Man of La Mancha

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 28

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Independent company Squabbalogic is known for its inventive productions of little seen, contemporary musicals. It now presents a brilliantly re-imagined staging of a hoary, 50-year old classic: Man of La Mancha.

Written as a play-within-a play, author/actor/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. When his fellow inmates subject him to a mock trial of their own, Cervantes tells them the story of Alonso Quijana, a crazed gentleman who believes he is Don Quixote, a knight-errant on a quest to better the world.

Director Jay James-Moody and his terrific design team (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay, lighting by Benjamin Brockman, sound by Jessica James-Moody) set their gritty production entirely in a dark, dingy prison dungeon (as the first production was originally staged before being expanded and romanticised).

We never forget that this is Cervantes mustering the prisoners to help tell his tale, but the performances are so beautifully delineated that we experience and embrace both layers of the storytelling at the same time. The prisoners are as well characterised as the roles they then take on in Don Quixote’s world.

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

The lo-fi staging is simple, with a few benches rearranged for different scenes, yet it’s also beautifully detailed from the horse costumes to the kinks in Don Quixote’s sword after his tilting at windmills. The staging makes clever use of the intimate theatre, including the balcony around it, to engender an oppressive atmosphere (heightened by the sound of clanking and screams) but allies that with a rudely vigorous performance style.

Hay’s costuming is a convincing combination of the grubbily makeshift and the more colourful outfits that Cervantes might well have had in his theatre trunk, adding an element of sexiness among the squalor.

Also heightening the DIY feel is the decision to have the actors play the score on a range of instruments, led by musical director Paul Geddes on piano.

At the heart of an excellent ensemble, Tony Sheldon gives a stellar performance. He is suave as Cervantes and dignified, gentle and frail as Quixote, his rendition of The Impossible Dream speaking to us afresh and tearing at the heartstrings. It’s a revelation after umpteen bombastic versions sung out of context with little sense of the song’s true meaning.

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey is a spunky Aldonza, the abused barmaid and part-time tart in whom Quixote sees beauty as his honoured Lady Dulcinea. Aubrey brilliantly captures the tough, cynical carapace Aldonza has built for self-protection and then touchingly conveys the new hope she gradually, briefly allows herself to feel in Quixote’s eyes. The final scene between her and Sheldon is incredibly moving and inexpressibly sad. Aubrey is also impressive vocally and raises the roof with the song Aldonza.

Ross Chisari is endearing as Quixote’s chirpy sidekick Sancho Panza and his choreography suits the production’s aesthetic. Glenn Hill is in fine voice as the padre, as is Stephen Anderson as Alonso’s housekeeper. Joanna Weinberg lends weight to the antagonistic roles of the prison prosecutor and Dr Carrasco, who wants to marry Alonso’s niece but is worried about being associated with a madman, while James-Moody turns in a memorable comic cameo as the barber.

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

However, credit is due to all the performers: Hayden Barltrop (who is there primarily as a musician on clarinet, keys and bassoon), Reece Budin, Laurence Coy, Courtney Glass, Hay (who performs as well designing the costumes), Rob Johnson, Shondelle Pratt, Kyle Sapsford and Richard Woodhouse (whose guitar playing is gorgeous on Little Bird).

There’s no disguising Man of La Mancha’s creakiness. The book (Dale Wasserman) and lyrics (Joe Darion) are clunky at times, while Mitch Leigh’s Spanish-influenced music can feel samey and rather dirge-like. Despite all of that, Squabbalogic gives us an exciting, inspiring and genuinely moving piece of theatre. Recommended.

Man of La Mancha plays at the Seymour Centre until March 21. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 8

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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