Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dealer's Choice

Albedo Productions (toured by Critical Stages); Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 22-23

When I last played poker, there were one-cent pieces around to bet with. That’s how long ago it was. Even then, I barely knew what I was doing (I think I was eleven).

Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice is a play entirely built on a bedrock of poker: the game, the habit, the parallels with life, the adrenaline, the strategies, the jargon. It’s also about the compulsion of poker; these six men play the game to fill absences of other passion in their lives.

Did I mention that I know nothing about poker? But on balance, it didn’t matter. Sure, there were minutes at a time when I hadn’t a clue what any of the dialogue meant: five card high-low, the wheel’s in, call, call, I’m out, you can’t have had trip four, call... (forgive me if you’re a poker player; that’s how I heard it!). But – and Marber and director Craig Ilott understand this implicitly – any ignorance of this dialogue’s surface meaning only serves to focus attention on the fine dynamics between actors, and the nuances of mood and characterisation.

I adore The West Wing: I don’t understand the first thing about the American political system, but the characters, the pace and rhythm of dialogue, the humour, and ultimately the moments of deep, genuine dramatic intensity are the real treats. I felt the same way about Dealer’s Choice.

Dealer’s Choice is a little slow to begin, although a strong atmosphere is there even as the audience enter; a chef goes quietly about his business in the split stage (kitchen/dining room), and a perfectly compiled soundtrack situates us immediately in the London restaurant where the play is set.

The first half is so self-conscious about establishing characters that many become caricatures instead: both obvious and stilted. The humour to begin with is, similarly, a little predictable, and a little too reminiscent of a dated British sitcom. Some of the motivations and developments of narrative are also forced, as the group of guys who work in the restaurant prepare for their regular poker game that evening.

It is in the second half that Marber’s writing shines, and gives this production the opportunity to do the same. We’re still in the restaurant, but downstairs where the game is. It’s hard work for an audience to get in to this world. Lights are dim, the round poker table is exclusive and the staging obscures actors’ faces -- and then there is that impenetrably jargonistic table-talk. But these obstacles are neither careless nor preclusive; the strength of both writing and ensemble performance connect with an audience despite the physical and practical barriers they must cross.

I’ve got no interest in gambling, but the play briefly made me want to be a part of that world: the adrenaline, the almost-seediness, the insularity, the intimacy of it. For a play to stimulate that level of unwilling desire in an audience member is credit to the writing, the direction, and the performances.

The casting is strong; the script is dependent on a tight ensemble of contrasting and complementary performances, and this production delivers. The characters balance each other for both the humour and the dramatic tension of the work. Christopher Stollery as Ash (an interloper into the restaurant game, and a professional player with his own debts to recoup from games elsewhere) and Sam North as Carl (the restaurant owner’s prodigal son) both excel.

Critical Stages, a non-profit touring body, should be commended for giving this production a wider audience than its original 2004 Sydney season. But it is a pity that it had such a short, mid-week run here in Hobart – perhaps an intrinsic challenge of mounting a wide tour without high commercial funding...

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Dealer’s Choice

Albedo Productions, with touring assistance by Critical Stages
Theatre Royal Hobart
Tuesday, 23 September

Stephenie Cahalan

I learned a new language last night. I’m not fluent but, like my Italian, I reckon I could get by. It is the language of poker. I also gained an insight into the insidiousness of an addiction. How it can forge a tight bond amongst fellow addicts that creates camaraderie and honour, but at the same time foster a viciousness that pits friends and family against each other.

Dealer’s Choice, written by Patrick Marber, is set in a gloomy restaurant in central London where small-time gambling and glamour have nothing in common. Presented by Albedo Productions and brought to Hobart with the assistance of Critical Stages, it tells of six men whose multifaceted relationships are both underpinned and undermined by an addiction to gambling. Each prefers to think of themselves as a little better than the others: Steven because he owns a moderately successful restaurant and knows a bit about life; Frankie for his charm and prowess at the table; Mugsy because he is eternally optimistic despite his universally-recognised status as a loser; Sweeney because he has a reason to not gamble; Ash for his aloof professional confidence, and Carl for the simple arrogance that youth affords.

Dealer’s Choice
is funny, sad and unsettling. I often felt a sense of dread at the impending disaster, lifted by little moments of redemption just before the mood got all too heavy. It has tightly-strung moments juxtaposed with ridiculousness that made me laugh with relief. Full of colour and clichés, the rolling poker-talk dominated the dialogue. Although I am not a card-player, I gained a little understanding of how the game acts like a secret club where you have to know the special lingo and rules in order to belong. The regular family of players created the bizarre dynamic of being both orchestrators of each man’s downfall, yet part of the scaffolding that helps him back up again. The lounge music soundtrack wafted through the world of delusion in which each man dreamed of the glorious heights he might reach with his winnings, while the reality of debt and the everyday life is kept at bay.

Every actor amply filled the skins of their characters and the artful script flowed beautifully throughout the play. In Dealer’s Choice each man’s gamble is really with himself, his relationships and his aspirations. The stakes are high indeed, and regardless of how each of the characters fare, I think the production is a winner. Tonight is the show's last night in Hobart and is worth the trip out into the weather to catch.

Director: Craig Ilott
Cast: David Webb, David Terry, John Leary, Ashley Lyons, Sam North, Christopher Stollery.

Monday, September 21, 2009

In Light Relief

Carnegie Gallery, Hobart
21 August-27 September 2009
Kylie Elizabeth Eastley

An exhibition opening is often not the best time to experience art. Crowds and noise can detract from the work and present problems for those not comfortable with small talk. But the darkened room and subtle lighting at the Carnegie Gallery at the opening of In Light Relief provided an opportunity to see a dramatic collection of works from four of Hobart’s creative minds. It also provided the stage for seeing Sonia Heap’s designs at their best, as a small army of female models mingled and lounged amongst the crowd in her exquisite gowns.

Heap joins jeweller Sandra Wrightson and designers and jewellers Fiona Tabart and Jon Williamson to present a cohesive collection of desirable and evocative works. Dramatic, intense and sensual, the red walls and spot lighting accentuate the individual sculptures and jewellery.

Sonia Heap is a part-time designer who produces exquisite clothing using screen-printed silks and high quality materials that layer and lap across the female form to create erotic contemporary dresses. Gothicism collides with Jane Eyre, as Heap takes the viewer or voyeur into a fantasy world of nymphs and sirens. Cutesy meets macabre in a collection of designs that enhance and hug the models.

Like page 3 girls from a Juztapoz magazine, Heap’s designs are dark, textured and slightly menacing. Influenced by sights, sounds, poems and music, her clothing exudes attitude and flips the relationship between artwork and viewer, creating a sense of unease, discomfort and titillation. While best experienced at the opening, video footage does provide some insight to the drama these pieces create.

In some of her best work, Fiona Tabart (better known for her slumped acrylic jewellery) produces a series of small sculptures exploring home, love and the deeper elements of life. Taking a leaf from Greg Leong’s book, her works are highly decorative and beautiful, but upon closer inspection show a depth and darkness that mimics the reality of life: the sting in the tail. Flocked cages cast shadows on the walls and look luscious and exotic, while smaller free standing sculptures continue the themes of capture with layered etched acrylic and stone. Her work appears to draw inspiration from traditional Asian textiles and wall hangings, while exploring the patterns in nature.

Jon Williamson’s steam punk jewellery and sculptures are well known by many Tasmanians, but the work in this exhibition sees him traverse a world of shadows, light and suspension. An expert in assemblages, Williamson has created mesmerizing spherical puzzles: precise and intricate. Interlocking pieces join together to form decorative orbs and the inclusion of LED lights creates shadows and patterns to fall across walls and ceilings.

Sandy Wrightson’s collection of jewellery sits well with her companions’ pieces. Mirroring natural forms with the white sand-blasted silver, this work also creates shadows and space. The necklaces twist and fall effortlessly creating an elegance and languidness.

This exhibition demonstrates that design and decoration matters. It can be subtle and intricate, complicated and outrageous. It reminds me of the saying ‘the devil is in the detail’. With all these works it is the detail that helps to create the negative space that builds interest and speaks of a darker place. And this makes this work absorbing and very seductive.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


4MBS Classic
Theatre Royal
Friday, September 18

Stephenie Cahalan

The constant dilemma of fiction being mistaken for history (such as the heated discourse prompted by Kate Grenville’s The Secret River ), rears its head in the play of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. This production by 4MBS Classic from Brisbane presents the story of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri as we meet him at the end of his life, ‘confessing’ to killing the young composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Casual reading of the internet led me to numerous articles at pains to assure the reader that Mozart was NOT poisoned, but most likely died of rheumatic fever. Yet, if Shaffer had stuck to the dry facts, then the clever and engaging Amadeus may not have made it to the stage.

Amadeus is part mystery, part music history. It tells the age-old story of young talent trying to break through the wall of convention and vested interest to help culture evolve. The criticism leveled at Mozart by Emperor Joseph II for using ‘too many notes’ is one of the very things that makes his music so profoundly thrilling. So many notes, and so expertly arranged, but it was not the done thing at the time, and not to be encouraged: as Shaffer’s character complains, ‘There are only so many notes one can hear in the course of an evening!’

Andrew McFarlane, as Salieri, carried the story with flair through his soliloquies, memories and conversations with the audience, a fair portion of which were delivered in Italian. McFarlane portrayed well the change in temperament from a largely good, but simple man to a bitter Machiavelli, plotting to ruin Mozart due to his envy of the young composer’s extraordinary musical gift.

Tama Matheson’s neat set design, with banners of sheet music suspended, easily located us in Viennese drawing rooms, theatres and the aged Salieri’s bedroom. Actors rearranged props to change scenes, but managed to avoid the impression they were moonlighting as stage techs between their lines.

It seemed at times as if things were in a bit of a rush, with not enough time for the actors to pause at significant moments and lines, yet the humour was not lost in the pace. The production was badly let down by the fact that the music, a critical part of the play, was downright sloppy with end notes cut off and clunky finishes. Given that 4MBS is a Classical Radio station, it is hard to excuse this embarrassing glitch.

In Amadeus, Salieri despaired at his own self-professed mediocrity and that he was ‘born a pair of ears and nothing more’. Yet, where would a performer be without countless pairs of ears to listen and love the talents of those who can move us with their music. Hear hear for the ears of this world! May they continue to be many.

Director: Tama Matheson
Cast: Andrew McFarlane, Dash Kruck, Kerith Atkinson, Nick Backstrom, Steven Tandy, Norman Doyle, Bruce Baddiley, Natasha Yantsch, Niki-J Witt.


Theatre Royal, Hobart
September 18, 2009
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play offers a strange challenge: to tell a story of one art form through another. It is not a musical, it is a play; but music is at its core. Amadeus is an imaginatively speculative history of madness, creativity, jealousy, and sabotage. But beneath all these, it is also a narrative of music. Amadeus comes from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, a composer and contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Shaffer’s Salieri (played in this production by Andrew McFarlane) is incurably jealous of Mozart’s youthful genius, and speaks directly to the audience during his own final hour, recounting and justifying his attempts to discredit and eventually annihilate Amadeus (Dash Kruck).

An interpretation of the play must somehow marry Mozart’s music with Shaffer’s text. There are moments in 4MBS’s production which manage this beautifully. A symbolic storm is born out of the swelling Kyrie Eleison, and Salieri suffers a Stendhal-syndrome-like response. This moment is a good example. But most of the time, I found myself yearning for more music. Snippets of pre-recorded Mozart are frequently dangled enticingly behind the dialogue, but then irritatingly and abruptly snatched away. Whether or not you are familiar with Mozart’s works, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with the desperate passion behind Salieri’s jealousy, when this jealousy is built on an intimate recognition of Mozart’s creative brilliance. But without much Mozart in the soundscape, it is too easy to forget his extraordinary talent, and we are also left wanting for glimpses of Salieri’s own experience of the music.

The relationship between the composers is one of insincere patronage, as Salieri’s devious advice eventually drives the naive Mozart to destruction. The play is a study of one man’s power to exploit another’s paranoias. An audience must feel moved by Salieri’s malicious actions, and struggle to forgive him. McFarlane’s Salieri is human, bitter, and believable (with the exception of excessive directorial melodrama in several monologues). But Kruck’s Mozart is so puerile, so conceited, so crass, so frivolous that if he had squeakily tittered just once more, I’d have been ready to jump up and save Salieri the trouble. The interpretation is clearly a considered creative decision, and Kruck’s energy and commitment are remarkable. Certainly, it presents a bravely imaginative insight into the flawed humanity behind the canonised glory of Mozart’s creativity. However, it is hard work caring about this unlikeable character, which in turn strains Salieri’s protracted justification of his behaviour.

The supporting cast are unassuming and sound, but have little to do beyond providing a backdrop for Salieri’s self-flagellation and Mozart’s persistent near-hysteria. Director Tama Matheson’s unfussy set and lighting design are at their best when the hanging panels of a Mozart score are beautifully shadowed by Mozart’s own hands as he conducts his work.

In the final scene, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem makes its predictable but welcome appearance. The movement, played in full, accompanies the silent action of the final moments, and Mozart’s music is at last treated with some fervour. As the narrative journey concludes, the production does manage to move us. There is both humour and pathos here, and if the characters have not always been completely engaging, at least the energy and commitment of the company are rewarded.

I must confess, I find Shaffer almost unforgivably contemptible for closing a script with the line: “mediocrity is everywhere: I absolve you”... What production could ever stand up to such philosophical meta-censure?