A Comedy Festival Dispatch: James Nokise, Eamonn Marra, Alexander Sparrow, Tighty Whiteys, Kraken, Juan, two?

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
Acts of note at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival 2014. Reviews by MICHAEL BOYES, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM, SAMUEL PHILLIPS.

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img_jamesnokiseJames Nokise, The Bronaissance
BATS Theatre (Out of Site), Wellington | April 29-May 3

The Bronaissance, a sequel to James Nokise’s So-So Gangsta, is an election year special, raising awareness and battling voter apathy.

Your bros are your people, those who’re nearest and dearest. But they’re also The People. An election signifies two events; the coming together of diverse and disparate individuals; and unification of citizenry, engaged by a common action. The expression of political agency, then, is like a national renaissance (rebirth).

Nokise presents a chain of anecdotes linked through the theme of representation. Figurative art of the Renaissance segues into a social concept, where representation exposes a struggle for power—self-representation (e.g. Nokise’s fandom of The Crow led him to create an alternative persona, The Pigeon) vs. misrepresentation (the persistence of racial bigotry in New Zealand and abroad). This riff is finally expressed in the political arena. Voting is an expression of self-representation, yet one that has a profound impact on how others are represented also.

It’s near impossible not to connect with Nokise’s amiability and wit. His control never falters, the delivery is rapid fire and the outcome always pays off. Visual art by Sheyne Tuffery and Jeremy Leatinu’u is projected onto screens on stage. Shown alongside one another (including The Poet as Unionist, a poem by Karlo Mila provided in the program, music by Adam Page, and a punky ensemble by Suzanne Tamaki), I recall a choir that paradoxically consists of multiple voices.

The message undeniably leans to the left, but there’s material here to charm and challenge voters of every persuasion.—Michael Boyes

img_eamonnmarraEamonn Marra, Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Puppies, Wellington | May 5-8

Comedy typically requires a certain amount of bravado—understandable given the immediate and terrifying nature of performing. Eamonn Marra appeared to have no bravado at all. He genuinely appeared uncomfortable on stage, a stage presence closely linked to the overall themes of his show—namely, being scared to put oneself out there. And yet this brilliant show managed to turn depression, loneliness, and anxiety into something that was at once funny and sad, rich and deeply moving. Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown sets out to prove that Marra is “interesting”—a conclusion that is hard-won by Marra—as he moves through musical performances (occasionally not intended to be funny), reading out diary entries (one of the highlights), self-pity, audience compliments (read off a giant sheet at opportune moments), shared chips, and general homilies. He mixes political thought with a real sense of self-purging—it’s rare to see a comedian rely so much on empathy and kindness as a way of creating his humour. Puppies was a perfect setting for such an intimate show, but its overall trajectory was anything but self-obsessed or ‘small’. Marra’s show was ultimately a life-affirming piece of work, yet also a hilarious comedy that was more than a little bit moving. .—Brannavan Gnanalingam

img_alexandersparrowAlexander Sparrow, It Was Only a Joke
Kitty O’Shea’s, Wellington | May 6-10

Alexander Sparrow has the assurance and gravitas of a pro, suggesting the influence of his theatre background, and the fact that he has performed in numerous solo shows and theatre pieces around town. Dressed in a debonair purple suit (like Barney the dinosaur, he confessed) with slicked back hair (an attempt to look like a young Elvis) for It Was Supposed to be a Joke, Sparrow reeled off vignettes of his student life, antique shop working life, and desperate attempts to woo the opposite sex (most of them failing). His real strengths include the ability to shift a story with a left-field punchline, and completely demolish the foundations of any joke he had set up. His physical comedy is also impressive (his dancing ability/Lady Gaga impersonations in particular stood out).

Sparrow benefitted considerably from his self-deprecating nature on the night, which managed to save him at a couple of points when his stories meandered a bit too much. There were points when his stories didn’t seem fully formed—his ideas, given his undoubted intelligence, could have been pushed in more diverse directions. It also seemed that occasionally he didn’t trust his material enough, and held back when he could have gone further, or went too far in terms of content when trying to fill in a gap. That said, he has an impressive presence for someone so young, and while he is now taking a break to concentrate on writing, he certainly has a strong future ahead on the basis of this enjoyable show.—Brannavan Gnanalingam

img_tighteywhitiesTighty Whiteys
BATS Theatre (Out of Site), Wellington | May 6-10

Hayley Sproull and Chris Parker, co-creators of last year’s excellent Outsiders Guide, are back with their sequel, Tighty Whiteys. Last year’s show helped us cope with socially awkward outsiders, but this time “they’re going inwards.” Based on their own five-year-strong friendship, Tighty Whiteys is a crash course on creating and sustaining long-lasting friendships with Sproull and Parker as the tried and true model friends.

Tighty Whiteys is a sketch show taking us through cycles of arguments and reconciliation, with sketches ranging from self-contained scenes about forgetting to take anything to a pot-luck to karaoke-styled renditions of ‘Friendship’ from Anything Goes. There’s metaphor-laden beat-poetry using a swiss ball as friendship, competitive acrostic-poem offs, and many, many breakaway dance sequences. A brilliant, squirm-enducing sketch reveals the titular tighty whiteys as the two decide to push their relationship to the next level.

Voice-over titles break up the show and a tight lighting and sound design (Matt Eller) ensure the show zips along with the panache that made Outsiders Guide so successful.

In between sketches we come back to Chris and Hayley reflecting on the show and their friendship. They’ve even made ‘friendship boards’ for each other (that become a bone of contention later on…). However this meta-story really dominates and detracts from the real gold of the show; the reliance on ‘improvised’ spats and passive aggressive remarks leaves little time for cleverer sketches. In the hands of less likable comedians this would be a real problem, but Sproull and Parker are charming enough to tide us over.—Samuel Phillips

BATS Theatre (Out of Site), Wellington | May 6-10

Wellington has been spoiled in the last month. Two excellent clowns presented excellent shows: with Thomas Monkton in The Pianist and now Trygve Wakenshaw in Kraken, we’ve been treated to two deceptively simple, whimsical pieces that see the naive optimism of man confront epic challenges and take supreme joy in their success or failure. And, by taking the audience with them on their journeys, they transport even the stuffiest audience member into realms of play.

From his first appearance on stage, Trygve Wakenshaw has the audience in violent fits of laughter. He’s trying to reach the opposite corner of the stage but is held back by a few ropes, and his intuitive attempts to escape are hilarious. It’s all so simple, so mad and childlike, but so precise and disciplined. Mining the content for deeper meaning is fruitless; unicorns, dance parties, eagles, William Tell; it’s all geared towards getting us playing with him. As the piece continues, Wakenshaw’s virtuosity becomes the strongest through line.

If last year’s Squidboy was about sending us out of the theatre ready to look at the world with playful eyes, Kraken gets us to this place faster. By the end of our time with the Kraken we are literally playing games with him. A crazy adventure working where theatre works best.—Samuel Phillips

img_juantwoJuan, two?
Fringe Bar, Wellington | May 7-10

A banana sits on a microphone stand. An Indian flag is hanging below a turntable. A jar of chutney sits on a table. The set looks put together with all the coherency of an easily distracted child. And when the ever suave, ever charming Juan Vesuvius (Barney Duncan) enters through the audience, dressed in a ski suit, we exchange glances. Stripping off into a Carnival costume, he shows us why each item he’s collected is ‘beautiful’, interspersing this some neat music cues.

Then, all of a sudden, he starts making connections between the objects, and this work starts making sense. On the surface it’s a music-based standup act, but Juan, two? is so much more. The play weaves together Jamaican and Indian music history, international relations, and live DJing and a stage dive, and, best of all, leaves the audience dancing in the aisle.

It’s not perfect, Juan comes very close to losing his audience in the opening 20 minutes and his creation of a Calypso band teeters on chaos. But the technical elements are tight, Barney Duncan’s DJ skills are impressive, and the lighting operator is kept on his toes with onstage direction.

This work wraps the history of a fascinating genre of music within a party atmosphere, making Juan, two? another rocking success in the Juan Vesuvius canon.—Samuel Phillips

The New Zealand International Comedy Festival runs from April 24-May 18 in Auckland, Wellington, and selected nationwide venues.