Friday, November 19, 2010

Random but Totally Cute


Adorable huh? I can't remember where these are from but they were the best of a shiny design magazine in a waiting room. So expressive. Naw.

Rush of Reviews

For a couple of years I reviewed a lot of student theatre at Melbourne University for Union House Theatre, these have been available on UHT's website and on Facebook but I thought it was appropriate to bring them together onto this platform now. So, have a read, you might not be able to see the show, but there is still some thoughts, interest and worth in things a little retro.

Also, this blog has essentially been inactive for a while so I thought a rush of content would be a great injection, it is also due for a makeover, but we shall see.

Hmmmm... And did I mention, I am also starting a novel.

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome! - Cabaret review! (2009)

Queen’s College Music and Drama Society presented Cabaret as their second semester show for 2009. A talented production team and crew were behind its successful run and it was delivered by a dedicated cast with well rehearsed self-assurance. There is an imposing pair of heels to wear when taking on Cabaret and this production managed to dance in them very well!

Cabaret is a film and musical that occupies a niche in 20th Century History as a bridge between politics and art. It shows us the world and then mirrors back a distorting reflection on the stage. We are witness the rising of the National Social Party and its leader Hitler both inside and outside the Kit Kat Klub. It is ironic that the true social commentary and satire comes from within the seedy, underground world rather than the surface where people are either too scared or have been swept into Nationalist fervour. Indeed the Kit Kat Klub has developed a mythology of its own; it feels separate and safe from the outside world. But this Klub realised onstage in this production with an impressive art-deco set is as just susceptible to history.

As a musical Cabaret was surprisingly (for someone familiar only with the film) very much an ensemble production. Indeed the whirlwind romance between Sally and Clifford was almost incidental as we laughed at Fraulein Kost and her sailers; reflected on Ernst Ludwig’s political allegiances and followed the Emcee as he led us through the show. It was somewhat a surprise then to find the characters that the audience really connected with were the older couple, coming late to love. In a lovely contrast to the highly energetic pace of the life at the Klub these two, romanced slowly with pineapples. Liz Crompton and Marty Macleish as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz were adorable to watch on stage and they carried their ‘aging bodies’ with a light caricature that connected well with the audience.

The costuming was a highlight of this production. There were the obligatory sparkles, satin, fishnets and lacy frills adorning the Kit Kat Girls as they preened and pranced. Great attention also went into the male chorus, ensuring they presented well as the dapper, fashionable clientele of the Kit Kat Club. However, I would like to question both the necessity and the reasoning behind the Front of House staff wearing swastikas during interval. When dealing with the sensitive issues around the Holocaust and the appropriateness of representing Nazis in contemporary society it is often wise to be subtle. On stage the reveal of Ernst Ludwig’s swastika was a powerful and foreboding moment. It was undermined by having similarly attired staff cheerfully pointing you to towards the bar.

It is the music of Cabaret that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It is through song that the love, politics and impending doom of the early 1930s is best communicated. It was wonderful to have the orchestra pit open and watch the familiar notes come to life and the fill the auditorium. An onstage orchestra assists in redressing the lack intimacy that the Union House Theatre stage can sometimes bring to a production. Anna van Veldhuisen’s energetic conducting and camaraderie with her musicians was a delight to watch: although only the first few rows had the opportunity to witness this. More onstage interaction with the orchestra throughout the show could have amplified this experience for the rest of the audience.

Adam Russell’s interpretation of Cabaret was overall more sugar than spice but still managed to drive home all the appropriate political and emotional themes. It may have sweetened the blow but after all: “life is a Cabaret old chum, and I love a Cabaret!”

Last review for Union House Theatre, 2009.

Why I became a Melbourne Model (the Musical) Whore (2008)

My enrolment in this University was a protest. I deferred my Gap Year to the end of my degree to escape the impending implementation of the Melbourne Model. So suck on that Glynn Davis. I’ve got the degree I wanted, under my terms and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Except cut subjects, sack my tutors and ignore a very polite invitation to attend the production written and performed as a companion piece to your education revolution: Melbourne Model: the Musical.

For the last indiscretion at least, you have an opportunity to redeem yourself for Melbourne Model: the Musical is returning to the Union House Theatre for a Very Special 2009 Comedy Festival Season! Under the new direction of Ben Landau the satirical and farcical look at the controversial introduction of the Melbourne Model and its consquences for tertiary education is back urging everyone to Dream Larger.

Fregmonto Stokes’ hilarious script follows a Young Liberal, Wally Higgins-Beaumont as he charts the murky waters between the seductive Vice-Chancellor Glynn Davis with his promises of shared dreams and the opposing radical Student Unionists lead by Queen Bathsheba. There are changes afoot in the University of Melbourne.

Throughout 2007 there was considerable apprehension brewing about the restructuring of the Undergraduate program at the University of Melbourne. There were forums, protests and petitions involving staff and students to little avail. There were limited concessions approved by the University but it became clear that the Melbourne Model was here to Broaden our Horizons whether we wanted it to, or not.

That year the School of Creative Arts received its final intake of first years and it was taken for granted that it would fade away into academic obscurity. The Award Winning CRUNCH! 08 season of Melbourne Model: the Musical proved that the University had overlooked a very important point - when petitions, protests and forums fail, there is only one way out… satire. A musical satire. A musical of infinite capabilities!

Now, even when no Creative Arts Admins are staffing the Arts Centre, somewhere on the fourth floor in the Black Hole, a rehearsal is just getting started and Ben Kiley and Angus Leslie’s original music is returning to life. That this is occurring during the second year of the Melbourne Model is testament to student continuing defiance and creativity.

Opposition to the Melbourne Model continues and the concerns raised when it was first proposed have not been addressed. They are worth revisiting to contextualise the issues that permeate the show.

The dilution of academic diversity remains a significant drawback. Through drastic subject cuts specialised study areas including Gender Studies have been pushed away from mainstream study in favour of shallow and superficial core subjects. The reduction of ninety-six undergraduate degrees to a mere six does not offer both breadth and depth in a general degree. It offers insipid, standard and restrictive options for students.

The changes also require students to remain longer at University to complete a specialised education, undermining the validity of undergraduate coursework and of the degree you receive at the end of three years. The Melbourne Model follows the system widely employed across the USA where students complete general courses before furthering their education in Graduate Studies. This devalues the Undergraduate Degree and pressures students to further their education thus prolonging their already exorbitantly high college fees. There is no doubting that Postgraduate Study is an important option but it should not be a forced addition to give credibility to a degree and more money to the University. The number of full-fee paying students are also increased at a level above Commonwealth Supported Places (332 vs 287 extra in 2005 over 2004 offers) reinforcing the financial focus.

Further framing Melbourne Model: the Musical is the University of Melbourne’s enormous publicity machine. Accessing the latest articles linked to the University of Melbourne homepage, you are informed that ‘The world warms to University of Melbourne's model’ according to The Australian and Glynn Davis and Peter McPhee are being hailed as ‘the Wizards of Oz’ by The Times. This seemingly good spin is being given an extra whirl by the University publicity department, yet a reading of both articles reveals little praise for the actual Melbourne Model gives an appreciation of the marketing jugganout that accompianied the restructuring.

Bryan MacGregor from the University of Aberdeen (which is currently going through a review in course structure) commented that: "[Melbourne] had … generated a lot of publicity for themselves.” (1) When Glynn Davis is quoted with "We have had considerable interest from other Australian universities and from universities around the world" there is little surprise as to why. Michael Arthur, University of Leeds Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the World Universities Network says that what has “set Melbourne apart was its publicity drive.” (2) and not the actual Melbourne Model.

If something is that good it shouldn’t need slick advertisments in Cinemas across the country and on billboards across campus to gather public support. Awareness raising is one thing. “Strategic Brand Presence” is an entirely different matter and smacks of shifty spin. That the Melbourne Model is bold and beautifully advertised is indisputable. Whether underneath the gloss there is any substance remains to be seen.

Melbourne Model: the Musical strips back the sheen and hilariously reveals the glaring contradictions in University policy to give you the most exciting and relevant show for any student in the 2009 Comedy Festival Guide!

We’re developing… a musical…with issues that will stay stuck in your head as well as the songs. Come along Glynn. You never know, you might deepen and broaden your Education. Education? That is such a clunky, un-proactive word… What we must do is dreamlarge.

And that is exactly what I shall be doing, after I have finished my personally tailored Heritage-listed Batchelor of Arts (double major in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies) and headed overseas for the long-awaited reward for my three year protest.

http://www.melbournemodelthemusical.com/


(1) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404898
(2) http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24909191-12149,00.html

Two things: firstly I need to learn how to jump posts eh? Also this again was a rejected piece for a University paper and was also the catalyst for a little bit of fallout. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you always get on with the show. Also please bear in mind that this was written at 2am for a deadline - that in the end didn't matter one little bit - but anyway!

Retro Review: Port Fairy Folk Festival (2008)

Audience participation is my guilty pleasure. And the one place in the entire world that I consistently do not feel alone in my predicament is at the Port Fairy Folk Festival. For Labour weekend little old Port Fairy is transformed into an over-priced-cornering-the-market-buy-it-now-bitch-or-walk-to-Warrnambool-in-the-nicest-possible-way Folkie Heaven. Tens of thousands people flock in to the five main stages of the Festival Arena and absorb a wide variety of music. 2006 celebrated the thirtieth year, and 2008 continued the next thirty years with a flourish.

Going down to the Folkie has been a staple of my life since year seven, when the festival committee opened up the ticket balloting system. Each year we get a prospective program, peruse the offerings delightedly, and invariably end up knowing half of the acts by the time we arrive. This time I didn’t care. Three and a half hours on the floor of a train crammed with 317 people due to V-Line’s appalling lack of insight outweighed any enthusiasm. Temporarily. Wrist bands secured and a program to study reignited the spark. What an exceptional selection!

Trying to see as many artists as possible in two and a half days is impossible in 35˚C (plus) heat and eating ice-cream everyday is small consolation for boiling with thousands of others inside a tent. So this weekend required careful planning and selection. Out of the possible 130 artists/groups, I 20 made it to, just.

Top features this year included, Skipping Girl Vinegar who are a band to watch. They also write personal letters to fans, so join their mailing-list when they come to North Court. Flamenco outfit, Arte Kanela were absolutely stunning. Visually and musically, the dancing and the energy surpassed any performance of the weekend and received a well earned standing ovation. International act Louden Wainwright III proved a shrewd and talented songwriter and charismatic performer, his political satire had the audience right under his left thumb. His daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche is also extremely talented. The hilarious Topp Twins from New Zealand and the British Chipolatas more than made up for Tripod pulling out (congrats to Scod, his wife and their new baby). All of these acts were popular, established and packed out tents.

Although somewhat tempered by the temperature, chair rage lurked in every tent. So it was still necessary to keep a tight grip on that little-low-lying-‘Port- Fairy-chair’ and leg room as if it was the last vestige of civilisation. With such importance placed upon preserving comfort, the absolute WORST thing that you can do is lose – like I did - the back of your chair. Sitting forward isn’t relaxing; it is very distracting and is bloody uncomfortable. Also when reporting it to lost property, it is wise to remember that the majority of the staff at the Folkie are volunteers. Most of them are fantastic.

But the real atmosphere was typified first at the enormous Saturday Jug Band Convention, hidden amongst the washboards and kazoos and at then at the Sunday night gig launching Indigenous performer Dave Arden’s first CD. Each involved friends joining together to perform for an appreciative audience, who is more than happy to learn a chorus and sing along.

We used to go quite a bit, loved it. Still do :) This review was submitted and rejected by a certain University paper that shall remain nameless, needless to say they published a suitibly funky festival review instead. WHY IS FOLK MUSIC SO UNPOPULAR?

Retro Review (2008): Away by Michael Gow

Away by Australian playwright Michael Gow has been a critical and commercial success since its first production in 1986. The decision for Trinity College Drama Club to tackle this play was admirable and certainly the result was an interesting interpretation with many positive attributes.

The script deals with the fallout of three families during their summer holidays of 1968. They are from three disconnected social classes and backgrounds but are collectively connected through school and the end of year production of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Whilst nominally headed to separate holidays they all end up represented on an idyllic beach where their differences are resolved through shared tragedy. Inter-textual references Shakespearean references run through the structure and content of the play to give a further layer to the writing.

In the program notes the Director Phoebe Taylor discusses the possibility of “many potential” readings of this written text and reveals that the production “played with a few interpretations” of the script. From entering the theatre it was instantly apparent that interesting dramaturgical choices were to mould the production. A key reworking was displacing the piece from the 1960’s and the context of Vietnam War into a timeless non-naturalistic space where Glenn Miller music greeted the audience and characters dressed in current fashions. This decision was perhaps intended to generalise the experience of the families across time, and was an interesting concept – working to mixed degrees.

The set design and construction of Ian McLay, Simon Kennedy and James Ramsay supported this central construct and provided an exceptional adaptable space that allowed a seamless transformation between scenes as well as capturing the timeless non-naturalism. The multi-layered platforms literally became the school play stage; a Gold Coast Resort; a caravan park, and the beautiful beach where the families come together.

Another ‘play with interpretation’ involved a rather unsympathetic representation of Tom’s character. Whilst he was suffering from a terminal cancer of the blood and would normally elicit pathos, the character was emotionally detached and it was left to the mothers of the play to evoke an emotion reaction from the audience. Possibly this could have been in reference to Tom’s role as Puck in the school play or to general teenage disaffection, however whilst appreciating this it did not sit comfortably.

The entire cast put in an enormous amount of work into this production, and it shined through in their delivery of lines and obvious comfort within their performance space. Stella Charls and Grace Davenport especially delivered incredibly moving performances, even as the male characters delivered some of the most personally affecting dialogue. The inexperience of most of the cast compounded the achievement of the production – in that the believability of the characters was sincere, including the only-too-believable unsympathetic ones!

The idea performance within a performance was retained and was used to great effect, highlighting that sticking to traditional interpretations can still illicit strong elements within a production. The idea that a ‘holiday’ can solve everything is still believed and so the play has a contemporary relevance even without deliberately manipulating the dramaturgical constructions.

Where this Trinity production was so successful, was that it made me want to rush out and read Away myself so I could formulate my own reading to compare - and that I think is ultimately what the production intended to provoke.

First review EVER for Union House Theatre > Semester One 2008

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Retro Review: The Imaginary Invalid by Molière (2008)

Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid was originally performed as a ‘comedy-ballet’ for the court of King Louis XIV in 1673. In accordance with its comedic tradition the play is ironically most famous as being the playwright’s final comedy – with Molière collapsing on stage whilst playing the title role and dying shortly after! Queen’s College Music and Drama Society presented a highly entertaining interpretation of the traditional farce. Ambitiously directed by Ben Landau it was an often darkly satirical reinvention that successfully updated the play for a contemporary audience.

The scene is set for comedy by Argan, a hypochondriac who is - unfortunately - not ill enough to prevent himself from meddling in the lives of those around him. He is surrounded by traditional archetype family characters: the evil-step-mother; the concerned brother; the fussing maid who knows too much; and the loving daughter. From outside the family come the dashing lover and the boring suitor (and his father) to vie for the daughter’s affections and a collection of eerie professionals.

In this production we were introduced to these many characters in the wonderfully choreographed sequence that opened the show. A character procession was a beautiful way of setting the scene without explicitly stating to the audience all existing relationships. It also gave each actor the opportunity to capture effective characterization without dialogue which was both a credit to their expressive skills and a teaser for the audience of what was to come.

With farce it is often difficult to maintain a consistently high level of comedic energy and to the credit of the cast; they kept it at a maximum for most of the performance. Highlights included the contrasting of short Monsieur Diaforus with his very tall son Thomas. The physical comedy of this pair was hilarious, as were their university pretensions!

The production team delivered a beautifully realised aesthetic. Katie Skillington’s set design contrasted large geometric construction with intricate details; and Laura Ulph’s slightly surreal costumes literally became part of the characters. The dominating palette of black, white and sepia also gave an ideal canvas for Tom Fifield’s imaginative lighting design. Check out the photos: www.queeens.unimelb.edu.au/ii

The original score composed by Musical Director Anna Van Veldhuisen both complemented and enhanced the action on the stage with the live gypsy band adding yet another layer to the performance. Further music was enjoyed outside the theatre during interval when we were treated to an Eastern European inspired series of performance artworks that performers seemed to enjoy as much as the actual play.

It’s interesting to perhaps interpret this play in terms of our contemporary reliance on large pharmaceutical companies to provide us with medicine. The sinister lurking presence of the Three Doctors gives a menacing quality to those who value the business of medicine over the practice. Perhaps like Argan we should all become doctors and treat ourselves. I would prescribe this play to myself, as enjoying the Imaginary Invalid made me forget my lingering cold – and after all laughter is the best medicine!

Review for Union House Theatre Semester 2 > 2008

Retro Review: The Killing Game by Eugene Ionesco (2008)

The Bitter End followed a recent trend of reviving Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist work for a contemporary audience. The Killing Game was written in 1970 but this production resonates just as strongly today as we face issues and crisis. In director Katherine Payne’s words: “Absurdist Theatre begins with very human characteristics… it shows us ourselves…[and] how we respond to disaster.”

Plague has long been a theme that has lurked in the collective conscious of humanity. It remained metaphorically relevant throughout the twentieth century through the philosophy of the Existentialists. The Killing Game follows a similar narrative arc to Albert Camus’ The Plague but addresses the enclosed city and its epidemic not through the eyes of a few, but the words of many…

… and the deaths of many!

The production team of Katherine Payne and Elizabeth Payne created a truly magnificent production. The black and white aesthetic was stark, yet beautiful and the set design incorporated the inspired use of six white boxes with split stable-doors allowing for free-flowing transitions between scenes. The direction and design team worked closely on this production as was most evident in the prison scene where the combination of all dramaturgical elements was exceptional.

Backing up the creative team was an ensemble cast of this production who were incredibly adept at transforming into their multi-persona roles – and then dying! It is unusual to assemble such a balanced group and the emotion and humour of every indiscriminate death was performed with strong belief by every actor. The scene where loved ones returned to the plague city was a personal highlight.

The choice to focus on the underlying issues rather than wholly on the comedy did not detract from this production and perhaps even reinforced the bitter taste to the laughter. There is a certain edge to a laugh from 30 000 bodies burnt in a day and this production emphasised that right to the Bitter End (!).

Really retro, all the way back from 2008! Union House Theatre Review.

Retro Review: In To The Woods by Sondheim and Lapine (2009)

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a convoluted interweaving of classic Brothers Grimm fairytales into a musical. This is of course Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, which remains widely performed and celebrated.

The gist of this fantastical tale is that, “Happily Ever After”’ ends only the first act. It seems that every one is “so happy”. Cinderella and Rapunzel get princes; the witch her beauty; Jack money and his cow back; Little Red Riding Hood a wolf skin cloak; Granny a renewal of life and the new characters of baker and his wife resolve the curse that has left them childless and are now expecting. Yet beyond that lasting happiness there is the continuing reality of each character’s everyday lives. The most destructive extension is that of the Giant’s wife who is seeking revenge for the murder of her husband. As the others scramble to evade her footsteps, in true moralistic fairytale tradition we are taught that all actions have consequences. Fortunately this message is received through a most enjoyable show!

Indeed the program synopsis ends with the warning “[be] careful of the legacy we leave, the tales we teach, and an awareness that no matter what battles we fight or whose side we’re on, all actions have consequences.” This is certainly true; however the writer and composer of Into the Woods are far too clever to browbeat the audience, the number of laughs outweighing the rueful nods.

Director, Scott Dunsdon’s production of Into the Woods demonstrated both the creative diversity and artistic vision of The University of Melbourne Musical Theatre Association (UMMTA). Starting with the wonderful show itself he has presided over a magical piece of theatre.

Set designer Robert Smith (MUSC Macbeth 2008) provided instant visual impact with his inspired set design. His aesthetic not only grounded the piece in a minimalist fairytale world but coupled with Zach Oates evocative lighting, gave an eerie, yet familiar feel to the woods. The layered panels of painted canvas that formed the woods were silhouetted not only with trees and branches but also a typewriter script that alluded to the literary origins of the characters. Being able to make out the live orchestra through the panels was also a very refreshing concept that complemented both the sound and style of the piece.

Performing within the stylised space was an exceptionally talented cast. This was apparent not only in the voices of the ensemble but also in the dedication demonstrated in the portrayal of their characters. In such a performance, singling out particular cast members (apart from Milky White the cow!) is very difficult. In a musical, such contributions from all the cast are ideal and it reinforced the high production values of this show.

Once upon a Wednesday evening a girl in a grey coat wandered into the theatre. She spent a couple of hours discovering the wonders of the woods, departed with music wafting through her head and a new appreciation of the importance of fairytale and the mirror it can hold up against our contemporary culture. “I Wish.”


Semester One 2009, review for Union House Theatre

Retro Review: In To The Woods (2009)

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a convoluted interweaving of classic Brothers Grimm fairytales into a musical. This is of course Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, which remains widely performed and celebrated.

The gist of this fantastical tale is that, “Happily Ever After”’ ends only the first act. It seems that every one is “so happy”. Cinderella and Rapunzel get princes; the witch her beauty; Jack money and his cow back; Little Red Riding Hood a wolf skin cloak; Granny a renewal of life and the new characters of baker and his wife resolve the curse that has left them childless and are now expecting. Yet beyond that lasting happiness there is the continuing reality of each character’s everyday lives. The most destructive extension is that of the Giant’s wife who is seeking revenge for the murder of her husband. As the others scramble to evade her footsteps, in true moralistic fairytale tradition we are taught that all actions have consequences. Fortunately this message is received through a most enjoyable show!

Indeed the program synopsis ends with the warning “[be] careful of the legacy we leave, the tales we teach, and an awareness that no matter what battles we fight or whose side we’re on, all actions have consequences.” This is certainly true; however the writer and composer of Into the Woods are far too clever to browbeat the audience, the number of laughs outweighing the rueful nods.

Director, Scott Dunsdon’s production of Into the Woods demonstrated both the creative diversity and artistic vision of The University of Melbourne Musical Theatre Association (UMMTA). Starting with the wonderful show itself he has presided over a magical piece of theatre.

Set designer Robert Smith (MUSC Macbeth 2008) provided instant visual impact with his inspired set design. His aesthetic not only grounded the piece in a minimalist fairytale world but coupled with Zach Oates evocative lighting, gave an eerie, yet familiar feel to the woods. The layered panels of painted canvas that formed the woods were silhouetted not only with trees and branches but also a typewriter script that alluded to the literary origins of the characters. Being able to make out the live orchestra through the panels was also a very refreshing concept that complemented both the sound and style of the piece.

Performing within the stylised space was an exceptionally talented cast. This was apparent not only in the voices of the ensemble but also in the dedication demonstrated in the portrayal of their characters. In such a performance, singling out particular cast members (apart from Milky White the cow!) is very difficult. In a musical, such contributions from all the cast are ideal and it reinforced the high production values of this show.

Once upon a Wednesday evening a girl in a grey coat wandered into the theatre. She spent a couple of hours discovering the wonders of the woods, departed with music wafting through her head and a new appreciation of the importance of fairytale and the mirror it can hold up against our contemporary culture. “I Wish.”

Semester One 2009, review for Union House Theatre

Retro Review: THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu (2009)

CTG’s 2009 Mandarin production was a performance of Thunderstorm, a play that occupies an important part of Twentieth Century Chinese Theatre tradition both in terms of its success and its confronting subject matter. Thunderstorm operates on a staged premise of dramatic intrigue – where two generations of relationships between an upper class family and their servants become intertwined into tragedy.

These incestuous relationships were apparently considered scandalous in 1934, but to a certain extent the horror has diminished in impact for the modern audience. In an age where we are somewhat desensitized to suffering and abhorrence there was perhaps a little less drama in the situation. From such a classical premise the audience can clearly saw the ‘reveal’ and how it would destroy the characters. In fact these faulted but empathetic characters ploughed on through the action, it was as if they were victims to the plot as well as fate.

Cao Yu’s script may be long, far fetched and frustrating but his strength was to write multi-layered characters that are never exactly as they first seem. This left the audience in unique positions including sympathising with the promiscuous Ping who was not only managing a long-term affair with his step-mother but was about to elope with his step-sister.

The highlight of the show was undoubtedly the quality of the cast, who all managed to create commendable performances despite the difficult subject matter. With a show of only ten cast members there is no space for mediocrity and nowhere to hide and everyone delivered convincing, well directed performances. Those who played the older generations were assisted with realistic makeup but their physical representation completed the effect remarkably. The focus of the actors was also impressive considering the inattentiveness of much of the audience on the night I attended.

I realise when dealing with a play that comes attached with success and traditions there is a reluctance to tamper with the original text and perform it as it would have been eighty years ago. However it is often worth taking off the gloves, grabbing the play with your bare hands and moulding a new adaptation that as fresh piece of theatre will better resonate with your intended audience. Thunderstorm would have been much more accessible to a contemporary audience had it been adapted with that specific demographic in mind.

For those not fluent in Mandarin, finer details too, may have been lost with the translation – the subtitles whilst good were not quite as comprehensive as previous CTG shows and unfortunately there were a few technical hiccups in the process. Of course, this will tighten as the season progresses and it was still possible to understand the majority of the action. That CTG goes to the trouble of providing subtitles is fantastic as it lends a welcome inclusiveness to their performances for any audience member not fluent in the language.

Using realism in tackling such a cumbersome text is commendable and worthwhile, yet there remained a connection missing between this show and the audience. Engaging the audience is an integral part of the theatre experience and needs to be considered when performing long-established works to a generation that filters societal, family and political thunderstorms everyday through the media.

Semester 2 2009 > again review for Union House Theatre.

Retro Review: The Puppets (2009)

The Puppets is essentially an ambitious social critique of modern society and the capitalist mentality that drives it. The story revolves around a Master Puppet maker who creates a puppet without strings, creating the puppet’s soul with a magical music box. Ben – the puppet – is a unique personality but is perceived as a unique product by most of the people who encounter her and eventually even her creator wants to destroy her in favour of soulless puppets that can be mass-marketed. The societal commentary comes through with the symbolic significance of the puppet applying to each of the characters who are trapped, not in control of their destiny and ultimately controlled by another higher force.

As an original musical the script was complemented with an interesting blend of song. The orchestra sounded wonderful and it was a special treat to see them in the under-utilised orchestra pit. Working with the music was a strong vocal cast – with most characters getting a chance to shine on stage. Although channelling the “musical genre” into new territory is always commendable, perhaps the continual breaking into song could be seen to disrupt the social commentary of the script. It would be interesting to see an edited version of this production with less song and more focus on the interaction between the characters. Some of the most engaging parts of the performance were the interactions between Nanny and Miss. Jin; Mr and Mrs. Dhou; and the two girls reading a story.

Most of the performers had a good stage presence and seemed to be enjoying the show. I especially enjoyed the onstage chemistry between the Wonton King (Sail Zhang) and the Cobbler (Vincent Yim) who provided some well-timed comic relief as well as strong performances. Sara Hung also played Ben with a delightful innocence that was captivating. As a non-Mandarin speaking audience member, the sur-titles were easy to read and it is testament to the production values that The Puppets was accessible and enjoyable for the entire audience.

All the action occurred in a beautifully stylised setting. Jason Mooi’s set designs provided a streamlined backdrop for the action. The Factory scenery was particularly impressive, yet such complex scenery comes at a cost with the transitions leaving a lot of dead time in the performance. Working out a way to cover this for the majority of this time would help to keep the momentum of the show at a higher level – although of course through the run the scene changes will naturally quicken.

Director Jia Hsien Liao appears to have had many ideas for the show, but some of them could have been developed further theatrically. For example, when the audience first encounters Mr. Jin he is seen only in shadow as a looming corporate presence swivelling menacingly in his chair. This was a very powerful image – yet the excellent symbolic representation of power was undercut when he actually appeared on the stage in the next scene and was a merely a man in a suit. The power/control dynamic of the work may have been strengthened if he remained in shadow – pulling at the puppet strings.

The Puppets is a worthy part of the Mudfest11 program as it deals with the idea that in some situations there are no hidden spaces to hide away from the fact that you are not in control and we all are puppets.

Review written for Union House Theatre Semester 2 2009 - as I said, this is retro!