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Hamilton Fringe 2011
Atonal Heart : four monologues
By Michael Switzer and James Cain
Directed by Michael Switzer and James Cain
Fullhouse Productions

at Meteor Theatre, Hamilton
From 30 Sep 2011 to 1 Oct 2011
[1 hr 25 mins, incl. interval]

Reviewed by Gail Pittaway, 3 Oct 2011

This intriguingly titled show consists of Four Monologues. James Cain and Michael Switzer write and direct two each; Michael Burrow and Henry Ashby each perform a monologue by each of the writer/directors. All are talented performers in local theatre and this is an excellent opportunity for each to shine as writer, director or actor. 

Switzer is known in acting circles for his playwriting but often goes unacknowledged in public for the witty and whacky children's' pantomimes and shows that he regularly produces for the Hamilton Gardens' Festival of the Arts each February, so it's good to acknowledge his skills here. His experience in spinning a yarn and extending character through asides, and plot through character, is well demonstrated in his two pieces which book-end the production. 

Vigilante Etiquette starts the evening promisingly as the audience walks into a set with a man bound in a chair, tied by ropes around his hands, feet and torso with a camera pointing at him. Michael Burrow's character must not only try to escape but work out who has captured him and try to outwit his vigilante abductor. He deduces all by shrewd observation and a nasty mind, keeping up a stream of charming patter in which he sets out to educate his captor as to vigilante etiquette, while escaping all the while and advising on the better types of rope, knots and camera leads to use to avoid detection and evasion by the subject.

Directed as well as written by Switzer, it's a clever, funny piece with the most engaging villain you'll meet on stage or screen. We wonder what he has done to deserve this punishment and that, too, comes out. However to reveal more would be to spoil a play which is a great vehicle for an actor and should be enjoyed by more audiences!

Burrow is a compelling stage presence; his character here is thoroughly cheerful and likeable even when admitting criminal behaviour. It's a game of double whodunits; a joy to watch and be drawn into.

In direct contrast of energy but not talent, Two Weeks Notice, written and directed by James Cain, is a haunting piece of writing delivered with immaculate pacing and intimate voice by Henry Ashby. A young man sits on a bed that could be in hospital or an institution. With tension and volume pulled right down, the sadness of the piece about love, rejection, fantasy and meaningfulness generates empathy and a momentum of hope in the audience.

With no major stage movement, but Cain's strong direction for finding the light and using it, Ashby relies only on voice, the eyes, the head, and a few very telling gestures; it is a finely gauged exploration of inner angst without being too maudlin or melodramatic and beautifully carried off.

After the interval, part two opens again with a high energy piece. James Cain's Down the Plug Hole is a monologue about a would-be comedian who just loves to laugh and make others laugh, but must insist on having the last laugh. Burrow gives this piece brash energy with just enough gaucheness for us to think he is an innocent idiot, and then hints of hysteria so we question his sanity. It's good to see Cain contrasting his earlier touching piece with something more coarse and loud, and to see Burrows extending his reach into crass confessional style. He even manages to make his wide smile sinister. The least subtle of the monologues, it is likely to be the most often recalled for its gusto and immediacy.

And the Winner Is cleverly wraps up the night and gives the show its title. Henry Ashby plays a Hollywood actor, humbly born in Whakatane, yet accepting an Oscar as Best Actor for his role in Atonal Heart, a movie to which he alludes tantalisingly often. Switzer should now write that piece! The acceptance speech is full of segues to past, present, Whakatane, Hollywood, his former and new lives, his old Whakatane mate Brendan, whose name he has assumed.

The monologue exploits clichés of Hollywood including the patter of acceptance speeches, the hold up, and the gangster voices (of both hometown gangsta style and old movies). He backtracks on some information given earlier, telling us it was a lie-and in all comes across as untrustworthy, unlikeable but unfortunately a product of studio pressure and posturing. It's a command performance, both script and actor.

Cain and Switzter are strong writers and they share the night evenly: ten minutes or so for each piece, with contrasting styles. The entire show is briskly managed and run with simple lighting and sets; clearly the work of a tight team. It would be interesting to see what might have happened if the writers had directed each other's plays and whether much might have changed. The monologue is a useful tool for the writer but can be all too easily static or self indulgent of the character, or have nowhere to go. These plays generate interest for the audience while the actors give wonderful performances.  

“But all those words!” one audience member was overheard exclaiming, and yes, monologue is harder than ensemble with which to sustain the interest of the audience and divert and direct their minds. These chaps made it look easy!  

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 Brendan West (Aardvarkian blogsite);
 Mark Houlahan