Choose your Own Adventure [by James Wenley]
Planning your Fringe schedule is akin to the choose-your-own-adventure stories in childhood. There are different venues, several shows are on at the same time, and you (or at least I) agonise over which path to take. Unfortunately in the Fringe choose-your-own-adventure, you can’t go back to the start and begin it all again: here we are in the final week of Fringe and there are many shows I just had to let go.
Monday night was tough: The Basement was crowded with shows and I was invited to them all. I went local, and picked a path that varied from a shocking act of violence in The Last Taniwha, to an intellectual and political lecture on a very specific privatisation proposal in Privatising Parts, to a profound – and profoundly funny – autobiographical theatricalisation of the performer’s experience with suicide.
With a bonus review of Gorge, this is my adventure in the final week of Fringe so far.
The Last Taniwha is a full-on choice for a 5:30pm show, opening that night’s offerings with a confronting story of utu. Storytelling threads are weaved – and tightened – to make a multi-layered and rewarding narrative. A prologue records Kupe and his people’s arrival in Aotearoa – a “land of plenty” – and the destruction of the Taniwha until only one remains. The myth of this last Taniwha continues through the oral storytelling of kaumatua Koro, aided by physical movement from the rest of the cast. Mouse, an ancestor of the main characters, the youngest and smallest of the tribe is to be sacrificed to the Taniwha, but Mouse uses his cunning to change his fate. Set against this is the story of cousins Moko and Guts. The ‘modern day’ story sees the two reuniting and reminiscing about their childhoods. But there is a lot more at stake between them at first glance, and Moko has real beef with his old friend, and the tension in this thread quickly accelerates. The final thread is the childhood of the pair, which informs the present. All three intertwine to create the powerful final punch of this play.
There’s a clash of style and tension that sometimes makes for an uneven ride: the Taniwha myth is heavily physicalised, and the playing style of Chris Molly and Rob Williams as children is heightened and exaggerated. In contrast, the modern day meeting is strictly ‘naturalistic’: dialogue is soft, intense, but unfortunately often inaudible. It’s unclear how old the characters are supposed to be here: Moko is apparently on the verge of becoming an All Black, but seems older than he should be. The world and life of the children is very successfully sketched: there is a lot of humour in their 12-year-old skirmishes into smokes, beers, and girls, but we glance mistreatment and abuse. One poignant moment is when one of the kids dreams of driving far away “when I get my dole money”.
The Last Taniwha has a potent story to tell of myths, inter-generational and community violence, and the nature of utu and rage. Small directing and scriptural fixes are needed to release its power.
The thesis of Privatising Parts takes New Zealand’s status as a privatizing nation to the next ill-logical extension: the transfer of an individual’s body, love and relationships to the private sector. Part lecture, part evangelical sermon, part love letter to Helen Clark, it gloriously satirises – or upholds – the idealogy of privitisation, depending on your political sermon. The show is adapted from a treatise by one Richard Meros, whose work also formed the basis for shows On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her young lover, and Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man. Those were performed by Arthur Meek, but this time Meros is castrated and performed by Heleyni Pratley (who I later read was specifically chosen by Meros). This threw me for the initial part of the show: the reference to Richard Meros and Helen Clark in the Fringe brochure etc led me to assume this was the second sequel to those shows, and there was no mention of the performer in the Fringe brochure or Basement website. Pratley goes gung-ho into her performance, in a style that is big, loud and screechy, passionately driven to convince us of the merits of her argument. This proved overwhelming after a time, and I enjoyed her more when she pulled back. What works is the witty script which is both stupid, and headily clever, riffing on concepts of economics, free trade, and personal choice.
Home / The Hilarious Comedy About How I Nearly Killed Myself / A Play About How I Nearly Died But Didn’t Then Learned A Lot About Life Afterward is a wonder of a show. Performer and writer Freya Desmarais brazenly, openly, honestly theatricalises her experience when she considered taking her own life. How do you make a comedy about your own attempted suicide? Can you? Should you? Desmarais confronts sensitive and triggering topics with an upfront candour, we trust her, we warm to her, we like her, and we go on the journey with her. We first find her “warming up to Celene Dion” as we enter the Studio, and she strikes up a conversation with me and my friend about living in Auckland (she’s from Wellington). This personal touch sets up the tone for the evening, Freya feels like a friend, and she has something she wants to share and get off her chest. She did create an entire autobiographical show and toured it to Auckland after all. She breaks the ice with a light, stand-up-esque discussion about her misapprehensions about sex based on her parents’ early label of it as a “special cuddle”. From there she self-edits her life to present a collage of what makes her up: the implications on how she perceived herself as “miracle baby” after her parents’ fertility struggle, early relationships, WINZ and being a theatre-maker, her mental health issues, and her flirtation with suicide. If this sounds heavy, it is not. While she doesn’t unduly censor herself – a discussion about the means of suicide she considered is told frankly – she holds our hand the whole way through her journey, easing the way with laughs and honest comical insights.
I’m still thinking about Freya and her story. She’s touched a nerve here: something about finding a way through the unfathomableness of life, and about how sometimes it’s bigger than just you. One of the more emotive moments is when she asks us to consider an empty stage, an alternate reality where she went through with it. Honest, brave, hilarious, touching, Home is a remarkable theatre piece to experience, and it achieves what great theatre can do: for an hour we walk in her shoes, appreciating and understanding life from an alternate perspective.
Gorge is probably the show that is the best value for your money in Fringe. The Adult price is $13 and for that you get a small bag of lollies, a token you can use to select from a table a decent sized treat including cupcakes and chocolate logs, they feed during the show, and if you’re still hungry, you are invited to sample the left-overs. You may not want to at show’s end, feeling well and truly full, and maybe even put off the sickly sweet delights. That’s because the play itself has a real push-and-pull of temptation and revulsion, culminating in a disgusting climax that is too delicious to spoil here. The show is loosely based around the premise of a birthday bash for six year old Molly hosted by the bizarre team of Pick and Mix, who want to stuff the children full of treats. From there the show goes down several whimsical pathways, devisors Phoebe Mason and Virginia Frankovich playing several surprising characters. They perfectly capture the greed and petulance of 6-year-olds whipped up by birthday party expectations. Pick and Mix are creepy grotesques. My favourites are the flies, Pheobe and Virginia, who recount stories and fly around looking for the holy grail of cakes. The Old Folks Association is transformed into a candy wonderland, and the creators have made this show with love with inventive props and scenery including candy canes and a giant cake. There’s a fascinating darkness to the show – children play a game where they eat each other’s body parts – and a story about Cobham a corn boy feels like something out of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. While I felt some dissatisfaction that not all plot threads were resolved, from a theatrical and sensory perspective I was more than satiated. A dark and twisted journey through our not-so-sweet desires.
The Last Taniwha is presented by The Native Factory/Indigenous Theatre Group and closes on 7 March at The Basement. Details see Auckland Fringe.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Heidi North-Bailey