Histrionic history

Elizabeth 1 (Monsters Appear)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 1 – 3

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Elizabeth 1st, the Virgin Queen is of such infamy that she is recognisable by image alone, so from its pre-show marketing, we know that she is to be the focus of the new one woman show from the award-winning Monsters Appear, “Elizabeth 1”. It’s office setting, complete with bulky desktop computer et al, suggests that this new comedy is not of her era. The setting is, in fact, East Sydney pharmaceuticals circa the late 1990s. Emily Burton is Elizabeth Templeton and this is her tale…. or is it?

The initial loyal pharmaceutical employee’s story is a sad one of ineffectual alarms, missed buses and too-hot coffee as she plays with her pug dog, reads about famous monarchs and looks forward to an after-work Halloween costume party. And Burton is magnificent in her realisation of her flighty character as much as her later transformation into a Queen with the heart and stomach of a king. She glides around the stage in glorious Elizabethan garb and hits every cue with precision in merge with sound and lighting. The stylised result is at once dramatic and memorable, as they accompany the ghost-like vision of the Tudor monarch in take of the audience on a shamelessly theatrical trip inspired by the poems and future visions of Good Queen Bess herself, as well as the words of her famous 1588 Speech to the Troops at Tibury in preparation for the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

“Elizabeth 1” has Director Benjamin Schostakowski all over it, from its opening title sequence to blast of a Cutting Crew contemporary soundtrack, but, short as it is on narrative, it feels more experiment than complete work, running significantly shorter that its advertised 60 minute duration. Indeed, while its histrionic tackle of history takes audience members to many different places and periods in the show, in its current form, the journey is more intriguing than engaging.

For Puck’s Sake

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 11 – March 7

Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the story of four star-crossed lovers, the coming nuptials of a duke and duchess, a growing feud in the land of the fairies, and the comedic antics of a theatre troupe. Add a magical forest to the mix and you have the makings of a delightful show. But unless you are familiar with the text and eager to see a bold, dark interpretation of the play, this might not be the show for you.

Immediately, it is clear that this is far from a traditional realisation of the classic comedy. Audiences won’t be seeing a forest, for there are no trees. Rather, the detailed set gives the play a new location in a kitschy 1970s suburban home. There are no (visible) magic fairies and while there is a Puck, it is not the mischievous, quick–witted sprite of Shakespeare’s traditional text. Instead, he is reimaged as a disembodied voice Poltergeistically conveyed through a flickering television.

These are daring textual changes, from a Benjamin Schostakowski, a director who has never feared brave choices, for although there is little character development in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important character in the play. Puck’s whimsical spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humour, and lovely, evocative language are lost in his technological reincarnation. And the forest is integral to the story, both in terms of setting and scenes, creating a dark, wild, mysterious atmosphere in which the magical elements of Shakespeare’s plot can be played out; to lose it, denies the play one of the central elements of its fantastical atmosphere.

Surely one of the ambitions of adaptation should be increased accessibility. And while emphasis and pause bring a modern sensibilty to dialogue delivery, this alone, is not enough. The plot is very important in Shakespeare’s comedies given their typical convoluted, twisted and confusing natures. However, having just six actors perform 14 roles, (complete with many a dodgy wig), using the play’s original Elizabethan dialogue, makes for an unclear start, especially to audience members unfamiliar with the play’s multiple plots.

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Many Shakespeare devices are still evident, apothecary intervention, cross dressing and a play within a play and there is much humour in the Act Five realisation of the Pyramus and Thisbe story by the crew of incompetent amateur actors. The Act Three farcical scene of Helena (Emily Burton) chiding Hermia (Kathryn Marquet), and Lysander (Kieran Law) and Demetrius (Pacharo Mzembe) ready to fight one another for Helena’s love, is full of hilarity, but its over-the-top physicality unnecessarily detracts from humour of a script that already includes puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke thoughtful laughter.

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As Helena, Burton bring her role to glorious life, in every aspect, especially through her engaging soliloquies. And Law is an enthusiastic Bottom, inhabiting the physically of his various guises with impressive commitment. Christen O’Leary (initially unrecognisable in tragic wig) is wonderful when as the nymph Titania, but is ultimately underutilised.

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Indeed, on paper, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has all the ingredients for success – an accomplished ensemble cast, a talented director and expert sound and lighting designers in Wil Hughes and Jason Glenwright, yet something, it seems it still missing (beyond just Puck). Freaky, funny, chaotic and confusing, this is a dream unlike any other, typical of Schostakowski’s quirky genius and delicious darkness and there are many people who will admire it accordingly. And traditionalist bias aside, this can only be seen as a good thing, for it highlights how Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry still has the power to entertain, move and enthral us in such a variety of ways.

Serious strangeness

Klutz – A Tragicomedy (Monsters Appear)

Theatre Republic, The Loft

September 9 – 13

“Klutz – A Tragicomedy” is a peculiar story from the mind of playwright Benjamin Schostakowski, Director of the Matilda Award-winning “A Tribute of Sorts”. Perhaps the show’s most striking moment is its opening tableau – the slanted, shingled rooftop of Klutz Books, from which the entire piece takes place. The show’s protagonist, racoon-eyed and sullen-cheeked teenager Melchior Klutz (Lucas Stibbard) emerges from its attic window and struts about the roof. All emo-ish in his exaggerated woe, he laments of his life in justification of his planned suicide, to shock and confuse all who knew him. Fate intervenes in the form of an errant shuttlecock and he meets neighbour Hendrik (Neridah Waters) who is soon drawn into his uncomfortable, kitshy world. Together they gather each evening on the rooftop to plan his demise and rehearse his funeral, with things never really going exactly as planned.

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More comedy than tragedy, “Klutz” is a both endearing and hilarious. Stibbard is simply wonderful as the young and upset Melchoir, all awkward in his adolescent attempts at swagger. Waters, too offers many comic moments in the physicality of her teenage self-consciousness.

That the lively comedy can transcend such dark subject matter is a credit not only to the realisation of the extreme characterisations, but the cleverness of Schostakowski’s writing, which captures with precision the perfect balance of the peculiar and the macabre. Indeed, in its (slight) boundary pushing, the show is very much like other works from Schostakowski’s cannon of quirkiness, particularly “A Tribute of Sorts” which featured in encore season as part of this year’s QTC line-up. Comparisons to Wes Anderson and Tim Burton are immediate, however, what makes this Schostakowski in style is the additional aesthetics. Retro ‘70s music marks scene transitions and film-like credits roll in the darkness, listing cast and crew, comforting the audience into the show’s heightened realism.

As a seriously strange tale of sexed-up misery, (entirely miserable and fully-sexed up), “Klutz” is a definite highlight of the 2014 Brisbane Festival program and one whose season is all too short. Hopefully we will be treated to another incantation soon for while its serious subject matter may seem like a strange premise for humour, the darker you get, the funnier things sometimes become.

A tribute of the strangest sort

A Tribute of Sorts (A Monsters Appear Production presented by Queensland Theatre Company and Metro Arts)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

May 7 – 17  

It’s difficult not to be apprehensive walking into “A Tribute of Sorts” given the “warning, comic depictions of death” notice at the entrance to the Bille Brown Studio. Inspired by the curious book “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, by Edward Gorey, the show is black comedy at its strangest, as its cousin characters, spiffy teenagers Ivan (Dash Kruck) and Juniper (Emily Burton) present a variety show in which, as homage, they re-enact the 26 untimely deaths of a series of alphabetically named children.

But this is a show about moments more than stories – awkward and uncomfortable moments between the strange but loveable pair of protagonists. Kruck and Burton are quirky and charming in their determination (to the point of desperation) to have their tribute show (of sorts) to the lost children, which serious, amateur dramatist Ivan has devised, succeed. Both give faultless, naturally nuanced and hilarious performances of subtle looks and the power of their uneasy pauses only helps to engender an endearing empathy, particularly Burton in her depiction of the melodramatic teenager torment of being in love… . with her cousin.

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Despite its macabre Tim-Brutonseque themes, Benjamin Schostakowski’s dazzlingly inventive play, which premiered in La Boite’s 2012 Indie program, is also show of much sparkle, featuring glitter, gold and a Vaudellian-esque magic show to the sounds of Pilot’s cheesy 1974 song “Magic”. The memorable music is also often bright and bouncy, in contrast to the sombre Whistler’s-Mother-like lounge room backdrop. However, this clash of moods does not detract from the show; rather it serves to highlight how essentially weird, wonderful and witty it is. The writing cleverly weaves the stories together and although pacing is slow at first, it ultimately swells to be almost cinematic. This is also a highly visible show, full of memorable imagery. Indeed, there are some good design choices to showcase its diverse array of performative influences (from multimedia to puppetry).

“A Tribute of Sorts” is a delightful romp, delicious in its dark humour and compelling in its joyous, heartwarming story of storytelling.  It is mayhem of the most oddball kind and yet,‘o, ho, ho, It’s magic, you know, Never believe it’s not so’.

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