The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum
New Athenaeum Theatre, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin
23/03/2023 - 25/03/2023
Written by Meg Perry
Directed by Ryan Hartigan
Produced by Jordan Wichman
Jeff Goldblum keeps dying. He’s the most frequently dying celebrity internationally. He’s even been interviewed about it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Is it a hoax? It isn’t. He keeps dying, and a shadowy corporation with secret motives are behind it. Written in the form and beats of a surreal American sitcom, we journey into The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum.
As part of the 2023 Dunedin Fringe
Tickets available @ https://www.dunedinfringe.nz/ ($15/$20/Try Your Luck)
Tia Hibbert as Guy
Grace Turipa as May
Reva Grills as Cal
Christopher McCombe as Punch
Featuring Marama Grant in Assorted Roles
Stage Manager: Kaitlyn Cooper
Production Assistant: Sahara Pohatu-Trow
Lighting: Cait Gordon
Sound: Ethan Ruppersburg
Surreal, slightly dystopian comedy could use some further development
Review by Ash Dawes 24th Mar 2023
The inspiration behind The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum, as we are told in the programme that is handed to us as we enter the theatre, is that Jeff Goldblum keeps dying. Or at least, his death keeps being reported in the media. Written in the style of a television sit-com, Goldblum brings us into a world where celebrities have offices filled with hard-working humanoid characters dedicated to replacing them when they pass away. This is a fun, absurd, and slightly surreal premise for a show, and it is well-suited to the black box of the New Athenaeum Theatre—the audience is very close to the action, even cast as the live studio audience bearing witness to the sit-com’s taping.
The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum is the sophomore show from local theatre company dollhouse, following the cancellation of their Dunedin Arts Festival season of The Mystery of Irma Vep (attributed to COVID, which is inexplicably spelt ‘CŌVID’ in the programme). It is a brand-new work by local playwright Meg Perry and directed by dollhouse co-founder Ryan Hartigan, developed first through the Ōtepoti Theatre Lab and then through a week-long residency in Te Whare o Rukutia (a performance venue managed by the Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust). I have a lot of respect for the dollhouse kaupapa of supporting emerging artists and fostering an environment wherein experimentation and play are encouraged, and it is exciting to watch them taking the ambitious step of launching an entirely new work so early in their lifespan. (It is worth noting here that I am fairly well-aquainted with both dollhouse’s co-founders, Hartigan, and Goldblum’s producer Jordan Wichman, having been taught by the former and shared classes with the latter over the course of my study at Otago. I am also on the Dunedin Fringe staff, and Goldblum is presented as part of the Fringe Festival.)
The sit-com format, of which I am initially sceptical, works on so many levels. It offers an easy way to structure the play, for one thing—over the course of the hour-long performance, we watch three distinct episodes of ‘The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum’. It also excuses the time jump necessary to the story: it is plausible, for instance, that between the first and the hundredth episodes of a sit-com newbie May Manson (Grace Turipa) and boss Dr. Guy Mann (Tia Hibbert) would have fallen in love and gotten engaged.
The drawback of the sit-com style is that the characters tend towards one-dimensionality. It is hard to say whether this is a bug or a feature: the characters are mostly archetypical sit-com tropes, with some interesting and subversive twists. If there is a tendency towards overacting from some of the cast, it feels like a very deliberate choice that has been made between actors and director, and mostly plays well into the genre. May Manson and Dr. Mann’s (what’s he a doctor of? No one knows) romantic plotline gives both Turipa and Hibbert a chance to flex their acting muscles and bring some nuance to their characters. I am surprisingly engaged in their story, despite often feeling ambivalent about sit-coms in general.
The stand-out performance is by Mārama Grant as ‘Number Five’ (although the character tells the others at one point that her name is Janet). She does, perhaps, have the most to work with, delivering a powerful and moving monologue in the play’s third ‘episode’. This is a rare moment of sincerity in the play, and it provides a welcome tonal shift away from the ridiculous. Conversely, I would have liked to see more of Cal Lockhorn (Reva Grills), whose only personality traits seem to be (a) being non-binary, and (b) quoting Jeff Goldblum films. This is more a dramaturgical criticism than anything else; in fact, we get some beautiful moments from Grills, especially when she plays across from Christopher McCombe, which resonate deeply with the experience of being trapped in a conversation with a co-worker you hate, and wanting desperately to be literally anywhere else.
Christopher McCombe (spoiler alert) plays not one but three characters, each of whom die on stage in increasingly dramatic ways (including an excellent Chekhov’s gun reference). This is undeniably satisfying, especially since all three of his characters (Punch, Wayne, and Dick) are instantly recognisable as the racist, sexist, and transphobic alt-right douchebag archetype. I especially enjoy (really, spoiler alert) watching Dick be attacked by a baboon, who bludgeons him to death with his own arm. (spoilers end)
My favourite part of The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum is its design. The set design is hugely effective—four desks with computer monitors dotted around the space, with a water cooler upstage beside a table littered with mugs, utensils, and the wherewithal to make coffee. It is for all the world like we are walking into any other open-plan office—except for the sarcophagus taking pride of place upstage centre. This is roundly ignored by the characters for most of the play (dismissed with an Encanto reference, which feels shoehorned in). The set-up of this device pays off in the final moments of the show, which I will not spoil here. On the other hand, the presence of the computer monitors does obscure the actors’ faces when they are behind their desks, and we miss some of their facial expressions. This is a trade-off inherent in that design choice, but I wonder if it could be mitigated in further iterations of the play.
In fact, all the designers involved in The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum ought to be commended for their work. The original theme tune, created by John Bartmann, is fun and catchy, and the rest of the sound is effective, adding to the show without overwhelming it. The lighting design is similarly simple but deliberate, and used to great effect at a few well-chosen points in the play.
I walk away from Goldblum with the overwhelming sense of a work that isn’t quite finished. There is so much potential, and so much that the creative team have done right—I love the world the play is set in, the design is brilliant, and the actors have broadly done an excellent job with a script that does not always give them a huge amount to work with. That being said, I leave with the impression that further iterations of the work would benefit from the input of a dramaturg who could bring an outside eye to the piece. This is particularly true given the relationship between the writer and the director: I am reminded of a warning that Hartigan gave us in a directing course against directing a work that you have written yourself, and I wonder if the same can be said of directing a work written by one’s spouse.
In a lot of ways, The Many Deaths of Jeff Goldblum is quintessentially Fringe. It is innovative, exciting, weird, and created by a group of people who are clearly passionate about and dedicated to their craft. The dollhouse kaupapa is an important one, and I like that the company is firmly rooted in its community. I am excited to see further iterations of the work, which could, with some further development, be excellent. I would encourage the creative team to celebrate what they have achieved in bringing this work to the stage, but avoid resting on their laurels as they look to the future. I am glad to have seen this work in what feels like an early stage of its life; the Fringe seems an ideal testing ground for this work, and I hope the creatives have the chance to develop this piece further for future productions.
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