal is as sweet as Bernadette Robinson's (but he's prettier; he's always prettier) and the Sisters knows that their Australian audience is likely to be better versed in popular US culture than by their own.

It starts with the simply-staged kind of show that would have worked as well in the days when the Sisters performed in the Collingwood flats' car park. Singing telegrammer Violet St Clair (Flanders) finds herself in the Miss Havisham-esque house of former-stage-goddess Beverly Dumont (Paul Capsis) and we're ready for a high-camp drag All About Eve. 

But the girlz know what we expect and expectations are damned as Sisters-founders Flanders and Declan Greene show us what they can do when they have some support and a mainstage theatre.

As always, director Greene is a step or three ahead of his audience and takes us places so unexpected that he makes it seem inevitable and obvious that much of it would be filmed live and shown on a giant screen and that it would be part-animation, part-game and part-better-than-any-mind-altering-drugs-I've-taken.

But with all its danger and manic thrills, it comes back to Capsis's Beverly, who can't find grace in ageing and would rather wear a wig cap than look at what she hides underneath her silk and wigs. As Beverly is faced with diminishing and no choices, Capsis is astonishing. There's an art to finding the heart in drag and no matter how grotesque and gut-hurting hilarious Beverly is, Capsis never lets us forget that she's real and hurting – and she remembers what it's like to be as pretty as Violet.

Along with the ever-wonderful Flanders and Capsis, Sandy Gore drags up as the manipulating men in Beverly's life and Peter Paltos proves that he would have been a matinee idol as butch as Rock Hudson were he born in an earlier time. They are all glorious.

Calpurnia Descending questions gender, sexuality, age and everything about our obsession with American culture. It even questions what belongs on a funded mainstage, while being one of the most exciting, smart and insanely beautiful shows on our funded mainstages this year.  

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Pennsylvania Avenue

Pennsylvania Avenue
Melbourne Theatre Company
13 November 2014
Sumner Theatre
to 20 December

Photo by Jeff Busby
Last week, Melbourne's two mainstage companies opened shows by Melbourne writers. Both directed by Melbourne directors and featured Melbourne performers and creators. Both were also set in the USA and based on US culture. But the chasm between Pennsylvania Avenue, at the MTC, and Calpurnia Descending, at Malthouse Theatre, is so wide that one can barely wave at the other.

Pennsylvania Avenue gets the Songs for Nobodies gang back together. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Simon Phillips and performed by Bernadette Robinson, Nobodies is a heartfelt work about five fictional nobodies who encounter five famous and broken singer somebodies (Garland, Cline, Piaf, Holiday and Callas). Each story is complete and uses the music and Robinson's talent to mimic to add so much to the stories about how nobody is really a nobody.

Pennsylvania Avenue started with the same idea and ran in the other direction.

Set in the Blue Room, another oval room, in the East Wing of the White House in Washington, it's the story of nobody Harper Clements who worked as a social secretary at the White House from presidents Kennedy to Bush jnr. She's well over 50 (the horror) and it's time for her to leave with her cardboard box of memories, like when she recommended that Marilyn Monroe take her knickers off to get a better line in the dress when she sang "Happy Birthday" to Kennedy and when she accidentally suggested to Reagan that "Tear down that wall" would help his Berlin speech. With photos of her in the background of famous photos, her story begs for more inside knowledge of the White House and the people who live and work there, and for a greater insight into her own politics.

But she's fiction. In all fairness, it's never claimed that she's real, but it was the question everyone was asking after the show because she seemed real enough to wonder.

So why this story? Why is Melbourne's flagship company commissioning a story that has no direct or even thematic connection to Australia? Apart from maybe the fact that side-stepping politics is easy. The post-show treats were even Budwiser and fries with USA stickers on the box.

When did Melbourne become the out-of-town try out city for Broadway? Because that's where this show wants to go and as a bland celebration of USA culture, it might run for years.

The inspiration of the work is Robinson and she continues to sing like the best. This time she sings the songs of people who performed at or visited the White House (including Monroe, Streisand – "she's Jewish – Vaughan, Kitt, Ross and Dylan – Bob). But while there was connection in Nobodies, there was little connection between songs and this character. And this time the mimicing felt weird. Why doesn't Harper sing as Harper? It felt like a drag show without any of the subversion.

Meanwhile, a couple blocks away at the Malthouse, Calpurnia Descending opened. It has already had a run in Sydney, but this is the first time the locally-adored punk camp Sisters Grimm have had a main stage show in their home town.

And it has enough subversion, heart and guts (and drag) to make up for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Calpurnia Descending review.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

12 November 2014

Review: Dreamers

8 November 2014
to 30 November

Photo by Jeff Busby

I wasn't in Melbourne when the Keene/Taylor project was the darling of this city's independent theatre scene (1997–2002), so it's a joy to see Mary Lou Jelbart's fortyfivedownstairs brings writer Daniel Keene and director Ariette Taylor back together with Dreamers.

Originally written by Keene for French company Tabula Rasa (Keene is loved in France),  Dreamers is about loneliness and the hope that can be found even when the isolation seems impenetrable.

Set in a low-income block of flats in any city, widow Anne (Helen Morse) lives alone and earns her living from sewing consignment garments. She's rarely interrupted, except when she catches the bus to babysit her grandson. At the bus stop she meets fellow residents including building foreman (Marco Chiappi), a former bus driver now ticket inspector (Paul English) and younger new-comer to the city Majid (Yomal Rajasinghe) who's looking for work.

Majid knows that people ignore him and move away because he's black, but Anne doesn't and when he's turned away at their local cafe by the waiter (Jonathan Taylor), she buys him a coffee. When their friendship develops, locals (Natasha Herbert and Nicholas Bell) are disgusted and her daughter (Brigid Gallacher) doesn't understand.

While it's a clear reflection on the many ways people hate each other for no reason, Taylor's direction – and an impeccable cast – never forgets that everyone is a likeable and loved person in their own way. With songs around a pianola and dances around garbage bins, the gentle humour makes it easy to see how hate can surface in the most everyday of places and in the most unsuspecting people.

The design uses the long an difficult fortyfivedownstairs space beautifully. Adrienne Chisholm's design incorporates the supporting poles and lets us see into tiny rooms and the whole block at once, with Andy Turner's lighting defining space.

While there are many angry plays about all the isms and how they are wrong, Dreamers is a gentle work about people; people who can always change how they see the world.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

11 November 2014

Review: Passion

Life Like Company
5 November 2014
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 8 November 2014

Photo by Ben Fon

I'm still having trouble believing that 1994's Passion is a Sondheim–Lapine creation, let alone that it won a small pile of Tony Awards. As it's so rarely performed, I'm not the only one who thinks so. New Melbourne company Life Like chose it as their debut piece. There are enough Sondheim diehards in town to ensure a sell out, but will it ensure anticipation for their next work?

It's 1863 Italy and soldier Georgio is having a happy secret relationship with married and pretty Clara. When transferred out of the city, he finds himself at an outpost where the only woman is Fosca, who's plainness hides her mental illness. She falls in love with Georgio at first glance and behaves with stalker-like obsession. Will he fall for her unquestioning, pure love or shoot her for being a freak?

Based on a film that's based on a book, Passion does away with subtext and complexity and delivers a passionless melodrama.

Of the many things I love about Sondhiem, his women fascinate me the most. The women in A Little Night MusicCompanySunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are complex and real. Fosca and Clara are women whose actions and thoughts are only those seen through the eyes of the man they are both obsessed with; they are creatures who exist only for him. And this reflection of the world isn't helped by the minor female characters played by men in hats in this production.

Life Like's design and direction are close enough to the original production (thank you YouTube) to please fans who have never seen Passion. But they don't bring anything new or exciting to this piece. It may as well have been a concert performance there was so little risk or real passion brought to the stage. It's not rarely performed because it's controversial, it's rarely performed because it's boring.

This was on AussieTheatre.com