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Category Archives: Courtyard Studio

The Normal Heart

the-normal-heartAs the audience applauded outrageously, drawing the cast out for a well-earned third bow, I wondered whether it would be more appropriate, in this instance, for the cast to stand on stage as we all observed silence in honour of those who’d paid the ultimate price for their love. But of course, that would hardly work, given how deeply entrenched our social norms are.

And that, largely, is the point of Larry Kramer‘s play, very aptly titled The Normal Heart.

The ‘normality’ of the love portrayed is juxtaposed against the initial onset of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, where cultural norms prevented an expedient or even a compassionate response to research and prevention. The play portrays an increasing fear, and an increasing urgency to find a way to stop the as-yet unnamed disease, pitting allies against each other in their fight to arrest the disease’s spread.

The play broadly centres on the efforts of Ned Weeks, a character based on the writer himself, to spur both the gay community and governments to action. After failing to gain traction with the media, he manages to get a group together to establish an organisation aimed at building awareness of and fighting the growing epidemic. He is also spurred by Doctor Emma Brookner, a character based on Doctor Linda Laubenstein, a pioneering researcher into the epidemic. Weeks finds himself pushed in one direction by Brookner, and held back by his organisation, who seek to use more diplomacy than Weeks thinks appropriate.

The resulting conflict drives the play forward, and would present Weeks in a very ineffectual light, were it not for the love story that underlies his trajectory. While seeking media attention, Weeks instead elicits the attention of Felix Turner, and they develop a rather conventional (or as the title suggests, normal) affection, that grounds Weeks, and is, perhaps, the only thing that truly humanises the character. Inasmuch as The Normal Heart veers precariously close to being a mere polemic, Felix is most certainly the play’s salvation.

Will Huang honoured the role of Felix with a brilliant performance. His decline is measured, and his self-pity deeply empathic. I found myself often wishing the more polemic of scenes would zip by a little faster so Felix would come back. But then, in perhaps the most polemic scene, Michael Sparks delivers one of the most moving and convincing monologues I have ever heard, in the character of Mickey Marcus. This moment presented presents Weeks with his most articulate and encyclopædic challenge, and he is silenced. It is a truly remarkable monologue, if Weeks really is based on the author: moving and tragic, and so highly critical of its own writer that it stands out as distinctly un-American in its candour.

Indeed, the second act is awash with noteworthy speeches that cover the range of positions the characters took in response to the epidemic. Jordan Best brilliantly and emotively portrays the frustration of the medical fraternity. Christopher Zuber (as Bruce Niles) puts Weeks in his place without ever writing him off. And Jarrad West’s Weeks, increasingly frustrated and ineffective in his purpose, demonstrates the centrality of the heart, the element that shows this play to be something other than a mere documentation of a sad and sorry moment in human history.

This is a tragedy of Sophoclean proportions, and it is a story Karen Vickery should take immense pride in having directed.

So as this brilliant cast took their bows, I applauded along with the rest of the audience, and began to process the remarkable piece of theatre I’d just witnessed. The irony of being unable to honour both the performance and the story was not lost on me, and though the deep tragedy of the story had cut me to the core, I nonetheless felt it was entirely appropriate for the cast to be honoured as they were.

Still, it would be nice, just once, to forego the applause at the end of as tragedy such as this. To instead stand and honour the dead with a cast that has done them such an honour in presenting their story, would be a cathartic experience I suspect.

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2015 Week 1

After missing a year, it has been a great feeling being involved in Short+Sweet again this year. The competition, as always, is eclectic.
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Photo 4-08-2015 4 15 53 pmI think one of the highlights this week has been The Adventures of Captain Midnight, in which Captain Midnight, a widower, describes his experience of moving to a retirement village and finding himself the centre of all the ladies’ attention. Don Smith as Captain Midnight strikes a very dignified presence with an air of David Attenborough examining the sex lives of the elderly.
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I’ve also been enjoying The Truth About Mum and Dad, yet another great piece by Greg Gould with some snappy one-liners and very relatable adult siblings who enjoy making a scene while learning that their parents may not be quite as prudish as they thought.
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Harriet Elvin’s Untitled was in good company with these offerings, too. What seems to be an art critic being harangued by a less appreciative gallery visitor turns out to be something far more amusing.
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I had the privilege of directing two very talented and committed performers in Robert Armstrong’s zippy little piece, The Interview from Hell. Alison Bigg and Oliver Durbidge took the production very seriously, and made the whole process very enjoyable. I also think the result was spectacular, but I’m biased!
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But the image that will stay with me after this year’s festival will certainly be that of Alison McGregor’s ‘Sparkles’, whose homage to love and chicken was simply gut-wrenching, especially the third time you see it! This one certainly deserved to take home People’s Choice!
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If this is the Top 20, there’s no way of predicting what will be in the Wildcards!
 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2013 (Week 2)

20130812 Short+Sweet 074asOkay, so it’s been a while since it ended, but I’m finally writing about Short+Sweet Week 2. Partly, this was because since the end of the festival I have been rather overwhelmed with family duties, but I also needed some time to lick my wounds.

So though neither of my plays got much attention, they were in some great company. Nothing really stood a chance of outstripping Last Drinks; Greg Gould’s catchy and trim script coupled with Margaret Allen’s taut direction and the impeccable timing of Caroline O’Brien and Jett Black were a force to be reckoned with.

Another very amusing piece was Good Cop Mad Cop, which I also enjoyed thoroughly. Paulene Turner’s clever script was performed energetically by Helen Way, Jonathan Garland, Paul Hutchison and Elizabeth Lamb.

Ruth Pieloor wrote and performed Vanity Insanity, with the support of Catherine Hagarty as director. Though very funny, this piece dealt beautifully with notions of self esteem and ageing, and I enjoyed it every time.

I never tired of seeing Paul Hutchison’s Bendigo Banjo Sails the Day, either. This piece could not be entered into the competition since a director had been unavailable and Kate Gaul, the Festival Director, salvaged it to ensure it was performed. We were all glad she did, as it was a great way to begin a great night of performances.

But the piece that truly moved me most was Written in Stone, written and directed by Evan Croker. This was one of the Wildcards that got through to the final, so not really a Week 2 play, but I found myself intrigued by it. The performances were great, the script is brilliant, and the play really deserved more recognition in the final than it got.

So that’s it for another year… though the Merimbula festival is less than a month away, and Melbourne follows soon after that and before you know it Sydney will be happening! And while all of that goes on, Crash Test Drama will surely keep us entertained! Many thanks to everyone for a great festival, and well done to all the winners!

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2013 (Week 1)

Brendan Kelly and Neil Parikh rehearsing for 'Abel C. Mann, Processed Offshore'Right before heading along to the Week 1 performance of Short+Sweet tonight, I squeezed in a short rehearsal with my cast for next week and snapped this great image. I had just picked up the bicorn from the post office, which had arrived from the UK just in time, and I was feeling great about how the play started coming together once the props started to give us some clarity of movement and intent.

Brendan Kelly (foreground of this image) had a curtain call, and I followed him to the Courtyard where I was lucky enough to snaffle a last minute ticket to the first week (I will be better prepared next week!).

I am always impressed by the format of Short+Sweet. The ten minute play is a great form, and the variety in any show is incredible. There was a broad range of styles in this year’s week 1, so I wasn’t disappointed, but there are always standouts.

Finnius Teppett from New Zealand was in attendance for this performance of his play, Reading Lamouche, and it was a novel little experience to see the irony between Brendan Kelly’s roles in Reading Lamouche and Abel C. Mann, Processed Offshore played out, but I was most impressed by the quality of humour in Tepputt’s buzzy little script, which was directed very nicely by Ryan Pemberton.

The ten minute form lends itself to comedy in a particularly natural way, probably because we’re largely used to seeing short stand up routines and sketch shows. I tend to lean towards comedy in my shorter plays (oh heck, I lean towards comedy anyway), but there is something courageous about attempting a fully-rounded character in a drama in such a short space of time. I was impressed by Margaret Allen’s script and performance in House of Cats, which was based on the blog and life experience of Nicole Lobry de Bruyn. The exposition in this piece exhibited a great balance between delivering basic necessary information and engaging the audience in the character’s existence.

And the night ended with one of those ‘plays we had to have’, in Here to Serve You. An unattended shoe in an airport sparks a security scare, and some unconventional sod decides to use common sense, upsetting the status quo, as it were. Yes, it was as predictable as you might guess, but snappy dialogue and nicely balanced performances made it one of the most enjoyable pieces of the night.

As usual though, the judges and the people disagreed with my assessment! Only Reading Lamouche got into the final next Saturday, with these other two noteworthy plays finishing here. And now the pressure is on. I have two plays in next week’s line up, and I’m nervous about both of them, but of course, looking forward to the energy and buzz leading up to Tuesday’s opening. Go to the Canberra Theatre Centre to book your tickets.

 

Correction: I have been put right by no fewer than three more observant individuals than myself! Here to Serve You did indeed make it through to the final, so the only one of the three that made a big impact on me that didn’t make it through was House of Cats. Hopefully House of Cats will get another run at later festivals in the Short+Sweet family!

 

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The Reluctant Shopper

reluctant shopperAn enthusiastic audience welcomed Bruce Hoogendoorn’s latest play to the Courtyard Theatre tonight. A simple but effective comedy, The Reluctant Shopper kept its audience engaged and the laughs rolling freely.

Faced with the grim news that consumers aren’t spending, the local business council engages the services of Barry to blackmail one of the city’s more wealthy citizens, Sam, to spend his ill-gotten but sizable nest egg in their members’ businesses. In the course of this task, Barry manages to set Sam up with shopaholic Lisa, and the two find they have complementary interests: Lisa likes spending money, and Sam has a lot of money…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2012 (Week 2)

Week 2 of the Short+Sweet Top 20 began in a very different fashion from the usual festival, with Joe Woodward sitting in a bath wearing a pair of angel’s wings and philosophising about the great question. It was a great start to a great evening of theatre, and I’ll admit I did get a little sentimental.

Short+Sweet really lends itself to great moments. The performance quality varies and the scripts are incredibly diverse, but even when the plays don’t live up to what you might hope for, there is often something that emerges statue-like from the stack. It puts me in mind of Patrick White’s metaphor of a squirming mass of eels from The Ham Funeral (if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour).

Some moments are hilarious, and others are poignant, but in my mind they end up in a montage that makes me feel like I’ve witnessed a single, epic masterpiece. It’s those transcendent moments that make the trivial meaningful.

Ruth Pieloor’s caricature of the prime minister in For the Love of Their Country might have been the performance of the festival. Often I use the word caricature to denigrate sub-par performances, but Pieloor’s observance, emulation and emphasis of Julia Gillard’s mannerisms and very unique vocal qualities was identifiable, amusing and wonderfully distinct. It was caricature of the highest order, which is very difficult to achieve in live theatre.
I was similarly impressed by one of my former classmates from the ANU, Sam Hannan-Morrow, in The Brett I Haven’t Met. Simon Tolhurst could have directed his script in a very different way, with more direct action (as I understand it had been done in The Logues), but it would have lost the raw engagement with the audience that Hannon-Morrow was able to deliver.

There were a few moments, though, when I just wanted to get up and fix things. I loved Remy Coll and Sam Floyd’s concept for Insecurity Guard, and despite a couple of points where the dialogue didn’t quite carry the action, it has a pretty good script, but it really needed a director who wasn’t on stage. These two vey talented performers managed very well, but they needed that extra punch of clarity that an observing director provides.

There is no question that the final moment of the festival, the performance of Genevieve Kenneally’s Ah! was an inspired choice for that particular slot. The energy of Kiki Skountzos, Riley Bell and Elizabeth McRae was precisely what was needed at the end of such a varied night, but the highlight in my book was Smart Jimmy Slow Bob. Greg Gould’s great script was brilliantly delivered by a spectacular cast (Bradley Freeman as the unconscious boy was particularly impressive, I didn’t detect a breath!).

Everyone involved in this festival deserves a pat on the back, not just those I’ve tapped out some words about. Short+Sweet is a unique event in the annual calendar, and I hope it’s a permanent one. What impresses me is where the different people involved in the festival come from. Theatre folk whose paths don’t cross find themselves in the same dressing room for four nights in a row, and that can only be good for our theatre community. And of course with opportunities for those who prefer pure theatre to musical theatre dwindling, it is a particularly important event.

I have two scripts finished (at least to first draft stage) for the 2013 festival, and I hope the wonderful people who made this festival such a great success are around next year.

 

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Richard III

In Richard III, Shakespeare has left us one of the greatest challenges to the willing suspension of disbelief ever created; Richard is a foul and loathsome character, and yet every time I see the play, I am amazed at how much sympathy I have for the detestable excuse for a human being I am presented with. Everyman Theatre has left me in this state yet again.

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 
 

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