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NZ Fringe 2014
Written by Renee Gerlich
Directed by Julia Campbell and Catherine Swallow

at Marquee by The Carter Observatory, Wellington
From 13 Feb 2014 to 17 Feb 2014

Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 14 Feb 2014

Performers take to a marquee atop a hill outside the Carter Observatory's Thomas King Building, in the Wellington Botanical Gardens, to explore the real-life character of Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891, played by Julia Campbell).

A Russian philosopher, physicist, and spiritualist, Blavatsky is best known for co-founding the Theosophical Society with Colonel Henry Olcott (David Lafferty), an institute interested in the spirit world and universal connections of mankind.

Additions to the play include the characters of George (Keith Conway), a high-class member of the Society and a follower of Blavatsky's teachings, and Lucy (Chennoah Walford), Blavatsky's Irish maid. (I assume these characters are the invention of the playwright, but they may be based on biographical information.)

Blavatsky is certainly an interesting character to inspire a work of theatre, but the script gives very little insight into the woman at all, except through clunky exposition that at times sounds like encyclopedia entries read aloud.  The dramatic action and conflict in the play are unclear.

Much of the action is devoted to Lucy, Blavatsky's maid, who is curious about her teachings but mostly wants to return home to her family. Blavatsky's teachings are suspect, but we never actually see the threat or impact of this onstage; there is nothing at stake in the narrative as is. There are class struggles between George and Lucy but status is not played and these relationships are never fully or clearly developed. 

Some parts of the play, such as Charles Darwin as a singing and dancing monkey marionette, though entertaining, do not advance the story at all.  I'm just not sure what journey I'm being taken on in this play. I want some clear storytelling.

Despite these concerns with the script, David Lafferty gives a solid performance as Henry Olcott. Unfortunately, his character only appears in the first 15 minutes of the show. Likewise, Chennoah Walford is talented as Lucy. 

Even if not always advancing the story, the puppets — skilfully manipulated by Catherine Swallow — are delightful. There are a range of styles, from hand-puppets to marionettes, and they are imaginatively and artfully constructed. 

The 19th century period costumes worn by the actors are also well-designed (Marly Doyle). Similarly, the live music is a treat.  A skillful musician perched in the corner scores the entire production with a variety of instruments (all played by him) with evocative sounds that seemingly have an Eastern/New Age feel. 

The play set-up inside the marquee is what the Fringe Festival is all about, but on opening night a cold northwesterly wind rips through the hillside, and I struggle to hear many lines from the front row. Outdoor theatre is always a struggle acoustically, but in this venue it is nigh impossible to hear at times.  The volume levels improve as the performance goes on so perhaps the actors will do better as the season continues or maybe this is an exceptionally windy night?

The muffled lines are compounded by challenging sightlines including tent poles and a puppet that stays downstage center and facing upstage during the entire performance.

Given the sound and sight issues and some other production mishaps I observed, I can't help but wonder if the play would have benefited from an outside director (one who was not acting in the performance as well). 

I really enjoy seeing plays with female protagonists — especially women whose stories history has often obscured — so I am excited by the raw material of Madame Blavatsky and The Astral Light. Though there were many promising elements to the performance, I look forward to seeing a reiteration of this piece with a developed script and in a venue where the technical elements are more manageable.
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);