Double Feature: ZOOM / ARBEITSZUFRIEDENHEIT with Dieter Uberpfister
BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
10/10/2015 - 10/10/2015
The second of two special double feature shows – one ticket price, two great performances. Melbourne’s Jason Geary presents Zoom; then meet Dieter Uberpfister and watch him cut through corporate jargon with an iron fist.
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Saturday 10 October
$18 Full / $14 Concession / $13 Groups 6+ /
Two show pass: $30 Full / $25 Concession
Book online at bats.co.nz
Theatre , Improv ,
Serene, blissful, masterful vs Feeling bullied
Review by Shannon Friday 11th Oct 2015
Just as the title suggests Double Feature: Zoom and Arbeitszufriedenheit with Dieter Uberpfister is two short pieces shown together. The two halves are incredibly different in almost every way: in aim, in pace, in storytelling tactics, in skilfulness and in impact.
The first half of the show is Jason Geary’s Zoom. It is the best and most original improv I’ve seen in years. Zoom starts with a long visualization, with the improvisers leading the audience through a flight in space, placing Earth as a small, precious planet in a small corner of the galaxy.
Geary and his guest improviser Laura Irish have nailed the tone, aided by some of the best music in the festival. A drummer introduced only as Chris plays in a style reminiscent of Birdman, both fully musical and also emphasizing the minimalism of our perspective and all the things that must be left out of this show. It’s propulsive and emotionally moving.
Zoom is imagistic and evocative. We get only a glimpse of a few places: a single-room cabin by a melting lake, a city with a wrought iron gate that has not been closed in a hundred years, two flowers on an icy mountain top.
In addition to creating each place, Geary and Irish also comment on each other’s offers, questioning, clarifying and checking offers against the logic of their game. It’s gentle, and a lovely stand-in for the audience, who are following along gently rather than leading with transparent ask-fors. The ask-fors are not needed, by the way, and would fracture the relationship between storytellers and audience. I wouldn’t want to detract from the delicacy of the show by wondering if my offer were clever or funny enough.
We spend only a short scene or two in each place, enough to get a sense of a bare moment. The sparsity of these moments – the unwillingness to compress time within each scene – hints at the incredible the richness behind each story. There’s the couple with a new baby who live in the cabin, a young woman who waits for a man she’s never met, a bird with one leg. The measured pace allows details to emerge and impact to land with the audience.
The whole thing is still, quiet and simple – understated – in a way I’ve rarely seen in improv, or scripted theatre, film or TV, for that matter. I find myself sighing and gasping and wanting to cry. It is serene; it is blissful; it is masterful.
Sadly, Greg Ellis’ companion piece Arbeitszufriedenheit with Dieter Uberpfister feels half-baked by comparison. His character Dieter Uberpfister (read it out loud) enters with what can only be described as aplomb, castigating some audience members who duck out after Zoom. Uberpfister struts and poses for the camera, a Deutsch douchebag in lederhosen and a feathered cap.
Ellis’ commitment to the character is fantastic; his dialogue is laced with egocentric nuance as Uberpfister explains his accomplishments in winning gold for bobsled at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and how that can help him help us, the helpless losers of the audience.
It’s an interesting premise and a mostly well-developed character, though are a few too many “Hey, I’m German” cop-out moments for me. However, Ellis’ skills in casting his audience and playing status are underdeveloped to the point of non-existence. A gasbag character like this only works if the performer can always ensure that the character – never the audience – is the butt of the joke. But the show doesn’t play out that way.
The first ask-for Ellis gets is from a woman in the front row. He asks if anyone is having difficulty with a co-worker, and she volunteers the problem of a co-worker not pulling his weight. After being given another audience suggestion that Uberpfister was once East Germany’s foremost scissorer – maker of scissors, that is – Ellis suggests that the audience member join him onstage and use some mimed scissors to castrate him.
The audience member pretends to stab him in the shoulder, leading him to suggest she lacks a knowledge of male anatomy. She then stabs him in the low belly, just above the groin, with obvious discomfort. It’s a strong action on her part, but Ellis insists this isn’t enough, and tells her to try again, making direct contact with his groin. She says, “No,” but he keeps insisting. Ellis only lets up when she sits down in the audience again, saying she’s done.
I cannot emphasize enough how uncomfortable this exchange makes me feel.
For the rest of the show, I feel like I, as a woman, do not belong in this room; the power dynamics at play exclude me. Things that might have seemed innocuous in another context feel like bullying. I’m singled out for taking a drink of my beer. Ellis goes over to another audience member and man-handles him until he uncrosses his legs. A woman in the third row is repeatedly mocked for slumping with her jacket over her. All together, they add up not so much to a picture of a character run amok as an actor who has no sensitivity to his audience and wants us all to sit silently except for laughing when he wants us to laugh.
Ellis also sidesteps suggestions that make it difficult to play his masculine power. While he accepts an audience suggestion that his character might have excelled at interior decorating at one point, he literally questions it, saying, “Are we really going to go there?” So, scissor making is OK, but interior decorating is not? To Ellis’ credit he takes the suggestion on board but he fights engaging with it. There is no vulnerability here from character or actor; any blame is placed on the audience for the poor suggestion.
And the thing is, this problem of not knowing how to play status with the audience is fixable. All it would take is a little vulnerability to contrast with the overblown masculinity that is clearly established.
I would love to see the version of the show where Ellis continues to provoke the audience to the point of actual violence or until we all leave for the lack of humanity onstage – in which we are explicitly made aware of our complicity in the horribleness we’re seeing. Or the version where early cracks in the armour allow us to laugh more at Uberpfister; where he is trying so hard to hide all his failures that they are plainly obvious – as opposed to Uberpfister being a bit blustery and satirically illogical but ultimately imperturbable.
But because our experience isn’t framed for any particular reaction, the lack of craft in structuring the audience/actor relationship means that there are some serious ethical problems with this show. Until changes are made, it is hard to separate Ellis from Uberpfister. It makes me feel like I’ve been stuck in a room with a bully.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Greg Ellis October 13th, 2015
Just read Shannon’s review which only goes to reinforce my own level of discomfort following Arbeitszufriedenheit.
Yes Dieter was supposed to be a unlikeable but the line gets crossed where character unlikeability becomes for real douchebaggery. I gave more than a few people a terrible time and this shows a lack of judgement from someone with a LOT of experience.
Improv relies on a good relationship with the audience which I broke for many members in different ways. I did not show sufficient judgement with how far I went or with the lack of making amends during the show as character and improviser.
My apologies go out to the audience, Jen and the festival team and Jason and Laura with whom I shared that spot