Wise Guy centres around Anthony who is performed with energy and charisma by Ethan Morse (also the playwright). He stretches his performative muscles through several forms, including stand-up, poetry, dialogue and dreamscape and doesn’t miss a beat as he leaps from one to the next. He is ably assisted by director and co-star Keegan Bragg who features as a seductive tinder date, (a show highlight), and Jerry Seinfeld among others.
Anna-Lise Noordover’s set design is dynamic and convincing as Anthony’s ramshackle bedroom. It features two doorways, functioning fridge doors and a microwave all of which are used in a variety of ways throughout the show. Everything is used as an entry/exit point including disappearances under the bed. It is a wonderful example of a set which is full of surprises, with props and objects pulled from every possible corner throughout the show. Noordover must be commended for a smart design which provides everything the production requires of it (a demanding ask) while holding an aesthetic which keeps us engaged.
Everything about this production is working hard. Morse is performing at pace, the set is changing and surprising with ease and even the audience is put to work reading letters and being invited onto stage at times. This hard work is demanded by the text which flicks and cuts between forms and themes relentlessly.
Unfortunately, this is where the piece starts to come undone. Several storylines run throughout the show including Anthony’s flailing stand-up career, his battle with AIDS, his difficult relationship with a mother who struggles to accept his sexuality, and a faltering lovelife. These various stories are then told through a mix of scenework, direct address, performances at a local bar, and apparent dreamscapes. There are a lot of performative languages at play. Notably the dream elements are inconsistent, with some presented like a sitcom (another nod to Seinfeld), some are traditionally delineated, and others look like realism until someone walks through the fridge. It’s a lot, and in the end we are not left with a coherent solution or satisfied narrative. At times we are asked to work too hard as an audience and I’m lost in the flurry of action.
I can’t help feeling that the content of this text could make up three full-length plays, and it all feels cramped as storylines and themes are in competition rather than harmony. Some signposting from “RNZ radio reports” (voiced by GypsyMae Harihona) which play throughout the piece help hold some structure, and Anthony’s interview on the radio station is beautifully subverted by the sabotage of his internal monologue. These moments of clarity sing with conviction and there is potential for them to be brought together into a truly special production, but this first unveiling is not there yet. I wonder if a clearer performance language between reality and dreamscape could have been established through lighting (designed by Bekky Boyce) or other design elements and helped the audience get onboard the rollercoaster of this production.
Nonetheless, Wise Guy is a high octane production from a company bursting with talent. Though the text has a life ahead, working out exactly what it is and what it’s trying to say, the production tackles it with integrity and energy. I await the next Soy People Production with baited breath!
Wise Guy runs at BATS Theatre’s Heyday Dome, September 10-14. Tickets are available on the BATS website.