REVIEW: CHAIRS! (Basement)

Review by Tim George

[Chairs: Sit up and take note]

In a world of wheels, Molly is stuck in place.

What’s worse is no one in her life seems to recognise her plight, or they think it is merely a temporary state of mind.

Shows like Chairs! are the reason why the Basement is my favourite theatre in Auckland. 

From the outset, it has limitations: it is small, it can be hard to find, and god knows how many times I hold my breath trying to clamber up and down those stairs to the second floor Studio.

But those limitations are a part of it – it is as much a creative partner as a physical space.

The lack of space breeds a specific brand of creativity, a blend of no-wave and punk-ish aesthetics and/or barebones mise-en-scene that is a match for the more expensive ambitions of other spaces. 

Chairs! is a perfect example of a Basement show – small in scale, massive in thematic scope.

While it is often funny – any show about people wheeling on and offstage on office chairs is inherently silly- Chairs! is far darker in intent.

At its heart, it is about the existential dread of realising that those closest to you can know the least about you. 

While the show is an allegory for mental health, it is a tribute to the purity of the bizarre conceit that its application is broader. I found it impossible to watch Chairs! without equating the heroine’s crisis to the way people minimise or ignore disabilities.

Directed by Jessica Bennett, Chairs! moves at a clip, and manages to juggle its multiple tones with delicacy, balancing the pathos of Molly’s plight with the ridiculousness of Dario Kuschke’s motor-mouthed snake oil salesman, and some effective moments of horror.

Taking up the Basement’s main stage space the show’s setting is mostly a combination of evocative chiaroscuro lighting (designed by Joseph Noster), and spare mise-en-scene (mostly chairs and domestic bric-a-brac) that immerses the audience in Molly’s limited, isolated existence.

As Molly, Brigit Kelly is, literally and figuratively, the centre of the action. While she has a few deadpan lines she never loses sight of Molly’s deep need to be seen. She grounds the audience in the reality of this character, giving the show a weight that means – whatever silliness is happening around her – Molly is never crowded out.

The supporting cast are effective in roles which could have felt like caricatures around the protagonist. Dario Kuschke and Laika Rountree have fun as, respectively, the voice of a TV advert offering Molly an escape route, and Molly’s friend Piper (who also provides the musical score for the show). Zoe Meehan is rather unsettling as Molly’s oblivious, smothering mother, and Danielle Nicholson adds a welcome note of humanity as Molly’s cousin Drum Bass, a would-be rapper who sees what all the adults cannot.

Running only an hour, Chairs! never feels like it is undernourished. It boasts an economy of narrative and sense of specificity in its depiction of its central character that gives its understated climax a sense of catharsis – without negating or simplifying the issues it is tackling.

Chairs! plays Basement Theatre 14th to the 18th of November 2023

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