A Comedy Festival Dispatch: Stephen K. Amos, Battle of the Bastards, Idiots of Ants, Arj Barker

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
At the New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2013: Stephen K. Amos is The Spokesman; David Ladderman in Battle of the Bastards; Idiots of Ants present Model Citizens; plus, Arj Barker’s Go Time.

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Stephen K. Amos is super-funny.

It’d be easy (and almost appropriate) to leave the review there. It feels bad to spoil the myriad charms and surprises of The Spokesman (Auckland, through until May 4; Wellington, May 5) by describing them here, but I’m going to try anyway.

The bulk of the show’s appeal comes from Amos’s loose performance style: He riffs on and with the audience, at length, and with such precision and timing that it could be pre-planned. It speaks volumes of his talent that these riffs are as hilarious as his other material, where he riffs on his unsuitability as a spokesman, his phobia of water, and his own twin sister.

Even when he goes on tangents, like establishing a rapport with a hapless young man in the front row, the show is compelling and it’s a credit to Amos’s presence that we feel like we’re in safe hands the whole time. It also helps that these tangents are always hilarious, and are just as funny as Amos’s planned material.

Amos’s style of humour is irreverent, pointed, and possibly more offensive to the more timid members of the audience, which thankfully don’t include me. He gets in some great digs at New Zealand; it can be occasionally jarring to see an overseas comic make jokes at New Zealand culture or current affairs, but Amos gets through that barrier on the basis of how well he seems to know the country, and by tackling jokes we’ve heard before with his own fantastic spin. At a key moment, he also reads out audience suggestions of what he should be a spokesman for, and manages to poke fun at himself as much as he does at the suggestions. It’s this involvement that keeps him from being off-putting, and keeps us laughing with him as much as we’re laughing at him (and his targets).

All this seems extraneous though. I could leave the review at “Stephen K. Amos is super-funny” and be entirely true. He is super-funny. But he’s also intelligent, charismatic, a little bit mean, and puts on a damn good show.

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I knew nothing about Battle of the Bastards (Auckland, through until May 4; Wellington, May 15-18) going in, other than that it was going to be something to do with King Lear. Based on that vague description, I was already keen. And if that description makes you even the slightest bit keen, I encourage you to go and see this show without reading the review. It’s more than worth your time and money. It’s a hilarious piece of comedy, a brilliant feat of showmanship, and a beautiful piece of theatre.

Without giving too away much, Battle of the Bastards centres on one of the subplots of King Lear: specifically, the story of Edmund’s betrayal of his brother, Edgar and his father, The Earl of Gloucester. Starting off with an energetic, relentlessly charming warm-up and introduction to the show, David Ladderman tells this part of one of the most famous plays in the world. And he makes it really, really funny.

The show lives on Ladderman, plain and simple. I can’t imagine Battle of the Bastards working without his enthusiasm, his presence and his goofy charisma. It’s hard enough to get a white, middle-class audience in central Auckland to get worked up as it is, but to get them worked up about Shakespeare—and King Lear for that matter—is a miracle. Ladderman’s enthusiasm for his material is infectious. I’m not sure how often he’s performed this show, but it felt like the first time in the very best way, and it makes the audience just as enthusiastic. Our awkward crowd went from not really knowing what they were getting, to wanting the next scene, the next punch line to come along. It’s obviously a credit to Shakespeare’s play and how ironclad the structure is, but it’s also a credit to Ladderman’s talents as a performer.

In Battle of the Bastards, Ladderman gets to not only portray a variety of characters from Lear, namely Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester, and does it with his own spin that’s as inspired as any I’ve seen, but he also gets to be damn funny. It’s hard to describe the comedy of Battle of the Bastards, but Ladderman makes his whole endeavour gut-bustingly funny, whether it’s poking fun at the text, the audience’s unfamiliarity with it, or the audience itself. He’s laughing at himself as much as we are, and not in a way that seems arrogant or amateurish, but in a way that involves us and makes us part of the show and the experience.

I could go on about Ladderman’s brilliance for hundreds of words and I’m tempted to, but it’s easier to just go see the show. Less than a week into the NZ International Comedy Festival and I’m tempted to call it one of the best. It’s definitely one of the most inventive, intelligent shows you’ll see in the festival.

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I’ve never been to a live sketch comedy show before. My first impression was that it’s incredibly different from watching one on TV. My second impression was that it’s even more fun than watching one on TV.

I’ve never heard of or seen Idiots of Ants before because I’m bad at YouTube and apparently bad at comedy festivals, but they delighted me on this first viewing. Winners of Best International Act at the NZ International Comedy Festival last year and comprised of members Andrew Spiers, James Wrighton, Elliot Tiney, and Benjamin Wilson, Idiots of Ants bring their new sketch show, Model Citizens (Auckland, through until May 4), complete with props, tricks, and a boatload of sound cues, to “answer all the important questions.”

I didn’t notice a thematic link between the sketches, not that it mattered when every sketch was as funny as the one before. From a baby-tossing sketch to a coin-dropping one, all four performers were totally game and committed to their sketches, whether or not anything went wrong. As it’s opening night for a very tech heavy show, a few things go wrong, but the performers go along with it and poke fun at it and themselves.

It’s a credit to the Idiots of Ants themselves that the show comes across so easy and enjoyable. All four performers are loose, charismatic (there’s that word again, turns out it’s a good trait if you’re in comedy), and have great chemistry with each other. It’s a genuine pleasure to see them break from a sketch and laugh at each other—they’re in it as much as we are—and it keeps the show alive and moving.

It’s a hard show to praise. The sketches are funny, the performers are engaging and also funny, and it’s a brisk, entertaining hour. The show works well in the Rangatira Space, it’s lit gorgeously for a comedy act, and the performer’s presence is enough to fill the space. It’s funny—go see it.

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Some of his lines in the second series are classic,” Madame Butterfly told me. Flight of the Conchords made Arj Barker’s name as Dave. There was something endearing as well as hilarious about the character who reminds you of the mate who’s always smacktalking about women. Barker was funny (albeit forgettable) two years ago, and he was funny in Wellington last night with Go Time. Though he opened and closed his 90 minute set with musical numbers, this was a less Daveian show.

Though Barker did amusingly shout out for single fullas and single ladies to make the most of their Wednesday nights, suggesting he could be part of the “go time.”

As a proud childless (and unconventionally employed) uncle myself, I appreciated Barker’s claim he was inspiring his nephews to do their own thing: be “pretired,” live life how you want to, don’t wait until you’re 65 to make the most of things.

Barker poked fun at job creation. He continued the rich Conchordian tradition of mocking asinine Tourism NZ marketing, suggesting New Zealand should be a more idle nation, one big barbeque under the slogan “New Zealand: We’re Done.” He jested about “job creation on aisle six” after the show, him spraying mayonnaise through a convenience store.

The show got particularly good about 68 percent of the way through. Other highlights included a ‘green’ urinal, why (“first world”) diarrhoea is good, and burning Aucklanders. I’ll go next time.—Alexander Bisley.

The New Zealand International Comedy Festival runs from April 26-May 19 in Auckland, Wellington, and at selected nationwide venues.
This article was updated May 9, 2013 with a review of ‘Arj Barker: Go Time’.