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BRAVE GENEROSITY PRODUCES UNIQUE COMEDY

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Hamilton Fringe Festival 2013
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
By Freya Desmarais
Directed & designed by Penny Lawrence
Produced by Abby Rainbow
Hungry Mile Theatre

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
12 Oct 2013
[1 hr]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 Feb 2013


“Comedy is truth and pain” according to veteran US sitcom scriptwriter Jon Vorhaus (The Comic Toolbox). This explains how Freya Desmarais' extraordinarily insightful play, masquerading as a casual chat about how she nearly killed herself but didn't, comes to be so funny.

The gift of truth is not to be underestimated and Desmarais is very generous with hers.

In August 2011 her Hungry Mile Theatre mounted 6 Little Plays 4 Christchurch, of which she wrote one: The Girls. “They are in a waiting room betwixt the portals of Heaven and Hell,” I wrote in my review. “Motor-mouth Isobel … has topped herself while sardonic Jacqueline … met her accidental fate on the piste. And now they have to help him [an enigmatic male character] help humankind … Whimsical.”  

Desmarais first addressed the existential angst of ‘who/what/why am I?' with There Is So Much To Live For six months earlier, in the 2011 Fringe. My review for that included: “Underlying all, inherent in the title and the publicity image, is the unspoken thought that the ultimate opt-out may sometimes arise as a possible answer … And anyone caught in that vortex can only find strength in this play's recognition of that truth.” 

Yet in March 2012, Freya Desmarais did attempt “the ultimate opt-out”. Her vivid recollection of how she felt she was crumbling into emptiness, unable to wrestle any longer with “how to be”, is presented in such a way that we cannot dismiss its profound honesty.

Nor can we avoid the strong empathy the play allows us with her parents (who were in the opening night audience) – her mother especially, voiced in the play by Jane Waddell. What would we do if this was our adult child crying for help from a distant city?

So how does such material generate a comedy? I'm tempted to say it just does; go and see for yourself. Analysing humour can be counter-productive. But maybe some sense of what is in store should go on the record.

Carboard boxes and a bed clutter the stage; props and aids to the storytelling are secreted within, beneath and behind. Desmarais is present as we arrive, quietly watchful … The pacing and placing director / designer Penny Lawrence brings to the work overall is subtly wrought.

The silent opening challenges us: what are we expecting? A witty stroll through formative moments in Freya's childhood, mostly regarding sex and birth, is what we get: a truly funny warm up. Then comes the dark stuff about a broken relationship; about loving so hard it hurts ...

The specifics of how she came to be conceived are so unusual they cannot have been made up (indeed her mother confirms, later, that every part of this ‘show-and-tell' is true). It's a prime example of stuff that just is the way it is, and to which we, being human, are compelled to attribute either positive or negative meaning. And this is just one of the ways Desmarais draws us into her story and commands our empathy.  

Her fantasies about Cheryl West from Outrageous Fortune and her future career ambitions are obviously unrealistic. Has she been hijacked, perhaps, by the mantra that we can do or be whatever we want? Where does responsibility lie – for the circumstances then for the solutions?

Encounters with counsellors are revealing in more ways than one and her account of an interview with Lynn from WINZ trying to comprehend the incomes earned in theatre is worth the price of admission alone.

The certificate she took to WINZ calls her condition ‘anxiety disorder'. And you don't have to be certifiable to recognise it as a human condition; a ‘there but for the grace of (whatever higher power you may believe in, or not) go I' condition.

When the question arises of how to end the play, Desmarais plays ‘pick a path' with us: yet another way of ensuring we are not passive observers just perving on her life and its progress so far. It's about us as much as her.

Her demeanour as a performer is remarkably relaxed given the territory she traverses. There is not the slightest whiff of self-indulgence in the performance even though it briefly depicts the all-consuming pit of despair that can so easily rob us of rational perspective. Nor does it come over as therapy. She has moved on and this is for us.

In its own unique way, 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 ticks all the boxes for comedy-of-anguish-and-insight, thanks to the brave generosity of its highly intelligent and talented creator.

There are three more shows in Wellington then, early in March, a three-night season in Auckland. Treat yourselves.
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 Nik Smythe
 Liza Kire

Comments

John Smythe posted 21 Feb 2013, 05:40 PM
 

I have been reminded of another adage that is also highly applicable here: Comedy is tragedy separated by time and space. Does anyone know who said that first? 

Simon Taylor posted 22 Feb 2013, 12:02 PM
 

"Comedy is tragedy plus time."

- Carol Burnett

nik smythe posted 5 Mar 2013, 11:06 AM
 

I'm fond of Mel Brooks' take on the matter:  "Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when I walk into an open sewer and die."