[2014135] The Kransky Sisters Piece of Cake

[2014135] The Kransky Sisters Piece of Cake

The Kransky Sisters @ Royalty Theatre

7:20pm, Sun 16 Mar 2014

As I’ve written before, I first discovered The Kransky Sisters through the otherwise-lamentable In Siberia Tonight; and, coincidentally, I last saw them perform the same year (2006) as The Umbilical Brothers… though I thought much more highly of their show at the time.

But, despite my initial glee at being able to schedule a Royalty double-header, it turns out that the venue is not able to handle a twenty-minute changeover; the “doors open 7:10pm” note on the ticket seems laughably optimistic, in retrospect. And, quite honestly, it was a bit of a relief that this show started about twenty minutes late; there had been an outside chance, if everything ran to schedule, that I could’ve caught an 8:30pm show at Gluttony, but the lengthy changeover meant that The Kransky Sisters would be my final show of the Fringe. And, with my I’m Over It malaise settling in, that was probably for the best… it just allowed me to sink a little deeper into my chair, and feel that My Work was done.

And, quite honestly, this show was a decent send-off for the year.

Familiar, funny, and full of their trademark dryness and tension, the three sisters – Mourne, Eve, and Dawn – cycled through their quirky renditions of songs (including my favourite Pop Muzik, with Dawn performing a perfect tuba bass-line). Some of the other crowd favourites included AC/DC and Queen; Eve’s musical saw (and a cheap Casio keyboard) starred in their occasionally bizarre instrumentations, accompanied by tight vocal lines and deadpan expressions.

The banter between the Sisters was as expected, with Mourne shouldering most of the load (and Eve’s habit of repeating key words acting as gloriously silly – and well timed – punctuation), and Dawn remaining mute throughout. Eve – as usual – gets a few moments to shine as she slips out from under Mourne’s puritanical shadow in some delightfully awkward idolatry of the male form, triggering those delicious moments of stony-faced tension onstage. And, once again, there was an audience interaction segment, with two men being plucked from the audience to become honorary Sisters (complete with matching blouses and wigs).

It had been eight years since I last saw The Kransky Sisters, and not much has changed in their act in that time (except for the increase in audience interaction numbers). But what has happened in the meantime is that Eve Kransky (or, rather, Christine Johnston) brought the Rramp to the Cabaret Festival in 2013… and that was, by far, the show that impressed me most that year. And, unfortunately, it seems like The Kransky Sisters will be living in the shadow of that incredible show for some time to come… Piece of Cake was fun, and a nice way to round off my Fringe, but it lacks the creativity of Rramp… at least, for this veteran. Maybe a Kransky-newbie would have found it to be more of a standout.

[2014134] The Umbilical Brothers: A KiDs ShoW (Not Suitable for Children)

[2014134] The Umbilical Brothers: A KiDs ShoW (Not Suitable for Children)

The Umbilical Brothers @ Royalty Theatre

6:00pm, Sun 16 Mar 2014

Remember The Big Gig? It was an awesome Australian alt-comedy show on the ABC that blooded a bunch of great comics (before a lot of them tempered their material a bit, going mainstream and – occasionally – a bit shit as a result). That was where I first came across The Umbilical Brothers, who popped up every week for a five minute skit of violent and anarchic physical humour.

But when I eventually saw them live for the first time (The Rehearsal in 2006), I was mightily disappointed by the inconsistent nature of their show. I’d avoided them since, but with the passing of time – and the positive experience of David Collins’ The Luck Child earlier in the year (and the opportunity for a Royalty Theatre double header) – I felt it was about time to give the Umbilicals another shot.

It’s certainly true that the boys can still pull a crowd in – the Royalty’s a big space, and whilst there were some gaps in the crowd, those that were in made a lot of noise. And after a cheesy opening to their kid-friendly “show”, Shane and David slowly back offstage… and, once they reach the curtain at the rear of the stage, they momentarily disappear before returning in “backstage” mode. It’s a neat trick, but my pragmatic mind continually tells me that somethings wrong… I wish I could shut that part of my head up.

Backstage, the Umbilicals are the hilariously hyper-violent physical comedians that I remember, exaggerated actions and on-the-fly sound effects creating a lot of laughs. Their constant berating of their audience (their imaginary kids show audience, not us) pleased the misanthropic parts of my brain, and the adult humour that accompanies the violence – and subverts some of the kids show props – is pretty good, too. There’s an inspired Brady Bunch slaughter segment, and their petrified peeks around the curtain to the audience are adorable… and profane.

These are all Good Things.

But there was a Bad Thing, too: at some stage in the performance, my brain just… well, it checked out. It happens every year: towards the end of the Fringe, my brain just decides that it’s had enough, and the final handful of shows become a real struggle. Usually it happens with a day or two to go, so I feel blessed that I made it to the penultimate show of my Fringe before the nasties crept in… but none of that was the fault of The Umbilical Brothers. Their performance was great, with much more even material than The Rehearsal; I’m a little sad that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy it more.

[2014133] Green Porno

[2014133] Green Porno

Isabella Rossellini @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

3:00pm, Sun 16 Mar 2014

My response when Isabella Rossellini’s name was mentioned at the Festival Launch was only just a little toned down from my John Zorn response: I have adored her (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, her acting) since first encountering her in Blue Velvet. As a result, I had actually already seen some of the Green Porno short movies that were released at Sundance in 2009; that Rossellini could create something so… eccentric was of great interest to The Guardian.

After a late night (featuring a somewhat refined Gorilla/Gorilla reprise) and a busy start to the day (how many of you went to the Double Shot! Unley Coffee Fiesta? Or checked out the Made in Unley Exhibition?), I arrived at Her Majesty’s a little… well, frazzled, but that was tempered by the knowledge that this was my last Festival show. I had a quick chat with David Sefton in the drinks queue (whilst grabbing some bubbles for my perennially-late friend), and bumped into Helen – “Hey, nice picture!” she exclaimed, referring to the Sunday Mail story featuring a couple of photos of my cranky self (photographer Mike Burton and the Garden Freaks were all really lovely during that shoot). There were a few more impromptu chats with familiar Festival faces, and it just felt like wonderfully social start to The Final Day.

I’d grabbed front-row tickets nice and early (well before Green Porno became the first sell-out season of 2014’s Festival), but that’s always a bit of a problem at Her Majesty’s: Row A is below the floor level of the stage, meaning we were constantly looking up. But as soon as Rossellini takes her position behind a podium mere metres from me, any potential neck soreness was completely justified: she owns the description “elegant beauty”, and her presence – and cheeky smile! – is completely enveloping.

I was, without a doubt, unreservedly smitten by her charm.

She could have stood mute onstage for the following eighty minutes, and I would have been happy; but Green Porno is devoted to the study of the sexuality of animals. Having evolved from Rossellini’s series of short movies, some of the text is familiar; indeed, during costume changes, Rossellini plays some of those shorts on a large screen at the back of the stage.

Costume changes? Oh yes. In much the same way as she uses extravagant costumes to highlight the animals she discusses in the videos, Rossellini appears in weird and wonderful costumes onstage: the hamster was a particular delight, and there was even a bit of a knowing moment of self-deprecation when she started linking animal behaviours back to man by dressing as… well, a man.

And there was a fair bit of association with human sexuality, but without getting smutty at any stage; Rossellini kept things classy, even emphasising the importance of emotion in human sexuality (gasp!), and created a real personal rapport with the audience by speaking frankly about her own life (I sensed the woman sitting to my right scowling whenever Rossellini mentioned her husband).

Green Porno was more of an (extremely) entertaining lecture than a theatrical performance… but the emphasis was firmly on the entertainment. Was there anything to be learnt here that wasn’t already available through her videos? Well, no – but Rossellini proved to be an immensely charming (and gorgeous) presenter, quite happy to ham it up in her weird and wacky costumes, and her material was an engaging blend of fact and funny… and, on the basis of her description of barnacle sex, there’s hope for me yet. As a quirky full-stop on my 2014 Festival, Green Porno really delivered.

[2014132] Fight Night

[2014132] Fight Night

The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed @ Queen’s Theatre

10:30pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

The Border Project have been a bit hit-or-miss for me, though I freely admit to having a crap sample size to apply any judgement; whilst their version of Macbeth (performed with the Sydney Theatre Company) was a cracker, their solo effort Trouble on Planet Earth demonstrated that crowdsourcing entertainment doesn’t work. Or, rather, that the crowds who choose to see things at the same time I do suck. Or, maybe, that I’m misanthropic.

Ontroerend Goed, on the other hand, have been nothing but awesome. From my first encounter with the company, they’ve thrown forth consistently challenging and engaging work… and so, on balance, I approached this production full of anticipation.

Unfortunately, Fight Night owes more to Trouble on Planet Earth than any of Ontroerend Goed’s work, and that left me more than a little annoyed… cheated, even. But this time, my ill feelings weren’t completely aimed at my fellow audience members.

The premise is simple: five actors introduce themselves to us, answer questions posed by a moderator, and then – using small wireless voting devices that we were given – we vote on their responses. The loser departs. Simple. But the questions vary in quality: often we’re asked to make a choice based on trivial facts, such as the candidates’ appearance… and that (which just happened to be the first question) is when the negative voices in my head started crossing their arms and harrumphing in the corner.

See, this isn’t the sort of stuff I’m into. After the aforementioned Trouble on Planet Earth, I realised that my opinions are rarely in line with those of a crowd… leading to me inwardly shaking my head at the results of the vote. Perhaps more significantly in the case of this production, however, is the fact that I fucking loathe the type of voting gameshows that Fight Night attempts to parody: I’ve never voted anyone out of a house, or out of a talent show, or anything. That’s not what I want to do.

And yet, there I was… with a voting system that could detect errant voters.

The production goes out of its way to create faux conflict: it is set within a (semblance of a) boxing ring, a huge results screen hanging overhead, with candidates that openly criticise each other and the audience. The candidates (who were introduced divisively as nigger, faggot, cunt, retard, and nothing) pitch their responses to the audience, make alliances behind each other’s backs, and presumably perform in a way intended to mimic “democracy” as we know it; but there’s also conflict from within the audience, too, as two men stormed out of the performance in the first ten minutes, flipping the cast the bird as they did so. I was initially puzzled by this: why were they here, then? What were they expecting – a real fight?

A level of trust is placed in the displayed results by the audience; there were plenty of oohs and aahs when the test question – the gender mix of the audience – presented the fact that women were a slight majority (52%), but the sceptic in me is not sure the number was right… believable, yes, but maybe it’s supposed to be that way. As the voting continues, there’s a few twists and turns: the moderator is voted out in an act of contrived democracy. Then there was the proposition that the audience should give up their vote, justified by the idea that our vote didn’t actually matter; an option taken by many grinning audience members in the crowd, who happily handed in their voting devices and sat on the stage for the remainder of the show.

And that was the point where I felt obliged to give the production some credit: we – the audience – were coerced into thinking that our vote didn’t matter, that not voting was the only legitimate way to have a voice. But those people who opted not to vote? That was their choice – and, when we were permitted to vote on their expulsion from the show, of course I voted to kick them out. Their choices handed me that power; they were complicit in my decision.

The contrivance of the ending – where the perennial favourite wins, despite delivering the exact result that one of the other candidates pitched (and she railed against) – made Fight Night feel like a ruse: that we were duped, while being socially engineered into believing that we actually had agency in this process. It’s only later that I reflect on the two guys who left in the opening ten minutes, and entertain the idea that they were plants; I talked to people who attended other performances of Fight Night and heard that they, too, witnessed such a disturbance. Maybe this was part of the social engineering performed upon us… maybe the prickly manner of their departure was somehow supposed to unite us as an audience, to create a baseline from whence we could be splintered.

I knew early on that I was not going to get the most out of Fight Night, and even my appreciation of the manipulations applied to us couldn’t completely overcome my inherent dislike of this type of group interactive experience. I’m sure that some people had a great laugh; I’m sure that some people learnt something. But I just had to make do with trying to figure out how they were making us act like idiots.

[2014131] The Bunker Trilogy: Macbeth

[2014131] The Bunker Trilogy: Macbeth

Jethro Compton Ltd @ The Bunker

8:30pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

It’s not just me who exited Agamemnon and went straight into the queue for Macbeth: there were at least a dozen people who were doing a Bunker double-header (or even a triple-header, though – as I’ve previously stated – that would be a pretty brutal five or six hours). And I must admit to being giddy with excitement heading into this show: having seen the Bunker aesthetic applied to the other two in the series, I was anxious to see how one of my favourite pieces of the Bard’s work would be transformed.

It becomes immediately apparent that this would be a very different Macbeth, and not simply because of the limited cast of four; the play opens with Macbeth and his armies on the verge of defeat, with the now-familiar aural accompaniments of Bunker-warfare creating a powerful backdrop to the introduction. The most significant moments of Shakespeare’s work are then exposed through a twisted series of flashbacks, with the linearity of time being yet another casualty of The Bunker’s war.

And that was just fine by me, because I’ve got a familiarity with the source material. But it did make me wonder what others may think of the performance if they only had fleeting knowledge of Macbeth – would they not find it impenetrable? That led me to contemplate my own experience with Agamemnon (and, to a lesser degree, Morgana)… and, thence, to mull on what Compton and Company have achieved here at The Bunker.

Re-imagining seminal works of theatre in retro-contemporary(!) settings sounds like a pretty risky endeavour, but I reckon this company better-than-succeeded; as with the other performances, Macbeth was absolutely drenched in atmosphere, and – once again – it’s the small directorial touches that completely sell the work in this setting. In particular, the use of gas masks was particularly powerful in this setting; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth arguing in The Bunker’s doorway (or, rather, the foyer) was another engaging touch that heightened the senses.

It’s intriguing that the performance in The Bunker Trilogy with which I was most grounded was also my least favourite… but the bar was set very, very high by the other two shows. Having said that, I still very much enjoyed Macbeth – it was an utterly engaging interpretation of Shakespeare’s themes in a twentieth-century setting, and was still one of the more prominent pieces of Fringe theatre this year… but the sublime mystery of Agamemnon and (more significantly) Morgana won me over.

[2014130] The Bunker Trilogy: Agamemnon

[2014130] The Bunker Trilogy: Agamemnon

Jethro Compton Ltd @ The Bunker

7:00pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

Four weeks – almost an entire Fringe! – had passed since I’d seen Morgana at The Bunker; whilst there was a generous opening crowd there that afternoon, word-of-mouth had spread. The houses were sold out for the two performances at the venue this evening, and the door staff also had to contend with a steady stream of people trying to buy tickets on the night; the wait list extended to about twenty people.

And that, I must admit, makes my heart soar: Jethro Compton and Company took a massive risk setting up their own venue well away from the usual Fringe haunts (if you ignore 2008’s Fringe Factory), but the quality of their work – and word-of-mouth – has seen them pull in great crowds (if this closing Saturday night was any indication).

But on to Agamemnon: of the three Bunker Trilogy plays, this is the one I knew the least about going in. The source material was completely foreign to me, so I was unable to see how the First World War makeover affected the storyline… but that’s not to say that the play suffered for it.

Agamemnon is, once again, a young soldier at war; for much of the performance he lays in the painful shadow of death, trapped in the trenches at the front of battle. Scenes flit between Agamemnon’s pain and fear – with bombs going off overhead, and gunfire nearby – and his cottage at home, where his young wife Clytemnestra waits dutifully for his return. There’s flashbacks to their pre-war courtship, and a bit of confusion as (I think) Agamemnon hallucinates what her response will be to his war-time indiscretions when he returns. But Clytemnestra, trapped in her cottage with only Agamemnon’s cousin to keep her company, has her own reasons to turn against her husband…

If there’s one thing that Agamemnon absolutely nails, it’s the feeling of tension that the production conjures from nowhere. On the one hand, we have the titular character struggling to stave off his own death, driven (and haunted) by thoughts of his wife and home… but knowing full well that the call to fling what meagre reserves he has left at the enemy is incoming. On the other side of the coin, we see Clytemnestra transform from doting lover to scheming murderess, never really knowing whether she – and cousin Aegisthus – will have to carry out the deed.

It’s real edge-of-the-seat stuff, and it’s absolutely hammered home by the performances of James Marlowe and Bebe Sanders as husband and wife; the anguish that both actors could create was absolutely palpable. And, once again, the venue plays a major role in the immersion in the play; even after four weeks, the earth underfoot still fills the nose with a richness that plays against the mustiness of the walls and seating, creating a unique environment that feels utterly convincing, given the setting of the First World War.

It feels almost glib to say that I “loved” Agamemnon; its subject matter is far too dark and grim to support such an expression. But it was an incredibly immersive experience, packing an emotional punch and leaving me a little bit fragile… I’ve no idea how some people managed to see all three Bunker Trilogy shows back-to-back-to-back.

[2014129] Temper

[2014129] Temper

Point & Flex Circus @ The Producers Bar

5:00pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

A last-minute decision to see Temper was made based on my mood coming out of my previous show and a convenient time (one of the few remaining shows on my Shortlist that accommodated my plans for the rest of the evening). It certainly seemed like my choice would be vindicated when I arrived to a heaving crowd of people at Producers; my lateness afforded me the option of a seat in the second row (yay for single seats!), and an opportunity to check out the assembled crowd.

Lots of families with youngsters, I noted. Hmmm. Was this a kids’ circus performance? Because I wasn’t sure I was ready for that… but, then again, what notable circus performance would perform in the Producers Bar?

My hopes further plummeted when one young woman (girl?) quite deliberately – almost awkwardly – took her mark onstage and delivered the text of the show’s Fringe Guide précis; it felt like a terribly pretentious start, a desperate plea for sincerity. The opening routines also felt awkward, and I had started to rue my decision…

…but suddenly the show opened right up. Lisa Goldsworthy’s hoops routine was dynamic and well paced (though a few hoops did go flying into the audience), Taylor Dawson’s ball and stretch dance routine was fascinating in the confined space (unintended contact was made with equipment on the cramped stage), and Goldsworthy and (the impossibly young-looking) Dylan Phillips performed some balance tricks and acrobatics (with Phillips being flung around in a scarily carefree manner).

Sure, a few of the segments fell a little flat: the bottle walking didn’t quite reach the heights of the other segments, and the group juggling piece was a little bumpy. But (director) Marina Gellmann’s sideshow blockhead freakery – eating glass, laying on a bed of nails – was a surprise, and a seemingly innocuous marshmallow face-stuffing competition between the four performers escalated into a full-blown gross-out eating competition, featuring an onion, handfuls of margarine, bottles of soy sauce, and a bottle of shampoo.

It’s only late in the show that I managed to catch my breath; I’d been cheering and ooh-ing and aah-ing with the rest of the audience without even noticing. I’d been totally engrossed in the performance of these four youngsters, whose commitment to the show – and each other – was absolute; the rapport between the members was evident during the group scenes. And it’s only at the end of the performance that the troupe mention being Cirkidz alumni… and, (as with another graduate I saw this year), Point & Flex are wonderful ambassadors for that school.

A copy of the programme that I managed to snag on the way out provided names and illumination, as well as some well-weighted explanatory text; that, and some infectious buzzing from the rest of the crowd, left me with a remarkably positive memory of Temper. Despite the rocky start and a few hitches in the middle, this was an energetic and enthusiastic performance by a group of young adults that – I am sure – will blossom into greatness.

[2014128] Needles and Opium

[2014128] Needles and Opium

Ex Machina @ Dunstan Playhouse

2:00pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

One of the most significant performances in my Festival history was the March 1, 1998 performance of The Seven Streams of the River Ota; not only did it open my eyes to durational theatre, immersive spectacle, and the Festival in general, but it also introduced me to a partner-in-crime… my major Significant Other (thus far). And whilst that relationship (such as it was) is over, the friendship – and the glorious manner of our meeting facilitated by Ota – continues on.

In addition to the emotional attachment that surrounds the memory of that performance, Ota proved to be an eight-hour epic theatrical event, full of stunning performances and technical stage wizardry; thus, when it was announced that this year’s Festival would be featuring another of writer/director Robert Lepage’s earlier works, reworked for a new audience, I got my pen out and inked in my intent… a matinée? Perfect.

After opening night was beset by technical problems, causing a premature end with a quarter of the performance remaining, the buzz around town was somewhat muted and sceptical. But within moments of the start of the show, it became clear why technical difficulties could occur: the set, a massive cubic shape of three walls, stood on its corner and rotated throughout. It was used as a projection surface, trapdoors allowed performers to creatively enter and exit scenes, and the natural slope of the set permitted many quirky visual treats – some of which required safety harnesses, permitting characters to fly through the air.

The staging, and direction, really was remarkable. Imaginative, challenging, glorious.

Which makes it all the more shameful that I found the actual subject matter of Needles and Opium to be deathly dull.

But it all started so promisingly, with as the lonely figure of Marc Labrèche slowly crossed the stage whilst narrating; suddenly the stage lit up with a thousand points of light, with Labrèche sailing through these stars. But we’re soon back in a scene approaching normalcy: Labrèche plays Robert, in Paris to record the narration for a documentary on Miles Davis (and his lover, Juliette Gréco). To occupy himself in the city, he starts reading a book by Jean Cocteau, and listening to a live recording of Davis.

Thereafter the performance spins between the characters of Robert and Cocteau (also played by Labrèche) and Davis (wonderfully performed by Wellesley Robertson III – though played as a mute (except for his trumpet), his body language spoke volumes). There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness shared by all three characters: Cocteau and Davis only seem capable of feeling though the use of opium and heroin (respectively), whereas Robert seemed to wallow in his loneliness, comforted by the record and book. The overall mood is of melancholy and despair, especially once the drugs take their toll, with addled and lethargic characters providing a painful narrative… it really was difficult to watch Davis pawn his trumpet.

There were some reports of standing ovations at other performances; it certainly received no such recognition from the audience in this matinée, nor was it even vaguely considered by myself. One can see that Lepage was trying to create a connection between the use (or the addiction?) of drugs, and the creativity of Davis and Cocteau… but it felt heavy-handed and bereft of subtlety. Far from being the supremely balanced experience of The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Needles and Opium felt like a transparent masterclass in style over substance. As a spectacle, it was sublime; as a coherent piece of theatre, it flailed in vain for emotional impact.

[2014127] The Breakfast Club

[2014127] The Breakfast Club

Mickey D, Liz Cahalan, Glenn Wool, Jon Bennett @ Nexus Cabaret

11:00am, Sat 15 Mar 2014

It appeared that I had learnt nothing from last year’s Breakfast Club adventure – post-Zorn, Helen and I had hit Lola’s Pergola until… well, until it was politely insisted that we leave. And so, once again, I found myself trudging to Nexus nursing a honky wonky hangover; once again, Mickey D and Boo greeted me at the door with coffee and pastries. Disappointingly, the audience wasn’t as large as last year’s bumper crowd… and they seemed a little quieter, too. More sedate.

Which was somewhat appreciated by Messrs Honky and Wonky.

Mickey D emceed the show with his usual aplomb; it’s still odd to see him perform such child-friendly material, but he gets the kids onside relatively easily… except for the toddler who decided to headbutt him in the shins. But the first guest to the ‘Club was Dizzy Ms Lizzy (Liz Cahalan), who performed some Bollywood-inspired dance for the crowd before inviting many of the older children up onstage for an impromptu dance lesson. This could have gone terribly wrong, but Cahalan handled the kids well… all while subtly delivering an anti-bullying message in amongst the positivity.

Just as I was stunned by Lindsay Webb’s appearance in the ‘Club last year, I raised an eyebrow at Glenn Wool’s appearance onstage… but he really opened up to the youngsters in the audience (who also took a liking to his vocal eccentricities) and proved to be wonderfully engaging. A rambling story about his Mountie father entertained the quizzical children, and when he – inexplicably – started talking about Turkey joining the EU, one of the kids near the stage crossed his arms with an audible harrumph: “absolutely not!” the future geo-political genius bluntly stated.

Finally, Jon Bennett came out and… well, he proved what a brilliant storyteller he is. Starting with stories about his hairy Dad (of course), he dragged the progressively more unruly youngsters into line by telling stories of Megan the pig (delicious!), and a grossly funny story that involved him using a dead cow’s bloated stomach as a trampoline… while wearing sprigs on his footy boots. You can guess the rest.

As with last year’s show, The Breakfast Club allowed these performers to show another aspect of their act; whilst Bennett’s material can occasionally be kid-friendly (meth-addicted brother excepted, of course), I was surprised at the ease with which his storytelling style got the kids’ attention. Wool’s performance, too, was an eye opener, and Cahalan provided a physical feel-good exercise. So, as Mickey D wrapped things up with the same parents-versus-kids gags as last year, I figured that The Breakfast Club was still a decent show to catch… but I really, really should learn my lesson about the Big Night Before.

[2014126] Zorn@60

[2014126] Zorn@60

John Zorn (and at least twenty-one friends) @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

And so it came to this: the reason for John Zorn’s presence in this Festival. A celebration of music in honour of his sixtieth birthday (which actually fell six months earlier); a series of musical explorations assembled by the birthday boy himself. To say that Zorn@60 was a genre-bending spectacle completely understates the breadth of its sources; everything from ambient to classical, pop to jazz to metal, was covered.

And it all felt so very, very consistent within the framework that Zorn set up.

The opening act, the Zorn-conducted Song Project, featured Mike Patton, Sofia Rei, and Jesse Harris on vocals… but the opening piece was a rendition of Batman – which just happened to be the first ever Naked City track I ever heard, way back in 1992. It was a complete surprise to hear that as an opener, but it made me feel completely at home; and whilst I wasn’t that enamoured with Harris’ vocal stylings, Rei’s smooth latin-influenced voice was a source of sheer delight, and the band (featuring, amongst others, the wonderful Joey Baron / Trevor Dunn rhythm section, as well as Marc Ribot on guitar) covered territory from thrashy punk to cool pop. A note-perfect Osaka Bondage was icing on the cake.

An interval preceded a trio of stripped-back performances: Illuminations provided some smoother free-jazz pieces, with Dunn on bass, Kenny Wollesen on percussion, and Stephen Gosling on keys; the intensity of the performance was noticeably decreased from the opening bracket, but in its place came subtlety and nuance. This trend was further highlighted by The Holy Visions, a five-voice all-female a cappella group whose occasionally breathy moments evoked thoughts of chamber music. Then came a string quartet from the Elision Ensemble (who had featured in the Classical Marathon that I had also missed) performing The Alchemist: a challenging piece for this listener, featuring all the discordance of Naked City’s work with none of the underpinning action. Once I got into the groove of it (or lack thereof), though, it became another invigorating experience.

Another interval allowed time for the Moonchild project to set up: Patton providing vocals over Baron, Dunn, and John Medeski’s driving score. Another brilliant example in variations of intensity, individual songs would range from creeping ascensions to violent outbursts to peaceful interludes; Patton worked both as a singer and an instrument, crooning and growling and spitting as needed.

The Dreamers, with Ribot joining the Baron / Dunn pairing with percussionist Cyro Baptista, Wollesen, and Jamie Saft on keys, were a fair bit punchier than their moniker suggested; but there were also moments of sparseness tinged with middle-eastern notes that intrigued. But then came the closing act, a return of Electric Masada; as the group assembled onstage (with Zorn taking up position as conductor), someone in the front couple of rows yelled out “must be time for more saxophone!” – to which Zorn turned to him, grinned, and raised a solitary middle finger. His alto did make an appearance in that blistering final set (with a callback to the audience member), in a vicious aural assault that genuinely amazed me… this is what I missed on the opening night of Zornapalooza? I suspect that regret will only intensify as I age, but I will revel in the Electric Masada memories that I do have… which include an incredulous Cyro Baptista shaking odd foam concoctions and fisting a drum for percussive effects.

Festival Artistic Director David Sefton proudly tells the story of how he lured Zorn to Adelaide… fulfilling the promise to “do it right,” a massive ensemble of musicians accompanied the composer out to our sleepy Festival town, often for only short stints onstage (Dave Lombardo’s appearance for the opener of the Triple Bill springs to mind). But you get the feeling that, far from this being product of rock-star excess or hubris, Zorn needed these people – these contemporaries – to be here, and he honoured every instance of their work with pre- and post-performance introductions.

Zorn@60 was, quite frankly, fucking magnificent. Lights dropped at 7:30pm; they came up for the last time at 12:15am. Nearly every minute in between (except for the intervals, and even then the observations and conversations were scintillating entities unto themselves) belongs in a highlights reel somewhere. Simply astonishing musicianship by musicians that appeared to be incredibly happy performing their art, all brought together by a musical luminary who is unlikely to be equalled (in my ear). As excited as I was when Zorn’s participation in this Festival was announced, the reality far exceeded the expectation; my only was regret was that I didn’t catch the opening Masada Marathon performance.

[2014125] A Gaggle of Saints

[2014125] A Gaggle of Saints

Colourwheel Productions @ Holden Street Theatres – The Arch

6:30pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

The second play of Neil LaBute‘s Bash: Latter-Day Plays, A Gaggle of Saints is a real rollercoaster of an experience; a sweet and pure opening turns into horrifically violent homophobia, before returning to the (now tainted) visage of joyful innocence.

It’s a tight fit for the audience, as we’re seated on the stage; the performance space is little more than one of the stage wings. We soon meet the bubbly couple Sue (Chelsea Evans) and John (Eddie Morrison, a Golden Phung regular); they (and their friends) are travelling from their college town to New York for a formal ball. The opening third of the piece has the couple delivering interleaved – but never engaged – monologues, describing the mood of the group travelling to the Big City… there’s a tangible sense of the thrill-of-the-new, of barely-contained excitement for the adventures ahead.

But with hotel room acquired, and the female contingent of the group resting and preparing for the upcoming shindig, the males wander the nearby streets and Central Park; by chance, they encounter a gay couple, and – fuelled by alcohol – the men (led by John) entrap and beat the couple to a pulp in a public bathroom. During the beating, John’s shirt gets blood splashed upon it; in order to maintain an alibi, one of the other men breaks John’s nose, and they concoct a story that John tripped and caused his own injury.

The play ends with the women re-joining the men; the monologues merge at this point, and John presents Sue with a ring he stole from one of the men he beat up. As the lights drop, the couple join together: they’re as cute as can be, The Perfect Couple.

And that feels absolutely vile.

The ability of John to maintain his righteousness, after committing acts of despicable evil… it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. That these people, whose introductions and confessions of Christian ideals imply that they’re as pure as the driven snow, could be so despicably evil… well, it made my blood boil.

And that’s pretty high praise for such a play.

It’s all performed in a tight thirty-odd minutes, with Morrison taking the lion’s share of the heavier text; his ability to convincingly tout religious dogma in one breath, and flout it the next, was chilling. Evans proves to be a gorgeous contrast, with a sweetness and innocence that still manages to beg the question: what evil is she hiding? And despite the relatively separated text that the two characters play, they work wonderfully well together onstage; as macabre as it seems, their comic timing works wonders with the dark contrast of the script; their performances were ably assisted by clever direction and lighting within the tight performance space.

Despite its short length, A Gaggle of Saints was worth every cent of the ticket price (plus the two panicky taxi rides to and from Holden Street); it was an immaculately presented, tautly performed exploration of hypocrisy and the devil within. Love love loved it.

[2014124] Some Funny C*nt from New York

[2014124] Some Funny C*nt from New York

Matt Romot @ PJ O’Brien’s Balcony

5:00pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

I’d never seen a Fringe show in PJ O’Brien’s (apart from a show in the 1998 Fringe when the venue was called “Racketeers”); the type of shows that seemed to settle into that venue always appeared to be… well, not my cup of tea. But a chap who ostentatiously names his show Some Funny C*nt from New York? And promises anti-conservative, anti-bogan humour? And has a friendly 5pm timeslot? This I had to see.

Arriving atop the stairs in PJ O’Brien’s, Matt Romot appears to be a very quiet, almost shy, character; he was almost apologetic as he performed his own ticketing duties. There’s only about a dozen people present, but there’s a couple of older women who are clearly enjoying the combination of a warm muggy afternoon and cold alcoholic beverages. We have a bit of a chat, and then Fee turns up; she’s a ton of fun at the worst of times, but she’s decompressing during a day off and positively buzzing as a result: we have a great catch-up before Romot awkwardly does his own sound tech and stammers into the start of his show.

A small audience must be daunting for a comedian at the best of times, but we’d somehow managed to arrange ourselves in just about the most awkward arrangement possible, lining the edge of the balcony. Upon remarking that it was difficult to play to such a crowd, one group moved to the seats directly in front of the stage… whereupon Romot realised that the group was two parents and their teenage son. He pulled up short – “You know this show’s going to have some rude words, right? I mean, it’s in the title…” – but, on the back of the laughs that followed, he appeared much more comfortable.

Romot’s delivery has a hint of nervousness about it, as he jumps from one thread to another in an almost skittish manner. And, despite the promise of “weird stories and ideas” promised by his précis, Romot’s material was relatively conventional. Sure, there were tales of drug abuse and related hijinks, and a few forays into left-wing political ideology, but for the most part it was material that could have been presented by any number of left-leaning comedians.

Except, of course, for the undoubted highlight of his set: a lengthy piece on paedophilia that skirts the boundary of social acceptability before Romot throws midgets into the mix for a brilliant climax. It’s a beautifully constructed joke, and demonstrates that Romot is more than capable of delivering quality material; but this short set only showed glimpses of that ability. I’d have no qualms seeing Matt Romot perform again as part of a lineup show; another full show of his own would be a big ask, however.

[2014123] Rip, Drag & Ruminate

[2014123] Rip, Drag & Ruminate

Graduating Dancers of Adelaide College of the Arts 2014 @ Adelaide College of the Arts – Main Theatre

2:00pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

Last year’s patchy Rip Drag Ruminate show delivered enough quality (or, rather, one significant highlight) to warrant another look at what the graduating class of AC Arts were capable of. And, in contrast to last year, there didn’t seem to be as many family members present… though that may have been because of the Schedule-friendly 2pm weekday timeslot I selected. There were, however, a large number of students in the quarter-full audience, all scribbling furious notes… and talking. As I read back over my own notes (this being one of the few shows I actually wrote notes for), I discovered that they were chock full of the phrase “stop talking”. I guess I was hoping that people were peeking over my shoulder.

The first piece, Konstanz Symeonakis’ Find the Light, was an interesting exploration of the use of light and shadow. Early impressions, however, almost turned me off: blunt and unimaginative lighting created a real disconnect. But once the movement of the piece kicked in (lovely sync with the dancers), the side lighting provided a much more pleasing visual effect; the use of flashlights, whether whirling them around or visualising heartbeats, was really quite appealing.

Emma Watkins’ O & C started with an OCD contrivance that was blunt enough to annoy the OCD-ish part of me; but the general tone of the piece was quirky, evoking thoughts of daydreams and distractions. The movement of the dancers, however, lacked the dynamism to sell the quirkiness of the piece. Taylor Whitchurch’s Words, Letters, Language kicked off with dancers scribbling on a long strip of paper at the front of the space; illegible text and seemingly pointless projections were offset by some occasionally wonderful dance. When the performers engaged with each other, when they connected, their movements were really engaging; without the group focus, the choreography felt desperate and contrived.

The Vanity, by Samuel Koh, seemed dominated by the spectacle of circus-inspired acrobatic movements… but the performers were occasionally a little too shaky to pull them off convincingly. A door prop, combined with some inspired lighting, produced a wonderful visual treat… but only for a subset of the audience in the wide Main Theatre space. The final piece, Courteney Cox’s Subliminal, featured some engaging group movement (with plenty of falls & catches) that was only let down by the sharpness of the dancers, and a lack of cohesion in the overall structure of the piece.

Judging by these performances, the 2014 Graduating Class have a fair bit to be proud of: each of the five pieces featured moments of inspired choreography and solid dance. On the other hand, each piece also featured moments of frustration for the uneducated observer (i.e. me); but the fact that there were no real standout negatives within the programme is quite heartening. (And the one-sheet programme for the show? Phwoar – the texture of that paper is amazing.)

[2014122] Come Heckle Christ

[2014122] Come Heckle Christ

Joshua J. Ladgrove @ Tuxedo Cat – Raj House – Room 5

11:00pm, Thu 13 Mar 2014

One of the more wonderful things that happened in the lead-up to the 2014 Fringe was the “uproar” over the new show by Josh Ladgrove (a.k.a. Dr. Professor Neal Portenza), Come Heckle Christ. I quote the word “uproar” because the only people who complained about the presence of the show (and official complaints were made, to the Fringe, sponsors, and politicians) appeared to be devout Christians, concerned about the “blasphemy” of this “anti-Christian hate show”… despite the fact that they’d never seen it.

Many, many threads of complaint kicked off on Facebook (here‘s an example), the most enjoyable of which resulted in many other Fringe Artists interjecting and claiming that their show disrespected sandwiches (in a gloriously delicious attempt to ride the publicity wave). There was plenty of media coverage (from the ABC and Guardian, amongst others), and eventually Ladgrove himself published an open letter… which – if one bothered to actually read it – explained that the show itself was not blasphemous… just a construct for comedic exploration that just happened to have a bit of a confronting title.

But the publicity did wonders for ticket sales, with the three scheduled shows quickly sold out; I managed to grab the last ticket for this evening’s performance, fully aware of the likely shift in tone from the show before. But the show put a strain on the Tuxedo Cat’s staff, with security guards and metal detectors in use for each performance of the show; as we quietly filed into Room 5, walking past the dozen-or-so protesters standing (thankfully) quietly and solemnly with candles and signs, there was a jam on the stairs as we were carefully vetted for entry.

Ladgrove was waiting for us onstage, caught in the crossfire of spotlights, standing with his arms outstretched, attached to a cross. Through the microphone perched in front of him, he quietly greeted the audience as they filed in.

Then came the performance itself: Ladgrove Christ invited heckles from the audience, to which he would attempt to respond. As a result, the quality of the show is dictated by the quality of the heckles… and, sad to say, I didn’t think many of the heckles this evening allowed Ladgrove opportunity to shine.

Many “heckles” were rebutted in a matter-of-fact manner, a simple “that’s not a heckle” shutting down that episode; others were disappointingly juvenile in nature. The occasional heckle caused Ladgrove to pause a moment to collect his thoughts before offering a (usually witty) response… and then there were the great heckles, that caused a back-and-forth of increasingly biting humour, all couched in the gentle phrasing that one might expect from the Son of God.

But unfortunately, those moments of brilliance were few and far between. That’s not so much a reflection on Ladgrove as the audience; I spoke to people who reported that the audiences at other Come Heckle Christ shows provided reams of material for Christ to work with. And that’s always going to be the chance you take with a show like this: despite the potentially inflammatory title, this is little more than comedic comebacks as a spectator sport… an interesting subversion of standup comedy. And unfortunately, with relatively few notable exceptions, the audience weren’t really up for it this evening… and I, in my shy mode, take some of the responsibility for that as well.

In short: great idea, shame about the support.

[2014121] Zorn Triple Bill

[2014121] Zorn Triple Bill

John Zorn (and fifteen friends) @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Thu 13 Mar 2014

Music, eh? It’s a funny thing, what with “taste” and all that. My own musical preferences have wandered all over the musical map, and are currently mired in a resurgence of interest in pop… but, while I was at Uni, I was really into heavier stuff.

In particular, I was a massive fan of Faith No More. And by “massive”, I mean “let’s take the day off lectures to hang around at the airport holding a massive banner waiting for them to arrive” type of thing. Yes, I was an airport groupie kinda guy. And, given that my interest in FNM kicked off with The Real Thing, my fandom directed me to check out vocalist Mike Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle.

Mr. Bungle’s first major-label release was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard before: musically, it was like an insanely bright DayGlo jigsaw puzzle, and the album featured impeccable production. The sonic construction intrigued me, and I started looking into the producer of that album: someone named John Zorn.

I soon discovered that this Zorn character had released a few (read: squillion) albums of his own, so I tentatively got Greg at Uni Records to order one in, knowing nothing about its content. That first Zorn album was his band Naked City‘s debut album, and… it was amazing. More Naked City followed, along with the improvisational Locus Solus, the eerie Elegy, and one of his other band projects, the brutal Painkiller. Sure, that collection wasn’t something you’d leave in the CD player for weeks – or even days – at a time, but I had a massive amount of respect for the musical invention contained therein… especially when I discovered that Naked City’s work was actually composed.

Clearly, John Zorn was a mad genius… and that is how the Zorn’s name became implanted in my brain.

And then, as I’ve mentioned before, on the third of September last year Festival Artistic Director David Sefton had an on-stage chat with Katrina Sedgwick; as part of their “conversation,” two of the headline acts for the 2014 Festival were announced. The first was Roman Tragedies, which had me excited… the other announcement, though, literally made me squeal with excitement.

Yes, I squealed. Like a plump pig being tickled whilst rolling in mud, I squealed very, very audibly. David briefly turned to see what the noise had been. Festival Chief Executive Karen Bryant, sitting in the front row directly in front of me, turned to give me a glare… and a grin. After the formal announcements, I roamed the room, shaking the hand of anyone on the Board with excitement; “You happy with that?” one of my usual Festival bigwig friends asked. My response was ever-so-enthusiastic and profane:

Let’s just say that yes, I was pretty damn happy.

But then the reality of The Shortlist set in, and I became aware that seeing all four evenings of Zorn’s expedition would severely impact other shows; hindsight is certainly twenty-twenty, and I know now that I wouldn’t have really missed much by committing to a non-stop Zorn-fest. But the one performance I was not going to miss – and the one performance that I was urging everyone to go and see – was this one: Zorn Triple Bill.

And after hearing murmurs about the quality of the first two nights of Zornapalooza, I was giddy with excitement… and, having reached out to one of my Uni friends that I’d not seen in years to share the experience, I found myself in a prime position in Festival Theatre. We were set.

The Zorn Triple Bill was so named for the three distinctly different pieces to be performed, each of which had a particular bit of interest to me. The opening piece was Bladerunner, a trio featuring Zorn on sax, the mighty Bill Laswell on bass, and the even mightier Dave Lombardo on drums. To see Laswell perform was a treat in itself (I recommend listening to the Laswell-centric Sacred Dub podcasts for some of his work), almost appearing serenely pious as he underpinned Lombardo’s thrashing and Zorn’s squealing & squawking. The opening pieces were like a punch in the face, fast and powerful, but when Mike Patton appeared to apply guttural roars liberally over the top – playfully engaging with Zorn as he did so – Bladerunner was taken to a whole new level.

Fast, vicious, and brutal. Oh man, that absolutely delivered. I could have gone home more-than-happy at that point.

After a short interval, a ten-piece ensemble was constructed for a series of scores accompanying three short cinematic pieces, projected behind the ensemble whilst they played. Whilst Zorn played alto and conducted the group, the additional attraction here was to see Marc Ribot and (especially) Ikue Mori. Both proved to be quite understated in their stage presence – understandable, really, given they were sharing the stage with Zorn – and Mori, in particular, was so far from what I was expecting that I was taken aback a little.

Unfortunately, even with (or because of?) the visual accompaniment, I found it really difficult to get into the Essential Cinema part of the performance; the pieces were slower, more contemplative, and – whilst they seemed to fit the movies well – didn’t really connect on any level… other than the fact that I was watching these amazing performers.

But that was okay. I was still overjoyed. And the thing I most wanted to see – the headliner of the Triple Bill – was yet to come.

Ever since my early forays into Zorn and Patton, there had been one thing that had always piqued my interest: a musical “game” called Cobra. I’d seen a performance of Cobra at the Wheatsheaf some years back (and this might be it!), and it had left me more-than-curious… to see a Zorn-conducted performance was something that I Would Not Miss. This was the reason I had urged everyone to go to this performance.

And you know what? It delivered.

Zorn “conducted” his ensemble – featuring Patton, Ribot, Mori, Trevor Dunn, and many others – using a collection of cards and gestures, with the showing of a card eliciting delight from the performers. Keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Joey Baron, in particular, often broke into broad grins at the sight of the next cue, and the ensemble in general just showed so much joy… it really did seem as if this group absolutely revelled in the game of Cobra.

But the surprising thing, for me, was how genuinely exciting Cobra was as an audience member. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat, eyes scanning the stage to see how performers responded to the cards, or trying to see what the cards actually were. Another unexpected delight was the discovery that the performers would madly gesture suggestions to Zorn (often whilst frantically playing, or by the application of headwear); Baron would often throw back his head in despair when his requests were denied, but – mere seconds later – would be grinning like a loon as a result of the conducted changes.

The musical output? Well, it was almost immaterial – Cobra is a musical spectator sport – but it varied in pace and intensity, never really settling into any one groove… it really did appear to shift tone on Zorn’s whim. But it was the type of stuff that left me energised and alive… and on my feet.

Despite the relative emotional distance from the Essential Cinema pieces, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Triple Bill was worthy of a standing ovation… especially after that stunning performance of Cobra. I cannot remember a single musical performance that delivered more excitement, more engagement, and generated more joy – both onstage and off. Absolutely exhilarating.