Night of a thousand stars

Evita

BIRTHPANGS of Argentinean freedom: Che (Jonathan Roxmouth) and ensemble cast. Photograph courtesy of http://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
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How to face up to a man in a panda suit

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TAKING no prisoners: Robert Hobbs is Brett in ‘Break Your Face’. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

<<Warning: this show features strobe lights and deep base>>

When a show brings out all the technological tricks including violent strobes and deep bass too big for the venue before the story it tells has the time to stretch its wings and prove its fire, be afraid, be very afraid. Chances are, under these circumstances, said wings will not get their chance to flex and the banging and crashing of techno-boosts will become assaultative. This is the first impact of Robert Hobbs in Break Your Face, a violent and somewhat raw tale of love and truth, Beijing and pandas, which casts a rich spoof with a steady hand on the whole culture of motivational speaking.

Taking you from a depressed former bouncer in a Boksburg night club through to a five star restaurant in China and love and death amongst the petals and pandas, this is a piece enhanced by the kind of clowning performed by Klara van Wyk in You Suck! And Other Inescapable Truths, where the pathos of the central character is performed with devastating accuracy, leaving you feeling alive with a sense of moral queasiness and cringing in your seat.

Brett is the main character, drawing as he does, deeply into the white South African jargon, asides and idiosyncrasies. We get to meet a stereotypical reflection on Chinese culture and explore the gnarled and oft frot underbelly of what it takes to be a bouncer in a nightclub as we get on board a non-stop in your face array of an understanding of what the face means and does for an individual.

Certainly not the best work on the part of either Viljoen or Hobbs, this work mashes together our culture of violence, with our tendency towards taking self-deprecation to its extremes. Spoofing traditions of performance and dignity in a context in which hearts get broken, the piece places audience members in limbo on stage, baseball bat in hand, and nothing to hit.

In short, it’s a messy little show with a strong premise that is overshadowed by too much bombast and loud technology. As a result, the nub, value and fire of the piece itself are sorely compromised. Hobbs performs valiantly, but the material is not on his side. And the truly tragic image of a grown man in a panda onesie losing his temper on the phone is not something you can erase from your memory with enough rapidity.

  • Break Your Face is written and directed by Greg Viljoen and performed by Robert Hobbs, at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino until July 23. Visit pietertoerien.co.za or www.safferland.com

Evita and the astonishing freedom of irrelevance

kaktus.jpg

A STEPLADDER REACHES up to the ceiling of the stage. The curtains are half closed. There’s a “horrible little doll” representing Economic Freedom Front leader, Julius Malema, and Evita Bezuidenhout, togged in flimsy leopard print and doek with a bag full of goodies arrives for an Imbizo, cellphone at hand, a bag full of goodies under her arm and a litany of rich and fantastic tales to regale us with, through the trajectory of her own history and the murk of lies and fake facts which we’re fed all the time.

But who are “we” in the saga? The Montecasino audience is traditionally largely white. The diatribe constructed, certainly in the first half of this production is extremely white-focused, and you emerge at interval pondering the relevance of Evita, who has been up until now, not only the most famous woman in South Africa, but largely a legend in her own time – ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu – in the arena of political satire.

Interspersed with everything, from a splaying out of fake news into fake history, to jabs at everything from measles vaccinations to Donald Trump’s blatant sexism, the work is beautifully written, top of the moment in political acuity and newsworthiness and well-structured, but it does feel monumentally long – for you in the audience, and for the 71-year-old performer on stage.

But then, as the second half opens, replete with enlarged reproductions of the kind of prints and paintings that adorned classrooms under apartheid, a piano and some other choice props, the piece’s pace heats up and the racial focus of the work comes into astonishing relief. Evita, arguably the world’s queen of fake news, examines the kak in historical cacti, and the repartee whirrs and flies with a mixture of heady political and sexual references which take Mrs Bezuidenhout to a new level of wit.

A character constructed by Pieter-Dirk Uys, who we’ve seen on these stages with a completely different frame of references but a few weeks ago, Evita is always a draw-card for local audiences. All through apartheid, she had the temerity to hold up the crooked and ugly mirror to South Africans. Now, at 71, she’s both suave and naive, politically astute and believable. She’s the epitome of Afrikaans genteel manners all wrapped up in a range of other subtleties and she’s the exactly appropriate vehicle for some of the finest of insults towards South African leadership and history, and like any good jester, carries with her a handbag of bold and brave tricks and jibes, and neither Jacob Zuma nor Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela nor Kgalema Mothlanthe escape unscathed.

Enfolding everything in the polite terms of an Afrikaans tannie who helps out in the kitchen of Tuynhuys, the Presidential Residence in Cape Town, on a Tuesday, Evita who is now a junior member of the ANC – she was during the 1980s, apartheid’s ambassador to the fictional South African homeland, Bapetikosweti – is now a gogo in her own right, and continues playing court jester with as much pizzazz and elegance as she’s done for over twenty years. But today, her bite is even sharper, and her focus more specifically honed. In considering her own racism, she will force you to ponder yours. In considering how she is a non-black South African, she will make you think a little deeper about what it takes to exist with authenticity in this topsy turvy world of ours. And how the white Afrikaner’s relevance has evaporated.

You will laugh, but often it is a laughter spiced with savvy or even sadness, as you acknowledge the bitter truths and historical projections that are within Evita’s ambit, and that reflect on the brokenness of the context in which all South Africans live and make sense of everything.

Life can be such a delightful Drag!

Priscilla

LES Girls: Tick/Mitzi (Daniel Buys), Bernadette (David Dennis) and Adam/Felicia (Phillip Schnetler), giving it shtick.

What happens when three drag queens decide to turn a new page on life, armed with a bus named Priscilla, lots of shoes and an urge to strut their stuff in the Great Australian Outback? The world turns on its heel, glitter and tears characterise the moves and you, in the audience, probably really do have the most fun you can have in a theatre. The stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert is simply as good as it gets.

When you watch the original eponymous film which first saw light of day in 1994, you get a very real sense of the scrappy mismatched wildness that characterises sheer unadulterated camp ramped up to the max. On paper, it might be difficult to imagine how this utterly fabulous film could be translated into a stage production, but you’re in safe hands: the international and local creative teams behind this project have produced something uniquely beautiful and majestic in its visual glossolalia and kaleidoscope of sexual jokes and nuance, replete with technological tricks and surprises all along the way.

The tour de force performance is that of David Dennis playing Bernadette, the character who is undergoing gender reassignment, has a Les Girls history and is nursing a broken heart beneath that spirit of fire and all those wigs. While Mitzi (Daniel Buys) and Felicia (Phillip Schnetler) are in fine form, great eyelashes and performative splendour, when Bernadette’s on stage, she’s where your eyes are. But the hero in the narrative itself is the character of Bob, a redneck with vision and sensitivity, played with true aplomb and sheer grit by James Borthwick. The kernel of the tale of Priscilla is not only about acceptance and the magic of lip syncing your way through life, it’s also about the meaning of love and reflects very astutely on how sex is secondary to what love is about.

But there’s no smarmy soppiness in this brightly coloured essay on the madness and freedom of being able to stand on top of a bus in the middle of a desert and belt your heart out to an aria from La Traviata. It’s Drag with a capital ‘D’, which is about all the vagaries and joys of performing on stage as it challenges gender expectations. By the same token, it doesn’t hold back on the ugly face of homophobia and gay bashing that remains a part of being different in the world.

Generally, a show with a big cast, lots of energy and all the tricks in the make up bag that you can conceive of, is a great hiding place for inferior performances. That doesn’t happen here: Priscilla hides no one, and the ensemble, from the three divas suspended from the sky (Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Candida Mosoma and Thembeka Mnguni) to the yellow dragons and acid green cream cakes and shocking pink paintbrushes all dancing in sequence, to the cameo which features the child of Mitzi, are utterly fabulous – the choreography is tight and on form, and the costumes are unbelievable in their wildness and wisdom, appropriately grotesque luridness, speedy changes and sense of freedom.

With a sound track that melds everything from the Village People to Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper to Kylie Minogue, Priscilla’s sound is pastiche with a tone of saccharine and it celebrates difference with abandon. It’s a show that will continue reverberating in your heart for months.

  • Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical is based on the book by Stephan Elliott (who also wrote the original motion picture) and Allan Scott and directed and developed for the stage by Simon Phillips. Anton Luitingh is the resident director. It features designed by Brian Thomson (bus concept and set), Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (costumes), Nicky Schlieper and Per Hörding (lighting), Michael Waters and Mark Malherbe (sound), Cassie Hanlon (make up), Bryan Schimmel (music director), Ross Coleman, Andrew Hallsworth and Duane Alexander (choreography) and Stephen Murphy and Charlie Hull (orchestration, musical arrangement and supervision). It is performed by James Borthwick, Donae Brazer, Daniel Buys, Taryn-Lee Buys, David Dennis, Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini, Darius Engelbrecht, Ryan Flynn, Michael Fullard, Zane Gillion, Nadine Grobbelaar, Craig Hawks, Chantal Herman, Samuel Hyde, Dirk Joubert, Thembeka Mnguni, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Henk Opperman, Jonathan Raath, Phillip Schnetler, Logan Timbre,  Candice van Litsenborgh and Michael William Wallace. The child cast comprises Jack Fokkens, Jagger Vosloo and Alexander Wallace (Cape Town) and Ashton Mervis, Michael Fry and Levi Maron (Johannesburg). And the orchestra under Bryan Schimmel comprises Kevin Kraak (keyboard), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitars), Luca de Bellis (drums), Roger Hobbs (bass), Camron Andrews (reeds), Lorenzo Blignault (trumpet/flugelhorn), Nick Green (trombone), Zbigniew Kobak (trombone) and Pieter Ross (standby keyboard). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino Fourways until June 18. Visit www.showtime.co.za

Raised arms against a sea of troubles

Hamlet-2

Mad and bereft: Marcel Meyer plays an electric Hamlet. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

There’s nothing quite like a foray into the life and dilemmas of the Prince of Denmark to make an otherwise ordinary evening completely extraordinary. Under the directorial hand of Fred Abrahamse, Hamlet is an uncompromising, uncompromised production which is contemporary and classic at the same time, as it presents one of theatre’s most respected stories with a moral freshness and a pared down sensibility that will keep you riveted.

The tale of the hapless young prince who is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased father, with a message of vengeance for his murder has been performed for over 400 years, in various manifestations and the creative team of this production have certainly done their homework in reflecting on it. In particular, in 1608, a record exists documenting the performance of this work by the crew of the Red Dragon, a ship, off the East Coast of South Africa.

Abrahamse casts a nod in the direction of this crew with his stage that is surrounded by a flood of tears and a set that is ensconced in a diaphanous arras. The effect is a cleaving of values and a conflation of narrative with set decisions that will take your breath away. And as you hear the creak of the ship resting and swaying on the ocean, you will realise the devastating subtlety with which every part of this production – from the music’s composition to the fight choreography – comes together to enable a sophisticated and potent whole.

Hamlet is performed by a tiny but immensely sophisticated cast of men. Everyone, including Gertrude and Ophelia, is represented with due dignity and muscle – and if you saw Abrahamse’s Richard III a couple of years ago, you will understand the nuance and wisdom in the work. Playing Shakespeare in such a way that you, in the audience can imbibe the beauty of the language as you’re transported by the moral crux of the tale, the work is a sheer masterpiece.

It’s sinister and shaped, moulded and passionate in its articulation, but the proverbial cherry on top of this tough well-made piece is the costume design. Easy enough to transfer performers and characters before our very eyes, the clothing they wear is clean of fluff, but not of wit and wisdom.

The eponymous character, performed by Marcel Meyer, is gut-wrenching in his quandary as he faces his corrupt uncle (Michael Richard) and his complicit mother (Callum Tilbury), in her fabulous crown of spikes. In directing the work, Abrahamse has given an edgy focus to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jeremy Richard and Matthew Baldwin), enabling them to embrace the sinister – evoking the terrifying young girls in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – in their togetherness and split loyalties. He also highlights the bumbling pedantic role of Polonius (Dean Balie), offering an explicit clarity to the work which will make you want to hold onto moments forever.

There are moments in this work which renders the flowers of remembrance cast so beautifully by Ophelia into flames and tea lights. And others in which Yorrick’s skull dangles magically over a shroud, but further to that, there are moments in which the bare simplicity of the words cast against the set, of the predicament of the characters cast against their morals, that reaches through the rich and varied trajectory of this play’s history and makes you realise how privileged you are to be in the audience.

  • Hamlet is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features design by Fred Abrahamse (set and lighting), Marcel Meyer (costumes), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (composer) and Anton Moon (fight choreography) and is performed by Matthew Baldwin, Dean Balie, Marcel Meyer, Jeremy Richard, Michael Richard and Callum Tilbury at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until May 21. Call 011 511 1988 or visit http://www.pietertoerien.co.za.

Constellations and the games people play

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

This play is about cosmology and bee hives; it’s also about life, loss, love and death; taking chances and letting go. It is about the games people play. But above all else, it is about celebrating the veteran directing chops of Alan Swerdlow, revealing him at his most intelligent best.

In Constellations, he directs two of this country’s arguably more underrated performers: Ashley Dowds, who never seems to age and who has recently served as an eminently watchable foil opposite the ilk of Brenda Sakellarides and Keren Tahor; and the charming Janna Ramos-Violante, who we’ve oft fallen in love with in her capacity as director and performer over the years.

Honoured as the London Standard Weekly newspaper’s play of the year in 2012, this quiet, wisely pared down work grapples with relationships with a rapier-like pen that casts its words in a curiously unusual rhythm, which quickly disabuses you of the promise of a soppy love story. It has that illusion of cynical lightness that director Sylvaine Strike achieved with Pregnant Pause in 2009, but also that touch of magic conveyed by Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Attachments (1-6), a danced essay about love.

Neither dance piece nor pregnancy romp, Constellations is about the brain’s frontal lobe as the seat of language. It touches the terror of genetic inheritance. It is constructed through a series of exchanges, which in the vein of the technique of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett are repeated and re-used as a metaphor for the kinds of games people play in conversation and the things they say and say and say again, without ever saying what they mean.

The medical curve ball in the work’s denouement will grab you by your humanity. The tentative conversational choreography around marriage and life and death and communication are handled with a devastatingly subtle hand. Suddenly, you are forced to look at both Mary Ann (Ramos-Violante) and Roland (Dowds) in new and increasingly more sophisticated if not tragic lights. It’s not very different from watching a cast pebble make rings in a puddle.

But it is the light directorial hand, the presence of an off-pink cardigan, a bench and a trellis and the gentle diversion from logical chronology that doesn’t let any aspect of this tight work run away with you. It’s almost farcical in its repetition of lines, almost annoying in how the give and take rests on a few words re-articulated, but it never reaches farcical proportions, nor annoying ones. It holds fast onto the issues at hand. It contains all the elements: happiness, cruelty, confusion, pain and horror, but it enfolds its contents with a sympathetic yet acerbically sophisticated knowledge of the interface of humour with tragedy, leaving you at peace and sated. A beautiful, beautiful work.

  • Constellations by Nick Payne is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Ashley Dowds and Janna Ramos-Violante, at The Studio, Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, until September 28.