Melbourne Festival: Lexicon

Director Firenza Guidi discusses discovering the arts and creating Lexicon

By Lois Maskiell

“Circus found me in a way,” recalls Firenza Guidi, “this was in the early ’90s, circus wasn’t even an art form in its own right in the UK.”

Since 1995 Milan-born director Firenza Guidi has created award-winning productions for NoFit State Circus. Beginning with Autogeddon followed by international tours of Immortal, Tabú and Bianco, Guidi has carved a name for herself and her distinct performance-montage style.

Firenza Guidi. Photograph: Seventh Wave.

Nofit State Circus’ latest work Lexicon brings Guidi to Melbourne for the International Arts Festival. In the Royal Botanic Gardens moments after a presenting a work in development to the public, Guidi reveals how she first discovered the arts. “When people say how did you start, I don’t even know because it’s not even in my family,” she tells me.

Both Guidi’s parents were chefs who owned restaurants and thanks to a customer of theirs she frequented venues such as La Scala from a young age. “As a child, one of the daily customers who became a friend of the family belonged to what is called la claque.” She explains that a claque was group of people who received discounted tickets in exchange for starting the applause. “So, from the age of five, I saw ballet and opera and sometimes I would fall asleep, sometimes I would just watch the machinery of it, the spectacle of it,” she says.

Lexicon is indeed a spectacle. Set inside a tent featuring purpose-built apparatus entirely operated by body weight, it’s also an ambitious piece of contemporary circus. The concept began three years ago when Guidi decided to create a classroom of misfits performing on nine desks which elevate into the air. “When I first said that, everybody looked at me like I was mad,” she says.

Guidi’s direction takes a series of individual acts and places them in a larger whole each separated by clowning scenes. Her unique brand of physical comedy references past traditions like the Fratellini Brothers and commedia dell’arte by incorporating voice, acrobatics and carefully rehearsed errors giving the effect of spontaneous chaos.

Her sharp comic eye is no doubt influenced by her training with the crème de la crème, including master clown Philippe Gaulier and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Dario Fo. “Clowning is about accepting some parts of you, and all of you, that have to do with weaknesses and idiosyncratic things,” Guidi enthuses. “With clowning, you need to be kind of born every single time in the eyes of the audience,” she adds.

She comments that the audience might not realise how difficult it is to utilise both the ground and the air when directing for circus. “Sometimes it’s taken for granted when people see my shows, but I don’t mean in an arrogant way, it’s taken for granted that connection between floor and aerial,” she tells me. Guidi admits the labour involved in developing new equipment: “It took three to four years to create a rig whereby the trapeze elongates by wires and allows the performer to step out, as if it’s an ordinary motion,” she says.

As a freelance director, Guidi’s agenda is filled with projects well in advance. Lexicon tours next to Marseille though this time she won’t join the company, “I will be going to Chicago to lead ten would-be directors into a process of creating shows for a site-specific location,” she tells me. On top of directing Guidi runs Elan Frantoio a creation centre in Tuscany. The centre houses an annual summer residency now in its 27th year where Guidi assists artists to interrogate their work as to “imbue it with a new life.”

For Guidi, interrogation and research are essential parts of serious artistic pursuit. “Circus performers will not all go into Cirque du Soleil, they will not all go on cruise ships, some of them might want to create their own work,” she says. “And who is going to push the boundaries if we don’t research?”

NoFit State Circus’ Lexicon is being performed until 21 October as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Photograph: N.Cioni

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Review: Suddenly Last Summer

Steamy portrayal of decadence and corruption 

By Leeor Adar

Tennessee Williams, the Mississippi native and master playwright had a knack for unearthing the steamy splendour of human decay. In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams’ choice of name evokes the sense of a thrilling and romantic episode in the most carefree of seasons, but instead delivers a quiet horror that lurks in the shadows of memory.

In a gorgeous cultivated New Orleans garden, Mrs Violet Venable (Jennifer Vuletic), an older dame with a cane, flourishes on stage to seduce Dr “Sugar” (Charles Purcell) to lobotomise a young relation who knows the dark secret behind the death of her son, the unseen and ever-present Sebastian.

The staging is swathed in falling gardens and mist, and one cannot help but be intoxicated by the allure of wealth and the power it carries. Violet exerts her power upon those around her, and yet it entraps her. Her character is perfectly juxtaposed with the equally seducing but refreshingly volatile Catharine Holly (Kate Cole), the last person to see Violet’s son alive. In an attempt to understand what has happened to Sebastian, Dr Sugar administers drugs in the veins of Catharine to render her loose-lipped. After a kiss from her lips, Catharine seals Sebastian’s mysterious fate to the captive audience, including her desperate mother (Zoe Boesen) and brother (Harvey Zielinski).

The daring Stephen Nicolazzo (Merciless Gods, Salome, Psycho Beach Party, sex.violence.blood.gore), manages to direct a subtle and intensely entrancing production of Suddenly Last Summer. The performance of Vuletic is an initial standout as the neurotic Violet. Her striking embodiment of old-world glamour and kookiness makes her a centrepiece for the play. Wheeled about on whim by her faithful servant Miss Foxhill (Chanella Macri), Violet lives between cocktails and memories. The sickening Oedipal elements of Violet’s relationship with Sebastian pervade the play, and it is no surprise that Sebastian in his one moment of freedom abroad loses all control of his life. The punishment for his companion Catharine, are the memories of a life touched by privilege and violence. Cole is wonderful as Catharine, showcasing the character’s incredible vitality and fragility. Her final recollection of events is so moving and realistic, that I am transfixed upon the powerful imagery she creates and the tears that roll down her face.

Suddenly Last Summer is an ode to marvellous storytelling; enriched with symbolism and elegance, Williams’ writing comes alive in this play. Sebastian sees God, and God in turn like the cloud of birds upon the shore, upends Sebastian’s good fortune in one fell swoop. The only force greater than nature and establishment appears to be truth, and Catharine delivers it even to the non-believers.


Suddenly Last Summer is being performed until 4 November at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. 
Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9533 8083.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

NINE – The Musical

Romance and writer’s block: musical adaptation of Guido Contini’s life

By Owen James

StageArt present yet another rarely performed musical masterpiece with Nine: The Musical which explores the dozens of exhausted mental catacombs belonging to the arrogant, tortured and “genius” filmmaker Guido Contini. As he endures a mid-life crisis approaching his fortieth birthday, his emotional and sexual frustrations obstruct his usual creative liberty.

At first, it is difficult to understand what relevancy Nine has in 2018 – it is a show revolving around a man worshipped by women and who in turn often objectifies and mistreats them. Lines such as “there are only two kinds of women in the world – wives and whores” could easily be taken with offence in today’s socio-political climate, which must be considered when re-mounting any piece of art from the past. But despite Guido’s ego, it is ultimately his mental health that is explored in Nine, making a welcome contribution to the all-too silent public conversation surrounding this. And any production that can display the talents of sixteen women as strong as those in Nine must be welcomed to the stage.

And if there are two elements to surely praise in this production, one is unquestionably the talented female cast and the second is the music of Maury Yeston. In the opening song, Guido is literally swallowed by a sea of long hair and elegant cocktail dresses: jaw-dropping for the sheer number of powerful women who command both our and Guido’s attention. It’s a hypnotic effect, and their constant presence throughout the rest of the show builds to an overwhelmingly beautiful cacophony in key moments.

Clear standouts from this incredibly strong ensemble are Rachel Bronca as seductress Carla, the phenomenal Bronte Florian as Saraghina (who truly shines in her scene with young Guido and in Be Italian), and Stephanie John as fast-talking, intimidating Stephanie. All three deliver sensational, captivating performances.

Anthony Scundi delivers a strong performance as Guido Contini, but noticeably struggles with his vocals – perhaps reflecting a strained voice following weeks of intensive rehearsals. Scundi’s stage presence successfully delivers Guido’s delusion as he dips between fantasy and the real world and his increasing madness in indecision – creatively, emotionally and sexually.

Director and choreographer Michael Ralph ensures this madness manifests at every opportunity. He has created a world where the lines between fantasy and reality are skilfully blurred, exacerbating Guido’s confusion and descent into mania. Ralph’s choreography is sublime, ranging from angelic obsession in Overture Delle Donne, to disrupted delicacy in The Grand Canal, and to dirty, sharp, cathartic movement in showstopper Be Italian. The open, transformable set by Ralph and Tom Willis accompanied by gorgeous lighting from Willis breed an inviting atmosphere where anything is possible, and indeed at any point we could be inside Guido’s daydream, nightmare, or real-life torment. Dazzling costuming from Meredith Cooney complete this unbridled visual nirvana of dreams and possibility.

Alana Tranter as loyal, dependable wife Luisa evokes our pity but warms our hearts in Be on Your Own, and a special mention must be given to Kershawn Theodore as Young Guido (alternated by Brierley Smith) who hits every move and note with sharp precision – he has a bright theatre career ahead of him.

The score by Maury Yeston is rich, sophisticated and powerful. In every song, the orchestra, led by musical director Nathan Firmin with AMD Peter Pham Nguyen, is utterly stellar, capturing every emotion from the original 26-piece orchestration with only eight staggeringly talented musicians – but you’d think it was many more from the full and textured sound they produce. Near perfection in sound design from Marcello Lo Ricco delivers crisp and clean vocals with a beautifully balanced band.

Based on Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½, Nine is best described as Company meets Follies meets Loving Repeating, with a dash of Passion and Cabaret – and notably won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score for the original 1982 Broadway production. If you’ve seen the 2009 film adaptation, you absolutely haven’t seen the stage show – they are barely cousins let alone siblings (the stage show is far superior).

Nine delivers fast-paced, dark material with an extremely talented cast, addressing creative pressure and the power of female influence. As with all StageArt presentations, Nine is not a show you’re likely to see again anytime soon in Melbourne – and certainly not in such an intimate, intricate production.

NINE The Musical is being performed 12 October -13 November at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: supplied 

Review: Gruesome Playground Injuries

A dark and unbound comedy

By Owen James

For Doug and Kayleen, physical pain is the cornerstone of their fragmented but lifelong relationship, always bringing them together and pushing them apart. New York playwright Rajiv Joseph has deconstructed this powerful and torturous obsession in Gruesome Playground Injuries, a dark comedy that presents segmented and unordered glimpses of these characters’ relationship between the ages of seven and thirty-seven.

Director Jessica Dick has masterfully constructed each vignette, connecting the puzzle pieces of Joseph’s script with heart and affection. Dick has ensured that as we see this relationship evolve, our understanding of them as both individuals and as a shared entity deepens. Their meetings and injuries are sometimes coincidental and sometimes quite decisively premeditated, but they would be lost without each other.

Each sequence is connected with precisely choreographed movement as the characters drift between years and locations. These moments are beautifully designed and allow space for audience reflection on each scene before. Combined with stunning compositions from sound designer Joshua Bliss, each transition is treated to a Lynchian paradise that makes these shifts between age and tone interesting and engaging.

Both Christian Charisiou and Laura McIntosh are highly capable of presenting these two unbalanced and traumatised characters. They find great humour in each scene – especially when playing young children – and reflect truth in two characters that could quite easily be simple and comical. Charisiou (also the producer) has crafted a chilling character in hostile, self-destructive Doug. His presumptuous and cocky attitude is what ultimately perpetuates the narrative, demonstrating his strength and propulsive power as an actor.

Laura McIntosh’s defensive Kayleen struggles to comprehend anarchic Doug, but yet is fascinated and soothed by him. McIntosh delivers mesmerising monologues and embraces Kayleen’s turbulent journey with vigour and warmth. Together, McIntosh and Charisiou construct an unlikely though believable pair, delivering detailed performances that well and truly sustain this two-hander.

The transformative properties of the versatile Loft Theatre at Chapel Off Chapel never cease to amaze me. I’ve seen over a dozen shows in this space, with each production delivering a totally unique design, making you feel like you are in a different space each time. Production designer Ella Butler has created a unique and imaginative set that reminds me initially of an Operation game board, with dozens of resourceful and reusable props scattered throughout the space atop a flat white base.

Special effects by Courtney Clarke are startlingly realistic and highly effective, with macabre wounds and scars applied by the actors themselves onstage. Sound design by Joshua Bliss as mentioned earlier is extremely powerful, cinematic and reflective. Faint background noise in different scenes cements the constantly shifting location and creates realistic environments.

This nonlinear “jumbled chronology” of events leaves us to ponder destiny and coincidence: were these two fated to magnetise together even from the first scene of untainted childhood innocence? Did they resist a cosmic force or simply drift apart? By choice, or by chance?

As they are impaled on various objects, they are also impaled on each other’s psyches. Between firework mishaps, self-harm and romantic infection, the play draws us into this united lifetime of disaster and tells the story of how two people simply came to understand the other’s pain, and why they so deeply need it to survive. It’s a moving and extremely successful production that will stay with you long after it ends.

Gruesome Playground Injuries being performed 10 – 20 October at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: Sanjeev Singh

Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel

Seductive and scintillating performance art 

By Leeor Adar

Moira Finucane and her troupe of alt-glitterati storm upon the Luna Park Speigeltent; it’s all shimmies and wild confidence, and I admit I’m excited to see what’s dished up.

Finucane & Smith (Finucane and partner Jackie Smith) are my favourite kind of art collectors – they find unique artists to celebrate and perform with, taking their shows across the globe and showcasing a daring kind of stage appeal not often seen in Australia. I was first enamoured with Finucane’s work in the acclaimed Carnival of Mysteries, which submerged its audience in an unworldly and exciting place.

Finucane has an enormous stage presence; admittedly it’s unfathomable to think of anyone like her. Her magnificent height and figure coupled with her tremendous voice command a room, and it is at this point she rapidly takes her disco-pumping show to socio-political territory. No stone is left unturned in Finucane’s summation of the week’s events. Whether you agree with her or not, it was an unexpected turn for a dance-hall inspired show. It’s not the first time a performer has turned up the heat in the age of live-streaming, but I was expecting Finucane to take a different approach.

Once we were sufficiently enlightened, I was completely sucked into the thumping beats in an ode to various styles of music and performance, particularly to James Welsby voguing out, or the Bollywood craze ignited by Paul Cordeiro. The evening took another turn with the epic voice of Willow Sizer sizzling us with her Berlin-cabaret flair, and Clare St Clare gliding on stage to provide us with her scintillating vocal breathiness.

Dance Hall establishes itself as a variety show of amazing and fearless talent, and as the second act rolled round, I was pleasantly surprised by the humour and brilliance of ideas on display. I marvelled at the wonderful Maude Davey as she spun us into a frenzy of laughs dressed as planet earth, and then serenaded the audience into a misty-eyed state with her ballads. Finucane returned to utterly own the stage in a seductive pie-splattering performance that will have me looking for alternative uses for tomato sauce hereafter. I was eventually thrown by Mama Alto into the depths of my emotions with a rendition of Des’ree’s Kissing You, a performance which absolutely nailed in its final moments the vocal gymnastics of the piece.

Overall, I walked out of the spiegeltent satisfied and a touch overwhelmed. I was seduced by its glamour, blushed at its candour, and sighed at its occasional poignancy.

Dance Hall: The Diva Carousel was performed 10 – 14 October at the St Kilda Spiegeltent in Luna Park. See See here for the latest updates of Finucane & Smith.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Song for a Weary Throat

Dark and majestic physical theatre

By Lois Maskiell

A woman scrambles up a slope on all fours, never reaching the top. Another woman walks around the stage desperately asking her fellow performers to “please dance with me”. A performer jumps as if in aerobics class lifting each leg until she cannot continue any more, finally she lets out a wild yell. These are but three samples of what is to be experienced in acclaimed ensemble Rawcus’ devastatingly beautiful, Song for a Weary Throat.

Without text, without a linear plot, without any assumed structure to rest your experience upon, the production encourages a reading that insists on surrendering to sensations and abstract responses, rather than reason and logical interpretations. Director Kate Sulan paints not with a brush but with a cast of fifteen with and without disability. The interplay Sulan strikes in each vignette between the physically rich performance, lighting and sound keeps the overall configuration constantly transforming and fluid.

Lighting morphs from brutal to gentle thanks to Rachel Burke’s design which opens with a startling sequence that shatters all expectations. After Nilgun Guven scratches an quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy on a chalkboard, it is safe to assume we will be entering a sort of darkness. Blindingly harsh lights illuminate the entire auditorium in concentrated flashes accompanied by Jethro Woodward thunderous sound effects. The setting – an abandoned gymnasium – has leaves strewn accross the floor and fraying chairs which provide endless opportunities for the performers to sit, pause and even throw.

Formations that single out individuals remain seamlessly positioned within a whole which rarely strays from overarching themes of isolation and despair. Despite sharing the stage, the performers often appear disconnected, though occasionally layers of connection are revealed. Their hollow expressions out number their warmer displays and it is this dominating misery that I found crushing and at times difficult to bear.

Gian Slater, Joshua Kyle and Louisa Rankin of the Invenio Singers flood the stage with unearthly sounds, even forming unusual harmonies with humming and breathing. When Joshua Kyle wails into the microphone while holding Clement Baade’s hand, his majestic vocals build endless tension in a highly charged and consuming moment.

Rawcus exchange for your ticket a lost world of suffering that draws spellbinding depth from a whirlwind of sound, light and movement.

Song for a Weary Throat is being performed at the Arts Centre until 14 October as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183. 

Photograph by Sarah Walker featuring Prue Stevenson and Joshua Lynzaat. 

Review: Pelléas and Mélisande

Elemental and mysterious – Victorian Opera faithfully restages Debussy classic

By Lois Maskiell

The cruelly romantic Pelléas and Mélisande as produced by the Victorian Opera is an enchanting and loyal rendition of Claude Debussy’s only completed opera. Elegantly and simply staged, this tragic tale reaches the subconscious with its haunting orchestral score and celebrated motifs. Debussy’s ingenious ability to transform content across artistic mediums is revealed in the fact this opera is based on Belgian playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play of 1893. Belonging to the turn of the century, it is often associated with impressionist and symbolist movements in art and literature respectively, particularly due to its allusions to the natural world.

Caught in a web of duty, longing and revenge, Golaud (Samuel Dundas), his wife Mélisande (Siobhan Stagg) and half-brother and Pelléas (Angus Wood) form an ill-fated love triangle. After Golaud discovers the distraught Mélisande lost in the forest, he claims her as his bride and brings her to the castle where Pelléas and his parents Arkel and Genevieve (David Parkin and Liane Keegan) reside. As Mélisande passes increasing amounts of time with Pelléas, their secret relationship transitions from one of playfulness to passion before concluding with a strike of Golaud’s sword.

Palais Theatre’s ornate proscenium arch frames a fairly stark set which, excluding three spinning wooden structures, features only an enormous white sheet cast across the back of the stage. As smoke drifts from the wings, Joseph Mercurio’s exquisite lighting illuminates the backdrop establishing an ethereal atmosphere which grows increasingly lunar as soon as the orchestra and performers begin. Richard Mills conducts with great momentum and attention to silence; delicate melodic fragments sweep throughout the theatre evoking both the forest and confines of a gloomy castle. A highlight was the timpani which added foreboding depth to the score’s loftier sounds.

Capturing the famous image of Mélisande letting her hair down and Pelléas succumbing to passion, the beguiling modesty presented is indeed suggestive. Soprano, Siobhan Stagg is sublimely cast as Mélisande. Stagg brings complexity to such a belittled character who is constantly reminded of her timidity and childlike qualities by the male characters. Bass, David Parkin as Arkel reaches allegorical stature with his unearthly low notes. The rich baritone of Dundas fuels a charged Golaud, which contrasts to tenor Wood who stars in the more reserved role of Pelléas.

Director, Elizabeth Hill ensures each scene is clear and allows relationships, affiliations and individual characters to be expressed in beautiful unison with the music. While I wanted the chemistry between Mélisande and Pelléas to be more obvious, the strength and talent of each individual performer compensated for any great shortcomings.

Experiencing Pelléas and Mélisande, I felt as if I was suspended in twilight for the show’s entire duration. It left me feeling both mystified and perplexed by its disarming ability to enchant despite having such cruelty at its core. Victorian Opera has achieved an idyllic marriage of text, score and mise-en-scène with this production that deserves a much longer season.

Pelléas and Mélisande is being performed 11 and 13 October at Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 136 100. 

Photograph: Jeff Busby