REVIEW: Short+Sweet Theatre Festival – Week 2, Top 20

Even Sweeter, but not shorter.

Even Sweeter… [by James Wenley]

Even Sweeter, but not shorter.

The second week of Short+Sweet lives life firmly on the theatrical side.

After noting that I hoped for a more diverse program of plays in my review of Week One, it was certainly delivered this week. These plays on the whole were not only different thematically to each other, many were also ballsy, thrilling, seat-wettingly hilarious and really played and experimented with what is possible to achieve on stage in 10 minutes.  At the end of the show, when you look down at your voting papers to choose your favorite play, I found it an agonisingly tough decision. It was a night of a great many favourites.

Sociopaths don’t use Commas (playwright M.E. MacDonald, Director Yee Yang ‘Square’ Lee) kicked the night off in stylish fashion with a story set at in contemporary art gallery opening. Praise here goes to the slick set design – the best I’ve seen in Short+Sweet so far. Two pieces of art hang on the wall, a clear board with an image of a comma hangs from above, portraying all we need to know about this environment. Jodie Hillock’s character doesn’t go to many parties and doesn’t think much of the artist’s work. Michael Morris is Mr Mystery, crashing the party, provoking Hillock into a witty and sometimes heated discussion with about art and the humble comma; she is suspicious of the comma, he sees “thought, emotion, reflection. Both actors are engaging, Morris cool and intriguing, Hillock especially has a winning stage presence, though there was a certain lack of sexual chemistry when both were put together. The ‘twist’ I saw coming long before, though what they do afterwards when the man’s real identity was revealed was the most interesting.

Next we are strapped into a dark absurdist story, ala Kafka’s The Trial with The Cure (playwright Ken Jones, Director Tom Sainsbury) . Edward Clendon is a young scientist who makes the breakthrough modern health has been waiting for… he discovers the cure for cancer. He’s not celebrated however, he is rebuffed and destroyed at every turn. Carl Dixon and Elizabeth McMenamin play all the other characters from his disbelieving parents to fellow scientists, to court officials. McMenamin especially proves herself a talented character actress, adopting a wonderfully dumb accent and physicality for the world’s worst lawyer. Sainsbury cleverly directs the actors facing out to the audience, edging their way closer to the audience as Clendon’s situation gets more and more dire. The conspiracy is all laid out for us, and although the effects of what would happen if cancer was cured ends with women having shorter hair, it’s actually worryingly convincing, the entire healthcare industry and beyond acting to protect their own interests.

You know it’s a diverse body of plays when you can pull out Kafkaesque after only the second play, and I was pleased to see so many different genres on the stage. Roach Blues (playwright Leo Taylor, director Kiel McNaughton, fifth on the night, delved into a nourish genre with 1920s gangsters and flapper dresses. Effortlessly cool and classy, Kiel McNaughton bought together a cast with much star wattage – Millen Baird, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Jared Turner, Leisha Ward Knox and Kerry Warikia –  who had great fun inhabiting the characters, who had names like ‘Fred the Freaky Owl’. The writing is clever and rhymes, though the plot was hard to follow throughout.

While Dave Armstrong has recently noted that political satire has been sorely missing from our screens, we got in Short+Sweet with 13 weeks. The lights come up and astoundingly the honorable PM John Key (“CEO of the people”) is standing there on stage… but wait… that’s actually Greg Goodyer, who bears an uncanny likeness, and a spot on mimic of Key’s very kiwi manner of speaking and empty sloganeering. I’ve enjoyed his YouTube videos before, where he gently sends up Key, and he’s brilliant live. Get this man out there this election year! The play focuses on proposed cuts to the DPB, and mothers being required to find work merely  13 weeks after delivery, and gives a firm boot to this political discourse.

Speaking of genres, there was also a musical, but more on that later…       

You can pack a lot into 10minutes, as Flourish and Perfect Life explored. Flourish (written and directed by the two actors Stacey Musham and Mark Harrison with playwright Garrick Burn also getting a directing credit) shows the length of a couple’s entire relationship – from meeting at a work, marriage, through to the tragic end of their relationship. It’s certainly a difficult challenge that Garrick Burn has set for the team, and one not fully realised – many of the moments, small as they are, can only be cliché, and the awkward blocking during transitions hampers the flow of the story. Musham and Harrison are watchable throughout, and the sad ending, beautifully conveyed by the actors, succeeds to coax a tear or two from some. 

Perfect Life does one better, showing not just a relationship but the entire life of one person from womb to tomb.  Playwright Angie Farrow has crafted a clever story that is given highly physical direction by Grae Burton, his cast using all tools to carry the story. A versatile piece of red fabric memorably recreates the moment of birth as the baby, a fully-bearded Phil Brooks, pops out and starts talking to us. This life in ten minutes moves faster than even the subject can keep up with, and he protests that this wasn’t what his life was meant to be like. It’s a clever warning about not letting time slip away, and I’m delighted by the highly theatrical presentation.

Grae Burton also acts in the evening in Preconception (playwright Larry Hamm), being directed by his Perfect Life actor Phill Brooks – Short+Sweet is nothing if not collaborative. Burton’s character, wearing a retro high school ball outfit, arrives at the tail end of a large bunch of actors wearing white masks who burst down the Herald stairs. Burton’s is the only one to notice Catherine Boniface’s character, decked in a lovely white ball gown, who has prepared some pink cocktails. He tries to impress her with some dance moves; she remains unmoved.  The premise – he’s trying to get into her, she is resistance – is initially unclear, but penny soon drops… [SPOILERS] he is a sperm, she is an egg. She must decide if this sperm, if this partner, is to be the one. There’s much quick-witted dialogue and jokes surrounding the theme (the sperm loses most of his friends in ‘practice runs’), though what emerges is some pointed commentary on the gender wars and actually compelling drama.

The last three plays to mention are the most difficult to separate for me in terms of enjoyment. Perfect  Life (playwright Ian Murray, director Aidee Walker) is joyously bizarre, and is what the Toy Story films might be like if they had an AO rating. Samantha Jukes and Josephine Stewart Te-Whiu are two toy dolls who speak in outrageous aussie accents. With great attention to detail, their limbs are only barely articulated, leading to some immediate physical comedy. But then in walks Juke’s boyfriend, played by Clayton Carrick Leslie in a huge box – his shapely tighted legs do most of the acting for him. Clayton’s box for my money is the best performance of the night, and delivers a huge quota of laughs. The play gets more and more farcical – Thomas Sainsbury’s cameo is a scene stealer as a literal large bouncy ball – all the potential comedy is squeezed out of the play by Walker and cast, and then some!

And this was looking the best of the night, but then… Musical. The comedy triumvirate Nic Sampson, Ryan Richards and Barnaby Fedric (who I last enjoyed together in Feel Felt Found) have joined up with composer Joseph Moore and choreographer Elizabeth McMenamin to present A Stitch in Time, which is almost ten minutes of score and song. There’s a bomb at Kelly Tarltons, and it’s up to three specialists (each with their own theme song) to detonate it. It’s a great marriage of plot and genre, and many musical theatre tropes are covered, including the romantic lead, a flashback, musical reprisals, and the usual suspect dance moves. Our first specialist, the heroic Aidee Walker (Nic Samspon) bursts onto the stage to tell us (repeatedly) ‘You’re in good hands’.  He’s followed by Matt Baker (Ryan Richards) who sings ‘It’s a 50/50 world’ (turns out he’s not the sort of bomb specialist you’d like to have around in an emergency). Last is Benedict Wall* (Barnaby Fedric) who carries a grudge, and controls a robot (‘Robot, robot, robot’). Though clearly comic material, the actors don’t take the piss with their performances, committing their full energy, and they sing and dance extremely well. Though Steve Wrigley recently did a very funny full length comedy musical, I think this team would have something to offer, and I would love to see more from them in this area.

*Yes, that is an in-joke. All characters are named after local actors.

Hurrah for Outfit Theatre Company. They finish the night with the very meta A formidable contender for a prodigious and noble endeavour. The program offers an ‘epic journey from turn of the century Siberia to modern day NZ. Featuring excerpts from Chekhov’s The Three Sisters’. Juicy. The wonderful Andrew Ford starts the opening soliloquy –  “Oh what has become of my past” – but he never gets much further. The stage manager, Short+Sweet staff and director Pete Coates are all onstage arguing about a cue gone wrong. Soon the Herald stage has erupted into full scare warfare with a professional wrestler and an assortment of actors, and even someone from the audience all battling each other. Sure it’s all just an excuse to engage in rousing stage combat, but it’s exciting to watch and something that has to be seen.

 It’s the perfect ending to what has been a hilarious and inspiring theatrical feast.

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