Heroic Faun No. One

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

The Rebel Alliance
The Basement, Auckland | 23-30 June

Much has been made of the comic quirkiness of this one-man show, written and energetically performed by theatre veteran Gregory Cooper. It’s funny, yes, often belly-laughingly so. But it’s also a heartfelt, moving and ultimately authentic look at the journey of an actor when confronted with the reality of commerce over art.

Autobiographical with liberal splashes of artistic licence, Heroic Faun No. One follows Cooper’s life from when he auditions for the role of Mr. Tumnus in the Hollywood blockbuster The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, through to when he becomes “Heroic Faun No. One”, the nonsensical name for a non-speaking extra role. Cooper plays everyone he meets from his camp talent agent (modeled on a well-known Auckland director) to Hollywood star James McAvoy, who ended up playing Mr Tumnus and dispenses some worldly advice to Cooper when they meet at the urinal (of course). Cooper also ventures deep into his own psyche, where disturbingly, Stanislavsky as a Yoda-like master appears. The dream sequence where a CGI Aslan morphs into a terrifying version of Cooper’s nemesis the Paddle Pop Lion is a comic tour de force.

This physical display does not come cheaply and there are times when Cooper has to stop to catch his breath. He’s not afraid to show his vulnerabilities, stripping down to his underwear to don his faun outfit—green neon CGI tights, homemade armour, fake goatee and a Rod Stewart wig. It’s not the outfit that Cooper mocks but the ridiculously wasteful world of big-budget movies.

Employing a documentary-type style, Cooper acts as his own narrator, plays out scenes from his experience and segues into the backstage area of his brain. It’s an ambitious piece of writing and there are moments which feel too self-consciously scripted. But overall, it works and Cooper’s charm goes a long way to carrying it all off.

The lighting (designed by Michael Craven) is unobtrusive, serving to signal the frequent changes from ‘reality’ to ‘dream’ to ‘direct-address’.  There are moments of movie magic, most notably in the opening scene when Cooper offers a compelling version of how he would have performed Mr Tumnus, had he been cast. The set (designed by Pip Smith) is similarly low-key, mimicking a messy bedroom with various shrines to Narnia and Stanislavsky. There’s a wonderfully nostalgic entranceway hung with fur coats. A video screen to one side is used to good effect, although I felt that showing actual clips of the movie, though funny, doesn’t add too much to the real drama.

It’s easy to translate Cooper’s journey into an enjoyable fable: the naïve actor who ultimately loses out, but learns a timely lesson in the process. The story itself has the touch of Hollywood about it, and like all Hollywood stories there’s plenty of juicy gossip.  But I’m not revealing any more about Tilda Swinton’s dubious encounter with a centaur.

The question that Cooper ends up asking is, is it worth giving up one’s artistic integrity in return for Hollywood-sized pay cheques, fan mail and an afterlife attending geek conventions? He also offers some insight into the often mundane and cynical affairs which go into making a piece of movie magic.

The answer, via a quote from Stanislavsky: seek beauty in what you do, not money, fame or other forms of artistic validation. This is a satisfying conclusion to what is an enjoyable, honest and funny play.

Written and Performed by Gregory Cooper
Directed by Russell Pickering