By Eli Kent; Directed by Eleanor Bishop
Downstage Theatre | May 25-June 3
Eli Kent originally wrote The Intricate Art of Actually Caring in 2009 to be performed in his bedroom, and it wowed the Wellington Fringe Festival. It’s since been around the country a few times before arriving back at Downstage Theatre.
The Intricate Art of Actually Caring is a highly personal story: Jack (Jack Shadbolt) and Eli (Eli Kent) play their semi-autobiographical roles with a rare kind of honesty that is all pervading and all too rare on stage. One audience member called it a play “without wank.” Indeed, Kent has distilled the angst and confusion that surrounds the ‘20-something malaise’ of our generation into a work that gives significance to the journey of growing up. There is no didacticism or easy answers. The undiluted honesty of the writing and the humble, understated performances are immensely endearing, and these values have crafted a play that has tapped into the collective conscience of a generation.
Jack and Eli are meandering through their twenties when their old school friend, Johnny Harrison dies doing a yardie at his 21st. Their grief manifests in different ways: “He never got to experience [Facebook] timeline,” quips Eli; Jack wishes he could’ve cried at the funeral.
Eli is loosely related to James K. Baxter and Jack is a budding poet. The pair decide to road trip up to Jerusalem to visit James K. Baxter’s grave. It’s their “pilgrimage to the holy land,” but it’s not allowed to have any references to On The Road. On the way they stop off at Levin to laugh at McDonald’s prices and avoid beatings from terrifying locals. They count road kill. They read poetry. They visit Jack’s parents who still call each other Mum and Dad. They talk about love.
They also confront their beliefs. The depressing finality of atheism collides with the blissful blind-sidedness of Christianity. Typically we go to theatre and see people taking action, characters leading the audience by example, playwrights using the past to inspire the present, helping us through the mire of modern life. The Intricate Art of Actually Caring is about the absence of belief, about finding something to care for. Early in the play, Jack stares at items in Eli’s bedroom and commands them to amaze him. He insists it’s not a game, it’s a serious exercise. It is important to find the mundane significant.
The technical aspects supplement the production beautifully. Three bed sheets hang and all locations are indicated by hand drawn projections. The difficulties of staging a ‘road trip’ on stage are easily negotiated by projected maps and two headlights to indicate the car. Poetry is performed in front of the sheets and is supplemented by projections of streetscapes. The projection design by Erin Banks is deceptively simple and incredibly beautiful.
This is a play that speaks directly to life as a young person in New Zealand. To see a familiar life experience presented on stage with such honesty and beauty is such a gift. Please don’t miss it. Please.