REVIEW: Orangutan (The Basement)


Not yet a Great Ape [by Matt Baker]


In a black box conversion of The Basement studio, creator and performer Alice Canton sits and waits on a pile of dirt and bark. The elevated and shallow seating block doesn’t seem to manage The Basement studio 65-seat capacity, leaving audience members sitting on the floor, which I imagine results in false sightlines to which Canton’s mask-work plays. In such an intimate space, it’s disappointing that, while not necessarily carved with the intention to perform in this specific space, we lose Canton’s eyes behind the mask. In addition to the lack of vocals in the production, this prevents us from connecting with the humanity (ironically) inherent in animals and, more specifically, her hybrid character: Hanoman (White Monkey King) and Topeng Tua (Old Man).

The simplicity of a half mask provides myriad emotional performance on its own, but I can’t help but feel slightly cheated at the lack of further authenticity within the costume, and, to degrees, the performance. At times Canton presents intricate articulation, at others she moves too fast within the physical limitations of the character and rushes through moments. But it’s an example of how even our exposure to and experience of theatrical components, let alone theatre itself, in New Zealand is limited when presented with variations in conventions with which we have little knowledge.

Lighting designer and operator Brad Gledhill provides striking contrast in cohesion with the play’s dramatic shift, from a hauntingly beautiful red glow to an offensively stark blue flood. The dramatic undertone of the latter, however, seems to go unnoticed by the audience. Thomas Press’ sound design is a character in itself, although its relationship with Canton left me wanting even more dynamism incorporated between them.

In refocusing her original investigation, the “small but important” narrative of Orangutan is too insular a piece to convey the aims Canton has with her work. The show essentially plays out one beat with subtle and increasing variations, but, on their own, they do not build to anything greater than the sum of their parts. While an interesting character exploration, Orangutan now needs to find its place in Canton’s self-acknowledged lofty ideals.

Orangutan plays at The Basement until July 3. For details see The Basement.

SEE ALSO: review Nik Smythe

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