Good Night - The End

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

11/09/2009 - 03/10/2009

Production Details

Life can be pretty grim for a reaper.
World Premiere of Jo Randerson’s Good Night – The End at Downstage

‘Does anyone else ever do the dishes in this place? Honestly you guys, it just takes a little bit of effort and this place could be really pleasant.’

Three Grim Reapers kill time in their dingy staff kitchen, grappling with the usual questions:   "Who used my cup?  Why is there never enough Milo?  Is there anything to look forward to beyond this miserable present?"  Add the pressure of a playboy boss who only speaks Italian and an impending Christmas party and it’s no wonder some of them are starting to look for a way out.

Fresh from the unique mind of celebrated writer Jo Randerson (Bruce Mason award winner, New Generation Laureate 2008), Good Night – The End is an existential comedy crackling with the fierce originality that has earned her cult status in theatre and literature alike.   Imagine an episode of The Office written by Beckett or Kafka and you’ll be a quarter of the way to appreciating this play’s wild humour and terrifying humanity.

"Her ability to shift from near-realism to humorous  neo-gothic and the absolutely absurd makes her a true pioneer of the post-something generation."
Federico Monsalve, Listener on Jo Randerson

Barbarian Productions has a reputation for theatre that breaks with convention – their last offering was a series of walking tours that won them Most Original Concept at Fringe 2006.  Good Night -The End is no exception.  It’s not just a play, it’s an experience!  This production  is Barbarian’s largest-scale effort to date bringing together the talents of a suitably diverse and fascinating team.

For director Andrew Foster (The Raft, Blood Wedding) this production is a reunion, he last worked with Jo Randerson as part of Wellington’s iconic theatre company Trouble.  Set designer Sean Coyle (Ranterstantrum, Cherish and Closer) is based in Auckland, while lighting designer Piet Asplet (The Kreutzer, Carnival Hound) is locally renowned.  Janet Dunn (ReDunn), designer of boutique, recycled garments is creating the costumes and the sound design is in the hands of Nic McGowan (Two Cars, One Night, Eagle Vs Shark) who was the accompanist for The Cat and the Canary in the recent International Film Festival.

Good Night – The End
Dates: 11 Sep – 3 Oct
Times: 6:30pm Tue-Wed and 8pm Thu-Sat.
Prices: $25 to $45.
Meet the Artists: Tue 15 Sep

CAST (in order of appearance)
Harvester of Sorrow:  Jo Randerson
Unavoidable Destiny:  Felicity McDonnell
L'amministrazione:  Aaron Cortesi
Transitional Friend:  Thomas LaHood

Set Design:  Sean Coyle
Lighting Design:  Piet Asplet
Sound Design:  Nic McGowan
Costume Design:  Janet Dunn

Costume Assistant:  Fiona Brown
Production & Stage Manager:  Glenn Ashworth
Choreography:  Sarah Foster
Photography:  Matt Grace
Post show Front of House Design:  Meggan Frauenstein
Puppet Construction:  Al Watson
Original latex puppets:  Carlos Wedde
Stencil artist:  Sole
Make up:  Michele Perry  
Italian Translation:  Paolo Rotondo
Italian Tutor:  Roberto Giorgioni

Appointment with Death revisited

Review by John Smythe 30th Sep 2009

On revisiting Good Night – The End … what was I hoping for? Something more? Of course not. I already know the play is riddled with the eternal questions: Is this all there is? What’s it all about? Is there something more? Why bother? … The play’s terms of engagements are that we each grapple with these anew and alone.

All the values mentioned in my review remain (link below). Thanks to the weak-bladdered disrupters on opening night there is now an interval and I’m not sure it helps, placed as it is after all the set-ups are in place but before we start getting the pay-offs. There is little compelling reason to return when we are just left with the question, “What are we doing here?” and have no reason to anticipate anything more than more of the same.

Otherwise the production is tighter, more focused, better paced – all the things you’d expect from a brand new show that has now bedded in. And it is definitely worth returning after interval because the ending still packs a powerful punch. I didn’t mention the skeleton dance coda before: it works well as a tension-releaser following the ultimate confrontation with death – and that’s why people leave wreathed in smiles. (It was a healthy-sized audience on Tuesday, too.)

There is, however, something missing: the actual business of being a Grim Reaper. This staff room is presumably where Harvester of Sorrow, Unavoidable Destiny and Transitional Friend hang out until a job comes up, and equally presumably L’amministratzione is the one who apportions the jobs. It seems to me this needs to be part of the action.

Was it there originally, I wonder, and did it get dropped (the old ‘take away the number you first thought of’ syndrome)? It that why L’amministratzione now functions as little else than dynamic relief from the mundane minutiae of staff room life, salted with all those unanswerable existential questions and peppered with small-minded coping mechanisms?

I can live with wondering whether the Grim Reapers are supra-human or mortals employed by a supra-human entity, because as the action plays out this question gets answered: they are mortal. And so is L’amministratzione, who presumably answers to a higher power … Some mystery at that level is fine.

But I find little value in being left to wonder how they actually go about their day-to-day business. Transitional Friend’s early comment that he only had two this morning and neither of them spoke English is a promising start but that’s about all we get on that score. How do the jobs come up? How do they get assigned to them? How do they feel about each one? Do they ever get shocked, disgusted or traumatised? Do they sometimes feel good when they get to offer blessed relief? How are they trained and what are the support mechanisms?

I’m not suggesting all that needs to overwhelm the action, it’s just that their actual work doesn’t seem to have been built into the play’s foundations. And given one of their number finds themselves at the receiving end of a ‘summons’, there is surely some dramatic potential to be explored in playing with that dimension …

Leaving a show with questions buzzing round in our heads can be good. But this question is frustrating because it leaves me believing something important is missing.


Jo Randerson October 26th, 2009

 Thanks for taking the time to watch it a second time John. FYI, detailing of the Grim Reaper's actual work was never there in the initial script, but it did come up as a suggestion in the workshop process. Several people on the workshop got excited by this idea. I worked it into a subsequent draft, but on further discussion with my excellent dramaturg and upon my own reflection, I decided I didn't want to go into all that 'business' of their work.

I'm not really interested in the day to day life of Grim Reapers. I don't even know if I believe in them. Anyway, it's not about them. To me, it was more about the theatrical effect of having that cloaked figure with a scythe (Death) in three different forms on stage, over an existential conversation about life. Death staring you in the face. De-powering that fatal image. Seeing Death in some weakened states.

I wanted to keep the play in an un-determined realm as per other existential texts such as Waiting for Godot. I felt this was the territory it dwelt in best, and that it would be a different animal indeed to give further detail of their working lives through the text, although I did look down that road. But then, like Robert Frost, I took the other. I allowed there to be allusions, teases made, and a couple of more obvious references (such as you point out), but I didn't want to explain their jobs more fully.

I can see this play being written - but it's not the play I wanted to write. However, I have been considering some theatrical changes which may alleviate your hunger for more context: eg. a loud buzzer that goes when they have to leave to go on a mission, bloody/mucky hands that need washing when they enter, lists of names inside their lockers or on the walls which they cross off. To me these are more staging issues, and I think the show could grow in that regard, as well as in the playing of the text.

Thanks for responding to the work, it was great to hear your comments. 

John Smythe October 2nd, 2009

In principle the more ambitious and challenging a new work is, the more I think it is fair to take another look further into the premiere season. New work rarely gets the luxury of out-of-town tryouts or a week or two of previews in NZ, so it can be unfair for all the judgements to be made on one night. I usually expect things to have improved but of course I have to call it as I see it – and I’ll only add to what I’ve already written if I think something more needs to be said.

Management knew I was coming again and gave me another comp. Whether or not the cast knew is irrelevant as it should make no difference whatever to how they perform.

This site operates on the principle that reviews are participating in an ongoing conversation, which is why it publishes multiple reviews of many shows. Does that answer your questions, Bex?

Bex Harvey October 2nd, 2009

I'm new to this site so I could be wrong, but I thought this was a review site?  Surely posting two reviews of the same production on different nights (did they even know you were coming to review it again?) and it starts getting a bit more like a Blog... Or is that the intention? I don't want to step on toes or whatever I'm just curious. 

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Not pitched or paced for the space

Review by Uther Dean 24th Sep 2009

Harvester of Sorrow (Jo Randerson) is not happy. She is either a grim reaper or at the very least is paid to portray one. Over the course of Good Night – The End, she mopes around her workplace’s staff room. In between totally failing to smoke and drinking far too much Milo she has to deal with her co-workers, the dim and obese Unavoidable Destiny (Felicity McDonnell) and the fastidious and neurotic Transitional Friend (Thomas LaHood), and their many petty grievances.

Their boss, an effusive, erotic Italian who may also be the devil (Aaron Cortesi), pops in and out, to gyrate a bit or simply show them the best way to drink Milo. And well, that’s pretty much it. While the plot does somewhat pick up in its second half, there is a general feeling of inertia throughout Good Night – The End. 

Like most plays on the subject of the between times, the stuff you do when you’re not doing stuff, Good Night feels slightly lethargic. The energy of performance, on the night I saw it at least, started low and never really picked up. This is a play designed to be done in the lowest of keys, and because of that it is swallowed up in the vast space of Downstage, making the play more lethargic than muted.

While clearly playing with the theatrical ideas of clowns and clowning, the script resorts far too readily to stereotypes and clichés. In between the truly inspired moments of wit come jokes as old and funny as dust, making the play at points feel much more workman-like than it really is.

A joke about AIDS that seems to be setting up an important plot point is quickly ignored and never raised again, making it more offensive and mean-spirited than amusing. Also, the play’s obsession with staying unclear as to the true nature of the characters’ work—are they actually death or just pretending?—means the work feels somewhat unconnected and distant.

The design, however, is really amazing. Sean Coyle’s joyously garish set juxtaposes against the action perfectly and Piet Asplet’s lights fill the space with mood. Nic McGowan’s soundscape and music are perfect and worth the price of entry alone.

The director, Andrew Foster, has a fine eye for images and an amazing sense of creating a place in which the play could occur. It just seems a pity that the performances were not encouraged to rise up and fill it.

Good Night – The End is a fine script and a fine production, but seemingly of two different works. The play and the place never really matched, and one wonders if would have been more successful in a more intimate setting like BATS or Circa Two.
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Deathly long

Review by Lynn Freeman 24th Sep 2009

Jo Randerson has a unique imagination. 

She quotes Jean Genet in her writer’s notes in the programme and she’s probably the nearest New Zealand has to that absurdist, abstractionist writer. It’s not as refined and, like Genet, isn’t to everyone’s taste but it does stand out from the rest.

Here she brings together three grim reapers during their coffee breaks in the month before Christmas. One of the reapers has a weight problem, another gets picked on and the third has a real attitude.

The start is arrestingly dramatic, with a reaper clouded in smoke warning the audience that eventually we’ll have to face her in real life/death. However there are few stand out moments in the ensuing 106 minutes.

A lengthy lesson on how to make the perfect cup of hot chocolate was funny for the first 30 seconds, but dragged for several minutes. Ravings in Italian soon lost their novelty value. And it’s too long before we get past one of the reaper’s foul-mouthed nastiness to find out why she’s like that.

At the end you are left wondering what it all means.
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Grim reapers let loose in the kitchen

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Sep 2009

With a Jo Randerson play you expect to be entertained with the off beat, the quirky, and the downright odd and in her black comedy good night the end she delivers the goods in her own inimitable manner with a contemporary Danse Macabre.

This time she’s exploring the whole damn thing – life, death, love, family – just like the Greeks, Shakespeare, Webster and Beckett did before her. However, the big difference between her and those illustrious predecessors is that she makes her audience smile or laugh throughout her mundane story of three Grim Reapers eking out their lives in the colorful but dysfunctional kitchen of a hostel for junior Grim Reapers.

Harvester of Sorrow (Jo Randerson), who drowns her sorrows in cups of very strong Milo, is being called for an appointment over a loudspeaker by a demanding Management but her two GR colleagues, the overweight Unavoidable Destiny (Felicity McDonnell) and the pernickety Transitional Friend (Thomas LaHood), are more concerned respectively with food and keeping the kitchen neat and tidy and making sure the scythes are hanging on the wall.

The Management turns out to be a stereotypical, swarthy Italian called L’amministrazione (Aaron Cortesi). Why he’s an Italian I’m not sure but his brewing of a cup of Milo is a sensuous art and he behaves in effect like a servant to a victorious Roman general whose job it was to whisper in the general’s ear ‘memento mori’, a warning that even GRs have to face apparently.

Despite an over-distorted electronic voice used for the opening speech by the Grim Reaper and an occasional lapse of clear diction by the actors, the production is perfectly in tune with this comedic dance-with-death allegory.

Andrew Foster’s low-key direction, which allows the action to be comparatively normal in keeping with the lifestyle of the GRs who act like disgruntled junior public servants, is given the necessary visual boosts with Sean Coyle’s marvelously cluttered setting, Piet Asplet’s lighting and the special effects, particularly for the finale.

The characters behave like ordinary folk with the exception of the flamboyant, very funny, and likely-to-appear-from-anywhere Italian. All four actors fit very neatly into their roles. Thomas LaHood’s slightly nerdy Reaper whose insecurity is caused by his lack of height is particularly appealing.

Underlying this comedy a serious point about life is being made and it does so with wit and laughter. It is a memento mori writ large and I thoroughly recommend it.
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Bemusing, amusing, affirming

Review by John Smythe 12th Sep 2009

When the audience’s faces are wreathed with smiles in the wake of a 106-minute play about death, something remarkable has clearly happened.

It diminishes the mysteries of life, and death, to attempt to explain them in words. This review, therefore, is about to do just that to Good Night – The End, not least because the most important part of being there is your own subjective response to its varied components and to whatever details most engage you. My responses may be irrelevant to yours.

Jo Randerson and her Barbarian Productions team have developed this work with a clear understanding that mere mortals – and such mortal inventions as ‘The Grim Reaper’ – are less than equal to articulating the aforementioned mysteries. Yet there is a dimension beyond the sum of this play’s parts in which we sense ‘the truth’ resides. And in the final speech of The Harvester of Sorrow (Randerson), the word-images conjured, in the face of death, of a life not lived, cut to the quick and may haunt us long after its over.

Good Night – The End is a modern morality play; a cautionary tale that reminds us to live our lives well because there may be nothing else when it’s over. No big surprise there. It’s the way the players live in the days leading up to the unexpected demise of one of their number that brings real meaning to the message. I defy anyone not to see unnerving glimpses themselves in what plays out in designer Sean Coyle’s colourful staff kitchen, apparently gaily patterned until we notice the skulls in every alternate square.

The mundane minutiae of disaffected staff members routinely making life hell for each other in the tea – or rather Milo – breaks over a number of days leading up to Christmas, occupies most of the action. The major twist is that the workers in question are Grim Reapers who are not immune to mortality themselves, let alone human fallibility and vulnerability, en route to their own inevitable fates.

In this existential comedy, hell is not so much other people as those parts of ourselves that make us our own worst enemies. The evolution of these characters according to European clowning principles allows for potent distillations.

Randerson’s Harvester of Sorrow tries to gain status by winding others up or putting them down, often in the name of honesty. Man is she mean, and compelling with it.

Felicity McDonnell’s morbidly obese Unavoidable Destiny avoids responsibility by claiming stress from a head in turmoil with all the stuff that happening in the world, which only food can assuage. A bizarre creation.

Thomas LaHood’s Transitional Friend sets himself up by trying to be nice while fretting about how inconsiderate the others are in sharing this space. Simultaneously reasonable, vulnerable and maddening he too is an empathy magnet.

Each gets to deliver a resonant homily about the inevitability of death in sepulchral tones (part of Nic McGowan’s excellent sound design – a bit over-distorted to start with on opening night) amid billows of smoke enhanced by Piet Asplet’s brilliant lighting. But that final speech is unadorned with eerie sonic effects, making its impact all the more powerful.

The strangely entertaining tedium of the Reapers’ grim daily grind is also alleviated by the random appearances – down poles, up ladders, through trap-doors, disembodied in a seascape diorama – of Aaron Cortesi’s larger-than-life L’amministratzione, who speaks in Italian and represents (some of us concluded in discussion afterwards) an energetic and unpredictable life force we mostly fail to comprehend, let alone align ourselves with.  

Having emphasised the Reapers’ key characteristics with variations on black cassocks and cowls, costume designer Janet Dunn has a ball with L’amministratzione, not least in the ever-enlarging balls region of his swashbuckling tights.

Director Andrew Foster ensures the rich array of creative talent assembled by Barbarian Productions (producer Anna Cameron), in presenting partnership with Downstage, provokes all our sensibilities in the process of delivering a show that bemuses, amuses and finally packs a life-affirming punch.

No wonder everyone was smiling. It’s an end that offers a new beginning.
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Bold, irreverent and funny take on death and mortality

Review by Hannah Smith 12th Sep 2009

Good Night – The End is the new play from Jo Randerson’s theatre company Barbarian, and it bears all the markers of being such: it is funny, it is clever, and it is flipping bizarre.  Blending realistic dialogue and bold characters with magical realism and the absurd, Randerson creates a play that is unashamedly comic, rich in character and full of surprises.

It is the count down to Christmas in the staff room shared by a trio of Grim Reapers, and nobody is having a very merry time.  This absurdist premise is attacked with an irreverent glee that manages to weave together the situational comedy of arguments over the teacups with existential crises and meditations on mortality in a way that is broadly Kiwi, cheerfully dark, and has irrepressible buoyancy.

The performances are uniformly strong. Randerson as the moody and disaffected ‘Harvester of Sorrows’ fills the stage with her charismatic presence and a palpable rage – an angst that reminds me very much of my younger brother’s teenage years.  She is strangely likeable despite, or perhaps because of, her staff room crimes and bitchiness – we can all empathise with the annoyance caused by cheerful little ‘Do your own dishes’ reminders.  And Randerson’s ability to deliver absurdly funny lines with a deadpan intonation and stone cold face is unmatched.  

Felicity McDonnell plays ‘Unavoidable Destiny’, a reaper resigned to her situation and less troubled by metaphysical questions than by the mystery of who has eaten her hash browns.  As the ‘fat one’ she is painted in broader strokes than the others (pun), but is still a very recognisable stock staff room personality.

Thomas LaHood, or ‘Transitional Friend’, is the long-suffering ‘nice guy’ of the institution. He does a fine job of engaging our sympathy at the same time as our dislike in a performance that is understated but perfectly on the note.  He gives excellent face, and his huge eyes (accentuated particularly well in his case by the make up effects of Michele Perry) speak volumes without having to stray into pantomime facial expressions.

Aaron Cortesi, as the Italian ‘L’amministrazione’ brings an exuberance, expressive vocals and huge physicality to a role that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else performing successfully.  In fact, one immediately shudders at the idea of this particular part in the hands of the many who will doubtless attempt to play it in time to come. Cortesi’s performance is energetic and pleasingly ridiculous, with each exit leaving me wondering how many more ingenious ways he can find to get on or off the stage.

Ingenious and pleasingly ridiculous are also apt descriptions for the production design. Sean Coyle’s set provides the most nauseatingly cheerful ‘staff room’ imaginable, these Grim Reapers drink their Milo in a Playschool colouring box full of floral skeletons, nooks and crannies, cupboards and drawers from which are pulled all manner of surprises. Piet Asplet’s lighting makes bold use of colour, while the differences between characters are worked by Janet Dunn’s costume design – finding subtle and meaningful variation in the three Grim Reaper robes, and going to town on L’amministrazione’s leggings.

Design elements, actors and script come together under the capable direction of Andrew Foster to create a show that is colourful, funny and dances around some bold themes – death and mortality are heavy topics, but not in the hands of the Barbarians. While there is a great attention to detail at all levels – it is truly delightful to think about the practicalities of washing the dishes in a Grim Reaper robe – nothing is laboured or taken too seriously; there is something deprecating and irreverent to be said on every subject.

"Everything should work together to break down whatever separates us from the dead," Randerson quotes Genet in her Writer’s note, and fundamentally that is how this play works. The comedy lies in the juxtaposition of recognisable characters speaking in broad Kiwi dialects with their absurd surroundings. The gulf between the world of the dead and that of the living is not so big as we may think. Though the scenery may be strange and the people in peculiar dress, once they open their mouths we will be able to recognize them, or the humanity in them that we all share. 
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