Go drown in a Dark Lake

ETA, 4pm 15 October: The director of the show / company, Emma, has been in touch to say that the event in Christchurch has been handled very, very poorly and unprofessionally and is not indicative of what the company normally does, and that the remaining shows are being cancelled and refunded. (A friend of a friend has since received a cancellation email citing a ‘personal emergency’.) She has asked that I cut some information below relating to the show’s content – you can see where. I posted this blog to facebook, and she is also making individual contact with the people who have complained extensively about the show in the comments underneath.

At the same time, prior to Emma stepping in, the company itself seems to be pretty poor at dealing with negative feedback. Some people on facebook have said that their negative reviews of the show have been deleted, that they’ve been banned from the company’s facebook page for making complaints, and that their private email complaints have been dealt with extremely rudely. There’s obviously a form email that gets trotted out by someone in the company, as they all look much the same, and put the blame on the customer, not the product, and refuse refunds. One woman has shared a screengrab of a message received from Hunted Interactive Experience threatening legal action for slander for calling their show a scam. You know you’ve hit a certain level of ridiculousness when the Internet Lawyers have been summoned!

ETA 2: A news article about it on stuff.co.nz with a pretty impressive facebook conversation about the shows in other centres! Also the producers seem to have stopped answering people’s emails and want to blame the actors, not the organisation. Stay classy.

***

Dark Lake, a production from Perth-based company, Hunted Interactive Experience is the single worst piece of theatre I think I have ever seen – so bad that I’ve spent the morning trying to work out if it’s a William Castle-style scam.

The show is billed as a hugely popular interactive horror experience (over 18000 people frightened in the last four years! over 38000 likes on facebook!). Here’s the company’s pitch:

Nobody quite knows what’s wrong with Dark Lake. Inexplicable things happen there. People go missing. People go there after dark, then come out…strange. Changed, somehow. People see things, they hear voices…No one knows what’s causing the pervasive air of menace around this place. Rumours of hauntings and unquiet spirits abound.

I love horror. I love theatre. I love horror theatre. THIS IS MY JAM.

You buy your tickets  – an invitation to a scary little girl’s birthday party – months in advance. You receive strongly worded emails in bad fonts full of warnings, guidelines and exclamation points, emphasising that your psychological well-being may be at risk (pregnant women be warned!) and that any deviation will result in your $40 ticket being voided. You’re guided towards a secret location. You’re told to wear sensible shoes as you might need to run. It’s like being admonished by an officious mid-level office manager whose interests are label makers and passive aggression. Nonetheless, this is all part of the shtick, and generally I am a big fan of horror-themed hucksterism; this sort of thing requires suspense and buy-in, and there’s a lot of pleasure in anticipation.

The Christchurch leg of the tour is based at The Groynes, a lovely park and recreation area a little north of Christchurch – an area that was once rural, but which is now a part of the creeping urban sprawl that is slowly gobbling up satellite towns and vomiting up over-priced boutique subdivisions with a pleasant rustic outlook.

It’s Friday the 13th. We toddle down a dark road to the check-in point, watching people who’ve just completed the experience drift back to the car park. We arrive at 9:15, as the ticket says that if we get there after 9:20 we won’t be admitted. It’s a clear, mild night, and despite an amber smudge of light pollution to the south we can see the stars. Groups of eight are being let in at loose intervals by a very, very young host with Alex DeLarge eyelashes and a clipboard. We are kept waiting in the dark until 9:45, unhappy at what seems to be disorganisation but happy that it’s not raining. We spend our time chatting to the other members of the audience and listening to bursts of screams and laughter from the dark. Some laminated bits of paper allude to a girl disappearing in the 1970s. A woman near us identifies herself as a nervous giggler; we also have, combined, a nervous screamer (Kirsty), a nervous farter (Annie), and a nervous swearer (me). More anticipation. We’re finally let in. The host, who keeps calling Annie ‘Anne’, offers a speedy, less than coherent spiel about weird somethingorothers happening, we may not come back, spooky times, okay? We move across the water via a bouncy suspension bridge into the darkness and find ourselves back there less than twenty minutes later wondering what the fuck just happened and why we bothered leaving the house.

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I have a lot of conversations about the appeal of horror, partly out of personal curiosity, and partly out of professional interest. I intermittently give talks or keynotes on horror, and I’m currently trying to flog the book on women in horror I wrote, and it’s the go-to question from interviewers and audience members. I have a loose theory that a lot of horror fans and audiences are completists, and that very often even the worst of films, or other horror products, will still find active audiences because there’s something in the genre’s emotional, affective appeal that makes it worthwhile. Sharing a scary-but-safe experience is pretty good time, and even if the product is a bit wonky, people can be quite forgiving if there’s at least one thing to like. (See: the VHS boom of the 80s, the current VOD glut of shady horror, the ongoing appeal of fun cut-rate horror mazes.) I don’t mean, in any way, that horror audiences are rubes – more that horror can be a lot of fun, and fun takes many forms, from the sophisticated to the bottom of the barrel.

Dark Lake strikes me as an example of the way that producers might exploit the generosity and forgiveness of horror audiences, and in doing so get away with charging a bit of money for a really sub-par product. Here’s how the experience breaks down. For your benefit I have bolded the things that would be important in a bad 90s point and click adventure game.

  • You cross the boingy bridge, and follow a muddy path. There are fairy lights. Is this Dark Lake? Where and when are we? Who cares. Down the path!
  • There’s a jack in the box, because jack in the boxes are creepy, yeah? A laminated piece of A4 tells you to wind it. Pop goes the weasel! Here’s a tattered birthday party invitation. It’s tattered from overuse, not to be creepy. Why is there a birthday party at a weird lake in the dark? Who is the girl? Why are we here? Is this a story? Who cares. Down the path!
  • A [REDACTED] tells us that [REDACTED]. It’s hard to make out what he is saying because his diction is very poor and he is all over the place. There’s some muttering about [REDACTED EXPOSITION]. We all look at each other. Who is he? Why’s he here? Why are we here? Who cares. Down the path!
  • There are bad things on the path, but shine your torch at them and they will go away. These bad things are people wearing black sheets and $2 shop fright masks who will roar at you and try to make you scream. Why are they here? (My guess: to re-set props.) Who cares. Down the path!
  • There’s a [REDACTED] with very bad make up. She is a [REDACTED]? I can’t make out what she is saying because she isn’t projecting and she mumbles. She is looking for [REDACTED] maybe? Can we help her [REDACTED]? Why? What is going on? Is there some narrative we’re missing? Someone steps to the side, and she tells them to be careful not to fall in the lake. (Later on I hear that other people have fallen in the lake. Oops.) Who cares. Down the path!
  • There is a [REDACTED] on the ground. Is this is [REDACTED]? In it is another laminated A4 sheet. A bit has been cut out of it as that instruction is no longer pertinent, I think, but no-one’s bothered making a new one. It says [REDACTED]. Is this a puzzle? [A REDACTED ACTIVITY THAT’S NOT REALLY AN ACTIVITY]. Why? What’s the point? Who cares. Down the path!
  • There is a [LOT OF REDACTED STUFF INCLUDING AN ACTIVITY AND AN UNSAFE PROP]. What’s the narrative? [REDACTED]. What is going on? We look over our shoulders hoping for something behind us. Is this supposed to be a story? We learn nothing about [REDACTED CHARACTERS AND SITUATIONS]. [REDACTED PERSON] [REDACTED ACTION] their [REDACTED THING] (RIP [REDACTED]), pretends to guzzle some [REDACTED] from Countdown (complete with $5 sale sticker) that they are obviously sick of (they don’t even put it in their mouth), and tells us [REDACTED]. Run! I refuse to run because it’s slippy and I strained my back a week ago and I don’t plan on injuring myself for this. Does this make any sense? Who cares. Down the path!
  • It’s the [REDACTED] again. They are [ENGAGING IN A HEALTH AND SAFETY VIOLATION WITH A BOXCUTTER]. Secure your pilots! No one can make out what he is saying, or what it has to do with anything. Is this just starting? Who cares. Down the path!
  • We pass the jack in the box. Huh? We’re at the boingy bridge. We’ve been around a little loop track. It’s been 15 minutes, maybe 20 at the most? (We entered at 9:45 and were back in the car by 10:12.) The host congratulates us on finishing alive and invites us to write something in the visitor book. What? We all stand around a little baffled. I read the disappointed comments and write something rude.

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Ordinarily when I watch something I don’t think is very good that I am not reviewing I go home and don’t think about it any further. In this case, the quality of the production made me angry enough to want to write something about it.

Dark Lake is so poorly produced it’s insulting. Just about everything it promises in its promo material is misleading or incorrect. It’s clearly making bank, given the number of people going through, but its direction, action and acting are woeful. It has no narrative, no clear characterisation, no themes, and no context or justification for anything that happens. Its production values are laughably poor. It has not thought about what an experience feels like from the perspective of an audience. It does nothing with its interesting setting. It discards its own set up. It is neither immersive nor really participatory. It is a cheap grab bag of cut-rate horror iconography. It is horror by people who don’t understand or care about horror, for people who deserve better. It is theatre by people who don’t understand theatre or audiences, for people who perhaps would ordinarily avoid the theatre. It gets by on the goodwill of an audience who love anticipation as much as experience. To call it amateur hour would be very rude to talented, hard-working amateurs.

It’s apparent that the company quickly removes bad reviews or complaints from their facebook page. The few reviews I found online that didn’t just recycle the press release were generous, and, inexplicably, were very willing to wave away all manner of sins because a) there were jump scares, b) it’s challenging for the actors to act outdoors (??? this isn’t a charity) and c) you have fun with your friends in spite of the show. This in spite of seems to drive the company; what a business model!

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On our way in the groups leaving were silent and subdued. Good sign, we thought! Spooky! Not really. As we headed back to the car past new arrivals, Kirsty whispers ‘goooooo back while there’s still timeeeeeee!’ You might forfeit your $40, but unless you’re a masochist I think that that’s the better deal.

 

Intermittent clearinghouse – June 2016 edition

Here’s a sneaky round up / unceremonious dump of some of the things I’ve reviewed in the past couple of months:

The biggest bit of writing is this piece for The Pantograph Punch on the Court Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya. This is the first extended review they’ve published on a piece of Christchurch theatre, and it seemed to generate a bit of discussion. Five word summary: pretty, torpid, kind of broken. I also just now contributed to PP’s quick rundown of some highlights of the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Christchurch leg of the festival ends up looking like, as the offerings in Auckland and Wellington are as lush, exciting and varied as you could hope for.

I’ve done a handful of reviews for Theatreview: Tom Trevella’s solo show 2Graves and the the physical and kinda peculiar two-hander Let’s Not Argue at the Lyttelton Arts Factory; the welcome return of improviser Jeff Clark’s schmoozy alter-ego in Gary Starlight Sings the Blues (part of the Cavell Leitch NZ International Jazz and Blues Festival); and Indian Ink’s revival of the delightful show The Pickle King, which was first performed 15 years ago and has been updated to centralise a same sex relationship.

The Nerd Degree keeps rolling on; I’m currently prepping an episode on medicine, having been utterly distracted and inspired by the Sawbones podcast.

If you’re interested in seeing what might exist outside the (black) box, check out local arts producer and entrepreneur Michael Bell’s intergalactic proposal for a space-themed theatre and entertainment complex in emerging Performing Arts Precinct, Andromeda, which was thrown out for public consultation at a lovely wee launch event at Orange Studios this week. Purple!

(Then there’s the usual work in the academic mines. No canaries dead yet.)

 

 

 

Musicals, commodity, and complicity

Over the weekend I reviewed Showbiz Christchurch’s production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. TL;DR – it’s a terrific show and a credit to everyone involved, bar the fact that it contains a really vulgar, racist, sexist scene (and that the audience near us thought that some of the the homophobic bits were really funny).

***

One of the difficulties in reviewing a literally spectacular piece of musical theatre like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical is that it’s a commodity.

Some big name, big budget shows, like Priscilla – but also, say, Miss Saigon or The Phantom of the Opera – are highly standardised. This is proper Culture Industry, Adorno and Horkheimer stuff – art as big business and industry. It’s noted in the programme for Priscilla that the show’s budget exceeded $1 million, something extraordinary when you consider that, as a ‘pro-am’ company, a significant amount of the people involved have given their time to Showbiz for free. When these shows are put on, and when audiences want to see them, it’s arguably to recreate, as well as can be done, the original show – or, to be more fair, its platonic ideal. Crowdpleasers like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar offer creative teams a lot of scope in terms of staging and design, but if you’re presenting the others, then there had better be those costumes, that chandelier, and that helicopter.  There had better be the experience of seeing that show.

A friend, not unkindly, calls this ‘just add water’. At this very expensive end of the musical theatre pool all the licensed materials give you a recipe or a framework, which could include everything from the book and the arrangements, to specs or at least very clear expectations for the set and costumes (which might be outsourced – more business), to licenced marketing materials (which adds authority and legitimacy), to logistical and creative assistance, and in some cases right down to access to choreography. This helps you, and protects the integrity of the show as Product, and it also signals to the audience, who have a clear expectation, that they are getting what they want. You, the producers, add time, money (and fundraising! so much fundraising), resources, logistical and managerial and legal expertise, and (in this case of pro-am companies) the best on- and off-stage talent you can get your hands on for little to no money. Looking at it this way, your criteria for success, and the reviewer’s scoresheet, might arguably concern whether or not you have successfully (re)created the desired product in a local context.

This set up offers a promise to the audience and terrific opportunities for producers and performers. Additionally, a show that’s staged by a production company that participates in a consortium is buoyed and aided by this framework. By pooling resources, you can ensure that your French revolutionary barricades are the most professional, good looking, functional and even spectacular barricades that they can be, whether you’re a big inner city company or a small regional theatre. You can deliver that product to people who might not get the opportunity to otherwise see it; you offer musicians and actors and dancers and crew (and so on and so forth) the opportunity to work on something big, splashy and special. It’s a great system, and I’m always astounded at what Showbiz, and companies like them, are able to pull off. This is particularly the case with Priscilla, as the show itself is a logistical monster – a great glittery machine that feeds on the energy of people.

This standardisation is also a trap.

If there’s something about the product, that show, that you don’t like, or that doesn’t read well in 2017, or that has always been surrounded by red flags and flashing lights and klaxons, then chances are you are stuck with it. It’s a part of the machine – a component in a standardised, heavily protected and licensed product; you probably can’t expunge it.

How different companies across the country deal with this varies. Aside from the questions about how well the show has been staged, this is the ambivalent space in which I think some of the most interesting, and sometimes most inadvertently toxic, stuff comes out. This is where we figure out how we, as individuals and audiences and communities, think about issues such as fairness, and discrimination; about representation, and inequality, and the politics of entertainment. If anyone ever tells you that entertainment is innocent, then they are lying. Entertainment, and popular culture, is a demo(cra)tic space in which we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves, and these stories are loaded with values: taken-for-granted ideas about how the world is and should be.

At the more flexible end of the spectrum, NZ Opera staged The Mikado without doing any meaningful work to talk to audiences about the show’s Orientalism, or to justify some of its design choices. Gilbert and Sullivan’s work is marvellous, and just as sharp and crowd-pleasing now as it was when it debuted, but this failure to engage, or to even head off potential issues at the pass with a degree of thoughtfulness and poise, is kinda baffling. (See also some of the astonishingly racist aspects of The Court Theatre’s otherwise interestingly steampunk-infused production of the show a few years ago, such as its mock-Asian call for audiences to turn off their cellphones.)

At the more restrictive end, you may have poured countless amounts of time, energy, money, and human resources into a show – a standardised, then localised product – that contains something that doesn’t fit: a joke or a number that doesn’t feel right or even work properly in the context of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the here and now (this is how I felt about the Jewish number in Spamalot); something that has a horizon of expectation that’s incompatible with that of local audiences; something that hasn’t translated well in its adaptation from screen to stage, or from its country or cultural context of origin; a character or set of characters who can’t be reasonably cast from the available pool of talent; a setting or frame of reference or set of implicit values that is out of date or doesn’t make sense anymore; content that once got a free pass but that now really doesn’t feel okay at all; content that might get a free pass if it weren’t playing to audiences that are predominantly white and well heeled (or insert any other dominant group here); content or characters who could be read in a number of different ways, and which need to be carefully framed (e.g. are we laughing at this, or laughing with this? Punching up or down?).

I have real sympathy for companies staging these large, popular, highly standardised musicals because in these cases, by and large, you’re stuck. In Priscilla, you’re stuck with Cynthia, the hypersexualised Filipino mail order bride who puts on a ping pong show at the local pub, against her Aussie husband’s wishes, and the associated musical number that’s (mortifyingly, horribly) put on for the theatre audience’s gratification.

There’s an interesting write up here about the legacy of the film 20-something years on within the sexual and racial politics of Australia. It takes note of the film’s emphasis on a very Australian whiteness, and points out how the original film struggles with issues of sexism and racism (with Cynthia, and also with the Aboriginal characters that have been cut from the musical) in a way that really complicates the story’s overall emphasis on diversity, tolerance, and survival. In the film, though, Cynthia is given at least a teeny tiny bit of depth. Here, she is just a cheap, nasty caricature played for absolute laughs and not much in the way of sympathy, and the issues regarding power, agency and cultural clash go pretty much unnoted. The night I attended Priscilla, the person next to me was rigid with shock, while the people behind whooped and hollered. (These are the same people who thought it was funny when the trio had ‘fuck off faggots’ painted on the side of their bus. Stay classy, Christchurch.)

The poor, rural white-trash character of Shirley, too, is pretty vulgar and cruelly rendered, although I’d argue that there’s a difference in that Shirley is white (in a cultural space that valorises whiteness), and that she has a degree of power and agency that Cynthia lacks. While there’s a pretty strong degree of punching down, I feel like Shirley comes off more lightly, although that’s up for debate too; your mileage may vary.

Both Cynthia and Shirley are interesting alongside the drag personae of Adam, Tick and Bernadette, as each is a type of performative, over-the-top femininity that is predicated on emotional and visual excess, most notably the the grotesque – see Bernadette’s great demonstration of how to lip sync properly. However, where drag (and camp) offers redemption through a playful, liberating and almost unreal site of transformation and liberation-through-performance, the other two characters have no opportunity to transform. They are stuck in their (stage) lives, without the escapist fantasy that is leveraged for powerful, redemptive political ends by drag.

What disappoints me, though, are some of the choices made with and around things you’re stuck with.

Sometimes, having a pretty standardised product is treated as a blanket get out of jail free card; that’s how it’s meant to be, it’s funny, get over it, get a life. That’s ‘just the way things are’. This is what Roland Barthes would call the protestation of innocence – the handwaving, nothing-to-see-here response that elides a legitimate claim through an appeal to naiveté. In Hairspray, the protestation of innocence regarding racial politics and representation was a) the casting materials that came with the show said don’t do blackface (and the response ‘we checked for it every night!’ – if you have to check you’re doing it wrong) and be flexible with your casting, and b) but hey, we don’t have any African Americans, are we just supposed to stage NZ stories then, you loser? Behind that, the production team nonetheless made choices about who to cast and how to make them up. It’s notable that despite protestations of equity, all things being equal, that that production chose not to have people who didn’t pass as white join the white kids, even though the reverse was true.

In productions of The Mikado, the protestation of innocence was that it was all in good fun; that NZ Opera’s design concept played with modern-day equivalents of fantastical, spectacular Japanese culture, that nonetheless were as simplified and reductive as the original use of Japan as an Oriental other-space in which to critique English bureaucracy – but now with highly gendered, fetishised signification (through the Harajuku girls) to boot. (See also historic criticism of Miss Saigon.)

In Priscilla, the creative team made the choice to emphasise Cynthia as the butt (har har) of the joke through the scene’s staging and through the responses of our three point of view characters. We, the seated audience, are the beneficiaries of her ping pong show. (To add potential insult to injury, looking through the programme, the very fine actress who plays Cynthia is also the only person who appears to be of Asian descent in the cast, and perhaps the only cast member to not pass as white. Please let me know if I am wrong in this.)

I just don’t understand why.

I really, really don’t think that companies should totally chuck out anything and everything that is difficult. All other issues aside, then there’d likely be nothing left! Shows like Priscilla are amazing, and this show was really beautifully staged and acted (by and large), but they are not ideologically neutral. (See also: Felicia / Adam’s desire to perform on the top of Uluru. Wince.) I do wish that there would be more front-facing thoughtfulness, not just in the way that individual characters or scenes or numbers are staged, but in programming and casting choices full stop. I hate the defensiveness and the ‘you just hate things / have sour grapes / have an agenda’ that springs up any time someone has the temerity to say ‘yeah, but…’; I’m particularly thinking back here a few years to discussions about gender and personnel in the Christchurch Arts Festival run of That Bloody Woman. I liked the point made by reviewer  about NZ Opera’s The Mikado; why didn’t NZ Opera front foot the issue and have a forum, or a panel, or at least a discussion about Orientalism in Victorian art and culture, and its role today? The history of representation is interesting and dynamic – why not engage with it?

Here, it just seems to be that ‘Cynthia is funny’. How is the show made better by her inclusion? What is it we are being asked to laugh at, and why? How does the makeup of the audience change the reception of this scene? Why is it ‘we’ feel that ‘we’ have the de facto right to tell any story we want, at the expense of whomever we want? And this is just another case, from just another show, and there’ll be another one along soon enough.

I would love – love love love love love – to see a clear point of view offered in the staging and direction of shows with questionable, difficult, or potentially slippery material. There is so much time and effort and expertise that goes into these productions; it seems just so ridiculous and counterproductive not to demonstrate a bit of understanding about how things are read and received in 2017. I would especially love a robust and genuine and intelligent defence of or encounter with content that is, in this case, pretty nasty and tacky – some thoughtful accountability, instead of the defensive suggestion that is offered, across the board by producers of shows, that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

At the very least, could we somehow accept the idea that while big budget shows might be standardised products, that doesn’t mean we also have to be complicit with everything that comes with them.

 

 

One big MacGuffin

 

The Court Theatre’s current premiere production of Ross Gumbley and Allison Horsley’s Ropable has left me ruminating on the nature of pastiche in theatre, including the possibilities and dangers that are tied up with a play that is predicated upon simultaneously fulfilling and subverting expectations surrounding genre, character, and story. In particular, this is a show that makes some pretty strong and really quite interesting promises, particularly around the nature of its premise, but its delivery doesn’t entirely follow through and I’ve been thinking about why this might be structurally. Spoilers, etc. (NB: my response to the play is not in keeping with published reviews, so I’ve also posted links to some of the very warm reviews of the show at the end.)

Ropable is set in the MacGuffin Hotel, an isolated, sinister Alfred Hitchcock-themed B&B in the Pacific Northwest. (Kudos to the design team for realising the space in a manner that highlights the absurdity of the setting while making it legitimately unsettling.) American writer Eden (Chelsea McEwan-Millar) is at the hotel to marry the much-older celebrity and media personality Montgomery Parker (Cameron Rhodes). Parker is a randy old goat who had previously been married to her English mother, famous crime writer Constance (Eilish Moran), who we are told won’t be coming but who turns up anyway. (This hotel has been the site of Parker’s three previous weddings, too. Awkward.)  Eden’s beloved ‘Aunt’ Prudence (Lara Macgregor), a wonderfully doddery bit of small-town comic relief from Geraldine, is in attendance, as is the manager of the hotel, the authoritarian Austrian Norma Bates (Kathleen Burns, in fine comic form). If you have a working knowledge of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, then you’ll recognise many of the gestures throughout the action, and certainly the script and set are littered with Hitchcock-related gags and puns.

The show is bookended in a coy manner, too: at the outset, Eden, a greedy and frustrated ghostwriter who we ultimately come to realise is utterly unhinged, tells the audience directly that her plan is to murder her groom in an act that would put her crime-writer mother’s plotting efforts to shame, thus getting her the attention and admiration that her mother always denied her. There’s a storm, a drugging, a faked suicide, an actual murder, an unexpected visit from Eden’s mysterious father, a cheeseboard, some business with a corpse who has a massive boner, a cross and a double cross, some boozing, another murder, and so on. At the end of the play, it’s Constance who addresses us directly: she solves poor mad Eden’s crimes, proves her motherly love by taking the rap for the murders, and shoots straight to the top of the bestseller lists (added bonus).  This shift in subjectivity and perspective isn’t clearly marked as the play progresses, but it’s a nice structural conceit.

The show, then, is pastiche and homage, lovingly pasting together all manner of Hitchcockian(?) ephemera in a story that draws from the sorts of narratives, themes, characters and proclivities of the auteur’s films. My question here is: given all this scaffolding, what is the play’s contract with the audience? Is it that this is a twisty psychological thriller in the style of Hitchcock? A broad comedy that pillages Hitchcock’s back catalogue as material? A play that leverages the audience’s expectations of both? Does it succeed on any or even all of these fronts? Is the use of Hitchcock itself just a MacGuffin – a way of instigating and driving the plot forward?

The reason I’m asking these questions is that, counter to the positive opening night reviews I’ve linked to below, I found the show to be a very mixed bag. It has a hollow MacGuffinny Maltese Falcon’s worth of great ingredients (some very strong female actors, terrific source material, the goodwill of the audience, more lovely work by the Court’s talented design team, some very funny music) but it results in something that doesn’t cohere into a fully-formed, elegant and well-paced product.

Some context: I absolutely loved writer-director Ross Gumbley’s delightful production of The 39 Steps, staged some years ago now at the Court Theatre’s old premises in the Arts Centre; I have the sort of loving relationship and familiarity with Hitchcock that you’d expect from someone who researches and writes about and teaches film for a living; I am a big long-time fan of some of the women performing, and am happy in my heart of hearts to see a mainstage show that is female-centric. I entered full of good will and with high expectations. Ropable has an assertive and suitably enticing opening, but this impetus soon lags. By a few minutes into the second act I felt like it was falling to bits; as we left, my companion and I felt that the show’s set-up, resources and comic potential had been squandered. Issues of personal taste aside (such as the play’s frequent compulsion to explain what had been perfectly good standalone jokes*), everything felt a bit off kilter. My frustration is that the play in its current form doesn’t seem to know where it stands, or how to best fulfill its promises to the audience.

Is Ropable a farce – or, less restrictively, a physical comedy – that uses Hitchcock’s output as its surface level source material? Yes, kinda, there’s tumescent corpses and some swiftly timed entrances and exits and some shagging and some slapstick and a bit of comic violence. Lara Macgregor’s performance as Aunt Prudence is an obvious hit with the crowd, as are her scenes with the wonderfully sharp Eilish Moran as the two tucked into the Bailey’s and had a good girls’ night in. (Women getting pissed seems to be a fail-safe comic go-to at the moment.) Yet, the comic action doesn’t have the volume-to-11 impetus or cascading logical absurdity you’d expect from such a genre, and nor is its stage business anarchically complex or slick enough to really nail the genre. (It was interesting, too, listening to what the audience were laughing at, including the chuckling thigh-slapper next to me. Laughs seemed to come less from cumulative action, absurdity, wit and physical comedy than they did from bits of blue humour, the odd great line, and little moments of character or physical humour.)

Is it a Hitchcock-esque story of madness and treachery? Yes, kinda, but the twists and turns don’t always make sense or have significant psychological or emotional clout, and the play certainly isn’t a convincing or affecting portrait of a murderer. Consider theme, character, and form: Psycho’s mummy issues ostensibly inform the emotional core of the play’s plot, but where Norman takes on the persona of his own dead mother, here Eden ‘sees’ and is seemingly abetted by her Kiwi father, who is later revealed to be long dead. I got excited, too, when her father suddenly appears during the storm at the beginning of the second half, played by the same actor who plays her promiscuous, idiot husband-to-be, as I hoped that there would be some meaningful engagement with the important role of the uncanny, even malicious double in films like Vertigo. Nothing doing. His role and absence isn’t well signposted earlier on, though, so his appearance and later disappearance is met with an ‘oh ok’.

The later revelation that her father is actually dead, and that Eden’s the one who’s clubbed her lover to death with the telephoto lens from Rear Window, marks Eden as an unreliable narrator – great! yes please! – and our own perspective as confidantes and observers is muddied as we realise that our subjective viewing position has been compromised by Eden’s own madness. Unfortunately, Eden’s pretty poor at constructing the sort of crime plot that might confound anyone for too long, let alone her drunk, wedding-crashing mother. (“Oh, that must be the twist”, said the people sitting near to my companion; again, the power and danger of expectation.) Constance’s gear shift from drunken, irritated mother of the bride to hardened sleuth offers some great conflict, but the beats don’t always land.

Near the play’s climax, Connie tells Eden that Eden’s murder-mystery plot is full of holes. It’s true, Eden has proved herself to be a pretty sloppy criminal mastermind, but the play itself is full of the sorts of holes and patches that are all the more obvious because Hitchcock’s films are so tightly, cleverly and often wittily plotted. It is hard not to see this statement as a fudge – or, if it’s meant to flag some of the issues with the play’s action itself, then it doesn’t do so in a manner that is convincing. It’s a Goldilocks problem, for in being neither too hot nor too cold it can’t be reasonably sold as either, for the unravelling action of the second half doesn’t follow an internal logic. Many of the relationships and motivations don’t seem to add up, from Edie’s American accent (which felt more like something that needed to be there to fit the aesthetic, rather than something that came from her character and background), to the inconsistency in the emotional authenticity and the timelines that criss-cross the love-triangle between Edie and Norma and Monty, to the inexplicable local convenience of her Kiwi aunt, to Eden’s own motivations and backstory. Structurally, the play doesn’t hold water. Things seem to happen because they are necessary, but not because they are earned. The cumulative effect for me is that the magic soon went and the play unravelled, and that the comic business doesn’t make up for this.

Last year, when a review that I’d written about Showbiz’s production of Hairspray inexplicably made it to the front page of the local paper, there was an online comment in and among the usual shit-slinging dross that really irritated me. Someone who knows me somehow, using a pseudonym, said that I hated theatre, and I think the implication was that I take personal pleasure in nastily getting the boot in from my little self-involved spite-cave. It annoyed me because it was both cowardly and untrue. I love theatre. I love thinking and writing about it. I love research and dramaturgy. On the rare occasion that I get to do so, I love making it. I love the immediacy, I love the storytelling, I love being moved and surprised, and I really love figuring out how it works on emotional, structural, physical, technical and intellectual levels. Most of all, I desperately want theatre to be good, and more often than not to be better. In this case, I came away from Ropable disappointed and frustrated not because I’m a snotty grinch, but because within the wonderful premise and the publicity of this play there is a promise, and all other issues aside, this promise was unfulfilled.

I received a comp to this show, although not as a reviewer, and it runs until March 4 2017. You can read very positive reviews of the show at What’s Up Christchurch, Theatreview, and The Press.

*In fairness, some jokes, like a pretty funny one about feet and meter in poetry, did go over the heads of most of the audience.

I watch Dudley Benson get married and wonder if there’s a goody bag

Christchurch-born Dunedin-based composer and musician Dudley Benson recently extended an open invitation: to join him on the afternoon Waitangi Day (February 6), at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu, for an hour-long site-specific free performance event in which he marries the land.

Benson is an idiosyncratic artist who creates singular, distinct and often sweetly poppy experimental work that combines choral work, close harmony, and unusual instrumental arrangements with styles and motifs more closely associated with hip hop and electronica. He sings in both English and Te Reo Māori, and his work has consistently engaged with the flora, fauna and environment of Aotearoa New Zealand. This performance incorporates music from previous and upcoming albums, and my take on this, musically, is a cross-genre Bon Iver via a goth New Zealand Lady Gaga. I’m not a music writer though; I am more interested here in the theatricality of this event, and its implications and resonances as a piece of ritualistic, stylised, site-specific performance art.

The structure of the event is both sound and familiar: Benson, as the veiled bride, is assisted by his sister Jess, who acts as the bridesmaid. They begin on a suspended walkway up above the gallery’s large foyer for a sort of invocation; flower petals are thrown; he makes his way down the large marble staircase (complete with a quick dramatic moment with a wind machine); vows are made; the bridal wear comes off; the marriage is consummated. The latter part of the event is the equivalent of the reception: Benson sings a cheesy local love song, there’s confetti and photos and some downbeat tunes, and for those who make it to the end there’s a lovely cake.

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I quite like ambitious work that can best be described as a little bonkers. I am also really thankful to see something completely out of step with the usual artistic goings on in Christchurch, and I love that the gallery are hosting events such as this. However, this performance as an overall entity is incoherent in a manner that I find really difficult to parse (hence this piece of writing – me trying to figure things out through typing rather than scrunching my face up). By this, I mean it is overly signified in a way that really rejects a coherent reading, although I don’t get the sense that this was necessarily the intent.

There are the swift shifts in tone. We move between sections of stylised, ritualistic action that are almost kitschy and camp in their gravity, to a looser playfulness that has a definite twinkle in its eye, to a deeply serious presentation that sometimes strays into earnest indulgence. Some of these song-events are set pieces, after which Benson takes a bow, which accentuates our role as receptive audience. As my friend Douglas points out, this plays with the sort of liturgical performativity and theatricality you’d find within the high Anglican tradition, which marries (hah) clearly with Benson’s background as a boy chorister. (Full disclosure: my younger brother started with the Christ Church Cathedral choristers the same year that Benson did, so that this register of performance, both musical and religious, feels overly familiar to me.)

There’s the use of black, which has its own sense of wide-spread national signification. This is most evident through the jet-black clothing pieces (credited to Dunedin-based designer Nom D). Jess Benson wears an amazing, bulbous frock. Dudley has a utilitarian kilt + gauntlets + black singlet (with New Zealand crest) ensemble. Both wear high, heavy black boots (knee-high Doc Martens?). There’s the disjuncture, then, between bridal-white, present only in the veil that Benson briefly wears, and the use of black for mourning and as a tarnish. Death appears later, too; the percussive song of consummation plays with the call of the fantail / tīwaiwaka / pīwakawaka, who ruins trickster demi-god Maui’s attempt to kill the immense goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po. When Maui climbs inside her birth canal and up towards her heart, Hine is woken by the laugh of the mocking fantail, and she crushes Maui between her thighs, chomping him with the obsidian teeth that line her vagina. Benson calls explicit attention to this mythological connection, so I’m not sure what this says about the future of the marriage.

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There’s also the performers’ coal black face makeup, which is augmented by something silver and sparkly around the forehead. It has me wincing – wincing so, so profoundly –  both at the beginning of the piece, and later, when it is gently wiped from Benson’s face in a manner that feels like a cleansing and an anointing. Given the detailed attention to aesthetic, design and costume, I have no idea what to make of this.

ETA: lovely Donna took this great picture of pre-show prep and has been kind enough to let me use it here:

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There’s an interesting ambiguity to do with sex and gender. Benson takes on the role of (demanding) bride, wearing clothing that plays with the iconography of fetish culture, when ‘marrying’ the land, which is itself usually feminised as both mother and lover.

There’s the troubled interplay between an engagement with colonialism and colonisation that intersects with a sense of childhood (and child-like?) nostalgia. Benson’s other work  certainly engages with issues of national identity, individualism, the environment and cultural heritage. That said, I am also not sure how to situate his work vis-à-vis the sort of Pākehā nationalism that venerates native flora and fauna, and the beaches and the outdoors, but that eschews more difficult questions about the widespread impacts of colonisation.

Perhaps most significantly, there’s the date of the wedding: Waitangi Day, which is so loaded with hope and potential, with historic and present day trauma, with celebration and anger and reflection, and with decades of struggle and suppression. I’m watching this as a first generation New Zealand-born Pākehā woman – Ngāti Tiriti – and I can’t tease out any sort of clear political point of view, at an individual level or otherwise.

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All of this combines to create… I’m not sure what. The teacher in me wants to ask: what’s the thesis statement? If the purpose really is just surface level – Benson marries the land, and there are some stylish costumes and props – then it’s loaded with so much provocation that I don’t really know where to begin.

This combination of interest, perplexity and misgivings aside, the biggest source of disquiet for me is that a wedding is a reciprocal ritual, in which two make pledges to one another. In this work, Benson marries the land – but does the land marry Benson? The land certainly doesn’t have a physical proxy, or a voice in any of this, and this rewrites acts such as vows and consummation in a very confronting manner, especially given the date of performance. (Ironically-not ironically, one of the songs Benson sings is about losing his own voice and calling it to return, hoki mai, all while being present with the land yet isolated from others. Is the land, then, a means of facilitating individualistic self-knowledge and identity? Of tangibly anchoring a Pākehā identity in post-colonial New Zealand? RABBIT HOLE ALERT, etc.)

So: we are on the tiled floor of an art gallery, and backed by a tall, undulating wall of slightly tinted panes of glass that recalls the nearby Avon River / Ōtākaro, as well as the artesian spring that the gallery is built upon. Benson’s sweetly circular songs invoke birdsong, and refer to his affection for and affinity with the South Island, Banks Peninsula, Akaroa – outdoor spaces that were seen by colonists as empty land and by the tangata whenua as entities and ancestors with their own sense of personhood and familial connection. The copy for the event states that it “is a bold and visceral declaration of our relationship with the land, expressed through engaging pop music”. But, who is the ‘our’ mentioned here? Is this presence or absence of ‘the land’, then, a question that’s implicit in the work?

All other modes of interest and engagement aside, the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a strong point of view here really bothers me. This is especially so given the earnestness of some of the ritualistic elements, such as members of the audience-congregation pouring cups of coloured sand over Benson and ‘letting something go’ as he sings the final song. I’m left wondering how much workshopping this piece had, whether anyone else cast an eye over the performance as a piece of narrative, or whether there was any particular intent behind the work. There is so much contradictory, inconsisent information here that, as a friend puts it, I’d have liked for the wedding to have had a bar.

PS sorry about my crappy photos. That’s what you get at a wedding.

Alice Canton’s “Little Sister” in (perpetual) development

The relationship between the frail puppet and its manipulative, ambivalent masters is a resonant and recurring way of conceptualising the dynamic between performer and director, dancer and choreographer, work and creator, and artist and audience. It’s one that sits close to the core of Alice Canton’s show for the upcoming Auckland Fringe, Little Sister

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Alice explores, engages with, and re-works Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, first presented in 1911 by the Ballets Russes, which tells the tragic story of a puppet love triangle that ends pretty poorly for its protagonist. Subjective encounters are important here, and Alice draws from the raw material of her own relationship with the ballet’s themes and narratives, in particular a 1993 production staged by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, which involved her then 10-year-old sister. Alice presented her first week’s work yesterday, followed by a feedback session, at The Gym at the Arts Centre – a lovely, flexible mixed use performance space that is currently overseen and used by Free Theatre.

I love these sorts of development-driven feedback sessions, not really because it’s an opportunity to see behind the curtain, but because there is such rawness, richness and interesting intentionality about the process of creation and in the  space between initial concept and presentable work. Importantly, Little Sister itself is designed as a work-in-process, rather than an outcome-orientated endeavour (I did some stuff, here is the static end point, done with that, move on). Each night audiences will be able to see something a bit different based on that day’s work, but each performance also exists for itself, rather than being just a stepping stone towards a final or ‘ideal’ performance.

Here, Alice and her ‘helpers’ experiment with the way very simple objects come to life and then return, sometimes shockingly, to their prior inanimate states, being both endowed with and robbed of life by those who manipulate them. Camera footage, via cellphones, is projected on the wall, allowing for a facinating playfulness with scale and the relationship between 3-dimensional objects and their 2D representations.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of subjectivity because of a project I’ve been working on, so I’m quite taken with the way that inanimate objects – puppets made out of basic household objects, fabric, and rubbish; lighting cables; children’s toys – exhibit agency and personhood, especially in ways that are unsettling, unexpected or uncanny. (This is exacerbated, quite accidentally, by the way that the smartphone’s camera’s facial recognition squares highlight some, but not all, performers and puppets; why is a gingerbreadman toy endowed with personhood, but not a plastic Pikachu?)

The figures of the automaton, or the puppet, or the monster – everything from Adam, to Frankenstein’s monster, to the clockwork automatons of the late 19th century and modern day cyborgs – have historically been shaped not just by the nature of its creation and creator, but also its capacity to experience life, to feel and to rebel. Even with some prior knowledge about the outcome of the ballet, there is still a sense of uncertainty and danger: there is frisson in the space between the puppets’ creation, their animation, and their eventual, perhaps inevitable demise.  How are identities and meanings articulated (in the literal, putting-together sense)? How does a puppet feel, and communicate its feelings? What is a puppet’s language, and if can it exist without its master, what are the implications for it (and us)?

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Alice’s show-and-tell is the first of what look to be weekly development / work-in-process / -progress sessions hosted on Friday afternoons by Two Productions (Tom Eason and Holly Chappell-Eason). The company has had just taken up residency within the newly restored and refurbished Arts Centre, and they do some terrifically interesting work; the devised youth production The Wild Hunt, which was staged with the Body Festival in 2014, was one of my favourite things full stop that year, and their other productions exhibit a great sense of playfulness and curiosity. Christchurch’s theatre ecosystem has a long had some serious gaps in terms of low risk, high return creative spaces (sandboxes, both physical and conceptual), especially for younger and emerging practitioners, and Two Productions’ broader goal to help facilitate the development of arts practitioners and new work is exciting and admirable. There’s a bit more about their long-term goals here.

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk @ The Court Theatre

Yesterday I reviewed Jack and the Beanstalk at The Court Theatre. The production’s delightful and inventive, although some of the interactivity with the audience doesn’t quite sit right yet.

Dan Bain’s playful direction of Brendon Bennetts’ witty adaptation also features some clever manipulation of scale through the use of costume pieces, action figures and the animated backdrop, rendering the distinctions between the giant’s over-sized world and ours both believable and entertaining. Zak Enayat gives a spirited performance as the foolish, cheeky Jack, and Amy Straker and Henri Nelis offer a delightful array of comic supporting characters, both living and inanimate.

The production adapts the set for the Court’s summer musical, Legally Blonde – an inevitable constraint that in this case is generally negotiated well. It makes excellent use of its moving LCD panels, and its rotating stage handily solves the perennial problem of how to stage travel sequences in a manner that reads well. The set’s bright pink colour palette is a little trickier to deal with and while I appreciate the way the set pieces and detailed costumes nod to this through the inclusion of pink splatters and blobs, pushing back against the ‘pinkocalypse’ is a bit of a losing battle (and not really this production’s fault at all).

More here.

(I received a comp to this show.)