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Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2012
Written and directed by Arthur Meek
with Jonathan Council

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 13 Feb 2012 to 16 Feb 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 14 Feb 2012

This production reinforces my belief that New Zealand actors are world leaders in making solo shows. Bruce Mason kicked the genre off with The End of the Golden Weather (1959), Jacob Rajan revitalised it with Krishnan's Dairy (1997) and over the last couple of decades graduands of Toi Whakaari: N Z Drama School have added many ingeniously created 20-minute solos to the ever-growing lexicon, some of which have grown into bigger works that hit the Fringe touring circuit. 

Kiwi actors also grow up well aware of other cultures and becomes naturally adept at adopting their accents.  And in these financially straitened times, more and more stage plays require our actors to play multiple characters to make a production viable.

American actor Jonathan Council, then, has many hard acts to follow in this blend of his own life story to date with that of famed ‘Black Minstrel' Irving Sayles, who wowed white audiences in Australia and New Zealand with painfully racist humour back in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Commissioned by Council, Dark Stars is written and directed by Arthur Meek. With the visual aid of cardboard cut-outs of his mother, Sayles, Liz Taylor, Sidney Poitier, the Statue of Liberty and himself, Council switches between his story and Sayles' story, impersonating the flamboyant Sayles and other characters in the process.

On opening night at Bats, Council had not tuned into the pitch of the theatre. He projected so loudly – especially in the Sayles sequences – that, combined with his tendency to run words together, a lot of the text was rendered unintelligible. It may have been because of this that the juxtapositions of the 2 stories seemed clumsy and poorly structured.  

Much of the stories are told rather than shown. Sayles the showman is not offered in full performance mode, as a singer, dancer and acrobat. It is hard to discern when he is speaking as himself and as his ‘coon' character. We don't get to experience his act from an audience perspective; instead we are told how Australian and NZ audiences responded and invited to ponder the incipient racism of the whole concept (something we have contemplated the complexities of a lot more deeply in coming to terms with the humour of Billy T James).

Council's inability to pitch or pronounce an Australian or New Zealand accent, apart from saying “mate” a lot, is probably a function of how little Americans are exposed to other cultures in their formative years and at impressionable ages. Nevertheless it is a skill we have come to expect from anyone who takes on work that requires it.

That the Sayles routine about his Aboriginal wife which culminates in his dining out on “cold mother-in-law” should leave us bewildered rather than shocked – given it ticks just about every box for culturally offensive comedy – sums up where this production fails. There is no hint of our being provoked to laugh at things we should not, which surprises me given the involvement of Arthur Meek(c.f. The Lonesome Buckwhips).  

There are poignant moments in Council's own story, regarding the barriers placed in the way of his realising his dream of stardom. And the ‘dark star' word-play is amusing, being apt for Council in its ‘hard to see' mode, and for Sayles as a popular performer whose true self was eclipsed by his public persona.  

The tagline suggests the choice for both men has been between fame or freedom. But there is little suggestion that Council was being asked to demean himself or compromise his integrity in order to get work, even when cast as a transsexual prostitute in an episode of Crime Story. This does produce a good gag, however, in reference to his mother's opinion of acting as a profession.

Somewhere in Dark Stars there is a blend of stories that could draw us in through empathy and provoke us into confronting our own racism, as individuals or as a nation. But as performed last night, that potential was not realised.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Nik Smythe
 Andrew Fuhrmann (The Age, Melbourne);
 Heidi North-Bailey


nik smythe posted 14 Feb 2012, 09:41 PM / edited 14 Feb 2012, 09:44 PM

This review, in comparison to mine, raises an issue about perceived rules in theatre.  I never regarded Council's portrayals of Sayles, his mother, Cher et al as impersonations as such, rather broadly stylised story-driving references.  While I observed the same technical 'shortcomings' as John, I regard the play as more a dramatised essay than an attempt at real-life character channeling ala Streep's Thatcher or Rush's Sellars. 

Nor did I find the transitions at all disjointed, and Council's powerful vocality was welcome in the Basement Studio where he was competing with a noisy fan and outside noise from the open fire-escape door employed for the partially-successful purpose of combatting the muggy heat.  Any actor who has ever performed in touring productions know well how dramatically the metre of a play can be altered in each new space, and adjusting to this is a skill in itself - particularly important where so few showings occur in each venue.

It is true that we Kiwis love our solo shows; especially autobiographical ones!  Off the top of my head I've personally witnessed Mervyn Thompson, Wiremu Davis, John Bolton, Miranda Harcourt, Paul Barrett, and of course John Council share their lives on stage in ways that couldn't be evoked by any other medium. 

John Smythe posted 14 Feb 2012, 10:43 PM

The more I think about it the more I feel that had Jonathan Council genuinely talked to us - with the same sincerity and connection that he greeted us and farewelled us - my take on the stories and the style of their telling might have been entirely different.

Jepha Krieg posted 16 Feb 2012, 12:19 PM

I was there on opening night and understood every word he said? I didn't think he was over projecting at all.
Obviously a man with an American accent isn't going to be able to adopt a Kiwi accent but I feel he captured the cadence well. 

Naturally the stories are told, it's a monolouge given by a story teller?

I unfortunately only have one other show to compare this to,Silent Night which was at BATS over Christmas, I feel this show was more personal and paced better. There was also much more control over how we swung from one emotion to the next.

John Smythe posted 16 Feb 2012, 03:23 PM

Your final comment is a little ambiguous, Jepha, re which show you preferred … I was much more engaged by Silent Night because we shared her experience rather than just heard about it.  Another reality lurked beneath the brave face she put on.

I agree it's not fair to expect American actors to master the NZ accent given their lack of exposure to it in their formative years – I just find it interesting that for any NZ actor hoping to make a living in the profession in NZ, mastering American accents is a prerequisite.  Are we better or worse off for that?