New Zealand Fringe Festival 2014, Part 1

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
Hits and misses from the New Zealand Fringe Festival 2014. Reviews by ALICE MAY CONNOLLY, C. CARD, JONATHAN PRICE, MICHAEL BOYES, SAMUEL PHILLIPS, TOM CLARKE.

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img_fringe2014-1Citizen Gef
Presented by Hungry Mile Theatre/Slave Labour Productions
BATS Theatre | February 4-9

Documentary theatre, a mythical mongoose, road trips and plays about plays, Citizen Gef contains the ingredients of a classic fringe show. The form of the play (co-written by Freya Desmarais and Uther Dean) is promising. Presented as a parody verbatim piece, emails, phone calls, and facebook chats are lithely personified by the actors. Meta comedy abounds and a set of punny posters could add up to a quirky, delightful event.

Unfortunately the play is more erratic than its eponymous mongoose. The first third of the play records the actual inception of the play we’re watching, revealing who had the initial idea, how the show was pitched to BATS, how the collaborators came together and why Uther isn’t in it. The second third charts a series of interviews investigating the mythical ‘Gef’. Then the final third seemingly veers into complete fiction as Uther’s obsession with finding Gef turns into madness. The audiences experience is just held together by charming, witty performances from Freya and Chris, who are well supported by a peppy lighting design and lots of props gags.

The show has the ingredients for like four great shows, but this rendition feels too cluttered to get to the heart of Freya, Uther, Chris, or Gef.—Samuel Phillips

img_fringe2014-2A Play About Fear
Presented by My Accomplice
Circa Two | February 7-16

Rounding out their ‘A Play About…’ trilogy that delighted in playing with genre, My Accomplice brings A Play About Fear to Circa Two. Not really a work of terror or gore, at its core it is homage to horror. My Accomplice’s story trawls through tropes, weaving together a horrific parable about man’s inhumanity, a spatter-happy cult occupying The Hannah Playhouse, a sad monster made from a paddling pool and a Godzilla-type creature destroying a lego city.

Unlike the clear action-movie-plot of A Play About Space, the piece meanders from parody through slapstick sketches to arrive at a hopeless turning point for humanity. Any odd script or acting choices are saved by my accomplice’s complexly choreographed mise-en-scene. Their slick stage pictures, created with bare light bulbs on pulleys and a huge blue tarp ensure there is always something amazing going on.

The piece delves into fears personal and fears global. The mundane, minuet fears that plague day to day life (the dark, small spaces, other people, etc) are personified by actors with a single bulb, and hit home, bringing joy and laughter to the audience. However, the loftier claims of the horrors of humanity through time are muddied by the drama of the final scenes, and I became detached as the play ascended to biblical proportions. Luckily there’s enough sticky blood and fake guts to make A Play About Fear an appropriate end to the ‘Play About…’ trilogy.—Samuel Phillips

img_fringe2014-3Horatio
Presented by Sceptre Theatre
BATS Theatre | February 10-14

At the beginning and end of this one act play are the seeds of a truly clever pastiche belonging to that long tradition of Shakespearean ‘what ifs’, for which Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the leading example. Horatio (played by director and writer James Cain) with the recently dead Hamlet (Ryan Knighton) in his lap, is interrupted mid-speech by a brazen and decidedly un-poetic Fortinbras (Jed Davies). It’s an entertaining start, promising a comedic vision of what happens when one of Shakespeare’s notoriously vanilla friends-of-the-hero finds himself in the lead role, albeit after all the great tragic stuff has happened. Cain is most magnetic when playing in this mode of overwhelmed credulity—his endearing Horatio looks at times like a wet puppy—and the dialogue works best when he is speaking it. The middle third gets bogged down in the mechanisms of plot and nuance gives way to weighty scenes that seem to be pointing at themes (there are skulls involved) that haven’t quite taken root in the rest of the play. While secondary characters, Horatio’s sister Imogen (Miryam Jacobi) and Fortinbras, don’t elicit enough sympathy to warrant their significant stage time, the final scene involving all three in a play-within-a-play manages to find again some of the cheek and humour of the beginning.—Jonathan Price

img_fringe2014-5Frequency
Presented by Mysterious Stranger
BATS Theatre (and various outdoor locations) | February 11-27

My evening began feeling mildly curious about the brown envelope by my beer and finished with me feeling mildly satisfied. The night I saw Frequency it was not a finessed production, but one that was engaging in a charming way. I really admire Mysterious Stranger for throwing a bunch of strangers into a situation where group action was key. The rowdy group I was with was not absorbed into the world of espionage at all, but we accepted the absurdity with a sense of fun.

The audience was turned into the performance, and as we completed tasks around Wellington we all got a bit chummier, even if we didn’t remember the code names we were meant to be using. But the most brilliant part was trying desperately to find out how they were tracking us and able to see what we were doing as we walked through the CBD.

All in all, it was a little fun, if not a little silly. If you go, bring a jumper, a good friend and make sure there isn’t any rain forecast.—Tom Clarke

img_fringe2014-6I Could Live Here
Presented by Would You Rather Productions
BATS Theatre | February 12-16

The highs and horrors of a car trip around New Zealand are captured in this hilarious show from Andrew Patterson, Carrie Green, and Ria Simmons, real-life survivors of a schools tour. I Could Live Here follows three actors on a nationwide tour, charting their life on the road.

Every destination on the road trip includes a great pub, a local radio station, and a school show (with a question and answer session). As the tour continues, routines begin to emerge and endearing quirks become viable excuses for homicide. Carrie takes phone calls, Ria vaguely muses life’s big questions, and Andrew tries to outwit the bitchy GPS. Each element of the trip is evoked with theatrical flair, and the story is rounded out with a neat twist.

A set of suitcases and an effective lighting design help make this play a proper treat, but its sound design is responsible for the biggest laughs (the radio that only plays Lorde). Painting New Zealand as a charming, rough around the edges sort of place, this slick show leaves the audience wishing the trip could’ve been a bit longer.—Samuel Phillips

img_fringe2014-7Traces. Ghosts from the Archives
Presented by Longstaff Productions
The Royal Local Alehouse & Eatery | February 14-March 1

Eight ghost stories from New Zealand history are performed in a dimly lit historical building, currently a bar named the Royal Alehouse. The setting lends itself well to this spooky promenade theatre show; the audience is divided into three or four groups of seven people and squeezed into narrow passageways, furnace rooms, and dark staircases. Designer Rachel Hilliar has done a brilliant job turning the spaces of this old building into what I want to describe as fairy-tale horror; the images of the different stories are consistently beautiful and shrouded in mystery. There are ample occasions where a great big fright could really unnerve the audience, however director Tabitha Arthur appears to have preferred to take a slower approach. The tales are told through puppetry, projection, murder-ballads, and my particular favourite, animation, however where the creators have chosen to remain authentic to the texts-which are often inexplicable—the narratives run a bit thin; the exception being the story of The Rose, performed entertainingly by Karen Anslow. Anslow is particularly chilling as she looms threateningly towards the throat of an audience member. The music, composed by Ryan Smith deserves a particular mention and ties the evening together.—Alice May Connolly

img_fringe2014-8GOD-BELLY
Presented by Andrew Gunn and Rosie Tapsell
St Michael’s Anglican Church | February 15-23

A 14th century saint (Catherine of Siena?) and her confessor, and a pair of Auckland teenagers, explore the relationship between body and faith. Religiosity, or however you’d like to articulate living within a faith-based system, influences the individual’s perception of physical experience—as guilt, as indulgence, as divine.

Parallels are drawn between dark-age methods of mortification, aka flagellation and fasting, and more contemporary obsessions with physical health and escapism, which despite the symbolic potency I struggled to comprehend. Objects are repeatedly used as to suggest ritual, such as the removal of a robe or speaking into a microphone, but their significance is never clarified.

Scenes are segmented by costume and lighting changes executed on or around a square arrangement of gym mats. The performances are physically demanding with multiple dance or movement sequences, but lack defined characters which renders parts of the dialogue flat and difficult to follow. Unfortunately the eclectic and invigorating sound design, a combination of medieval vocal arrangements and hip hop, often threatens to overwhelm the competing stage craft.

The richness of scope develops striking images and uncanny allusions between the past and the present, and despite the centrality of Catholicism, it remains an open-ended and inclusive enquiry.—Michael Boyes

img_fringe2014-9Euthermia/Hyperpyrexia
Presented by Making Friends Collective
BATS Theatre | Feburary 17-21

In a land where the sun never sets and time is measured in counts and rotations, a team of orderlies await the arrival of war survivors. They’ve been trained to care for patients lacking physical defects—their charge is to provide a caring environment. All hospital operations are kept under surveillance by The Doctor (think the living-machine in iRobot).

The blending of the sci-fi sublime and living room drama never moves beyond elegiac complaining, indicative of the script’s formulaic structure, under committed performances (murmured speech, indecisive movement) and muddied power stakes. The Doctor (Amy Griffin-Browne) employs a heightened style of movement and delivery completely detached from the dramatic context. Beyond the atmospheric, there lacked any suggestion of place. The design consists of a long mural (the pale mint of a hospital ward—very cool), a few chairs, and painted milk crates that are arranged and stacked throughout the performance; all fine, but unexplained.

I am unsure of the writer’s intent: who or what was under scrutiny? I left unmoved and confused.—Michael Boyes

img_fringe2013-4Exoskeleton
Presented by Joseph Harper
Puppies | February 17-19

Exoskeleton is Joseph Harper’s attempt at becoming immortal. The show consists of a selection of images, stories, songs, and philosophical musings drawing on Harper’s feeling of being constrained by time. It’s optimistic in the sense that Harper strives for ‘immortality’, and although this is anticlimactic when it occurs in the play, it’s evident that in a way this idea is self-reflexive of Harper’s collective body of work thus far. Exoskeleton was accompanied by a dull thud of a heartbeat throughout, which also served as a drum beat during the songs. The music was lo-fi, poignant, and evoked a similar kind of whimsical introspection as the musician Phil Elverum who plays under the name, Mount Eerie. The design and direction by Christopher Stratton were unassumingly enchanting; a desk, a light, a projection of the moon, a microphone to the side, a hanging light to represent the sun–simple and functional set pieces that illuminate the storytelling and clarify the visual metaphors. A favourite moment was Harper’s slightly camp, offbeat performance as The Moon, and his allegorical becoming ‘the man in the moon’. Exoskeleton is one of the most unique highlights of the NZ Fringe Festival 2014 season so far.—C. Card

img_fringe2014-10The Dreamer
Presented by Loose Screw Collective
Whitireia Theatre | February 18-21

The Dreamer suffers from a mental illness. Her imagination is a threshold, the memory of childhood and a means of explaining the world that develops around her. A very long line of duologues are integrated with U.V. theatrics, shadow play, puppetry and dance choreography. It is all so repetitive, predictable, and whimsically over produced.

Mource Young does well as The Dreamer, a lead role that often becomes a support for novel characters or overbearing design. The Dreamer’s jumps between mental states and stages in her life makes it difficult to track significant character development. The stage at Whitireia is covered in stars, and a mobile hangs above a dishevelled bed. Clothes are scattered about the floor, there’s a school chair amongst the debris. A chorus in black morphsuits activate props to simulate dreamscapes.—Michael Boyes

img_fringe2014-11All a man wants is his wage
Presented by 1000 Heros
People’s Cinema | February 18-22

The cast, which includes the writer and director, held a feedback session after the show, during which I told them I thought the play was sexist and ineffectual. Phillip Tyler, the writer and lead actor (C. C. Shackle is a pseudonym or a joke or something) responded that his character, contractor Paul Masey, who was the main but by not the only perpetrator of the show’s misogyny, was supposed to be a polarising figure and that the sexism is a reflection of real-life working conditions in small building companies. If I take him at his word, I can only urge the company to go back to the drawing board, do some research, and push the script as hard and far in the direction of satire as possible. It is imperative that audience knows they are supposed to be laughing at, not with, the play’s abhorrent main character. As it stands, though, and even if all the offensive content was removed, the experience is a rotten one. The script strives for political comedy about poor working conditions for small businesses, but instead we get an hour of unchanging characters or circumstances that seems like four, and only ever elicits a polite titter from some generous audience members. The performances appear barely rehearsed, the set falls apart, the political message is lost in the slough of ill-conceived jokes, and the director tries to hijack the play and turn it into his own standup routine. All ego, no craft.—Jonathan Price

img_fringe2014-12Foxes Mate for Life and Other Stories
Presented by Fringe
People’s Cinema | February 17-21

Seeing this show was the first time I’d visited the People’s Cinema (formerly the Rock Shop on Manners Street), and what a joy it was to be lead by a cast-member around partitions and sets of other shows (reminding me of just how big the New Zealand Fringe Festival is) upstairs, and into an oversized blanket-fort (set: George Fenn) where we took our seats to be serenaded by a pair of musical foxes. Director Ryan Knighton and his company clearly have a strong sense of theatre as an event (we really should use more live musicians in our theatres. Thanks Phillip Lawrence-Jones). This event: children’s stories for older folk. The cast, beginning lined up in a pair of fox’s ears each (costume: Georgia Banach-Salas), narrate and play-act (play-acting being the overarching “style” of performance) four stories featuring animals—foxes, lizards, elephants and, amusingly, salmon. The show’s heart lies in the clash of nursery-rhyme simplicity with subjects like death, loneliness and ambition. At its most vivid moments, the play’s childish outlook manages to render these Big Themes with beguiling simplicity. Knighton must be praised for his keen theatrical sense. Watching the cast transform into, among other things, a morose elephant, bickering dinosaurs and a cascading waterfall (using fence-palings, a vacuum tube and other miscellany) were highlights, and had me jealous for not thinking of them first. While the show’s overall mood and aesthetic have great coherency, the stories themselves do not. The first, featuring the titular foxes, gets away on pure cutesy-ness, but by the second and third I am in desperate need of something more. Each start with a strong mood or feeling, but lack of structuring devices prevent them from developing into anything that feels properly meaningful—all fizzle where they should pop. The cast, too, should trust that the audience feels their sense of playfulness absolutely, and focus more on bringing discipline and precision to support the stories and prevent some messy physical business and overlapping lines. Overall, an enticing experience and a very promising debut.—Jonathan Price

img_fringe2014-13The Red Nose Reverie
Presented by Zig Zag Theatre
Gryphon Theatre | February 19-22

The Red Nose Reverie was a charming little play about three clowns taking their circus show to the big smoke. Eryn Street, Kade Nightingale, and Michael Hebenton were endearing as clowns and childhood friends; they all brought charm and comedy to their characters. Hebenton particularly shined at the physical comedy. The set was well executed; sheets and bunting for the circus tent, also doubled as a throwback to childhood forts. There was a delightful element of shadow puppetry to signify transitions, however (and perhaps it was where I was sitting) more attention could have been drawn to it. Writer and director Renee Pritchard mentions in the programme The Red Nose Reverie was inspired by the lives of the Jandaschewsky family, also her ancestors. The play finishes very abruptly just after a death, and I wonder if she has been too reliant on truth or factual events, because I wanted to see more of the story unfold—where the remaining characters ended up. That just goes to show I was invested in the tale; I’m looking forward to seeing more of Pritchard’s work in the future.—Alice May Connolly

The New Zealand Fringe Festival 2014 ran from February 7-March 2. Reviews compiled by Wellington Theatre Editor Samuel Phillips.