Dispatches from the Auckland Fringe Festival 2015, Part 1

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
At the Auckland Fringe Festival: Live Orgy, Girl on a Corner, Rising Voices: Summer Series, Gift of the Gab, Break Up [We Need to Talk], Matthew Harvey Blows Up.

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img_liveorgyLive Orgy
Presented by Freya Desmarais
Auckland Pride Festival 2015
Basement Theatre | February 9-11

Live Orgy might be best described as a sex education show with a feminist slant. Covering topics from sexual consent to women’s milestones in New Zealand history, the potentially didactic subject matter is delivered with the upmost sincerity by Desmarais, never preaching or pointing fingers at any one particular group, only at ignorance itself.

Whether Desmarais is dryly asking the males of the audience to line up to be milked or divulging extremely intimate personal experiences, there are plenty of hilariously awkward moments to give the audience much needed (dis)comfort. She successfully pushes us out of our comfort zones and, in doing so, makes us more honest. And isn’t honesty the core of what we should be teaching people? Anything else would just be pure condescension.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect show. Desmarais’s parodic rap pieces mostly fall flat, and some of her analogies, though amusing, seem like mostly filler. But, at its best, Live Orgy asks us to fap for freedom and liberate ourselves from any guilt or shame. The only unfortunate thing is that the audience coming to the show is not the audience that needs it the most. In a better world, Live Orgy would be performed in schools nationwide, helping to correct decades of sex-negative education.

img_girlonacornerGirl on a Corner
Presented by Multinesia Productions
Auckland Pride Festival 2015
Basement Theatre | February 9-14

Girl on a Corner is based on the life of Shalimar (Amanaki Prescott), a fa’afafine famous for being picked up by Eddie Murphy. It follows her on a journey from American Samoa to Los Angeles, dreaming to make it big. The subtitle for the play is “a fairytale inspired by a true story” which couldn’t be more appropriate; it doesn’t delve into any profound depths, but it’s a moving, magical imagining of a young woman’s life. But, unlike Cinderella, Shalimar’s story doesn’t end with a happily ever after. At the very beginning she tells us that she dies at the young age of 21.

Writer Victor Rodger’s unique voice shines through vibrantly in a script filled with infectiously sassy dialogue, perfectly dated 90s pop-culture references, and touching humanism. There are moments of sentimentality that verge toward melodrama, but they never betray the heart of the story. Rodger deserves his reputation as one of New Zealand’s leading playwrights—not just of Pacifica stories, but unique stories, full stop. More importantly, he rejects the notion that all good New Zealand plays have to be about New Zealand.

Directed with minimalist style by Anapela Polataivo and Vela Manusaute, Girl on a Corner is performed with no set changes and a bare stage. Shalimar’s pivotal years are presented with seamless transitions using the simple device of direct address by the girl herself. Featuring one of the most cohesive acting ensembles you’ll probably on stage all year, this production is the result of a hardworking team giving everything they’ve got in a high-energy performance. But the real star of the show is Amanaki Prescott. Prescott’s performance is a homage, tribute and love letter to Shalimar, exuding an undeniably youthful fragrance.

Despite being a work of fiction, Rodger’s play feels more true to Shalimar than any so-called facts you might ever read in the papers. This is not the story of a fa’fafine, though she is one. This is not the story of a prostitute, though she does become one. This is the story of a unique individual who was swallowed up by the big city before she got her chance to shine. Shalimar was destined to be remembered merely as a footnote in Eddie Murphy’s history, but with Girl on a Corner Murphy becomes a footnote in Shalimar’s.

img_risingvoicesRising Voices: Summer Series
Presented by Auckland Live and Niu Navigations
Herald Theatre | February 12-14

Evaluating the merits of performance poetry is not an easy task. How do you review someone baring their soul in front of a live audience? There’s certainly nothing more personal. The purpose of Rising Voices: Summer Series is to showcase young, emerging performance poets. And, to be sure, it did that. On the opening night, Romy Hooper, Shaq Leot and Ashleigh Fata gave moving performances. Unfortunately one of the featured poets, Nancy Maiava, was unable to make it. Luckily for the audience, co-producers and curators of the show, and well-established performance poets themselves, Grace Taylor and Mohamed Hassan, stepped in.

Taylor opened the show with a short and sharp piece, exploring the murky territory of being an Afakasi (half Samona, half white) woman. Issues of race, guilt and identity were all touched upon with humorous and honest observations. Hooper followed, contemplating the contrary nature of being with lines such as “my head’s telling my feet to follow my heart, but where’s that ever led me?” Her feelings were conveyed in a down-to-earth manner, less performance than intimate confessional. But of the titular rising voices, it was Leot, with his rapid-fire delivery backed up with devout dedication to the form itself, who shone the brightest. Up next was Fata who had prepared multiple pieces, but her most affecting was a tribute to feminism, a tribute to women who had paved way for other women like herself. The show closed off with Hassan, in the most mesmerising piece, evoking a thought-provoking narrative as he switched back and forth between a fortuneteller and a man searching for answers. This is what performance poets aspire to be.

Theatrical elements were stripped back, leaving only a microphone, simplistic lighting and an empty stage for the poems themselves to breathe. The perfect environment to enjoy the pleasure of words in their naked glory. It was, however, slightly unfortunate there were some minor slip-ups during each of the performances by the emerging poets. The audience was forgiving, but the poetic spell broke during these moments. All in all, an enjoyable showcase of up-and-coming talent, but with plenty of room to grow. I look forward to seeing more of them in the future. 

img_giftofthegabGift of the Gab
Presented by With Our Powers Combined
Basement Theatre | February 14-16

Devised shows can be a tricky thing to get right. Even the most successful theatre companies have struggled with them. Plots are usually undercooked, characterisation tends to be shallow, and dialogue is mostly derivative. Gift of the Gab suffers from all of these things, despite its best attempts to lampoon blockbusters and just have a good time.

The premise is pretty convoluted: Gab is a cinema attendant who does great Alan Rickman impersonations, and somehow he gets involved with Jennifer Lawrence, Ian Mckellen, and the real Alan Rickman, who has been summoned by an entity living in the movies to sacrifice actors. It’s all basically an excuse for James Cain, the show’s lone performer, to put on his best Rickman impersonations in front of a makeshift projector screen displaying supercuts of all your favourite films. If the show manages to find any footing, it’s due to Cain’s madcap dedication to the roles. His enthusiastic physicality keeps the show from falling completely apart. The best examples of this are when he is forced to enact a training montage that contains moments from Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Billy Elliot, or when he is playing multiple characters in the same scene.

Ultimately, for a show that should be gratuitous fun, it comes off cold and impersonal. Its main consolation is that it’s light and easy entertainment. There’s an early moment where Gab talks about growing up with the movies and watching Star Wars with his brother, and how he’s always idealised the notion of working at the movies. It’s a sentiment I can identify with intensely, but it’s severely underutilised. If there’s a lesson Gift of the Gab can take from the movies, it’s that the best ones have heart.

img_breakupBreak Up [We Need to Talk]
Presented by Binge Culture
Basement Theatre | February 14

At a whopping six hours, Break Up [We Need to Talk] is an ambitious project. A cast of five improvise a long-winded breakup for the entire length of the show. Four performers are seated at the back of the stage, while a fifth performer sits in front of them, all facing the audience. The performers in the back speak as one half of a couple, and the performer in the front speaks as the other half. The set is decorated with heart-shaped balloons and a single lit candle. Oh, and for some reason, they’re all dressed up in life-size banana costumes.

The audience is given permission to leave the show anytime they like and come back at their own discretion. Having only watched the first and last hour of the show myself, I observed the following: the show opens before the couple are aware they want to break up, but there’s the irrefutable sense that things have gone bad, or at least very stagnant. The last hour, on the other hand, takes place in the middle of negotiating the break up itself, in a sort of extended will-they-or-won’t-they scenario. But, even having missed four hours of performance, it was easy enough to slip back into the slow-motion breakup.

To its detriment, Break Up [We Need to Talk] emulates the feeling of a relationship at the cusp of a breakup too well. It’s like staring into a mundane reflection of the worst and most clichéd parts of your own experiences. Conflict is circled around rather than tackled head on. Apologies and evasion are required to keep the relationship and the show running until the closing minutes where they finally reach an impasse. The most entertaining moments are those that border on parody of relationship arguments, where the rubber band of rational behaviour is stretched beyond belief. Yes, it’s a demanding show for the performers, but it never asks much of the audience, giving us little reason to stay. What seems missing is something that differentiates the show from the similar conversations we’ve already had in real life. There is no sense of history between this abstract couple, so no emotional suspense. And, unfortunately, a lot of the production choices seem arbitrary, without adding anything to the proceedings. Why six hours for the breakup? Why five actors to play one couple? Why the banana costumes? The result is an interesting experiment in absurdity rather than an engaging or exciting piece of theatre. 

img_matthewharveyMatthew Harvey Blows Up
Presented by Matthew Harvey
Basement Theatre | February 14, 21 & 28

Disclaimer: Matthew Harvey Blows Up is an hour long, one-man poetry show. Second Disclaimer: It’s actually a lot of fun.

Forget what you know or think about poetry. Forget performance poetry or poetry slams. Forget about the Romantics or Beat poets. This is poetry at its most unpretentious. This is a fringe show at the furthest end of the fringe. After all, who wants to see a lanky Englishman reading poems? And it seems that Matthew Harvey, star of the show, is well aware of this.

Matthew Harvey is an affable and unassuming fellow. Matthew Harvey is a guy you can have a beer or scribble sonnets with, all rolled into one. Matthew Harvey is somewhat balding but full of heart. His show is not exactly a theatrical spectacle, but it is poetry made accessible without being dumbed down. Be seduced by his comedic verse and earnest delivery. Highlights include: rants and raves, a genuinely sweet love poem, and Dante’s 10th circle of hell (the comments section of the New Zealand Herald website).

There’s an undeniable sense of craft in to his poetry. He rhymes and times like a wizard of words, so be spellbound or at least moderately amused as he sweats his way through his enjoyable one-hour show. Matthew Harvey might not be saying anything new, but he does manage to say it in his own unique voice. And that, my fellow Fringe followers, is quite rare. If you go see Matthew Harvey Blows Up you are taking steps to make poetry fun again. It might not be the best show you’ll see at the Auckland Fringe Festival, but it might be the most charming. Take the risk.

The Auckland Fringe Festival 2015 runs from February 9-March 1.