Saturday, 9 May 2009

First Laughs

First Laughs. Comedy Festival 2009
Wellington Opera House, May 3

Once again the New Zealand International Comedy Festival began in Wellington with First Laughs – a pick and mix of the talent to be showcased over the next three weeks. Local and international acts shared the stage at the Opera House competing for audience attention and hoping to woo them along to their forthcoming full-length show.

The night was ably compèred by Steve Wrigley leaping about the stage with his ‘seducto dance’, dislike of Easter and advice to cheer up and stop taking the recession so seriously. Some of his material was a little jaded (aren’t we over jokes about LOTR yet?) but his delivery was engaging and he’s generous towards his fellow performers.

Despite Wrigley’s introductions, it was harder to differentiate between the acts, because none of them have a particular schtick. Last year we had unicycles, flow charts, impressions and musical comedy. This year we had a load of blokes (with only two women performing), one of whom (Mark Scott) has a guitar and one of whom (Te Radar) has a sustainability TV series – I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard jokes about pig hunting.

In general the night was mercifully short of swine flu jokes, although Benjamin Crellin (with excellent stage presence) handed out masks for people in the front row and then chastised one for not putting it on – ‘I bet you’re the sort of guy who has sex with a condom – in his pocket.’

Instead the jokes were mainly aimed at Facebook, the New Zealand Defence Force (which seems fractionally unfair as apparently it can’t defend itself) and the emotionless reaction of the Kiwi male (or Aussie in the case of Mickey D).

According to Steve Wrigley all reviewers are f*&%wits and the worse a review is, the better a comedy show sells. Apparently if we hate it, it must be good. But what if we like it, because on the basis of these condensed comedy skits there was lots to like.

International highlights included Janey Godley, back with her hard-hitting self-effacing Glaswegian approach, Jason John Whitehead, whose charming Canadian wordplay is effortlessly original, and Geordie Jason Cook saying inappropriate things because of the voice in his head.

Among the home-grown gems were Cori Gonzalez-Macuer who manages to make terrorists on the tube funny and Dai Henwood who has started hating things he has no reason to hate, like helping his friends move and toffee apples.
TJ MacDonald also merits a longer stint with his laconic observations – does he really love Secret Santa because he enjoys being the anonymous cause of someone else’s disappointment? Without wishing to inversely influence anyone’s shows, I encourage you to find out.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

'Tell me a story'; 'I don't want to give you nightmares'

A Most Outrageous Humbug, Three Spoon Theatre
Downstage Theatre, 29 April – 7 May

The opening gambit of A Most Outrageous Humbug sets the scene for the entire play. Artfully designed piles of books and sombre mood lighting (Marcus McShane) form the backdrop to Edgar Allan Poe’s parents’, Elizabeth (Jean Sergent) and David (Adam Donald) ferocious and theatrical argument which ends in tears and blood.

Top hats, velvet waistcoats, silk cravats hoop skirts, and fortified corsets (gorgeously designed by Dawa Devereux) hint at the constriction of fierce passions. Meanwhile the scenario is underpinned by Tane Upjohn Beatson at the piano with its exposed hammers and strings playing dramatic, morose music. This promises to be an American Gothic Romance with dark undercurrents of violence and passion, and boy, does it deliver.

Told through a mix of Poe’s essays, poems and stories woven with imagined events, the play purports to be a biography of the man. As a lesson to anyone who ever wants to know how much of an author’s work is biographical – it’s simply impossible to know. Three Spoon Theatre under the direction of Charlotte Bradley have created a work which shows a man spiralling into madness and sabotaging his entire literary career, loosing himself in stories and wine. You might just as well worry about their state of mind.

Edgar Allan Poe became an orphan at two, the inference being he had no early stabilising factors in his life. Driven by thronging passion – ‘his ardour was matched only by his ambition’ – he hoped academia might rein in his wild excesses. We are told this by Thomas McGrath narrating as Poe from the sidelines, becoming increasingly involved in the action as the play progresses. The play both shows and tells with Ralph McCubbin Howell acting as Poe throughout.

Poe writes every moment available between his studies to the detriment of them both, and becomes romantically involved with Frances Osgood (Adrianne Roberts). His rival in love and literature is the ‘sweaty and creepy but persistent and rich’ Rufus Griswold (Ed Watson). Poe may be ‘talented and passionate’ but he also has a wild disregard for propriety reflected in his appearance. Howell plays him as explosive, which leaves him with nowhere to go as his tempo is feverish from the beginning.

The journey into madness is marked by a number of well-scripted scenes. There is a poetry reading between Poe and Griswold at which Griswold suggests ‘The ladies will enjoy our academic duelling’. There is Poe’s peculiarly abstract proposal to his 13-year-old cousin Virginia ‘Sissy’ Eliza Celmm (played with wide-eyed gaucheness by Alex Lodge) using his macabre stories as a form of courtship – ‘I liked your poetry better’. Sissy’s amusing wittering suits the young girl’s naivety, but her chilly defence is a little modern – ‘I may not be an adult, but at least I’m not a prat.’

There is the costume party book launch at which Elmira Shelton (Jean Sergent) dresses as the author – is it a sincere form of flattery or grist to his burgeoning paranoia? Meanwhile a mysterious hooded figure, seen only by Sissy, stalks the party, which cannot bode well. In orchestrated breaks from the party, guests partner up into formal dance and corpses return to life.

As Poe reads his stories we are frequently deceived into questioning what is reality and given unheralded glimpses into his manic mind. ‘What a gift to tap into the psyche of a blood-thirsty psycho so effortlessly’. He applies for an editing position only to be interviewed by characters from his short story Doctor Tarr (Adam Donald) and Professor Fether (Jean Sergent) in a show-stealing scene.

This is a brilliantly written script and hangs so tightly together that it is hard to believe it was devised collaboratively. The colours of red (the consumptive blood that claims so many characters) black (the raven feather; the relentless gloom) and white (the purity and innocence of Sissy; the bleached bones of his tales) are woven into the tapestry of the narrative.
Death unifies all from his mother’s untimely demise to his own wrestling with himself (literally) in the final scene. It’s not exactly joyful, but it is triumphant, and a worthy inclusion in the Pick of the Fringe.

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Multicultural Melting Pot

Poly-zygotic (Pick of the Fringe), F.I.T. Productions
Downstage Theatre, 29 April – 7 May

The other day some friends and I were pondering what we did to entertain ourselves before the techno-You Tube generation. We all admitted we made up skits which we forced our parents and elderly neighbours to come and see, as we performed song and dance routines, ‘gymnastics’ (at best a handstand and a forward roll) puppet shows, or, at a push, poetry.

It seems that is also what happens in Poly-Zygotic as Samoan triplets Aso (Taofi Mose-Tuiloma), Tausaga (Asalem Tofete) and Masin (Tupe Lualua) work out what to perform for Lotu a Tamaiti or Children’s Day. The programme notes explain (to those, such as I, who need the explanation) that on this day the church is filled with people dressed in white, and children perform for their parents and relatives by reciting tauloto (bible verses), singing, or performing creative dances and dramas.

The show comprises the three arguing what they will present to their audience, while worrying that other groups will be better than theirs. As the eldest by an all important 21 seconds, Tusaga thinks he should make all the decisions, despite the ridicule of his sisters. Tofete beautifully captures the shyness behind the bravado when he unveils a routine he has been working on for two years (‘It better not be a trilogy!’). The sisters dismiss it as less like Black Grace and more of a disgrace, but in truth the three move with fluid charm and poise.

Similarly to Neil Ieremia, they decry the stereotypes, refusing to do anything about gangs or violence or ‘the pathetic angel who rescues them and sets them on the right path.’ They have already done all the best bible tales, so what will they do? Has every story been told already? And where will they find their own voice? As each of the siblings struggles for supremacy, this is clearly a question that has troubled them since birth. Masina explains their relationship when she points out that one of these things is not like the other things, and quotes her father who used to say, ‘You are nothing alike but just as ugly as each other.’ Without parents, they are co-dependent and the genuine affection is only barely masked by the simmering rivalry.

A zgote is a basic cell, containing all the genetic information necessary for a new organism. The fact that they are many (poly) leads us to expect a multitude of influences, and that is exactly what we get in this play. There are myriad cultural references, from the American hip-hop and reality TV to the multi-faceted ‘Fever’ sequence. Mose-Tuiloma’s sensual singing in a spot-light evokes the Hindu God and Lord of the Dance while Lualua enacts Bollywood dance-moves in silhouette behind a very Samoan tapa cloth.

There is a touch of stereotype as the three actors play the exquisite ‘aunties’, who observe and comment on themselves as the triplets. Either standing outside the church bitching and smoking, or sitting inside (with dextrous handling of deckchairs) fanning themselves and wearing hats, they talk in realistic rhythms of family histories and community scandals.

This is a rich production full of music, movement and laughter. The actors seem to enjoy themselves as much as the audience – which is always a good sign. Poly-zygotic represents the melting pot of multiculturalism while retaining the individuality of nationhood. It’s a delight.