Review: The Legend of Queen Kong

Punk, bawdy and a tad confusing

By Bradley Storer

Midsumma Festival 2019 launched this week, and what more appropriate way to blast off than with a story set in the deepest reaches of space?

The Legend of Queen Kong – Episode Two: Queen Kong in Outer Space is the latest endeavour from Sarah Ward, the performer behind the infamous Australian cabaret cage-rattler Yana Alana. Ward introduces us to the mythological and immortal being Queen Kong – half ape, half living rock – in the midst of an epic trilogy, a space journey commencing after a daring escape from Planet Earth. Backed by a queer and gender diverse punk band the HOMOsapiens (Bec Matthews, Gen Bernstein, Jo Franklin and Cerise Howard), Kong vaults from experience to experience in an intergalactic quest of sensation. Complementing the group is the omnipresent Motherboard creatively portrayed and signed by deaf performer Asphyxia via projection with a voice over by singer Ilana Charnelle, whose gorgeous music ranges from rock ballad to operatic aria. Accessibility is paramount in this production, with AUSLAN interpreter Kirri Dangerfield providing live signing (as well as doubling as performer) in addition to surtitles.

Ward commands the stage from beginning to end, wielding her gigantic and miraculously versatile voice with finesse along with her bawdy and fearless physicality. The HOMOsapiens, under the musical direction of Matthews, tear the house down in their rock numbers and play with delicate fragility in the softer musical interludes. Asphyxia, even in projection form, is so charismatic and engaging that they almost overshadow Kong herself!

The show seems deliberately designed to frustrate linear narrative convention, appropriate for a story that involves a black hole reducing time and matter to a singularity where beginning, middle and end merge. Kong reminds the audience at several points that it’s perfectly fine to have no idea what is happening as we loop from event to event, backwards and sideways in time, resisting hetero-patriarchal structures of storytelling.

While there is a wealth of riches in Queen Kong in terms of production, performers and form – as well as definite moments of deep beauty and emotion – it feels as though these elements never quite coalesce into a cohesive whole. Despite the clear themes of patriarchy, religion and resistance that emerge, we’re only left with the message Ward and the creatives of Queen Kong are trying to communicate through Joni Mitchell’s classic refrain: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. Nevertheless, the show’s sheer creative vitality and passion is more than enough reason to hope for more accessible-queer-feminist-punk art such as this!

The Legend of Queen Kong is being performed until 20 January at Arts Centre Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Peter Leslie

 

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Review: Macbeth

The Australian Shakespeare Company presents Macbeth

By Samuel Barson

Shakespeare in the park and under the stars. It seems like an idyllic way to watch the work of such a beloved playwright. Unfortunately, in the case of Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth, not even the magic elements of a balmy Melbourne night could save it from several elements of mediocrity.

Macbeth depicts the damaging physical and psychological effects that seeking power for power’s sake can have on an individual. The famous tale of power, greed and war was led this time around by Nathanial Dean in the titular role of Macbeth and powerhouse Alison Whyte as Lady Macbeth. In their driving roles, Dean and Whyte both excelled in the bigger moments of the play. The bigger moments being the play’s famous monologues. They tackled their respective monologues with ferocity and intensity, clearly understanding and appreciating the prose they were speaking. The smaller moments however, in which emotions and the stakes perhaps weren’t so high, drifted by and regrettably were overshadowed. Their decision to only put their energy into big soliloquies meant their characters were not as fleshed out as they could have been.

Among the supporting cast standout performances can be credited to Annabelle Tudor, Madeleine Mason and Syd Brisbane as the three witches – their energy and approach to the language was marvellous and exciting. Brisbane also brought what was perhaps the highlight of the night with a particularly hilarious portrayal of the much loved Porter role. The remaining characters were disappointing for the most part. It seemed there was a lack of clarity and understanding in both the scenes and dialogue. The rhythm of their speech rarely varied, meaning that moments went by unnoticed and engagement was lost.  

The design of the production was delightful, especially when the sun had fully set and the splendid lighting bounced off the surrounding trees and gardens, creating a unique theatrical atmosphere to be a part of. The lighting design was undoubtedly the highlight of the production. Andrew Nielsen’s sound design also provided some quality moments which brooded and seethed, especially in the scenes where Macbeth and his wife found themselves haunted by their actions.

Although the performances were not as strong or memorable as they could have been, the design brought an undeniably magical quality to this production that makes for a fun and unique night out at the theatre. Director Glenn Elston and the team have created a theatrical world well worth a visit during this festive summer season.

Make sure to bring bug spray! Mosquitoes love Shakespeare and they’re definitely out to play.

Macbeth is being performed until 23 February at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8676 7511. 

Photograph: Nicole Cleary

Australian Shakespeare Company presents Alice in Wonderland

Colourful and whimsical, with even a touch of the impossible

By Narelle Wood

The Australian Shakespeare Company’s retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is everything you would expect it to be, colourful and whimsical, with even a touch of the impossible.

The adventure starts, as any good adventure does, by following the White Rabbit (Kathleen Douglas) into Wonderland. On her journey Alice (Gemma Bishop) encounters many strange and wondrous creatures, including all the old favourites: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Mad Hatter (Dennis Manahan), and of course the Cheshire Cat to name but a few. Humpty Dumpty also makes an appearance, as does Absolem the caterpillar and the Duchess who has some interesting parenting tips.

There are plenty of opportunities for the younger audience members to engage with the characters and be a part of the show. The older generations need not feel left out as they also have a part to play helping to distract the awful Red Queen (Terri Brabon) from her stolen raspberry tarts. Of course, anything to do with Red Queen comes with the risk that someone might lose his or her head, but the risk is totally worth it.

The gardens at Rippon Lea Estate provide the perfect backdrop for Alice’s adventures, with plenty of space to enjoy a picnic and a special spot at the front so the smaller audience members can see. The storyline is enhanced by some very cute song and dance numbers, as well as some good humour to keep the adults entertained.

Everything about the production (directed by Glenn Elston) is great, but the costumes and puppetry are standouts. The White Rabbit’s costume is stunning, and the use of puppetry to bring Humpty Dumpty and the Cheshire Cat to life is very clever. The only thing that was really disappointing is that the cast finished their last song and went straight to photo opportunities with the children; it felt a little bit strange not to have an opportunity to acknowledge their fantastic performances with a round of applause. That being said the photo opportunity was hugely popular, the show a clear hit with the kids.

As a lover of the books, this production does not disappoint. It’s an endearing performance, and has everything one might hope for in a retelling that is appropriate for all ages. It’s a perfect way to spend a summer’s eve.

Alice in Wonderland is being performed at Rippon Lea House and Gardens until 27 January. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8676 7511.

Photograph: Nicole Cleary

Boyd Productions presents Alice in Wonderland

A colourful ride down the rabbit hole

By Owen James

Alice in Wonderland has been my favourite book ever since I was a child. Its timeless themes and madcap characters have lent the material to countless adaptations for more than 150 years, and this latest touring production is a faithful and colourful rendition that caters adeptly to the whimsy and adventure of children and adults alike.

As Alice ventures through Wonderland meeting assortedly chaotic characters and anarchic animals, she’s very pleased to quench her boredom from the riverbank at the top of the show. Younger children may find it hard to focus on longer scenes such as the Mad Tea Party or the trial of the Jack of Hearts, but overall this 60-minute production moves at a rate of knots, to keep every child engaged and entertained.

Adaptor and director Penny Farrow has ensured that despite the complex linguistic treats inherent in Lewis Carroll’s original text, her production delivers a world easily understood by children through larger than life caricatures and clear, comedic movement. Farrow relies greatly on the audience’s imagination to show Alice’s transformations when she grows and shrinks, and as ensemble members transform into doors, playing cards and wind, her very clever direction proves how little you need to tell a story.

Costumes by Diana Eden, Louisa Bannah and Gayle MacGregor are rich in colour and elaborate in design and detail. Kids especially loved the Caterpillar (Anthony Craig) and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (Sarah Whalen and Justine Anderson), as well as the expertly realised puppets by Dieter Barry Creations.

Georgina Walker leads the cast as audacious Alice, bringing smiles to small faces throughout the audience from the moment she first steps onto stage. Every member of this eight-person ensemble plays their part with joy and boundless energy – children are mesmerised.

Alice in Wonderland is fantastic school holiday entertainment filled with colour, gorgeous music and costumes, enchanting puppetry and extraordinary storytelling, all of which will delight children of all ages.

Alice in Wonderland was performed 10 – 12 January at Melbourne’s Athnaeum Theatre before touring to Frankston, Bendigo, and Perth. See here for more information about dates and tickets.  

Review: Wolfgang

Circus meets Mozart in a cheeky blend of classical and popular forms

By Lois Maskiell

Acclaimed Australian contemporary circus company, Circa, flip high and low art in their spirited and lively children’s show, Wolfgang. Titled after none other than the enduring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself, the production offers little ones an energetic and hilarious foray into classical music, complete with a live accordion, virtuosic acrobatics and even fart jokes.

Sparks begin when acrobat (Kathryn O’Keeffe) enjoys a solitary birthday moment while she spins a Mozart record on a nearby turntable. In instants, Mozart (Paul O’Keeffe) and a clownish accordion player appear from a refrigerator door and the mayhem quickly escalates.

The next hour features a series of wild and whirling segments in which Mozart and the acrobat enter into a series of duet like routines. From first-rate tumbling to perfectly poised hand balancing, the performers showcase their astonishing skills. Children are heard gurgling and whooping throughout the theatre as amusing stunts – which at times only feature a music stand or moving spotlight – raise the roof with laughter.

Mozart’s character is performed with an overflowing exuberance that’s at once infectious and energising to witness. Towards the beginning his acrobatic companion is given a brief window to showcase her own talent and strength, though her brilliance is mostly overshadowed by the capricious genius of Mozart. Mozart embraces the limelight in his outlandish cycling routine: he jumps around, shifting positions as he dresses from underpants into an extravagant gentleman’s coat.

Circa delivers yet again with Wolfgang. By blending classical and popular forms, they continue in the same vein as their previous work like the circus-opera Il Ritorno, or their more recent interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Director Yaron Lifschitz takes Mozart’s elegant music and injects within it a certain joy and playfulness which teases traditions all the while reminding us to enjoy art wherever it’s found.

Wolfgang is being performed 2 – 12 January at Arts Centre Melbourne with a relaxed performance taking place 9 January. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Nutcracker

Christmas classic dances into the dreams of a new generation

By Rebecca Waese

Last night’s opening performance of Melbourne City Ballet’s The Nutcracker was a joyful Christmas treat. I saw a number of parents and grandparents clutching the hands of excited young children in the audience who had come to watch young Clara’s dream unfold. I brought my eight-year old daughter with me and teared up when she gasped at the Snow Queen, played last night by Emma Cheeseman, rise and pirouette on pointe in her glorious costume and tiara. With strength and grace the dancers delivered a top-quality performance, choreographed by artistic director Michael Pappalardo and principal artist Brendan Bradshaw, that engaged the audience.

Melbourne City Ballet began in 2013 with the vision of director Michael Pappalardo, a former dancer, who saw a need for a professional ballet company that could deliver the classical stories to audiences without the exorbitant ticket prices associated with the ballet. With a surplus of highly-trained dancers in the city, Pappalardo saw an opening where dancers could use their talents and provide accessible classics to metropolitan and regional audiences right in their communities. In The Nutcracker, Melbourne City Ballet brings together dancers from their Finishing Year Program and Ballet School as well as children from the Community Participation Program to play minor roles.

There was a commanding stage presence by Uncle Drosselmyer (Brendan Bradshaw) and an enjoyable sibling rivalry by last night’s Clara (Yuiko Masukawa) and last night’s Fritz (Soji Shinse). Masukawa’s grace and flexibility gave her an ageless quality and sense of wonder as Clara. For me, the Arabian dancers were a highlight, particularly the lithe extensions and sheer strength of Alex Rolfe whose grace and muscular structure was a sight to behold. Emma Cheeseman as the Snow Queen was captivating and the magic of the snow and the growing Christmas tree did not disappoint. For the young boys in the audience, unfamiliar with the sheer athleticism of dance, there were the astonishing mid-air split jumps of the Russian Dancers and creeping life-size rats to intrigue them.

With the film The Nutcracker out this Christmas holidays, this is a terrific opportunity to take the family to Melbourne City Ballet first and follow up at the cinema to see how the storyline comes alive differently on stage and on the screen. The music by Tchaikovsky is recorded but still emotive and stirring. There were a few inconsistencies with synchronicity of legs near the beginning and a few wobbles here and there, but overall I was impressed with the quality and polish of the performance. I was grateful to Melbourne City Ballet for dancing this joyous version of The Nutcracker into the dreams of a new generation of young dancers. Buy a ticket for a young dancer you love, as it’s a great pre-Christmas treat to enjoy together.

 

The Nutcracker is being performed 14 – 16 December at Darebin Arts Centre, 20 December at Frankston Arts Centre and 21 December at Plenty Ranges Arts & Convention Centre. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Rebecca Waese is an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University in the Department of Creative Arts and English.

Review: Evita

Tina Arena’s lead receives a standing ovation

By Samuel Barson 

There is something undeniably refreshing about the story of Eva Perón. First and foremost, she was very much a woman in the centre of her own story. And while her husband was the President of Argentina, she too had a great deal of power as a celebrated actress and tireless advocate of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. The truthfulness of her humble beginnings and subsequent life story also provide audiences with a break from the clichéd romanticism of many biopic stage adaptations. In this Australian tour of Evita, director Harold Prince has curated a strong cast and has created the most powerful, raw and heartfelt of musical productions.

I am usually quite cynical of big names being cast in big Australian productions. In an age of repeated casting, it’s become quite easy for certain showbiz personalities to be cast simply because of who they are. Tina Arena is a significant exception. Her grace, beauty and talent shine tenfold in her portrayal of the titular character. Her voice is reliably flawless, and she pleasantly surprises with her acting skill. Despite the numerous scenes and range of notes she perfects, the most memorable moment of the night was the curtain call. The tears Tina shed as she looked out into the large sea of a standing ovation perfectly reflected a humility and grace rarely seen on stage.

Supporting her were two equally impressive men. Tony Award winner Paulo Szot did the required work as Eva’s stoic husband, Juan Perón, to allow Arena’s Eva to take charge. Kurt Kansley was particularly impressive as Che, guiding the audience along with utmost energy, humour and aggressive charm in his role as narrator.

Rounding out the support cast were the charismatic and flashy Michael Falzon as Magaldi and recent high-school leaver Alexis van Maanen in a wonderful yet brief turn as the Mistress.

The ensemble cast were tight and provided the leads with an intricate and brilliant support network. Larry Fuller’s choreography put the cast to good use as they filled the stage and evoked the emotions of the Argentinian people.

Timothy O’Brien and Richard Winkler’s respective set and lighting design managed to be epic yet not too overdone. In collaboration with Duncan McLean’s clever video and projection design, they transported audiences into the essence of 1940’s Argentina and left room for our imaginations to fill the gaps. Mick Potter’s sound design complimented David Cullen’s exquisite orchestration, and Guy Simpson did a beautiful job in conducting their work.

Evita is a delightful production, with arguably the strongest leading musical cast to be seen in Melbourne. Tina Arena proves herself to be one of Australia’s most dynamic and versatile performers, and she is supported by a cast that I hope to see more often on Australia’s mainstages. Tickets to this production could be the perfect Christmas present for those who enjoy an entertaining night out.

Evita is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre until 17 February 2019. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.  

Photograph: Jeff Busby