New Zealand Fringe Festival 2014, Part 2

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
Further hits and misses from the New Zealand Fringe Festival 2014. Reviews by ALICE MAY CONNOLLY, JONATHAN PRICE, MICHAEL BOYES, SAMUEL PHILLIPS.

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img_nzfringe2014-1Dinner with Izzy and Simon
Isobel MacKinnon and Simon Haren
Izzy and Simon’s place | February 9-27

A dinner party with pre-dinner drinks, main course, and dessert, fits a surprisingly neat three-act structure.

We join Simon and Izzy for pre-dinner drinks, and we’re each given a wine glass that casts us in relation to them (I become ‘Danger danger!’, Simon’s crazy mate from the past), then we’re into mains and dinner table conversation, then dessert. Throughout the meal Simon and Izzy’s relationship shows signs of strain, but the performers real skill is hosting. Their gentle nudges inside the 90 minute dinner keeps their dinner guests conversing and enjoying their meal. Peppered with gems like catching Simon refilling the lovely wine bottle with cask wine ensure this isn’t a dinner party we’ll forget soon.

The juice of the show is how the other dinner party guests relate to Simon, Izzy, and each other. Their fiction is an excellent structuring device but the heart of the show is how hard we work to be polite.—Samuel Phillips

img_nzfringe2014-2Gypsy Rage Apocalypse
Anya Tate-Manning and Jessica Robinson
The Moorings | February 18-22

A wild, rough, adventure of a play, Gypsy Rage Apocalypse is a part zombie-horror, part-musical, all-camp foray into the minds of Jessica Robinson, Anya Tate-Manning, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, and Brian Sergent.

Three lone gypsies are camped out in the Moorings, a stopping point on their way to Invercargill, planning their next moves. We’re a few years into a zombie apocalypse, and tensions are running high amongst the three.

The play feels like a labour of love, a really fringy, unrestrained romp. Cleverly the songs invite the audience into the show, ensuring we’re never just watching performers have fun with each other. And the piece is kept at a tight 45 minutes. A twist at the end uproots the play from silliness for a surprisingly sombre conclusion.—Samuel Phillips

img_nzfringe2014-3de Sade
Alexander Sparrow
Fringe Bar | February 19-22

I’d have called this one stand-up, rather than theatre. Sparrow adopts an anxious, breathless persona for his de Sade (or was that just him?) and uses the circumstances of the famous sadist’s life, particularly his imprisonment, as a platform to preach the virtues, and dispel the misunderstandings, of the transgressive and usually abusive sexual acts for which he is infamous. The show was unfinished and underprepared on opening night. Sparrow spent much of the time repeating himself, and seemed unable to muster thoughts, or jokes, with the precision and clarity he wanted.

Beneath the bumbling, the show seemed striving to be a defence of de Sade’s philosophies; an attempt, perhaps, to shine a light on some of the intricacies of the man’s thinking that typically gets lost in many pulp/pop-translations of the character. If this is the case, then teasing the audience with the promise of offensive/grotesque material (“Don’t worry, it’s going to get a lot worse”) seems counter-productive. That, and the fact that, short of actually enacting de Sade’s theories on stage, there is little a stand-up comedian can do to shock or offend that hasn’t already been chopped into easily consumable two-minute chunks and posted to YouTube.—Jonathan Price

img_nzfringe2014-4The Bookbinder
Trick of the Light Theatre
Art Bees Bookshop
| February 19-March 1

Beautifully integrated inside a back room at Arty Bees Book Story, Trick of the Light’s The Bookbinder is a modern-day fairytale. A delicately crafted journey told to only 16 audience members over 45 minutes, The Bookbinder is a simple myth made with care and affection.

The play follows a curious adventure of a bookbinding apprentice, new to the discipline of hard work and the satisfaction of a job well done. When he boldly rushes the repairs on a book for a dubious elderly woman, he finds himself sent deep inside a world of storybooks, complete with deep oceans and soaring eagles. The centrepiece is a pop-up story book containing most of the set pieces for the story, and simple puppets are cleverly employed. The story concludes in the bookstore setting, and the audience leaves with a deeper appreciation of the craft of putting together a tale.

At its heart is nostalgia for a time where things were slower, more careful, a Hans Christian Anderson world of craftsman and witches, of seeking your fortune and of magical journeys. Minimalist principles ensure we’re left sharing the Bookbinder’s affection for a simpler time.—Samuel Phillips

Chris Green
BATS Theatre | February 21-24

On a bare stage in BATS Theatre, save for ‘busking gear’ and a poster stuck forlornly on the back wall advertising a ‘SALE’ at an unspecified store, Chris Green shares his experiences of busking in Wellington and sings us some of his favourite songs. Unfortunately the songs go on for too long; they don’t develop the narrative in any way, and two of them are in Italian, which would be okay to listen to on the street but is impossible to engage with here. I’m unsure why BATS was the venue of choice—shouldn’t a show about busking be performed on the street, or at least outside? The image of the ‘busy Wellington street’ that was suggested was dwarfed by the imposing, black, isolated stage. Green had some comedic moments, including his engaging physicality and an amiable style of delivery, however the story appeared to be mere filler for the songs, rather than the two elements collaborating together. The music could have been louder, more recognisable, and more upbeat—a more entertaining time than tired poetry and making fun of homeless people.—Alice May Connolly

img_nzfringe2014-6First Day Off in a Long Time
Brian Finkelstein
BATS Theatre
| February 25-28

Hoorah for simplicity! Perhaps it’s the notoriously fast pack-in time, but you see a lot of shows at BATS, especially during the Fringe, strangled by the mechanics of the theatre clumsily implemented—sets that hinder actors, clunky lighting changes to tell you how tense the atmosphere’s becoming (blurgh!), sound cues to let you know you should be feeling sad at this moment (double blurgh!). With First Day off in a Long Time we get a man, a table and chair, and a microphone. That, and a finessed story impeccably told, clearly honed by extensive performing and touring. It’s not mind-blowing, it won’t change your perception of theatre, but within its simple constraints this solo show is very nearly as close to perfect as you can get.

Sitting behind his table, Brian Finkelstein tells a true story of being called in last minute to cover the graveyard shift at the suicide hotline where he’s been working for years. Such is Finkelstein’s lightness of touch, deft characterisations, and cynical (but not to the point of alienating) humour, you almost forget that the story is building to what it can only be building to in a show about suicide. That main story, which I won’t spoil, is in itself pretty incredible, and worth telling and telling again. But what elevates the performance into an impressive display of storytelling craft is the way he weaves two other parallels into the event: his own attempt at suicide as a teenager, and the suicide of well-known New York theatre monologist Spalding Gray. With these additions, the story unhinges itself from the realm of “personal tragedy” and begins to feel properly vast, touching on universal questions without forfeiting any of its humour and intimacy.—Jonathan Price

img_nzfringe2014-7Love in the Key of Britpop
Emily Andersen
Fringe Bar | February 25-28

I’m relatively new to spoken word (though not to poetry generally) and so was apprehensive about my formative introduction being a show which bills itself “for anyone who wishes it was still 1995,” I was three. Fortunately, it turns out this tag completely undersells the show (and I strongly suggest they change it). Far from being “an ode to Britpop” and “night club romance” (which frankly, fails to arouse at all), Love in the Key of Britpop is a raw exposé of a messy, insidious relationship whose participants were as hopelessly in love with each other as they were out of touch with the world beyond Oasis and Jarvis.

Adolescent and bleak, it is far from a piece of fanservice, though the topic of obsession—with music, with a person, with a time and place—is explored thoroughly and brought to a bitter-sweet conclusion. Emily Andersen performs well, and remains engaging throughout the hour. Greater use of dynamics and modulation in her voice would improve the piece further, and the illustrative add-ons (picking up a CD, lounging in the chair, dancing) give nothing and should be discarded. I also wonder if the text could afford to be a little denser at times, slightly more twisted or disjunctive. I managed to grasp everything immediately and very clearly which meant that, while I followed the narrative with ease, I felt robbed of experiencing the darker, messier, contradictory side of language which poetry can adopt and utilise so well. All up, though, I’m glad I caught this one—a good performance and a touching story.—Jonathan Price

img_nzfringe2014-8Bus Ticket
Pat-a-cake Productions
Bus Stop, 16 Kent Terrace
| February 25-28

The bus is late. A small crowd waits at the stop, makes chit-chat to pass the time and clutch at assigned bus tickets. I meet a high-school friend, we summarise a few years in as many sentences—once on board we sit apart. By the time the play begins, that subtle balancing act of personal conduct and public expectation has already been tested.

The work is daring and canny, the cast are strikingly consistent. The impersonal bus ride is animated by characters who have varying degrees of social anxiety. Raymond (Lewis Mcleod) is an extroverted job seeker who befriends Sophie (Lydia Buckley), a shy Greenpeace activist. Others include an adolescent relationship on the rocks (Angela Fouhy and George Fenn) and a poet (Matt Bloomfield). Performances are a mix of dialogue and movement; Fouhy in particular shines in the hilarious execution of her toilette. Callum Devlin’s musical accompaniment is clever and fun, jittery like the bus. When we reach our destination, the atmosphere has mellowed and I feel much closer to my fellow passengers.

The proximity between performer and audience sometimes blurs observation and participation, not in a way that makes me feel critically involved, but immersed and helpless. In this sense it may be too easy to detach oneself from any meaning behind the action. But this aside, Bus Ticket is an engaging experience.—Michael Boyes

Red Scare Collective
The Moorings | February 25-March 1

Perhaps the most striking thing about this show is how complete it feels, how very well done it is. Red Scare’s musical ticks all the boxes, and without ever feeling like it’s striving too hard—lots of songs, the uplifting theme (recapitulated at the end, of course, in rousing manner), and a sure-footed domestic drama to hang it all on. It’s all there, and for that the writer, composer, and director team of Cassandra Tse, Bruno Shirley, and Erin Thompson deserve mention, for finessing a form that I presume is relatively new to them, at least in practice. You feel like you could be in a studio theatre on Broadway. Of course, you aren’t, you’re at The Moorings in Thorndon and that, plus the fact that all the performers also comprise the live band, makes the experience doubly charming.

The story, about a same-sex couple trying to have a baby—and their clingy sperm-donor friend—refreshingly down-plays the gay aspect in favour of presenting, well, real people. The energetic, if sometimes forced, performances mean we find something to like in all the characters. My only quibble is that, while it feels like attempts have been made to draw characters of a similar age and experience to the company (and presumably their primary audience), some formulaic dialogue and overuse of verbal cliches (“this is as hard for me as it is for you,” etc.) makes them appear altogether too neat and tidy, too plastic. Show me some messiness, roughness-around-the-edges, some every-day grunge, and they’re far more likely to grab my imagination.—Jonathan Price

Alice May Connolly
People’s Cinema | February 26-March 2

Tutankhamun is bored stiff, but his luck changes when a possum—or Poss—stumbles upon his tomb. ‘tut’ is a portrait of a possum from the flip side. She’s a dancer, highly sociable too. And together Poss and tut discover some sort of cathartic, humorous redemption.

It’s Alice May Connolly’s[1] awareness on stage that really pulls the show together. Her sense of pace and delivery is key to maintaining our investment, and complements the text’s unassuming, poetic comedy. The writing is in a magical-realist style, transporting our imaginations to luminous places, and suddenly grounding us with visceral, stark imagery. What develops is a clever contrast of Poss’s unfaltering optimism with under-currents of fear, self-denial, and loss. With Hilary Penwarden’s supporting performance as tut, the work is accessible and never feels over wrought.

On stage to the far right Oliver Devlin provides pretty excellent musical accompaniment—I even got a song request during the intro. An OHP sits in the centre stage, flanked by tut’s armchair and fishbowl. Something magical happens with a disco ball. Lo-fi, lots of fun, and Connolly’s Poss suit is a real winner.—Michael Boyes

img_nzfringe2014-11Beauty is a Beast
Charlotte McShane
Puppies | February 27-March 2

Is it because this show contains ‘interpretive dance’, ‘song’, and ‘spoken word’ that it qualifies as theatre (according to the Fringe programme) rather than comedy? Because none of these manifest in Charlotte McShane’s show in a way that rises above the level of piss-take. This is a stand-up routine, through and through. With interludes. A shame, too, because hairiness, hairlessness, expectations of appearance, double standards, and the beauty myth are all things worth engaging in dialogue about. But McShane barely scratches the surface, instead hashing out a series of jokes that consist of illustrating the details of female hair and hair removal with forced candour that makes me think she has seriously overestimated the illicitness of her disclosures—I’ve already had these conversations with friends, and in much more detail. Is it wrong to say the show is more for women? Certainly they were laughing most, and always, it seemed, through the satisfaction of identification, rather than insight or revelation. All fine, but I wonder if there is a missed opportunity here to engage both sexes in the conversation—how often do you have a captive audience of both, ah, ‘sides’ to talk about this stuff? Oh, and you know a lot of men trim, pluck, and shave too, right?—Jonathan Price

Dianna Fuemana
BATS Theatre | March 1-8

The life of a young Nuiean boy growing up in Auckland is told with deep affection in Dianna Fuemana’s two-hander. We meet Tommy (Ali Foa’i), a young child embroiled in the trials and tribulations of playground politics. He fights of bullies, confronts crushes, and negotiates his Nuiean cultural roots and life in New Zealand.

In the background is Tommy’s mum (Bianca Seinafo), a single mother who we only meet when dealing with the consequences of Tommy’s misadventures. Through Tommy’s eyes we see glimpses of his mother dealing with the cops, talking to neighbours and mastering Skype.

Thanks to Scotty Cotter’s direction the piece zooms along. However. a few odd decisions dampen the impact of the play: characters converse facing towards the audience rather than looking at each other, a convention ruined when characters speak over each other.

Leaving us with a clear picture of the difficulties and opportunities facing young Nuieans, Birds balances character drama with social insight wonderfully, leaving audiences charmed.—Samuel Phillips

img_nzfringe2014-13Barefaced Stories in New Zealand
BATS Theatre | March 1

A series of real-life stories delivered from the mouths of those who experienced them. No texts on stage, just a mic and a story. On this particular evening five speakers sat at the wings as hosts Andrea Gibbs and Kerry O’Sullivan ferried us between them, gracious and consistently funny. In chronological order we glimpsed the lives of Ines Almeida, Uther Dean, James Nokise, Eamonn Marra, and Freya Desmarais. Success rests on storytelling ability, so whether or not they identify as entertainers is a little beside the point. As audience, we’re motivated by the promise of truth. Of course, so are the people on stage. So what’s the pay off?

Well, theatre as therapy isn’t normally my jam, a predicament which Barefaced avoids, I feel partially due to Gibbs and O’Sullivan’s screening process, and their repartee between audience and those speaking. Although there are a variety of subjects, from an encounter with Flavor Flav to a foray into fetish, each narration shares similarities in structure (“this happened a couple of years ago when I…”) and comedic timing. Where some take the chance to naturalise style (Dean’s pristine, articulate lists, or Nokise’s loosened comedy persona) others seem to stylise the natural, but this just seems a fancy way to say “looked uncomfortable on stage.”

Barefaced has now reached its fourth year of production—for more information, I really recommend checking out their website. As a one off, this evening felt exciting but ungrounded.—Michael Boyes

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

[1] Full disclosure: Alice May Connolly is a regular contributor to The Lumière Reader.