Thursday, November 30, 2006

Paul Walker's (and God's) Grace

“I don’t want to sound like a mystic,” says Paul Walker, one of the writers behind a new show set for the former home of The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society, at the Gates of Dublin Castle. “But I do believe that rooms retain some sort of residue of the things that happened there.”

God’s Grace, which Walker describes as “a Christmas fable” is the latest show from Semper Fi, the innovative theatre company, whose show have previously brought their audiences to unexpected venues from an abandoned warehouse in the docklands, to a public convenience on Stephens Green.

The show’s origins are every bit as unconventional as its staging. It began life as a series of emails between Walker and co-writer, Eugene O’Brien (best know as the author of the award-winning, Eden). “I’d write two or three pages and then email them off to Eugene and he’d write two or three back, letting the characters tell me where he wanted it to go. And we carried on like that…”

Finally, however, when The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society premises was chosen for the show, things began to take shape. Scouting the house, the writers found that as they walked about, certain rooms contained certain “atmospheres,” suggesting themselves for scenes in the show.

“We are rehearsing somewhere else at the moment,” says Walker, “and you are really aware that one of the characters is missing. Because until we all get into the house, we won’t have all the atmospheres right.” Not that he want to appear mystical about the whole thing…

“But everyone has felt that kind of thing. Say, you know, you go househunting and you’re in a house and it seems very nice. And then, you walk into one room and something there feels a bit off, a bit cold and odd…I don’t know the physics of it, but it certainly happens.”

The play, which features Andrew Bennett among other, centres on the way in which one family’s carefully hidden secrets – despite steady efforts at suppression -- bubble to the surface amongst the Christmas festivities.

Similar spooky goings on appear to be at the heart of the writer’s other current project. After writing on RTE’s two-part Stardust drama earlier this year, Walker is currently developing a new drama on the subject of the American government’s “extraordinary rendition” flights through Shannon airport.

“It is based on hearsay and rumour, rather than facts,” says Walker. None the less, his experience writing the piece, which delves into the frightening world of what exactly went on inside the secret American planes that landed at Shannon, has left him with a strong impression of fabrication and cover-up. And even of being personally under surveillance.

“You wouldn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to notice some of the odd things that have happen. Information that’s on a web site one day and is removed the day after you look at it…sometimes you feel that they are right inside your computer…”

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Monday, November 20, 2006

REVIEW: The Flaming Lips (Vicar Street, Dublin)

The faces of every party gadget manufacturer in Taiwan must light up when Wayne Coyne and co show up, shopping for a new stage show. The Flaming Lips clearly spend life on constant watch for wacky stuff to amuse us, like ideal uncles, always looking out for cool gifts for the kids.

Tonight, alongside the stageside regiment of girls dressed as metallic mini-skirted aliens, another battalion of Santas, some smoke-spewing blunderbusses and a flock of enormous crowdsurfing balloons, each of us has been given a laser pointer. Don’t use them all up straight away, Coyne warns us in a pre-show pep talk, we’ve a really cool thing we want to do with them later.

And then, with everybody equipped and informed, the show explodes in the scifi psychedelia of Race for the Prize, the air is suddenly thick with confetti and bouncing balls and Marvel characters who leap from the stage to begin marching around the auditorium.

What is on offer here is more than the chance to hear live versions of the favourites – though all the anthems, from the antique power pop of She Don’t Use Jelly, via the blissful Do You Realise, to the teetering-towards-twee, My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion, are all present and splendidly incorrect.

But even if you the band serve up what amounts to a greatest hits show, the main satisfaction here is still in joining in this freaky communal happening. And tonight that involves not just some dancing and a singalong, but that laser trick, for which Coyne encourages everybody to “shoot” him with their little gadgets, only to appear with a mirror, sending a dancing haze of red beams around the darkened hall.

It works spectacularly well, like so much of the show, not because of the stupefying amounts spent on it – take a bow, U2 – but because it’s a good idea executed with the sole aim of seeing just how much fun a roomful of people can have when they play together. Plenty, is the answer.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Thornton Brothers' Moonlight Mickeys

The opening of their latest show, Moonlight Mickeys at Bewley’s Café Theatre is definitely a move upmarket for the play from Dundalk’s Calipo theatre company. The nice, cosy Grafton Street theatre will make a significant change from Dundalk Gaol, where an earlier version of the play first appeared, as part of a site-specific production commissioned to celebrate the restoration of the building.

But Moonlight Mickeys will take with it many of the gaol stories that first inspired the piece. “There were a lot of stories floating around about the gaol,” says Darren Thornton, a founder of the company and director of their first show at Bewley’s Café Theatre. “One of them was the story of two brother who were locked up there. So Colin [Thornton, Darren’s brother and author of the piece] used some of those stories as the basis for the show.”

Moonlight Mickeys still tells the story of two brothers and their involvement – willing and unwilling – in the early days of the Civil War. But the show has, says Thornton, been substantially retooled for its Bewley’s outing. Where there were a multitude of players and characters in the original, now everything rests – in the manner of Stones in his Pockets and so many more contemporary Irish shows – on the shoulders of just two actors, Peter Daly and Colin O’Donoghue.

This intense doubling up of roles is something of a change of tack for the Calipo, a company that earned its stripes by giving video an ever-larger role in its productions. Indeed, eventually the mix of theatre and video became so insistent that the leap to television became almost unavoidable.

The company’s original stage production of Love Is The Drug, an episodic stage show about twentysomething relationships first seen in 1998, was turned into an RTE TV series two years ago. And since then, the company has been directing some of its attention towards making its own TV shows.

Now, however, while plans are cooking for a two-part drama on RTE, as well as a feature film, Calipo’s stage productions are taking a more even-handed approach to the use of video technology.

“It is always a difficult balance,” says Thornton. “But I think nowadays we make sure there really is a need for a video element to a show. We are more skilled at knowing that maybe we are very giddy about using it, but sometimes it is just not helping the show.”

All of which, of course, is not to say that Thornton and co are heading back into a romantic past, when a little white pancake and a lantern were enough. In fact, one of the company’s main sources of income remains an outreach program they run in Dundalk, helping local kids get to grips with the technologies and the techniques of television.

“Funnily enough, as well as being very rewarding in itself, it is a very good way for the company to get our hands on new equipment to use in our own productions, because capital expenditure on expensive video equipment is not really something that the small amount we get from the Art Council is going to stretch to…”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

REVIEW: One Man Star Wars Trilogy (Spirit, Dublin)

A long time ago in a galaxy far away…or at least in Toronto, in 2001, Charles Ross took the stage for the first time to perform his One Man Star War Trilogy. Now, some 1000 performances later, the Canadian actor arrives in Dublin ready to recreate Lucas’ original films using only his bare hands, a flexible vocal technique and a head-mounted mic.

This kind of undertaking requires – and here gets the benefit of – plenty of adroit stagecraft and comedic know-how. But when Ross is in full flight, pulling faces and whooping out an extraordinary collection of vocal sound effects, it still calls to mind an imaginative six-year-old boy child at play.

This child, of course, can recreate various classes of Rebel Alliance fighter with a bend of his elbow. He can lunge, parry and riposte a lightsabres with just the power of his voice. He can mash up scenes and characters at will, energetically conjuring up everyone from Luke to his father, from Jabba The Hut to Chewbacca, while jaunting us at faster-than-light speed between Tatooine and the Death star.

There is something almost wistful about this attempt to recapture a flavour of the naive enjoyment first felt sitting in a darkened room, hearing John Williams’ bombastic theme tune and seeing the yellow letters of the epilogue to Star Wars scroll off into the darkness of space.

What is most impressive, however, is the way this nostalgia somehow gets embedded in Ross’s frantic, headlong rush. The pace of it all is phenomenal. Ross races through three movies in just 60 minutes making almost no concessions for those who have not done their homework. This one clearly does not see his job as retelling the Star Wars saga so much as officiating at a communal celebration of its values.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

REVIEW: Cyrano (Project, Dublin)

Two celebrity chefs and a New York Times food critic (from Longford, no less) make up the bizarre love triangle in Barabbas update of the Cyrano de Bergerac story.

Laddish Christian (Aidan Turner) has knocked the aging superchef, Cyrano (Raymond Keane) from his perch, a TV studio-cum-kitchen, and is now wooing Roxanne, the woman the old cook secretly loves. Now, for reasons that are not at all clear, Cyrano decides to aid in Roxanne’s seduction.

Instead of the arts of courtly love, however, what Cyrano has to share are the secrets of his culinary arts, which will conquer Roxanne. And in a nice bit of re-writing, the love letters sent by the original Cyrano-disguised-as- his-rival become emails, forging a neat connection between the antique story of deception and a twenty-first century of chatrooms and fluid online identities.

Only problem is, the secrets Cyranno bestows are of a remarkably prosaic kind – seduce her with oysters and fancy white wine, is the summation of Cyrano’s first step. So why exactly does Christian – himself also a celebrity chef -- not already know this, or not have a burning opinion of his own, or indeed a clue about food?

It may be something to do with the company’s style, which remains rather cartoonish, despite the absence of red noses, but the foodie setting never quite becomes much more than a backdrop. There is plenty of chat about food, ample helpings of culinary name-dropping, but the passion for cooking never really ignites because the details are so sketchy.

On stage, food is about a specific as it gets. Produce some flour, some eggs and bottle of wine and you’ve whet our appetites. If those items then turn out to be nothing more than props, there is an unquestionable disappointment, particularly when the play is about two chefs and a food critic.

The performances were a little unsteady as of opening night. All three actors contributed at one time or another to the fun, but things were not slipping easily into place. Together they achieved some very funny moments – some early business with a hidden microphone was excellent – but the energy too often dissipated, rather than adding to the momentum.

This sticky progress was exacerbated by elements of the plot that didn’t quite add up, while some of the multimedia elements were far enough from breathtaking as to be adjacent to superfluous. All of which gave an odd sense of making the best of a bad situation, as though some theatrical chef were quickly trying to save a sauce that had cracked.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

REVIEW: Doubt (The Abbey, Dublin)

Doubt is a period drama in more ways than one. John Patrick Shanley's Broadway hit is set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s, in a musty, priest-revering world. But the play's approach is also – on the surface at least – rather antique, with its stock clerical characters who might have arrived on the Abbey stage hot foot from The Bells of Saint Mary's.

If, for some reason, your own personal tells for a paedophile are a sweet tooth, long nails and a habit of shouting at crows, then a conviction can't be far away. For Fr. Flynn (Aidan Kelly) exhibits all of these traits, as well as a swaggering arrogance and great fondness for the patriarchal aspects of the Catholic church, even as he professes a new, more open and approachable clergy.

If Doubt were a film (which it soon will be) then Fr. Flynn would certainly be guilty of every charge laid at his door by Sister Aloysius. Or would he? Because this Sister Aloysius (played with impressive restraint by Brid Brennan), well, she's no saint neither. For her, any display of passion – even a passion for teaching – is tantamount to a sin. Human warmth must be extinguished, or at the very least hidden away, in the name of order.

If Shanley's drama offered nothing more than two characters that no audience could love, and a sweet novice (Gemma Reeves) to be ping-ponged between them, then it would fail. The writing, however, never allows either side of the argument to gather rhetorical steam, never mind claim victory.

This dangling resolution is enough to lift the play out of Bing Crosby territory, but the notion that contemporary substance must consist in uncertainty is less than satisfying, as sure-footedly as the playwright arrives at that conclusion.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kelly Campbell's Nose

It is eight years since Kelly Campbell almost appeared on stage with Barabbas theatre company. Back then, the actress went through all the rehearsals for a show called Brilliant Day’s Blue, which was due to go on at the Abbey, only to be scrapped when Ben Barnes took over as artistic director. Now, all these years later, she is finally due to make her debut with the company renowned for its “red nose” productions, which brought clowning to new artistic heights in Ireland.

But in the way you can never stand in the same stream twice, you certainly can’t perform with the same company after eight years. The Barabbas of old, and its reservoir of red noses, has gone. “Yes, the company has changed a lot,” says Campbell of a realisation that came to her early in rehearsals for Cyrano, Barabbas’ updated, green-screen multimedia version of the old story of true beauty that lies within.

“I had thought it would be clowning and red noses until about the third day of rehearsals when I turned to [director] Veronica [Coburn] and said ‘so this is how it’s going to be’.”

For her new version of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, Coburn and company have shifted the action to the present day and set it in the milieu of celebrity chefs. Rozanne (played by Campbell), the shared object of affection from two famous cooks, is now a New York Times food critic.

Updating the show has also involved getting familiar with the “Star Wars” school of acting, in which the performer has to imagine much that will be digitally superimposed “on the night”.

“A lot of the show will be done with green-screen and virtual sets, so for the moment we can’t really see how it will all look. We can only really see big blocks on which things will appear later. For the moment, we can only imagine how it all fits together.”

Since her aborted Barabbas debut, Campbell has been a regular on the Abbey stage and part of the cast of Batchelor’s Walk, for which she recently completed filming on the Christmas special. “It was a funny kind of reunion, coming back together after three years. I think it was a reluctant projection for a lot of people. They were hesitant to bring back something that was so much ‘of its time’. But it really felt like slipping into old shoes…”

She has also recently finished shooting an upcoming series, Kingdom, for ITV, in which Stephen Fry stars as a neurotic Norwich solicitor and Campbell plays a mysterious visitor from Ireland. “They’ve filmed six parts already and, if all goes well, there will be another series after that. That’s the plan at least.”

In the meantime, Campbell is also involved on the management side. She is part of the team that run the revitalised Bewley’s Café Theatre, a labour of love, for which she has at one time or another acted, written, directed, designed lighting, designed graphics, taken production photography and produced. For once, however, these days job is as much about keeping the crowds down as getting them in.

“The fire officers have been very strict with Bewley’s – I suppose because of its location. So now we absolutely must keep the number down to 50 people.”

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Charles Ross's One Man Star Wars

The One Man Star Wars Trilogy might sound like where George Lucas’ scifi epic was heading all the time. As the director began to people his Star Wars films with more and more computer animated characters, and fewer and fewer real actors, the plan might always have been to end up with just one flesh and blood star.

As it happens, however, The One Man Star Wars is not the latest in that sad progression, but instead an frighteningly ambitious night at the theatre from Canadian actor, Charles Ross. Like it says on the can, Ross’s stage show recreates the entire first trilogy of Star War movies through the work of just one man. Quite an economical approach, then?

“I’d say that One Man Star Wars has the same limited-by-funds lineage that the original film (A New Hope) had,” says Ross. “Back to basics by virtue that all I could afford was the basics. It’s a good mind set to have when creating theatre: an obsession with economy in all aspects. My show has no sets, costumes, props, or music. All I use is a wireless microphone (for when I’m in enormous venues) and a simple lighting design.”

It is hard to believe that anyone who comes to see Ross version of Star Wars will be more of an obsessive than the actor, who claims to have seen the first Star Wars film more than 400 times by the age of 10. But a certain knowledge of the trilogy is pretty much de rigueur here.

“The audience meets me more than half way because as much as I’m trying to recreate the story of Star Wars on stage I’m also drawing the memories of Star Wars from the audience” he says. “Where I lack in some aspects in my ability to conjure the story the audience fills in the blanks with their imaginations.”

Ross first performed his One Man Star Wars Trilogy in Toronto, in 2001, at a time long before he secured the permission to do so from the legendarily litigious Lucas organization. And while he performs in other shows – he has lately managed to turn the Lord of the Rings trilogy into yet another one man show!Ross is still touring the galaxy with Star Wars. Up to now he has performed that show more than 1000 times.

“The permission, ie, licensing, happened after the show had been touring for a few months. This is neither the recommended nor legal way of doing a show like this,” says Ross, who was simple taken unawares at the show’s longevity.

“In retrospect, honestly, I didn’t think the show’s life expectancy would extend beyond a couple of performances. I’m now a licensed by-product of what the Star Wars series has spawned. The question is: am I an evolution or a mutation of the Star Wars geek?”

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