Andrew Fuhrmann’s Melbourne Fringe Festival round-up #1

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Art-house variety-night pub veterans The Last Tuesday Society take up residence in the Malthouse’s Tower Theatre with the YouTube Comments Orchestra, a season of skits and sketches themed around that rare vantage on human folly, the YouTube’s comments section.

Curated by Bron Batten and Richard Higgins, there laughs, lulz, occasional smarts, but overall it’s a somewhat disappointing night. The Tower Theatre is a cold, unforgiving space, and it demands artists think laterally about staging and framing.  What’s missing here is ambience, the sociable atmosphere that normally makes the Last Tuesday Society such an immediate and inclusive event. In short, the Last Tuesday platform should have been reinvented for theatre, because without the sticky carpet, pub bustle and jugs of beer, it ends up feeling like an awkward talent show.

There are a few memorable moments. I really like what Grit Theatre are doing at the moment. Everything is stripped right back, and the work is clean, balanced and clear.  Their ingredients are basic – here they simply intone a selection of comments – but the way it’s put together, their attention to the theatrical form, is super impressive.

Lara Thoms’ piece, “Comments vs Critics”, is also expertly presented. Thoms and Liz Duane perform excerpts from a trio of high-concept contemporary dance and performance art pieces, the originals of which have been posted as videos on YouTube. With a terrific deadpan demeanour, they simultaneously contrast commentary from art critics with commentary from the YouTube army.

Other performers include Mish Grigor of Sydney-based group Post, who still seems to be finding herself as a solo performer, Zoe Dawson, the List Operators, Bron Batten and Telia Neville. The line up changes from week to week, so look out for additional work from Madeleine Tucker, Vachel Spirason and Nicola Gunn.  3 STARS 


The Melba Spiegeltent is currently pitched in the new Circus Oz car park in Collingwood, and that’s where you’ll find Isabel Hertaeg’s Death by Soprano. Hertaeg hurtles headlong through a selection of death scenes for opera heroines. It starts out as an orderly alphabetic adventure, beginning with A is for avalanche (La Wally), B is for poisoned bread (Königskinder), but falls apart as the absurdity the operatic formula becomes overwhelming.

That is to say — there are a lot of dead sopranos. When we hit S is suicide, the massive number of potential candidates collapses the alphabetic structure, and the rest of the show devolves to a medley of melodious self-slaughter.

This is wonderful black fun, for operaphiles and opera noobs, a cartoonish exploitation of opera’s natural largeness of character. Hertaeg is better known for cabaret than opera, but she has nonetheless a powerful soprano instrument, and it’s great to hear so many tragic arias, or excerpts, in the relatively unbuttoned atmosphere of the Melba Spiegeltent. Even amid so much farce, Hertaeg and her accompanist Jo Abbott manage an affective pathos when it’s needed.

There are a lot of cute or clever stage devices, although the comic business could be tightened considerably. Still, Death by Soprano is a winner, lebhaft und lustig. 4 STARS

Heading up the hill into Northcote, MKA’s Richard II is on at the Northcote Town Hall, part of the venue’s SpeakEasy program.

This take on Shakespeare’s epic history play is a rousing if indulgent rag, a harmless bit of pop-political satire, intermittently funny, with lots of nervous energy and some well spoken monologues. But, like a one-panel political cartoon, there’s not a whole lot to it beyond the initial set up.

It starts with the royal cousins as children. Olivia Monticciolo is Henry; Mark Wilson is Richard. Henry wants to be a union lawyer and work for the common good. Richard is sure he’ll be king. He enjoys explaining to Henry that she can never be king because she’s a girl.

Wilson’s Richard II is Kevin Rudd, and Monticciolo’s Henry Bolingbrooke is Julia Gillard.

Did Rudd behave as though he had a God-given right to rule? Was Gillard treated like a traitor for challenging? Did Rudd stand amazed to be deposed by a woman? Maybe, maybe, but haven’t these hyperbolic comparisons already been exhaustively mined? The opinion pages were full of high-tragic analogies all through the long-running Labor Party leadership battle, and I’m not sure there’s much that ‘s new in Wilson’s spoof.

At one point he lets the artifice fall, and, as himself, or someone like himself, he tries to articulate for us his frustration with the current political system. It’s an unsettled interlude, perhaps improvised, and it suggests a desire to move past personality politics into something more substantial, something revolutionary. It was the only time I really leaned forward.

That interlude, however, leads into a lightning journey through the rest of the Henriad, culminating the crowning of Tony Abbott as Henry V — which is nuts. But, still, if you’re more interested in hollow men than hollow crowns, and nostalgic for the drama of polls, leaks, numbers and betrayals, Wilson and Monticciolo might be for you. 3 STARS 

Also at the Northcote Town Hall you can catch The Loman Empire: The Sitcom – An unauthorised satire of Death of a Salesman.

This one (the cast pictured above) does pretty much what it says on the can, or what it used to say on the can. Yes, the Arthur Miller Estate is back in action. In 2012, it forced Simon Stone to reinstate the controversially cut finale to Miller’s Death of a Salesman; now it has demanded writer Danny McGinlay abandon the rather more punchy title of “Death of a Salesman: The Sitcom” for the more explicit mouthful above.

And in truth there isn’t a whole lot in The Loman Empire to recall the melancholy grandeur of Miller’s original. The show is more about American sitcoms from the 1970s and 1980s, and about their relentless uplift and moralising, than Willy Loman and his sad family.

Director Damian Callinan and designer Lesya Bryndzia have done a sensational job of recreating the look and feel of a sit-com set – the kind “filmed in front of a live audience”. It’s a big cast, and they all shine like patent leather. In fact, the funniest parts of the show are simply the sitcom backstory: McGinlay plays an Eastern European method actor playing Happy, Dennis Manahan is a loud-mouthed Texan guest actor and Jimmy James Eaton is Jizzy C, a Christian rapper who plays Biff Loman. Lana Schwarcz is hilarious as an animal rights-advocate-cum-actress playing Linda Loman.

The script, though, doesn’t overflow with gags. It seems caught between affection for the sitcom format and a desire to point fun at the way things used to be. It gestures towards a sort of “I Love Mallory”, the grotesque spoof sitcom in Natural Born Killers, but, despite a recurring joke about suicide innuendo, this seems too much of a fond parody. 2.5 STARS 

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