By Finnius Teppett
Directed by Romain Mereau
Presented by etc. productions
Basement Theatre, Auckland | March 24-28
Ushers opens with a dislocating scene. A patron dozing off in a theatre lobby is woken up by the overhead speaker and told the show is beginning. He can’t seem to find his way to the door, but the omniscient voice (eventually) guides him the right way. It’s a great introduction to an absurdist comedy. But, for all the show promises, the result is a twenty-something workplace comedy that mostly teases at bigger things. More Clerks than Waiting for Godot.
The bulk of the play rests on a simple premise: five ushers have to wait outside the doors for a show to finish. Choosing to forego any plot, writer Finnius Teppett relies solely on the characters, their quirks and conversations to keep the ball rolling. It’s an immense challenge to keep an audience entertained without any real conflict. And to Teppett’s credit, while far from perfect, Ushers is never boring.
Of the ushers, Jess Holly Bates and Arlo Gibson give the most compelling performances, portraying manic and misanthropic respectively. Cole Jenkins and Saraid Cameron, while equally talented performers, have far more conventional parts, playing two halves of a one-sided friendship that strains believability. As a happy-go-lucky newbie with limited dialogue, Phoebe Borwick’s usher feels the least essential. All five actors mine a lot of comedy from their roles, but the underdeveloped characterisations prevent them from being anything close to relatable.
Hamish Parkinson as their supervisor is the standout though. While the other characters are written and performed with a mostly naturalistic flavour, he is full-blown otherworldly, belonging to a much weirder, much stranger play. The biggest laughs in the play are deservedly attributed to him.
A lot of the humour is found in the entitlement and pretensions of the ushers themselves, specifically as twenty-something millennials. Each character is familiar in one way or another, though dramatised heavily for comedic effect. The script runs into trouble when it doesn’t know where to take the characters though, never giving them believable character beats or arcs, despite some last-minute attempts at pathos.
For all the verbal sparring that takes place, there’s a sense of tension that feels absent, though the actors compensate with convincing enthusiasm. More than anything, it lacks a much-needed sense of claustrophobia that you expect from a one location play. I wanted to feel like the characters were trapped in a prison of their own making, as in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, not casually drifting in and out of the scene without consequence.
This is only reinforced by Christine Urquhart’s set, an abstract lobby limbo, which displays an inspired understanding of surrealism, but unfortunately clashes with the rest of the production. Romain Mereau’s direction and vision for the show, while never bad, lacks the focus necessary to pull everything together to work as a cohesive whole.
As in his previous play The Non-Surgeon’s Guide to the Appendectomy, Teppett displays an ear for engaging dialogue that shows an utter disregard for context. While Ushers is successful in bringing in the laughs, it isn’t as challenging as the former effort. There’s something too ordinary about it to be truly memorable. Ultimately, it feels like a bunch of conversations pulled out of a hat, filtered through Teppett’s assured voice. And while it is sometimes side-splittingly funning, not all the conversations feel stage-worthy.
While it might be less than the sum of its parts, Ushers offers plenty to appreciate. The performances are highly watchable and amusing. And the scenario itself, while never fully realised, is unique and refreshing. If it were just an ordinary slacker comedy it would probably be an easy recommendation, but Teppett is an ambitious playwright of obvious talent. The price of ambition is, unfortunately, sometimes an interesting failure. But I’ll take an interesting failure over an uninspired “well-made play” any day.
* * *
Choreography by Éric Languet
Presented by Footnote NZ Dance in collaboration with Danses en L’R
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | March 24-25
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Flashdance is a terrible film. At best, the critically-panned box-office success from 1983 is a polished turd with some hypnotic dance segments. It takes lazy Hollywood romcom tropes and conventions, mixes it with an odd premise (she’s a welder by day, dances at a bar at night!) and wraps it up with a truly ham-fisted ending.
What’s this got to do with Bbeals? Well, the title Bbeals is an amalgam of Beals (as in Jennifer Beals, star of Flashdance) and Babel (as in the Tower of Babel). The result is a kooky bastardisation of religion and celebrity culture. It is fantastic.
The piece opens up with a rather Brechtian tactic, introducing the dancers to the audience as “maniacs”, members of a cult that worships Jennifer Beals. A truly odd opening that highlights the absurd nature of the show’s premise. The rest of the performance relies on the dancers evoking imagery from biblical references to very specific moments from Flashdance. It’s a celebration and deconstruction of the idol, of Hollywood celebrities and fanatical fandom.
While it’s a thoroughly entertaining experience, the sexual objectification of the female body is one of the show’s major concerns. This is most effectively highlighted in a segment that deliberately critiques a “romantic” scene in Flashdance, featuring Beals taking off her bra from under her baggy sweater. Unsurprisingly, dance proves itself to be the perfect medium to explore the subject matter of the body.
Kudos to the dancers not only for their impressive physicality, but for their confidence as actors too. Each performer convincingly represents a different aspect of fanaticism. Emmanuel Reynaud and Alexandra Ford deserve particular mention, directly engaging the audience with their characters. Yann Costa’s live music and sound design is equally incredible, creating a soundscape that utilises excerpts from the film, ’80s synth and live guitar solos.
Choreographer Eric Languet has taken a concept that should absolutely not work, and knocked it out of the park. There’s just no good reason for Bbeals to exist, but it does, and we’re better off for it. You don’t need to know anything about dance to be captivated by every second on stage. This is the work of a consummate artist.
Bbeals is a dance show that feels truly theatrical, not limited by the conventions of mere movement, but fully embracing every facet of performance, text and sound. At times it comes across as overloaded and messy show, full of clashing ideas and relentless dance numbers, but it’s also a show that seems fully realised, achieving exactly what it has set out to do. And just when you think it has run out of any ideas, it ends on a disorienting but powerful note, a surprise that is unexpectedly moving and totally earned.
Do you need to be familiar with Flashdance to enjoy Bbeals? Not at all. Though I suspect it helps to give the show some context, especially with any direct references. But the show could be about any celebrity, big or small. This is a scathing and sympathetic satire of celebrity culture that does the impossible in feeling fresh.
An utterly bewitching production that mirrors a religious experience, Bbeals is a service well worth attending.