I Won’t Be Happy Until I Lose One of My Limbs

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Where: The Basement
Price: $26
When: 2 – 19 February
Cast: Nisha Madhan, Gareth Reeves (and later Jeremy Randerson)
Writer: Julie Hill
Director: Andrew Foster

NANCY SAYS

It doesn’t seem right to shoe-horn this play into a genre, and it would be too easy to use the umbrella term ‘experimental’. But I can confidently say that it is one of the most intriguing plays I’ve seen in a long while, and not just because of the surreal plot, poignant subject matter and bizarre narrative but because of how funny, sweet and self-aware it manages to be while dealing with subjects that would seem more suited to making viewers flinch.

While you take your seat on a beanbag or couch (nab a spot in the centre of the action), you can enjoy a view of the rolling cardboard hills of Love Mountain, which flank a tiny, one-room brick shack, a party supply store, ice cream shop and an inflatable plastic lake. These are the landmarks of small-town New Zealand, where this curious story is set. From this perspective, the actors have us right where they want us. The audience members become part of the show  as various characters confront and interact with us in a way that is unsettling but not intrusive. O’Gradient, the eccentric, tortured protagonist, takes out her angst on yours truly, dubbing us ‘Nobodies’, and for a moment we at the Common Critic feel the shame of being cast as one of the P-head layabouts that are apparently a permanent fixture in her house.

But for a show that has the audience in giggles for most of its duration and is full of black humour, it also is moving. The characters are not pleasant – they are a bunch of screw-ups trapped in a small town, with clashing compulsions, neuroses and delusions – but they are all somehow relatable. And they all manage to work their way under your skin – even the swaggering, womanising Derek and his hopelessly dedicated lover, Ping. The unfortunate lug Barney – who lives in a shack with his indifferent mother – is played with so much soul that you can’t help but feel moved when he gazes longingly (and lustfully) at O’Gradient from under the synthetic strands of his ridiculous mullet wig.

O’Gradient herself, played by the mesmerising Nisha Madhan, is a complex and sympathetic character. She longs to have one of her limbs amputated – as she says, she’d like to do something for herself for a change. She also happens to be in love with her (invisible) personal trainer, who forges her a path to enlightenment with star jumps and a fitness odyssey up Love Mountain.

For a play that deals with heavy themes such as desire, delusion, love – and amputation – it seems to be a terrifically difficult line to toe in terms of making it palatable, funny and touching all at the same time, but Madhan and Gareth Reeves have it down pat.

The show may not be what you’d expect (whatever you’d expect from a play with such a provocative title) but you’ll be glad you took a chance.

SYLVIA SAYS

Head along to I Won’t Be Happy Until I Lose a Limb at the Basement Theatre – that’s as clear as I can make myself.

It’s a “surreal” play, which never actually sacrifices its script in favour of gimmicks or overly conceptual detailing – something I worry about when plays get too absurdist. (Anyone with an aversion to experimental theatre needn’t fret about this one.)

The design is quite something. You are presented with an ice cream on entry and get to lounge about the room on bean bags and couches. The programme is written with chalk on the wall. A paddling pool represents a lake. In terms of set it rather reminded me of the film Dogville, where the only set is a to-scale blueprint of the town on a sound stage (people mime the opening of doors and such). It’s … delightful. Especially when a play with such a title suggests a rather gruelling evening.

The main character, artist O’Gradient (Nisha Madhan) will not feel complete until she loses a leg. But the story also ambles around the town, looking in on beautifully written characters.

Gareth Reeves was excellent – and versatile (Derek, in particular, was far too close in character to an ex-boyfriend of mine for comfort). Madhan is both versatile and captivating; you cannot talk your eyes off her. If you are singled out for special attention in the audience (as we were in front-beanbag-number-one) you will swoon. I certainly did.

Together, they relate tenderly towards each other (like when Gareth winds a turban around Nisha’s head), even when their roles demand otherwise.  Without sounding too much like a press release, the night we went both gave amazing performances.

It’s a witty play. And while being introspective, it never fell into the overly dark, needlessly melodramatic Kiwi cliche narrative with which I am becoming so bored. This is exactly the type of thing I love going to see at the Basement. Inventive, funny and fully flexing its creative muscles. I’d encourage everyone to go. It’s on until February 19, at the Basement.

Note: We nabbed two double-passes to this show courtesy of a Cheese on Toast competition. Thanks!

‘Til next year…

December 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

We’ll be taking a little break over Christmas and New Year’s, but will back in 2011.

Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by, to those who have subscribed (we’ll try and do our best to keep you), and especially to those who left their thoughts on our posts.

Safe and happy holidays. xxx

(I should attribute that photo to James D. Kelly, who I found via  somuchtotellyou.co.nz.)

Silent Night

December 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Where: Musgrove Studio, The Maidment Theatre
Price: $25*
When: 13 – 8 December
Cast: Yvette Parsons
Writer: Yvette Parsons
Director: Stephen Papps

SYLVIA SAYS

The term “one-person play” can fill a mere non-thespian mortal with dread. Substitute the word “woman” for “person”, if we’re allowed to be sexist, and you’ll really get people’s knickers in a twist. Add the word “Christmas” to the mix and those tickets could get fairly difficult to shift.

But Silent Night isn’t really so much about Christmas, although it does use the family-centric festival to highlight the loneliness of Irene McMunn.

The success of the play rests almost exclusively of the shoulders of Yvette Parsons. She is, from head to toe, every inch the elderly Irene. She shuffles around in orthopaedic shoes, making a toast tree the centre-piece (“if you’re feeling nervous, use a stencil!”).

Irene is a well-meaning elderly woman. Some of her most understated quips are the best, such as when she reads out her Christmas cards which, as it turns out, have been collected over a number of years.  The play is billed as a comedy but it’s also deeply depressing. She paints the portrait of a generation of women who have all outlived their husbands (and are left to squabble over the local priest); not only are they lonely in their old age but they have spent their whole lives isolated in mismatched marriages to men who were scarred by war. They are subservient to husbands, domesticity, children and churches.

And yes, sometimes you love your grandma but even then you can feel a bit pinned to your seat when you go to visit. And this is how it feels in some moments of Silent Night – by design, not by accident. Irene has no sooner finished a prosaic garble when a window is flung open to stories mined from Parson’s own family.

I’m having difficulty imagining who to recommend this show to. Not people on the cusp or in the throes of old age, perhaps. There are a couple of desperately romantic moments in there – a young couple in the front row drew close to each other and an even younger woman sitting in front of me mouthed to her boyfriend, “love you”.

Perhaps it’s just not a play that’s easy to pigeon hole.

Toys

December 5, 2010 § 10 Comments

What: Toys
Where: The Basement
Price: $35*
When: 2 – 18 December
Cast: 40 actors, revolving; Andi Crown, Angela Bloomfield, Ari Boyland, Barnaby Frederic, Barnie Duncan, Ben Wall, Beth Allen, Brett O’Gorman, Bronwyn Bradley, Bruce Phillips, Byron Coll, Charlie McDermott, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Dan Musgrove, Dave Fane, Gareth Reeves, Gareth Williams, Hannah Banks, Harry McNaughton, Ian Hughes, Jacque Drew, Jarod Rawiri, Jeff Szusterman, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Jessica Wood, Jordan Blaikie, Madeleine Sami, Michele Hine, Millen Baird, Morgana O’Reilly, Natalie Medlock, Nic Sampson, Oliver Driver, Renee Lyons, Robyn Malcolm, Ryan Richards, Sam Snedden, Siobhan Marshall and Yvette Parsons.
Writers: Natalie Medlock, Dan Musgrove
Directors: Cameron Rhodes and Toby Leach

NANCY SAYS:

“Some of his toys are very, very naughty indeed,” says the neurotic View-Master, as he shuffles through slides of animals, historic figures and a scantily clad Kevin Bacon.

“Naughty” doesn’t come close. In this bawdy comedy, benign children’s toys such as a teddy bear, Barbie doll and jack-in-the-box take on an air of insanity and depravity that will have you roaring with laughter and recoiling in horror.

Harry McNaughton is nearly foaming at the mouth as he dashes out on stage half naked, painted red and gasping for breath between frenzied outbursts. He is playing Charlie’s red ball. It’s impossible not to be mesmerised as he almost crawls out of his skin while recounting the horrors of being deflated and stuck for months in the garden hedge.

In between contortions, there is a sense that anything could happen – an appropriate instinct, as an audience member is soon confronted with his crotch and asked to “blow his valve”. But even with this crude humour, his performance is inspired and laced with wit: “View-Master says that I’m a dropkick!” he complains.

Millen Baird, playing a View-Master, continues on this clever note – he does a great job portraying the geeky outdated-ness of the 1930s device. However, after this point the show loses some of its wit and degenerates into lewd jokes and crassness, and the actors tend to fall back on stereotypes to fill out their roles (Barbie is a vacuous whore who makes cruel jokes at the expense of a “retarded” doll, and the jack-in-the-box is appallingly, gratuitously offensive).

While the audience never stopped laughing, there were a few moments of distinct awkwardness as the line between humour and cruelty was blurred.  I found it hard to be amused by the incessant ridiculing of a wheelchair-bound character, and was disappointed when the characters used gibberish to approximate Taiwanese.

The absolute lowest point of the show was a character wearing black face and an afro wig (in a role as Michael Jackson) – especially as he was depicting latter-day, white-skinned Michael Jackson. It wasn’t necessary. A note to all actors and directors – the casual use of black face is never okay, and especially not for cheap laughs.

Those after gentler humour may not appreciate the brazen sexual advances on audience members and offensive jokes. But most of the raucous opening-night crowd were right at home, even joining in with a Michael Jackson sing-a-long, and they helped to keep the mood light with appreciative laughter.

But if you tailor your expectations to suit, and are keen to help out The Basement with the $35 ticket price (which will go towards a theatre upgrade), you should be in for a rollicking good time. Just beware of taking a seat near the stage – you may find your face sandwiched between a pair of breasts, butt cheeks or be asked to suck on someone’s “valve”.

SYLVIA SAYS:

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Get them off my chest. “Black face” is always bound to offend. You better have a really good reason for evoking that. And there is really no excuse when you’re depicting an adult Michael Jackson, anyway. Approximated babble standing in for Taiwanese: also suspect. And, while I’m here, generalised, depictions of “retards” in wheelchairs definitely qualify. (And yes, I realise it was suppose to be more of a reflection on Barbie and her prejudices. But it’s all very Paul Henry.)

Now that’s out of the way, Toys is hilarious.

On opening night we were treated to Harry McNaughton as a ball.

Harry McNaughton was a ball.

Next up was a very funny portrayal of a View-Master, by an excellent Millen Baird. And while it’s all very naughty adult humour, Natalie Medlock and Dan Musgrove have also excellently personified these two toys. The View-Master was – *groans* –a very three-dimensional character; a simple and often educational concept now pitched against the technologically advanced Xbox. His costume was inspired.

It certainly goes too far in places, and never regains the pace of these first two scenes. But it also had all the gritty stuff I love about live performances. For example, people forgetting their lines and recovering with a brilliant ad lib. Or body paint dripping off a sweaty actor.

The idea is that you pay $35 and it’s fundraising for upgrading The Basement. Not the bits we see as punters, but the shitty bits the actors have to put up with. And you really do get the feeling you’re entering the acting community, too. Every second person in the audience is on, or has been on, Shortland Street. Much like the cast, actually.

If you buy into nasty stereotypes about the acting fraternity, for god’s sake don’t go. By comparison, tickets to The Idea of America were only $27, and that was a substantial play. But if you go to the Basement regularly and generally take advantage of the great shows they offer for a pittance (by industry standards), go and you will laugh your head off.

The Nutcracker by the Royal New Zealand Ballet

December 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

What: The Nutcracker
Where: The Civic
Price: $57*
When: 1-5 December
Cast: The Royal New Zealand Ballet, of course!
Direction and choreography: Gary Harris

SYLVIA SAYS:

A busty matron (played by Sir Jon Trimmer, who performed in the RNZB’s first ever production of The Nutcracker in 1963) sends her young wards off to bed with a stiff dose of medicine, with generous helping for herself. And what stuff it must be, especially when paired with a concussion, if the dreams of Clara are anything to go by.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet have set this version of The Nutcracker in a 1920s children’s hospital ward. Clara gets a nutcracker for her birthday (weren’t children easy to please in those days!), which her brother hits her over the head with. She’s taken to hospital, where dropped waists, crisp pleats and boys in waistcoats abound.

And to be honest, I thought ballet wouldn’t be my thing. And after first scene, and I was worried it was all a bit slap-stick, and all a bit – and I do apologise to those involved – Marcel Marceau.

But a clever set change to the aforementioned hospital draws a gasp from the audience, and I’m on my way to a very enjoyable evening. Probably grinning like a synchronised swimmer the while.

The real stars of the show were the nurse and doctor, and their unfolding love story. I would never have thought two people could be charismatic without dialogue. And because of the matron’s hallucinogenic drugs, they undergo a number of reincarnations within the traditional structure and numbers of the ballet.

The second act, and we get into the recognisable stuff, “The Nutcracker Suite”. (Anyone who was brought up on Disney’s Fantasia as musical fibre will start to feel nostalgic at about this point.) The most ethereal snow, which dissipates in such a way that you can see the currents radiating from a body, or between the two, is not like any snow I’ve seen on stage before; it is dream-like and charming. The Arabian Dance was amazing. Then, three jokers on crutches. All crowd-pleasing stuff.

It’s probably elements like this that make people say things like, “It’s so good to get the kids started on,” – as if the thing wasn’t a real ballet and had training wheels attached. Maybe it isn’t, but I dare say it’s very good in that introductory role.

Mind you, I did regress into a child-like state. Got excited about Christmas, and all that. The price is dear, but the show is enjoyable. I want to call it original, but without having any other experiences to compare it with I would feel a bit fraudulent. Take the children if you have any – judging from the enjoyment of the dear little thing two rows back from me (“Mum! Look at the disco balls!”), they’ll love you for it.


NANCY SAYS:

First, a confession: Before tonight, I had never been to the ballet. I’ve seen a number of big dance productions, many of them at The Civic, but I’ve never been able to say I was going to the ballet. I was concerned I’d be underdressed, but no one was decked out in monocles or mink stoles. In fact, what struck me the most was how unstuffy the atmosphere was, which complemented the fun nature of the show perfectly.

I’d read that this version of The Nutcracker was updated and “cartoonish”,   and so it is, but it carries this off without being  garish or distasteful. The elegant 1920s costumes and gorgeous set decorations (I’ve never seen a hospital scene look so warm and inviting) will make you giddy with delight.

If you have tastes similar to those of the diverse opening-night crowd, you’ll also be charmed by the energy of dollish Clara, the antics of her brutish brother, Fritz, and in particular the love story of the nurse and doctor, who will blow you away with their heart-felt duets.

And if the idea of a ballet fills you with trepidation about watching an hour or so of puffy skirts and mincing pirouettes, don’t worry: the comedic factor of the show was the biggest and most pleasant surprise. The liveliest scenes were crammed full of goofy pantomimes that had adults and children alike rapt with laughter. And while a couple of the slower numbers drag a bit, for the most part the show offers plenty to keep your attention fixed eagerly on the stage.

Mates and Lovers

November 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

What: Mates and Lovers
Where: The Basement
Price: $23*
When:17-27 November
Cast: Paura Taurima, Simon Leary
Writer/Director: Ronald Trifero Nelso
A stage adaptation of the book Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, by Chris Brickell.

SYLVIA SAYS:

There were, as tweeted, no queues for the women’s toilet – either before or afterwards. (And thank heavens too, as the play is almost two hours with no intermission.) And in one vignette, a heterosexual Australian farmer, who unashamedly tells of hooking the back legs of a ewe into his gumboots in order to fulfill a certain stereotype the rest of the world has about men down under only to throw a gay hitchhiker out of his car, describes the old fashion technique of castrating a sheep. Testicles, knife, etc. A glance around the theatre, at this point, revealed the almost exclusively male audience crossing their legs (or recrossing), drawing a breath and wincing.

I read this article the other day, from the Guardian, where Bella Todd muses on the roll of sweat in theatre. The performers, Paura Taurima and Simon Leary, are from the beginning a hot, sweaty mess. Indeed, in Mates and Lovers, something physical is at stake. Anything they lacked in technical ability in places (across many, very diverse and challenging characters) they made up for with utter commitment.

For my two, straight-woman cents, it was in dire need of editing. Perhaps because the subject matter is so rich it just becomes too tempting to ram it all in there. The third quarter where a handfull of the stories are revealed to be linked and start weaving together is a triumph. There is an amazing monologue from a queen from Dunedin, who falls apart in the middle of singing a Judy Garland number. It is at its absolute best as it catches up with the Homosexual Reform Bill of 1986. An American soldier’s tryst with a Maori boy during the war and two caped crusaders in the Civil Union Bill era handing out condoms and sending bricks to the Sallies at the homophobic organisation’s pre-postage expense are two other highlights. And I also loved how the stories were sourced from the full length of the country.

I was expecting it to be more painful, and I was expecting it to be more historical. More educational. But it was what it was and was still very much worth going and seeing, and refreshing change from all the straight stories that monopolise the stage. And simply a must for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be queer but have loved ones who are.

NANCY SAYS:

Simon K. Leary kept his genitals discreetly hidden as we gazed upon his naked profile. He had just been stripped by Paora Taurima in a moody and sensual opening sequence that throbbed with awkward grace and unfulfilled desire. It was a taste of things to come, I thought, and I eagerly anticipated an hour or so of erotic poetry in motion.

But I knew I’d come to watch a historical play – not a raunchy, interpretive-dance production – so i wasn’t too put out when we were launched into a succession of historical  enactments.

At first the narrative style was hard to follow and I kicked myself for not having read the book on which the play is based. I struggled to keep pace with the two actors, who switched rapidly between a succession of characters from colonial-era New Zealand. We were flown, at what seemed to be breakneck speed, through portrayals of the gay male experience in the 19th century. But patience paid off, and when we got to the mid 20th century the plot slowed to a more comfortable pace (and was livened up by a generous helping of provocative sex scenes, nudity and very realistic blow job simulations).

As the actors cycled through more contemporary roles (farmers, horny soldiers, a Dunedin drag queen, fa’afafine and a squabbling Ponsonby couple), I could feel my fellow punters perk up. This isn’t just a play about queer history but a history that is unique to New Zealand. Aotearoa in-jokes abounded, and were received with appreciative laughter.

It must have been a hard task cutting down the rich subject matter of the book into a cohesive plot. But for the crowd’s sake, the director could have gone further in trimming the narrative fat. Too often I’d be thoroughly enjoying a portrayal of, say, an awkward mating ritual between farm boys when the plot would jump again.

But it became clear – especially after a blood-curdling portrayal of savage electroshock treatment  (that cruel and thankfully antiquated form of “conversion therapy”) – that the heart and soul of this production was its actors. The fluidity with which they swapped roles, and how quickly I felt engaged with each one within seconds, was a testament to their skill.

For two guys with nothing but a couple of chairs, their graceful bodies and the clothes on their backs, they did a brilliant job depicting the frustration, shame, despair, desire, defeat, joy, love and triumph that has comprised the experience of gay Maori and Pakeha New Zealanders.

An interesting blend of spoken word, self-reflexive humour and song, delivered with elegance and passion, saved this play from being merely a succession of dry, historical  enactments. And I’m sure the rapt audience who showered the duo with warm and grateful applause would vouch that it was $23 well spent.

The Idea of America

November 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

What: The Idea of America
Where: Tapac
Price: $30*
When: 10-14 November
Cast: Michele Hine, Isla Adamson, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Andrew Ford, Joel Herbert, Harry McNaughton.
Writer/Director: Sam Shore

NANCY SAYS:

If you’ve ever stumbled in on a private argument between two lovers, a family dispute or intimate liaison, you’ll be familiar with that awkward feeling of having seen too much – and that peculiar guilt that comes as your interest is piqued. Prepare for that feeling to stay with you throughout most of Sam Shore’s feature-length play. Except this time you’re explicitly invited to witness domestic dramas unfold.

The play opens with a lover’s quarrel, acted with disarming intensity that sets the tone for 90 minutes of highly charged dialogue. The tension is punctuated by charming, funny and occasionally heart-wrenching monologues from the histrionic Jude, a failed actress suffering from dementia. For such a sad and sorry character (each of her children suffers from her neglect or alcoholism-related deterioration) Michele Hine plays the role with such sensitivity and grace that you’d need a heart of stone to remain unmoved.

The same can be said for the other characters, who have little in the way of redeeming qualities. But the insightful story connects us to each of them at their most humiliating and vulnerable moments. The Tapac theatre, a relatively small space, heightens the feeling of intimacy of watching characters reel from endless humiliations of being cheated on, broken up with, caught wallowing in self pity or confessing their sexual blunders. No-holds-barred acting from the exceptional cast provides a vivid insight into a family torn apart by grievances and disappointments.

But for a play dealing with adult themes and heavy subject matter, a thread of well-timed humour keeps the emotion from spilling into melodrama. But judging from some audience reactions, it may be wise to bring a shoulder to cry on – just in case.

As Sam Shore seems to have deduced, the idea of America might be an unattainable fantasy, and he certainly did a great job narrating the bitterness of life’s disappointments. But unlike the American Dream, this production delivered on its promise.

SYLVIA SAYS:

The Idea of America, fora brief moment, almost manages to make dementia look glamorous. This is in so small way attributable to Michele Hine’s portrayal of Jude, a fifty-year-old former actress who has dementia. A self-confessed show pony since a young age, she retreats into her dressing room to prepare to take the stage once again. She’s actually been put into care, and is in her hospital room. Oblivious, but articulate and fabulous, she imparts her “wisdom”, tells her stories and generally revels in the pleasure of having an audience. Her monologues are then spliced together with scenes involving her children. The two groups will not meet until the finale.

Of her children, Holly is the eldest; a wallflower driven from the nest by their attention-loving mother. She has now returned to a family in crisis. Sean, the middle child, is having difficultly both coming out to his family and with the break up of his relationship. Maureen is 17, and is exploring sex and her mother’s lithium.

Holly (Isla Adamson) is set up as the enemy, and her return to the nest is the thrust of the play. She is frequently told how annoying she is by just about everyone. The biggest problem with this is that she’s never that unreasonable at any point during play, although a little conservative perhaps. She’s often conflicted, but is also sometimes the voice of reason and certainly stoic. (Her character is dealt a cruel blow in the second scene from her husband. He’s been sleeping with another. For a year. “Give or take,” he says. And so my first emotion towards her was one of empathy.) Adamson is, on the whole, very good. Her attempt at an American accent is not always spot on, but when she gets it right her voice overflows with vulnerability.

Chelsie Preston-Crayford plays Maureen expertly. Lord only knows where she is getting the time to go to all these rehearsals; fresh from the seriously melodramatic Dog Sees God, having just finished an inspired run of the Vagina Monologues (both at the Basement Theatre). Her comedic timing is given the opportunity to fully flex its muscles, between convincing teenage pouts and musings on drugs and sex.

Michele Hine, is nothing short of spectacular. She goes from confident and flamboyant to fragile and confused in a single breath. And the words writer Sam Shore streams from the mouths of all his characters, to describe the perilous situation of having a family member loosing their grip on reality, is searing. The dialogue is tight, but not overworked. Most disarming, is that everyone’s vices are as such that it’s easy to see yourself in just about every member of the family. The writer’s intention, also laid out in the director’s notes in the programme, is perfectly communicated. You don’t have to have delusions of grandeur to be bitterly disappointed in life.

It’s very good. It’s dark in places, although not over the top, and it’s genuinely funny. At $30, it’s easily money well spent, and a well-paced 90 minutes leaving you plenty of time to make a dinner reservation to discuss the ample subject matter on offer.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.