Friday, April 28, 2006

Article - The Illusion (Metro, SMH)

By Benito di Fonzo

God from The Matrix and Phil Scott update a 17th-century French tragicomedy.

In what seems a kung-fu twist, Damien Millar explains how proud he is to be directing Helmut Bakaitis, the man who taught him directing at NIDA.

"He's got this incredible presence and voice," Millar says. "He played God [The Architect] in The Matrix for a reason."

Because God wasn't available?

"I guess so, and Laurence Olivier's dead." Charlton Heston is still alive.

"Yes, you're right."

Millar is directing his old master in Pierre Corneille's 17th-century tragicomedy L'Illusion Comique, adapted by American playwright Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and retitled The Illusion.

It tells the story of Pridament, played by comic stalwart Phil Scott of The Gillies Report and the STC's Wharf Revue. We follow Pridament on his search for his lost son (Yure Covich).

Scott, who is also collaborating on the score, Sonic Illusions, with DJ Soup, was approached after scoring last year's Relaxed and Comfortable group's production of Cloud Nine.

"It's such a vibrant company," Scott says. "They're all on the same wavelength, which is hard to find, and they have this 'go for it' attitude in everything they do. I thought I better work more with these guys, and then Damien said there's a role for you if you can fit it in to your busy schedule, so I went to Centrelink and organised that."

Perhaps he can claim it as Work For The Dole?

Millar: "At least that way they'd be paid for what they're doing; they're doing it for love, the poor bastards."

Pridament's quest brings him to the otherworldly cave of a magician, played by Zoe Houghton.

"The magician is usually played by a crusty 70-year-old man," Millar says, "but we've got a young woman in that role."

Scott: "There's something about the female of the species being able to tap into that spiritual psychic realm a lot better than men can. The Earth Mother and all that."

The magician uses her specially equipped cave to enlighten Pridament through three blackly comic illusions, one of which features the skills of Kyle Rowling, who choreographed the fight scenes in Star Wars: Episode II and III.

"Kyle's a fantastic physical artist, he can tell emotional stories through violence," Millar says.

"We're going from 17th-century France to modern-day Australia, so why not have a big swashbuckling moment in there?"

Along the way we also encounter other larger-than-life characters such as Matamore (Thomas Campbell), who Millar describes as "a completely insane lunatic". As opposed to a completely sane lunatic?

"He's really one of the most outrageous characters ever written," Millar says. "He's full of grandiose nonsense. He pretends to believe that the Queen of Iceland is chasing him on her sled, because in his brain Iceland means 'land of ice'."

Sounds like a crystal meth addict.

"Worse," Millar says, "even more delusional. A crystal meth addict with military pretensions. He's a literal lunatic - he's obsessed with the moon."

No wonder that Corneille, who went on to write Le Cid, was criticised by the French establishment when he first presented the work in the 17th century.

"Corneille got in trouble for mixing comedy and tragedy," Millar says.

"You weren't supposed to do that. It reads like Shakespeare now. In some respects it's that mixture of poetry and drama that you just don't get in modern plays at the moment."

It was this otherworldliness that first attracted Millar to the play.

"It has such a sense of magic, it was such an ambitious work that I was surprised it hadn't been snatched up by one of the big companies," Millar says.

Scott looks perturbed. "I thought you were just looking for a vehicle for me - wasn't that the point?"

(this article originally appeared in the Metro liftout of The Sydney Morning Herald on April 28, 2006 and at at

Monday, April 17, 2006

Article - Trivia (Metro, SMH, 13/4/06)

"Trivial Pursuit"
By Benito Di Fonzo

Who'd have thought pub trivia was Australia's answer to Sex and the City?

"Every quizmaster knows if you show weakness to a quiz crowd they'll turn on you," says playwright Stephen Vagg. "It becomes chaos. I've seen it happen, people arguing over answers."

Such a moment occurs in Vagg's new play, Trivia, when the authority of quizmaster Terry (Vincent Parfitt) is challenged by Gary (Ryan Hayward), one of a group of 30-something expat Brisbanites who gather in a Darlinghurst pub over four weeks to win a $10,000 trivia challenge.

"Gary's one of those people who like showing off their knowledge," says director Adam Gelin.
"But look what you're showing off. These are not important things. Yet there's something impressive about a person who can spout out who starred in [cult '80s film] The Goonies."

Like Gary, Vagg quit his job as a lawyer in Brisbane to study writing in Sydney. Since he completed a scriptwriting degree at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, his play, All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane, has been made into a feature film, and his AWGIE-nominated Friday Night Drinks has been performed in Britain.

Vagg has since turned his attention to the patrons of pub trivia nights.

"I'm sure trivia nights weren't that popular 10 years ago," he says.

"They're everywhere now.

"Maybe it's a generation X thing, a backlash against the boomers because they always thought about big issues such as war and apartheid. Maybe a lot of us grew up and thought, 'What a wank. I'd rather be into Star Wars trivia.' The boomers have got the Beatles and we've got Britney."

Gelin's theory is less controversial.

"Trivia gives you the structure that you're looking for, for the evening," the director says. "You know when it begins, you know when it ends and you know what happens in the middle.

"In a life where you're supposed to be doing stuff all the time, if you're not working then you should be doing sport or something to improve your life. Trivia nights will give you the excuse that you're doing something, even though it's not really doing anything."

For Gary, his girlfriend Michaela (Emma Grant), her ex, Ben (Randall Mettam), and confidante A.J. (Fiona Butler), as well as Aram (David Francis) and a flow of former lovers and "f--- buddies" (all played by 2005 Short & Sweet festival winner Sara Browne), Terry's trivia night becomes a means of creating a social network without all the complications of having to think of something to say.

"It's about a group of Brisbane expats living in Sydney because that's what I was," Vagg says.

"Michaela wants to get a trivia team together because she doesn't have many friends. People imagine that when you're single in Sydney it's all going to be like Sex in the City."

But isn't that set in New York?

"Well, The Secret Life of Us then."

That's set in Melbourne, isn't it? Maybe you mean Love My Way.

"No," Vagg says, "they've got kids."

So, trivia becomes the characters' excuse to socialise, as opposed to just sitting in a pub drinking, "which is more sad," Gelin says. "And I think what's sadder than that is sitting at home watching TV. At least they're getting out there and interacting with people."

Despite being drawn together by social isolation, the team members decide they want to win the $10,000 prize, and as we follow their stories we also follow the team's progress.

"Trivia has that appeal of sport," Vagg says. "Except trivia's a sport in which you can play and drink beer and eat Twisties at the same time. And you don't have to be in any sort of shape, as you can usually tell when you go to a trivia night."

But Vagg stresses the play doesn't intend to diss trivia patrons: "Trivia nights can be a lot of fun. Most people do have an accumulation of totally useless knowledge which serves no purpose except for trivia competitions, or writing plays about them."

TRIVIAApril 20 to May 13, 8pm, Newtown Theatre, corner King and Bray Streets, 1300 306 776, $18-$25 (Tuesdays, pay what you can).