Written and directed by Anders Falstie-Jensen
Q Theatre, Auckland | May 30-June 9
“I’m Gandhi!” That’s only one example of a great line from an inventive, hilarious, and fresh play from the Rebel Alliance Theatre Company. Standstill is the brainchild of writer-director Anders Falstie-Jensen and is an existential comedy with three actors (Andi Crown, Kevin Keys and Josephine Stewart Tewhiu) playing a wide variety of characters, but the most important, and brilliant, part is that all three actors walk on treadmills for the entire play. The actors, and by proxy, their characters are at a standstill both literally and metaphorically.
It’s a brilliant concept for a play and a visually powerful one at that. There’s something very funny about seeing people walk against something but never actually going somewhere, it’s almost slapstick, but by the end of the play it turns into a very dark visual: These characters aren’t going anywhere with their lives, they’re very much caught at a standstill, as the title suggests.
The play switches between a variety of characters and plotlines without missing a beat. It’s a credit to Falstie-Jensen both as a writer and as a director that it’s not only easy to keep up with the shifts between plots, but it’s refreshing when we return to previous plotlines. Some of these plotlines definitely stand out, such as series of scenes with a potential Olympic cyclist with a funny/troubled (this play is often both!) past and two people going to a motivational speaker who is all about visualizing goals and bullet points, but all are effective at moving the play to the point it is trying to make. A lot of credit also has to go to the actors’ switch between these on the fly, and with some simple changes in staging (that is, moving around the treadmills); they do a lot of the work in making the transitions swift and seamless.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and all three actors excel at adjusting to the suitably abrupt tonal shifts of the play; the switch from a comedic beat to a very heavy and dramatic beat is sudden, but very appropriate for these characters. Particular highlights for me were Andi Crown’s tour guide, Kevin Keys’s smitten nurse and Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu’s motivational speaker, but they all made these characters feel palpably human to me. The ensemble highlight for me was all three playing factory line workers, an initially comic scene that is revealed to have a much deeper meaning to it. Much kudos to the cast for shading in weightier, darker bits not only throughout this scene, but throughout the rest in the play.
Standstill does two things that I think are vital to theatre, and any medium with an audience, frankly: it’s enjoyable and it’s intelligent. I don’t want to underplay how hilarious Standstill is, and how much mileage the play gets out of the treadmills and the various things people can do on them; crawling, walking, and even using one as a conveyor belt are utilised throughout the play to great effect. It’s also a whole lot of fun to watch throughout; the actors keep the pace up and no scene ever feels like it has outstayed its welcome. It’s one of the things that draw an audience, or at least an audience like me, into a play, whereby I care more about the plight of the characters and what happens to them.
As well as being enjoyable, Standstill is also an incredibly intelligent work. It only really hit me as I was walking out of the theatre and onto Queen Street how cleverly this play used the image of the treadmill. Not only is it visually interesting—there’s a kind of hypnotic pleasure to be taken in watching the belt of the treadmill move consistently backwards—but it’s poignant. All the characters throughout are wanting to move forward, wanting more in their lives, but they can’t fight against their own limitations, in skill or in their mind, or the limitations that are placed on them. The play underlines this with some very sharp denouements to plotlines, heart-breaking in some cases, and strangely fitting with others. The characters are also literally moving against the treadmill; constantly moving forward or trying to move forward but kept tragically in the same place. It layers the comedy with a dark slant; one that I think serves the play and the characters well.
Standstill ends with a very arresting image that I shan’t spoil, but it’s one that will stay with me for a very long time, which is what I expect the play will do as well. I think it’s a hopeful ending though—even if the characters are all striving towards something but remain in some kind of hopeful stasis, that does suck but maybe it’s okay? And maybe it is okay that we never reach what we want but remain hopeful regardless? The play raises these questions and more, and it does so without being either a bore or a chore, and that is reason enough for me to recommend the play. Thankfully, it’s a whole lot of fun on top of that!