To Dad With Love

A Tribute to a Beloved Father

Category: Theatre

Theatre review: Yerma

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An elemental feel pervades this radical revival of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 tragedy. Simon Stone’s version uproots it from 20th-century rural Spain and transplants it in current-day London. His production is blunt, rather than poetic, focusing on the eponymous character, emphasising the physical. Yerma is barren-ness in Spanish. Despite conversations that suggest how the house she shares with her partner, John, is furnished, the set, enclosed within a glass-box — intimating, perhaps, the woman’s closeted, myopic view of her situation — is always nearly empty. It is a world in which lives and emotions are played out in full view to total strangers in our internet-age; here, Yerma’s anguish over her inability to fall pregnant is spilled across cyber-space through online confessions.

Played by Billie Piper, the protagonist is a senior lifestyle journalist who, trekking well into her 30s, is gripped by angst over the inexorable ticking of her biological clock. In contrast with Juan, the husband in the original script, who is a farmer, John is a frequent-travelling top-level executive. There is a fleeting allusion the trips may well be to disguise a paucity of desire for Yerma. But it remains, until the end, hard to discern whether John is selfish or sensitive. Either way, it becomes apparent, as time passes and no child appears, with Yerma moving increasingly towards breaking-point it is the absence of fecundity not fondling that despairs her.

This absence is made more potent when in one scene as Yerma and John are fussing soundlessly about a baby, the stage is decked out with actual couches and real tables. The infant belongs to Mary, Yerma’s sister, as it turns out. Things quickly return to the vacant normal after they leave. But the completeness has made the void more stark, and pronounced. The pain of childlessness is vividly conveyed.

We understand, hence, Yerma’s growing panic and debilitating feelings of helplessness. Yet, in an extravagant departure from Lorca’s work, no part of her deteriorating mental state can be attributable to any social pressure that was present in the conservative and deeply religious agricultural community. As a matter of fact, in this incarnation, both her sister and mother are entirely unmotherly, and even Yerma had herself defied gender definitions. Still, to be fair, one must concede there is probably little distinction by way of the weight upon her mind.

The brilliant, flawless acting by Piper is supported by Brendan Cowell in his fine portrayal of John. There is also good work from John McMillan as Yerma’s ensorcelling ex-lover, and Thalissa Teixeira, her junior colleague.

Brought from the theatre at Young Vic, London, to a cinema in Melbourne, Victoria, Yerma is a vigorous staging, compellingly performed, even if the power of the play may have been somewhat curtailed, despite its modern-time resonance, and psychological insight.

 

 

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Theatre review: Loves Me /Loves Me Not

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JC Clapham tells us quite a lot of stories in his new story-telling comedy, many of them funny, some of them poignant, all of them heartfelt. Loves Me/Loves Me Not is a self-deprecating, charming, bone-deep portrayal of falling in love, losing it, finding oneself, plus all the heartaches and joys snuggled up in between. It is a portrait of disappointments and loneliness, shrouded under the impenetrable cloud of depression, wonderfully performed by the 35-year-old on the back of his successful debut with Humpty Dumpty Daddy.

Joel first encountered his (now) ex-wife 12 years ago through a working colleague who encouraged her visiting niece to contact him. On meeting her, the young man found himself at once enamoured by the guest’s various idiosyncrasies.

So, after a fairy-tale romance the love-birds tied the knot and went on to have three (premeditated) children. It was around the arrival of their third child, however, when things started unravelling, as familiar dark clouds began again to descend upon him. Arguments ensued, views diverged, and 18 months later with mutual agreement, the couple decided to part.

As anybody who has experienced break-ups will no doubt understand, the twilit liminal region between pair-bondedness and single-hood is probably one of the hardest to navigate. In his city bachelor’s pad Joel has turned to his pet-turtle for company. And, to find love again the handsome millennial has also returned to the dating scene, that invariably brings along new feelings of frustration and loss.

In this meditation on identity and reflection, delivered with delicate wit and humour, we relate with the intricate fabric of one talented man’s story, and witness his exceptional capacity for confidence and candour.

 

Theatre review: The One

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A man (Mark Storen) and a woman (Georgia King) encounter each other following “a summer of break-ups” when after a long time they find themselves single again. They make conversation, make love, fall in love. Soon, it has been two years since the nameless couple lived together, and things seem to be going well. Then, news arrives of his younger brother’s upcoming wedding that, when combined with the pressure of turning 40, prompts the man to want to advance his life through tying the knot.

Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s sobering account, a multi-award winning work first seen in Western Australia that now comes to Melbourne as part of the Fringe Festival, is an unflinching examination of the impermanence of intimacy in a relationship, and the confusing role of marriage in reversing this inevitability.

The man believes only by being husband and wife he can be relieved of the constant anxiety of losing the woman; when challenged, he lashes out that formalising status alone will compel people who have fallen out of love to fall back into love.

Interspersing third-person narratives with first-person embodiments, as the characters seamlessly segue in and out of scenes, Fowler uses rap and action and songs to tell the (ubiquitous) story, presenting perspectives and counter-perspectives on this universal tradition whose relevance appears to be atrophying.

Despite feeling terrible for turning down his sincere, down-on-one-knee proposal, the woman remains impervious in her conviction the legal arrangement is a mere mechanism to confer ownership of her future to the man, like chattel. Defiantly, she insists she prefers to wake in the morning, and choose to be with him, rather than allow any government to make that choice.

The play is delivered with plenty of energy and finesse in an absorbing production that reverberates with poetry and humour and utter realness. While sometimes funny this 60-minute rarest of gems is ultimately a portrait of the way we instinctively try to protect ourselves from getting hurt, by avoiding or pursuing matrimony, whatever the gender.

King gives a wonderfully intense performance: assertive, vulnerable, panic-struck by turns. She is most memorable in her portrayal of the inebriated guest at the brother’s wedding party mocking the whole celebration. And deeply we feel for Storen’s romantic, idealistic man, his consummate skills as a musician — liquid, melodious voice riding on waves of strings — connecting one with our softer, often-buried, forgotten sides.

Under Fowler’s exceptional direction The One is erotic not only through the artfully graphic script: the enactment of the man’s nightmare, for example, in which he dreams of being a strong, lusty, wild cave-man on a quest to possess the sensual, wet, sultry cave-woman is breath-y and angry and (in the scorching lighting) hot.

Faultlessly, this is the kind of theatre that will send lovers and un-lovers into complex and confronting journeys as they study their own bedroom affairs.

Theatre review: Mirror’s Edge

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“Who am I?” asks Kai (Rebecca Poynton), if internally to herself. An otherwise quintessential Aussie but for her yellow skin, the Melburnian arrives at Lake Tyrrell in the regional town of Sea Lake, angry and embittered by prejudices she has had to endure in a white country. Here, she encounters motel-operator, Leanne (Rachel Shrives), an ocker Australian trying to capitalise on the Chinese tourist-dollar, that has of late been seduced by the lake’s reflective waters and clear sky. Agreeing to a collaborative project to revive the “impossible” place draws not only Kai into an exquisite insight for herself, but (hopefully) also us for the nation as a whole. The unborn future is a much more promising world by the play’s end.

Calling back to mind one’s history, and noting our predicament at a time of unprecedented migration, to imagine a more prosperous and colourful multi-cultural melting-pot, underpins Kim Ho’s new play. This is a poetic piece that tucks today’s xenophobia beneath the desolation of a girl’s identity crisis. Its rigour and resonance go well beyond the country-specific context.

In keeping, perhaps, with the mythical powers of the body of water, the show brings together five distinct narratives across three hundred years into one smooth and fluid intersection.

A wealthy William Stanbridge (Martin Hoggart) in 1851 assures the aboriginal custodians of due respect for their culture and mores upon his acquisition of the land. His domestic help, Aoife (Eleanor Young), falls in love with Lao Ghit (Antonia Yip Siew Pin), a native Chinese panning for gold after losing her son. Xiao Yu (Jo Chen), a Malaysian overseas student in 1966 befriends Jasmin (Lucy Holz), a scholar who goes on to publish a research paper on Aboriginal Astronomy. Castor (Eden Gonford), an indigenous ranger, inspired by Jasmin’s publication vows to safeguard his ancestral territory  from “Chinese invasion”. And Kai presents as the juncture in which all the stories converge.

Bickering between the new business partners over the way Kai invariably believes her own kind is somehow better than the ordinary white person makes for rich metaphorical drama, with nuanced allusions to the ever-present stereo-typing of aborigines.

In one scene Lao Ghit relates her heart-wrenching account to Aoife wholly in Cantonese. While this seems to alienate the English-only-speaking members of audience, the move offers a taste of what it feels to be left out and marginalised.

Although Petra Kalive’s direction, like Ho’s writing, has a touch of the scalpel, the staging is tender and funny and steeped in eloquent symbols. The set sparkles as starlight projected on a shimmering backdrop is mirrored on the wet surface, characters sometimes seen behind the screen , as if they’re beyond the sky. There is no palpable change in lighting throughout the 70-minute production, making the jump in (or confluence of) time the stuff of hallucination.

A deft concept, Mirror’s Edge balances the magic of traditional beliefs with the hard, implacable reality we are confronted with. It gently persuades us that no conflict is irreconcilable through creativity and an open mind, not before, however, the quiet contemplation about who we are, but, most of all, can be.

Theatre review: (de)construct

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Watch us speak, watch us, hear us. We do, uncomfortable, though, it sometimes is, in Cera Maree Brown’s staging of her rich yet delicate play, whose title conjures the addressing of one’s multitude of selves, in order, perhaps, to define our authentic nature.

Four young people embark on a series of body movements in an expression of their unseen experiences. They lunge, writhe, spread their arms, this way, that, pluck their clothes, envelope themselves, gently then fast, nudging a toe into the ground, shuffle with force their agonising heels. You want to shout, “Stop! Go easy.” But we don’t, as they take their microphones at both ends of the stage, and we, too, settle down, released, if momentarily, from the visual anguish, to listen in to their conversations.

Working upon recorded exchanges amongst several individuals, Brown materialises their interior action into dance sequences, to capture the reality that straddles in the consciousness between emotions and behaviour. Jai Leeworthy, Lucy Pitt, Nabs Adnan, Antonia Yip Siew Pin are 20-something adults, of myriad backgrounds, anxious and occasionally desperate, clinging to their ideals in the face of an imperfect world, as they confront issues of identity and sexuality, struggling in an attempt to reconcile the conflict between desires and cultural norms, all the time longing for social acceptance, even when self-acceptance remains resolutely elusive.

In a memorable vignette, one of the immensely talented cast relates her trepidation about not being successful — the worry arising not for her own well-being, but — out of sheer reluctance to let her family down, portraying the all-too-familiar quandary between what one wants, what others want of them, and, indeed, what is ultimately good for us.

It is a powerful, undeniably intrusive, but dramatically effective piece, made only more potent  by Leeworthy’s lighting design that vacillates between white starkness and an ethereal sense of reverie. Isha Ram Das’ soundscape is also extraordinary, creating atmosphere imperceptibly like the best kind of film score.

These would, of course, be superficial without the piercing honesty, pain and desolation of the transcripts, and above all the performers’ superb execution, so true and absorbed that after they have torn down their thin veils of disguise — a break-through moment following endless tumult of tripping up over their fragmented personality — you feel you can glimpse the definition of their character glistening through.

Theatre review: ODE

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With a rapidly ageing population dementia has become more and more prevalent in our society; over 350,000 Australians are known to live with the debilitating condition. Karen Sibbing’s ODE offers a window into what that is like: drawing from the experience of watching her own grandmother succumb to it, she imagines a world as seen through the eyes of a sufferer. The result is devastating, but tender, bookended with an unmistakable impression of hope.

Lighting, under the skilful direction of co-creator Samara Hersch, turns into a powerful tool. In one — no, two — occasions the theatre is plunged for longer than anybody would be comfortable with into complete darkness, in which feelings of disorientation, of visceral susceptibility, desperation to want to find whatever trace of glow there is, seem to close in on us, like walls, like possibly the mental incapacity.

Near the opening of the 55-minute, one-woman show, the character relates a childhood incident where she witnesses the way her young brother’s wilful act of wandering off in a play-fair and getting lost yielded not punishment but a lollipop from their father. Despite carrying a brooding sense of premonition and whiff of unfairness — spoken in the present tense, perhaps to neutralise the influence of time — the fascinating anecdote conveys the idea of reward from tragedy that is premised on blessing in perspective.

For the rest, though, it is mostly through texture that Sibbing works. Small, intricate, observational details give us a glimpse of surviving with Alzheimer’s: hearing sounds in the head, having an imaginary friend in a toy, wolfing down handfuls of cakes on impulse, enduring bouts of frustration and anguish.

Whilst it is her grandmother whom she is depicting, Sibbing, we realise, has braided into the play her own anxieties of decline and ultimately of herself falling victim to this incurable illness.

The antics are theatrical but in all likelihood very real. A lot appears to happen and at the same time not much at all, like the ever-growing balloon that instead of popping sucks away, loses air, shrivels and limps, because that is probably life when you lose yourself.

Sibbing’s performance is outstanding: brave and heart-clutching and luminous, she embodies without reproach the volatile, vigorous, vulnerable part. The helplessness, as she stares into the distance, urine pouring down from between her legs, tears welling, is enough to make a stone weep.

Is it disconcerting? Yes, most definitely, for it forces us to confront manifestations of an unseen tormentor, so often untold.

Yet, there is a curious air of eerie magic permeating through the piece — amplified when the giant revolving image of a musical-box dancer projected on an opposite wall is the only illumination in the room — a magic none more precious than the gift eventually granted to Oma (grandmother), the gift of imagination, to which this timeless work is ode.

Theatre review: The Book of Mormon

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I have noted before that one of the most delicious sounds in theatre is total silence among the audience. But this profanity-rich, joyfully-satirical work — led by an incandescent Ryan Bondy and, following the musical with every company so far, the talented A.J. Holmes —  rocks viewers through the entire running time into waves of raucous laughter.

The Australian Premiere of The Book of Mormon is a flashy and bright-eyed, fleet-footed charmer, glossily-attired and uninhibitedly open. There is not a hint of nuance nor restraint at any time at all to savour and parse.

It is a sensibility, however, that fits the portrait of neophyte Mormon evangelists coming to age in Uganda, where the eager graduates hope to convert poverty-stricken villagers, by way of being shining saviours of their unfound souls.

Despite the missionary centre’s decision to pair him with the bumbling, goofy dork Elder Cunningham (Holmes) and the tragedy of having been despatched to Africa rather than the land of his dreams, DisneyWorld Orlando, morally vain Elder Price (Bondy) is certain of his own gift to do God’s work and bring the Ugandans to eternal salvation. Only, the boys will soon learn the town in their charge is not only destitute, on the brink of famine, afflicted with disease, it is terrorised by a gun-toting warlord, currently on a campaign of mutilating female genitals.

After witnessing with horror the shooting of a civilian, Elder Price, in a crisis of faith, decides he shall pack his bags and leave the mission, after all. And Elder Cunningham, who has always been satisfied as his partner’s shadow, finds himself suddenly responsible for preaching the Book, of which he has never read, a story he now has to make up.

The creation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, aims to make a loud, emphatic statement about the idiosyncracies of the religion and, perhaps by extension, America’s idealistic superhero complex.

While not exploring what are painfully ripe personal accounts of the two main characters, embodied with verve by the brilliant casts (not to mention that of the repressed homosexual Elder McKinley, played by Rowan Witt) feels like missed opportunities in a show seemingly preoccupied with expressing every theological and behavioural farce perceived in Mormonism, it counts, for me at least, as another tool in the strategy of iconoclasm.

The set by Scott Pask is an impressive abstraction that captures the many layers of story-telling, transporting us without seam to bucolic Uganda from the sanitised Salt Lake City in Utah.  It is a dynamic world — an expansive colour scheme achieved magnificently through Brian Macdevitt’s lighting and Ann Roth’s costumes — populated by bursting spirits engaged in a choreography of boundless energy that tap-dance around the music like a divine couple.

There are songs of (twisted) inspiration, as one would expect, of blasphemy, of course, and, yes, of the heart. Love interest Nabulungi, gorgeously portrayed by our own Zahra Newman, the enchanting daughter of the village chief, turns out to be the catalyst to her people’s baptism. Best remembered for her emotional Sal Tlay Ka Siti, in which she sings of a place halfway across the globe her late mother told her about, she radiates in a supple performance, echoed by her sweet, wide-ranging voice.

Towards the production’s end, the President of the Church, on a visit to the continent, is confronted by the Africans’ dramatisation of their warped interpretation of the doctrine, in much the same way the Mormons in our midst have to, I’d imagine, contend with this irreverent Tony-awards-winning piece that has been a box-office sellout.

Although I know many Mormons must share my (other-times) preference for audience-etiquette, I am also quite confident the makers of this musical will continue to be rewarded at every staging with the very torrents they want.

Theatre review: Parley!

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The meaning of the title is as ambiguous as its utterers’ anonymity. In Parley! Ant and Pea are lost at sea on a boat with a broken compass and no food. As hopes for a future fade in the salt-water air of desolation the duo annoy each other with failed attempts at getting along. Recrimination develops and, despite the proximity, there appears to be room for secrets that, even on unravelling, are desperately held through evasions.

Painful silences alternate with snatches of conciliation and delicate farce. Pea and Ant’s yearning and boredom and despair become increasingly more intense as mind and physical games play themselves out.

Harley Hefford’s staging of the piece by Elena Larkin and Rachael Basselink distils the superficial quality of the characters’ interactions by delineating outside and inner selves through the introduction of puppets fashioned in their likeness.

There are no doubt strong elements of Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot: clever paradoxes in deceptively imbecilic lines, chronic contemplation of death, slow burn of an excruciating relationship. We see the way in which wallowing in their own claustrophobia one can begin to lose memory and knowledge of the world around them.

Larkin and Basselink make a superb cast. Basselink’s Pea, while finding herself trapped in their predicament, insists on being dour in a state of limbo, refusing Ant’s overtures of intimacy, at the same time avoiding the reality of their fate. Larkin’s Ant, on the contrary, is more courageous and proactive, but for all her pragmatism she quickly reveals herself to be equally apprehensive.

With Georgia Symon’s dramaturgy, a surrealistic scene, where Pea and Ant in thrall to the vastness of the water and sound and weather, seemingly absorbed in a sense of wild bewilderment, is especially striking.

I have always observed one of the most delicious sounds in theatre to be silence among the audience. There are several instances in this hour-long production, however, when the stage is totally quiet while laughter rings out from those watching — at apparent absurdities.

Thing is, the play skewers us exquisitely; we are the real butt of the jokes: for, too often, we do not realise the inane things we engage in for a futile purpose.

Ultimately, this is an intelligent, poetic work that will prove timeless. Whatever the meaning of Parley! in this context it has the significance of every weighty word we know, like commitment, like separation.

Theatre review: Humpty Dumpty Daddy

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JC Person is no different from your usual idea of a dynamic millennial. In Joel Clapham’s unflinching performance at the centre of Humpty Dumpty Daddy, drawn from his true-life story, he is an intelligent, eloquent 34-year-old with an iPhone and a suave, captivating smile.

His mind, though, is somewhat more sombre. Newly separated from his wife, with three young children, plus the drudgery of a corporate identity, JC has been battling the black grip of mental depression, which, when one considers that his father had taken his own life at 35, is especially poignant.

Written and produced solely by Clapham the play gives us a theatrical version of the inside of JC’s head. We are invited into the cosy space at The Dock in Courthouse Hotel to be intimate witnesses of uncompromising pathos and a candour that startles and disarms.

We hear of (and agree with) the way a story-telling trait and scorching sense of humour seem to have passed down the generations: his balding paternal grandfather, Pop, told 5-year-old JC his hair had, in falling off his head, stuck to his ears and nostrils and chest where they now flourished.

In a calm, lucid tone, JC relates how he was not given the chance to restore with his father an old car that had been promised for his 18th birthday before his father, separated then from his mother, hung himself in the garage. Big and burly at 6ft 3in the older man, despite a mischievous quality, was never able to talk about his feelings or seek attention — something JC resolves not to emulate.

If his dad had taught him what not to do, his mum, on the contrary, has made him (and his two brothers) whom he is today: a good son, father, brother, uncle. Person. This heartfelt recognition is no doubt made more intense by JC’s role as a parent.

With overwhelming tenderness behind piercing eyes JC tells about his pride of being a father to his two sons and daughter, aged 8, 6 and 3, in which the underlying nature of the man comes shining through.

The young man reflects upon the challenges of fatherhood and the influences — positive and negative — parents have on impressionable lives.

It is a charming yet powerful watch, bravely and brilliantly delivered in an hour for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Woven through this very personal tale, too, are some deliciously memorable lines: recollecting the bubble-gum he and his brothers had given to their Pop they later found on his bed after he passed away, JC observes that even after somebody dies there exists physical and tangible evidence they keep on living by way of memory through those evidence.

Towards the end, one becomes acutely aware of the potential for history to repeat itself; after all, JC’s father was a single man when he suicided, probably suffered from mental health issues, had 3 kids, was also in his mid-30s.

Only, we have implicit faith in JC.

Men hide their emotions; they think them a weakness. But Clapham clearly knows that the showing of emotions is a strength. To do what he has done is a demonstration of incredible strength, incredible even for a woman.

Humpty Dumpty Daddy  is a fine work every man ought to see and every woman will appreciate.

Theatre review: Man of the Year

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Full marks to 5pound theatre for opening one of the first shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. And it does so with voluble vigour, packing significant moments in our history over 2,000 years on a stage hardly larger than a pocket-handkerchief.

Thanked for their presence the audience finds themselves as guests of a speaker: the eponymous Man of the title. Soon, around and about two lecterns, memorable speeches by some of the world’s most prominent leaders begin to roll off his tongue. The Man leaps from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, swerves past Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher, not before meditating on Winston Churchill, then glides on to Saddam Hussein and Stan Grant, through Susan B Anthony and Julia Gillard and Paul Keating. It is minute after enthralling minute of stirring rhetoric and rousing statements.

And now and then, through the 50-minute, one-person show, like words coming out of the air, a woman’s voice emerges from behind the curtain, interjecting the Man’s breathless recitals, as if speaking our unheard thoughts: she chastises his method of delivering the message, she interrogates the direction of his articulations, she questions his right to those famous articulations.

Despite the occasional whimsy this is a decidedly intense work, paying tribute to — and criticisms of — revolutionary luminaries, on whom time has passed judgement that the theatre-makers are here inquiring. With perceptible reverence and sensitivity the play contemplates the motivations behind the gleam of eloquence and ramifications of persuasive oratory. It dwells upon the way violence can be justified and asks if the desire for power and influence might not have been the common fuel in the infernal belly.

Then the Man, half-way through the staging, transforms into a rogue performer, as he narrates the execution of his plan to take his listeners hostage. He imagines a locked door, police thumping on the other side, tying up a victim. For a moment, with a glass-case on the lectern displaying a gun, its label “Chekhov’s Gun” staring tellingly at us, one is made to feel appropriately uneasy.

Only, nothing happens.

Instead, we move on to hear about racial discrimination and gender inequality, and their injustices and danger. We realise that because of the reformer in Anthony there rose the Iron Lady. And even though he rattles away in German the pronouncements of Hitler with deep, sonorous, guttural vibrations, the Man disdains Hussein’s Arabic. These certainly bear repeating at a time when hard-right groups are again emerging across Europe (and Australia), when women continue to endure lower salaries, and ethnic tensions are high. That the theatre company has chosen Man of the Year rather than Person of the Year to be the name of their drama seems to echo those sentiments.

Tim Wotherspoon’s production handles the weighty considerations in the material with control. The illumination that almost every important event can be linked all the way back to the first ages is astounding. There is nice work from Sharon Davis whose Voice has an effect profound enough on the Man to suggest the world eventually gets what they deserve. Jason Cavanagh is tremendous as the Man; dressed in a tuxedo over pyjama trousers and bedroom slippers he brings conviction and sincerity and spirit to the part, showing how words can charm and frighten and churn hearts and shape stories.

Man of the Year has plenty to say and one hopes it will not be edited away from the dramatic scene, like Chekhov would recommend for the gun that never goes off.

 

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