By Uther Dean
Directed by Sam Brooks
Presented by Smoke Labours Productions and My Accomplice
Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 17-21
There’s no topic more inexhaustible than love. At its worst, love stories can be clichéd and obvious, but when told well, there is nothing more relatable. With Tiny Deaths, writer Uther Dean has crafted a series of monologues for a (mostly) female cast that gives us characters and situations we can connect with in unexpected ways.
It’s no surprise that the weirdest monologues (gnomes, living bombs, and tentacles) are also the most interesting to watch unfold. But, more importantly, these monologues also push Dean’s writing to idiosyncratic heights. He effortlessly paints vivid portraits of eccentric and sensual characters to uncomfortable detail, evoking a deadpan surrealism that would make Kafka smile. The tamer monologues (to do lists, Trademe) are more of a mixed bag, contributing less to the overall themes of the show, though enjoyable as standalone pieces.
The show’s success, though, rests with the casting. While not perfect, director Sam Brooks supplies the script with the right talent to make the show come to life. A standout, despite being the third monologue involving an interspecies relationship, is Amanda Tito. The symbiotic relationship between her and her tapeworm beautifully captures the give-and-take nature of love we can all relate to. Intensely focused on every detail of her story, she treats it like a real romance, and the audience is right there with her. Every whisper, every rise of her voice, every little smile, is captured with precision.
Elizabeth McMenamin, Hannah Patterson, Chelsea McEwan Millar, and Willa Oliver are also all notably fantastic, giving us characters who feel lived-in, and reminding us what happens when good casting meets good writing. Geordie Holibar and Alex Ellis, on the other hand, are saddled with unforgiving roles. Holibar immediately sticks out like a sore thumb as the only male performer and is never able to bring his character to life. And Ellis is saddled with what is an unnecessary and overly sentimental bookend to the show. It’s not that these two performances are bad, just that they’re never convincingly from the same world as the rest.
With a seemingly Tim Burton-inspired aesthetic, Christine Urquhart’s production design immediately establishes the quirky horror of the play, from the artificial grass set to the gothic costume touches. The unconventional staging around the audience also works remarkably well to bring the show together, displaying each performer like a series of pieces in an art gallery.
At its most compelling, Tiny Deaths explores the sadomasochistic relationship we have with our own bodies and the people we let inside them (both literally and figuratively). While the script could easily lose two or three monologues and be sharper for it, the heart of the show beats loud and clear. By posing uncomfortable scenarios to the audience, Dean and Brooks remind us that one of the core strengths of art is to help us empathise with that which is unfamiliar to us, worms and all.