Playing the laughter on

Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

August 24 – September 8

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

As their previous productions in the parklands have shown, The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble rarely disappoints in bringing the Bard’s works to life and in the group’s hands, “Twelfth Night” is accordingly a hilarious share of its revels.

The perennial favourite features many of Shakespeare’s predictable play patterns; there is a shipwreck, a countess in morning, a lovelorn Duke, misplaced love, confusion of twins, a girl disguised as a boy, a melancholy fool and of course a letter. The combination makes for a memorable romantic comedy of mistaken identities.

The play centres on twins Viola (Anthea Patrick), a young woman of aristocratic birth and Sebastian (Silvan Rus), who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who is disguised as a boy) falls in love with the powerful nobleman Duke Orsino (Lilana Macarone), who in turn is in love with the wealthy and beautiful Countess Olivia (Linda Taimre). Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

Although the narrative necessitates a truly ensemble production, within the madness there are some outstanding performances. The lively comic scenes become highlights in the hands of Paige Poulier as the crude and jolly Sir Toby Belch and Chris Vaag as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, appropriate for a play in which the fools are the ones who control the humour through creating confusion. When joined by Rob Pesalfini as Feste to become three merry men rowdily turning the mistress’ home into an ale-house, the result is total hilarity, of both the physical and verbal kind. For as Feste proclaims in Act One, “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit”.

Chris Vaag’s performance as the foolish knight, goaded into duelling and slowly having his money pilfered by Sir Toby, is a standout; he steals not only every scene but every moment he is on stage as the dim-witted and vain clown, with a Frank Spencer-ish wimpish smile and woe-is-me persona. And he is a hilarious, nuanced drunk who, even when intoxicated, is capable of making a good pun. And when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are joined by one of Olivia’s servants, Fabian (Silvan Rus) in the garden of Olivia’s house to play their practical joke on the notoriously-abused Malvolio (Colin Smith) there is more mirth as the three men hide among the trees and shrubbery.

As the melancholy Malvolio, Smith is initially indignant and self-righteous as the stern, straight-laced head servant in the household of Lady Olivia. And even before the full effect of the cruel trick in making him believe that Olivia is in love with him is revealed, there is hint at evocation of audience sympathy in his Act Two monologue consideration of the forged declaration, thanks to an engaging delivery that exploits timing and emphasis to full effect, making the lines appear as clearly as if they were in a modern text. And then there is the Malvolio of later acts, hysterical as he struts about wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire).

This is a polished production that makes the most of every opportunity. Cover costumes enhance characters and add visual appeal to the often intimate staging, as once again, the audience sits upon the stage, allowing action to be spilled into the tiered amphitheatre and lush parkland surrounds. And it is appropriate for a show that begins with the immortal lines ‘If music be the food of love play on”, that live music features as another highlight, not just as a vital part of the show itself, but pre-show and at intermission, from a band of multi-talented cast members. This also an authenticity to the experience as the ragtag band of merry minstrels go on to bring the Shakespearean classic alive in such as gloriously chaotic manner.

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Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is a vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic company whose work is always worth watching for not only its entertainment value but its success in making the Bard’s works so accessible to modern audiences. With such a vivid text, lively performances and atmospheric additions, “Twelfth Night” guarantees a great time to had by all.

Shadows of the right

Shadowland (Pilobolus)

QPAC, The Playhouse

August 23 – 28

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“Shadowland” is an incredibly clever combination of acrobatics, dance and shadow theatre that sees a cast of nine transform into a group of many mythical beings and monsters as its Pilobolus dancers stack and reshape their bodies to create innovative shadow shapes. And the result is simply magical, sure to see audience members with mouths agape and smiles aspread in equal measure.

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Its story is a surreal one, telling of a nameless female adolescent who, longing to escape her reality is beckoned into her dreams and beyond her bedroom wall into discovery of the shadowland. As she is transformed into a dog, strange creatures appear, sometimes as threat. This takes audiences through both uncomfortable and comic segments. There are quieter moments of simplicity too, such as when, having been poured into her nightclothes, the protagonist is transported through scenes and dreams afloat across and in lift from the male dancers.

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Technically, it’s impressive, particularly in its plays with perspective and employment of a range of shadow shapes using just the ensemble’s bodies behind its series of various sized screens. With hints of Brechtian stagecraft in juxtaposition to the illusions being created on the screens, racks of props and costumes are placed around the stage. Although this suspends belief as to how some shapes are created, it ultimately enhances the show’s appeal through enabling audiences to fully appreciate the wonder of what they are experiencing.

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This is a spectacular example of ensemble work in creation of the fantastical (but not always fantastic) story. While parts of the narrative do not seem entirely appropriate for its aimed family audience and its story’s circus interlude appears more random than eclectic (despite some impressive acrobatics), ultimately “Shadowland” is all about its amazing human construction, layered by a spot-on soundtrack. This is no better illustrated than in the show’s exciting encore, which sees revisit of the work’s most impressive shadow creations, appropriately set to ‘Joy’ (Part 1) by David Poe, followed by representation of iconic New York and Australian images, including localised choices, in this case referencing Lone Pine and Surfers Paradise.

“Shadowland” is a slick show that delivers what it promises and so much more to the child within the adult.  At 80 minutes duration, it provides perfect duration of it visual delights and charm, best just enjoyed without overthought around its potentially passé and problematic narrative.

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Brotherly brilliance

True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box)

Brisbane Powerhouse

August 17 – 28

Often I judge a show’s engagement by how long it is into its duration before I am tempted to check the time. By this criteria (and in fact by any gauge), “True West” is brilliant, so searing as to only warrant a watch look in hope that it might not be over quite so soon.

It begins with Ivy-league educated Austin (Julian Curtis), a respectable professional working as a Hollywood screenwriter on a movie project and minding his mother’s house in California during her trip to Alaska. His intentions are soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his anti-social brother, Lee (Thomas Larkin), a petty-thief fresh from three months living the desert. As the contrasting civilised and savage men, the two represent opposite sides of the American Dream, but share in desperation to escape the story of their unseen, alcoholic father.

Seedy drifter Lee burgles houses for a living, living rough out of necessity. Grubby in attire, he either cannot interpret or is ambivalent towards social cues and expectations, showing his short temper through eruptions of violence that shock the audience on more than one occasion. When he mocks the material comfort of neat houses and manicured lawns, however, it is clear that this normality is what he desires. In fact, the brothers each crave the other’s life, however, when it seems like this may be happening as Lee seals a deal to sell a cliché-clad movie premise of his own to Producer Saul (Charles Allen), the reality is different from the desire. And when the tables are turned (literally) the result is the controlled chaos of a mesmerisingly messy, physical show as the good boy and outlaw face off in the story of whose story it’s going to be.

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Playwright Sam Shepherd is known for his creation of complex and real characters and this is certainly seen in this production. You can feel the tension between the two leads from the strained interaction of the introductory minutes as the disparity of the opportunities afford to them growing up becomes clear. The on-stage exploration of the consequential emotions makes for a searing study that is both gritty and often very funny, moving smoothly from humour to pathos in an instance. The writing is superb, and, in Director Marcel Dorney’s hands its dialogue is allowed to tumble naturally over itself in contribution to its vigorous pace, while still maintaining the strain of the brothers’ estranged relationship. The juxtaposition is simply spellbinding to watch.

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This is a play of epic roles and Curtis and Larkin exploit them for all that they are worth. Larkin is excellent as he inhabits the arrogance of the deliberately-guarded but brutal Lee, from his slouched-shouldered stance to his aggressive walk and intimidating demeanour. His performance is layered beyond just the character’s physicality too, enabling the audience hint at a suspected secret respect for his comparatively successful brother. Particularly in Act One his presence is a force that can only be appreciated through experience in person, shrinking the audience to eye-contact avoidance as he speaks.

While much of Act One sees Austin seething silently in reaction to his brother’s emerging opportunist success, his Act Two drunkenness is riotously funny, especially when he returns with the spoils of Lee’s dare that he could not steal as successfully as him. There are many possibilities for physical humour within this section of the show and Curtis doesn’t miss any of them. Solid in support is Allen as lounge-suited smick Hollywood producer Saul and Christen O’Leary as the boys’ out of touch mother, returning home to their hostilities in the final scene.

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There is nothing to fault in this production. Even the music accompanying scene transitions is in keeping with the Western motif. Designer Genevieve Ganner’s staging sets the scene of a naturalistic but dated living room setting, complete with ‘70s laminex, which is basked in an overall, warm lighting glow. Lighting (c/o designer Jason Glenwright) also creates intimacy in enveloping a rare tender sibling interaction as Austin shares the story of how their father lost his false teeth in a Mexican bar.

“True West” is an absolutely engaging exploration of life and family. But there is much more to its themes that its sibling narrative. And as the brothers smash about, it is the destruction of their dreams that resonates more beautifully than their mess onstage. At once funny and deeply unsettling, it is an experience sure to stay with audiences long after leaving in knowledge that they have witnessed what is sure to be one of the best works to hit the Brisbane stage this year.

Creative Collusion

Muscle Memory (Collusion)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 17 – 20

Collusion‘s “Muscle Memory” is an exquisite experience of creative collaboration; the shared artistic adventure features the versatile music quartet and exciting young pre-professional dancers from the Queensland Ballet presenting a collection of five heartfelt and virtuosic works. And the result of the heightened synchronicity of dance and live music is simply superb… an experience sure to stay with audiences regardless of their level of dance acquaintance.

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From the opening number ‘Urban Myths, a look at the image of the ‘perfect marriage’ and what might lie beneath its sepia photographs, it is clear that all of the dancers are first rate in both execution of former Queensland Ballet’s Gareth Belling’s choreography and conveyance of that something magical that defines ballet. At once graceful and strong, they demonstrate precision, subtlety and strength, whether through Pointe technique or Fouetté, across the range of numbers, from the lyrical liquidity of duets like ‘Mourning Song’, about a woman remembering a lover who has died and their one last dance together, to the machine-like collective synchronisation ‘Transition Sequence.

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Collusion, as always, exude excellence, none more so than Benjamin Greaves. His powerful violin performance alongside Cellist Danielle Bentley from front of stage steals the show during ‘Mourning Song’, such is his dynamism of his thoroughly engaging skill. The World Premiere of Philip Eames’ commissioned piano quintet ‘Annealed Cyan Malt’ is also a highlight, adding another layer to the already-unique ‘Refraction’, during which dancers are all signed a colour, and can only interact with the colours directly next to them in the spectrum.

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Supporting the works’ thematic diversity is Ben Hughes’ luscious lighting design, taking audiences from the contrasting passion and tranquillity of ‘Urban Myths’ to the kaleidoscopic colour and energy of ‘Refraction’. Noelene Hill’s careful costumes, too, create some stunning imagery, such as that of Hannah Clark swathed in an upturned tutu in playful competition with Daniel Kempson in ‘Transference’.

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“Muscle Memory” is Australian choreographed, composed, produced and performed art at its beautiful best. Its too-short season at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts offers an intimate and comparatively inexpensive opportunity to see the ballet stars of tomorrow that is simply tutu good to miss.

Photos c/o – FenLan Photography

Acquired absurdist tastes

Endgame (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

August 9 – 20

Through no fault of the productions, I have never seen a Samuel Beckett work I have liked. Absurdism is just a personal preference of theatre things I typically don’t enjoy (along with puppets and audience participation). And when it comes to absurdism, you don’t get much more apparently meaningless than Beckett’s dense one act play, “Endgame”.

Since it was first performed in 1957 “Endgame” has polarised audiences and critics alike. As in Beckett’s more celebrated “Waiting for Godot”, almost nothing happens in the bleak play. There is no real plot or clear message beyond individual interpretation of its allegory of the final stages of life.

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It opens with Clove (Leon Cain), limping around a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting shifting things about, before pulling dust cloths from the blind, wheelchair bound Hamm (Robert Coleby) and the garbage bins in which Hamm’s legless parents live. As Clove repeats his routine of meaningless gestures, there is a discomfort in the extended silences, but humour too in some of the smallest of his actions.

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As dialogue begins, Clove and Hamm’s relationship alternates between slave/master and son/father in move towards an ambiguous ending within its ultimate defeat. As they each make move, they do so to manoeuvre the other into a certain position, in reflection of its namesake term used to describe an ending in chess where the outcome is already known. And, accordingly, it is the pauses and spaces between the lines that bring the work to life, courtesy of the outstanding performances of its cast in mastering the musicality of the text.

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Coleby is an imposing Hamm, dominating those around him with a bullying final attempt for power, despite, or perhaps because of, his physical infirmity. As his sidekick Clove, Cain transforms from cavalier black-comedy jokester to one who is more cutting in his comments, taking the audience from mirth to sympathy. The most charming performances, however, come from Jennifer Flowers and John McNeill, who play Nell and Nagg Hamm, with pancake makeup that only exaggerates the affectionate humour that banters between them. It is a shame that they have so little stage time, in keeping with Beckett estate requirements that all producers ensure total adherence to Beckett’s texts.

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The production team too are obliged by estate stipulations, but still achieve an imposing aesthetic. The characteristically-Beckett setting is of a décor reduced to the barest minimum. Accordingly, Designer Josh McIntosh’s staging is sparse within the solitary room setting, and authentic in detail of dusty floor and weathered walls…. even Hamm’s three legged (toy) pet dog is ugly. As enhancement, the bare set is lit by Jason Glenwright with the chill of industrial blue and grey, conveying a feel like that of the company’s “1984”.

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“Endgame” is a risky production for any theatre company. Beckett is already an acquired taste and this is his most grim work, with meaning not unanimously accessible to its audience members. In its uncompromising portrayal of the human condition and despair of hopelessness, it offers much for audience members to consider with regards to their own lives and regrets. Whether you end up trying to find its meaning, your meaning or just enjoy its language, there is no denying that this is a work worth seeing, if only to form your own opinion of its worthiness as part of the dramatic canon.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Miss M Inspirations

Becoming Bette

Room to Play Independent Theatre Paddington Substation

August 11 – 13

“Becoming Bette” is exactly as its label promises. Although its focus and namesake is Bette Middle , it is not a show of impersonation or impression in homage to the Divine Miss M, but rather a share of her inspiration in Elizabeth Scales’ life. And the result is an immensely entertaining one woman show as audience members are guided through the stages of her divadom.

As Scales tells of her life’s iconic moments and beasts of burden, the the adage that you should write what you know proves true. Through show of family photos to provide context to the narrative of sorts, she tells of her early anti-pink persona and Pugsley ‘professional amateur’ performance days. The authenticity and intimacy of these sometimes self-deprecating stories make them the most appealing of the show’s segments and her later life reminiscence of travel tales seem token by comparison.

Scales is an enthusiastic, genuine performer who has created a gem of a show in “Becoming Bette”, sure to shine brighter with each performance polish. As with her 2016 Anywhere Festival work “Tragedy”, the show makes much use of multimedia in support of and conjunction with on-stage action. Although its opening scene of a samba dancing ‘Miss Brazil’ (cue some topical Rio Olympics references), the through-line for which is not clear until well into the show, does not entirely work in cohesion with what follows, the inclusion of video snippets of silver screen monologues of Scales assuming iconic Bette Davis roles is another highlight, showcasing her performance range.

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Scales shines, not only in dramatic delivery, but in the show’s many energetic comic scenes and song and dance moments (which even feature an audience sing-a-long). Her ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ number, for example, is so fantastic as to see audience members demanding an encore.

While this is a physical show, it also features lots of light and shade, especially as focus moves to its key message about the divinity of woman as unapologetic, spirited and strong, and highlight of the Bette in everyone. “Becoming Bette” is full of wonderful moments; at only just under an hour’s length, it has little time to drag and generally buoyants the audience along in Scales’ journey of self-discovery in becoming Bette. With development of its core concept of persona anecdote, you can Betty White your life that it will only get Bette(r)… a long as the coconuts aren’t cut.

70 years of QSO celebrated

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The Queensland Symphony Orchestra last week unveiled Season 2017, the first under the acclaimed conductor Alondra-del-la-Parra as Music Director, and fittingly for a year celebrating its 70th anniversary, it will welcome a star-studded roster of sensational soloists and conductors.

The brave, bold and adventurous season offers a program of powerful, beautiful and stunning orchestral music sourced from many traditions and styles. It includes 10 maestro concerts supported by special events including Maxim Vengerov in Recital, Morning Masterworks, Choral Series, Music on Sundays and WorldBeat Concerts.

In a significant international coup, master violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov, appearing again in this year’s season finale performing his signature concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, has been announced as Artist-in-Residence. As such, he will join with the orchestra to present a series of extraordinary performances in February and November next year, from his Queensland-first solo concert hall recital, to a full scale performance of the great Brahms Violin Concerto.

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Another landmark event (and Australian premiere), to mark composer Phillip Glass’ 80th birthday, will see the QSO partnering with international orchestras in presentation of his Symphony no 11. But adhering to the adage of saving the best for last, the spectacular season finale in November will be Carmen In-Concert, the full Bizet opera in concert, with an international cast led by the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova in her debut Australian performance.

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Opening the season in February, Alondra de la Parra will present the next instalment of her epic Mahler cycle, with Symphony No. 1 The Titan, during which she will be joined by Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo (Zee Zee) in her exclusive Australian debut performing Mendelssohn’s piano concerto. A further feature of the evening will be Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, which was the very first item performed at the QSO’s inaugural concert in 1947 in the Brisbane City Hall. It promises to be an appropriate start to the QSO’s 70th season celebrations, jammed packed as the year is going to be with spectacle. Subscriber bookings for Season 2017 are open now. Single ticket sales open in late October.

Natalie Low (QSO Violin 2) & Warwick Adeney (QSO Concertmaster)