Joie de vivre [by James Wenley]
It is strange at first to see performers Tama Jarman, Justin Haiu and Jarod Rawiri in the white face, white gloves, and the exaggerated clothing of a mime artist. While the art of mime, along with clowning, is typically taught as a module in drama training, and while it informs a lot of local acting or physical theatre (see Red Leap’s The Arrival), it is rare to see the full white face kit, and we can’t initially take them very seriously. But neither do they: the White face gives them permission to be cheeky and a little bit juvenile, with hilarious mimed gags and more. Rawiri, the only one of the three to consistently speak, tells us (in a French accent) that we will not be seeing awesome French theatre, because they are not French. What the kiwi sensibility seems to add to the mix is a whole lot of added cheekiness. We lap up the hilarity, but the magic of La Vie Dans une Marionette is when we start to care.
La Vie Dans has been in on-and-off development since the original ten minute version won the Wild Card Award at Auckland’s first Short+Sweet Theatre Festival in 2010. A summary of this new expanded version can still be kept quite short: a solitary piano player (Jarman) is delivered a box which contains a life-size marionette (Justin Haiu). When he cuts the marionette’s strings, the pianist discovers it can come to life of its own accord whenever he plays his piano or a music box. Wisely, they don’t try to pack a lot it into the story. It is simple and strong, allowing extended gags to be developed, and for us to admire the physical prowess of the actors.
The White Face men are a multi-talented crew. Justin Haiu employs his strong contemporary dance background to flop, twirl, flip, and makes it easy for us to suspend our disbelief and utterly conceive that he is not the master of his own movements. His marionette is an innocent discoverer who absorbs and copies his creator’s behaviors. Jarman’s pianist is harder to get a handle on: he’s damaged goods, holding pain inside his heart. Jarman plays him with a roguish, charismatic, and sometimes vain quality, but this seems to be a front: he’s fearful of outside contact, and at first fearful of the marionette, he slowly gives himself over. Jarman also gets to use his street dance background, and the high-point of the show is a joy filled dance duet between the pair. Jarod Rawiri, a fine actor who in just a week will be performing his Auckland Festival show I, George Nepia, here uses his comic expertise in a series of cameos: a bumbling French usher who runs us through audience etiquette, a grumbling delivery man, and most memorably, a dancing moon (wearing a stunning headpiece) who revels in audience attention and takes an active interest in the story of the pianist and the marionette.
I imagine these performers were eager to get in front of an audience: what brings the show as a whole to life is what happens between us, the performers mastering their timing, and audience energy, to bring delighted laughs. But as well as the gags, the story’s charming (but sometime sad) core makes it mean a little bit more.
With the full-length work now debuted, there is room for further manipulation around the edges. Jarman’s character is the most complex of the show, a sad clown, but with a fascinating streak of cruelty about him that sneaks out. There is opportunity to continue to explore his pain: there is a big dramatic moment when we learn what befell him, but it is the smaller, quieter moments of reflection that hit home. The final moments of the show needed to have a bit more air around them for us to breathe and feel the emotion, racing a little too quickly to the (brilliant) final image. The performance, otherwise, is beautifully paced.
I caught La Vie Dans on the same night as One by One at The Herald (highly recommended by Matt Baker in his review) – they are different shows, but both use physical storytelling instead of words. I highly recommend this combo to appreciate the demands – and joys – of this style of performance (but you will need to race to The Basement for La Vie Dans following One by One). Both, I hope, will continue to have ongoing theatrical lives.
What I love most about La Vie Dans is its sense of play and freedom: the performers enjoy playing with us, not just for us.
La Vie Dans une Marionette is presented by White Face Crew and plays as part of Auckland Fringe at The Basement until 3 March. Details see Auckland Fringe.