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ADMIRABLE INTENTIONS FALL SHORT OF POTENTIAL

Print Version

BABY FACE
by Donna Banicevich Gera
Directed by Toni Regan
(A Master of Theatre Arts Directing Production)

at Studio 77, VUW, Wellington
From 8 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 9 Nov 2012


My delight at knowing an MTA Directing student, Toni Regan, had chosen to premiere a New Zealand play for her major production, and one with a strong socio-political message what's more, has been surpassed only by my disappointment in the quality of the play itself.

Baby Face – that song title Bobby Darin made famous 50 years ago; beloved ever since of barbers shop quartets and ukulele bands – becomes a pejorative term when applied, by ignorant exploiters and mindless collaborators, to Asian refugees working in sweatshops.

It's not that playwright Donna Banicevich Gera's earnest desire to expose this reality most of us choose to ignore is not admirable. It's the way she goes about it.

Two actresses – Tegyn Duley and Lana Burns – playing workroom Dummies, comment on the action, pointing out what dummies the ignoramuses are and spelling out the atrocities of refugee labour exploitation which are played out in ‘words of one syllable' and two dimensional action by a collection of workers and their boss.

In the eyes of the playwright, it seems, the biggest dummies are us, her audience. Amid the welter of clichés and over-explanatory dialogue she leaves us nothing to discover, no puzzles to solve, no moral dilemmas to wrestle with. Yes, clichés embody truths, but in a mind-numbing and therefore ineffective way.

To be fair she does imbue each character with circumstances that affect their abilities to do the right thing by the two over-worked, underpaid, passport-deprived, work-permit-bereft, living in poverty, Korean refugee machinists, played with soft-voiced authenticity by Lana Yin and Jiaqi Zeng. Although much of their dialogue is hard to understand it is clear they have escaped atrocities back home, have a dream of a better life in New Zealand and feel they have to put up with it all so as not to be arrested as illegal immigrants and extradited.  

The Boss's son (Brandt Feeney) lives unquestioningly in the aura of his (unseen) rampant capitalist father and plays the exploitative and sexually predatory bastard relentlessly while mouthing every racist justification possible for his fascist behaviour and blaming his victims for their circumstances. He is corrupted and corrupting; evil incarnate.

The Receptionist (Sarah Wood), who also seems to manage – and cook – the duplicitous books under instructions from the boss, has a spendthrift mother who has treated her like a Barbie doll, resulting in a poor body image, ‘acting out' sexually and suffering abusive behaviour from men who treat her as the object she sees herself as. She mouths many an ignorant platitude before discovering some capacity for compassion.

The Cutter (Floyd Norman) was a promising basketball player until his father's ill-health called him back from international fixtures, and he harbours guilt at not being there enough for him. When his job is threatened he takes the “whanau first” line until things get so bad he has to step in.

The Factory Worker (Seruia Pou) wants to be a singer and although her mother has no idea who her father is, let alone where, she thanks her mum for bringing them here from the Islands for a better life and greater opportunities. But she is stuck in this dead end job and largely passive around the bad stuff.

All these elements are valid ingredients for a play about the exploitation of Asian refugees, driven by inhumane business ethics, which resonates into wider questions of who is exploiting whom and where the responsibility lies for confronting it at personal and institutional levels. But they remain poorly mixed and undercooked.  

That no-one has an actual name is a clue to how underdeveloped the play is. That the dialogue serves to explain their life situations and the playwright's concerns without giving the characters the space to do their work and be themselves contributes to the difficulty I have in suspending my disbelief and finding them credible, let alone people I can empathise with.

There is, of course, sympathy to be felt for the Machinists and Yin and Zeng do get opportunities to ‘be' their characters in ways that draw us in. The night scenes in their appalling sleeping quarters are the most convincing and compelling moments.

But at no time do I believe we are observing a clothing factory under pressure to turn out volumes of product that rely on the skills of the exploited workers to make it viable. The overall mood is one of slackness – of coming to work to eat lunch – and actions have simply not been developed to even hint at a pressured working environment.

The climatic scene, where we are asked to believe police are hammering at the door, plays out in a way that totally lacks credibility and reeks of compromise. As for the coda, where the Receptionist suddenly owns the shop … What did I miss?  

It's a shame because everyone is working hard at their acting on the night. It's just that they can't overcome a poorly wrought script and clumsy directing. Admirable as their intentions are, they fall a long way short of their potential, and of professional standards.

Let this not be a disincentive for emerging directors to tackle homegrown plays. We need more truly creative directors capable of bringing new work off the page and onto the stage for the first time ever, and more productions of proven plays that reflect us back to ourselves. If development workshops are not part of what can lead to an MTA directing student's major production, let them explore the wealth of quality scripts Playmarket has on offer.
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