UNEXPECTEDLY FUNNY AND ENJOYABLE
Written by Gao Xingjian
Directed by Megan Evans
at Studio 77, VUW, Wellington
From 20 May 2014 to 24 May 2014
[1hr 45 mins (no interval)]
Reviewed by Maraea Rakuraku, 21 May 2014
Ok, confession time. I did groan a little when I saw Wild Man was an hour 45 minutes in length and then I groaned some more when, in the show notes, the Director (Megan Evans) justifies the use of a non-Chinese cast... Telling before showing; justifying before proving, noooooo ... Aue, 105 minutes of a lecture from kids? Groan.
But you know, shame on me because Wild Man is hardly a lecture and while I do look at my watch 15 minutes in, it really finds itself partway through and for want of better phrasing, it's really bloody good and – thanks to what I can only guess is the scripting – funny. Gao Xingian is funny! Even though this performance is based primarily on the 1990 English translation by Bruno Roubicek, presumably the source material was funny to start with. That makes Wild Man unexpected and because of that, enjoyable, because I have no doubt this could be weighted down by historical fact alone.
While Wild Man does have a Stage Challenge feel to it in some parts, there is a sophistication to the presentation of this play that's aided by some cleverly constructed props, narrative pace and a musicality that funnily enough I associate with Chinese theatre. Who knew? Which makes me want to know more about the playwright Gao Xingian. Win.
The cast of 18 – yes that got another groan from me (only because you spend the whole time figuring out who's who) – are all fantastic. Yes, fantastic and energetic!! Some of the roles are more weighted than others and they all play multiple characters, meaning not everyone gets equal time, however most of them add enough nuance to distinguish who is who.
There are some stand-outs for obvious reasons: thundering voice (James Cain), comic delivery (James Cain, Aimee Cruz, Anna Sullivan), graceful physicality (Lydia Buckley, Jesse Tuke). But when they are in chorus, they are equal and a delight to watch.
There are pacing issues which could have just been opening night speed-through jitters. Understandable; it gets a little frenetic in some parts when everyone's on stage, which is eased when some scenes are conducted in virtual silence.
There are some future performers there; dancers definitely. That is if they're not already, because being Wellington, I'm sure half the cast and crew are part time actors, composers, singers and well, dancers. If they're aren't, they should be.
Back to the musicality. In some parts the chorus sounds a little like Negro work-songs: informative and telling of one's downcast situation. A theme song is rendered emotionally by Mouce Young and Stevie Hancox-Monk. At first the use of the gong seems to be veering down the John Hughes Sixteen Candles Long Duk Dong track but it isn't and it doesn't. Thankfully. There is a particularly enjoyable village scene when all use sounds to emphasise points and –even if it wasn't intended – to hilarious effect.
The action moves between urban and rural settings which reflects the themes and the conflict between both. Either way rural Chinese villages are, like any small community, full of memorable characters who are funny. Even, if some of the earlier commentary about married life is missed by the mainly 20-something crowd, I laugh.
It's only the second time I've seen something in the 77 Fairlie Terrace space and each time it has been used differently but in its entirety. I like it. I like being stretched as an audience member, moving my neck around – looking up here, over there. The set design and props are simple and effective.
There are a several narratives running through The Wild Man including the search for the ever elusive Wild Man himself. It's hard to select which one is the most compelling. In the end I'm not even sure if that's important because I can see why this was revolutionary when it first played in China. It contains all those isms of class, age and sex, and the conflict between old and new, rural and urban and progress at the expense of tradition. The scene that encapsulates part of the history of China is particularly sobering.
All in all, Wild Man could probably be told in 60 minutes but as a teaching tool, I see its value for students. As someone unfamiliar with Gao Xingian's work thanks for the introduction.
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