For Ages 8 to 80 [by Guest Reviewer Andrew Parker]
Everyone wants to belong. But, of course, “belonging” often means that you have to belong to something or someone, which doesn’t sound so desirable. This unfortunate paradox is the central thread of Ben Anderson’s Puzzle (directed by him and Seamus Ford), a play which looks at the question of whether it is better to be part of the bigger picture… or to focus on your own development at the risk of leaving a hole where you once were.
Anderson’s story revolves around a disaffected puzzle piece (a bit of blue sky from a puzzle featuring a lot of blue sky, the very definition of anonymous) played by Chye-Ling Huang and performed by a trio of puppeteers, who decides to depart for pastures new. This leaves the confused Puzzle Maker (Caleb Wright) to ponder his role in his creation’s unhappiness before embarking on his own journey to put things right. This is interspersed with conversations between the Maker and his Wife (Courtney Abbot), who may or may not be losing her grip on reality, but somehow offers her husband useful wisdom regardless.
It seems a little easy to describe the end results as Pythonesque, but with exchanges like:
“Bad day at work?”
“You could say that.”
“I did. I did say that.”
…delivered with stunning earnestness, it’s hard not to make the comparison. Actually the tone winds up somewhere between Python and Spongebob Squarepants. This could be a great show for kids or for adults with only a few adjustments. Thankfully it’s neither and sits in that happy Goldilocks zone in between, something which could be enjoyed by almost anyone. Its absurdist humour, amusing puppetry and general joy de vivre make its philosophical side easier to sit through. There’s a lot of dreadful theatre which aims to explore life, the universe and everything but winds up talking about nothing. Puzzle, though, is so lovingly crafted and imaginative it makes its big picture approach palatable, selling moments that could have seemed pretentious through a mix of whimsy and cunning stagecraft. It helps that it keeps returning to the idea of belonging, offering ever more eccentric takes on this.
I’d argue that the conclusion to this debate comes a little easily. Puzzle in the end sides with the idea that we’re better off together, but to torturously extend the metaphor a puzzle can wind up looking awful not matter how attractive the individual pieces may be. Society and togetherness as an ideal state for human life ignores the fact that for some the best outcome of a long journey is actually to never go back. Meanwhile, a third strand, only thematically linked to the main story, which sees other puppets struggle with society versus the individual, seems aesthetically and tonally inconsistent with the rest of the piece, even if it is effective and intriguing in isolation.
Amongst the performers, Abbot is a clear stand out. Her delirious disconnectedness is both endearing and hilarious. Wright has the slightly harder task of playing the everyman at the heart of this, and maintains a straight face wonderfully but seems less energised than everyone else as a result. The various members of the ensemble (Cole Jenkins, Georgina Silk, Daya Czepanski, Becky Kuek, Ravi Gurunathan) – a chorus in both senses of the word, as well as handling all the puppet action – are brilliant, adding extra colour and wit wherever possible.
Puzzle is a delight to watch, even if its final moments require a bit of built up goodwill to sell its nice-sounding but slightly under-developed message. It’s clear this is meant to be an uplifting finale, but it’s the one bit this didn’t really affect me in any way. It would be great to see a further iteration of the play that doesn’t require platitudes to answer the questions it’s raised because, for all the colour and fun, it’s a debate that isn’t quite concluded satisfactorily. Nonetheless, Puzzle is wholly recommendable – an experience to which you’ll have no qualms about belonging.
Puzzle is presented by the People who Play with Theatre and plays as part of Auckland Fringe at Q Loft until February 21st. Details see iTICKET.
Andrew Parker has an MA in Drama from the University of Auckland and is a recent Actors Program graduate.