By Eli Kent | Directed by Robin Kerr
Presented by The PlayGround Collective | Q Theatre, Auckland | September 9-19
A white box, an empty space, a play-within-a-play. Enter Simon (Eli Kent), a 20-something, white, heterosexual male. Simon has been chosen for maximum audience empathy. Of course, this is all presented to us with deadpan irony by our narrator, a talking lightbulb.
And that’s the crux of The PlayGround Collective’s newest play, premiering in Auckland after its original Wellington season and short two-day season in New York. While the primary subject of the play is Simon’s existence, the more significant one is the way we tell stories. As a piece of meta-theatre, All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever is breathtakingly beautiful, constantly playing with filmic and video game conventions on stage, but never losing sight of its theatrical roots.
Taking a cue from the The Truman Show, we are privy to the world backstage, where Simon’s life is contrived and constructed by a trio of stagehands (Victoria Abbot, Hamish Parkinson, and Joel Baxendale) under the direction of the aforementioned talking lightbulb. Other stories it also recalls are Stranger than Fiction and Adaptation, but rather than trying to pretend to be something original, All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever revels in its unoriginality with a playful knowing, and gains new dimensions on stage, breaking the fourth wall in a most literal fashion. Also, it just holds up incredibly well alongside its predecessors, which is an accomplishment in itself.
You also might think that a show so explicitly grounded in artifice would be hard to connect with, but you’d be wrong. All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever manages to have its cake and eat it too. Even in its most self-parodying moments, whether it’s a running montage or breakup, there’s a sincerity to the writing that is defiantly real. Important here, too, is the earnestness of the performances. Abbot, Parkinson, and Baxendale all inhabit the world of the play and give it the sense of urgency and high stakes it needs. As Simon, Kent is your average Joe, fumbling through life and waiting for something to happen. His absence of a real character becomes a sort of defining feature in itself, because he’s not lacking in personality, just without a sense of purpose. And, as his world crumbles around him, it’s hard not to empathise with his growing sense of bewilderment in the face of a meaningless existence.
It almost feels blasphemous to say anything bad about the production, because it really is leagues above anything I’ve seen all year. It’s funny, sad, dark, hopeful, and feels made for today. Everything fulfills its goal in terms of the subverting narrative expectations while never forgetting to entertain the audience. But there were a few moments I felt the meta-theatricality and its rules became an excuse, an easy way to avoid the responsibility of telling a well-constructed story. It’s a relatively minor quibble, but one that is hard to ignore in the last act where everything devolves into a showcase of gratuitous theatricality, until finally ending with one of the most spectacular images I’ve seen on stage all year. Again, this might be the point, but underlining the problem doesn’t erase it.
Still, All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever managed to win me over anyway. The journey the play takes us on might not be entirely new, but the execution of visual ideas and symbols feels raw and urgent. This isn’t an overly cerebral or self-referential work, though it does feel especially concerned with capturing the zeitgeist of Generation Y with its myriad of pop culture references. At its heart, though, is an existential struggle that anyone can relate to.
While Eli Kent is also credited as the main writer, it’s worth mentioning that it has been developed with the support of his fellow cast and crew. It is, above all else, a product of The PlayGround Collective as a whole. Just as important to the production are the design elements, which are executed with such precision. The white box set and exterior junkyard designed by Sam Trubridge is as good as it gets, perfectly reflecting and serving the worlds at hand, and accompanied by Marcus McShane’s effective lighting. Gareth Hobbs’s sound design and Thomas Press’s sound engineering are also essential, creating a soundtrack and soundscape that enforces the artifice. All this is tied together perfectly by director Robin Kerr, performing an impressive balancing act in juggling both worlds of the play.
All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever is the coolest show I’ve seen this year. In fact, it’s probably one of the coolest shows I’ve seen, full stop. It captures the spirit of contemporary culture in a wildly contradictory fashion, so proudly unoriginal that it becomes something unlike you’ve ever seen before. Now that Eli Kent and the rest of the PlayGround Collective are based in Auckland, it’s hard not to be excited about what they’ll bring to our stages next. Until then, I urge everyone to go see this show. It might not quite live up to its title, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.