By Shannon Friday
Memento is mostly fairly realistic short-form improv scenes, though one or two scenes come back over the course of the show, growing in scope towards absurdity. Director Jennifer O’Sullivan’s crew of improvisers (George Fenn, Lyndon Hood, Bethany Miller, Matt Powell, Lena Sammuller, Wiremu Tuhiwai and Kate Wilson) is a mix of seasoned improvisers and more recent players, and it takes them a couple of nights to get really solid on the tone of the show, vacillating between tender recollection and scrambling for late-night improv laughs.
Part of this is due to the way the show gets its audience prompts: little slips of paper with blanks to fill in, like Mad Libs, await us on our seats. While some folks offer personal memories (“Mac and cheese reminds me of my 21st”), others are more associative (“Peaches remind me of passionfruit”). The double-blank slips don’t offer much personal connection, and so the improvisors wind up dealing goofy, off-brand offers or having to explain the idea to each audience member in turn.
As the performers create each scene, they use sidewalk chalk to sketch details of the scene. The thin chalk lines add to the sense of sparsity, hinting at details that the audience fills in. Tuhiwai scratches out a vertical line and triangle on a black block, and we have a tent; a child’s drawing of a Christmas tree becomes the woods around the campground. It’s a light touch, which nevertheless gives the performers heaps of opportunity to create new worlds and play around. It is a decision that plays oddly against Darryn Woods’ expressionist lighting design and operation, which is full of colour-saturated LEDs; flattening the actors and over-emphasising high emotions.
When Memento works, the feeling of the room is one of a kind of gentle recollection, of improvisers and audience working together to create delicate scenes. I can practically feel folks in the audience going, “Yes! I recognise my experience in that!” And the recurring scenes, with their wider scope for silliness, neatly balance the personal content. Opening night finishes with a beautiful moment that epitomises this experience: having spent the entire show chasing after his grandfather’s pirate treasure chest, Lyndon Hood finally opens the box. Instead of revealing the glittery contents, Hood sits for a long moment, a sad, loving smile on his face as he stares at the contents. For one bare moment, we the audience are watching someone remember – and mourn at the same time.
Memento was performed 31 January to 3 February at 93 Kelburn Parade as part of the MFA "Summer of 77" Season at Victoria University of Wellington.