By Trygve Wakenshaw
Presented by Auckland Live and DON’T BE LONELY
Herald Theatre, Auckland | April 28-May 2
On the surface, Nautilus is a straightforward show. Trygve Wakenshaw, a talented clown, performs a series of mostly wordless sketches for a solid 80-minutes with no props on a bare stage. Behind the surface silliness, though, is an indisputable intelligence and talent for minimalist storytelling.
Despite the lack of narrative to tie the show together, there isn’t a moment where it feels aimless. Essentially (and at times literally) a prolonged game of charades, Wakenshaw asks us to imagine various settings, characters and props created solely by his enthusiastic miming. You can’t expect to just sit back and laugh lazily at the jokes in Nautilus, so the success of the show relies on the audience’s imagination as much as Wakenshaw’s. And while audience participation can be a cringeworthy element to any show, especially in comedy, he manages to pokes fun at that very convention while simultaneously using it to his advantage.
Most people unfamiliar with his past shows (Squidboy, Kraken) will need a few moments to adjust to Wakenshaw’s unique style. But make no mistake, once you’re on the same wavelength as him, you’ll be desperate for more. The sketches might be best described as cartoonish in nature, making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. By turns surreal and macabre, his comedy goes where you least expect it. And it’s this subversion of expectations that elevates it from merely being a well-performed show to a brilliantly conceived one. The richness of Wakenshaw’s performance isn’t just that he’s physically able to pull off his gags, it’s that he thinks to go into such detail with them, taking everything that extra step further. Like all sketch shows, Nautilus can be a bit scattershot, but even its less successful moments are commanded with such confidence that the audience feels they’re in safe hands. The repetition of recurring gags is also used to great effect, making seemingly slight scenes funnier in hindsight, whether it means lip-synching to ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ or sexually harassing farm animals.
One of his most simple but effective sketches is a series of knock knock jokes. While not the most exciting part of the show, they work well to put the audience in the appropriate headspace to engage with the more elaborate sketches. If I’m making Nautilus sound cerebral and confusing, it’s not. It is, above all else, an exercise in pure theatrical play, taking the stage from the realm of expensive set pieces and returning it to the landscape of imagination.
If there’s one criticism that can be aimed at the show, it’s that some of the gags aren’t quite clear enough, resulting in a notable chunk of the audience feeling lost or confused rather than entertained. But these moments are few and far between, and Wakenshaw handles them well, never letting them derail the performance.
The inherent problem in reviewing a show like Nautilus is you want to describe in detail what makes it so special without spoiling any of the surprises it has to offer. An impossible task. So, the best thing one can say is that there’s nobody quite like Trygve Wakenshaw. While Nautilus might not be the funniest show at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival this year, earning more aha moments than haha ones, it stands out in a sea of stand-up as an incomparable showcase of an utterly unique talent.