[Addy in Wonderland]
Addy has lost someone close to her, someone she calls her sunshine-maker, and she doesn’t know how to cope, except to withdraw into the safe haven of her imagination. The fantasy world setup is something you’ve probably seen before, from classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to Where the Wild Things Are and even The Book of Everything. What distinguishes debut playwright Beanie-Maryse Ridler’s fantasy world of Defending the J. J. Mac is that it’s a product of the protagonist’s mental illness. It is a dark and bold choice, though the tone and style of the play is whimsical rather than miserable.
The action of the play takes place in three realities: the real world, Addy’s treehouse of the mind and a story set on a boat. Rather than drawing a clear line between each one, Ridler overlaps them to give us a sense of Addy’s collapsing lucidity. While each reality is important, it’s the last that holds the most significance. Framed as a story that Addy herself is writing, the boat story shows us the trials of two old men defending their boat from the ‘Jerries’ of WW2, all while stuck in a tree. That the story parallels elements of Addy’s own past makes it an effective narrative device, helping us understand her without relying on direct exposition.
On the other hand, the real world is often left too vague. We’re presented with characters that only seem partially filled in. Addy (Ella Hope-Higginson) is a cipher, more product of her pain than a person; Cooper (Shane Murphy) functions as a plot device to drip-feed the audience exposition; and Joan (Ana Corbett) is practically negligible. And what dramatic moments we do see in the real world merely restate things that have already been alluded to, undermining the entire purpose of the boat story.
Despite being products of Addy’s imagination, it’s the old men, Jimmy (Bruce Phillips) and Jake (Cameron Rhodes), that feel the most fleshed out. There’s a genuine rapport between them that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the play. Phillips, in particular, elevates the curmudgeonly stereotype, earning some well-deserved laughs from the audience.
Whether it’s in the communicating over paper cups or drinking tea out of gumboots, the whimsy of the play finds its best moments in its tributes to magical realism. Director Leon Wadham brings out Ridler’s best qualities here, embracing theatre as a visual medium. The design team behind them are also equally tuned-in. Andrew Foster’s bare staging conveys the stark reality of Addy’s circumstances. Only the leaves hanging from the ceiling give us a glimpse of what she sees, leaving the rest to our imagination. Rachel Marlow’s lighting and Rowan Pierce’s soundscape also contribute to building this interior world, from the shifting of shadows to the ambience of the rainforest.
Also worth nothing is that this is the first show as part of Last Tapes: First Steps, a whole season of new works. Their choice to promote and produce the work of a first-time playwright is commendable in both the professionalism of the end product and the overall intention. It’s a welcome and exciting addition to the Auckland theatre scene that really can’t be overstated. But the intentions of the play itself are less clear.
If the goal of Defending the J. J. Mac is to make a potentially punishing subject matter pleasant then it’s mostly successful. The problem is that the subject matter isn’t really that clear. By attempting to examine both mental illness and grief the play seems to compromise itself. Rather than being a profound study of one of them, we get a surface-level glance at both. A watercolour version of Pan’s Labyrinth that is beautiful to look at, but doesn’t quite take the plunge down the emotional rabbit hole.
Defending the J.J. MAC is presented by Last Tapes Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 6 February. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe