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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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Les Misérables

les miserablesJust quietly, I think Canberra Philharmonic have outdone themselves with their latest rendering of a classic musical. I mean, it’s nothing terribly innovative, the staging is much what you’d expect for any other rendition of Les Misérables, and the set, while pleasant, goes through a few clunky moments. But the performances drawn out of these ‘amateur’ performers is nothing short of spectacular.

Dave Smith’s Valjean is a perfect match for Adrian Flor’s Javert, and the two milk Schönberg and Boulbil’s book for every hyper-sentimental note it’s worth. Their energy and focus, while admirable, is upstaged by other principals, particularly Kelly Roberts’ Fantine, Mat Chardon O’Dea’s Marius, Laura Dawson’s Cosette and Vanessa de Jager’s Eponine. Their energy filled Erindale’s cavernous auditorium, and they must be finding the run absolutely gruelling. The rest of the cast are pretty impressive too, on the whole.

I found the performance on the whole moving, and the staging, while predicable, was solid. The orchestra, though it needed to be hidden under a fully extended stage, was in fine form.

The whole evening hangs together beautifully, as evidenced by the full standing ovation with which this late-run audience honoured the splendid cast and crew. This is a great night out, and you’ve got one more week in which to get along and see it.

 
 

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Rent

RentEveryman Theatre has opened a fine production of a modern classic at the Courtyard.

The story of a group of impoverished friends struggling to make their name in New York under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, Rent is among the longest-running Broadway musicals, having been performed at the Nederlander Theatre from 1996 to 2008. Its historical significance (both social and theatrical) is great, and it is starting to show its age, with a few obscure lines now highlighting the changes that have come about in western society’s responses to HIV/AIDS and homosexuality in the last decade. It remains, however, a very poignant story, highly developed in character and plot; qualities that are extremely rare in musical theatre.

It can’t be denied that Rent is a big show. Nothing about it is intimate; its themes are as lofty as its music is histrionic. And its characters, while well-developed, are nonetheless representatives of archetypes more than they are individual personae. So to squeeze this vast musical into the Courtyard at the Canberra Theatre Centre is a curious choice. Perhaps it is the bite…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 6 December 2012 in Canberra Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

 

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All Shook Up

All Shook Up is a take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in case you didn’t know. I knew, and I think I missed half the show trying to figure out which characters corresponded to which Twelfth Night characters. Why did I do that?
As we have come to expect from Supa, All Shook Up is a great show that doesn’t ask a lot of its audience. We joined the blue rinse set for today’s matinee. It’s not normally a good idea to go to a matinee, the audiences are usually a bit flat, and the performers suffer for it. This was probably true today, and yet what struck me was the technical precision displayed by the cast. Under the musical direction of Garrick Smith, the principal cast gave stunning performances of many of Elvis Presley’s most popular songs, supported by an equally impressive ensemble.
It was a great show, although not a patch on Supa’s recent productions of Buddy. It could have something to do with the music, but I think maybe I’m just a little too young to appreciate it the way the rest of the audience, who were mostly twice my age, did. It’s a good show, but for my tastes it needed a little less sugar.
 
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Posted by on Saturday, 23 May 2009 in ANU Arts Centre, Canberra Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Wedding Singer

Director Garrick Smith is absolutely right to say that The Wedding Singer is not Shakespeare, but whatever it’s not, it is a lot of fun.

It is possible that opening night nerves got to the cast when I saw it; the first half hour or so was laboured and difficult to relate to, but then one of those great moments in theatre occurred, and the tenor lifted. It is a sign of a strong and talented cast when you see such a strong injection of energy in the middle of the first act. Before long I was tapping away and having a ball.
For those who don’t know, the musical version of The Wedding Singer is substantially different from the film of the same name. In this, it is the musical numbers that drive the emotional essence of the plot, and the most poignant of these are delivered beautifully by the magnificently talented heroine, played by Rebecca Franks, and her equally talented offsider played by Amy Dunham.
The musical is also funnier than the film, as I remember it, and Tim Sekuless’ timing is excellent. In my humble opinion, though, the best moment is when Boy George wannabe, George (played by Jeffrey van de Zandt) bursts into a rendition of an 80s pop song in perfect Hebrew. Gold.
No, it’s definitely not Shakespeare, but it’s a great night out.
 
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Posted by on Friday, 17 October 2008 in Supa Productions, The Street Theatre

 

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