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
Advertisements

How to face up to a man in a panda suit

Breakyourface

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

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

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.

On losing the plot and laughing all the way home

PlayWrong

THINGS fall apart: from left, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubungxa, Nicole Franco and Russel Savadier. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

YOU HAVE AN inkling as to what you can expect by the very name of this production, and you won’t be disappointed: very few things actually go right in this insane little bit of farcical frippery. The sheer skill that goes into clowning at its classically best, is remarkable, and this madcap cast of eight projects the loosely held together tale of a murder performed by an amateur dramatics association. And loosely is truly the operative adjective, when it comes to how the ingenious set itself plays a seminal and pants-wettingly funny role in the shenanigans.

From a dog that is mimed to a clock that doubles as the female lead, the work gets wilder and more insane as it unfolds. Corpses cry out in pain and floors fall. The sequence of lines becomes tumultuous at best, and the chap operating the special effects locates a missing Duran Duran CD amidst dramatic moments on stage. A bunch of keys doubles as a pen, some white spirits insinuates itself into the props in lieu of whisky and a portrait of a spaniel seconds as someone’s dad. In short, everything that can go wrong, does.

Featuring a splendid cast which hone this material and milk it for every laugh in the house, the work is headed by a delightful performance by Russel Savadier as the inspector. And while some of the errors in the splay of values of this work are so wrong that they’re too much – from the mispronunciation of terms by Roberto Pombo’s character to the woodenness of Sive Gubungxa’s character – the laughs will burst from your lips with abandon, and will develop their own momentum.

The danger of a play of its nature, however, is there is a limit to the kind of surprises that you can stomach, and at some moments, your eyes glaze over from too much raucous explosions and it becomes tedious. The crispness of the madness, the bizarreness of the mishaps becomes so great that they actually hurt the play.  If you think back to the inimitable Noises Off, performed a number of years ago in this theatre, there is a level of resonance with this work, but given that amateur is a part of how the work is premised, there’s a tad too much obvious over-acting, which makes the clowning veer a little on the side of crass. Something of Jemma Kahn’s Amateur Hour raises its head in this work.

Having said that, it’s a delicious bit of fun which will leave you still laughing as you drive home: the kind of tonic we all need right now.

  • The Play that Goes Wrong is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Alan Committie. It features design by Malcolm Terrey (costumes) and Bronwyn Leigh Gottwald (props co-ordinator) and is performed by Nicole Franco, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubangxa, Craig Jackson, Theo Landey, Roberto Pombo, Russel Savadier and Louis Viljoen at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino Fourways, until April 30 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 3 until June 17. Call 011 511-1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za