19 Feb 2015

Theatre outside the theatre

8:16 am on 19 February 2015

Wellington's Bats' Under the Same Moon is billed as a development season; nonetheless, the script is fairly well fleshed out. Hweiling Ow energetically plays all of the characters in Renee Liang’s story that explores the relationships between three generations of women. The comedy comes from cultural and generational differences and misunderstanding, while the heart is in the attempt to reconcile these.  

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The show is part of the Chinese New Year Celebrations, but the themes transcend this specific context. Anyone can recognise the obstinate and (sometimes embarrassingly) candid Por Por (grandmother) and it is this character in particular that Ow seems to relish in and through whom she manages to elicit the majority of the night’s laughs.

The night I went it felt as though the show was a bit rushed; this could be put down to opening night nerves.  Ow speeds through her character changes, which means it’s sometimes difficult to know who she is playing. Some of the script could probably be condensed to be more economical if it was given a bit more breathing space. There is very little variety in terms of tempo, which can be tiring to watch and means that you miss any real poetic poignancy that may be in the writing.

Playwright Renee Liang speaks to Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert. 

In a show with a minimal set design, the lighting has a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, the current fetish many designers have with the new LED lights has not managed to be resisted here – the lighting design serves to flatten theatrical images and pull you out of the world of the play.

I think there’s plenty to be improved upon in terms of presentation, but it has a solid foundation to build on.

In contrast, Grace Morgan-Ridell’s design (at least I assume it’s hers – she’s credited as tech operator and no one is down as lighting designer) for Conversations (With My Penis) is simple and effective, which is kind of the deal with the show as a whole. I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy Conversations (With My Penis) - I guess because I don’t have one - but Dean Hewison’s witty, surprisingly heartfelt and generally straight up hilarious show appeals to a wide audience.

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The casting in particular is a stroke (ahem) of genius: Carrie Green as Tom’s Penis seems totally out of left field, adding to the comedy as well as making the show more appealing to the penisless in the audience.  Green’s comic timing and upbeat rapport both with the audience and her buddy Tom (Aidan Grealish) is sheer brilliance. Balancing Green’s gregarious Penis, Grealish has a kind of Eeyore – esque, fatalist quality that makes everything that happens to him seem all the more amusing, while making Tom a sympathetic character that you actually care about.

The play follows Tom and his Penis’ relationship over five decades, beginning with the trials and tribulations of being 15 years old and having a Penis with feelings and a mind of her own. The plot’s simplicity allows the conversations that are opened up to be complex, real and honest.

Also, the penis costume is next level; simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.  Luke Hawker must’ve had a ball making it. Sorry.

Also, the penis costume is next level; simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.  Luke Hawker must’ve had a ball making it. Sorry.

Unfortunately the show finished its run on Valentine’s Day, but as this is already its second incarnation, hopefully it will be back again soon. Meanwhile, next up from Hewison is Jingles – The Musical, which sees Green team up with Hayley Sproull (Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues) and Jack Buchannan (Destination Beehive) at BATS Theatre as part of the Wellington Fringe Festival.

Another surprise for me last week was Summer Star Trek: The Naked Time. Again, probably not the target audience (I could not in any way be described as a “trekkie”) but I had a real good time.  The weather wasn’t great so it was on at the Wellington High Gym instead of Aro Park, which wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t really detract from the show at all. Being able to be outside with a picnic would be sweet, but as it was the grungy ambience of an old high school gym totally works with the kitsch, bodgy aesthetic of the show.  

The show centres around the premise that the crew are one by one infected with a virus that breaks down inhibitions, with some people’s symptoms putting the lives of the entire ship in jeopardy.

LISTEN: James Bayliss (Captain Kirk) and director Shannon Friday speak to Wallace Chapman. 

The performers were all super earnest and played up the cheesiness of the scenario, to the delight of the audience. The action was underscored by a legitimately talented band, led by a committed Bethany Miller on the cello, who gives an impressive and theatrical rendering of the theme music in operatic style.

There are some clever theatrical devices used (using people to stand in for automated doors is a highlight) and the pre-show show helps to give the audience permission to be more vocal than you’d see in a traditional theatre space.

It’s family friendly and the kids in attendance were having a riot, which I always find kind of helps the audience to let down their inhibitions a bit, which makes for a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

 I remembered that being comfortable is key – Shakespeare had a tendency to rabbit on a fair bit – and so packed cushions, a blanket and a jacket.

At the great price of FREE this show is some silly light-hearted fun and even if you couldn’t care less about Star Trek you’ll walk away feeling uplifted, which is a pretty good way to spend an evening.

This year’s Summer Shakespeare, Timon of Athens however, unfortunately doesn’t manage to have the same effect. Luckily, the weather was beautiful and so I could experience the show as it was intended; performed at The Dell at Wellington’s Botanic Gardens with some fish ‘n’ chips and heaps of peanut M & Ms.

Thinking back to last year’s experience of Macbeth, I remembered that being comfortable is key – Shakespeare had a tendency to rabbit on a fair bit – and so packed cushions, a blanket and a jacket. This was not enough. You need TWO blankets at least; one to sit on and one to wrap around and MANY pillows so you can make a little nest to snuggle in and stay safe from the evil ducks who will steal your food right out of your hands.

Oh yeah, the show. The play itself is problematic: is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Why is it sooooo long? This confusion manifests itself in the performance of the piece, in that sometimes the actors are really hamming it up for laughs (with little success), while Alana Inglis and Ashleigh Jenner’s stylish and versatile set design and the many (many) impassioned speeches are telling us that it is serious art with a very serious message. But maybe that’s the point?

The play is basically about how Timon (Hayden Frost), who is rich, gives his “friends” presents and cash all the damn time, mismanages his finances and… well, to be honest you can probably guess the rest. It’s a commentary on vapid materialism and greed and a cautionary tale against trusting and loving humans, because humans are the worst animals, followed closely by thieving ducks.  

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I was trying to put my finger on why I enjoyed Summer Star Trek more. I am a bit of geek for some Shakespeare. The lead actors in Timon are unquestionably more technically proficient than the Trekkies (Frost, Jean Sergent and Pasqaule Orchard stood out to me), the set design is more considered and expertly constructed, the physical space and surroundings were much more beautiful.

Then it struck me: the people making Summer Star Trek clearly love what they do. They are having a great time nerding it up on stage and the joy is infectious. With Timon, it felt like watching people go through the motions. Similarly, with Alex Guillot’s costume design, Timon and his servants have a very clear aesthetic that works with the clean cut set, and then the rest seems a bit thrown together.

Director Brett Adam took a risk with this rarely performed play and unfortunately, I’m not convinced he had the resource he needed to be able to pull it off.

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