[20020059] Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend

Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend

Brenda Wong Aoki @ Playhouse

1:00pm, Sun 10 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: Charmingly Familial

“Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” is a monologue about performer Brenda Wong Aoki’s ancestry. Spurred by the discovery of a “secret shame” in the Aoki family, it is an exploration of family history and societal conceptions of race.

Aoki’s father’s family was introduced to America by the emigration of three brothers. With the family steeped in samurai tradition, they each carried to their new home a different focus on maintaining their culture. Initially welcomed in their new home of San Francisco, the “warrior” of the brothers (Gunjiro) fell in love with the daughter of a Arch-Deacon of the church – resulting in societal rejection of both Gunjiro and his bride.

The great thing about this piece is the warmth brought to it by Aoki – she speaks dearly and passionately of her ancestors. There is much focus on the shame (and loss of face) suffered by the family due to Gunjiro eloping with his bride – Aoki’s grandfather was forced from his privileged position in the church, and had to resort to menial labour to provide for his family – but the discovery that this shame actually represented an act of heroism managed to bring the importance of self-worth to the fore.

In the midst of all cross-cultural angst (helpfully commentated by newspaper clippings – zim, zim), Aoki still manages to highlight the sheer ignorance of the greater society at the time – Gunjiros “yellow and white blender babies”, who later all proved to harbor genius, are a prime example.

Accompanied by a family slideshow, and with husband Mark Izu providing musical punctuation (the “bass talking” was a neat touch), Aoki managed to provide a satisfying look at societal acceptance. A beautifully charming work.

[20020057] Train Dancing

Train Dancing

Red Dust Theatre @ Space Theatre

9:00pm, Sat 9 Mar 2002

Score: 4

Short Review: Why bother?

The opening of “Train Dancing” made me think that it was going to be another Mamu – actor Steve Hodder (playing Ulysses) strolls out and launches into a soliloquy about his heritage. Unfortunately, where Mamu was a warm and charming piece of theatre, “Train Dancing” is a verbose, metaphorical mess.

There’s a bit of singing (Hodder raps, whilst Jacinta Nampitjinpa Castle has a gorgeous voice), good live music, but the acting is generally only fair to average – mistakes ahoy. The plot is like a Shakespearean tragedy – boy meets girl (girl abused by parents), boy finds out girls’ parents are his parents, a bit of panto, then a big, bloody finale. The core themes of the piece seem confused, however; and the dialogue is – well, there’s plenty of it, and none of it is pretty. The excessive use of the ‘c’ word is obvious, and some of the sexual euphemisms are… creatively crap.

The direction is interesting – there’s some neat Lynch-like use of light and shadow, but at the end of the day, there’s no reason to see this show when there’s so much quality theatre around at the moment.

[20020056] Bone Flute

Bone Flute

MAU Dance @ Playhouse

7:00pm, Sat 9 Mar 2002

Score: 7

Short Review: Sloooooooow

Groo, this was hard work. Comprised of performers from throughout the Pacific region, MAU Dance (led by Lemi Ponifasio, who appears as a shaman-type character throughout the piece) put on a visually dense piece of dance which is only marred by… well, the lack of actual movement.

“Bone Flute” opens with Ponifasio’s shamen calling out from the stage, to be answered from a voice in the audience. Then, slowly, a group of warriors climb onto the stage. Eventually, they reach some pre-defined positions, where they break into a ritualistic dance. Their places onstage are then taken by the “Women of Sandstone”, who perform dance sporadically between beams of light emerging from the wings. So far, so good.

But then comes the birth. A body appears in the pool central to the stage, and for the next half hour it moves almost impercetibly slowly. Really. From foetal ball to crouching, without too much wayward movements: half an hour. I actually nodded off to sleep, waking as my chin hit my chest, and nothing had changed onstage.

Anyway, at this stage I completely lost the plot – the shaman returned, and appeared to cut his own scrotum open, spilling large eels onto the stage. No joke. The eels flopped around onstage; two fell onto the auditorium floor with a loud plop. The shaman collapses, and five balls (stars?) burning bright blue were lifted to the sky.

What the bloody hell was all that about? Maybe if I hadn’t fallen asleep I may have figured it out, but I doubt it. It sure was pretty, though – it’s just that bloody hard work was required of the audience to earn the nice visuals.

[20020055] Delirium


Helen Herbertson @ AIT Arts Space

3:30pm, Sat 9 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: (Tripping the) Light Fantastic

As the house lights dim, a dark figure dashes out into the centre of the assembled set and lights a gas flame. The orange flame flickers in the darkness, creating a natural strobe effect; then, as the flame slowly dies to just a pinprick, the audience holds its collective breath until the inevitable occurs – the flame is extinguished, leaving us silent in a Stygian blackness.

A faint backlight picks out a figure in the background – was she there all along? – and slowly, the mechanical shuffling of “Delirium” begins. Helen Herbertson and Trevor Patrick produce a refined, minimalistic presence in the subdued lighting, swimming in light when it is afforded, hiding in the shadows when not.

The set is a masterpiece – holes in the floor open up, exposing bright orange light and smoke to the audience, creating rivulets of fire about which the dancers carefully step. Light smoke also helps create a wonderful pyramid-type effect, as planar lighting reaches from the roof to the floor. The piece is scored to a tense, brooding rumblefest, ranging from quiet dripping to an intense thunderstorm.

But make no mistake, the real star of the show here is the lighting. Herbertson and Partick play second fiddle to Ben Cobham’s staggeringly wonderful work in this visual extravaganza.

[20020053] Stand-Up Opera

Stand-Up Opera

BJ Ward @ Elder Hall

8:30pm, Fri 8 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: Octavulous

One-time Playboy Bunny BJ Ward (who you may know from her extensive TV voiceover experience – my fave being Jana in the Jungle) presents an evening of opera and comedy, with sidekick Joseph Thalken on piano (and, when coaxed, also delivering some powerful vox).

Ward certainly can hold a note, and her range is huge, but her genius is in her comedic timing. Her analyses of various popular operas are bloody funny; she amusingly dealt with sneezing “hecklers”; and the audience participation bits (“ci”) were a delight. Thalken also proved to have the comic touch – the Swiss aria bit was a hoot.

The second act begins with Ward wandering through the audience, serenading as she goes, but then takes a very humorous turn as Ward “teaches” Thalken to sing, and thereafter perform a “Don Giovanni” duet – both on piano and vox. They then promise an entire opera in seven minutes – and deliver Puccini’s “Turandot”, again with a great deal of wit.

Sure, Ward and Thalken may not be the wunderkind of their arts – but they can both belt out steady notes, and they’re both enjoying what they do. Really, this show should be a must for anyone (like me) who knows jack about opera – it’s educational, but most of all, FUN.

[20020052] A Large Attendance in the Ante Chamber

A Large Attendance in the Ante Chamber

Brian Lipson @ Art Gallery Auditorium

6:00pm, Fri 8 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: Strindbergian

First up: thanks to Andrew Litzky of theater simple (go see Strindberg (In Paris) and 52 Pick Up!) for his wonderfully apt, one word synopsis for this piece of theatre.

“ALAitAC” (you try writing the whole thing out) is an odd little number based on the writings of Francis Galton, written and performed by Brian Lipson. Galton was a polymath (learned person of encyclopedic knowledge, expert in many fields), and is reputed to have had the highest recorded IQ (and was quite a fan of the premise of IQ tests). His contributions to science were many and varied, covering fields such as meteorology, statistics, criminology, and his own field of eugenics – which seeks to improve the human stock through maintenance of genetic potential.

As you can probably imagine, Galton’s passion for eugenics has resulted in him being viewed in a controversial light… and here, Lipson presents a wacky, eccentric characterisation of Galton. This is best epitomised by the opening scene, where he creates a device used to kick himself in the head.

Brilliantly original, Lipson uses his tight set to full advantage, and this is a very enjoyable piece of work. I can’t help thinking, however, that maybe a little liberty has been taken with Galton’s eccentricities… if this is the case, then the artistic license was fairly used for a lot of humour. Great stuff!

[20020051] Skin


Bangarra Dance Theatre

8:00pm, Thu 7 Mar 2002

Score: 6

Short Review: I don’t see it…

“Skin” is split into two acts, “Shelter” and “Spear”. Once again, there was a distinct gender seperation in the dances – female dancers only in Act One, men only in Act Two.

“Shelter”, an “abstract portrayal of traditional hunting and gathering”, opens with a good piece of dance, professionally executed, with the wonderful effect of performer-created dust clouds catching the minimal lighting. The second piece, describing a stillbirth, was… well, visual wank. Anyone who mentions words like “innovative” are just plain wrong, trust me. The final dance piece of the Act had wonderful (non-traditional) music, but the choreography did nothing with it. The Act closes out with a wonderful piece of shadow projection. Overall, I found the performances to be effective, rather than brilliant.

Act 2 – “problems facing aboriginal men” – opens with an effective portrayal of an aboriginal death in custody… which didn’t seem to have the emotional impact that it should have. The rest of the Act, which dealt with initiation ceremonies, petrol & alcohol abuse, and a cleansing ceremony, were also competent (with an interesting use of a gutted car as a central prop!), but contained some of the best dancing for the evening – several male solo pieces. (These were interesting in themselves – the Bangarra web site mentions that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance is very different from most western theatre dance” – and yet these solos appeared distinctly European in nature).

At the end of this performance, there was a standing ovation from about two-thirds of the audience. I wasn’t one of them, though I was happy that the guy next to me stood – it stopped him yelling “WOOOOOOOOO” right into my tinitus ear.

I just didn’t get it. In my view, every other dance piece I’d seen in ff2002 (bar one) surpassed “Skin” in terms of interest and, well, plain aesthetic appeal (notice how I kept using the word “effective” rather than my usual superlatives?). The only real saving grace was Archie Roach appearing for a song or two, and the Act Two solos. Still, the audience can’t be wrong, can they? Well, if I was the ‘Tiser, I’d be compelled to give this show a 9 or a 10 on the basis of the audience reaction – but I’m not, I’m me, this is my review, and it didn’t really move me at all. Harrumph.

[20020050] Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa

@ Space Theatre

6:00pm, Thu 7 Mar 2002

Score: 9

Short Review: Arresting

Documenting British playwright David Hare’s 1997 visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, “Via Dolorosa” is not an opinion piece, but more of a chronologue of his travels and conversations with friends, politicians, settlers and historians, both in Israel and the Palestinian territory.

Australian actor Patrick Dickson superbly plays the role of Hare in this stunning monologue, which not only deals with the conflict between Arab and Jew, but also the tensions within the Jewish community (secular versus religious Jews) and Christianity as a whole (“sects and the single church”).

Amongst these weighty debates can be found the most impossible humour – Eran Baniel’s production of Romeo and Juliet, with Palestinians playing the Capulets, and Jews playing the Montagues (“the Capulets really hated the Montagues”) being a prime example. But the performance reaches an arresting and powerful climax when Hare visits Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust, and reads the text of Himmler’s speech: a deeply wrenching moment.

The performance ends by posing “Are we where we live, or are we what we think? What matters? Stones or Ideas?”. During his travels, Hare met people who conceded that the six-day war in 1967 destroyed “our essential Jewishness, because up till then places and buildings and stones didn’t mean anything to us… What mattered to us were ideas.”

“Via Dolorosa” designates a stretch of road along which Jesus Christ walked bowed under the weight of the Cross. David Hare travelled the same road, seemingly carrying the values and beliefs of the Western civilisation with him. The resulting play is a powerful, weighty piece of work.

[20020045] Shedding Light – Australian Rules

Shedding Light – Australian Rules

@ Her Majesty’s Theatre

10:30am, Wed 6 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: Gamut of Emotions

Another flick in the “F5” sub-Festival, “Australian Rules” (IMDB reference) is based on Phillip Gwynne’s book, “Deadly, Unna?”. It tracks the tensions within the (fictitious) South Australian town of Prospect Bay, which uses football as the common denominator between the Aboriginal and white communities – and ultimately fractures the soul of the town.

Seen purely as a film, this is a wonderful achievement. First-time director Paul Goldman does a terrific job, and the cast is almost faultless. The plot does contain the odd cliche, but doesn’t suffer. Best of all, the film forces the watcher to run the whole gamut of emotions. Great stuff.

However, during the following Q&A session with the production team & actors, it became evident that a certain amount of controversy has dogged this movie. Since I’ve had my head buried in the sand lately, I asked a neighbour what the fuss was about, and was told that a few events involving Aboriginals in the film had been a little too close to recent real-life events, and that the consulted Aboriginal communities had objected to their inclusion in the film. (The same person also complained that the movie strayed from the book, adding in a love story).

Well, ignoramus me being, I can’t comment either way on those issues. Still, great movie.

[20020043] El Nino

El Nino

State Opera SA @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Tue 5 Mar 2002

Score: 6

Short Review: Hmmmmm…

“El Nino” is very much the flagship production for the 2002 Festival of the Arts and, while offering some interesting bi-lingual operatics, one certainly hopes this is not the highpoint of the Festival.

Dealing with the miracle of Mary’s impregnation, up to several days after Jesus’ birth, the libretto is (apparently) sourced from many Biblical texts, as well as a selection of poetry. In addition to the operatic piece, there is a much-publicised film by ex-Festival Director Peter Sellars that runs silently in the background (just below the surtitles), highlighting the experiences of the principal players.

Well, now for the critical stuff: “El Nino” is presented in two acts, which I’m going to call Good Act and Bad Act, respectively. Good Act opens with some magnificent singing from the Chorus, beautifully arranged. The soloists… well, more on them in a minute. The film was well directed, the “acting” perhaps a little dodgy, but it’s essentially background material anyway. And the end of this act (leading to the birth of Jesus) was sheer aural bliss.

Then came the second… er, Bad Act. The wonderful arrangements for the Chorus disappeared, the film was dull and repetitive and lifeless and repetitive and lifeless and repetitive. And then came the Children’s Chorus. I saw the kids come onstage and instantly thought, “oh no…”. Some people actually left at this point, mere moments before the end of the production. Anyhoo, big round of applause from the two-thirds capacity audience who hung around for the second Act (a few left, y’see, and there were gaping holes in the audience before starting).

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, as per usual, were excellent. The vocal leads, on the other hand were patchy… I didn’t think much of the opportunities offered to them by the piece, but the two females excelled where the males floundered somewhat – soprano Shu-Cheen Yu was superb throughout, and mezzo-soprano Kirsti Harms suffered only in that she blew all the other vocalists off the stage.

So, at the end of the day, this was an experience – not the flagship operatic sensual tour-de-force that Writing to Vermeer was in 2000, but interesting enough to stay on the right side of the waste-of-money-meter.

[20020041] Chamber Music Series – El Tango

Chamber Music Series – El Tango

@ ASO Grainger Studio

6:00pm, Mon 4 Mar 2002

Score: 9

Short Review: Cellish

If you know me, you’re aware of my love of the cello, which approaches almost fetish status. So, given the opportunity, I like to try and eke out some good cello in my ff-plans. So I managed to squeeze “El Tango” into the schedule for my kinky little deep-string fix.

Unfortunately, the first piece played (Salzedo’s “Sonata for Harp and Piano”) was completely devoid of cello – lest it be called “Sonata for Harp and Piano and Cello”, or possibly “Sonata for Cello and Harp and Piano” (since we all know where the goodies are). Or what about just “Sonata for Cello”? But then it’d probably be written by someone else, and you may as well just listen to the seven overdubbed cellos in the opening 30 seconds of ELO’s “10328 Overture”.

Oops, might have to edit that paragraph sometime. Anyhoo, “Sonata for Harp and Piano” was an energetically moody piece, wonderfully played by Alice Giles (on the big vertical thing) and Arnan Wiesel (on the big horizontal thing). We were then treated to a two different threads of work by Astor Piazzolla. “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” (Arnan Wiesel – piano, Nicholas Milton – violin, Janis Laurs – Gods gift to the string family) managed to put a Tango-esque tinge on all the seasons; “Summer” was a feisty piece, “Autumn” moody and flighty, “Winter” morosely beautiful, and “Spring” was a bright, bouncy piece. “Histoire du Tango” (Alice Giles – harp, Geoffrey Collins – flute) consisted of three pieces, “Bordel 1900” (light and breezy, almost fruity), “Cafe 1930” (which dripped with a smoky melancholy) and “Nightclub 1960” (a punchy little number).

All pieces were played well, and I’ve got no complaints at all (the cello was awesome) – except for the creaky stage and my SO’s ankle (which made a rather loud CRACK in the middle of one piece). Can’t wait to hear that on the ABC recording.

[20020039] The Career Highlights of the Mamu

The Career Highlights of the Mamu

Black Swan Theatre Company @ The Playhouse

2:00pm, Mon 4 Mar 2002

Score: 7

Short Review: Warm and personal

“The Career Highlights of the Mamu” is a very personal piece of work, as seen and told by writer/performer Trevor Jamieson, as he seeks out his homelands and, hence, his identity. Along the way, we encounter the Mamu – or Devil – as the Tjuntjuntarra are forced from their land due to the atomic testing at Maralinga, which is contrasted to the bombing of Hiroshima.

The displacement of the native peoples from Maralinga also brings to light the younger generations movements to Kalgoorlie and the white influences of alcohol and fast food, both of which threaten the traditional cultures. And, despite the weighty matters described, there is still a healthy dose of humour to be had – the discovery of railway tracks is hysterically funny. Good use, too, is made of video cameras on stage, as well as pre-recorded projected sequences and live music.

The most striking thing about this performance is the fondness and warmth shown – only to be expected, really, since it really is a family affair (a large portion of Jamieson’s family joins him on stage). The culture of the Spinifex people is also to the fore, with tribal dances shown for the first time to the outside world (in fact, one reason for the Tjuntjuntarra children’s presence on stage was to enable them to see and learn these dances). This more than makes up for the lack of coherency in the piece.

[20020038] The Longest Night

The Longest Night

Urban Theatre Projects @ Parks Motor Maintenance Shed

7:30pm, Sun 3 Mar 2002

Score: 1

Short Review: Unforgivable

At the show I attended immediately prior “The Longest Night”, William Yang mentioned that he could see hope in the faces of indigenous children.

However, it was especially tragic to see what skills were being offered to the young indigenous people in the workshop preceding “The Longest Night”. The sexes were segregated: boys had the opportunity to be “B-Boys” or rappers, and girls could be “R&B Girls” (complete with “sultry” R&B Top 40 hip moves), or try their hand at acrobatics (tumbling, et al).

If this blatant Americanisation doesn’t send a shiver down your spine… well, I guess you can’t see the writing on the wall.

America – the place where the black population have been marginalised to such an extent that the major role models available are those of sport stars or music stars. And yet, here we are, inviting a culture of subversive racial subjugation into our country with open arms.

And this was just the precursor to “The Longest Night”. After obtaining a coloured ribbon (to segregate patrons into “tour groups”) and watching the youngsters performed their newly-workshopped talents, we went on a bizarre “tour” around the Parks Community Centre campus, the point of which completely escapes me. We were then treated to the performance proper.

And what a performance it was. Using the tried, tested and true theme of “look how drug and alcohol abuse can ruin your life”, we see Bernie first have her child taken away by a government worker. Then her old druggie mates drop by, and her life (and those of her friends) turns to hell. All this is “acted” out using over-the-top theatrics, creating confusing “action” scenes, backed by a bizarre and contrived selection of music.

Yes, I realise that Peter Sellars had placed an emphasis on the representation of indigenous culture, and the involvement of youth, in his planning of the Festival. And I certainly support the intentions of Urban Theatre Projects – their altruism for their work is certainly commendable. However, to pass this piece off as “art” is really, really hard to take.

(As a sidenote, I noticed previous Festival Director Robyn Archer chose a black ribbon, then wore it almost as an armband. Almost apt, really.)

[20020037] Shadows


William Yang @ Parks Theatre Two

5:00pm, Sun 3 Mar 2002

Score: 8

Short Review: Overt

“Shadows” is a piece that somehow manages to meld the stories of East and West Germany, their reunification, and the theme of Aboriginal reconciliation together. Flanked by two slide-show screens, noted photographer William Yang cruised through a ninety minute monologue, accompanied by a selection of his own photos.

Based on Yang’s travels and experiences with friends, lovers and colleagues, he covers the period from 1980 to the present day. Along the way, he introduces us to the characters central to his discussion – the adopted Aboriginal son of a friend, an ex-boyfriend, and the people that surrounded them. We then follow him on several trips to outback Enngonia, Berlin (both pre- and post-unification), and the South Australian German settlements.

Yang placed particular emphasis on the continual spiritual malaise of the Enngonian settlement, showing the decay of their culture due to the white inputs of alcohol and violence. He also juxtaposed the systematic decimation of the Aboriginal communities in the earlier parts of last century with the genocide inflicted upon the Jewish peoples by the Hitler-led Germans. And yet, despite these weighty matters, Yang still managed to expose his own dry, wry wit – witness the “second best meal” he had in Germany.

Colin Offord provided wonderfully textured, subtle background music – playing flute (in the style of a didgeridoo), some percussive stuff (with his feet), and this uber-woodwind-string-instrument that pretty much defies description. And this was a very enjoyable monologue; it’s just that the political nature of the content was a little… overt for me. As subtle as a brick, that just managed to put a damper in the work that, while optimistic, left me… edgy.

[20020035] Shedding Light – The Tracker

Shedding Light – The Tracker

@ Her Majesty’s Theatre

10:30am, Sun 3 Mar 2002

Score: 7

Short Review: Visually adept

“The Tracker”, the first film on the AFA’s F5 program, is a simple tale following the hunt of an alleged murderer by an Aboriginal Tracker, and the police that enslave him. Written and directed by the acclaimed Rolf de Heer, and produced for the 2002 Festival, it’s a pretty reasonable bit of work.

Filmed near Arkaroola (South Australia), the film is visually splendid – wonderful shots of the very Australian landscapes, and some magnificent images in certain scenes – “that sunrise” (to tell you exactly which sunrise would be a spoiler) is a masterpiece. de Heer also uses oil paintings to describe the violence which takes place, rather than using live action, to wonderful effect.

The plot is simple and linear; my only complaint was that there were points where characters flip-flopped unbelievably – Gary Sweet (as The Fanatic) transforms from The Tracker’s main ally in the party to his greatest nemesis within a scene or two. Likewise, Damon Gameau’s Follower goes from wet-behind-the-ears to Bush Guru almost overnight. Grant Page, as The Veteran, is under-used.

In short, this was a pretty reasonable flick, but just not chunky enough to fully satisfy.

BTW – here’s the IMDB info (as sketchy as it is) on “The Tracker”.