The Current Theatre:
March/April 2011

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
A bi-monthly commentary on the Wellington theatre scene. In this edition: Fringe Festival 2011, Capital E National Arts Festival, Outgames 2011.

The Fringe

This year’s Fringe Festival was marked most noticeably by a scaling down in size. There was an obvious reduction in coverage and awareness, with Fringe programmes becoming an almost mythical rariety—I saw a pile of them in Ngaio once but may have been dreaming. With the entry fee almost doubling from 2010—from just under $200 to $370—the amount of events virtually halved from around one hundred to fifty-odd. What this reduction in scale has done, apart from speak very directly to current economic and cultural climates, was remove the highs and lows of the festival. What 2011’s Fringe really lacked that had so characterised previous festivals, was the electrifyingly amazing and joltingly appalling work that lurked around every corner in the years gone by. This was a Fringe of the “Pffft. That was fine. I guess.”

This Rugged Beauty, the latest work by leading lights of the young theatre scene the Binge Culture Collective, was a clear highlight. It has taken some big steps forward from its workshop season in The Peek Party (reviewed in the previous column) earlier in the year and was, overall, a handsome and dense exploration of the questions around the Kiwi experience. However, one or two ideas that were clearly underdeveloped in their execution—actors posing as mannequins in Te Papa style displays being the most obvious example—drag the pace of the whole piece down. Also, the final sequence where the audience must help the cast as beached whales swim back out to shore went on for far too long, and what started as an emotional and beautiful image slowly dissolved into emotional pornography for hipsters. These slight flaws lessen the tension and grip that Binge’s work normally delivers—the static shock that makes their work such compulsive viewing—making This Rugged Beauty a slightly damper squib than it deserves to be.

The only major disappointment of the Fringe was Quarantine by Bard productions, whose Frogs Under The Waterfront was a surprise hit of Fringe 2009. Performed on Matiu/Somes Island, heavy expectations were built by an atmospheric boat trip to the location, but sadly, all aura of occasion and illusion was removed when as soon as you were off the boat, you were herded into a room to be “fumigated” by what was clearly a smoke machine under some canvas, and forced to walk up the long side of the hill into a hall that could be anywhere. What is the point of taking an audience to an island if you’re just going to plonk them into a space that could be any community hall in town? In this anywhere hall is where the actual theatre part of the experience takes place. A more pretentious, drawn out and mis-directed spectacle I haven’t seen in quite a while. The plot was incomprehensible, the performances hit one level of hysteria and stayed there for what seemed like countless hours, and the in-the-round set up was constantly made redundant by amatuerish blocking. There was a real buzz around this show—it sold out before it opened its door—and there was some stunning design in there somewhere. Which all adds up to make it even more of a disappointment. The overwhelming feeling one got coming out of Quarantine was a profound wasting of potential. Which is a massive pity.

BATS had a typically solid, if largely uninspiring, run of shows in the Fringe:

Aliens of Poverty Bay had come a long way since its Peek Party showing to bloom into an interesting and heartfelt exploration of obsession. Howevr, performer Dan Weekes does need to find a director who will crack the whip a little harder when it comes to things like structure and comprehension—too often good lines or plot points were lost behind mumbling or glossing over.

Big Trouble in Small Newtown, a work by recent Toi Graduates Jennifer Martin and Bianca Seinafo, proved them both to be incredible talented comic performers in deep need of some limitations. They try to do too much with this show and it ends up being less than the sum of its parts, largely by way of its patchiness and vast amount of superfluous in-jokes.

Contrite Elegant Rebel was a visually dazzling showcase of the work of band Porcelintoy, and was another clear highpoint of the festival, but the often overwhelming amount of stuff going on at all times—especially the totally unneeded AV—tipped it over at points into a rather over-egged pudding.

Diamond Dogs was a bravely personal exploration of depression by writer/performer Kate Fitzroy, and should be commended for its sheer honesty. Unfortunately, an unfocused directorial tone and far too much reliance on technology for artificial wow distracted from the central thrust of the show, making it into a lot more therapy than theatre.

Joseph and Mahina was the latest show by uber prolific playwright Thomas Sainsbury. It is a marked step up from his earlier work, finally being about something when his earlier work erred too much on the side of disposable. The performances by Sainsbury himself and Renee Lyons were the strongest in the festival. Really the only negative in this work was the repetitive blinding of the audience with lights at the top of each scene, which went from being annoying, to being painful, to actually making you dread the continuation of the show. This doesn’t sound like much, but was enough of an irritant to make one reflect more negatively on the show as a whole.

Love in the Time of Vampires by Pachali Brewster was certainly entertaining, but certainly not the laugh riot it seemed to assume it was. Also, Brewster states that the three 20 minute shows which make up Vampires were written to be performable in any order or even separately—a claim which the sheer amount of continuing plots makes comically absurd, and one cannot help but feel that had the play been episodic as she had hoped, the show would have been markedly improved when freed from the shackles of the tortured ongoing narrative.

The Hooligan and The Lady was the interesting if clumsily told story of Flossie LeMar, one of the many unspoken heroines of the suffragette movement in New Zealand. It made up for being so oddly shaped—it felt like just the first two acts of a five act play, and it didn’t end so much as just stop—with stellar performances by Alex Greig, Allan Henry, and Rachel More.

There’s So Much To Live For was an impressive debut for Hungry Mile theatre. Director Freya Desmarais clearly has a very good eye for stage imagery and the thematics in her script are well observed. This is, however, let down by a patchy script, too loose-structure, and the fact that at least 70% of the play seems to be taken up with characters giving long anvilicious monologues about the themes rather than what is actually happening to them.

WIT-Side Story was a pretty standard demonstration of the solidity of the Wellington Improv Troupe’s skills. Some cast members struggled noticeably more than others with the new-to-the-company long form musical format of the show. Also, the show at points was marred by an overreliance on offensive stereotypes for cheap laughs.

At the Fringe bar, things were a lot more varied:

The Most Fun Funeral was a largely successful solo work by Anne Brashier. Chronicling some of the high and low points of her growing up, Brashier’s innate watchability as a performer and wicked wit occasionally conflict with Robin Kerr’s direction, which at times seems to want to make the show more theatrical and arch than it needs to be.

Motivation Conversationalists was an interesting idea largely ruined by how clearly unprepared and disinterested the cast of local comic talent were. The patches where it worked were, without doubt, hilarious, but this did not make up for the extended periods of fluff and padding.

Capital E Children’s Theatre Festival

This biannual festival of kiddie theatre is always something to look forward too. It is often filled to the brim with New Zealand’s best theatrical talent making beautiful pictures, without having to worry about silly little things like meaning or plot. The biggest draw of this festival was Hear To See, a visual spectacular with scenographic effects and awe-inspiring imagery that would have not looked out of place in the biggest International Festival shows. However, it did seem that this was a work of style over substance, as the plot was, at best, slight, with the moral at the end being either outright technophobic in the most boring way, or simply misjudged.

Vinnie Septic and the Princesses was a wonderfully grotesque piece of musical comedy. The only real complaint to be made about it was that the performers seemed a little unsure about their relationship with the audience. Some of the material went over the kids’ head, some went under, and there was an unease and awkwardness to all the audience interaction. This would, however, be easily fixed as the show grows more familiar to the performers over the course of the run.

Grimace was Awkward Productions’ (of Adagio and Deadly fame) contribution to the festival and while their trademark collision of circus and theatre was, no doubt, delightful and lush, it didn’t seem to translate that well to its intended audience. The extended slow and reflective sequences seemed to simply bore the children in the audience, and did little for me as an adult as well. Also, acrobats simply aren’t actors and so were often visibly befuddled when their audience threw them a curve ball.

The Outgames

It is such a pity that, given a queer culture so vibrant and creative, the theatrical arm of this year’s Outgames was such a disappointment. Tomboi: Laugh Your Bits Off, an attempt at sketch comedy, was so profoundly unfunny that it became almost embarrassing for this audience member to watch the two performer/director/writer/producers (I have never seen a show more desperately in need of outside feedback in its production process before) trot out seemingly unrehearsed skits full of references (Amy Winehouse, SuBo, Gnarls Barkely) that would have seemed mature two years ago. I didn’t laugh once.

Paul Jenden’s Fairy Stories was more of a success, but that does not mean it was by any means good. A tonally erratic collection of drag and dance, it veered from awkward middle class smut, to teeth-grindingly pretentious ‘movement’ sequences  to drag floor show lipsynced numbers by Britney and Lady Gaga. It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be and, as a result, became nothing. Also, it was far too long at two hours. Self-indulgent.

Fringe Festival 2011 ran from February 18-March 5; Capital E National Arts Festival from March 13-27; and Outgames 2011 from March 12-19.