Phew! What a mouthful. Oh, not just the title, the whole shebang. I can't even begin to imagine the task of writing down such tracts, in the form of a monologue; albeit one punctuated with songs and a coterie of other characters, from Woody Guthrie, to John & Yoko, Abe Lincoln ( for some reason sounding like you can take the boy outa the Bronx, but you can't take the Bronx outa the boy), Joan Baez, Sara Lownds, Bono, Johnny Cash and a host of others, including Dylan the younger. Of course, writing it down is one thing; memorising it, quite another. Surely there must've been prompts. Either way, both are astonishing feats.
This play, if it can be called that (it's billed as a 'theatrical talking blues and glissendorf'), first saw light of day last year and I was disappointed, at the time, not to have caught it. So I made doubly sure this time. And thank God. Well, Critical Stages, actually; it being a laudable initiative of Darlinghurst Theatre Company, designed to take not just their own but independent productions from small, urban theatres Australia-wide on the road, to remote and regional areas.
Also to be congratulated is TRS, Tamarama Rock Surfers, the unassumingly-named big hitter in indie stagework, resident at the characterful Old Fitz pub, carrying the flag for new Aussie theatre, putting run after run on the boards; at The Stables and Opera House as well.
Writer, Benito Di Fonzo is my new instant, personal superhero. Coming to the work intrigued, but utterly uninformed, I'd surmised it must've been penned by an American. Uh-uh. Much like yours truly, 'the Fonz' is a starving, eccentric 'writer extraordinaire' (to borrow his own, tongue-in-cheek' bigging-up) based right here, in Sydney; the founder of Fonzo journalism. As well, he's a playwright, puppeteer, poet, pauper, pirate, pope, pawn and a king. Well, according to him. I, for one, don't dissent.
It's almost impossible to believe he could've written this unrelenting, rhythmic rave, which falls somewhere between beat poetry, spoken word and hip-hop (but tending towards the former), without the benefit of certain stimulants (even if it was just espresso). It has a rollicking cadence that's believable of the Dylan as a young man, if not an older one. It matters not that he mightn't have been like that. It should, perhaps, but, somehow, it doesn't. Nor does it matter if this is more, much more, a work of imagining than reality; fiction, faction, half-truths, or outright lies. It's the cred that's important and makes it work. The man once said, 'chaos is a friend of mine' and, either literally or intuitively, Di Fonzo seems to have embraced this and put it at the very centre of his approach to this work. Mind you, if it remained on paper, it wouldn't be a fraction of the fabulous thing it is, pregnant with broadly cultural, historical, literary, sociopolitical and academic references; shining with wit and wry, dry humour. Much like Bob, I guess.
The production isn't utterly flawless, but it's just a gnat's nut away. It takes a while for Bob (Matt Ralph) to settle into his accent but, hey, Bob is almost a dialect unto himself. From the ground up, producer Luke Cowling and director Lucinda Gleeson have done a sterling job. James Browne's grungy 60s underground music vibe genius set built, ostensibly, of painted speaker stacks, has been constructed brilliantly by Tom Bannerman and lit likewise by Richard Whitehouse. Emma Howell's costume design affords an easy air of authenticity.
The performers are, each, bloody marvels. That virtually all can act, sing and play with such vivacity is jaw-dropping. Ralph almost becomes the charismatic and compelling Dylan. Andrew Henry shows incredible versatility and comic sensibility, as countless characters in Bob's passing parade: Robbie Robertson, Daniel Lanois, you name him. Lenore Munro is hysterical as Yoko, stingingly effective as Baez (including her staggering vocal impression) and the Z man's other women. And Simon Rippingale is a beautiful bassist, uke and harmonica player.
As Woody Guthrie famously stated (to paraphrase), a guitar is a machine that kills fascist. So is a pen, whether in the hands of Bob Dylan, or Benito Di Fonzo. And the roll of a well-chosen string of words, whether off Dylan's tongue, or Ralph's. It might be about an American, but this play, I'm proud to say, is all-Australian. And, with bugger-all shopping days till Christmas (if retail clocks can be believed) and 2011, Zimmerman is vying with, say, August: Osage County and Namatjira as my pick of the year. Don't think twice. It's alright. Better than alright. Chronic Ills is fully-sick, man. AAA.
The Chronic Ills of Robert Zimmerman: AKA Bob Dylan (A Lie)
by Benito Di Fonzo
Part of the 2010 BITE program (Best of Independent Theatre)
Venue: Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Centre | Corner Cleveland Street and City Road, Chippendale
Dates: Fri 22 Oct - Sat 6 Nov, 2010
Times: Tue 6.30pm, Wed-Thu 8pm, Fri-Sat 6.30pm & 8pm
Tickets: Adult - $28, Concession $24
Bookings: 02 9351 7940 | www.seymourcentre.com