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UP-AND-COMING AND OFFBEAT PERFORMERS

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THE MENAGERIE


at Fringe Bar, 26 Allen St, Wellington
24 May 2014
[A monthly event]

Reviewed by Deborah Eve Rea, 28 May 2014


The Menagerie is a pick'n'mix bag of vaudeville delights. The showcase began in November and producer Rachel Rouge is now presenting it monthly due to popular demand. 

Tonight's event is hosted by Jim Stanton whose delightful tongue-in-cheek is a perfect match to The Menagerie. Stanton is costumed beautifully to theme in a full length dress and corsetry, complete with a little dove side-kick in her hair. Stanton is, as always, a pro. She takes the audience's side, a little bemused at the oddities of some acts, riffing and chatting with us to make us feel equally at ease as ready to revel.  

The first performer is Busty la Belle, a lone burlesque dancer in fabulous full length silver cape and feathered headpiece. She is hesitant at first but halfway into her act a great shift takes place and she bursts into flirt and tease and plays with the audience to great aplomb.

The production has not helped her here. La Belle's performance would benefit from being in the more risqué second half of the show. She is well lit and needs some theatrical lighting to assist her, both dramatically and to provide some protection as her nerves are exposed to the audience (not helped by the operator originally playing the wrong music).

The Victory Rollers are a vintage styled singing quartet, channelling the Andrews Sisters. Their costumes are fantastic. They perform a cappella, without the assistance of microphones, filling the entire space of The Fringe Bar with ease. Their voices are both sweet and powerful and the harmonies are fantastic. They slip in and out between demure performance and goofy humour. Their choreography is a little rehearsed and awkward at times. They would benefit from letting go and allowing themselves to have more fun – of which, post-show, the same will be said for most of tonight's acts. 

Michelle Keedwell is one of my top picks of the night. Keedwell is a relatively new storytelling-poet who I first saw in the Raw Poetry Slam finals earlier this year. Keedwell has superb comic timing and is a natural stand-up. I would have been satisfied should her act only have comprised her introduction to her poetry.

Keedwell's poetry consists of fresh quips and jabs at life, dating and the workplace, or “confessions of a social leper” as she calls it. Keedwell has grown immensely in the short time since the Raw Poetry Slam and I'm excited to see her continue to bloom. The audience adore her and continue to sing her praises through the intermission.  

Post-intermission, we are treated to The Polly Johnson Sets, who appear as ghostly carnival clowns. Some of them move as marionettes, some even quite skilfully, although this is a convention that may have been forgotten by some band members. They perform their first song, ‘Seven Daughters', with a neat balance of strong intensity and pirate revelry. 

Polly Johnson herself takes the microphone for the next song and performs a comic number of modern annoyances on ukulele.  Her performance, and that of her entire ‘Set', is faultless and to be commended for staying so despite some heckling by her friends. The audience demands an encore for which she sings a ballad in honour of the Peach Teats sign (may it rest in pieces). ‘Peach Teats' features superb harmonica by Martin Andrews and I am pleased to catch the song just for that alone. 

Another of my top picks is magician Mike Kmiec, who is beginning to be somewhat of a regular at Fringe Bar. Kmiec prefers to refer to himself as more of a charlatan or a trickster (or “liar”) than a magician. He performs mind-reading tricks with cards and cups (or bags in this case). This reviewer found herself on stage for the most part, chosen to be in the role of his assistant.

Kmiec is another who has grown greatly since I last saw (and reviewed) him. His is one of the more established acts of the night and the audience is pleased to be involved throughout.  He successfully keeps the element of danger alive while also achieving a gentle, buddy rapport with his audience. 

One of the most experienced performers, Ellie Kat, is almost old hat in the Wellington drag scene. Tonight's performance is more subtle and demure that I have seen her before. She is classy and quite ravishing in a long gown. The production has opted to have her in quite high light, giving her no opportunity to play and flirt between shadows as I have seen her do before. Kat has the audience's full attention and leave us wanting more after only one song. 

Joel Hansby is a new young comic whose appearance at the microphone is met by a collective “aww”, resulting in a blushing Hansby. He performs slightly-late coming-of-age humour with awkward youthful characterisation; a convention he's quite close to mastering already in his career. This absolutely is a comic to watch.

Gracie Hart (of The Victory Rollers) performs Tom Waits' ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find' at the microphone with a bite of burlesque. Hart is sultry, subtle, beautiful and captivating. Her nerves are evident however but the audience, for the most part, are on her side. This is another act that would greatly benefit from better use of the lighting that is available. 

No doubt the most intriguing treat on offer at this party is Suspended Intention. Suspension is the act of suspending a human body from hooks that have been put through temporary body piercings. In short, they're going to hang a girl on hooks through her back. The Fringe Bar stage has been transformed into Dexter's kill room, having been covered in plastic sheets (for blood, I'm told…). A man in a surgical mask and gloves enters with a beautiful woman (what could go wrong?) who is identified as Roxy. Before the crowd, he sleekly inserts large steel hooks into her bare back. Roxy silently converses with the audience; flirting, smiling and grimacing. Her partner attaches her hooks to a hanging apparatus and Roxy swings, by the hooks through her back, in the air. Roxy is then treated to the insertion of feathers, with needled ends, through her chest. She continues to swing. She does seem to be having a lot of fun.

Personally, I didn't find the suspension beautiful, as it has been described. There is blood and there is pain. Roxy herself, however, is a joy with the crowd and if you ever need to look away, as I did, you can peruse her many beautiful tattoos. 

The Menagerie could benefit from having some vaudevillian set or stage décor to bring it to life. I also recommend the use of a lighting designer to give the acts the best opportunity for success. 

Throughout the show the backstage area is very noisy during the performances, especially on stage behind the curtain while solo performers are in front of it (Gracie Hart suffers most from this). I had flashbacks to working with a group of 5-10 year olds on their end of year play. You need to be professional and support each other, team. You're all in the same show even when it's variety. 

Interestingly, almost all of tonight's performers require more embodiments of their character, choreography and physicality generally. The house is full to the brim with standing room only which may be affecting nerves.

I must mention also that throughout the show, there is incessant heckling by two audience members. They sing along loudly, drowning out the vocalists and call out punchlines to jokes they heard from the comedians' previous sets. It becomes so overbearing that at one stage Jim Stanton had to come out to defend the young comic, Joel Hansby. All performers coped incredibly well with the heckling but it certainly affects their skill, not to mention how much fun they are able to have on stage. Audiences, I'm all for vocal participation, especially in an event like The Menagerie, but there comes a point when you start to infringe on everyone's nice time both onstage and off. 

The Menagerie is a fantastic gain for the city and its up-and-coming and offbeat performers. Production-wise, it's a little rough around the edges at the moment but will no doubt shine up good and pretty in no time.
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