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GUNPLAY / Happiness Is A Warm Gun / The Complete History Of Firearms And High School Shootings
Written by Paul Rothwell
Directed by David Lawrence
Presented by The Bacchanals

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 20 Aug 2013 to 24 Aug 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 Aug 2013

In previous reviews I have railed against New Zealand playwrights writing pseudo-American plays about human experiences that have just as much currency here and which would achieve a freshness and distinction when explored in our voice and setting.

Paul Rothwell's Gunplay, however – written especially for The Bacchanals as a response to the sense-numbing ubiquity of mass shootings in the USA – is different. If not quite an ‘only in America' phenomenon, it is certainly a ‘mostly in America' one. And it constantly invades our media and thus our lives.

The first gloriously celebratory song, ‘Welcome to Fairview', has the 16-strong cast singing, “Now you have come to Fairview / Let Fairview come to you.” And every day and night, on our small and large screens, the USA comes to us, invariably brandishing a weapon of some kind and inflicting death and destruction in the name of entertainment. 

“Life is like a movie,” someone declares towards the end of this extraordinary 100 minute show. “You can't be the main character if you ain't packin' heat.” As director David Lawrence points out in his programme note, “… only in the US does everyone think they're entitled to live that fantasy. Pretty scary to think the world's major superpower doesn't know what's real & what's a movie.”

GUNPLAY / Happiness Is A Warm Gun / The Complete History Of Firearms And High School Shootings, then, is a Kiwi response to an American syndrome that invades our lives whether we know it or not. But rather than mount a polemical argument, it depicts the inhabitants of a small, fictional mid-west town – Fairview – in order to examine how these ‘values' are perpetuated and what they, inevitably, perpetrate.  

And oh how seductive this production is! The friendly cast of instantly recognisable archetypes greets us on arrival and the opening of the show proper is redolent of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, as the warm-voiced Narrator, Salesi Le'Ota, sets the scene and introduces the characters as they belt out the opening chorus.  

It's important to note that this is no piss-take. Despite the non-naturalistic theatricality of the presentation, all the characters are sincerely portrayed. Because they all believe in themselves, we are compelled to confront the truths they represent. Besides, the often gruesome comedy works much better this way.  

The gunning down of Lincoln High's cheer-leading squad is the ‘inciting incident' for the scenes that follow. Jo Dekkers-Reihana nails the infuriating vacuity of the perpetrator, Cody Garcia, who remains non-committal as those around him try to deal with the atrocity in their various ways.

Hilary Penwarden brings a fresh-faced radiance to the cheerleader team's sole survivor, Savannah Cooley, while Jean Sergent is entirely convincing as her ever-attentive mother, Dawn, a former Miss America contestant. It figures that most of their scenes are in front of a white-framed vanity with all the beauty product accoutrements.

The local Sherriff, Dale Campbell, is given due gravitas by Michael Ness as he recites the names of the 11 victims but later his integrity is dramatically called into question by Julia Harrison's cocktail waitress, Georgette Drotz: a lone wolverine determined to solve the apparently random drive-by murder of her Afro-American boyfriend DeShawn Washington (represented in the image of Langdon Cobbe).

I took Uther-Dean's Melvin Campbell, bulging out of his t-shirt and shorts, to be Sherriff Campbell's son, but the programme says they are brothers. They live together and Melvin's compulsion to dress up as Shirley Temple is just one of those things you get in small towns. Should we be worried?  

The funeral service for Skyler McLain, “the most popular girl in school” – nicely reincarnated by Ellie Stewart and with a powerful twist in her tale – captures precisely the way ordinary people become mythologised in death, as a number of characters step up to speak.

Brianne Kerr shines as blonde bombshell Kara Bowman, eighth runner up in American Idol 2005, ever grateful to the “inspirational little girl” who voted for her, and given to expressing her feelings in song. ‘Devastation' would go platinum right across America.

Skyler's basket-ball champ brother, Connor, is appropriately enigmatic – or does he just lack focus and ambition beyond his ever-present ball? – in the hands of Aidan Weekes. When his secret is revealed, it makes unnerving sense.

Of course the blame game has to be played and Youth Pastor Noah Schwartz, authentically manifested by Michael Trigg, is ‘in the gun', so to speak, for attempting to counsel Cody out of his insular torpor – by getting him playing Paint Ball (what else?).

Then there is Alice May Connolly's state rifle-shooting champion, Grace-Luellen Peed, who runs the local gun club and may or may not have taught Cody to shoot; and Jonny Potts' gunstore owner, Chuck Larrimore, who sold Cody his weapons “perfectly legally”. While Grace-Luellen sticks to her guns on the inalienable right to bear arms, Chuck chucks the game in – which provokes, ironically, a massive bargain-price sale of his stock.

A regular at the range is Beau Babbitt (Walter Plinge – a.k.a. David Lawrence), whose late night rants on ham radio become increasingly paranoid, unhinged and all-too-realistic. And lurking in the shadows, ever-present to the opportunity to regain his faded All Star status, is the coiled spring of Alex Greig's self-appointed vigilante, Jeff Fuller. 

The counterpointing idealist in the community is post-grad student Mallory Gilmore-Billington, played with great sincerity by Kirsty Bruce. Oh how I want to empathise with her and see her influence prevail … How sad that she is the only one unable to reconcile her fantasy – of fundamental goodness, in this case – with reality.

These are the ordinary everyday people of Fairview, whose lives Paul Rothwell weaves and knots into a tale of chilling destiny with a deceptive ease, echoed in David Lawrence's fluid direction. The live music – mostly played by Lawrence, Stewart and Penwarden, I think – is but one example of how superb results are deftly produced without fanfare. Likewise the lighting, designed by Uther Dean and Charlotte Pleasants, who also operates, serves the bigger purpose well.

As with all Bacchanals productions, ‘poor theatre' conventions prevail and here their lightness of touch brilliantly underscores the central thesis that no evil genius, force of authority or dark conspiracy is generating this questionable culture. It is simply the inevitable result of such people living their lives this way. The final song – ‘The Devil's Prayer' – leaves us with plenty to contemplate.

Gunplay eloquently decodes the paradox of how the fabled ‘Home of the Brave' and ‘Land of the Free' has become a hostage to its own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. And there but for the grace of the collective consciousness that keeps New Zealand relatively sane, go we.

Adding to the glorious profligacy of this impossibly large co-op, which has no hope of paying everyone fees commensurate with their undoubted professionalism, the season runs for only five performances: it ends this Saturday! Book now; it is bound to book out fast.
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 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media]