Proof; Boys Like Me

Proof, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 25 (matinee)

Boys Like Me, Courtney Act, Sydney Theatre, February 25

DAVID Auburn’s Proof had a Sydney Theatre Company season in 2003 with George Ogilvie directing Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto as the father and daughter maths whizzes who share a genius for numbers and potentially a similar fate. The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award for that year, but I failed to see why. Proof has some sterling qualities, it’s true, but they are contained within a highly conventional and disappointingly creaky structure. It was an enjoyable experience because of the quality of the performances, but not a wholly satisfying one.

I’ve just caught up with The Ensemble’s current production, which is also impressive from a performance perspective (Sandra Bates directed) but no more plausible from a dramatic one. Matilda Ridgway beautifully negotiates the task of making bolshie, anxious Catherine highly sympathetic and the scenes with her father Robert (Michael Ross) are most moving. Catherine McGraffin and Adriano Cappelletta have the unenviable job of playing a pushy sister and a not terribly successful mathematician who are there to set the conflict in motion.

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

The notion of proof that gives the play its title is given very short shrift indeed. Odd that Auburn should have been so garlanded for it. Still, the production is worth seeing for those lovely few scenes between Catherine and Robert.

COURTNEY Act’s cabaret show, for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is called Boys Like Me. Depending on where you put the emphasis, the title can means two things; both of which meanings, as Act explains, are true. Men are extremely attracted to Act, and how not? She is a witty, glamorous beauty. But as Act was born Shane Jenek, she is also a man. The most beautiful man in the world, as the promotional material has it, and I’m not going to argue. Certainly there is industrial-level maquillage to aid the impression, but it’s flawlessly done. And the drag persona is just part of the story, one that Act describes as living on the divide between genders.

Boys Like Me is a touching, generous and warm-hearted show about the fluidity of gender as it applies to Act and to many others in their individual ways. Her special guest last night, for instance, was Chaz Bono, a transsexual, although the point of their song together, Gender Rebels (a version of Bosom Buddies) was pretty much that you should forget about the labels. Bono isn’t the singer his parents – Cher and Sono Bono – were but you had to admire the attitude and the statement.

Act got cosy with her audience very early, confiding aspects of her, ahem, personal life that would be considered waaaaay too much information in many circles. It takes a lot of class and style to make intimate anecdotes such as these seem amusing and appealing rather than crass – and they did. It was delightful to hear that Act’s parents were in the house and had always backed their boy. Yes, apparently even when hearing sex-life details no parent would actively seek out. Bless.

It helps that Act has lovely comic timing and a sweet way with a putdown. “I was in Adelaide. Always a precarious start to a story …” was the introduction to one story, swiftly followed by an apology to that city.

Act is a fine singer as well as a charming raconteur. Highlights for me were Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and, from Wicked, I’m Not that Girl. So touching in this context.

Act played the diva role to perfection, donning a series of glittering gowns and showing a great deal of extremely well-turned leg. The show would have benefited from running straight through rather than losing momentum with an interval but Act manages to carry the day nevertheless, aided by an excellent band.

Act now lives in Los Angeles and is a contestant in the current series of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality series about drag queens now in its sixth season. RuPaul is a showbiz legend so this is no small thing. It was divine, then, to know this hasn’t gone to Act’s head in any way. She has a sharp eye for absurdity and captured beautifully Hollywood’s boundless appetite for the unusual. She reckons that when she discovered the existence of an American TV show called Hillbilly Handfishin’ she knew there was a place for her. I looked it up, and it’s true. It’s a series about catching fish with your bare hands and feet. Go Courtney.

Proof ends at the Ensemble Theatre on March 8.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Seminar

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Belvoir Downstairs, August 27. Seminar, Ensemble Theatre, August 27 matinee.

THE Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has just got underway in front of a packed, albeit small, house. “If we keep this up they might move us upstairs,” quips one of the performers. Right on ladies!

The performers have good reason to think they could pull a bigger crowd than at Belvoir Downstairs, where capacity is just 83. Tickets sold out in a trice (people can waitlist on the day) and there’s a lot more room in the Upstairs theatre. Room for about 330, to be precise.

Baulkham Hills is simplicity itself – a bunch of stories, some songs, a little bit of dancing and a couple of comic segments – and has a setting to match.There’s plenty of high-level expertise in the design, lighting, video, music-making and so on, but the production gently and gracefully concentrates on its protagonists, four women who used to live in Africa and now live in Australia.

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a gripping theatre piece, particularly as the women didn’t just provide the raw material but appear on stage as well. But gripping it is, and sobering, and humbling.

In Sierra Leone, Yarrie Bangura saw cruelty of almost unimaginable proportions. Aminata Conteh-Biger doesn’t like to be told she’s beautiful, which she is, because being attractive to men brought her hideous torment. We hear something of Yordanos Haile-Michael’s terrible youth, but she is a reticent, slightly tense figure who is undoubtedly keeping much back. Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe, vibrant and positive, was beaten again and again. Rape, slavery, violence and deprivation – these were everyday reality for these stupendously brave women.

Out of this difficult, sometimes harrowing material, Writer-director Ros Horin has created an optimistic, uplifting show. Key to its success is the vivid presence of the women. Each tells aspects of her story, but there are times when the narration is handed to one of the three professional actors – Nancy Denis, Tariro Mavondo and Effie Nkrumah – who help shape the performance. It’s a touching device, and a clever one. It softens the blows, a little.

The show sags somewhat late into the 105-minute span. The hair-dressing scene, although bringing some comic relief, feels like filler. The earlier exposition on the difference between African dance styles and a quiz about the continent are much stronger and could take expansion. All of it, though, without being in any way overtly political, puts faces and personalities to the statistics and humanises the refugee debate. A splendid achievement.

And you have to love a show in which a woman – the irrepressible Yarrie Bangura – comes up with this line:  “Oh my goodness, [I think] I’m in heaven. And that was Sydney Airport.”

SYDNEY’S second-most attractively sited theatrical venue, after the Opera House of course, is the Ensemble in Kirribilli and it’s always a great pleasure to go to this small theatre on the water’s edge. How it manages without government funding is a miracle and a tribute to its ability to read its loyal audience.

Next year it will present Clybourne Park, which has been seen in Melbourne but not staged in Sydney; ditto Other Desert Cities, which is Queensland Theatre Company’s current production (it ends at the weekend). David Auburn’s Proof, another drama with a Broadway provenance is on next year too.

Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, is the latest in the “as seen on Broadway” shows at the Ensemble and is given a lively, entertaining production, although one that can’t disguise the play’s too-numerous flaws. The set-up has, well, the air of a set-up. A group of ambitious young writers gathers at an apartment to drink in the (expensive) wisdom of Leonard, apparently an editor of note, a writer of despatches from the world’s hot-spots and once a novelist. I think I have that right – why Leonard keeps dashing off to Somalia or Sudan or wherever is a bit unclear.

Anyhoo, Leonard is a tough old tyrant who needs to read only half a sentence before he knows exactly how bad a piece of writing is. Or he can speed-read a couple of pages and discern genius. He’s vile to the students, who also have other interpersonal issues to get through. All of this is quite amusing, if unconvincing.

Arguments and situations are false and clunky, although Rebeck’s writing itself can be well-wrought and funny and the young characters have vim. It’s an easy 100 minutes. But as a serious discussion about the art of writing, the need to write, who is the arbiter of what is good and what is not and other assorted cultural dilemmas, Seminar unfortunately gets a fail.

On the plus side, director Anna Crawford has assembled an excellent cast, including William Zappa in robust form as Leonard. I very much enjoyed Matilda Ridgway’s wound-up Kate and Michelle Lim Davidson’s blithely calculating and sexy Izzy. Felix Gentle (Douglas) and Matthew  Zeremes (Martin) also give expertly pitched performances. A pity it’s not a better play.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a co-production with Racing Pulse Productions & Riverside in association with STARTTS ends September 17; Seminar ends September 14.