Sunday, October 23, 2016


Written by Larry Kramer
Produced by Nikki Fitzgerald and Jarrad West
Directed by Karen Vickery
Lighting design by Roni Wilkinson
Presented by Everyman Theatre
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre until 29th October

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Larry Kramer’s searing play about events surrounding the emergence of AIDS epidemic in New York between 1981 and 1984 is given a compelling production by Everyman Theatre.
Largely autobiographical, the play is based on Kramer’s own experiences as a gay activist, and his fight to secure funds for research into the disease. While the names are different, the characters represent those in Kramer’s circle at the time.

Karen Vickery’s direction of the play is masterly. Presented against a stark white background covered with the names of those who have died of AIDS, with just the addition of some items of furniture, moved into position by the cast when required, relying on Roni Wilkinson’s spare lighting design to indicate changes of locale and time, Vickery’s direction focusses the attention squarely on the text, and the skill of her actors, to obtain maximum effect. Carefully creating an atmosphere of mounting panic and desperation in which her characters grapple with the inexplicable,  Vickery has drawn remarkable performances from her accomplished cast, as they unflinchingly portray the layers of conflicting emotions and motivations.

Will Huang (Felix Turner) - Jarrad  West (Ned Weeks) 

Jarrad West, in one of his best performances to date as Ned Weeks, the character based on the real-life Kramer, manages to generate sympathy for the charismatic, driven soul, so secure in his belief of his view of events that he alienates even those closest to him, including his doomed lover, the New York Times writer, Felix Turner, played with affecting sincerity by Will Huang.

Jordan Best also gives a striking performance, as Doctor Emma Brookner, the only female character  in the play, who, having been stricken with a virus herself, although not the one that’s the subject of the play, goads and tantalises Ned, before becoming his strongest advocate.

Robert deFries, impresses with his strong, sympathetic depiction of Ned’s loyal brother, Ben, who battles his own reservations and ambitions in an effort to acquiesce to Ned’s constant demands for unconditioned loyalty and financial support.

As Ned’s loyal friends and campaign supporters, Michael Sparks as an insecure older gay, and Riley Bell, younger and more flamboyant, both offer thoughtful, resonant performances which contrast neatly with the strongly drawn characterisation of Christopher Zuber as Bruce Niles, initially Ned’s supporter, but ultimately his rival when he takes over the Presidency of the organisation Ned has set up to fight the epidemic.

Teig Sadhana, and Christopher Carroll, both undertake dual roles, in small, compelling cameos.

Will Huang (Felix Turner) - Jarrad West (Ned Weeks) 

Thankfully, authorities did heed the voices of those early activists and many who followed them, and with knowledge, much has been achieved in the education of the most vulnerable. Extensive research has resulted in successful treatments, so that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was when this play was written.  Never the less, this production of  “The Normal Heart” is a potent illustration of the way humans react when faced with an incomprehensible peril, and a timely warning against complacency.  


Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Karen Vickery
Everyman Theatre
The Courtyard, Canberra Theatre Centre to October 29

Review by Len Power 22 October 2016

‘The Normal Heart’ is an autobiographical play by Larry Kramer about the start of the AIDS crisis in New York in the early 1980s.  As Karen Vickery says in her Director’s Notes in the program, ‘few of us who were young adults in the ‘80s are not scarred by living through the most frightening epidemic imaginable’.  As one of those young adults at the time myself, revisiting this nightmarish time through this play wasn’t easy.

There was a possibility that the play would now seem dated, especially as it deals with situations that occurred over 30 years ago.  An HIV/AIDS diagnosis, while still a very real danger, is no longer a certain death sentence as it was back then.  The play as seen now may be even more effective as a warning against complacency and moral judgements.  It also underlines the importance of love and compassion and the courage to stand up for what you believe in.  As the play unfolded, it was unsettling to hear the same blinkered arguments used 30 years ago that we’re hearing now in the marriage equality debate.

On a simple set with the names of Australian AIDS epidemic victims scribbled on the walls, Karen Vickery’s production of the play is intense and confronting and extremely well-acted.  That most of the cast would have been born after the time period of the play has not been a barrier to getting under the surface of the characters and their motivations.  It’s a highly emotional play with frequent raging confrontations between characters.  The director has kept a tight control on the emotional levels, keeping the actors’ delivery honest and very real.

Jarrad West gives a very strong performance as Ned Weeks, the activist obviously modelled on the playwright, Larry Kramer.  It would be an uncomfortable experience living and working with this abrasive man, but West also shows his capacity to love with great skill.  Jordan Best is simply superb as Dr. Emma Brookner, a woman desperately trying to deal with a mysterious medical killer and an unfeeling bureaucracy.

Michael Sparks gives a very real characterisation of an older, mannered gay man of that era and Riley Bell gives his best performance to date as a sharp-tongued young Southern queen who is all heart underneath.  Christopher Zuber captures all the right physical and emotional aspects of the closeted, macho Bruce Niles and Will Huang gives a marvellously real and emotionally strong performance as the doomed Felix Turner.  There is also fine support in the smaller roles by Rob deFries, Teig Sadhana and Christopher Carroll.

‘The Normal Heart’ is a fine play very well done by this company.  It’s confronting and moving but it also has a startling immediacy.  If you love good theatre, don’t miss it.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program on Saturday mornings from 9am.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Great Duel Between Orlando and Rinaldo for Beautiful Angelica’s Sake.

Associazione Figli d’Arte Cuticchio. 
The Street Theatre. 
Wed Oct 19 at 7.30pm.

This family run Sicilian puppet troupe only popped in for one night en route to Sydney but anyone who was fortunate enough to go was treated to a gorgeous short show with plenty of time afterwards to look closely at the puppets and to talk to the puppeteers (if their Italian was up to it).

The stories go back to the Middle Ages and later epic poems like Orlando Furioso and Orlando Innamorato where Charlemagne and his armored warriors battle the Saracens. This show was occasionally more ‘innamorato’ than ‘furioso’,  but battle predominated. Orlando fought Rinaldo for the Princess Angelica and there was a battle to rescue the Princess from a giant, but most of the rest of the action seemed to concern armored Christians and Saracens biffing each other in wonderfully rambunctious combat, while the chief puppeteer (of three) narrated with sometimes two puppets in hand.

(And they are not light, being of solid wood and metal and about one third human size. They are worked with a mixture of long rods and cords. They are mostly human but a delicate horse and a savage snake also had their moments to the delight of the children in the audience.)

All of this was done in a most satisfactory way, with the puppeteers stamping feet on the floor to aid the noise of battle as metal sword fell upon metal armor and the piles of dead mounted. Rather gruesome, too, were the puppets who could be beheaded, cut in two or unseamed from the nave to the chops.

In Sicily this family company would perform in more theatrical surroundings, but the bare Street Two stage, with many puppets hanging in a row in readiness, the frequently turned backdrops and a colourful banner showing in comic book form the scenes to be performed, provided more than ample atmosphere with a bit of selective lighting.

The Italian Embassy clearly had a hand in organising the event and they, The Street and Associazione Figli d’Arte Cuticchio are to be thanked for an unusual and rousing evening of puppet theatre.

Alanna Maclean

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Joe Cinque's Consolation, an interview with filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos

© Jane Freebury

It is now nearly two decades since a young civil engineer died in a flat in Canberra’s inner north after his live-in girlfriend injected him with heroin. The case has been dealt with in the courts but for the young man’s family and others, including award-winning Canberra filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos, it still seems that the death of 26-year-old Joe Cinque has yet to be put to rest.

Joe Cinque was injected with heroin while already heavily sedated with rohypnol. He lay helpless and unconscious for many hours, vomiting blood, but  no call was made for an ambulance until it was too late to save him. His girlfriend’s inaction was compounded by others who could have also prevented the death. The court proceedings seemed to deal inadequately with the case. Unanswered questions abound.

It was a singularly shocking event for this relatively quiet town. The photo that circulated in the media at the time showed an attractive young couple, professional and university educated, their arms around each other, mocking the claims that emerged about mutual suicide pacts and bizarre ‘send off’ dinners. And as reports of witness inaction emerged, they were hard to square with our sense of duty of care towards others.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. In late September, I spoke to Dounoukos by skype while he transitted in Los Angeles on his way back from the Montreal International Film Festival where Joe Cinque’s Consolation, his first feature, had also screened. In 2014, he won the inaugural best international short film award there for his Un Seul Corps.

The Joe Cinque case brought highly regarded author Helen Garner to Canberra to observe the court proceedings. It resulted in her ‘true crime’ novel Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law , which, like her writing in The First Stone and This House of Grief, pitches its writer and reader together head first into morally complex terrain.

No sooner had Dounoukos finished reading Helen Garner’s book than he felt the need to return to the beginning, to answer his unanswered questions. ‘The anger, melancholy and sadness that you are left with makes you return to the book and go over it again, and over the details again in the hope that you don’t miss something…’ (a second time).

The facts are stark and the interpretations contentious, and there is conflict between how the lay person looks at the facts, and how the court interprets them.. ‘This gentle and committed young man was executed by his girlfriend,’ he recalls. ‘No matter how you cut it, you want people not to escape that fact.’

Dounoukos was given the rights to Garner’s book, the first and only film to have acquired them. How did  the writer- director and co-writer Matt Rubenstein begin work on their adaptation? Well, they knew they didn’t want a courtroom drama with a central journalist figure. They wanted something more immediate, something that allowed the audience to stand in for Garner, as the investigative presence she is in her book.

‘We wanted something that allowed the audience to take her place, almost as if they were sitting in that courtroom, or sitting at that dinner table.’ At the same time, ‘the profound questions that she raises would be our ultimate goal’.

The film concentrates on the period leading up to Cinque’s death, while Garner’s book concentrates on the aftermath and the court trials. Still, ‘It was absolutely an adaptation. The world of the book, the tone of the book, except we tried to make Helen’s journey, our journey.’

I say that I’ve always been impressed by the way Garner inserts herself into her writing and makes no bones about her views, a brave thing to do. For Dounoukos, her transparency is liberating.
Could we anticipate that Dounoukos had also inserted himself within the text of his film? ‘Yeah, look it’s inescapable.’

‘Yes, I definitely embrace that, as a fact of storytelling, an inescapable element of the construction of any narrative. Matt Rubenstein and I saw this as particularly relevant to this set of facts. You’ve got this storytelling happening between the characters, and one of the reasons Joe died is because people were trying to figure out what was for real, what was true, and what wasn’t.’

‘One of the things we see in the film is the passage between stories we want to believe because they’re compelling and stories we want to believe because they’re convenient.’

And the interpretations in law and psychiatry? ‘It’s interesting. […] most people’s instincts are that there was a great injustice. It’s almost like people want to know what was wrong with her (Singh) while at the same time they look at the facts and say, no matter what it was, it was an organised execution, and the sentence wasn’t enough.’ Singh was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. She was released from prison after four years, and has recently completed a PhD.

Since Garner’s exceptional book, other attempts have been made to tell the story of Joe Cinque. Dounoukos is highly critical. ‘You know, the fact is that some people were turned on by the audacity and success of her plan.’

‘Like everyone, when I read the book I was left with a lot of questions about how the judgement came down. As much as Justice Crispin is a good judge and a fine jurist, I went straight back to page one and re-read that book for more insights. And it’s precisely that that motivated the making of the film.’

‘I wanted to articulate the question through the medium that I’m involved in and maybe to be part of a public discourse, or to provoke a public discourse, in the way that cinema can, and literature can’t,’ he added.

Something stirs in my cinema memory. The 1988 film by Errol Morris, one of the best docos ever, about a young man wrongfully imprisoned in Texas for the death of a policeman. ‘ You must be familiar with The Thin Blue Line?’ I ask.

‘Absolutely,’ Dounoukos replies.

Dounoukos is a graduate in law from the Australian National University, and was studying at the same time as Singh. She was a friend of friends. He went on to study film at the VCA, and has made award-winning short films.

So is it now correct to call him a former lawyer? ‘I’m a former lawyer. Matt is back at the law.[…] He’s raising a family… in Sydney.’

Dounoukos got to know the Cinque family well as he developed his project. In preparing them for the film that was to come into being, he explained to them that his actors would ‘justify and fight’ for their characters.

And now?  ‘They’ve seen the film and, as difficult as it was, appreciated that I’ve made the film I set out to make which includes being very clear about what I think. What’s right and wrong, despite the ambiguity and shades of grey we all have to contend with. But they’re very smart people, very fair and the true victims of crime in this narrative.’

Also published in the Canberra Times on 23 September 2016 and Jane's blog Joe Cinque's Consolation, the movie

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wicked - Free Rain

Review by John Lombard

Wicked is iconic for its reversal of perspectives, casting The Wizard of Oz's nasty Wicked Witch as a misunderstood animal rights activist on the run from a totalitarian Wizard's mastery - not of magic - but of public relations.

Of course, it helps that the Munchkins who populate Oz are dopes, overgrown children more notable for smallness of heart than deficiency of stature.  The teenagers can be forgiven for their shallowness, but the only human adults we see are either resolutely selfish or devoted dandies.  The Wizard (Steve Amosa) is a colonial administrator, duping his charges by finding them scapegoats, in particular the talking animals who are being literally silenced under his regime.

But future Wicked Witch Elphaba (Loren Hunter) is marked as an outsider from birth, quite literally: her bright green skin and occassional freaky demonstrations of magical power have her feared and shunned in a society not notorious for much open-mindedness.  Loathed by her selfish family, she is made the drudge and carer for her pretty but crippled sister Nessarose (Teya Duncan).  They are sent to school together, we suspect not so much because Elphaba's family has great faith in her academic achievement but because she is expected to continue as Nessarose's indentured servant.

Born to relative privilige but also an outcast: the perfect education for a future revolutionary.

Although Elphaba takes up animal rights as her cause, the main influence she has is moral: popular girl Glinda (Laura Murphy) and pretty boy Fiyero (Drew Weston) through her example learn to care about something other than themselves.  The school-time escapades of the trio feel like a high school TV movie, in particular one extremely cliched moment where Elphaba is tricked into wearing an ugly hat to a big party.  But the songs that drive this sequence are fantastic, in particular "Dancing Through Life" and "Popular".  Laura Murphy's Glinda steals the show as the Valley Girl with enough nous to recognise her own cruelty and selfishness and overcome them.

When Elphaba discovers the secret perfidy of the Wizard - and, by extension, of all authority figures - she steals a magic book and goes on the lam, becoming Public Enemy Number One to the hysterically fearful Munchkins.  "Defying Gravity," famous both for its power and the levitation effect at its climax, is thrilling, especially because of the almost absurd level of persecution Elphaba endures before she finally stands up for herself.

Loren Hunter's Elphaba is a bit too put upon in the first act, a wounded puppy rather than a secret firebrand, but becomes fearsome when forced to become a hunted fugitive.  Hunter's voice however is fantastic though, and her many songs were a delight, whether the vengeful "No Good Dead" or the painfully ironic "The Wizard and I".  There are many amusing coy references to her apparently less creditable actions, but it is played here as though the camera only caught her at bad moments where she was a bit too snappish or impatient.

Wicked is a notoriously expensive and difficult musical to stage, and Free Rain's ambitious production is almost indistinguishable from a professional touring company.  The special effects are less impressive than what you would find in London, and there are fewer sequins on some of the costumes, but it has set a new standard for quality in Canberra musical theatre.  The cast all give performances that would be expected of professionals.  In particular the choreography, so often a weak link in local musicals that have to make trade-offs between acting, singing, and dance, is genuinely impressive.  Where budget constraints limit the set (although lighting tricks work to cover what is missing), some extremely vivid and impressive costumes provide a strong sense of place. 

Where Wicked is a little weak is that it is almost too eager to please, although that may be part of the reason for its explosive popularity.  The happy end cop-out (an alteration from the book by Gregory Maguire that the musical is based on) feels good enough, but completely undercuts the carefully built tragedy.  Imagine if just before the duel in Hamlet his dad popped in, revealed he had just been on holiday in Acapulco the whole time, and they all went home.  Wicked consistently shies away from the darkness of the battle Elphaba is fighting - the only thing she does to try and change the system is negotiate with the Wizard on generous terms.

The production adheres closely to template set out in the professional productions (costumes, characterisation, and staging are as close as they can be within the limitations of the show's budget) - with the exception of Steve Amosa as the Wizard.  The Wizard is normally played as doddering and just a little silly, but Amosa's Wizard is masterful, a plausible strongman ruling with hefty machismo.  This was a striking interpretation of the character, as different from other incarnations as Elphaba is from the malignant harpy of the original Oz stories. His authority is so strong he almost doesn't need the giant mechanical head.

Wicked is by any reasonable standard a triumph, as near as it is likely for a hybrid amateur company to come to to the relentless polish of an expensive professional production, and within Canberra the only thing that really compares to it are Free Rain's prior productions such as the excellent Mary Poppins.  The only limitation is that it is too perfect an incarnation of long-running, highly polished show.  The musicals that loosen up and do something fresh with the source material are still valuable, for example Everyman Theatre's recent production of Company.  (To be fair, rights for a show are often accompanied by restrictions on what can be done with it.)

But even so, Wicked is suberb.  It fully merited the rapturous applause of its opening night and within Canberra musicals is unmatched for ambition and achievement.  Vibrant, entertaining, exciting and relatable, there is nothing guilty about this pleasure.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. 
Book by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Shaun Rennie
Choreographed by Michelle Heine
Musical Direction by Nicholas Griffin
Conducted by Ian McLean
Presented by Free-Rain Theatre Company

Canberra Theatre until 28th October 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Free-Rain Theatre’s wondrous production of the Stephen Schwartz musical, “Wicked” is pure joy from beginning to end. Brilliantly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production works equally well as a thrilling theatrical spectacle, and as a moving telling of the story of an unusual friendship highlighting the acceptance of difference.

Laura Murphy (Glinda)  - Loren Hunter (Elphaba) and ensemble. 

The story of “Wicked” focusses on the back-story of “The Wizard of Oz”, depicting the friendship between the two witches, Glinda and Elphaba, before they appear in that story. Part of the fun is spotting the references to “The Wizard of Oz”.  But even if you’ve never seen or read “The Wizard Oz” (Really!!), you won’t be left out.

Shaun Rennie’s direction is masterful. His clear focussing of the storyline, his imaginative staging of the crowd scenes, and the strong, confident performances he draws from his principals and ensemble, all evidence his attention to detail and firm grasp of the musical genre.

The production is visually beautiful with an exceptional set and eye-catching costumes, all stunningly lit by Phil Goodwin. The special effects are brilliantly achieved, especially Elphaba’s levitation during “Defying Gravity”.

"Wicked" ensemble

Graceful, sweeping choreography, devised by Michelle Heine, and superbly executed by the dancers, cleverly showcases the spectacular costumes while complimenting the visual spectacle and highlighting the mood of the scenes.

Two outstanding performances provide the core of the show. Completely adorable, Laura Murphy gives a wonderfully comic performance as the ditsy blonde, Glinda, whose life lessons to Elphaba on how to be “Popular” are hilariously creative, and whose ultimate getting of wisdom is beautifully realised. 

In the contrasting role of Elphaba, the green witch, Loren Hunter is equally impressive, skilfully maintaining sympathy for her character despite her aggressive approach to addressing her challenges.  Both command the stage and possess superb singing voices, equally comfortable belting or singing sweetly. They also have the ability to phrase their songs so that the lyrics become conversations, especially evident in their demanding and moving duet “For Good” which brings the show to its climax.

Laura Murphy (Glinda) - Loren Hunter (Elphaba) 

Surrounding Murphy and Hunter is a fascinating menagerie of talented supporting characters, among them, the dashing Fiyero, handsome object of desire for both Glinda and Elphaba, stylishly portrayed by Drew Weston.  Bronwyn Sullivan, resplendent in a succession of magnificent costumes, adds another of her impressive characterisation, as the not-so-nice Madame Morrible, and Steve Amosa, as The Wizard, tugs at the heartstrings with his beautifully sung “A Sentimental Man”.

Bronwyn Sullivan (Madam Morrible) and ensemble. 

Teya Duncan gives an appealing performance as Elphaba’s crippled sister, Nessarose, who has her heart broken by Alexander Clubb’s unhappy munchkin, Boq. Fraser Findlay intrigues as the tragic sheep, Dr Dillamond, who is cruelly deprived of his ability to speak, and David Santolin creates a sinister presence as the flying monkey, Chistery.

Loren Hunter (Elphaba) 
Stephen Schwartz score for “Wicked” is complex and demanding, but Ian McLean’s magnificent orchestra meets every challenge head-on, providing a thrillingly rich sound for the choral spectacle and the soaring solos, yet sympathetically subdued when providing underplay for the dialogue. 

Anne Somes and her talented team at Free-Rain theatre have provided Canberra audiences with many outstanding productions, but perhaps none more impressive than this superb production of “Wicked”. Extra performances have already been added to the previously announced schedule, but you’d be wise not to hesitate if you want to experience this brilliant production.  

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 17.10.16 

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Book by Winnie Holzman
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Shaun Rennie
Musical Director: Nick Griffin
Conductor: Ian McLean
Free Rain Theatre Company
Canberra Theatre Centre to October 28

Review by Len Power 15 October 2016

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “Wicked” is a show most likely to appeal only to children.  In spite of being an alternate telling of Frank L. Baum’s 1900 story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, with references to the 1939 film “The Wizard Of Oz”, this is a musical with adult themes of jealousy, rivalry, corruption and cruelty.  From the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, it tells the story of two unlikely school friends, Elphaba and Galinda, who become the Wicked Witch and the Good Witch respectively.  Set in the strange Land of Oz, we’re taken in unexpected directions as the absorbing story unfolds.

Shaun Rennie’s direction is tight and highly detailed and the entire cast perform at a very high level.  Laura Murphy gives a great performance as Glinda, a pretty girl who knows how to use her charm to get what she wants.  Her sense of comic timing is impeccable and she sings beautifully.  Loren Hunter plays the very different character, Elphaba, and gets deep inside the psyche of this troubled girl.  She is thoroughly convincing in her performance and has a magnificent voice, handling the high notes of “Defying Gravity”, her showstopper, with apparent ease.  The girls’ big duet at the end of the show, “For Good”, was very well sung with the right level of emotion.

Drew Weston gives a fine performance as the handsome Fiyero and sings “Dancing Through Life” delightfully.  Bronwyn Sullivan gives one of her best performances ever as the evil Madame Morrible and Steve Amosa is a great Wizard.  His singing of “Wonderful” with Elphaba was one of the show’s highlights.

There was outstanding work also from Teya Duncan as Nessarose, Alexander Clubb as Boq and Fraser Findlay as the doomed Dr Dillamond.  Dotted throughout the production there was especially nice work by individuals in the ensemble.  Of particular note was Jamie Winbank’s fine dancing in the ballroom sequence and Philippa Murphy giving a very amusing and real portrayal as one of the students.

Ian McLean conducted the tricky musical score very well and musical director, Nick Griffin, has done fantastic work with the vocal work for the cast.  Lyrics were clearly heard throughout the show and the sound balance between orchestra and singers was fine.

The settings and costumes are fabulous and have been provided by CLOC Musical Theatre in Melbourne.  Lighting design by Phil Goodwin and sound design by Chris Neal were of a very high standard.  Michelle Heine’s choreography was imaginative and well-danced by the company.

“Wicked” has been running on Broadway continuously since 2003.  Don’t miss this opportunity to see a fine production of one of Broadway’s biggest hits.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program from 9.00am on Saturdays.