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Showing posts from March, 2005

MICF - Scott Brennan and Cal Wilson: Mitzi and Hammond Werlitzer's Triumphe De Force

Some characters can be great fun to play, and others can be long, hard comic slogs which require plenty of effort but deliver few genuine (rather than forced) comic moments. Mitzi and Hammond Werlitzer fall into the second category. Mitzi and Hammond are the end-of-their-long-innings vaudeville celebrities trying to squeeze every last moment out of their fifteen minutes of fame. The Wurlitzers are the creations of capable local actor/comedians Scott Brennan and Cal Wilson, and the two performers have an obvious love for the characters they’ve played. The two work fabulously well with each other, feeding off the energy of one another, which was necessary given the lukewarm response of the smallish-but-curious audience. The characters exist in their own showbizzy, parallel universe of dead lovers and stuffed cats, which only occasionally intersects with the real world. At the start, the premise has some promise, but it’s impossible to sustain for the full hour. Soon, the catchphr…

MICF - Rich Hall

In his earlier visits to Melbourne, Rich Hall was an angry, middle aged man, ranting and raving as he treaded the boards, spraying the audience with his fiery (and hilarious) anger as he dwelled on all the things that were wrong with the world. This year, though, Hall appears to have mellowed. Rather than genuine anger at the state of the planet, Hall is in a playful mood, happily riffing with the audience and even showing rare signs of charm, a trait usually completely devoid in the Hall persona. True, his past couple of shows in Melbourne have featured Hall’s alter-ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw, a character far more criminal than charming, but this year Crenshaw has been rested and Hall is back as himself. Hall has a largely structure-less show, happily meadering back and forth between the keyboard and the open mic, telling stories that may or may not ever reach a conclusion. There are a couple of moments at Hall at his razor-sharp best, when he transcends his own lethargy, such as a h…

MICF - Phil Nichol & Janice Phayre: Freedumb

Successful parody relies on the object that is being parodied being well-known. In other words, you need to understand what the ‘straight’ is before you can recognise (and laugh at it) being ‘twisted’. That’s where the fundamental flaw in Freedumb lies. Freedumb is a parody of a peace-loving activist DIY TV show. Got that? Nope, neither has anyone else. So with that as the starting point, the two performers delve into loosely-linked sketches gently mocking the activist mentality. Whilst there are still laughs to be had, it’s hard to fully engage with it. The cast of two, Phil Nichol and Janice Phayre, are clearly talented performers who sing, dance, act and puppeteer their way through the material. Nichol is particular is not new to Melbourne audiences, who might remember him as a member of Canadian musical trio Corky and the Juicepigs. Nichol is a natural improviser, and seems constrained by the need for a script. On several occasions, he breaks out of character, and despi…

MICF - Jesse Griffin: The Wilson Dixon Hour

Several years ago US comic Rich Hall created a character that would soon become more recognised than Hall himself - the vitriolic, prison-residing, artlessly-dressed Otis Lee Crenshaw, a product of the bible belt of America's deep south. From the same part of the physical and mental landscape comes Wilson Dixon. Dixon is a country musician from Cripple Creek, a simple man who doesn't have pretentions of high intellect and who struggles to comprehend why he hasn't shot to the same stardom as his old foe Billy Ray despite penning the equally noxious "Don't break my lungs". In true country-muso style, Dixon sits upon a stool on stage, strumming away at his guitar, bantering to himself about his life and loves, and occassionally reaching for his harmonica, for the sake of variety. The songs are sharp and clever, capturing the musical style of folksy country music whilst acidly lampooning the hillybilly perspective on the world. The 4 Noels have been a fixture…

MICF - Tim Minchin: Dark Side

There is something infectious (in a good way) about watching a comic who is enjoying themself. You can't help but be caught up in their world, see things through their eyes and understand not just their humour, but their philosophy. Tim Minchin is one of those comics. From the moment he entered the stage of the Kaleide Theatre, he was in complete control and seemed to love every moment of it. Minchin is a skilled communicator, demonstrating sophisticated, dextrous use of language in a way that would intimidate many a fine comic. He is a poet at heart, and expresses himself through poetry, song and spoken word, constantly finding the cleverest way to say what needs to be said. He is also a talented musician, hammering away at the grand piano in the centre of the stage like the keys were an extention of his agile fingers. Ever the allround entertainer, Minchin is as comfortable when things go to plan as he is improvising when things go slightly astray. Minchin has a mature ta…

MICF - Trent Baumann: Late Night Birdman

With a gravity-defying mohawk, an ill-fitting suit and a nervy swagger, Birdman hits the stage to a bewildered audience. It takes a while to warm to Birdman, since the show defies easy categorisation and the audience is generally pretty clueless as to what to expect. One he settles into a rythym, the laughs slowly grow as the slightly silly grows into the rather absurd which soon evolves into the clinically insane. Late Night Birdman is one part monologue, one part social commentry, one part circus freak show, one part musical comedy, one part origami. Most probably, it is the only show at the festival that combines these five ingredients, plus an olive in the glass as per house rules at the ultra-chic Kitten Club. The act is fun rather than funny, with Birdman showing off his oddball selection of tricks (pouring tea through his nose, gargling the national anthem) whilst nervously uttering a lame pun here and there. To reach the stage of actually being amusing rather than just f…

MICF - Jason Byrne

As we entered the bowels of the Victoria Hotel to see Jason Byrne, my companion and I debated the merits of a front row seat versus a spot way up the back, a decision forced upon us by our pre-show tardiness. In haste, we opted for a spot right up the front... and it was one of the better decisions we made for the evening. Byrne IS an audience participation comic. Most of his act is spent in a dizzying banter with the front three rows, which usually evolves into a rapid-fire monologue on Byrne's part in response to each utterance from his soon-adoring audience. The structure of Byrne's comedy is not at all complex - it lies in the silliness of ordinary people and ordinary communications, with a desperate Freudian yearning to relive his childhood thrown in. There are a few set pieces that Byrne embarks on, although it seems to be reluctantly on his part. If it were at all possible, you'd imagine that Byrne would love to spend his entire hour bouncing off the audience …

MICF - Josh Zepps: The Howard Years

This year at the Comedy Festival is supposedly the rebirth of political satire - the subject which for years and years has been pushed aside and replaced with amusing observations about the parlous state of airline food and the inanities
of toilet seats. Perhaps it is a reflection on the current state of affairs
that performers and punters who would usually stick to safer ground feel a need
to let out a yelp at the people and institutions which fill the political landscape. In this case it's Josh Zepps doing the yelping, mocking the egos and
pomposity of our current crop of politicians and the media. To say that Zepps
hits the mark with his spot-on voices is to state the obvious, and it is the
strength of the writing that makes his impressions stand out. Zepps manages to
capture not just the voice but the entire persona and world-view of the pollies he portrays. A whiney Latham is bettered by a hungry Beazley, whilst a romantic dinner for two with Ruddock and Vanstone leaves the aud…

MICF - Barry Castagnola: The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

Barry is a child of the 80s... and proud of it. He doesn't just tell us about his love of all things from that era, instead he shows us. The stage is his bedroom, just as he left it and his mum maintained it, complete with his pre-adolescent diary and some daggy Christmas presents that should have been euthenised much much earlier (in the spirit of Easter, of course). The show is a light, breezy hour through which Barry shares some of his fond, and not so fond, childhood memories. True to the nature of someone brought up on Atari and Phil Collins, this is a multimedia extravaganza, with some creative use of still photos, video and even a crackerjack audio tape to close off the show. Whilst the show meanders on, it occassionally seems to lack direction and sees the performer head off on tangents that prove neither funny nor enlightening. Perhaps it was opening-weekend nerves, but Barry seemed to stumble across his words, hastily jumping to the next sentence before he'd f…

MICF - The 3rd Degree: Eskimos with Polaroids

Way back before there was the D Generation running rampant on our TV screens there was a bunch of silly buggers at university, putting on revues, keeping themselves amused, and just generally taking the piss. It was only after proving themselves as student performers that they were allowed to graduate on to bigger and better things with an audience that didn't consist exlusively of drunk Arts students. That very stage is where the 3rd Degree are now. The cast of six put on a hyperventilatingly good performance of manic, subversive sketches which are just waiting to be discovered by talent-spotters. This time around the show is Eskimos With Polaroids, a title that refers to nothing more than a lame pun which opens the show (What does an eskimo get if he sits in the show for too long? Think about it.). Perhaps because it is a 'best-of' show, plucking the funniest sketches from a large selection of uni-revues, the sketches seem to hit the mark every time. Throughout th…

Time to take a breath

They're done, that's it!! After much thought, and effort, I've finally completed my series on North Korea. 16 posts, about 14,000 words, several dozen pictures... now I've just got to find someone to read the bloody thing. Still, for the sake of historical record and furthering debate on an important subject, I'm glad I did it.

Now, in one of the world's strangest transitions, I'm marching headlong into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which started treading the boards around town last Thursday. My interest is not as a performer, alas, but as a far-too-dedicated punter. I'll be posting reviews of shows as I see them, interspersed with ordinary, run-of-the-mill posts, the kind of which I haven't really been doing since I left for the trip back in November.

Final thoughts

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Having almost exhausted the possibilities for things to say about the detail of the DPRK trip, it's worth putting together a few final thoughts on the situation in North Korea, and have a crack at some analysis. It's okay, it'll only be a couple of paragraphs.

The regime in North Korea is going to be tough to dislodge. Kim Jong Il is firmly entrenched in power, and has created such a climate of fear that there are few who are prepared to challenge him. It is evident that Kim Jong Il enjoys tremendous popular support from his people, and regardless of how mischeivious the techniques have been to achieve this, people strongly identify with him and will not easily be persuaded to support an opposing force. If only there was an opposing force.

There is no organised opposition group whatsoever that could be identified. This is little wonder given that it is known amongst the population that the penalty for opposing KJI is to be banished to the political prisons which dot the…

Flying in and training out

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For the international traveller, there are limited options when it comes to getting in and getting out of North Korea. The trip direct from Seoul would be easy most of the way, except for the bit where you are guaranteed to be shot dead at the DMZ. Instead, the more conventional route is via Beijing, where most of the handful of international passanger flights into DPRK originate. There are also some flights from Shenyang in northern China, as well as Vladivostock in Russia. In the true spirit of market economics, the lack of demand for flights into DPRK has resulted in only a handful of them being offerred. The other travel option is the train, departing from Pyongyang and going on an epic 23 hour ride into Beijing. In my case, travel was going to be a combination of the two - a flight in from Beijing, and a train trip back there five days later.



With visa, passport and tickets in hand, the four in our group headed to Beijing airport ready for departure. Given the scarcity of f…

Let the children play

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North Korea has some of the world's best behaved kids. Whilst the rest of the world indulges the every whim and fantasy of their children, and as a result is populated by loud, obnoxious, precocious, adventurous, inquisitive children, things are rather different north of the 38th parallel. Children are amazingly docile and compliant, obediently following the instructions of their elders as if they know no other way. It is not uncommon in Pyongyang to see parents walking hand in hand with their young children, with the child walking in near perfect step right behind.



Whilst on one hand these kids are well behaved, it seems on the other that they have had the creativity and spontaneity of childhood taken away from them. The unquestioning following of the instructions and behaviour of adults suggest that the children are aware of the consequences of misbehaviour in adulthood, and don't wish to dabble in it. There is a sense of defeat about children's behaviour - that they…

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 3)

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Due to some rather poor planning (for that, read no planning) on my part, I've left myself with an oddball collection of bits and pieces to round off the 'Monuments of Pyongyang' section of the armchair tour. Whilst past posts have looked at the important, political, nationalist monuments, this post will carry with it rather less gravitas - except for the first part. The war museum is worthy of a fair bit of commentry, and from there it'll be the shooting range - rather appropriate, really - the Buddhist temple, the birthplace of the Great Leader himself, and more. The attractions of Pyongyang are a rather odd collection, and in many ways the old description of it being "Disneyland for Marxists" is probably a fair call.

To the North Koreans, the Korean War isn't the Korean War at all. Such a title is far too tame, too passive, too clinical to capture the true feelings toward the largely pointless battle from 1950 to 1953 which claimed so many lives yet…

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 2)

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Though most of the fun in visiting Pyongyang comes from staring out the window of the bus between sites to capture a glimpse of the 'real' NK, there is plenty to be said for the sites themself. So much, indeed, that one post would be woefully inadequate to capture it all, and three will probably be needed.

One chapter in the rocky historical road of North Korea which inspires great pride in every North Korean is the caputuring of the USS Pueblo. In 1968, this US spy vessel was captured in North Korean waters trying to secretly find the magic Kimchi ingredient and other important DPRK national security secrets. Though the Korean War had been finished for fifteen years, there was still a painful standoff between the Americans and the North Koreans, and the issue was finely settled with a written apology from the Americans and a promise not to do it again, with the sailors on board (minus the one who'd been shot dead) repatriated to the States.



Thesedays, the boat sits in th…

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 1)

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Whilst Pyongyang might be lacking in many things - decent aesthetics, vibrant nightlife, a sense of humour - one thing it can proudly boast about is its public monuments. A quick glance along the Pyongyang skyline reveals a number of curious icons - each honouring a person, war, idea, organisation or date - presented with the unfliching strength of conviction that no one could ever possibly have about the truth. Pyongyangers obviously take great pride in the monuments which make the city unique: despite a chilly February winter and a think-KJI's-haircut-but-in-white cover of snow, people were out in great numbers to loiter in the presense of architectual greatness. In the true spirit of DPRK, at most of the monuments visited our tour guide, or occassionally the guide from the particular monument, would share the most vital detail - the date when K1 or K2 visited the site, and the words of wisdom that he proferred upon seeing the site. That's all that really matters, isn…

A place to rest my head

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I dream one day of visiting Pyongyang and staying in the wonderfully pyramidic Ryugyong Hotel. The outer shell of this hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline was built in the 1980s, and the interior was, well, never built. It seems possible that the project was commenced in a pique of optimism as North Korea put in a claim to share the 1988 Olympic Games with its southern brothers, but just as the offer was rejected - just like the bid to share the 2002 Soccer World Cup failed on the basis of North Korea's request to host the Opening Ceremony, Semi Finals and Final - the hotel was never completed. Nowadays, in stands pointing to the sky much the way that Kim Il Sung's statue does, both perhaps as a symbol of the excesses of North Korean enthusiasm.



Instead of the Ryugyong, like most foriegn visitors to Pyongyang I found myself staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel. The Yanggakdo Hotel is a slice of Cold War Bondesque paranoia writ large. The hotel is located on an island (Ya…

Panmunjeom and the DMZ

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The journey from Pyongyang to the Demilitaried Zone (DMZ) is a couple of hours by road, but the journey says much about the oddly confused rhetoric of North Korea. The drive is a majestic trip down the Reunification Highway - a six lane highway that runs from Pyongyang to the border, and then one day hopefully to Seoul, 60km further south. It's a top quality road, wide and smooth, with a crisp easy glide that makes time pass quickly. It's also a ghost road, with barely a handful of vehicles ever using it. One day it may become a major trade route, but as it is now it's a road that leads to a place that people don't really want to go to, and don't have the vehicles to get there even if they wanted to.



Along the way we passed through the Reunification Arch, with an oft-repeated symbol that may one day by the symbol of One Korea. We also passed through numerous well constructed tunnels which passed through the mountains that obscure the path. The engineering was …

Media in DPRK

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As our Air Koryo flight stabilised in the air a couple of minutes after its wobbly departure from Beijing, those of us on board were offered some reading material, to give us a taste of what was to come. As is my habit when travelling, I did my best to get hold of a local newspaper, which in this case was North Korea's English language newspaper - The Pyongyang Times. The front page story on this issue (No 7 (2,312), Saturday February 12, Juche 94 (2005)) read:

Greatest glory to Kim Jong Il
The Korean people will mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il on February 16 at a time when they are effecting a fresh surge to grandly celebrate the 60th anniversaries of the Workers' Party of Korea and the country's liberation (note the exceptionally good use of the apostrophe, which would make most native English speakers proud -AS).

His birth was a historic event in carrying forward the cause of the Korean revolution started on Mt Peaktu, the sacred mountain of the revolution and op…

Happy birthday, Mr Kim

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Upon arriving in Pyongyang, we were confronted by endless presentations of the same small symbol, which would feature on buildings, homes, posts, signs and just about every other space that wasn't yet occupied. '2.16' it read, usually in bold neon colours straight out of a kindergarten display board. Was the number maybe a bible reference? Or was it the desired height of a North Korean as decreed by the Great Leader? Or was it perhaps the number of nuclear weapons currently possessed by the DPRK? Instead it was none of these, but itstead was a reference to February 16, the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.



2.16 is a two day national holiday in North Korea, celebrated by various public displays, rest from work, and the general giddy feeling that comes with being surrounded by the aura of KJI. Though there is some dispute about the location of his birth (the NKers insist that he was born in the country itself, whilst the rest of the world insists with some truth…