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January 26, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Carnegie 18


Published 24/1/11 at www.artshub.com.au

Carnegie 18 is a two-night musical theatre showcase at the Arts Centre as part of an initiative to promote the production of more musical productions. Two works were shown each night in their shortened, mid-development stages and ten-minute Q & A sessions were held at the end of each performance, with both audience members and production members exchanging questions.

Every Angel is Terrible

For a play centred on children, Every Angel is Terrible is twisted, macabre and darkly humorous, jumping between the catharsis of fairytale and the violent reality of life. Director Maude Davey took inspiration from Judaeo-Christian concepts of the child as an extension of the parent, rather than as a self-realised adult, mixing the classic story of Hansel and Gretel with modern-day stories of child murder. Every Angel is Terrible masks the more confronting aspects of its subject matter under a thin veil of childish impertinence. Indeed, the re-enactment of the Farquharson killings is uncomfortably real. Told from the perspectives of the dead children, we are faced with the ultimate dichotomy in Western values; that parents are supposed to love and care for their children, but that child abuse and murder highlights a disturbing counterbalance to these social laws.

What makes these explorations of child murder all the more compelling, perhaps, is the interplay of fairytale and reality. These two elements are entirely separate at first, but like a child’s own perception of life, fantasy and reality gradually meld together until one is almost indefinable from the other. While the Hansel and Gretel storyline means both characters are, true to story, initially dumped in the woods by their impoverished father, Hansel and Gretel both quickly end up in the merciless world of child abuse, where there is little escape from the pain that persists in violent families.

Every Angel is Terrible’s current stage of development, however, does betray a lack of cohesion towards the end. The audience is left to explore the meaning of child abuse but offered little in return. It seems the main aim is to make us think about child abuse rather than try and draw conclusions; we are forced to address the uncomfortable truth of violent crime, but it is as though Every Angel is Terrible is content to stay there rather than make its own stance on this fundamental crack in Western moralism. But thanks to its strong structural foundations, Every Angel is Terrible will hopefully answer this prerogative when the production is finalised.

RAWK

If Australia was looking for its first proper ‘bloke’ musical, it can probably be found in the development of RAWK, a rock-based story of one Aussie yobbo’s collapse from the comfortable middle-class to snivelling, welfare-dependent loser. With only two actors on stage it is noticeably sparse, yet the live band hammering out the rock tunes makes the space feel less empty and, if you’ll believe it, also adds a more personalised, pub-crowd feel to the stage. This is a rock-eulogy written by the dorky-looking bloke playing guitar in the background; his sheepish introduction to the crowd confirmed that, like my male companion in the audience, he fits quite neatly into the mould of men who would most likely see a musical and hence, be this show’s ideal audience member.

With performances that were fun, lively and deeply Australian in their ocker-ness, there were also some kinks that development will hopefully erase from RAWK’s scorecard. The lyrics of some songs, for one, were hopelessly unoriginal. An example of this escapes me, but that is perhaps the problem; the lyrics help to progress the storyline but they don’t inspire the kind of hedonism you come to expect from particularly strong musicals, which suffer from the dual pressures of dialogue and lyrics.

The plot was also liable to slip into a well-trodden path; there is little to differentiate Tim the ocker’s fall from grace from any other loser that we may know. And while such a distinctly Australian play is enjoyable, it still needs to have some spark of originality that distinguishes it from its contemporaries and consolidates it as a leading voice within Australian theatre. RAWK is promising in the development stages, but it is a little too early to begin theorising on the outcome of this promising yet sometimes-plain production.

Curtains

Curtains is quite clearly aimed at the seasoned theatre crowd. It is a progressive, challenging piece that toys with the concept of linear narrative as the foundation of musical theatre. Curtains follows a non-linear approach that still clings to alternative narrative elements in order to allow progression within the story. The sparse set also works well for this kind of show, adding to the dull glamour and what composer/lyricist David Chisolm called a ‘junk theatre’ aesthetic.

Essentially a play within a play, the audience becomes a direct participant in the production when the three major characters (a fabulously camp and super-quick ‘Tina del Twist’, the acidic ‘Yana Alana’ and the New York bogan ‘Mikelangelo’) are waiting for another cast member, Meow Meow, to show up for the show they are supposed to be performing.

Full points must go for character development, as each character was very well developed, the set pieces were appropriately dishevelled and the non-linear narrative worked well to pull all the story elements together.

And while it is quite clearly an ambitious play, jumping between supposed Faustian references of have-it-all-ism, post-colonialism and post-structuralism, this may be where it comes unstuck. Audiences who read the introduction to the play in the Carnegie 18 leaflet must feel as though they need to belt up and spend an hour trying to decipher the various elements and influences embedded with the play, rather than experience it as a commentary on all the things composer/lyricist David Chisolm wants to explore. Yes, the audience does understand the Faustian references through the retelling of Dorothy Day’s tragic story. And we certainly understand that it must take considerable skill to construct a working storyline without the comfort of a linear narrative, with the added interest of queerist elements within the snappy dialogue and characters. But perhaps a lack of focus is Curtains’ greatest weakness; rather than addressing the audience’s preconceptions in just one crucial area, we are instead asked to reassess three or four at once, at a more superficial level, and without the kind of solid familiar basis of a familiar narrative structure.

As you may have guessed, I am not used to overly experimental works. While I regard Curtains as adventurous, I don’t see it as a completely off-the-wall an alienating experience, so it’s certainly something that would challenge and interest a wide range of people. But I do see it as perhaps a little too ambitious, losing sight of the overall goal in the pursuit of so many ideas. 

Contact!

As far as development of a concept goes, musical director Angus Grant and librettist Kate Schmitt have nailed the look, feel and entertainment value of this netball opera.

That’s right, a netball opera. While this may sound insane, it is rather a wonder that no one has thought of it before! As Angus pointed out in the Q & A session, netball is the Australian woman’s ‘dirty little secret’. As one of the most popular sports in the nation, it is relegated to a semi-shameful status as something that can’t be taken seriously, in direct contrast to the ultra-masculine Australian Rules football.

It offers lucrative opportunities for an operatic scene; with a team of seven girls, one strict head coach and a lone male, there’s room for drama all round. The audience is treated to a septet of sopranos and strong, well-executed performances all round. The dialogue/lyrics are sharp, snappy and modern, with various references to netball quirks that are ripe for comedic pickings. This includes a hilarious ‘nail check’ moment, various ‘if you need!’ references to a player remaining open for a pass, and the harried ‘on your toes!’ method of training for netball games.

The storyline is simple but perfectly positioned to plant Australian-centric jokes. As the Rangers netball team approach the semi-finals and the try-outs for the state team, the remaining six players are horrified to learn that their former teammate is being replaced with a new girl on the block, the rebellious Daisy. Perhaps not surprisingly, Daisy throws several spanners in the works, being an excellent shooter, far too attractive for Gayle (the Goal Attacker and possessive girlfriend of Bevan) and the harbourer of a secret that will throw the team into chaos…

Perhaps what makes this show a winner is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Contact! lampoons the sillier aspects of netball, while making use of the complicated team dynamics that can only exist in an all-female team to create drama. A netball-based scenario also offers plenty of pretend-tragedy suitable to an opera-based production and scene after engaging, entertaining scene.

Contact! is clearly a mainstream production that will engage almost any Australian theatre-goer. It doesn’t try anything too avant-garde, but the originality of pairing netball with opera makes the need to push the boundaries in other areas less important. This in no way diminishes the quality of the creative work poured into this collaborative effort. At some points in this production there are nine people on stage competing for sound space with their opera-strength voices; it is any wonder Grant and Schmitt were able to pull it off. Fortunately they do, and with such aplomb that I can’t wait to see what this is like when it’s finally completed. I’ll be first in line with my ticket.

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