Monday, 30 March 2009

Turbine - whatever turns you on

Turbine, SEEyD Theatre Company
Downstage Theatre, February 13 – March 7

‘We’re the Saudi Arabia of wind!’ is a pretty appealing tag-line for anyone who lives in Wellington. Turbine presents the ‘for and against’ opinions about wind-power, which is meant to represent all the angles and spark heated debate among theatre patrons.

SEEyD Theatre Company is known for this approach and has previously brought their ‘issues based theatre’ style to many a topic including immunisation, poaching, genetic modification and spiritualism.

You either like this style or you don’t – there are bare bones of plot on which to hang the flesh of the arguments and you are meant to make up your own mind about the resolution because the play won’t provide one for you. Some consider this a provocative challenge; others deem it to be a lazy cop-out.

The problem with Turbine is that there seems to be no counter argument. The people who protest against wind power are simply Nimbys and are made to look ridiculous through speech impediments, or inadequate internet-based research. They worry about things that might never happen and, in personalising their concerns, they try to preserve something that has already gone. Nostalgia is not always a good thing.

There are myriad possibilities as to what the unleashed power sources could provide, but for ease of viewing they are distilled into two potential outcomes. In a great piece of theatrical interpretation we are allowed a glimpse of good and bad future – exactly the same lines spoken by the same characters but with a very different inflection resulting in disparate meaning.

One of the highlights of the staging is the white board walls on which members of the cast draw and erase various energy related paraphernalia. Trees are cut down (with power tools) to make way for the wind turbines. While some consider these to be blots on the landscape, I think they are beautiful. The ones gracefully emerging Venus-like from the water off the Danish and Norwegian coasts are fabulous.

But the toasters, kettles, computers, microwaves and ovens that we use in our daily are all ugly. So will we abandon them; of course not. We want these things, but we don’t want to have to think about the moral implications of their presence. We need power. (I expect a future SEEyD production to focus on the necessity and availability of fresh water.) Individual wants are pitted against the common good in an almost capitalism vs. socialism debate.

The main characters are a mother named Gail (Emma Kinane) struggling to look after her autistic son Ariel (Tim Spite) while her irascible daughter, Susan (Lee Smith-Gibbons) also lives at home. Into the not-so-happy-home comes Mark (Nick Dunbar) who works for the power company responsible for the proposed turbines and takes a shine to Susan. The actors also play various other peripheral characters, and they do it very well, but there is no cohesive story.

If it is meant to be a love-story, it is highly implausible that the suave Mark (who is neither a hero nor a villain, which he could so easily have become) should be interested in the narrow-minded Susan. Smith-Gibbons plays her perfectly, hiding her insecurity and lack of substance (the type who gets a tattoo in the small of her back as a substitute for personality) behind a façade of constant confrontation, and thinks she’s tough because she writes erotic fiction. Incidentally her characterisation of the more rational and intellectual judge is very good and helps demonstrate her acting range.

If it’s a study of parenting under trying circumstances, then I would have liked this to be further explored. Emma Kinane does an excellent job of portraying the long-suffering mother with a warmth and compassion verging on frustration. I wanted to know about this exasperated character trying to pursue her own life amidst the love and pain involved with raising a demanding son who doesn’t adapt well to change.

Tim Spite plays the autistic young man with a range of personality tics and physical twitches. In a demanding juxtaposition he also plays his own father with a hard and brutally rebuffing edge. The balance could be in his favour as a disability is thrown in so we are automatically on his side, or are we? He is an unpleasant character with his verbal and physical attacks and his excessive horniness – it’s never comfortable watching someone dry hump a cushion.

Spite the writer is as unafraid to push boundaries as Spite the actor. One of Smith-Gibbons’ characters is Maggie, a glasses-wearing, lisping, epileptic protestor. Ariel causes her to have a seizure on stage by repeatedly flicking the light switch on and off due to some element of compulsive disorder. Judging by the laughter from the auditorium, this is comic, but who decides that epilepsy is funny?

Apparently we, the audience, do, as we decide everything else about this play, and consequently our futures. Good, challenging stuff. There is a role for trial by theatre, and if SEEyD Theatre Company are judge and jury, we are executioner.

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