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SINCERITY, CURIOSITY AND INGENUITY DRIVE THEATRICAL EXPERIMENT

Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
RUNNING WITH GHOSTS
Devised by Catastrophe Collective
Co-Directed by Cathy-Ellen Paul and Ashleigh Flynn

at St Michaelís Church Hall, Kelburn, Wellington
From 27 Feb 2013 to 2 Mar 2013

Reviewed by James McKinnon, 28 Feb 2013


When people ask me if I find the local scene disappointing (presumably because I come from a big country with a much bigger Fringe), I point to plays like Running With Ghosts as examples of what makes the Wellington Fringe the opposite of disappointing. It is highly experimental, a little rough, and driven by the creators' desire to try new things and share them with an audience.

In other words, it is exactly the sort of show a Fringe festival is for, but which is increasingly rare on the contemporary Canadian Fringe circuit, because cutthroat competition and professionalization is transforming a formerly diverse creative ecology into a monoculture of slick, polished, profit-driven solo shows. Not that I have a problem with artists making money – as readers of my response to We Built This City will know – but where, if not the Fringe, can young, independent artists take creative risks and share them with the public?

As the title suggests, Running With Ghosts is a ghost story. It deals with death and grief –not only the grief of the living, but also of the dead, because it's the kind of ghost story where the dead have to work out their issues in what the play refers to as an “in-between” state before they can move on to… well, who knows?

Like the character caught between death and life, the show is stylistically and thematically trapped between competing possibilities. Should it be playful or serious? In the form of (literally) kitchen sink realism or stylized avant garde performance? Should the plot follow a conventional, Aristotelian arc, or take an episodic shape?

The piece might be stronger if it made up its mind, but when you choose one possibility you kill the other, and one suspects the creators struggled to make those choices.

The very brief story (just under one hour) also does not leave the performers quite enough time to establish the relationships between the characters, and make us care about them enough, for the grief to have an impact; nor does it conclude so much as stop.

But the authenticity of the performances – by Tony Black, Ashleigh Flynn, Hayley McCarthy, Cathy-Ellen Paul, Eleanor Rowan, and Maryse Ridler – impressed me, partly because I saw familiar performers taking chances I had not seen them take before. (Although this source of interest will not be accessible to every spectator, I suspect that by privileging the fictional world over the real, theatre criticism neglects to consider what is in fact a significant source of delight for most spectators: recognizing familiar people assume unfamiliar roles).

The performances bravely embrace the awkwardness that the situations demand. Word to the wise, though: never play drunk. For one thing, real drunks pretend to be sober; and even if you get this part right, it draws the spectator's attention to the virtuosity of your performance, not the play. The play also might benefit from a framing or introductory device to get the audience familiar with the unusual ‘rules' in this fictional world.

The production cleverly exploits the venue at St Michael's Church Hall in Kelburn.  Often Fringe plays seem to apologise for, or ignore, the limitations of their non-theatrical venues, but the design and mise en scene for RWG transform what might have been liabilities into strengths. They get great mileage out of simple, elegant symbolism and the performers make inventive use of the whole space and all its eccentricities, including a huge mirror and a kitchen area. The cheap lighting equipment is employed to great effect, so that one never feels the absence of a ‘proper' dimmer pack or stage electrics. 

The Catastrophe Collective has not made a perfect show, but it is the quintessential fringe show: a bona fide theatrical experiment, driven by sincerity, curiosity, and ingenuity, and offered up humbly to the audience without any phony pretentions. I look forward to seeing more from them – and I also commend them for doing midnight performances of a ghost story!  
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