News, Performing arts, Puppet theatre, Reviews, Theatre

Chilling consequences superbly rendered

Review: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre and WAAPA 3rd year performance makers, Life on Earth ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, 2 November ·
Review by Steven Cohen ·

The earth is fragile. So are we. So is a puppet.

The timing is conspicuous. A series of short vignettes that acquire a cold and earnest insistence. The audience, quiet and still, silently gasps at the state of our Earth and the consequences of failing to look after it.

Such discomforting scenes form Life on Earth, a work of puppet theatre that had an all-too-brief season at Fremantle’s Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, October 30 – November 2. Directed by veteran puppeteer and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre associate director Michael Barlow, and performed by the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’ graduating Performance Making students, Life on Earth is a master showing of recontextualization, animation and creation.

‘Life on Earth’ is a master showing of recontextualization, animation and creation. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Indeed, the name of the show conjures up images of David Attenborough’s close encounter with a group of gorillas. At the time, Attenborough famously suggested that despite our projection of gorillas as dangerous and foreboding, it is in fact humans who are the most destructive and aggressive of all creatures.

This is what the puppets were saying.

Certainly, most of this 80-minute production — short scenes enacted by a variety of puppets manipulated by a visible team of performers — suggests a critical take on universal themes: of love, and connection.

Youthful dinner party guests paying homage to themselves. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography
.

The participants in a youthful dinner party, replete with chic and bonhomie, pay homage to themselves; two charming women engage in a slow lovers’ embrace; a child is born and then catastrophically handed away (or dies?); two men vie for the love of a beautiful woman, which increasingly agitates warfare and culminates in the piercing of cupid’s arrow; a man – like many men – embarrassingly attempts to engage with an exotic and alluring woman.

The delightful couple seated next to me watched these pursuits with hands clasped, chuckling, aware of their own love. Like everyone, they were silent, their embrace more conscious when the stage turned to mist and a seahorse meandered, terrified and tangled in a plastic sheet.

More was to come. A horrifying ending where misunderstanding and ego resulted in the performers falling over, one by one, as the last voice trailed off into a murky and deleterious end.

The success of this work lies in the simplicity of its observation. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Life on Earth – while harrowing at any point during the last two centuries, is particularly traumatic as we selfishly engage in epochal conflict and harm to our home. The success of this work lies in the simplicity of its observation: that we stand to lose all that makes life worthwhile – love and the lightness of just “being”.

The tone of Life on Earth is chillingly gruesome, unfolding as a pessimistic registry of slaughter and vivisection, in which classic love stories and worldliness become fixtures of a possible Armageddon.

An outstanding work, superbly rendered by its cast of graduating students.

All photos: Stephen Heath Photography.

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Into the minds of young performance makers

WAAPA 3rd Year Performance Making Students, “TILT” ·
Blue Room Theatre, 11 September (programme 1) 18 September (programme 2) ·
Review by David Zampatti and Steven Cohen  ·

It’s tempting to think of WAAPA’s Bachelor of Performing Arts – Performance Making course as a hybrid, a combination of the established dramatic canon – acting, musical theatre, physical theatre, dance, puppetry – but that would misunderstand both its provenance and its contemporary real-world significance.

Shakespeare may be our greatest playwright, but, in his own time and in his practice, he was a theatre maker – writer, director, actor (small parts only) and entrepreneur bundled up into a marketable package.

More significantly today, though, theatre making is a response to the exigencies of paying the rent as a performing artist in these days of feckless and tight-arse funding, distracted audiences and crippling costs; it’s survival elevated to a distinct art form.

This year’s “TILT”, like its predecessors since 2015, is a series of short performances presented over two nights at the Blue Room Theatre. No doubt, like its predecessors, it will throw up ideas-in-waiting that will soon re-emerge on our stages, and no doubt some of them will succeed and some will fail to make the transition from short-form to full-out productions.

What’s more interesting than that, though, is the insight “TILT” gives us into what is occupying the mind of our emerging artists, and how they intend to bring it to the stage.

– DZ

Here are this year’s eleven “TILT” treats:

The Outcast
Directed by Carolina Duca
Devised and performed by Finn Forde, Joel Mews and David Vikman
Three coming out stories neatly woven together with energy and natural humour. Some of the language is a little forced, but the dialogue develops a nice rhythm that sees the piece through its awkward moments.
– DZ

Just Kidding
Written and directed by Sian Murphy
Performed and devised by Murphy, Hannah Davidson and Maddy Lee
The story of motherhood from attempts at conception to waving the brutes goodbye as they leave home is so well-worn it’s surprising there’s a blade of grass left on it, but Murphy and her sidekicks, with the aid of a Stanley Kubrick-sized pregnancy tester have knocked up a bit of ensemble stand-up about it with the great virtue of being seriously funny.
– DZ

Austere and emotional gravitas: ‘You and I’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

You and I
Directed by Bec Fingher
Devised and performed by Shaun Johnston and Linea Tengroth
A pas de deux performed to the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is all but wordless and expressionless, but Johnston and Tengroth give it an austere and emotional gravitas and a kind of threat. Not greatly suited to the space or its (lack of) production values, but in the right place and time Johnston and Tengroth’s work could be quite something.
– DZ

Hands
Devised and performed by Jennifer Bagg and Hayley Whisson
If no-one had come up with the expression “passive aggressive” they would have needed to for this warp-speed litany of ills personal and universal, real and percieved. That’s fine, but a little restraint at times would have been nice, if only so we could regain our composure.
– DZ

FIFO
Directed by Mark McDonald
Devised and performed by Jarad Barkla, Jono Battista, Oscar Millar, Lawrence Murphy and Jackson Vaughan
The biggest, and most traditional, of TILT’s first programme plays out around the dongas and wet mess of a FIFO camp somewhere in the North-West. It’s fertile ground for domestic drama, albeit all-male, and the slices of life we see are well drawn and pointed. There’s a nice economy of staging and characterisation, and, while the denouement could have been more effectively handled, there was more than enough there to suggest FIFO could be back.
– DZ

Donga
‘FIFO’ could be back. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Juliet
Devised and performed by Hannah Davidson, Anna Dooley and Bec Fingher
Directorial support by Amelia Burke
Juliet is the story of female actors and the things they go through to prepare themselves for auditions, but also an interrogation of what the powers-that-be deem to be beautiful. Preparing to audition for the role of Juliet, Davidson, Dooley and Fingher examine the isolation and inadequacy faced by those judged not desirable enough. Parodying the ludicrous reality, these three fine actors mimic the casting call with an exuberant and exaggerated aplomb.
– SC

Tall Thing
Directed by Shaun Johnston
Written and performed by Finn Forde
An androgynous silent dancer weaves in and out of a dream. In an intense performance that blurs the boundaries between theatre and contemporary dance, Forde successfully wraps a gentle genuineness with lyrical movement to frame a muddled personality. Thoroughly intoxicating.
– SC

This Heaving Mass
Written and directed by Sian Murphy
Performed by Sam Hortin, Oscar Millar, Lawrence Murphy, Mila Nieman and Haylee Whisson
Another dramatic movement-based work, mixing modern day anxiety with the unease of youth. The choreography is predicated on extremes; elegant, raw, tender and violent. Though at times the piece felt obscure and lacking clarity, at others the performance was powerful.
– SC

‘3°’ weaves together clever set design and movement Photo: Stephen Heath Photography
.


Directed by Jennifer Bagg
Performed by Fiona MacDonald, Mark McDonald and Linnea Tengroth
A quiet interaction between art and science,  weaves together clever set design, sound and movement to create a tense meditation on climate change and environmental degradation. It’s a tenacious and thorny think piece, which cleverly avoids language to successfully focus upon the urgency of the flailing natural world.
– SC

12 Rounds
Written and performed by Mila Nieman
Life is a boxing match, a sometimes brutal, exhausting Fight Club, in which we throw punches that don’t stick and are punched without notice. Nieman is eloquent and daring in this solo performance that is a fearful mix of high-end anxiety and sweat. The scripting was perfectly matched to the well-tempered performance.
– SC

Honey
Written and directed by Laura Liu
Performed by Hannah Davidson, Bec Fingher, Sam Hortin, Shaun Johnston, Lawrence Murphy and Jackson Vaughan
After five reasonably intense performances, a welcome respite arrives in the form of Honey, a boy band lovefest featuring a boy and his myriad of lover(s). What begins as an 80s ironic ode to sweet hip thrusts and air grabs, ends in tears, violence and a single red rose. So much for the respite! Perhaps my favourite short of the evening, with each actor brining their own perspective to the narrative, providing a soft maturity to the production.
– SC

Pictured top is Mia Nieman in her work ’12 Rounds’. Photo: Stephen Heath.

Interrogating the relationship between beauty and power in ‘Juliet’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.
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A fine evening’s entertainment

Review: WAAPA Music Theatre, Strictly Ballroom ·
Regal Theatre, 15 June ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

The ascent of WAAPA’s annual Regal Theatre musical from an extravagant prac exercise for its third and second year music theatre students to a bona fide highlight of Perth’s entertainment calendar – with sellout crowds in the thousand-seat-plus venue as evidence – is impressive.

The turning point in its evolution was 2017’s smashing Legally Blonde, a delicious season of a never-seen-before-in-Perth hit show that was packed to the rafters. It’s little surprise, given its provenance, that this year’s first Perth season of the musical theatre remake of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film Strictly Ballroom was sold out before opening night.

There’s an obvious logic to all this. WAAPA, uniquely in this state, has the resources, and the guys and dolls power and talent, to mount local productions of these monster shows (over 100 of them worked on this one), and the reputation to convince their owners to grant performing rights.

So what have we here?

The stage Strictly Ballroom is greatly enlarged by the addition of a dozen new songs, mostly by Eddie Perfect with a few by the team of David Foster, Mozella and Bernie Herms and, fortuitously, Sia Furler. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and, of course, “Time After Time” and “Love is in the Air” remain from the film.

Front L-R: Harrison Targett (Scott Hastings), Benjamin Barker (Rico) and Rose Shannon-Duhigg (Fran) with the cast of ‘Strictly Ballroom’. Photo: Jon Green 2019.

Most of the new numbers are more dance than song, and that well suits the focus of the production and the strengths of this cast.

Its strongest voice is Rose Shannon-Duhigg, and her Fran is winsome, emotional and appealing. The musical highlight is Fran’s duet with her grandmother Abuela (Ciara Taylor) to Sia’s restrained but unmistakable “Leap of Faith”. It’s a song I hope to hear more of.

When push comes to shove Shannon-Duhigg shows she can also cut the rug, and her leading man Harrison Targett, while principally a dancer (his work in “On The Edge” with the male ensemble is outstanding) can hold a tune – they make a terrific leading couple around which the show is built.

The other principals – the conniving dance federation boss Barry Fife (Ethan Jones), the bitchy reigning champion Tina Sparkle (Grace Collins), Scott’s parents (Tahra Cannon and Jackson Peele), Fran’s gypsy father Rico (Benjamin Barker) and the championship Emcee JJ Silvers (Alexander Landsberry) among others, attack their stock, two-dimensional characters with gusto, and the ensemble’s work, marshalled by choreographer Jayne Smeulders, is sharp, humorous and enthusiastic throughout.

The show looks wonderful. Student costume designer Amalia Lambert unleashes a cavalcade of marvellous creations to dress everything from the fiery paso doble of “Magnifico” to the dreamy gossamer of the Ziegfeld-inspired “Beautiful When You Dance”.

Crispin Taylor’s direction and James Browne’s set are models of stylish efficiency – and they need to be.

The show bogs down badly in an overlong build up to its denouement as the multifarious strands of the story line are arduously plaited into shape. It might work on film (although my memory of it is that things did get tedious at times), but it’s a killer on the less flexible stage, so that the big finale, culminating with THAT song, lacked some of the momentum the efforts of all concerned deserved.

For all the text’s flaws, though, Strictly Ballroom’s colour and movement, its swirls and chops, make for a fine evening’s entertainment, shot through with the promise of another batch of stars for WAAPA’s seemingly infinite firmament.

Strictly Ballroom plays until June 22. 

Pictured top are Rose Shannon-Duhigg as Fran and Harrison Targett as Scott. Photo: Jon Green.

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The future is in safe hands

Review: WAAPA 3rd year acting, When the Rain Stops Falling ·
The Roundhouse Theatre, 4 May ·
Review by Steven Cohen ·

When the Rain Stops Falling is a strangely beautiful Australian play; original and intriguingly complex. The sheer genius of the playwright, Andrew Bovell, is striking.

Andrew Bovell is a wizard of Oz. He forgoes the politics of David Williamson, the cultural lashings of Ray Lawler and the suburban psychology of Patrick White. Rather, he sets out to shunt upon us a gut-wrenching story that tackles intergenerational trauma, father-son relationships and – curiously, given the play’s focus on the personal and familial – the devastating effect of environmental damage.

The plot is a plate of spaghetti. There is no typical rise and fall. Instead, each scene focuses upon both the ordinary and grotesque. Some scenes are intense, but the theatrical style serves the theme well: that history is not necessarily linear but tangential. And vital.

The action shifts between Alice Springs, Uluru, Adelaide and London, fluctuating backwards and forwards in time. There is little connection between scenes, zero linearity and only the subtlest of links. We are made to feel “curiouser and curiouser” through jagged moments of peculiar dis-quiet. But, this is no Wonderland. Rather, it is a juxtaposition between hinterland and wasteland, where future is devoured by the sins of the past and the only way out is through the sheer power of love, strength and hope.

Performers on stage, crouched under umbrellas
Equally impressive: the student cast of ‘When the Rain Stops Falling’. Photo: Jon Green.

The crucial scenes occur in London 20 years apart. First, we are introduced to Gabriel Law, who confronts his malcontent and dispirited mother. We learn that Gabriel’s father absconded to Australia, when Gabriel was a small child. Later, the action shifts, in the most distressing of scenes, to that pivotal moment when Gabriel’s father leaves. Ignorant of the past, Gabriel decides to retrace his father’s footsteps to the Australian centre. And there we see how the ghosts of our past crash the future.

WAAPA’s production stays true to the intensity of the narrative. Using Edith Cowan University’s Roundhouse Theatre, visiting artist and director Peggy Shannon successfully creates an intimate and visual portrayal of time and its linear shifts.

Set designer Danielle Chilton has cleverly incorporated cascading water into the stage, framing weather as a key motif. Period clothing from each of the last several decades is used to fiendishly wrap each character in a generation of servitude to their ancestors.

On opening night all nine actors were equally impressive. Characterisation was on point, as was accent, position and interpretation. Indeed, it was a shame that not all actors shared equal stage time.

Everyone should see this production. Not just for the melancholy yet uplifting story, but to rest their minds that the future of theatre is in exceptional hands.

5 stars.

When the Rain Stops Falling plays until May 9. 

Photo: Jon Green

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Bleak, brutal and bittersweet

Review: WAAPA 3rd year Music Theatre, Company ·
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA, 19 March ·
Review by Ron Banks ·

“What’s the point of getting married?” bachelor Bobby is asked by one of his many married female friends.

“Er, for company?” queries Bobby, uncertain of why one would commit to a lifetime with the same person, underlining at the same time the emptiness and loneliness of his own unmarried existence.

First performed in the early 1970s, Sondheim’s musical Company is now a timeless reminder that for many young people, getting married – and staying married – is a vexatious state of mind, and that the resolution of marital problems is never going to be easy.

The famous music theatre composer’s slate for the sketches that form Company is his home city of New York, a place where, it appears, hundreds of thousands of marriages go to die. Despite the slick New York night-clubs and bars, chic apartments and even the railway station that comprise its backdrop, Sondheim’s take on young relationships is bleak and bitter-sweet.

The play is a series of vignettes about young people who get married, the focal point of which is the one who does not get married. Bobby is a bachelor celebrating his 35 years in the single state with five couples who have opted for marriage as a resolution to the problem of curing loneliness. Love doesn’t seem to come into it, although they protest that it does. Well, these are cynical New Yorkers, you know, and this is a Sondheim scenario where too much sentiment is not good for you.

This WAAPA production is played in the round, an appropriate metaphor for these young couples as they circle around Bobby, trying to get him to get him to commit to marriage so he can be as unhappy as they appear to be.

Bobby has three girl friends over the course of the evening, but he is not really a seducer in the Don Juan league. Rather he is a confused young man who has not really found love and he backs out of relationships before they can get too serious.

We get to know more about Bobby through his interactions with his married friends, at the same time catching glimpses of his friends’ fears and foibles in regard to that particular state of legally-sanctioned relationship.

Conor Neylon captures Bobby’s personality and doubt with a convincing sense of confusion, and his delivery of the often-difficult Sondheim songs grows in confidence as the show moves through its many short, snappy confrontations.

This is a musical of set-pieces, with each couple showing what their lives have become in song, dialogue with Bobby, and the occasional spot of group choreography.

Each performer gets the chance to shine, and the graduating students make the most of their opportunities with style and pizzazz. Their outward sparkle is a poignant counterpoint to their characters’ inner insecurity and doubt. WAAPA director Andrew Lewis has wrangled their combined talents into a stylish ensemble. The costumes and settings are timeless, neither transposed to the present day, nor anchored back in the 70s. (The smart phones are the only disorientating clue that it might be the present.)

There is a stand-out performance from Annabelle Rosewarne as Amy, the girl who, on her wedding day, suddenly decides she does not want to marry Paul. She expresses her fears in a patter-song worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan but far more hip.

Company is famous for its song “Ladies Who Lunch”, delivered with convincing mockery and cynicism by Victoria Graves, as Joanne, whose marriage a second time is not going well.

Company is quite brutal in its dissection of modern marriage, but strangely fascinating and hugely entertaining in the hands of these young WAAPA performers.

Brutal yet honest.

But that’s the point of Sondheim, isn’t it? It’s why we love his work.

Company runs until March 23.

Pictured top: Conor Neylon, as Bobby, with the male ensemble. Photo: Jon Green.

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Students hit sweet spot

Review: Romeo and Juliet, WAAPA 3rd year Acting directed by Michael Jenn ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 16 March ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

I suffer from an unfortunate condition called Veronaphobia, brought on by a couple of productions of Romeo and Juliet so excruciating that good manners and the advice of my lawyer constrain me from identifying, other than to say that at the first the urge to flee at interval nearly overcame me, and at the second it did.

There’s a reason for the malady. Romeo and Juliet, while it is an extravagant achievement of the English language, can be a rose that smells too sweet.

Shakespeare (who, remember, was likely only 30 and six years into his career) had just discovered his mastery, and hurled it at everything he did with little restraint. For this reason his great early plays, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among them, need to be handled with great control and command.

Lack either, and things can get very ugly very quickly.

Happily this production, performed by WAAPA’s third year Acting students, directed by the visiting British actor and director Michael Jenn, is an antidote to what ails me.

Camilla Ponte-Alvarez (Tybalt) and Ben Chapple (Samson). Photo: Jon Green.

He navigates his ill-fated lovers and their squabbling families towards the West Side Story point of the compass, without working that relocation too hard (I’m okay for a character to cross the stage on a Vespa, and street knives actually work better than rapiers in Andy Fraser’s fight scenes). Kara Rousseau’s set in the Studio Underground is timeless and functional; the balcony is a platform on scaffolding that doubles as the upper levels of villas and palaces above Verona’s dangerous streets.

Most importantly, Jenn allows his young actors to attempt Shakespeare’s lyrical text (only fifteen per cent of the play’s lines are in prose) with a natural, colloquial rhythm, and this gives it clarity and accessibility.

Even Shakespeare’s most audacious conceit, the sonnet “If I profane with my unworthy hand” injected into Romeo and Juliet’s love-making, is natural and unforced, while maintaining its aching beauty.

The supporting cast give strong, distinctive performances: in particular Bryn Chapman Parish and Saskia Archer are perfectly drawn as the grasping daughter-peddling Capulets, Mercutio is given a sassy humour not always afforded Tybalt’s pincushion by Peter Thurnwald, and Ruby Maishman’s Friar Lawrence brings much more than the traditional hapless meddler in the affairs of the heart.

Jonathan Lagudi is a tall, dark and handsome Romeo, well suited to love and be loved, but the play is always Juliet’s, the “splendid” Juliet as Harold Bloom described her, the prototype of all Shakespeare’s great heroines, his too-young Rosalind-in-waiting, the girl whose bounty is as boundless and deep as the sea.

Poppy Lynch is a beautiful Juliet, sensible, determined and ready for anything love and death can bestow on, and take from, her. There’s nothing ethereal about her Juliet, and she acts her age (something too often overlooked).

It’s a fine performance that caps a fine production.

Romeo and Juliet runs until March 21.

Poppy Lynch as Juliet and Jonathan Lagudi as Romeo are pictured top. Photo: Jon Green.

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Polished and professional

Review: WAAPA Dance, ‘Verge’ ·
Regal Theatre, 20 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Eighteen years ago I performed in my final season as a WAAPA dance student, and returning to the Geoff Gibbs Theatre to watch the graduating students always provokes nostalgia in me. This year, however, the feeling was diminished, owing to a last-minute change of venue due to technical issues. Despite the stress and disappointment this must have induced (the change involved the cancellation of several performances) the opening night performance of “Verge” at the Regal Theatre was polished and professional.

Opening the program was Suite Romantique, a montage of grabs from 19th century Romantic ballets La Sylphide (August Bournonville) and Giselle (Marius Petipa), Romantic-inspired ballet Les Sylphide (1909, Michel Fokine) and new work choreographed for this season by WAAPA classical dance lecturer Kim McCarthy, to original composition by Italian composer and pianist Ciro Barbato.

Neatly stitched together by McCarthy and WAAPA colleague Danielle Hunt, Suite Romantique delicately wafted the opening night audience through time,  and provided many opportunities for the students to shine. As Giselle, Katarina Gajic managed protracted promenades and arabesques with aplomb. She was partnered with assurance by Marcell Stiedl, who also impressed as La Sylphide’s James, with his lofty grande jetes . Also noteworthy were the ethereal Kirsty Clarke, and the charming Sara Ouwendyk. Glorious live music accompaniment was provided by Barbato and Gennaro Di Donna on piano, and Robyn Blann on violin.

‘Suite Romantique’: a Romantic montage. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Next stop was The Bus to Paradise, by acting Head of Dance Sue Peacock, in collaboration with 18 second year students. Having seen a number of Peacock’s works for WAAPA (and performed in one myself in 1999), I was struck anew by how cleverly she brings out the best in her students.

The dancers’ limbs often mimic the shapes above in ‘Bus to Paradise’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Exploring the question, “What is paradise?”, this contemporary work is witty and relatable. Beneath the bare branches of an inverted tree, the dancers’ limbs often mimic the shapes above. In pairs, trios, quartets or large-scale clumps they respond to sound that ranges from soothing ambient beats to sensual acoustic guitar… and it wouldn’t be a Peacock work without a microphone to amplify the voices of individual dancers as they relate anecdotes and pose questions about the concept of paradise. The movement is similarly eclectic – now hip-driven and sexy; now languid and lunging; now suspended, ready for explosion.

Beautifully lit by Jasmine Lifford (my favourite state was luminous green to represent “Tropical!”), the student cast performed The Bus to Paradise with panache and sensitivity.

After interval came Stirring Sketches of a Million Love Stories, created for 21 third year students by Portuguese guest artist Filipa Peraitnha. Unlike Peacock’s offering, individuality is subsumed by the whole in this contemporary work; any solo moments are brief and often obscured by the group.

Individuality is subsumed by the group in ‘Stirring Sketches of a Million Love Stories’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Against an ominously crackling soundscape, into which Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” intermittently breaks, dancers writhe, ripple, shake. Again, the lighting design, this time by Timothy Bonser, impresses. Now cones of light illuminate the dancers from above, and movement becomes crisp and robotic. My favourite section sees the group grooving to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G. Allegro. This is a smart, sassy work that was performed with depth and precision by the third year students and, though it was hard to discern individuals for long, Alexandra Kay’s seamless solo was a standout.

“Verge” is a relatively long program and by the final work of the evening, Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, I was weary. Kudos to the third year cast, then, for catching my attention as it began to wander bedwards.

Created in 2014 for Sydney Dance Company, and remounted here by WAAPA teacher and former SDC dancer David Mack, 2 in D Minor is a series of contemporary solos, duets and small ensemble sections that respond to music by Bach and contemporary composer Nick Wales. The choreography has been personalised for this season, and to excellent effect; all dancers gave commendable performances. Particularly noteworthy was an athletic duet by Alexander Diedler and Marcell Stiedl. In contrast Sara Ouwendyk and Makira Horner’s light-hearted partnership had a child-like sense of play. And, again, Alexandra Kay impressed with her versatile combination of fluidity and precision.

Though the programme is long, it’s worth sparing the time to see the 2018 graduates before they take off into the big wide world.

“Verge” plays The Regal until November 23. A tip: seating is unreserved. Sit in the back half of the theatre if you want to be able to see the dancers’ feet.

Pictured top is Sara Ouwendyk in ‘2 in D Minor’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.

Two men dancing, one is wrapped around the other, who is lunging. A girl looks on.
An athletic duet by Alexander Diedler and Marcell Stiedl, with Kirsty Clarke looking on, in ‘2 In D Minor’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography.
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A fever of skill and passion

Review: WAAPA Aboriginal Performance Students: Fever ·
Enright Theatre, WAAPA, 16 November ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Fever is a wonderful piece of work, and a credit to everyone who created and staged it.

It’s not a new work; the collaboration, under the auspices of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, of Andrew Bovell (Secret River, Lantana, Strictly Ballroom), Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), the prolific Patricia Cornelius and Melissa Reeves dates from 2002.

Neither is this the first time this quartet of playwrights’ work has been performed by WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance students; their Who’s Afraid of the Working Class was a given a barnstorming staging in 2011.

What is new is this production’s complete lack of specific Aboriginality; the students, and their director Rachael Maza, ask us to come to their work on its own merits, with no concessions or schema.

A man and a woman. He has her hand on her shoulder as though comforting her.
Photo: Jon Green

What is exciting is how terrifically they succeed, and how, in so doing, they bring a major and intensely relevant Australian work to a new audience.

Fever comprises four short plays by each of the writers, woven together to form an exploration of the world’s woes; dislocation, degradation and deep fearfulness.

Making such a dramatic arrangement cogent, let alone satisfying, is a tough call – even more so when the styles of the pieces range from gritty realism to the wildly surrealistic, from black comedy to intense drama.

In Bovell’s The Chair, a woman (Cezara Critti-Schnaars) has a soldier (Samai King) bound and helpless. In Melissa Reeves Savant, people from an outback town find the freezer in the truckful of fish they had brought in has malfunctioned. In Cornelius’s Blunt, a group of barren women in a blasted future landscape hear a baby crying in the dark. In the most developed and horrifying of the pieces, Tsiolkas’s Psalms, a brother and sister find themselves on opposite sides of a vicious civil war.

Rivers flow through these stories, but they are foetid or perilous; infants are drowned – or stab their mothers; mercy is not strained, it has ceased to exist.

Only the old enmities survive, perfectly adapted with their guns and their old bibles to a dry strange, cannibalistic world; the old blood spilled again and again.

We are reminded of this in a horrifying reading of Psalm 137, the Rivers of Babylon, by the commander of a death squad (Owen Hasluck): “O daughter of Babylon, happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

It’s a credit to the writers that they pull it off all on the page; even more so to the director Rachael Maza (at WAAPA courtesy of the Mindaroo Foundation’s Visiting Artists programme) and her student cast, who work between the story lines and styles with great skill and, more importantly, undiminished passion.

A woman on an old-fashioned steel framed bed. A man seems to be creeping towards her in the dark,
Photo: Jon Green

Highlights abound. The chorus of women on the riverbank – Cezara Critti-Schnaars, Ruby Williams, Kirra Ostler (outstanding here and as the mother in Savant), Angelica Lockyer, Shania Richards and the “wo-man” Tainga Savage – are hideous, though sometimes hilarious, in their robes of rags. Savage’s monstrous, matricidal baby toddles toward the next-door neighbours to deliver a (very 2002) diatribe – part Thomas Pikkety, part Pauline Hanson. Throughout, the woman and the bound soldier dance slowly on the edge of mercy and vengeance; she takes up a knife, but will she cut the ropes, or his neck? It’s the story of Abraham and Isaac.

When it’s over, whichever way it ends, the woman sits in Aphra Higham’s striking, aposite set of blood-red netting and the skins of foxes; harbinger, victim, humanity, a demon or a God.

When it all comes down to dust, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can.

– Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac”.

Fever plays the Enright Theatre at WAAPA until November 22.

Photos: Jon Green.

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Topsy-turvy world is hit and miss

Review: Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ·
The Edith Spiegeltent, October 13 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

I fear I am turning into my mother.

This is what ran through my mind during this carnivalesque reconstruction of one of Shakespeare’s rom-coms, performed in the stunning Edith Spiegeltent by WAAPA’s graduating acting students, under the direction of Stefanos Rassios.

You see, in 1990, as a 17-year-old, I took my mum to see a play called Entropy Concerto at Murdoch University. It was directed by Serge Tampalini and I immediately fell in love with experimental theatre. My mother, on the other hand, loathed the production and told Tampalini so on the way out. I am still recovering from the embarrassment.

Rassios is NIDA trained, highly experienced and experimental, and much revered. He is exactly the type of director whose artistic vision I admire and whose productions I usually savour. So how did I come to jot lines such as “so confused and bored” in my notepad? Either something didn’t quite work… or I am just turning into my mother. Perhaps a bit of both?

In his program notes (which, admittedly, I didn’t read until after the play) Rassios writes that while versions of Love generally end in Tragedy or Comedy, he was hoping to unearth ingredients such as “terror, awkwardness, pain, apathy, loneliness, confusion, and hopelessness” in this production. He certainly delivered on that front.

He goes on: “It doesn’t sound much fun, but when viewed through the prism of Theatre, we can at least appreciate the lighting? Can’t we?” I guess. And in fact, the highlight for me was Bottom (the comical and captivating James Thomasson) dancing under strobe lighting (ass’s head and all), while Puck lip synchs on a stage (in a see-though blouse and black stilettos. And forget winged fairies with garlands of flowers. These fairies look like vampire-bitten goths, at a B&D club.)

An uncomfortable moment that doubles as thrilling spectacle. Photo: © Jon Green.

Rassios continues: “It is this trauma to the subconscious and our ability to endure it that is central to this reconstruction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Sometimes those uncomfortable moments double as thrilling spectacle, such as when Oberon (Michael Cameron) shoots Puck in the mouth from a plastic squirty bottle. It goes on and on, the liquid cascading down his mouth and onto the floor until he finally collapses. Other moments, like those involving gaffa tape and a feather, to a “Jolene” soundtrack, just made me feel a bit sick.

Midsummer represents a topsy-turvy world, a sort of bacchanalian reprieve from the usual codes of morality. The play certainly lends itself to an exploration of gender and sexuality. Some of this production’s explorations make sense; some are less apparent (hence my note: “Why is Lysander wearing a skirt?”)

The Spiegeltent – with its association of burlesque and cabaret – is the ideal space for this take on the play, characterised by chaos, humour and a blending of high and popular culture. The reflection of performers in the space’s dozens of mirrors is a visual delight.

For me, it was also quite a relief after a frustrating lack of visibility in the first part of the play. During the prologue, the audience is placed, standing, in the Spiegeltent’s equivalent of the foyer. I literally saw nothing. Once the punters are seated, the centre of the space is enclosed in a square of semi-opaque plastic. It feels a bit like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

The inventive of use of the plastic, once it comes down, is interesting, though. Another highlight? Kian Pitman’s portrayal of Helena, from bolshie to melancholic. The closing scene, in which she plays the violin, sobbing, was poignant. After all the high-camp and farce, she seemed to hold up a mirror to the realities of love. Sigh.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays The Edith Spiegeltent at WAAPA, until October 18.

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A treat, as always

Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts classical vocal students and Faith Court Orchestra: Cendrillon ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre ·
Review: Sandra Bowdler ·

One of the benefits of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, for Perthites, is the regular showcases of its well-schooled students. In the case of the classical voice protégés, the annual opera production is invariably a treat, often with unusual repertoire you will never hear from the established companies, showcasing fresh young voices and featuring innovative productions tailored to show off the blooming talent. There is usually a backbone of more experienced contributors holding it together.

This year’s opera, French composer Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon, the French Cinderella, was another felicitous decision, comprising the familiar fairy story set to tuneful and lively (if not totally memorable) music and a range of voice types. This was the final programming choice of retiring head of Classical Voice at WAAPA, Patricia Price, and what an excellent job she has done on this front. On this occasion, the director and conductor are senior figures in the Australian music world, the former, Thomas de Mallet Burgess, recently taking on the role of general director of New Zealand Opera, and the latter, Alexander Briger, the prominent founder of the Australian World Orchestra among many other things. Former Opera Australia singing star and incoming vocal head Emma Matthews was the voice coach.

This production is sung in English, with English surtitles; one might argue that it loses a certain je ne sais quois in the particular quality of Massenet’s writing for voice. The Faith Court Orchestra performed well on the night viewed, although the small forces created balance issues. The brass and winds were over-emphasised at the expense of the strings, leading to more oom-pah-pah effect than Massenet’s elegant music intended.

An attractive world of magic and dreaming alternates with Cinderella’s drab reality. Photo: Jon Green

Under de Mallet Burgess’s leadership this production creates an attractive world of magic and dreaming alternating with Cinderella’s drab reality. Eilish Campbell’s set design is a dark panelled space with, initially, a branch of bright blossom intruding into the room from a window on the left and a swing in the centre.  One directorial conceit sees the inclusion of a younger (non-singing) version of Cinders (or Lucette, as Massenet dubbed her) to whom the older version expresses her hopes and despair. At the back of the panelled space a large lift door is placed, allowing for various fun types of entry and exit.  A red sofa covered in transparent plastic embodies the vulgarity of the vaunted aristocrat stepmother Madame de la Haltière (or haughty).

Ashley King’s costumes are a delight, especially the frightful stepsisters (one basically pink, the other screaming yellow), the punk Prince Charming, the stylish (?) stepmother. Cinderella’s ball gown is lovely and sparkly.  The blocking of the large supporting cast and chorus is spirited and excellent. All the production team deserve praise, in particular, production manager Claire Mayers, stage manager Emma Brazzale and lighting designer Mai Han.

We were privileged to hear the “Metropolitan Opera Cast” (for 15, 17, 19 October), as against the “Royal Opera House Cast” (16, 18, 20 October), and the singing chops of the student performers suggested several potential opera careers in the making.  Jessica Taylor, as Cinderella, and Ema Rose Gosnell, as Prince Charming, sang in a similar tessitura – low-ish soprano or high-ish mezzo (both roles are generally sung by mezzos in modern maingstage opera productions).  Both displayed excellent acting prowess, particularly Taylor who has to cover a wide range of emotions.  In both cases their voices grew in body and expressiveness as the opera progressed, with some truly thrilling duet singing.

The fairy godmother, a high soprano role, was sung in sparkling fashion by Shania Eliasson with nice coloratura fireworks. Nicole Mealey sang the alto role of the stepmother, bringing out the innate nastiness of the part while clothing it in dark velvet tone. The stepsisters were portrayed with great comic effect by Amber Reid and Virginia Hurley, embodying as gauche a pair of lowering adolescents as can be imagined.  The father (rejoicing here in the name of Pandolfe) was sung by Laurence Westrip with attractive even tenor tone. Without naming everyone who contributed, overall this was a wonderful ensemble production, all lifters and no leaners.

Cendrillon continues until October 20.

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