Thursday, February 22, 2007

Danny and Chantelle's mate, Phillip McMahon

Two clubbers on the run from the "demolition wake" being held in Ballymun as the first of the neighbourhood's towers come down are at the centre of Danny and Chantelle (Still Here), a play that offer close-up insight into the everyday business of "going out and getting trashed."

The piece is the first play from Phillip McMahon, a Dublin actor, who cooked Danny and Chatelle (Still Here) up with his flatmate, Georgina McKevitt, who also happens to star alongside McMahon.

McMahon trained with the Dublin Youth Theatre and the National Youth Theatre, where he became involved with the Australia National Theatre for Young People.

"They are very like our own youth theatres, I suppose, except that they have their own premises and a national reputation and shitloads of money, donated by Fox, and by Nicole Kidman." Kidman, along with others such as Strictly Ballroom director, Baz Lurhman, are former members of the group, the world's largest youth theatre,

"All of that was about ten years," says McMahon of his various youth theatre experiences. "It was a sort of apprenticeship, more than an education, but it worked for me."

The Dublin-born actor knew from an early age he wanted to be an actor, but only recently thought about writing. "When I was younger I was always burning to be an actor, but as you get a bit older, the lustre of being up front somewhat fades…"

Faced with a shortage of juicy roles, he and his flatmate-cum-co-star decided ("over the course of a few dinners") that they would need to write something for themselves to perform in. Some months later, Danny and Chantelle (Still Here) was born.

"We knew we wanted it to be a play about two characters. And we wanted it to be something the actors would enjoy performing, something that was spoken in a language that was heightened, but which really reflected the poetic side of the way people in Dublin speak."

Part of the plays impact has come, undoubtedly, from some creative uses of marketing. The fictitious Danny and Chantelle are owners of many-friended Bebo and MySpace pages, while a clip made by McMahon and McKevitt in their flat (stripped to make it look like a dingy club toilet) let them promote the show to YouTube users.

All of which went into the mix to give the show access to an audience that only very rarely shows up at Dublin theatres. McMahon and company give every indication of knowing their audience, and indeed, the hidden fears and desires of anyone who considers going to a play. Danny and Chatelle runs for 55 minutes (in its socks).

"When we were writing the show we said: 'look, let's not labour this' especially for the audience we were trying to attract. They are not going to want to sit in the theatre for three hours! No way," says McMahon, recalling a recent run in with Julius Ceasar at The Abbey. "That really tested me..."

"I think we managed to get people who don't go to the theatre at all in the original run. I suppose being at the POD helped, but it was also a play that a lot of people who had been going out in Dublin over the last few years recognise. They feel a bit nostalgic about those times now...."

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

REVIEW: Julius Caesar (The Abbey, Dublin)

It is startling to notice – after a decade's worth of TV phorensic drama – how the conventions of the CSI/Bones axis get an early outing in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. As he leans over the dead body of Ceasar (…oops, is that a spoiler..?) Mark Anthony leads us, and the good people of Rome, through his reconstruction of that most celebrated of literary crime scenes, offering us his specialist appraisal of the motives, the weapons, the wounds, even the blood-splatter evidence:

"As he pluck'd his cursed Steel away
Mark how the Blood of Cæsar follow'd it!"

instructs Dr. Mark Anthony.

But then, of course, the interesting question here is not so much whether the material is as good as you might find on a good episode of Bones (er, it is) but whether it might compete in the same world. Does Jason Byrne's chunky new Abbey production, which offers an extraordinarily dense catalogue of murders, suicides and bloody deaths, also offer an experience that is more marking, more communicative, more resonant than an evening in front of the telly.

Julius Caesar, particularly in Byrne's vision, is an ensemble piece, with formidable roles for Robert O'Mahoney, as the essentially frail Caesar; Frank McCusker as a fractious and frankly psychotic, Cassius; Declan Conlon, as a particularly unforgivable Brutus; and Aidan Kelly, as a Marc Anthony who is as unattractive as any of the conspirators. There may be winners and losers here, but there are no heroes.

Byrne's chunky [you've said that already...if you mean "long" say it --Schizoed] production has so much swagger its style, that is seems quite often to swamp the work of the actors, no more so than in the crowd scenes, which can have more than a whiff of a 80s Duran Duran video.

Jon Bausor's set is ambitious, but its grandeur does not always seem to be pitching in and helping out. It freely mixes style – togas and trousers, breastplates and jack boots, armies of swordsmen and gramophone discs – in a post-modern mash-up, but the effort does not, in the end, amplify the meanings or drive the momentum of the piece.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

REVIEW: American Buffalo (The Gate, Dublin)

American Buffalo, David Mamet's breakthrough play from thirty years ago, has all the stylistic tics that make his mano-a-mano dramas so instantly recognisable. It's a play full of guys, guys who love curt and repetitious badinage about cheats and tricksters. And double bluffs. And triple crosses.

Here we have a fractious gang of flop-outs and would-be sharks, scratching some wobbly kind of existence on the felonious edges of 1970s Chicago. Don (Sean McGinley, in what looks like the same costume he was wearing a few months ago, in the Abbey's Empress of India) runs a pawn shop where panhadling types come to hang out.

There's Don's halfwit gopher protégé, Bobby (Domhnall Gleeson, feeling it all, big time) And then, of course, there's Aidan Gillen's Teach, a wiry insomniac who moves like a stick puppet, as though driven around the stage on an uncomfortably placed piece of wood. He prowls the set, peeping through bits of furniture, ever ready to slap you upside the head, or start crying.

Mamet often seems like something of a thorn in the side of good actors; his classic scripts don't really call for good actors. Or, more to the point, they don't really call for good acting, at least in the traditional sense. If an actor is too smooth, too good at creating a whole character from a few spare words, then things can kind of fall apart.

That's not quite what happens in director, Mark Brokaw's Gate version, but things are certainly straining in that direction. McGinley seems not entirely sure whether it's wise to render Don in 3D, while Gillen's too busy buzzing to worry overly. Consequently, that sense a menace we're struggling to fathom, never quite materialises, leaving instead a niggling feeling that somebody has successfully bluffed.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Crazy Dog Audio Theatre's The Stuff of Myths

What happens radio hits the stage? When something that used to exist as a vast array of crunches, pops, whizzes, pings and electronic vocal effects suddenly grows heads, legs, feet and whole human bodies? When Crazy Dog Audio Theatre's The Stuff of Myths hits the Project stage this evening, we won't just be able to hear the answer, we'll see it too.

Crazy Dog Audio Theatre is a company founded by actor, writer and radio fanatic, Roger Gregg, to produce, well, audio theatre: productions that make use of the special magic of radio to tell their stories.

Since then, they've created a huge body of acclaimed audio work, producing radio series such as The Last Harbinger, a sci-fi satire on contemporary America, or last year's Audio Gothic, a series of five spooky plays, produced on RTE around Halloween. Most of these productions then go on to have a life, either as CDs or downloads.

As Douglas Adams (in the radio version of whose Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Gregg has been heard as the voice of a space-going computer) would have surely agreed, cross-platform art is where the action's at.

But Gregg has had a longing for flesh and blood. "We had done a lot of live shows for RTE radio in the early 90s," says Gregg. "But they were shows where the actors were reading from scripts, with live sound and live music. But what we always wanted to do was try to combine convention theatre with radio theatre."

Now, with an Arts Council grant under their belt, the company is ready for some face to face time. For their first live theatre piece the company have created The Stuff of Myth, a retelling of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.

"It is a sex comedy at root, about a bunch of very dysfunctional ancient Greek relationships. But it's a musical too. So it sits somewhere between Frank Zappa, Woody Allen and Monty Python."

"It's a kind of hybrid: scripts are memorized, there's a bit of scenery. You will see what is making the noise, all the sound gadgets. There is no pre-recorded sounds, nobody pushing buttons backstage…For us, it's a stylistic issue. I've seen shows with very good sound effects, where they arrive with a bunch of cues on CD. When I'm working with Barabbas, that's the way we do it. And it can be great. But that is not what we wanted to do here. We'd seen that before. So, we said 'let's try to go all acoustic and live'".

But when the show is all over, and the Crazy Dogs have melted back into the ether, could that really be the end of this production? Or is it possible for The Stuff of Myth to make the journey back into the underworld of "audio only" drama?

"The funny thing is," says Gregg "Radio theatre is primarily a visual medium, but the visuals come via sound. The job in radio theatre is putting pictures into the listener's head. But here, some of the storytelling is done in what the audience is watching. So when we take The Stuff of Myth off the stage and onto radio, we need to rethink how we get the pictures into people's heads…"


Friday, February 02, 2007

Karen Egan's Cabaret

“Sorry if I sound a bit incoherent, but my day began a long time ago, on a ferry in the West Indies,” says the very coherent Karen Egan, now back in the safety of her Dublin home.

Egan has just returned from the island of Becquia, whose Music Festival has just played host to the Irish singer and comedian’s particular take on “cabaret.”

“It was kind of odd: picture if you will a stage looking out onto a beach, with people picnicking on the shore. How in the name of god did you end up there, people ask me…”

The answer, very roughly, is via Edinburgh. Egan took her cabaret show, long a staple of these shores, to the Scottish capital’s Festival, where good reviews saw her winning fans in the most unexpected corners of the globe.

Since she left comedy girl band, the Nualas, Egan has (alongside the odd bit of acting) been performing shows which generally go under the heading cabaret, mixing songs from Kurt Weil, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel with her own often very funny compositions. But what is it, this thing called cabaret?

“The more I use the word cabaret, the more I become loathed to pin it down…I think it can be quite a dirty word, or an off-putting one at least,” says Egan. “I suppose it is one I’ll have to drop eventually. I don't want to be the old lady lying on the piano on a cruise ship…”

“And for some people, “cabaret” just conjures up something awful. Honestly, people have come up to me after a show and said: "Wow! I thought I was going to hate it! It really sounded like an awful night's entertainment! And it wasn’t bad at all!” which is not exactly the way I'd like things to work.”

On stage, Egan has claimed to be "half German" "half French" or indeed “half Turkish”. She is, in fact, the full Irish. So is all the joking around about her nationality an indication that there something about being all-Irish that is, well, not very cabaret?

”Oh god yes! If you think of all the singers who are out there. Maria Tecce, Susannah de Wrixon, Camille O'Sullivan, Caroline Moreau…and I just thought [putting on best all-purpose rural Irish accent] “Karen Egan” coming out and doing her songs? Who was going to take her seriously..?

What Egan brings to the cabaret concept, of course, are the skills of a comic actress, which as it turns out, are frequently what’s required to deal with the distinctly artificial character of a night of songs from the 1930s.

The same skills are put to use in her other current project, acting in Corn Exchange’s deservedly durable production, Dublin By Lamplight, with which she will soon by off to the islands once more, touring to Tasmania.

This time around, by the way, the cast of DbyL does not contain Mark O’Halloran, but does contain Tadhg Murphy, last seen in a very fetching frock and blonde wig in Stuart Carolan’s Empress of India. Egan, who attended the Gaiety School of Acting alongside O’Halloran (and devised the very funny Lovely Betty with Adam and Joe auteur) is sanguine about O’Halloran’s absence from the piece.

How could anyone ever yell “Up the Republic!” with the correct degree of campy Geal-ish bravado, you might imagine. “I’m sure Tadhg will just make the character his own in a different way,” says Egan.

“But before any of that,” says Egan, “I myself, Karen Egan, am going on a tour…Also, I have a new guna,” she says, disappearing into the ether.

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