Opening the night is After presented (and produced) by 3women, directed by Christine Brooks. All we are given in the programme is: three women are together in a bunker after some great calamity and that the piece in its whole is improvised. The audience is not involved this time around, an effective choice which pushes the idea of the characters’ isolation further. The three women are captivating in their performance, each accepting offers from one another or building on from them where possible. Their efforts in opening night culminated in a debate between science or philosophy; hope or survival. I hope there is more to come from After, as after seeing this ten-minute segment, I’m enthralled. The cast (Christine Brooks, Clare Kerrison, and Jennifer O’Sullivan) create a highly entertaining comedy, and show a great deal of adaptability. There could not have been a better choice to open the night.
The Last Night, written by Stephen Kapian and directed by Shannon Friday, follows and creates a slightly different tone for evening. The Last Night centres around Beth (Ania Upstill), who has one last remaining Hanukkah gift from her mother (Sabrina Martin). This gift being a giant, blue, ribboned box centre stage; whether intentional or not, this ribbon slowly comes undone as the play progress, perhaps acting to entice more and more Beth to open the last gift. The actors are highly physical—I’m reminded a bit of Pina Bausch though with less extremity—and their oppositional actions pull us in or push us away just as the characters are doing so on stage, evidence of Friday’s meticulous directing. Their performances add to the dream-like feel, though it takes a bit of convincing to read Martin as Beth’s mother (the ‘mom-pants’ help here). Donald James provides some atmospheric guitar accompaniment, the only music element of the scene, which adds to the characters’ emotions. There is, however, a lot of detail and background information packed into this ten-minute play, which I see as somewhat detrimental. There’s a lot of antecedent action the audience has to wade through to understand the play fully, and for the most part, we are much more concerned with the precise and evocative choreography.
Third up for the night is Red Wire, Blue Wire, a hilariously comedic scene written by Albert Jamae and directed by Shauwn Keil. Trish (Savannah Haris), a seemingly normal office worker, has somehow ended up strapped to bomb, and who might be only person that can save her? Anna (Alexandra Taylor) from the bomb squad, who Trish has recently been on two dates with, and awaiting the third. What works in favour for Red Wire, Blue Wire is the cast’s comic timing and delivery; the tensions rise higher and higher, with Anna failing to deal with the stress of having to rescue and be in the same room as the woman she was not too keen on dating. We are also treated to not one, but two twists, both of which raise the stakes and the humour immeasurably. Haris and Taylor have ample stage chemistry. And as the pair decide to cut the red wire or the blue wire, it is clear the bomb is not the only thing they are talking about. The team does need to iron out the inconsistencies in further development—Taylor is caught yelling to her co-worker (played by Shauwn Keil) through her walkie talkie without actually speaking through her walkie talkie at times, for example.
Up before the interval is In It Together, written by Catherine Zulver and directed by Imogen Prossor. The cast (Jayne Grace, Charlotte Thomas, and Catherine Zulver) play quirky 20-something women, with the eldest approaching 30; they are another example of strong stage chemistry. The kiddie pool in the centre of the stage immediately draws attention from the audience—and we learn from the girls that they do just so happen to pull out this kiddie pool into their flat lounge every so often for their weekly NIPs (negatives, interestings, positives). For a scene where the actors are regulated to the confines of a kiddie pool, it does not feel static at all. Each character seems very distinct, and each offers a different circumstance and perspective to the trio, creating some interesting tensions when disagreements arise. A late-show blackout, which is a power-cut in the diegesis, is not left-field by any means, but I think it misused considering the lights come back up very quickly to make way for the end. This invalidates their excuse of someone forgetting to pay the power bill.
Post-interval, we are treated to Natraj – The Performer, produced by Sanskriti Theatre. It is highly stylised and centres around the character Natraj (Shaneel Sidal), who “presents himself as an avid jatra (a folk theatre form) performer from the state of Bengal.” Care has gone into the presentation; movements seem precise and Sidal is apt in using his masks and scarf to switch between the characters. At times however, Natraj – The Performer feels more like a history lesson than a performance. While the introduction to Indian folklore is interesting, priority seems to lay with the words rather than the action. I detected some opening night nerves from Sidal too, which created some stumbles in the performance. Sanskriti Theatre introduces Natraj to us here as a snippet of their upcoming play, and if more attention to action and more rehearsal goes into that process, the result will be a joy to witness.
Next in the line-up is Shaken, written by Emily Duncan and directed by Dan Greer, centring around Mrs Johnson (Raquel Roderick) and her son Antony (Jono Griffith), a struggling family from post-earthquakes Christchurch. Dr Matthews (Ethan Morrison) has come down from Auckland to visit the family and solve the problems around Antony’s poor behaviour and learning abilities. Roderick is the stand-out performer for the evening; her performance commands total attention, and is a stark contrast to her laissez-faire son and the clinical Dr Matthews. The costuming is also highly effective: Mrs Johnson is serving up Bogan realness with her leopard-print shirt, tight leather skirt, and Ugg boots; Antony’s paint-splattered overalls are evidence of a hard worker (perhaps ‘the man of the house’ mentality coming out here?); while with his white lab-coat, probably cashmere or merino sweater, and polished attire, Dr Matthews seems the stereotypical wealthy Aucklander. The conflicting tension between Dr Matthews’ wanting to help and the proud Mrs Johnson resisting his intervention is not a new topic or venture for a play, but Shaken provides it with a fresh and new coat of Pohutukawa red paint. I wish to see the rest if there is more to come.
The penultimate scene of the evening, Make Gnome Mistake, written by Kenneth Gaffney (who also directed), Luke Scott, and Diesel McGrath, is definitely one to remember. James (Ryan Cundy) has been living off the games he has designed based off a gnome called Grodin that he met some time ago. Imogen (Catriona Tipene), the boss and love interest of James, pressures him to expand and make games about more than just Grodin, which our little gnome friend is not happy about at all. As a strong and pun-filled (perhaps an understatement) script, Make Gnome Mistake comes to life with its potent ensemble. Cundy and Tipene were perfect for their respective roles and their chemistry on stage is beautiful. Props need to go to the script for the depth of Imogen, as she is much more than the protagonist’s love interest. The writers provide Imogen, and thus Tipene, with agency, and she is perhaps the most proactive character of the lot. Special mention is deserved to Alex Rabina, the puppeteer of Grodin the Gnome, who controls Grodin with mastery, and tackles the character with +1 fervour. Poor puppetry is oft the bane of otherwise good shows, and I am pleased to say that Rabina’s performance expounds on the strengths of Make Gnome Mistake. Although I’m not too sure on the function of Tom Kereama’s character, perhaps if we were to see more of the work, this could be fleshed out more. Make Gnome Mistake never drops a beat and moves at a quick-pace, but it is not difficult to keep up. I plead with the company: give Wellington a full-length version.
Closing the night is New Tricks, a bedroom comedy written and directed by Alexander Sparrows. Jonothan and Margaret (Hamish Boyle and Frankie Vallis) are a married couple who had a baby not too long ago; they finally find themselves alone in their bedroom, and what follows is a series of seriously awkward attempts at foreplay and roleplaying. Here, we see the centralised acting and staging of In It Together reused, with a bed foreground most if not all of the action. Again, it is effective. We feel like voyeurs into their intimate space, but rather than it being racy, we can only laugh and humour their frigidity and commitment to the roles. Boyle and Vallis are incredibly entertaining, and Sparrow’s direction, has paid close attention to the proximity of the actors, choosing key moments when to have the pair close and when to have them further apart. New Tricks was an excellent choice in closing the night, reminding the audience that we were there to have a bit of fun.
Wellington’s Short+Sweet Festival only runs until Saturday 22 October, with special Gala tickets available for closing night, which is doubling as an awards show. Book your tickets on the BATS Theatre website:
If you’re a practitioner looking to get into the line-up next year, keep your eye out for information on their website: http://shortandsweet.org.nz/