Of hairy girls, guilt trips from mommy and how to get hitched

Porralicious4
SELFIE with the audience. Sonia Esgueira in Porralicious 4. Photograph courtesy twitter.com

MAKING THEM LAUGH at cultural idiosyncrasies of your own is a complex challenge that draws together bias, cringeworthiness and caricatures in a way that can never be precious. Ask Sonia Esguiera, who for the past eight years or so has been developing the Porralicious brand. This, its fourth iteration, reflects on the same soap opera-like family shenanigans as the previous versions, only now the family is older, a tad more manic and the granny makes ghoulish appearances from heaven.

Clocking in at about 20 minutes too long, it’s a work bright with local colour, reflecting on the behaviour and guilt trips, the relation to God, sex and properness of members of the South African Portuguese community, with all their fragile pride, their vegetables and their very 1980s-redolent local dialect. Even if you haven’t seen Porralicious 1, 2 or 3, you will quickly catch up with the wiles and dreams of Ruiz and Paula Ferreira and their parents Luisa and Jose, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It’s a generally hilarious tale of broken dreams, over-the-top melodrama and a yearning for home, in Madeira.

Esgueira is a lovely and imminently watchable performer; she switches seamlessly between characters boldly describing everything from the dead granny to young and older men, as she goes. And she leaves no description untrammelled: from what your vagina feels like after child birth to fellatio at the school dance, and interaction with church rituals and politics, comes under her often very funny and incisive scrutiny. Curiously, it is the men in her repertoire that are more successfully sketched than the women, who tend to be very shrieky and too similar to each other; often their words become part of the casualty causing you to lose the funnies because you can’t recognise what she’s saying.

You may watch this work and think of Irene Stephanou’s groundbreaking Meze Mira and Make Up, which in the 1990s opened the door for this kind of narrative which slices open the belly of prejudice, self-identity, cynicism and tribalism of the Greek community. But the flavour of this kind of shtick reaches all the way back to the self-deprecating humour of Yiddish theatre out of the pen of Sholem Aleichem, which portrayed a community with all its brokenness and pathos with a grin.

Porralicious is an interesting theatrical product which has in a way branded who Esgueira is, and in a sense, this is a double-edged sword for the actress and the industry. Clearly, she’s a performer with great skill and versatility. She handles the work with consummate ability, and digresses, in this work, unfortunately in a spot of audience participation which feels a tad too forceful. Ultimately, you leave the theatre with your yen for the story generally quenched, but a wish that you could see her stretch in a broader diversity of formal performance directions.

  • Porralicious 4 is written and performed by Sonia Esguiera and directed by Heinrich Reisenhofer, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until June 24. Call 011 511-1988.

A place to be as loud as the hell you want!

avenueQ
GREAT expectations: Princeton the man of the Avenue Q moment.

Remember Sesame Street and the values it espoused on generations of children? Well, 15 years ago, the makers of Avenue Q worked with its basic puppetting premises and ramped it up to a whole new set of narrative values. Now, in its 15th year, it explodes in a melange of bad-idea bears, grown up puppet antics and lyrics that take the bull by the proverbials. It’s hilarious, touching, beautiful and rude: an utter tonic.

Avenue Q is about the angst of a just-graduated 23-year-old guy with blue skin and a quaff of black hair meddled with electricity, called Princeton. To make matters worse, his degree is in English and he’s rapidly realised the pointlessness of it all, in a grabby world where he has no skills. But then he finds a place to rent, and some friends and something of a purpose. Of course, it’s not all that simple; there are a lot of tears and some orgasms along the way. There’s also disappointment and rejected advice, broken hearts and masturbation by the light of the internet.

With loud and flamboyant sex and chance encounters along the way, some fierce assertions from a monster that the internet is for porn and a very moving emergence from a closet, it’s a whirligig tale of love and marriage, hate and schadenfreude and above all one about the moment in which we live, because that’s all we have.

Not only is this a beautifully made show, with a complex and well-handled set, strong and intelligent lyrics and puppets that skirt hilarity and cuteness in a way that allows them to be utterly risqué, it’s also extremely well performed. The puppets, in the design parameters of the Muppets are like glorified glove puppets with chasmic mouths and big googly eyes. The ‘monsters’ among them are furry, which gives rise to a whole diatribe about race and racism. The puppeteers, dressed in black play visual tricks with you. Quickly you learn to respond to the puppets as though the voices came from their poly foam mouths.

No, these are not ventriloquists, but similar to the puppet ethos in works such as William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, they’re actors who give the puppets voice. And oh, what fine voice they bring. The directors of this piece clearly chose the best young voices in the field, and what Ashleigh Harvey (who magicks Kate Monster and Lucy the loose woman to magnificent life) and Ryan Flynn (who gives voice and persona to Princeton and Rod, the closeted queen), bring to the stage vocally, is sheer gold.

While the modulation of Rebecca Hartle as Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist with lots of racism up her sleeves and no clients, is a little too shrill, which often makes her repartee unintelligible, and the Gary Coleman references to the child star from the American 1980s TV series Diff’rent Strokes, might be lost on some, it is the poly foam characters, all the way from Mrs Thistletwat to the New Kid that utterly sweep you away. And at last, this theatre has achieved a strong balance between the sound of music and that of vocals. It’s a true delight.

Nieke Lombard and Graeme Wicks are the “Bad Idea Bears” who bring about havoc and mayhem, as they tee-hee to their electric pink and green paws, and they’re totally wonderful in body and soul and the Trekkie Monster (manipulated with levity and gruffness by Daniel Geddes) is a riot,  complementing every scene he graces.

This is one of those shows that will make you want to bound out of the theatre and change the world, not for ideological reasons, but because of all the possibility there is out there, to grab the moment. It’s a coup for South Africa, and arguably the stage musical that will define this year’s theatre pickings and achievements.

  • Avenue Q is based on the book by Jeff Whitty and the original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and is directed by Timothy Le Roux. It features creative input by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (music and lyrics), Dawid Boverhoff (musical director), Kosie Smit (puppets and scenic design), Stephen Oremus (orchestration and arrangements), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Timothy le Roux (musical staging) and Fried Wilsenach (sound design) and is performed by Ryann Flynn, Daniel Geddes, Rebecca Hartle, Ashleigh Harvey, Songezo Khumalo, Nieke Lombard, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Grant Towers and Graeme Wicks, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until July 15. Call 011-511-1818.

Listen to the hand

Puppetguy
YOU said what?! Conrad Koch (right) with his famous puppet, Chester Missing. Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

HE’S BRUTALLY HONEST, outrageously politically incorrect and aligns farting and bum jokes with political ones. He also fits, head over heels, into a suitcase. If you haven’t yet ‘met’ Chester Missing, and heard his repartee, experienced his friends and gotten a laugh or six out of his shtick, you shouldn’t consider yourself a dinkum theatre goer.

Not yet ten years on stage, he piqued the interests of journalists in 2014 when his Oscar Pistorius jokes reached beyond what some considered polite. At the end of ventriloquist Conrad Koch’s ‘talking hand’, Missing is the bald guy with tiny limbs, googly eyes and a huge opinion. On everything.

In Koch’s latest production, Puppet Guy, Missing is central to the show, but not all you will laugh at. It’s a well-directed piece which doesn’t allow too much of a foray into strictly political jibes. Goodness knows, our world is unbelievable enough, politically, and remains one of the best script writers for comics all over the world – but there’s the rub. There are so many would-be political jesters out there right now – on stages, on social media, in your own back yard, that the giggles and gags, the poking of fun at De Lille and Zille, at Trump’s orangeness and everyone else’s insanity, has wilted a tad.

So, just before your grin begins to melt on your face, Missing is wafted away in his suitcase, and other tricks hold sway – you meet Hilton, who is a combination of a sock, a slipper, some fierce looking specks and a lot of rudeness; a dangerous mosquito with loose eye-balls and no wings; a DJ who takes hold of Koch’s toes and uses them to full effect, and other charming creatures.

The piece de resistance of the show is, however, Koch’s stage presence and easy audience engagement. There’s a cheerful briskness in the manner in which he brings members of the audience into their own on stage, and a delicious evilness in which he demonstrates his deft skill in putting words into their mouths, quite literally.

Ventriloquism, like hypnosis, is a kind of parlour trick which skirts on the dangerous, but used in a safe and entertaining context, will make you laugh. Why? Because you’re looking at the unexpected, the uncontrolled, the ordinary guy who in a second turns into a purring lion with a squeaky voice. Yes, it’s juvenile and unnuanced in its approach, but that is what keeps you laughing like a child. The freshness of mischief blended with deeply jibes and pokes and a curtailment just as you feel your interest beginning to wane, mixed with good skills and a delightful troupe of stage presences keeps this show on its toes.

Fatal direction

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OOH, the lust: Dan Gallagher (Ashley Dowds) gets all hot and heavy with Alex Forrest (Jazzara Jaslyn). Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

REMEMBER 1987? IN the flicks, it was a year of big hair and sexy killers. Glenn Close took on Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, a film that was to forever corrupt the basically benign one-night-stand with a right dousing of psychopathology at its most sinister. The stage version of this era-changing film is at the moment on stage at Montecasino, and sadly, it ain’t what you might expect.

It’s an easy story line: Nice married guy meets psychopath in a bar. She seduces him once, twice. And all hell breaks loose, destroying everything in its wake — children, bunnies, cars, the whole bang shoot. On a level, the story’s straight forward, but without the requisite electricity, it turns diabolical.

For one thing, Jazzara Jaslyn, the actress cast in the role of the scary Alex Forrest, the woman who takes Dan Gallagher (Ashley Dowds) by the libido and doesn’t let go till she’s wrought all the damage she means to, lacks the kind of sinister gravitas of the psychopath. What you get instead, is a rather shrill young woman whose hysteria buttons are pressed more potently than her manipulative force. She’s irritating more than horrifying.

And while good intentions have been invested in the paring of the work down to its bare bones, there are elements in its presentation which are so solemnly attempted and so cringeworthily achieved you have to consciously force yourself not to laugh. The silliest moments are in the sex acts themselves where a lumpen kind of choreography features, forcing the poor performers to mime orgasms. It’s so crudely directed that it jars everything, making you yearn for the days when sex on stage was taboo, and directors had to resort to creativity to convey nuance.

Indeed, the nuance department in this play seems to have been closed down at the outset. The text lacks the kind of electricity and drama that it warrants and even the notorious boiled bunny, which is what many former Fatal Attraction film audience members might remember, is sidestepped.

By and large, aside from the novel introduction of the idea of a cell phone as an alternate conversational space, this work is sanitised, wooden and miscast. Dowds in the pivotal male role does his best, representing a seriously nice guy who falls, hook, line and sinker into the maw of a monster, but in this work, he’s up against strange odds, two too young blond lasses (the wife, Beth, is played by Jenny Stead) and a harsh and inappropriate musical sound track, to say nothing of a very obnoxious back drop which just doesn’t work. It features an ambiguous melange of women’s faces against a venetian blinds kind of number. Only it’s so self-consciously mysterious and it’s so very very large, that it crushes the play from the get-go.

Hold on to your horrified and titillated memory of the film that redefined the idiom ‘fatal attraction’; this play skipped some time on the drawing board.

  • Fatal Attraction is written by James Dearden and directed by Paula Bangles. It is performed by Jo da Silva, Ashley Dowds, Jazzara Jaslyn, Jenny Stead and Alex Tops until May 6 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511-1988 or visit www.pietertoerien.co.za

Sashay with darling down memory lane

Darling
GIVING it eyebrows: Pieter-Dirk Uys transforms into Evita on stage before your very eyes. Photograph courtesy Netwerk 24.

WHEN OLD AGE and its vagaries come under the inestimable loupe of Pieter-Dirk Uys, you may believe you’re in for a laugh-a-second experience with a sharp and bitter edge, and you will not be wrong, but the tears fall amid the laughter, which sometimes sours on your face. When in doubt say ‘Darling’ is a foray into what it means to look back on a career and forward into the possibilities of dotage. It’s self-deprecating as is Uys’s wont, but replete with the one-liners that have defined him for decades, it’s a little tired.

Uys single-handedly defined the notion of holding a mirror up to the shenanigans of the state from the late 1970s, when the vicious madness of apartheid values were at their most self-absorbed and arguably most dangerous peak. He was the one who had the temerity to imitate PW Botha’s ugly grimace from beneath his hat in a way that brought that devil onto the stage, and made you laugh with hilarity because it felt so real, but you knew it wasn’t.

In this new show, Uys offers a taxonomy of South African leaders and insight into the complexity of pulling the mickey out of each of them. He even dusts off his Piet Koornhof mask, the one with the nose and the ears that unmistakably reflects the face of a man who held many different portfolios in the South African apartheid Cabinet, with his characteristically skewed morals and insinuatingly gentle voice. And mostly he looks at this box of monsters with a softened eye. With Thabo Mbeki and his Aids denialism as the obvious exception, of course.

Bringing a tear to your eye as he thinks of Winnie Mandela, Uys scans the newspaper and finds nothing of real moment. He brings a litany of his characters on stage – including his alter-ego, South Africa’s most famous woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, but the entourage is peppered with vignettes of another character, an old man, who is in the process of relocating to a retirement establishment. Accompanied by his dog Smelly, he’s in the process of packing his life into boxes. And what happens with this? The elderly hands need to be pried from objects that hold rusty memories but no real value. And it’s hard to watch.

Also, part of this work is the story behind Uys’s home in Darling, a town in the Western Cape. There are enough Darling metaphors and scenarios to put lipstick on your smiling mouth. There are tales of the children and the poverty of the place — stories of glee and pride. You laugh gently with this figure, who slips chameleonically through eras and identities, but you also sober up and acknowledge that the turning over of decades has rendered Uys an important elder of the theatre community. A unique and irreplaceable one. And this reason, as well as all the others makes it unequivocally a work to cherish.

  • When in doubt, say ‘Darling’ is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys until April 22 at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • Read a critical analysis of how this work is seen to touch a nerve in contemporary politics, by Geoff Sifrin.

Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

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BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

Night of a thousand stars

Evita
BIRTHPANGS of Argentinean freedom: Che (Jonathan Roxmouth) and ensemble cast. Photograph courtesy of www.stageandscreen.co.za

ONE OF THE toughest aspects of mounting a West End and Broadway hit musical that has iconic film status is probably also one of the production’s biggest blessings: everyone knows the lyrics to the Lloyd Webber and Rice production Evita so well, they’re bawling them out all the time as the work unfolds. But by the same token, the comparisons with the film are begged with abandon. And this does hurt what you can currently see on stage.

While director Harold Prince is at pains to reinvent many of the scenes, which obviously contains a pared down cast and similarly tightened effects such as choreography, in many ways, you do feel as though you are watching a stage version of the 1996 film which starred Madonna and was directed by Alan Parker, and indeed, in areas where the narrative feels foxed by special effects, you find yourself relying on your knowledge of the trajectory of Evita Perón’s life, as depicted in that film, to fill in the blurry parts.

The other thing you might find yourself reverting to is the 2010 version of this production, also staged at Montecasino, which was memorably tight and impeccable in its focuses, in its group scenes and in its choreography. While comparisons are always odious, if you did see that earlier production which had Angela Kilian opposite James Borthwick in the main roles, you will appreciate the discrepancies.

Borthwick is a performer who lent the character of Juan Perón the necessary gravitas, cruelty, flawedness and imposing visual value that Robert Finlayson unfortunately doesn’t have. It has to do not so much with the performance, but with the performer’s age and physical presence that plays into one of the reasons why Eva Duarte’s relationship with Perón was so shocking to many: he was more than 20 years her senior. An important military figure. A guy with stature. This production focuses on the sexiness of the couple which feels a little out of sync in terms of the story being told.

Similarly, Emma Kingston in the role of Evita has been compromised in terms of the way in which her body feels truncated by the choice of shoes she wears and the way in which the lighting embraces her. Yes, clunky shoes were worn in the 1940s, but there is but one pair of shoes she sports, toward the end of the production that lends her dignity rather than clunkiness, as do the rest of them. She also feels compromised when her voice is stretched to the higher registers of the demands of the role and it is not consistently clear whether this is a voice or an amplification issue, but you hear the words caught in a state of shriek which isn’t pleasant. The character’s agony toward the end of her life is also played with a stylised crudeness which doesn’t lend credibility to the scenario. Evita died of cervical cancer and the bending and pushing Kingston articulates with her body makes it feel like a digestive issue.

Having said all of that, the interfolding of genuine footage in this production renders moments like the famous balcony scene at Casa Rosada which sees Evita as Argentina’s controversial yet generally well-loved First Lady, is simply breath-taking. There’s a relationship between the real woman and the real story that is informed and energised by the footage. The set is almost architectural in its refinement, but is splintered illogically by lights mounted into the floor. So, you sometimes experience strobe-evocative flashing moments which are about sensation rather than pragmatics, and you also experience ghostly reflections from these ground-based lights that bounce off the rest of the set rather distractingly.

One of this work’s magic ingredients is a nuanced and strong cameo performance by Isabella Jane in the role of the mistress who must be disposed of, when Eva comes on the scene. Another is an incredibly strong ensemble cast which includes performers such as Mike Huff, Adam Pelkowitz, LJ Neilson, Keaton Ditchfield and others, as well as a very well-placed children’s cast, which lends the work an irrevocably wise texture that makes you understand the atmosphere in an Argentina replete with protest, poverty and struggles.

The cherry on top of the work is the narrator, Che, played very ably by Jonathan Roxmouth. It is in this representation, replete with a lit cigar and a whole rash of nuances that you get to understand the underbelly of the story being told here, which doesn’t hold back on glorying in the sexiness of the era and the messiness of its values. It’s a beautiful role that is both sinister and informative, but lends this musical the kind of kick that balances the historical, tango-scented magic of the original sound track.

  • Evita with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is directed by Harold Prince and Dan Kutner. It features creative input by Louis Zurnamer (musical director), Guy Simpson (musical supervisor), Mick Potter and Shelley Lee (sound), Richard Winkler and Gary Echelmeyer (lighting), Larry Fuller and R. Kim Jordan (choreography), David Cullen (orchestration) and Timothy O’Brien (production). It is performed by Robert Finlayson, Isabella Jane, Emma Kingston, Anton Luitingh, Jonathan Roxmouth and an ensemble comprising Cindy-Ann Abrahams, Danielle Bitton, Ivan Boonzaaier, Ruby Burton, Beverley Chiat, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Stefania du Toit, JD Engelbrecht, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Hayley Henry, Tamryn van Houten, Mike Huff, Kent Jeycocke, Hope Maimane, Thabso Masemene, Carlo McFarlane, LJ Neilson, Adam Pelkowitz, Mark Richardson and Trevor Schoonraad. It is supported by a children’s cast: (Johannesburg) Nicole du Plessis, Pascalle Durand, Fadzai Ndou, Shayla McFarlane, Victoria Levick, Levi Maron, Patrick McGivern, Sean Ruwodo, Cameron Seear, Mikah Smith, Benjamin Wood and Indigo Wood; and (Cape Town) Alon Adir, Jack Fokkens, Mira Govender, Emily Johnston, Charné Jupp, Kate Richards, Lia Sachs, Shani Sachs, Morgan Santo, Tamlyn Stevens, Matteas van Blerk and Daniel Wolson, and the live orchestra under the baton of Louis Zurnamer comprises Stefan Lombard, Rowan Bakker and Drew Bakker (keyboard), Cobie van Wyk (percussion), Donny Bouwer/Michael Magner (trumpet), Bez Roberts, Jurie Swart or Nick Green (trombone), Ryan Solomons/Robert Jeffrey (guitar), Jason Green/Graham Strickland (bass) and James Lombard (drums). It is at Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 26, and at Artscape Opera House, Artscape theatre complex, Cape Town, from December 2 until January 7, 2018. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev
YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

Venue fail in Little Shop of Horrors

"Feed me, Seymour!" Little Shop of Horrors's haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.
“Feed me, Seymour!” Little Shop of Horrors’s haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

In this Hairspray-meets-Faustus 1960s-redolent musical, you get to experience the schlock-horror tradition from which musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show were spawned and blending some fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, doowop and Motown moves, Little Shop of Horrors is a hugely palatable production which engages with issues like urban decay, parochialism and abuse all couched in an unashamedly bizarre tale of a flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, which grows spectacularly through the show’s run.

Generally, in a show of this nature, it would be the plant itself that is the central focus and main character – and drawcard – but in this production, the cast and the set win over, in spite of a very vociferous and wittily positioned ‘Audrey II’. The joint-narrator, comprising Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon, performed by Dionne Song, Chantal Herman and Lelo Ramasimong respectively absolutely excels: the three, almost acting like a Greek chorus, lend the work the frisson of horror and camped up flippancy or added narrative that keeps it human and colourful; relative newcomers on Johannesburg’s stages, they’re fabulously cast and have exceptional character and voice.

With sterling performances by Michael Richard as Mr Mushkin, a stereotypical New York Skid Row Jewish businessman and Alan Committie, the hapless Seymour, thankfully holding himself back from too much ad libbing, the production has a kind of acid green-bubble gum pink flavour and this is its drawcard, perhaps, but also its downfall: the work in this theatre offers a technologically-rendered sound which is simply too big for the space, and it lacks nuance. It’s like a colour-by-number show where every element has the same level of intensity. And the effect, after your brain has synced to its rhythm, is deadening.

In this production, it’s like everything is ramped up as loud as possible and while the cast loyally and bravely do their best to retain focus and audience interest, sometimes that blend of really loud piped music that you feel in your molars and amplified vocals is so loud that you cannot hear the words. It’s not clear why this has been done: surely the technology of such a well-established theatre as Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien has the wherewithal to contain nuance or to make provision for what happens to a venue when it’s full of people.

It’s a pity as it reduces this otherwise delightful production, which features an utterly beautiful set that really steals the show, to an irritating squeaky squawkiness, which might well drive you away at interval – as the empty seats in the second half attested to, shortly after opening night.

  • Little Shop of Horrors is directed by Steven Stead, based on the book by Howard Ashman. It is designed by Alan Menken (music), Evan Roberts (original tracks), Justin Southey (musical direction), Janine Bennewith (choreography), Greg King (set), Tina le Roux (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound); with puppets by Greg King and Wendy Henstock. It is performed by Alan Committie; Zak Hendrikz; Chantal Herman; Brandon Moulder; Adam Pelkowitz; Lelo Ramasimong; Michael Richard; Dionne Song; Audrey van Litsenborgh; Jaco van Rensburg and Tim Wells, and is at Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, in Fourways, until August 9. 0115111818 or www.montecasinotheatre.co.za