NZ Fringe Festival 2013|
presented by Binge Culture
at Thistle Hall, Wellington
From 4 Feb 2013 to 9 Mar 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 5 Mar 2013
Binge Culture has focused strongly on ‘audience participation' in their three Fringe 2013 offerings. The Whales drew members of the public into a collective effort to tend and ‘refloat' a make-believe pod of stranded whales. For Your Future Guidance involved us in a seminar-cum-workshop where we confronted and explored the future we face.
Now ‘Beep Test* takes Generation Y (and maybe X) back to “the 'give it a go' zeitgeist of their secondary school education” by asking performers to “comply with the horrific, robotic demands of the beep test” while we cheer them on, or heckle, or whatever. We can get more fully physically involved, too, if we want to.
Motivational messages in large letters adorn the foyer, stairwell and upstairs space of Thistle Hall. “DIETRYING” bemuses me until I separate the words. “EMBRACE THE PACE”, “U ARE CAPABLE”, etc, set the tone. A projected ‘clock face' sets out what we might expect: Welcome; Pep Talk; Beep Test; Warm Up Act; What's Cookin'; Meet the Audience, Language of Love; Exam; Beep Test.
Alongside the refreshment bar two audience members are making sandwiches. The rest of us are invited to warm up with floor exercises. Nick Zwart, in see-through disposable overalls, has the onerous job of pointing at ‘Welcome' just so we know we are. While other Binge Culture people are in attendance, Simon Haren and Isobel (Izzy) McKinnon turn out to be the front line performers, with Zwart adopting a Deputy Principal role to back them up and keep us in line.
In his hyper-sincere ‘Pep Talk', Simon uses a brand new word: “disingenuine”. This level of inventiveness is not followed through, however. His invitation to us to “give it a go” and “show courage” is taken up by a goodly number, and so the first Beep test commences … I won't say what because not quite knowing before it happens is part of the drama-cum-entertainment value. But it does involve rising through progressive levels and feels as much like competing with oneself as with each other.
The first to pull out – for the good of my health, you understand – I am gratified to find the audience is just as affirming of anyone who has had a go as they are of the die-hards who stick with it to the bitter end. While there is a danger of it all getting tedious to watch, there is a throwback to the Coliseum as I note in myself a sapping of empathy and compassion as the desire to see an outright conqueror increases.
Zipped into a gold-spangled mini dress, a sweaty Izzy – albeit freshened up with lippy – treats us to some desperately tired sexist gags while holding up cue cards asking us to applaud, heckle, etc. Is this encouraging our participation or manipulating it; increasing our sense of community or challenging our conformity? Such self-questioning and observing of the ‘mob' behaviour is all part of the game plan, I suspect.
The sandwiches and their makers come to the fore when Simon rates them on Presentation, Freshness and Effort, and we get to determine the People's Choice, which feels quite phoney as we have had no close contact with the contested cuisine. And although the random scores are added up, there is no acknowledgement of the winner, rendering that sequence a bit of a fizzer in theatrical terms.
An audience member is picked – or plucked – to undergo a testing interview which is subject to levels and faster and faster beeps, which again renders it meaningless. Ah, so this is the point, then: when the competitive element dominates, all other values evaporate?
There is dancing (‘The language of love') and a lolly scramble, then Simon subjects Izzy to a series of increasingly difficult maths tests. Our engagement increases thanks to the use of an overhead projector – while the profligate use of cling film to increase Izzy's handicap produces another bout of spectacular objectification.
Simon's reversion to the original Beep Test makes me think of the Depression era film They Shoot Horses Don't They (a syndrome also canvassed in Stephen Bain's City of Hands at Bats many years ago and Anthony McCarten's more recent feature film Show of Hands).
Despite the knackered cast's less-than-elegant rendition of ‘Simply The Best', we all join in raucously. And the full-time ritual of shaking hands with the opposition brings (the) ‘play' to an end.
At the time it all feels very loose and yet to evolve into something that offers a theatrical experience of substantial value. But in retrospect – as I hope I have indicated – it provokes our observation of ourselves and each other in an intriguingly different way.
Even so, I can't help comparing it with my first Binge Culture encounter where – in Drowning Bird, Plummeting Fish (2009) – a stark naked Simon, holding a plastic bag bulging with water over his privates above a tin bath, was subjected to a quick-fire general knowledge test and every time he gave a wrong answer, the bag was punctured. “What starts off as fun becomes dark, demeaning and dangerous,” I wrote of that.
As I recall, despite just appearing to sit and watch, I found that experience much more involving and a stronger comment on – and experience of – the anxieties generated by our increasingly competitive society.
But maybe the primary purpose of ‘Beep Test* is to allow Gen X & Y to exorcise the ‘Ghost of Beep tests Past' which may have been haunting their psyches since high school. And as a Baby Boomer I am inevitably not as engaged.
[P.S. The promo image accompanying this review does not represent the shows content.]
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