Labyrinth and 500 Days of Summer? Skip the films, see the plays… [by James Wenley]
When I interviewed Chris Neels on Theatre Scenes for Skin Tight in June he mentioned that he was working on two shows for a double bill at the Basement theatre in August. “Last year the Basement put out a call for proposals and I thought… oh shit, next year I’m going to be an actor and if I’m not performing at the Basement I’m not an actor. That’s what real actors do, they go to the Basement!”
And to the Basement he went, but, as it turned out, not as an actor. According to Chris’ logic, he might not be a ‘real’ actor yet, but he deservedly should call himself a ‘real’ director and playwright.
Elephant Nation’s two plays are a tantalising prospect. First is the Terrific Tale of Tabatha Talmus, billed as a fantasy for fans of ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Never Ending story’, its devised by the cast and directed by Neels with collaboration from dance collective Sweaty Heart Productions. Then Chris writes and directs These are the Skeletons of Us, which stars (if I may be so bold) some of the best young actors working in Auckland – Andrew Ford, Colin Garlick, Chelsea McEwan Miller and especially Nic Sampson.
The Terrific Tale of Tabatha Talmus is a promising show if not yet fully realised. A voice behind us tells us to ‘make a wish’ and a series of tableaux tell how young Tabatha Talmus (Melissa Reeve) dies and ends up in the world of the ‘in-between’, where people must stay until their stories are finished. In the show’s mythology, the scribe (Taofia Pelesasa) has the power to either write the story endings and release them, or keep them indefinitely. He’s very interested in Tabatha due to a prophesy that (very conveniently for this narrative) mentions a girl that looks exactly like her that will finish the scribe’s own story and take over his duties. The in-between is further populated by a series of varyingly interesting characters – Tim (Alex Walker), a bureaucratic trapped soul, his soft toy Ratty (Courtney Abbot) which is now large and taken a life of its own, and Josephine (Phoebe Borwick), an Explorer prone to self-exaggeration.
The design work by Anna Langford is appealingly low budget and innovative. The main lighting source comes from OHP projectors on the ground, each with its own operator to turn them on an off and position them as required. To these would be added sheets that could stand in for makeshift gobos, or red food colouring splashed onto the OHP to cover an actor with blood onstage. The aesthetic reminded me of last year’s The Intricate Art of Actually Caring (an influence which is wryly acknowledged in These are the Skeletons of Us), but is carried off here with enough flair and originality in Tabitha to be its own thing, and I love that I can observe the crew manipulating the projectors in front of us. The apparently new hole in the Basement roof, star attraction of Young and Hungry’s Disorder, is well utilised again here too.
The ‘tone’ of Tabitha varied – at times quite sophisticated, other times childish, as if it couldn't decide if its intended audience was children, or an older audience’s ‘inner child’. As such, I found the performances uneven. Taofia Peleasea’s Scribe was the most palpable figure (a cross between a Labyrinth David Bowie and a Legend Tim Curry), stalking the stage with an other-worldly physicality, and quoting childhood literary works. He’s an up and down sinister villain, but his tragic backstory does much to explain his motivations. Phoebe Borwick dives gungo-ho in her role and her appearances onstage were always welcome. Abbot has fun as Ratty, the ‘comic relief’ but I wasn’t sold on the chemistry between Ratty and her owner Tim (Walker); their comic interplay added little to the plot or character development and produced more groans than laughs from me – most notably a scene where Walker wants to comb Ratty’s fur, which I suspect would play very well to children, but not the adult audience. Melissa Reeve’s Tabitha is suitably innocent and nice (if unbelievably sadistic too soon when given physical control or her friends Ratty and Tim), though she isn’t given much to play within the role. I would have rather liked a Labyrinth like eroticism between Tabitha and the Scribe, but alas it wasn’t to be.
There are splashes of dance and movement, courtesy of movement advisors Lydia Zanetti and Lydia Bitner-Baird (the latter also dancing). I’ve been enjoying the recent confluence of theatre and dance – Red Leap Theatre company have had a major influence on the scene, with The Keepers employing it very well, Douglas Wright made a big contribution to Othello, though I think Silo’s The Brothers Size got the balance the most right. In Tabatha, I feel the collaboration with Sweaty Hearts Productions was something of a missed opportunity. As it was, Lydia Bitner Baird only left her projector a few times to move in the space, and I felt much of the story-telling heavy-lifting could have been much better handled with physicality. Dialogue was often wordy or extraneous, needing editing. Moments that were most magical were the ones without dialogue.
I only felt half-transported into the world of the in-between. With more attention to tone, movement and character The Terrific Tale of Tabatha Talmus could take audiences the rest of the way. It’s deserving of this extra attention, and I hope after this first run the devising process continues and it continues to have an after-life.
While Tabatha is still in its infancy, These are the Skeletons of Us has debuted with maturity. It takes what can be a stale and clichéd plot – the journey of a relationship from hook up to break up – and presents the wonderful and messy world of relationships in a sadly beautiful and refreshingly real way. It speaks to both a rose-tinted nostalgia, and a bitter reality.
Nic Sampson and Chelsea McEwan Miller play our couple. Their early days are filled with the intoxication and excitement of the discovery of another person, their end days are filled with disillusionment about the other person not being who they fell in love with (but where they ever that person?). He hates all the traits that used to make her unique and endearing, she hates his lack of motivation and not making something of himself. Over a bowl of soup, she realises that’s its over for them. Sampson is bed ridden, and his mates (Corlin Garlick and Andrew Ford) try to help to clean up his mess (emotional and physical).
Except, this isn’t told linearly, instead jumping around fluidly as Sampson taps into his memories of the relationship. The recent ‘anti-romance’ film 500 Days of Summer is an obvious touchstone for the play; its shares the same rejection of the Hollywood romantic myth, underlining the gap between expectation and realities, although arguably after deconstructing the myth, 500 Days’ ending reaffirms it all. Skeletons then is much rawer and honest than the slick 500 Days. Skeletons shares its narrative jumping with the film, though it reminded me too of the higher-brow play Betrayal by Harold Pinter, which told the destruction of a marriage in reverse. Neels maneuvers the demands of this form with skill, rewarding those paying attention with ‘aha!’ moments later in the play that make sense of what has come before.
If one was to judge, many of the relationship problems could be landed at Sampson, though he plays the character with such charisma that we can’t help warming to him. While still funny, In Skeletons his acting is more restrained than the broader characters he has recently been seen in, and this heightens our connection to him. He makes the character someone we can believe and see some of ourselves in. You can see why someone would fall in love with Chelsea McEwan Millar too, playing her character with charm, strength, wit and wisdom. The bedroom scene they share together – he wanting sex, she wanting to read – is wonderfully cringe-worthy. The duo of Colin Garlick and Andrew Ford do excellent support work too, sometimes literally stealing scenes.
Neels cleverly touches on a collective lost past – we live in a New Zealand without Georgie Pie or Snifters. His direction is astute and inventive; a relationship ‘good times’ montage makes great use of swivel chairs. As Sampson monologues about the ball pit at George pie, coloured balls bounce onto the stage from all corners. This adds to the mess already onstage… a drum kit, a paddle, lots of woman’s clothing on the floor of Sampson’s bed. As Sampson tries to order his emotional life, reassessing the memories of his relationship, Ford and Garlick steadily remove the objects onstage so by play’s end the stage is almost bare. It’s a simple, but extremely effective devise.
These are the Skeletons of Us is an honest look at love, loss and relationships with many rewards. Go see it – just maybe don’t bring a date!