Dispatches from the Auckland Fringe Festival 2015, Part 3

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
At the Auckland Fringe Festival: Two Farting Sisters, Under the Same Moon, Prehistoria, Mother/Jaw, Vow, Up on Lowman.

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img_twofartingsistersTwo Farting Sisters
Presented by Petit Workshop
Musgrove Theatre | February 24–March 7

Pleasant is the best word to describe this comedy of farts. In a quainter version of the hero’s journey, Daisy, a young Chinese girl from Levin, ventures to Auckland in search of money to buy back her father’s farm sold by her evil sister Stella. It’s a simple story that allows for all sorts of zany adventures and tangents along the way. That there’s never any real sense of conflict results in some slower moments, but the production asks us instead to be swept away in the imaginative landscape rather than the plot itself.

The folktale The Tale of the Fragrant Man, transposed from its Chinese setting to New Zealand by Renee Liang, makes for a perfect fit with the visual style of the team at Petit Workshop. Their cardboard set, balloons and puppetry create the visual backbone for the play. Those familiar with the company’s previous work The Soldier’s Heart & The Feathered Girl will find startling aesthetic similarities between the two productions though, blurring the line between self-imitation and having a signature style. The audience members unaware of Petit Workshop’s previous work, however, will be in for a pleasant treat.

As a devised show, the premise is stretched pretty thin at 50 minutes, lacking the dramatic weight to sustain itself, but director Ella Becroft does a wonderful job compensating with creative visual gags, never letting up for a second. Thanks to her enthusiastic cast, what could come off as juvenile comes off as utterly charming. Adam Ogle’s versatile live-music, effectively the soundtrack for the show, also deserves mention. On the other hand, the flashback sequences exploring the family’s history seem to get lost, never quite meshing with the rest of the play. At their current state, they feel mostly superfluous.

Approaching it as a children’s show, I found the production perfectly enjoyable, though I couldn’t help but wish for more thematically challenging material. The story doesn’t quite have enough meat to feed an audience looking for something deeper underneath its surface, but if you want tasteful toilet humour with a heart, you can’t do much better than Two Farting Sisters. And while there is nothing wrong with well-worn children’s classics like Peter Pan or Pinocchio, it’s always nice to see theatre-makers tackling obscure material and bringing new stories to our stages.

img_underthesamemoonUnder the Same Moon
Presented by Omphalos Co.
Musgrove Theatre | February 24–March 7

The personal history of Chinese families in New Zealand is a bottomless well for exploration in theatre. And we should be grateful playwright Renee Liang is excavating these untold stories for us. In Under the Same Moon, she explores the relationship between grandmother, daughter and granddaughters. The story pivots centers around (middle child) Sarah’s wedding, an effective and true-to-life excuse to bring any family together. And Por Por (maternal grandmother) has planned a surprise visit from Hong Kong to Auckland, not wanting to miss the special occasion.

Against the evocative backdrop of a photographic family tree, alongside minimal props and furniture, Hweiling Ow has the inspiring job of creating an entire world as a solo performer. It’s a daunting task that demands a lot of any actor, but she’s more than up to the task, despite a few minor hiccups on opening night. With the direction of Theresa May Adams, they work together to bring every character and every location to life. The characterisation of Por Por, as a feisty and imaginative dreamer, is the clearest and most engaging. Her daughter, Lorna is a strict and disapproving character, but not without shades of sympathy. And the three granddaughters are distinguished mainly through varying degrees of relationship problems, including marriage, the woes of modern dating and burgeoning homosexuality. Not to mention the other various extras who pop up.

Liang takes her time building the world of the characters carefully. As a comedy, it doesn’t ever induce big laughs, faring much better at inspiring knowing smiles and chuckles. But there’s a low-key, gentle spirit to the proceedings that I greatly appreciated. The languid pacing reveals the character’s backstories and personalities with a quality rare in modern storytelling. As a playwright who often cites Chekhov as a favourite, this is perhaps her most Chekhovian, filled to the brim with quiet moments. But, whereas Chekhov usually has the benefit of 2+ hours, this story, crammed into an hour, feels slightly rushed and condensed at 60 minutes. Based on sheer ambition alone, the characters and story do beg for a much bigger play. There’s a sprawling quality to it that suggests an epic family drama rather than a one-woman fringe show.

While there is an unquestionable universality to any domestic drama, Under the Same Moon is an uncompromisingly Chinese (or Chinese-Kiwi) play, in that the cultural references refuse to be explained, merely experienced. Liang has crafted that rare play that offers a unique voice to a community that still hasn’t had its turn in the spotlight. This perspective is prevalent through the whole script, down to the subtle importance of food which functions as a minor character in itself. Those with any experience dealing with the coming and goings of any Chinese family will find extra layers to appreciate. It’s certainly the less unique cultural references (Tinder, for example) that are the least effective.

As a work-in-development there are a lot of places the script can go. I can imagine a longer, more thorough examination of the lives of the daughters. Just as easily, I can imagine it stripped bare, focusing solely on the direct relationship between a grandmother, her daughter and a single granddaughter. In its current state, I can’t help but feel that there is too much crammed into too short a space. But, as criticisms go, wanting more is far from a bad thing.

img_prehistoriaPrehistoria
Presented by Eli Matthewson and Laura Daniel
Basement Theatre | February 25-28

The unlikely friendship between a cavewoman and a dinosaur, as told in Prehistoria, might not sound like the most imaginative storyline, but it’s performed with such undeniable silliness and joy you can’t help but smile. The result is something like a live-action cartoon. Aside from the opening narration (courtesy of Nic Sampson) and a few asides, communication is mostly monosyllabic. And the show is much better for it.

Hamish Parkinson’s direction keeps the show moving forward with picture book clarity, the lack of dialogue never a hindrance thanks to expert physical comedy. It doesn’t hurt that the three actors are perfectly cast in their roles: Laura Daniel is a riot as the cavewoman, every gesture and movement surges with brute ferocity; Eli Matthewson is dorky and enthusiastic as a puppy-like dinosaur, effectively the Pixar-shaped heart of the show; and Oscar Wilson is an appropriately shallow caveman, conveying douchebaggery through dance moves alone.

The characters are always aware that they are being watched, but rather than alienating us it brings us closer into their prehistoric world. There’s nothing ironic or self-conscious about the production, it simply exists as a ridiculous parody of the stone ages, asking the audience to have a good time. The reason it never doesn’t fall into the trap of being self-indulgent is that there’s a deeply felt sincerity to it. Simply put, Prehistoria is the sort of show that should just be watched and enjoyed, not talked about. You’d be hard-pressed to find a show funnier than it at this year’s Auckland Fringe Festival. There’s no better endorsement I can give than that.

img_motherjawMother/Jaw
Presented by Jahra Rager and Grace Woollett
Basement Theatre | February 25-28

Dance is not a medium I have any expertise on. I didn’t leave the theatre loving Mother/Jaw, but I couldn’t deny its craft or the seriousness of the material. Based on Grace Taylor’s poetry collection Afakasi Speaks, the show channels her poetic verse and transforms it into pure movement. The result is an impressive cohesion of style and content. The material, so explicitly about race and colour, skin and blood, makes perfect sense as a dance piece. Even those unfamiliar with Taylor’s poetry will have a startling understanding of some of her sentiments by the end of the show.

As if trapped within their own bodies, the dancers twitch and wrestle with themselves. One might describe the show as a nightmarish body horror. The choreography by Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala and Grace Woollett is something both frightening and spectacular to behold. Accompanied by Vivian Hosking-Aue and Alisha Anderson, each movement and sequence is like a carefully chosen visual metaphor intended to pierce into your unconsciousness.

Between the dancing there are moments of pause. There are moments where questions are raised and the audience is confronted with direct commentary. Communication is broken down into What? Why? Where? Who? When? Questions stripped down till nothing is left but the bone. Or when Anderson gives the audience a moment of reprieve by questioning the idea of her Pakeha identity or lack of ethnicity. Her confusion is uncomfortably palpable, and a welcome source of laughter. That some of the most memorable and affecting parts of the show are the least dance-centric never detracts from the coarse beauty of the choreography, though. The ambient soundscape, courtesy of Christoph El’ Truento and Addison Chase, is its own creature too, floating around the performers like stale air, and as integral to the piece as any of the dancers.

At 50 minutes Mother/Jaw is not a long show, but that it plays like a Beckett short should give you an idea of how laborious and unrelenting it can be. It’s almost an hour of having viscera splashed across your face. Necessary but not necessarily pleasant. Sometimes the lack of subtlety can be exhausting, other times exhilarating. For all its power, it’s not a show I would rush to see again. But it’s also a rewarding change of pace from your typical fringe pieces which merely aim to entertain. An unrelenting, challenging experience.

img_vowVow
Presented by Printable Reality
IronBar Cafe/Biz Dojo | February 25-27

Vow is a double bill of performance poetry, thematically tied together by wives of famous myths and legends. Unfortunately due to some incorrect publicity, I arrived at 8pm, missing the opening act to the show, songwriter Yasamin Al-Tiay. Luckily this wasn’t integral to the main performance. A shame nonetheless.

The poetry performance begins with Hannah Owen-Wright’s [em]bedded/bodied, based on a thirteenth century poem Yde et Olive. It’s a neo-classical rendering of a poetic text to startling effect. The narrative follows the romance between Yde, a woman who lives as a man, and Olive, his wife-to-be. It’s a reminder that, while our modern notions of sexuality and gender identity are constructed, queerness is far from new. By using a classical queer narrative, the story isn’t weighed down by any explicit social commentary. The focus, then, is on the text itself. Owen-Wright’s voice as both a performer and poet quivers with erotic desperation, a plea for intimacy worthy of Sappho. Performers Kiran Foster, Joni Nelson and Marianne Villanueva accompany the performance and form a makeshift Greek chorus, echoing and vibrating with deep sensuality. The result is stunning lyrical poetry. 

The second-half of the night continues with Slant, a triptych of short poems by Maria Ji and staged by Charlotte West. The first poem, FOURTH WIFE is an exploration of the Bluebeard fairytale, about a woman who discovers her husband’s previous wives were murdered by him. There’s a tense immediacy to the text which lends itself well to the voices and physicality of the performers, making it the standout of the triptych. PERSEPHONE up next is a retelling of the story of a woman abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld, and while beautifully performed by a swarm of young girls, lacks the narrative clarity of the previous piece. Without foreknowledge of the story, it becomes more about the style than the content. Lastly, DELILAH, a retelling of the Samson and Delilah myth, is performed as a musical number with piano accompaniment rather than theatrical performance. It’s a jarring shift from the rest of the show, feeling more pop than poetry, but it’s sung beautifully by Maria Ji herself, wrapping up the night nicely.

All up, at under an hour, it’s a short and bittersweet evening of performance poetry that ends too soon. But for just a donation of koha, it’s a bargain of a show. I look forward to seeing both artists develop further and see where their writing leads them. Printable Reality has done a great service in the development of both poets and audience alike.

img_uponlowmanUp on Lowman
Presented by Grublette Productions
Basement Theatre | February 12-13, 23 & March 1

Told using a How I Met Your Mother-esque framing device, Up on Lowman is a cute, lightweight space opera. We are first introduced to couple Zandor and Cheryl who explain how they met. Cheryl, you see, was a space pilot searching for a new planet after the destruction of Earth. Luckily she landed on the planet Lowman where she met Zandor, prince of Lowman. And the rest is history.

Chelsea McEwan Miller and Elizabeth McMenamin combine their talents to produce a delightfully dorky love story. It’s not a particularly convincing piece of sci-fi, but it’s self-awareness and charm works in its favour. Even their flattest jokes land just because you’re cheering for them. But the real joy is watching them play their oddball characters, including lovebirds Zandor and Cheryl, a womanising brother, chummy dad, geeky best friend, palace guard, and the unforgettable alcoholic matriarch.

The setting of planet Lowman is well utilised, playing with sci-fi conventions for comedic effect. The language translator, in particular, makes for a hilarious running gag. The royal vs. lower-class tension of the world, on the other hand, feels undercooked, despite having potential as effective satire. Even if the plot doesn’t flow perfectly—rushed ending in particular—the storytelling itself is irresistible. In any other hands the planet of Lowman and all that occurs on it would induce unequivocal eye-rolling, but in the capable hands on McEwan and McMenamin, it achieves an adolescent charm. Up on Lowman is the equivalent to watching kids play make believe, and as long as you don’t take it too seriously, you’ll have a good time.

The Auckland Fringe Festival 2015 ran from February 9-March 1.