By George! ambition

Pygmalion

Gardens Theatre

August 11 – 17

Years before it became “My Fair Lady”, “Pygmalion” proved to be George Bernard Shaw’s most popular play, but not sentimentally so. Rather, the playwright used the 1913 story of transformation as a social commentary, to expose (rather than glorify) misogyny. And in their ambitious interpretation, QUT Bachelor of Fine Art Acting and Technical Production students certainly do this intent justice.

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Things open on a rainy night in London’s Covent Garden market. A varied group gathers together under a bus shelter, satirically postered with a Narcissist perfume advertisement. Among them are a couple of colourful flower sellers… literally, given their vibrant costumes. And so the show’s dynamic aesthetic is established, not just visually but through multi-media, music, dance and even a later mid-scene rap.

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The story begins as the lurking Professor of Phonetics, Henry Higgins (Harley Wilson) emerges to converse with common flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Meg Fraser). She is deliciously low in the eyes of the celebrated Higgins (who is himself far from the charmer of the musical film adaptation), but she has a quick ear that allows him to later accept a bet from his sensitive sidekick Colonel Pickering (Daniel Gabriel) that he can turn her into someone who speaks English like a duchess.

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Before long a couple of months of lessons have passed and Eliza is taken to meet Higgens’ mother (Maeve Hook) and the visiting Eynsford-Hills (Olivia Bird, Maddy Exarhos and Michael Vandersande). Although she now speaks in beautifully modulated tones, it is still sometimes in delivery of her usual turns of phrase. And in make-up for no ‘rain in Spain’ there is still hilarity in Eliza’s new small talk with updated shock factor. But this is just the beginning of her troubles.

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The modernised, but not entirely contemporary take, works well, with microphones and video cameras facilitating Higgins’ science of speech studies, meaning that even dialogue talk of pounds and pence is not jarring. In particular, full backdrop screen projections add another layer to aspects like Eliza’s linguistic lessons. An exciting soundtrack also enhances interest, particularly in its use of Panic at the Disco’s high energy ‘Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time’, including ‘Rock Lobster’ sample, during which live video footage takes the audience backstage along with actors to party with the crew around the props table et al.

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Even if they sometimes appear a little extraneous to the story, aesthetically rich and rewarding moments such as this, capture the appeal of the show, both old and new. And while its characteristically witty writing remains, in for example Higgins’ self-important comments about women and how they upset everything, reactions from the audience to the sexism of his statements illustrate the play’s vintage.

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Although accents are not always sustained, in their final public performance while training at QUT, the third-year actors, all do an excellent job. By George, Harley Wilson captures the more multi-layered character of this Henry Higgins, barely bridled in his enthusiasm for his recreation experiment and ill-manneredly unconcerned about the problem of the afterwards. Indeed, his initial mockery of Eliza and physical comedy bring many laughs, along with Meg Graser’s physical nuance of little movements and gestures, even when in the background of the action. She gives an extremely assured performance as Eliza, not only in her transformed rebellion, but in her early groaning, moaning and boo-hooing about being a respectable girl who means no harm but wants to speak more gentle to work in a flower shop. And they ably supported by the others on-stage, especially by Molly Burnett as Higgins’ matter-of-fact housekeeper Miss Pearce, who serves as a voice of reason, foreshadowing revolt in her wonder as to what is to become of Eliza after Higgins has finished his teaching. Michael Vandersande is a similar standout as the put-upon Freddy, enchanted by Eliza upon first meeting her. His high-pitched enthusiasm amplifies his socially awkward persona, but in an endearing way.

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Clearly, “Pygmalion” has stood the test of time, because it is a comedy, but also so much more, based as it is on the classical myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with the statue of a woman he has made. Its reworking now, more true to is dark comedy than exploration of romantic clichés, highlights Shaw’s feminist views which provides a more of a modern resonance than ever. And, along with its talented acting and David Bell’s visionary direction, this is what makes this production such a success.

Prudent politics exposed

A Prudent Man (Lab Kelpie)

Gardens Theatre

May 11 – 12

“A Prudent Man” is a theatre piece quite unlike most others. More extended monologue than anything else, the award-winning dark and comical one-man political piece sees a well-groomed, confident-looking man enter to sit alone on stage as a bright light shines upon him. The simple staging gives the appearance of a television interview or perhaps it is as part of an investigation…. But what could he have done wrong?

The self-righteous, conservative politician (Lyall Brooks) is never named, however, there is a familiarity as to how he talks of his fondness for walking each day while wearing his green and gold tracksuit and his hail of cricket above all other sports. Less specifically, his sloganistic speech and ritualistic mannerisms are familiar too as he ranges from arms-wide-open rhetorical question honesty to frenetic dialogue and fist-pumping rage. The awareness is understandable given the speculative piece’s inspiration in real life political events; it uses real speeches and lines from politicians such as Donald Trump, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Margaret Thatcher, John Keys, Joe Hockey and John Howard just to name a few. There is a lot of comedy not just from these parallels, but from the man’s tangent talk and recall of flashbacks such as to beach-side holidays.

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“Nobody wants to see that,” he says in reference to the few and far between public appearances of his now older wife, although the same could maybe be said of his base ideas. Essentially he is an unlikeable character, but Brooks gives him a touch of vulnerability too beneath the shifting goalposts of his increasingly bolder brags about personal fitness and insistence that he is just an ordinary and relatable bloke exposing basic values. Admonished by some for being anti-pc, he is certainly conservative in his anti-feminist and ‘go back from where you came from’ type sentiments expressed in build-up to ultimate explanation of what has happened to necessitate his interview/interrogation.

This is clearly a flawed, troubled man who, in desperately trying to justify his political beliefs, straddles the precarious line between protagonist and antagonist of his own story, which makes for a fascinating piece of theatre. Despite remaining seated for its duration, Brooks gives a resonate and compelling performance; the monologue is full of movement as goes from placid to animated in eventual recall of ‘the incident’. Repetition of figurative language is used to create rhythm and subtle lighting changes highlight escalating tension as his comfortable character crumbles with revelation of his truth.

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The show, which is written and directed by Katy Warner, runs for fifty minutes, however, it feels like longer such is its provocation and political resonance in Australia and globally (the character himself is an amalgamation of recent history’s conservative politicians). Indeed, in asking what it means to be right, in more ways than one, it gives audience members much to ponder in relation to the modern political machine, which makes it a worthwhile dip into something a little different from the theatrical norm.

Extra star power

Stone in His Pockets (Critical Stages)

Gardens Theatre

March 31 – April 1

County Kerry is a quiet, close-knit Irish community where everyone is a cousin or sorts and everyone’s stories have already been heard the night before in the local pub. So when a Hollywood crew comes to town to make a film (fil-em in the local dialect), there is excitement as many locals are hired as extras. This sentiment shifts, however, as growing friction develops between the locals and the Hollywood visitors.

Extras Jake (Sean Hawkins), a local boy just returned from failing as an actor in America and Charlie (Grant Cartwright), a down-an-out stranger who aspires to be a playwright, bond in the spare time that extras have to pass waiting on set. Initially it is their friendship that is the focus of Maria Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets”, however the complex two-hander becomes so much more as the two actors bring 15 unique characters, both men and women, to life in a high-energy show that never loses a beat as it fills the stage with characters.

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With just the simplest of costume addition of headband or glasses, and accent alterations, Hawkins and Cartwright spin into rapid character changes that never compromise the narrative or leave the audience confused about who is who. Indeed, even in what is, in essence, a conversation with themselves, never does the action descend into farce. Memorable characterisations emerge from Hawkins as Mickey, an elderly villager whose claim to fame is being the last surviving extra in John Wayne’s “The Quiet Man” and Cartwright’s presentation of the pivotal Carolina Giovanni, the spoiled, superstar American actress who stars in the film and tries to seduce Jake, expertly achieved with just flip of a scarf and share of a sensuous voice.

The physicality required to quickly establish each character’s individual identity through just body language, facial expressions and varied voice brings much humour to the already witty script. In fact, it is the show’s greatest appeal as the pair never complete change costume and never leave the stage, but rather transform with confident fluidity that is beautifully blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in execution.

“Stones in His Pockets” is a cleverly crafted piece of theatre that maintains its engaging energy even as things become less light-hearted in Act Two as the story behind its initially-obscure title is revealed through a tragedy that affects the townsfolk and threatens to shut down the film’s production.

Complemented by a catchy soundtrack of the Cranberries and Shania Twain sort, this is a high energy show from start to finish, that crescendos in audience treat to an Irish jig on stage. There are times too when the fourth wall is broken in the most wonderful of ways as the performers blend into the audience and audience members, as extras, are addressed in how to react within certain scenes.

“Stones in His Pockets” is a good story told well, made even better by what audiences don’t see coming. And its exploration of the idea of a story in which extras are the main players and stars are the extras, is interesting in its consideration. The tragi-comedy represents an ideal balance of humour and emotion and, as such, is absolutely charming.

Dance diversity

Dance 16

Gardens Theatre

November 1 – 5

Attendance at a show such as “Dance 16” can be initially trepidatious for someone largely unfamiliar with the histories, traditions and contemporary imaginings of dance. However, you needn’t be acquainted with the intricacies of the discipline to marvel at the skill on show from QUT’s Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance Performance) students at the cusp of their professional careers.

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The show features five numbers, curated to showcase various moods and styles of dance, beginning with ‘Before’, curated by Gareth Belling with the dancers. With 17 dancers taking advantage of the ample stage space, the work shows shades of Belling’s work in Collusion’s ‘Muscle Memory’, which wowed audiences at The Judith Wright Centre earlier this year, as dancers move together in lines and break out in small groups, always with show of strength and grace. A simple costume pallet allows the dance to speak at its loudest and Ben Hughes’ lighting design enhances atmosphere, especially in the second number, ‘Pint Size 2017’, which is filled with evocative shadows.

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Numbers are of various length with the final from Act One, ‘Danzas Argintinas No. 2 – Danza De La Moza Donosa – An Excerpt from SDC’s Grand’ (choreographed by Graeme Murphy AO), being both the shortest and also the most impressive and engrossing in its stunning visual representation of the fusion of dance and piano and show of the strength, flexibility and control of traditional ballet. Then there is the more narratively driven ‘A Tragic Love Story’ (choreographed by Joseph Simons), which opens Act Two with a rock eisteddford vibe. Still, it is difficult not to give over to its experience when its soundtrack starts with some Blue Brothers, ends with Beyoncé and features some fine swaggersome moves along to its JT sounds.

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This familiarity of soundtrack and choreography, is soon juxtaposed by the final number ‘We are Schadenfreude’ (choreographed by Richard Causer), which, in its exploration of the German word describing the emotion of ‘damage-joy’, goes from aggressive to sensual movement and then the strange synchronised slapping of faces into cake, dancers leashed around stage and spinning about on the floor.

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Certainly “Dance 16” presents audiences with a diverse program of performances. Its curation not only allows for celebration of the graduating students as they undertake the final stage of their transition into industry, but emphasises their versatility and skills though its wealth of choreographic ideas.

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 Photos c/o – Fiona Cullen

Marvellous Marx mayhem

An Evening with Groucho (Frank Ferrante)

Gardens Theatre

November 8 – 9

There is a comforting feel to the start of “An Evening with Groucho” as award winning actor Frank Ferrante takes to the stage like an old school entertainer to tell of his discovery, at age nine, of the comic anarchy that is the movies of Marx brothers Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo. Before long, however, Ferrante has transformed on stage into the distinctive American comedian and film and television star Groucho Marx to present impression of what a one-man show from the comedy great might have been.

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With blackened eyebrows and added moustache he becomes an iconic image of another era. The show, too, is like a dinner theatre one of old as, accompanied by pianist Alex Wignall, he assails the audience with rapid-fire vaudevillian and physical humour designed to entertain even the youngest of family members in the audience, but also laden with innuendo. Audience interaction is ongoing throughout the show as Ferrante leaps on and off the stage to revisit gags. This interactivity adds to the intimacy of the evening, especially in Act Two which sees him hilarious ad-libbing through a tour of the stalls, always incorporating Groucho’s sharp style in his interaction, such is the calibre of his own witty spontaneity in off-the-cuff, casual commentary.

The part-standup, part-cabaret, part-biography features songs, anecdotes and some of Groucho’s best one-liners and, as such, is packed full of puns as he tells stories of his family, reflects on the brothers’ different personalities and talks of the movies they made. Act One flies by in a bustle of frenetic, zany energy and while Act Two opens with a more subdued ‘Show Me a Rose’ and homage to the ‘other Marx brother’ Margaret Dumont, the actress who served as stately comic foil to the comic mayhem in seven of their films, it too soon speeds along with signature numbers such as ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’ and ‘Doctor Hackenbush’.

Ferrente has spent a large part of his career playing Groucho to critical acclaim all over the world and is, as expected, brilliant at combining the verbal and the physical. He inhabits the role absolutely with every naughty eye roll, innocent eyebrow raise and playful throw of hands in the air. Vocally, his pace, emphasis and cadence are absolutely on point and it is easy to see how Morrie Ryskind, co-author of the classic Marx movies “Animal Crackers” and “A Night at the Opera”, could declare him to be “the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended.”

Even if you don’t know much about the Marx men, there is much enjoyment to be had in experience of “An Evening with Groucho” for ‘there’s no such thing as an old joke if you never heard it before’. Besides which, everyone is sure to at least know of ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’, if not from the Marx Brothers’ “At the Circus” then at least Kermit the Frog’s “The Muppet Show” rendition complete with muppet pig version of the queen of tattoo.

“An Evening with Groucho” is a marvellous nostalgic experience of mayhem, mimicry and reproduction at the hands of a consistently brilliant conjurer of frivolity and it easy to see why so many audience members were back again after having seen the show two years ago. Its trip through the songs, dance routines, and stand up of legendary comedian is hugely entertaining, especially for those who appreciate a good dad joke.

Merchant mirth

The Merchant of Venice

Gardens Theatre

October 5 – 8

“The Merchant of Venice” is filled with some of Shakespeare’s most common motifs; it is set in Italy, a letter is sent to Padua and twice in the play daring escapes are executed through cross-dressing. Yet, it remains one of the canon’s most challenging, and, therefore, rarely performed works for modern audiences, thanks to its anti-semitic themes. However, under the direction of Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, QUT’s second year Acting students present the work in a way that speaks clearly of our prejudiced modern world, while remaining authentic, respectful and rigorous.

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The play begins by following the young and impulsive Bassanio as he sets out on a quest to woo Portia of Belmont. To do so, he must borrow from his titular wealthy merchant friend, Antonio. Because Antonio is currently cash-poor, having invested his money in overseas mercantile ventures, they need to seek the help of a disenfranchised moneylender, Shylock. While Shylock is initially hesitant due to Antonio’s; previous anti-semitism, he eventually agrees to the loan on condition that he can carve out a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot punctually return the funds.

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Following the loan agreement, Bassanio is able to win Portia’s hand and heart when faced with a guesswork game of choice of three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead, forced upon her by her deceased father. When Antonio’s ships miscarry and his estate grows low, his bond to the Jew is forfeited so Portia, unbeknownst to Bassanio, disguises herself as a man and travels to Venice, pretending to be a doctor of the law to free Antonio from his execution at Shylock’s hand. Not only is Antonio’s life spared but the court proceeds to punish Shylock by forcing his conversion to Christianity.

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In spite of his contemptuous final reflections, many audience members see the ending as one of horrible injustice for the Jewish moneylender and this production brings a degree of sympathy to the antagonist’s loss of everything he values. Although not the ‘old Shylock’ referenced in the text, Ryan Hodson is excellent in the role. Of hunched physicality but robustness of voice, his layered performance ranges from rage in reaction to his daughter Jessica’s elopement with the Christian, Lorenzo to delight at the prospect of revenge upon Antonio, adeptly incorporating humour, villainy, and empathy as he makes his story both one of an angry old man, pushed to barbarity by the barbarism around him as much as a comment on race.

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As Antonio, the arbitrary victim of Shylock’s rage, Tom Wilson is an early standout, setting the tone of the text, despite only appearing occasionally on stage. His Antonio is one of honour but also much melancholy amidst his generosity, which is revealed especially in scenes with his dear friend, the equally confident and arrogant Bassanio (Karl Stuifzand), with only suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between the two.

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Ebony Nave brings an emotional range to the prominent and intelligent Portia, especially evident though her reactions in the third casket scene where she initially feigns disinterest to appear nonchalant but then hopes for the success of Bassanio, a Venetian, scholar and solider visitor in her father’s time. Self-assertive after his correct choice of the lead casket, her performance is playfully energetic, particularly in the final scene resolution of the ring plot.

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The cast excels at performing the Bard’s dense language with conversational tone and easily find the play’s moments of mirth. Tom Cossettini and Alex Neal are delightfully dexterous as comic-relief clowns Lancelot and his father Gobbo.

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Portia’s satiric recalled cataloguing of her wooers according to national stereotypes is full of light-hearted fun and Alex Neal also delivers a hilarious pantomimish performance as Portia’s second potential suitor, the egotistical Prince of Aragon who, when faced with the silver casket’s inscription ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves’ assumes desert and the instant unlock of his fortunes.

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QUT’s second-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) students have created a sharp and clear “The Merchant of Venice” that balances humour with its examination of the baser aspects of humanity. Ultimately, however, its theme of racism prevails and by throwing light on this, the work serves to showcase the universality of its themes of justice and mercy, showing how it is not Shakespeare plays that are timeless.

Photos c/o – Fiona Sonja de Sterke