The Mountebank

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_mountebankDirected by Stella Reid
Presented by Whitireia NZ and Long Cloud Youth Theatre
109 Dixon Street, Wellington | September 4-12

A Mountebank is a person who deceives and misdirects, and the venue for the latest work from Stella Reid’s Long Cloud Youth Theatre, The Mountebank, lives up to its name. Borrowing from Punchdrunk, this work takes its audience on an innovative, immersive journey.

Hosted at 109 Dixon Street, thanks to the excellent Urban Dream Brokerage, audiences gather in the foyer of a new hotel. The frame of the show casts the audience as party guests, invited to a party by an unseen ‘host’. The show is a ‘game’, and we win by finding the host, and deciphering why we’ve been invited.

We are warmed up and orientated to how we should be ‘performing’. Gathering in the foyer of the hotel, we are given a quick introduction and are ushered upstairs to the ‘Conference Room’. There, the Mountebank Hotel’s waiters serve us riddles on cards, allowing us to meet and greet other guests. I was able to team up with a complete stranger and attack the mystery together.

After some tentative first steps, individuals, pairs ,and groups depart and begin exploring the space. As we search each room and follow clues, we ask ourselves questions: who should we trust? What games are the right ones to play? Is there a correct way to go about the house? What’s the solution to the puzzle? We’re allowed inside highly decorated spaces; the foyer, the reception desk, conference rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms, and we’re are confronted with different puzzles and riddles. Along the way some audience members receive text messages with clues.

Each room is set up as a sort of installation. We rifle through guest bedrooms filled with personal belongings and sort through other people’s rubbish. Other rooms are set up with live video feeds and photographs, feeding the works exploration of surveillance. Chance and luck emerge as playing cards play an increasingly prominent role.

The young performers guide, lead, and nudge us. I caught one dramatised scene (although I assume there were a few a missed), but for the most part the performers were facilitators of the experience. The audience and the space were doing most of the work. For the most part we are guided through the hotel by assured, clear performers who seem most at ease when we are having a good time. Only in the downstairs space, where silence is insisted upon, are the performers’ ability to cajole really tested.

At the end of the piece, we are called back to the conference room. As with a typical murder mystery, we expect a grand reveal where our suspicions are rewarded, but instead we’re told the audience has already been divided into winners and losers, and we are the losers. Some are baffled, unsure how they’ve come to lose. Others seem angry, as if they’ve been cheated, as if not everyone had an equal chance to ‘win’.

However, we are sent home with a final mercy, a slip of paper that gives us access to an online resource. Here is where the show’s intentions are finally made explicit. The answers are revealed and The Mountebank Hotel’s promise “Asleep today, awake tomorrow” is realised.

Long Cloud has morphed from an exciting training company for actors into a company of actors who make exciting work. By letting its young members experience new ways of making, and by exposing their audience to ways theatre can be experienced, Long Cloud is seeding an exciting future for theatre in Wellington. I am really looking forward to their next production, but with their commitment to leading the charge into new ways of making, I am more excited to see these makers in 10 or 20 years.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.