Sensible Susan & the Queen's Merkin: A morality play

BATS Theatre, Wellington

18/02/2008 - 22/02/2008

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

Production Details

Theatre Militia are back with an entertaining morality play which revolves around a wardrobe, a mission and a Queen’s pubic wig.  

Once upon a time there lived a sensible girl named Susan . . .  

Our prudent heroine Susan is sent to the Underworld via a magical wardrobe to save her errant husband, Simple Simon.  Logically making her way through a Dantean hell she encounters flying phalluses, the burocracy of purgatory and the Seven Dead Sins, dealing with them all reasonably and rationally.  

Susan’s repressed and controlled existence is under threat – while she clings dearly to realism the world she encounters does not. Susan must embrace the liberation of the absurd, challenging her sensible perspective in order to return to the real world. Singing, dancing and pontificating on the meaning of her life, Susan’s journey takes her to the point of redemption . . . or death!

Drawing on the traditions of the medieval Morality Play, Theatre Militia presents a subversive homage to the most pious of theatrical forms. 

From the team who brought you Bouncing With Billie, Theatre Militia’s Symposium and the Chapman Tripp nominated production A Bright Room Called Day, Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Merkin is Theatre Militia’s second Fringe Festival show and fifth devised production.

‘We love the Fringe’, says director Rachel Lenart, ‘it’s the perfect opportunity to explore our style and the forms within our work. Sensible Susan is a hilarious experiment in both." 

Starring: Richard Dey, Bex Joyce, Felix Preval, Hannah Smith and Simon Smith

18 – 22 February, 9.30pm
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce
Bookings: 802 4175 or
Cost: $16/12/10 

The Players 
Sensible Susan:  Bex Joyce
Chorus & Characters:  Richard Dey, Felix Preval, Hannah Smith, Simon Smith
Troubadour:  Ryan Prebble

The Crew 
Stage Manager:  Theresa Hanaray
Sound Design & Composition:  Ryan Prebble
Set Design:  Glenn Ashworth
Lighting Design:  Marcus McShane and Deb McGuire
Costume Design:  Nell Williams
Costume Assistant & Make up Design:  Bex Middleton
Graphic Design:  Dylan Mercer
Technical Operator:  Deb McGuire
Publicist:  Brianne Kerr
Dramaturg:  Hannah Smith
Fight Captain:  Richard Dey
Dance Captain:  Felix Preval
Photographer:  Jenny Dey
Stage Hand:  Ben Albert

Crafts Team 
Nell Williams, Felix Preval, Hannah Smith, Charlotte Bradley, Zelda Edwards, Jake Preval 

1 hr, no interval

A sheer pleasure to watch

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Mirkin, directed by Rachel Lenart and the sixth and latest mind-bending offering from Theatre Militia, is the show to beat all Fringe shows this year, so far at least. 

It’s just as impossible to describe as Step Up Darlings. To give you a plot summary would be misleading, because it’s all in the execution – speaking of which, Queen Elizabeth the first has an outrageously funny cameo, along with her mirkin (look it up if you don’t know it, it was a new one on me!).

But if you must have some idea – Susan Simple, who lives a quiet, routine and sensible life, is thrust into Hell to find her kidnapped husband Simon … See, it just doesn’t do it justice.  

Lenart and her cast of Bex Joyce, Felix Preval, Richard Dey, Hannah Smith and Simon Smith have taken the old Medieval morality play and turned it on its head, (the moral of this story is a million miles from Medieval times) which is what they do with theatrical forms to such wickedly good effect. It’s mad and rib-achingly funny, clever without being patronising, inventive, naughty and a sheer pleasure to watch. 


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Look out for a much hoped for return season!

Review by Helen Sims 29th Feb 2008

Theatre Militia’s second Fringe offering Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Merkin is an intelligent but hilarious adaptation of the medieval morality play. The story follows Susan, a prudent woman with a love of schedules and order, on her quest through the Underworld to rescue her captured husband, Simple Simon. On her way she encounters many strange and bewildering Underworld inhabitants, most with a fascination for the nether region that shocks and challenges Susan’s orderly outlook. However, with the help of Queen Elizabeth the First’s golden merkin (a wig for the “patchless snatch”) and gumption she never knew she had, Susan triumphs, in what turns out to be a voyage of self discovery in more ways than one…

This may all sound a little absurd, and it is, but the sharp writing of Felix Preval (who also plays the imperious Queen amongst other characters) and the astute direction of Rachel Lenart keep the story on track. The story and moral is quite simple, yet the number of intelligent references to literature, philosophy and theatrical theory keep the play challenging. The actors are all fantastic in their roles, with Bex Joyce playing a wide eyed but practical Susan and Preval, Richard Dey, Hannah Smith and Simon Smith taking multiple roles as the chorus. They sing, dance and worship the merkin with energy and an eye for comic timing. They are assisted in their efforts by Ryan Prebble, who is a live on-stage troubadour, providing music and many sounds effects. The set, designed by Glenn Ashworth, is composed of a huge wardrobe, which serves variously as the route to the Underworld, Charon’s boat across the Styx and the puppet show for the “Seven Dead Sins”. Hung out in lines from either side are sheets upon which the actors and other items are projected. The play is well lit and costumed by Marcus McShane and Nell Williams respectively.

There are a few moments that could use a little tightening for even greater comic effect, but this would simply be a good excuse for Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Merkin to be developed for a return season for the length it deserves. This show proves that in the right hands devised theatre is not necessarily indulgent and dull – Theatre Militia does not fail to entertain their audience – we are always in on the joke and in for the ride. It’s a credit to the skill and talent of Lenart and Preval that they can succeed so well in both devised and scripted mediums. If you missed this in the Fringe then look out for a much hoped for return season!

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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A wacky romp

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 21st Feb 2008

[In reviewing both Babycakes and Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Merkin: a Morality Play., Laurie describes both as "brash and often coarse, tasteless and funny."] 

Sensible Susan … [is] a sophisticated student revue in the tradition of Extravs that Vic students used to have time to spend on before student loans and someone decided that they should study throughout the academic year rather than cram in a few weeks before exams.

Sensible Susan’s long suffering husband Simon leaves home one night and goes to Hades. Susan is visited by Queen Elizabeth the First appearing from within a wardrobe. This supports the programme note about children’s literature as a source of inspiration of the production, while the Queen’s gift of her royal merkin to Susan is presumably something to do with the erudite programme note about Victorian Gothic, Steam Punk, Jungian archetypes of the animus, and medieval Morality plays.

On her voyage to the Underworld Susan has to watch a Morality puppet show called The Seven Dead Sins (Bad Grammar and Homosex are two of them), get past the red tape of Grim Reaper, fight off three dogs, put up with a bored ‘Sharon’ who is fed up carrying passengers across the River Styx, and meeting up with some ‘Spices’ before finding her husband. The merkin is her saviour through it all and at the end her entrée into paradise.

There are songs and dances, a troubadour (Ryan Prebble), topical as well as corny jokes, and computers and Google are wittily adapted for the purposes of the plot. There is a funny shadow play projected onto the sheets that hang from each side of the wardrobe in which Susan fights off scary flying creatures.

It’s a wacky romp and Richard Dey, Felix Preval, Hannah Smith, Simon Smith, and Bex Joyce (Susan) in the best tradition of the old Extravs have a whale of a time camping it up before a laughing and, at the end, a cheering audience.


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Huge fun; deserves longer life

Review by John Smythe 19th Feb 2008

This is one out of the box. It may look and sound like inspired nonsense but it has a point and in the end Sensible Susan puts her finger right on the button, opening herself to a whole new realm of pleasurable human experience.

Devised and written in blank verse as a morality play – by Felix Preval and Theatre Militia – Susan (Bex Joyce) is Everywoman, or at least every person who uses a strictly ordered schedule to protect themselves from the unknown, the unexpected and uncontrolled abandon. The biggest excitement she can face, or rather tremulously anticipate with her eyes closed, is allowing her husband Simon Simple (Simon Smith) to pop the cork on their 4th wedding anniversary bottle of bubbles.

The schedule they have lived by was conceived on their honeymoon and decorum has been the order of their days ever since. But a large closet stands upstage centre, from which lines of clean linen are hung out to dry, and it seems inevitable that something will come out of it.

And who should it be but Queen Elizabeth I (Felix Preval), her Ladies in Waiting (Richard Dey, Simon Smith) and the Court Jester (Hannah Smith), with the news that husband Simon has been kidnapped and taken to the Underworld! Thus begins the classic quest to save him, after Susan’s objection that "This is so unrealistic!" is roundly rebuffed by the Queen: "Stanislavsky is dead!"

Of course being a dangerous mission, to protect good Susan’s position, by warding off dangers lurkin’, she’s gifted the Queen’s own merkin* – a bejewelled decorative version rather than the common sort described below. In she goes to the wardrobe, turning right to Hades rather than left to Narnia, thanks to the excellent employment of OHP imagery back-projected onto the sheets.

In broad styles always rooted in truth and giving due weight to the jeopardy factor, Preval, Dey, Smith and Smith play the crazy characters encountered en route with energy and aplomb. I especially enjoyed the metaphorical manifestation of Google and how reception issues mean Susan may only be granted three searches.

Then there is the wicked little puppet show about the Seven Dead [sic] Sins, the queue of souls waiting in bureaucratic Purgatory and the miracle of Susan’s capacity to meet its demands, the Pillars of Spice in Hell’s Kitchen … and at last her finding of Simon with his Pieman (Dey).

It’s not the outcome she was expecting but challenged thus, what else can she do but take herself in hand and embark on a brand new journey through her own very personal underworld.

Troubadour Ryan Prebble – credited with sound design and composition – contributes delightful live music, globetrotting somewhat in style which adds to the fun. Glen Ashworth’s set with lighting by Marcus McShane and Deb McGuire, Nell Williams’ costumes and Bex Middleton’s make-up design all contribute with levels of excellence that belie the rough and ready feel of its presentation.

All in all, another triumph for director Rachel Lenart and Theatre Militia. Yes, devised theatre backed up with skilful writing and brought together by an astute director does work!

Had Sensible Susan and the Queen’s Merkin been done 40-odd years ago it would have excited moral outrage, achieved great notoriety and been a box-office hit. It’s much funnier and more sophisticated than the likes of Oh! Calcutta! (the world’s longest running erotic musical), although it would have to be tightened and polished here and there if it went further and nowadays the lack of actual nudity in the face of widespread moral repression may dilute its bankability …

Seriously, though, it should do the Festival circuit, Fringe or otherwise. It’s huge fun, educational (well, did you know what a merkin was?) and its resolution is a true gift to humanity.

And lest I – not to mention the erudite programme notes – have left the impression it’s too sophisticated for popular consumption, I leave the last word to the beaming bloke on the pavement outside BATS: "I haven’t been to many plays but that’d be the best one I’ve ever seen."
"female pudenda," 1535, apparently a variant of malkin (q.v.) in its sense of "mop." Meaning "artificial vagina or ‘counterfeit hair for a woman’s privy parts’ " is attested from 1617. According to "The Oxford Companion to the Body," the custom of wearing merkins dates from c.1450, was associated with prostitutes, and was to disguise either pubic hair shaved off to exterminate body lice or evidence of venereal disease.
"This put a strange Whim in his Head; which was, to get the hairy circle of [a prostitute’s] Merkin …. This he dry’d well, and comb’d out, and then return’d to the Cardinall, telling him, he had brought St. Peter’s Beard." [Alexander Smith, "A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the most notorious Highwaymen," 1714]
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper   


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