Ice-cream is apparently one of the most searched for terms on the internet. Who knew? There’s certainly something about the stuff that makes people happy. On arrival at the Basement for ‘I won’t be happy until I lose one of my limbs’ we were presented with a free ice-cream cone. This made me happy. What a clever way to make a reviewer pre-disposed to liking the play!
Central character O’Gradient, as you might have had an inkling, won’t be happy until she loses a limb. A leg, to be precise. Playwright Julie Hill was inspired by real cases of this unusual psychological disorder. From this germ of an idea she crafted this dark absurdist tale set in the ambiguously NZ town of Love Mountain (“the most beautiful place on earth”), populating it with characters that are looking for the ever elusive happiness, as the town falls down around them.
Between them, actors Gareth Reeves* and Nisha Madhan play 6 of the town’s residents. Derek, who works at a party supply store, thinks he’s God’s envoy for the town, has lots of empty sex, and is struck by lightening. Bogan Barney wants a motorbike. Imaginary friend Bob wants O’Gradient. Hospital nurse Ping (a nice nod to Nisha’s Shorty Street stint) wants to look after people. Mrs Button wants to sing, and has a dark secret. And O’Gradient… the leg. All endearingly odd, the weird and whacky character recipe creates an unusual night in the theatre.
The actors and crew greet you and look after you when you enter the Basement theatre. Gareth Reeves personally showed us to the best seat in the house: a beanbag, almost in the middle of the action (and never a more comfortable seat have I enjoyed in a theatre – can the Civic be refitted with beanbags I wonder?). He presented us with the free ice creams too from writer Julie Hill’s ice-cream tray. He gave my friend a pair of a cat ears.
Channeling the theories of Grotowski, who wanted to create a new rapport with actor and audience, we are occasionally cast as participants within the town. We become the ‘Nobodies’ who have invaded O’Gradient’s house and do nasty things like have sex on the couch. Nisha makes a point of fixing us with her gaze, staring each of us down. She asks why my friend is looking at her. Gareth asks my friend for a drink. Gareth flicks water in my face. Kiwi theatre seems to increasingly like to challenge the audience in this way. Sometimes there can be resistance, but we don’t mind here, they were so friendly at the start. They could even have gone further – the idea only seems half-formed.
Stephen Bain has designed one of the more creative sets on a smaller budget. All of the significant places in the town get featured on the floor of the Basement, pushing most of the audiences to the perimeter walls. It’s great to see the ever customiseable Basement space show its versatility yet again. Green Astroturf with a white sheet on top is the Love Mountain, Mrs Button’s house is made of small cardboard boxes, there’s a party supplies store, and a swimming pool denotes a lake. The set again and again is used with inventive theatrical flourish. Some moments enter the sublime – the best sequence involves a blow up Jesus figure and blow up pink rabbits.
Andrew Foster directs the actors in a playing style that is very low-key; very – dare I say it – Kiwi. When the audience is in, Gareth Reeves gets a microphone and half-apologetically says “I think I’ll start the play”. It never once takes itself too seriously. A microphone is shared between the actors for moments of narration and to tell us of things that can’t be visualized onstage, sometimes they tell us (often incongruous) stage directions ala Brecht. The mike is not consistently used however for this narration which weakens the device, and in the Basement space it was unnecessary.
The characters are understated. Simple things like wigs, glasses and scarves delineate the characters; actual differences in performance are quite subtle. There’s a bit of voice and physicality changing, but never full on caricature. The broadest character is Nisha’s Ping with an ostensibly Korean accent (“ruv mountain”) who is gifted a show-winning rants. The characters seem to fulfill some childhood urges to dress-up (Barney’s mullet wig is very silly) and destroy (the house made of cardboard boxes was asking to be destroyed!). The character work is like a more sophisticated form of playing silly buggars. It’s quite delightful.
Nisha and Gareth are very charismatic together, with superb trust. The play uses the loose device of the actors being actors telling the story. They make mistakes and point it out to each other, which makes for some empathetic humour. I felt the possibilities of this weren’t fully explored; they have such a nice connection.
The play is definitely surreal, with the plot winding on all sorts of unpredictable flights of fancy. The play has a sweet ice-cream covered exterior, with a dark centre that thrills in punishing its characters. There is much to like, though I felt the play did escape from itself a few times, and a further tightening and focus on what is most important could help proceedings. The play doesn’t lay it all out for you, and we are left to make the deeper connections. Both the actors and the audience get to have a good work-out of the imaginative muscle.
By play’s end I am left no more enlightened about why the loss of a limb would make this character happy. Why a leg especially? All we know is that she is unhappy. The leg then is perfunctory. It’s a stand-in for anything – easy sex, love, ice-cream – that can used to fill the gaping voids in an individual’s existence. The play, and especially the ice-cream, helped fill mine for a time.
* In the final week of the play Gareth Reeve’s roles will be played by assistant director Jeremy Randerson
I won’t be happy until I lose one of my limbs plays at the Basement Theatre until Saturday 19th February 2011.
Presented by Win Win Biscuit Factory in association with STAMP at THE EDGE