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
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One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

IrmaVep

DON’T stint on the smiles, my dear: Jane, the maid (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Lady Edna, her new madam (Weslee Swain Lauder). Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

FEEL LIKE AN evening of manners and frippery, ghosts and howling wolves, complicated hairstyles and seriously big dresses? The Mystery of Irma Vep has something for everyone, and it’s a slick, quick and deliciously fine production that will keep you laughing for months.

The Pieter Toerien theatre has become known for staging crisp and fabulous farce, but this piece of theatre ramps things up considerably. Mashing together the notion of the Victorian penny dreadful with Charles Ludlam’s inimitable approach to the ridiculous, in an utterly over the top two-hander, which offers not a little sleight of hand magic in the wardrobe department, The Mystery of Irma Vep is utterly brilliant. The performances of Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth beg comparison with those of no less than Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in the fabulous 1970s film, Sleuth.

It’s a mad little yarn involving many things that go bump in the night, as well as a maid of a Victorian manor who has a couple of unexplainable talents and a hairdo to match. She’s obliged to serve the manor’s new mistress, one Lady Edna, of whom she isn’t awfully fond. There’s a painting with a weird aura, a werewolf or two, an oddly sinister ragamuffin manservant with a wooden leg called Nicodemus as well as some anagrams to spice things up. And of course, as the genre demands, there’s a foray into Egyptian tombs, a couple of jagged chases around the auditorium, and a delicious peppering of sound effects. Not to forget an unforgettably terrible improvisation for dulcimer and recorder which is so bad that it is fabulous, and some wigs and costumes that have so much personality, they should be listed on the cast list. But that’s not all: Lady Edna’s facial expression in times of great horror blends faux high drama with the ludicrous so finely, it deserves programme credits of its own. In short, this production is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Think of Mary Shelley’s Dracula, with the earnestness contorted into utmost hilarity, and the characters drawn at the bizarre and pants-wettingly funny tilt of caricatures emphasised to the hilt, and you might get a sense of the fun that is to be had as you discover the unrolling mystery of Irma Vep. But be warned: you will be lost in your own laughter way before the plot grabs you by its own tale. It’s a convoluted one, but it doesn’t matter. The work is so crisply constructed, and utterly flawless, it just doesn’t miss a beat. Clocking in at about ten minutes too long, it’s a theatrical experience in which you may find your face begins to ache as a result of too much laughter, but the funny never stops.

  • The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful is written by Charles Ludlam and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Wessel Odendaal (composer and sound design), Pierre du Plessis (wardrobe), Oliver Hauser (lighting) and Nadine and Louis Minnaar (Set), and is performed by Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until July 30 and at the Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, August 3-19. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Uys, unpowdered

Echo

A boy and his kitty: Pieter-Dirk Uys as a child. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.

THE CHALLENGE OF conjuring freshness on stage is one not easily met. The challenge of conjuring freshness on stage, and making them laugh, and making them cry, and making them stand in awestruck ovation at the end, particularly after a lifetime of being on stage, is even tougher. Now at 71, self-styled veteran South African jester Pieter Dirk Uys does it again. His Echo of a Noise is a beautifully honed, all holds barred autobiography that ramps up his stage persona considerably: nary a heel or a wig in sight.

This is Uys stripped bare, using only his words and his memories, his inimitable face and his sheer honesty to convey portraits of his loved ones: his mother, Helga; his father, Hannes and his domestic maid, Sannie. And if you’ve read Uys’s autobiography Erections and Elections, you might have an inkling as to how some of the tale unfolds, but still, the work is fresh and pure. It’s funny and frank, candid and tragic, and conveyed with an infinitesimal sense of realness that is Uys.

It’s about an adoration of Sophia Loren and of Amadeus Mozart. It’s a confrontation with the idea of heaven and that of hell. And a speculation as to where cats like Boeboe end up. It’s a piano’s journey from Germany to Africa and back again, and a confession about his mother’s identity, and it contains and is defined by earth-shattering realisations about history and horror.

One moment in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) makes the film, a surreal tale of death and whimsy, with the fabulous Ruth Gordon in a central role, into a Holocaust film. It’s unspoken. It’s brief. But it is so devastatingly poignant that it becomes the nub on which the whole tale rests. Something similar happens in Uys’s confrontation with his mother’s identity. It happens over a cup of tea, with a woman from his mother’s childhood, and involves a tattoo of many numbers.

But the tale does not hold tight onto terrible moments and like a spot of quicksilver, it rambles away in a diversity of directions and with nuance and tears, fondness and laughter, Uys paints his mother: a gifted pianist with secrets and great sadness but also an ability to laugh with abandon. He paints his father with a devastating sense of balance and an unequivocal focus on the vagaries of old age and the tightness of discipline and church. Above all, he paints his family’s domestic maid with fondness and hilarity, revealing her as a prism to all the idiosyncrasy that constitutes what being South African in a world torn by values and rules, meant.

Echo of a Noise contains the sadness of sudden loss and the sadness of anticipated loss that constitutes some of the fabric of being alive in this world, replete as it is with broken dreams and shams. But it doesn’t allow itself to slip into maudlin, and you’re left utterly in awe for the man who makes it happen. It’s like spending a privileged 90 minutes having an intimate cup of tea with a giant: one you won’t forget in a hurry. It will touch you deeply – and it’s worth travelling to Cape Town for, in July, if you can’t make it tomorrow in Johannesburg.

  • Echo of a Noise is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, until April 9, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from July 4-15. Call 021-438-3301 or visit pietertoerien.co.za. See a political commentary on this show here.
  • In response to popular demand, the show will be staged for another brief season at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, June 14-18.

Let’s hear it for the boys

joseph

CLOSE every door to me: Wonderfully refined Earl Gregory plays Joseph. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za

IF THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph extravaganza is what gets your mojo pumping, look no further. This show is replete with utterly fabulous male performers, a song repertoire that’s mesmerising and upbeat and a hodge-podge of music references that may turn your head, if the booming deep bass and strobe lights don’t. It does, however, not do justice to the women onstage.

This Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a boys’ show. Featuring imminently satisfying choreography and a beautiful cast of young men, in tune with the biblical saga of Jacob and his dozen sons, the work is non-stop all the way. And with Earl Gregory once again apprising the eponymous role, it flies. Gregory’s refined performance sets up a rich counterplay between the rambunctiousness of the rest of the brothers, lending you guttural insight into the basic lines of the story: He’s the favourite, he gets the coat, they’re jealous and get rid of him, but he manages to find his way to the top again.

And that is one of the downsides of this work: the narrative is chopped into its basics and loses nuance. And this happens because of technical challenges. For one thing, this show’s sound is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than the venue. The casualty, in such a situation is the clarity of the lyrics. If you come to see Joseph because you want a bit of a biblical tale with lovely tunes in your life, you might feel disappointed.  The Joseph story, arguably as sexy as the Jesus Christ saga in a musical interpretation on this scale, gets lost. Instead you will see something hard edged and blingy, with ramped up melodrama rather than sentimentality.

This is because there’s not only a huge mix of cultural references in the original version bringing everything from an Elvis-like Pharoah (Jonathan Roxmouth) to South American tango and French ballads into the mix, but also because director Paul Warwick Griffin mashes this up further with  South African references and lyrics which are rejigged in parts. The result is a party. A happy, flashy party, but still, a party, rather than a bible tale.

While the reference to the Guptas remains culturally dodgy – they are, after all, Indian and not Midianite – and many of the musical digressions get a little carried away with themselves, you need to roll with the flow of this otherwise tightly woven piece.

The greatest downfall, however, is the women. Dressed in seriously unflattering costumes, and crudely choreographed, they feel compromised. Rather than seductive, Potiphar’s wife (Thalia Burt) is pushed into grotesque intercourse-evocative manoeuvres with her male slaves, in a kind of Rocky Horror Show meets ancient Egyptian shlock scene, which leave little to the imagination. Also the “adoring girls” – what they’re named in the programme – are little more than fluff on the scene.

In the performance on which this review is premised, Raquel Munn played the narrator; she tried  hard to embrace this production with a big smile and a projected persona, but simply doesn’t have the sense of authority onstage to be convincing.

And yes, while strobes and booming basses are the order of the day, it isn’t direct sensory assault for the full duration of the show and elements like Joseph’s time incarcerated are handled with a quiet starkness that challenges the noisiness of the rest of the piece and stands out rather exquisitely.

In all, it’s a happy lovely party of a story with overriding themes of brotherly jealousy, the horror of the loss of a son, lots of gyrating hips and flashy costumes, and an ultimate celebration of the victim as hero. If you can overlook its flaws, don’t mind the surprise strobes and want to see some fine young men jiggling their stuff with pizzazz and confidence, this one’s for you.

  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with original lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin. It is designed by Duane Alexander (choreographer), Niall Griffin (costumes), Gareth Hewitt Williams (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Louis Zurnamer (musical direction), and performed by Thalia Burt, Emile Doubell, Louise Duhain, Richard Gau, Calvyn Grandling, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Èmil Haarhoff, Kyle Jardine, Kent Jeycocke, Venolia Manale, Michael McMeeking, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, Nádine, Jarryd Nurden, Dean Roberts, Jonathan Roxmouth, Sonwabiso Sakuba, Stephan van der Walt and Evan van Soest, with music by Louis Zurnamer (piano), James Lombard (Drums), Ryno Zeelie (additional guitar) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (other instruments), at The Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino, Fourways until January 29 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, February 16 to April 8. Visit www.pietertoerien.co.za

Fridjhon’s Sherlock simply queens it

sherlockholmes

DOING it for Queen and country: Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson putting twirls on the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za 

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the intricate melding of the minutiae of Victorian language with contemporary ideas, the blossoming into life of a multitude of characters supported by the hand-held technology resonant of radio theatre, and the shenanigans and skulduggery penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century. All in one evening’s theatre experience. Playwright and performer Robert Fridjhon brings all of this together with utter finesse.

But it is the directorial hand of Alan Swerdlow that adds the cherry on top of this very fine and beautifully crafted piece of work which will have you laughing out loud even if you have come to the theatre on your own. Blending sophisticated if oft very rude repartee and a rash of puns with sheer slapstick comedy and engagement with the audience might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it certainly isn’t within every cast’s capabilities – but here you get it all, tweaked by an exceptionally ably cast into an intelligent and nuanced laugh-a-second fest. It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dollop of farce, a peppering of British self-deprecation and some of the most hilarious costume decisions you can imagine.

And while there are some digressions in a Goonish or a Monty Pythonesque direction, and you may expect to see a dead parrot at any moment, you don’t: the references are contained and teased out as references and the work holds its own with complete excellence, foraying into issues of sexuality that the Sherlock Holmes tales have always hidden under carpets and in cupboards.

As with many performed murder mysteries reaching from the repertoire of film stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Myrna Loy, often it is the hilarity of the tale rather than the nitty gritty or bloodiness of the crime that are the central focus. Similarly, Fridjhon’s Sherlock Holmes teases apart an alleged stealing of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, the biggest in the world, which is owned by Queen Victoria, into a madcap journey between England and France, with a bit of Indian colonialism in between, replete with a couple of murder victims who are actually not dead: it’s stuff to make your head spin.

The work’s small versatile cast simply sparkles: and the helpless laughter you experience in the context of sheer beautiful farce pervades, as the work casts the whole improvised business of a play within a play on a theatre stage. Craig Jackson as Dr Watson (amongst others) and Bronwyn Gottwald as the inimitable Mrs Hudson (amongst others), are utterly perfect for the complexity of the roles, and everything from a self-standing big dress for Queen Victoria to a cat’s tail which becomes the British Prime Minister’s moustache will have you screeching with mirth. But a warning to the unsuspecting: Don’t see this play on a full bladder. It’s as good as it gets.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Queen’s Diamond: An Unrecorded Case, by Royal Request is written by Robert Fridjhon and Bronwyn Gottwald and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until January 15, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, January 18-28. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Ultimate schmaltz meets impeccable polish

annie

COME, boy: The love for the urchin (Emma-Rose Blacher) and the stray. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze

Children with their dogs in a tale about orphans during the years of the 1930s Depression – one that ends with a resounding happily-ever-after: It’s a flawless recipe for absolute schmaltz overload, for most directors, performers and producers. This version of Annie, however, replete with a significant child cast – in fact, with three alternative child casts – is so well honed, so infinitesimally plotted and so carefully crafted that it really flies: from the set to the cast to the choreography to the behaviour of the dog, it’s a tight ship of a show and gives dignity to the notion of ultimate schmaltz.

When the eponymous little girl (Emma-Rose Blacher) with her characteristic red hair and her impeccably wretched orphan-Annie brown cardigan emerges on stage after the dormitory scene, she will melt your heart and blow your mind at the same time. Exuding a confidence way beyond her 12 years, Blacher presents the real deal in musical theatre’s hope for the future: she can sing, she can act, she can dance and her interface with her peers and adult performers is completely flawless. She lends the complicated character of Annie who has dreams and hopes in a harsh reality, endearing credibility. And this from an overwhelmingly enormous stage, in front of a packed audience.

Indeed, with all eyes and all spotlights on her, it is difficult to drag your eyes into other aspects of the work: It is beautifully directed in such a way that the child central to the tale never fades under the embrace of the story, which reaches from America’s New Deal to an interface with Roosevelt (Mike Huff), a navigation into the poverty of just-post-Depression America where morals and lives were fraying at the seams. Annie remains in the spotlight through incredibly beautiful and authentic costume changes and set shifts which will set your heart aflutter.

With Neels Claasen in the role of Daddy Warbucks (on opening night), and Charon Williams-Ros as the deliciously nasty and utterly morally flawed persona of Miss Hannigan, the work is satisfyingly tight, perfectly clear and as articulate as a comic book in the values it espouses. It’s one of those family shows that will leave you with hope in your heart and encourage you to remember why you need to have dreams for the future, even if everything feels broken and on the cusp of self-destruction

The casualty in your experience of this work, however, may be manifest in two areas: the audience around you and the hard-boiledness of the production. But, you may protest, the more hard-boiled the better? In an age where digital technology is able to remove every speck of dust, uncertainty or scratch in a musical performance, you yearn for the soft-edged nuances you get from listening to vinyl.

Effectively, Annie, which is crafted as a franchise production to tour the world and features the enormous creative input of performers, has a kind of colour-by-number status. But don’t get me wrong: this is not an easy thing to emulate, from its plotting to its choreography, the training of local performers to the ultimate success of the work – consider pieces such as Dreamgirls, Chicago, Hairspray and others of that ilk that have graced South African stages in the last few years. Rather, the effects of this beautiful show are designed so that they may be exactly replicated, whether the work is being staged in Johannesburg or Honolulu. And this is where the hard-boiledness comes in: the work is so tight, so hard-edged in its values that it may feel ever so slightly too slick for comfort.

But your comfort zones might be upset for another reason too: It’s an odd reality that when the average theatre goer hears that a work is about children, or features children, they round up their tousle-headed sproglets, wipe their noses, change their nappies and whip them off to a fully fledged three hour long theatre production with loud booming noises, a complex political story, flashing lights and expensive tickets. And what happens? The sproglet in question howls its head off and is severely traumatised by the event. To say nothing of what it does for the audience with the misfortune to be seated within earshot of them. The theatre simply cannot be held responsible when an audience member flagrantly ignores the “no under 3” proscription on the booking pack: no one wants a fight with an unhappy patron minutes before the curtain rises. Or should they? Either way, this ain’t a show for the littlies, but it’s as good as it gets in terms of a life-shaking experience for the bigger children in the audience as it graciously skates through 1930s aesthetics, values and ethos.

  • Annie, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Meeham is directed by Nikolai Foster and Nick Winston. It features design by Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics), Nick Winston (choreography), George Dyer (orchestration), Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Mark Malherbe (sound), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Bryan Schimmel (musical direction). It is performed by Duane Alexander, Neels Claasen, Stefania du Toit, Michael Fullard, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Delray Halgryn, Mike Huff, Stephen Jubber, Cat Lane, Michelle Lane, Anton Luitingh, Hope Maimane, Ben Mundy, Jenna Robinson Child, Taryn Sudding, Candice van Litsenborgh, Jonathan Raath, Richard Vorster and Charon Williams-Ros, with three child casts: Team Empire, comprising Emma-Rose Blacher, Kezia du Plessis, Talicia Marirti, Bonisiwe Nomoyi, Gemma Scarcella, Kyra Teague and Luca Teague; Team Madison, comprising Annika de Beer, Caitlin Dicker, Hannah Hayword, Mikayla Levick, Kundai Nyama, Omolola Peguillan and Anastasia Schroder; and Team Rockerfeller comprising Ariane Angelopoulo, Lilla Fleischmann, Kelli Hollander, Teagan McGinley, Mikah Smith, Lisa Solomon and Rachelle Weiss. [This review is premised on the performance of team Empire]. The live orchestra, under the baton of Bryan Schimmel and Kevin Kraak comprises Serge Cuca/Kevin Cook (violin), Carl James Ashford (flute, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax), Donny Bouwer/Braam van Tonder/Michael Magner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Zbigniew Kobak/Nick Green (trombone, euphonium), Cobi van Wyk (percussion). It performs at Teatro, Montecasino in Fourways until November 27 and at Artscape Opera House in Cape Town December 2-January 8, 2017. Booking at Computicket.

Where giggles and song should part ways

keyboardkillers

MAGIC fingers: Ian von Memerty. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

A MEDLEY OF songs is a curious thing. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest compilation: enough to get your heart racing with nostalgia, but not enough to include every word. It’s a tight juxtaposition of hits that doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, and yet the cohesive whole is delicious. This is the strength of Ian von Memerty’s Keyboard Killers, a celebration of eight men who wielded the piano with their fingers and their voice in a way that shaped the world, effectively.

From the simple melodies of Irving Berlin to the complex navigations through Beethoven and Handl that features in the beautiful complicated diversity of Billie Joel’s work, von Memerty is at the helm of his Yamaha piano, with a rich sense of self, a double bass on his right and a set of bongo drums on his left. Who could ask for anything more?

The show, structured like many of its ilk, is simply about entertainment, and conjoined with the incredibly fine work by pianists including Freddie Mercury, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Fats Waller and John Legend, it contains a rash of obligatory funny bits. The truth is, these funnies hurt the intensity of the programme and the potential brilliance of von Memerty on keyboard. Spewing self-deprecating jokes at various interregna in the show, von Memerty doesn’t do complete justice to his own skill, which soars and reaches out when he plays the work of Billie Joel and Freddie Mercury, but loses a sense of momentum in the bum wiggling exercises, the tired political jibes and the impromptu clowning.

Keyboard Killers is a pleasant enough show, but one not convincingly directed to celebrate von Memerty’s true fire – the kind of work that earned him his veteran keyboard king status.

  • Keyboard Killers is compiled and performed by Ian von Memerty with Bronwyn Clacherty on percussion and Andrew Warneke on bass. It performs in the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, until October 30. Visit pietertoerien.co.za