BEGINS AND ENDS WELL
STAGES OF FEAR
Presented by Slave Labour Productions, Pat-A-Cake Productions, Making Friends Collective and my accomplice
at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 17 Oct 2013 to 26 Oct 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 18 Oct 2013
“We all like to be scared,” the publicity blurb says. “It reminds us that we're safe.” Billed as a foretaste of Halloween, Stages of Fear comprises four short fear-inspired pieces (20-25 minutes each) produced by four local co-ops.
It gets off to a promising start with Slave Labour Productions' I Can Hear Them in the Walls by Will Agnew, directed by Chris Swney. Set a few decades into the 20th century, it unfolds with a steadily revealed spookiness somewhat redolent of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
A psychotherapist called Rupert (Bruce Colban) would rather be getting on with his study than attending to sleep-deprived Annabelle (Livvi Nonoa), who claims she can hear rats in the walls. With “a mind impenetrable to therapy, she is not one for the text books,” her observes, and yet we are watching his case study count down to 31 October.
It is the discovery of her diary, under the bed, that gives Annabelle her true voice and brings insight and psychological depth to her condition and thus to the play. Colban and Noona maintain a strong focus on the story's core content and Swney, having made a brief appearance as the Exterminator, makes a stark impact as the ‘Father', whose role in the story I shall not explain.
Apart from the final line being hard to understand – and I assume it is crucial – I Can Hear Them in the Walls is an excellent response to the fear-theme provocation.
The re-setting of the stage for the next play is amusingly handled ...
When Pat-a-Cake Productions debuted with Thin Skin in this year's Fringe, my review began: “I am tempted to write ‘WTF?!' and leave it at that. After all I have just spent 80-odd minutes watching something that is so completely fails to communicate anything coherent or connect with its audience in any meaningful way that I feel resentful at having to spend more time writing it up.” Instead, assuming they were earnest and sincere in their endeavours, I attempted to represent their work objectively and critique it constructively.
Likewise their August production, What Goes Up,seemed predicated on the idea their audience would be fascinated by watching them play out stuff devised through various theatre games despite their being no evidence that the performers had any interest in sharing whatever it all meant to them. On that occasion I said it was mean not to share.
This time, with Undergrowth,my tolerance snaps. I won't even try to represent this show because it adds up to so much less than the sum of its parts that I have no faith in any of them having any significant value. As before, director Bop Murdoch and actors Sarah Tuck, Jody Burrell, Lewis McLeod, Oscar Shaw, Sam Cotton and Elli Yates exhibit a range of undoubted performance skills, but to no apparent purpose beyond showing off.
Apart, perhaps, from the terror a half-full bottle of Bourbon instils in one man, who seems to be attempting to express his inner anxiety through ventriloquism – off to one side while a range of inexplicable scenarios continue to play out centre-stage – there is nothing fearful in what transpires.
There is no thematic coherence, no dramatic structure and, apart from the bottle bloke, nothing memorable in the imagery. Anything that registers as a potential setup goes nowhere. Whatever we attempt to invest from the head or heart gives us – or me at least – nothing in return. Because they compulsively embezzle whatever I entrust them with, I now call them theatrical investment wankers.
Fortunately an interval gives me time to simmer down. And if anyone else feels similarly on a subsequent night, hang in there: the best is yet to come. But not immediately.
There is great promise in the premise of the Making Friends Collective's Hole by Adam Goodall, directed by Andrew Clarke with a sound design by Flinn Gendall.
The outer-suburban domesticity of Jess and Kurt Morrison (Charlie Pleasants and Jason Tolley) is interrupted by Constable Grace Hape (Ashleigh Brightwell) who is in radio contact with Constable Derek Tankersley (Johnny Crawford). Immediately questions arise that engage our interest …
It's when lines overlap and a panicked tendency to gabble, mumble and/or shout seems to be actor- rather than character-fed, that I suspect something is going awry. The import of the titular hole is unclear, and mention of a ten year-old girl – or was she 13? – is glossed over too.
Whatever the cause, things seem a bit rushed and the much-needed battle of wits and build of tension is not forthcoming. Nor do I find any point of access for empathy (something Hitchcock, for instance, was good at even with ‘unsympathetic' characters). Feeling uncompelled to suspend my disbelief, I find myself questioning the logic of things (e.g. when locked in The Basement, why doesn't Grace use her radio?) and observing very objectively the wielding of weapons and the manifestation of blood.
That said, the smiting of people with a torch beam is an extraordinarily effective device which I happily buy into. But it all ends very abruptly and I feel that whatever it is we are supposed to get, about what exactly was going on and how the hierarchy of evil is structured, has either not found its mark or passed me by. And something about the way the cast clears the stage suggests to me they are not happy either. Or maybe I am projecting.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation about Stages of Fear is that the most engaging play – the one that most effectively reflects us and our own lives back to ourselves, and tunes us into a soul-scape of fear – is simply a monologue: my accomplice's PANICDOTES, written by Hannah Banks and Uther Dean; directed by Dean and performed by Banks.
What looks like an uncertain start turns out to be entirely validated by the story she tells, of her subjective ‘reality' over the 24 hours leading up to this very moment. I don't want to give any of the show away. Suffice to say that no matter how absurd, surreal, impossible or apparently miniscule her experiences are, there is no doubting their truth. And you would have to be inhuman not to recognise, relate to and empathise with many of the deeply private insights into human vulnerability.
It's a huge wodge of words that Banks handles without the slightest hint that remembering it all is an effort. Her ‘in the moment' grounding is sound no matter how adrift she is, and the big belly-laughs she provokes is testament to the total credibility of the experiences she shares and her impeccable comic timing.
Overall, then, Stages of Fear begins and ends well. While one of the middle two efforts is irredeemable, I sense the other will come right. And the finale is bound to send you off into the night with a smile on your face, having had your most private and persistent fears recognised and put into perspective.
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