Mr Kolpert

ATYP Studio 1, August 1

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Would you like blood with your pizza? Mind games with your tiramisu?

German playwright David Gieselmann gives us both in his absurdist black comedy Mr Kolpert (translated by David Tushingham), which is at once provocative, stomach-churning and ridiculously funny.

Hip young couple Ralf (Tim Reuben) and Sarah (Claire Lovering) have invited Sarah’s work colleague Edith (Paige Gardiner) and her husband Bastian (Garth Holcombe) around for dinner to alleviate their boredom.

Hospitality isn’t high on their agenda. Sarah hasn’t even bothered catering, offering wine or fruit juice poppers and a choice of take-away. Instead, they intend to play cat and mouse with their guests.

At the start of the evening, they announce that they have murdered Sarah and Edith’s dull co-worker Mr Kolpert (Tom Christophersen) and stashed his body in the huge trunk in the room. Just joking! Or are they?

The build-up of tension as to whether they have or haven’t bumped off Mr Kolpert drives the play, which echoes with references to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hitchcock’s Rope, Eugene Ionesco, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Orton and Monty Python, among others.

The play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, has fun and games with the idea of the extreme lengths some people will go to in order to feel something, anything, in a world of existential, urban ennui; a world where an overload of graphic news reports of horrific world events, and even more graphic depictions of violence in films and video games, numbs the mind and deadens emotions. It also plugs into the anxiety of the contemporary world.

Directing the play for indie Sydney company pantsguys Productions, James Dalton draws wonderfully calibrated performances from his cast in a well-paced production that finds just the right balance between absurdist drama and dark comedy of manners.

Gardiner is exceptional as the nice, placatory Edith who discovers something altogether different beating beneath her cheery, polite demeanour. Her oscillation between hysterical laughter and terrified screams when Ralf taunts her with the ropes he supposedly tied Mr Kolpert up with is side-splittingly funny.

Holcombe is wonderfully manic as the boorish, unpredictable Bastion, an aggressive architect with anger management issues. Reuben and Lovering do a great job of keeping us guessing what Ralf (who is appropriately enough a chaos researcher) and Sarah have or haven’t done, while Edan Lacey is very funny as the hapless pizza delivery boy.

The production strikes me as funnier than I remember Benedict Andrews’ 2002 production for Sydney Theatre Company, though memory sometimes plays tricks.

The drab, beige apartment by set and costume designer Antoinette Barboutis suggests the boredom Ralf and Sarah are railing against, as well as the idea that evil can lurk in the most mundane places. Every now and then, lurid green lighting (Benjamin Brockman) as well as UV lighting, lends the space a strange, sinister feel.

Pantsguys is emerging as a reliably exciting indie company. Their previous productions include Punk Rock in 2012, which won three Sydney Theatre Awards, and On the Shore of the Wide World earlier this year, which was Griffin Independent’s top-selling production to date (both directed by Anthony Skuse). Mr Kolpert is an equally impressive production.

Running around 80 minutes without interval, the ending of the play is somewhat abrupt, a pizza-ordering scene is overdone, and Gieselmann employs some sleight-of-hand (with the knocking). It is also fairly lightweight, its theme obvious enough. But it’s a darkly entertaining, provocative piece that had the audience laughing, shrieking and squealing.

Mr Kolpert runs at the ATYP Studio I, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road until August 16. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940