Reviews - Regional News | Connecting Wellington

Reviews

Dungeons & Improvisers | Regional News

Dungeons & Improvisers

Directed by: Brendon Bennetts and Ciarán Searle

BATS Theatre, 13th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the Dungeons & Dragons lore or a newbie looking to find your way in the mystical realms of world building, the Dungeons & Comedians troupe, all the way from Christchurch, is possibly one of the funnest ways to approach the famous fantasy role-playing game. Taking a game already inherently rooted in improv and interactive storymaking, Dungeons & Improvisers brings another layer of fantastical performance and personality to Dungeons & Dragons… and improv!

In this NZ Improv Fest show, DM (Dungeon Master Brendon Bennetts) guides three characters chosen at random through a world of fantasy and adventure, comedic mishaps, and (un)lucky dice rolls. As the DM creates a scene, they employ the help of their ‘imps’: six cast members who contort and transform their bodies to form both inanimate objects and living characters for the three protagonists to interact with on their journey. The audience too is called upon to create obstacles, perils, and plot points, bringing the show to life. Tonight, an old wizard in a red coat named Nimbus the Blue (Wiremu Tuhiwai), a sparky rogue called Bella Doone (Amelia Cartwright), and a comical fighter introduced as Gregnog (Tara Swadi) find themselves facing the amphibious frog prince, usurper of the town of Spawn.

The characters are accompanied by Matt Carroll on the keyboard, who expertly and seamlessly provides atmosphere, anticipation, and aesthetic to every scene. Meanwhile Zoe Higgins masterfully lights the show with a myriad of hues and shades depending on the scenario... or flashes of red for dangerous combat scenes! Both the lighting and the tailored soundscape add a sense of heightened reality to the already very real world unfolding on stage.

Perhaps the best part of the show is the pure, unadulterated imagination on display. Already improvisational in nature, the performance qualities of Dungeons & Dragons truly lend themselves seamlessly to an improv stage show. It’s easy to see why Dungeons & Comedians have sold out shows for the last four years!

Murder on a Boat | Regional News

Murder on a Boat

Directed by: Christine Brooks and Maria Williams

BATS Theatre, 12th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Walking into BATS Theatre for my first NZ Improv Festival outing, I’m thrilled to be greeted by a staff member with a bright orange sticker. I’m told I can wear it if I want to participate in the show, which I think is a brilliant innovation. Some people are put off improv simply because they don’t want to be singled out. As a Leo, I of course take the sticker and stick it straight on my forehead.

Agatha Christine (Christine Brooks) welcomes us to the Random Stage and sets the scene for Murder on a Boat, where a cast of 10+ scramble to solve the whodunnit aboard the SS Maria Williams. As this is improv, who plays who and who murders who is decided in real-time over one hour of spontaneity and rapid-fire thinking.

Although there are instances of players talking over each other and misinterpreting offers, I thoroughly enjoy Murder on a Boat from start to end. Tightening it up a tad would simply help the great premise and enthusiast cast shine even brighter.

Standout members include Matt Powell, whose detective Sebastian Le Crabbe perhaps isn’t as ready to hand over the reins as he first thought; Marea Colombo, whose charisma as the overworked Beverly nearly steals the show; and Tara Swadi, whose Duchess Fox is killed off far too early. This doesn’t count as a spoiler because it’ll be a different murder victim next time!

Moments of brilliance have me cackling into my mask. One such is a passionate encounter between star-crossed lovers Beverly and the Captain (Daniel Allan), whose impromptu shanty To Sea, ably accompanied by Matt Hutton on keys, is another favourite scene of mine. When there’s a danger of boring ol’ misogyny creeping in, Laura Irish flips the narrative as the ship’s singer Maxine.

As Murder on a Boat comes to a close, I look at my friend and declare it to be “really, really, really good”. I’d love to see it again.

Mr Fungus | Regional News

Mr Fungus

Created by: Fergus Aitken

Directed by: Fraser Hooper

Running at Circa Theatre until 16th Oct

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

New Zealand’s loudest mime takes the stage at Circa Theatre to deliver school holiday fun for kids aged four to 94. This short, snappy, silly show starts with Fergus Aitken’s beloved Mr Fungus enjoying a coffee at home before a radio ad reminds him he’s got to get to Circa… we, the audience, are waiting!

The first half of Mr Fungus sees him riding the bus and battling the elements to make it to the theatre on time and the second is the show itself, where Mr Fungus bursts through the curtain of a light-up box that serves as a stage on the stage (meta set design by Aitken himself).

This structure is easy to follow for the kids. Even with very little dialogue they seem to keep their place and increasingly become more engaged, yelling suggestions like “check your suitcase!” or “the other banana!” or “I don’t know who that cat is!” or “Poppa, that’s where Cinderella was born!” Kids say the darndest things.

Though this isn’t an interactive or improv show so to speak, Mr Fungus responds beautifully to the littlies, giving them their moment in the sun while teasing them just a tad before driving the action forward. It’s clear how much the children love the show, especially when it comes to the addition of colourful props like the flying, farting balloons that make up the spectacular finale.

As a grownup (legally speaking), I’d love to see Aitken ham it up a bit more when things go wrong. For instance, when a juggling ball or a banana is dropped, a slapstick slip gag would satisfy that diabolical desire for disaster that kids have but that I don’t because adults are much more sophisticated than that…

What strikes me the most is Aitken’s gift for physical comedy. The way he embodies multiple characters with a simple gesture or makes his body appear weightless while fighting Wellington’s driving horizontal rain and gale-force winds (highly effective sound design by Aitken and director Fraser Hooper) is simply astonishing. Bravo!

Annette | Regional News

Annette

(R16)

140 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Annette is, in equal measure, one of the most original, baffling, and alienating films I’ll see this year. A surreal experience that reflects the sensibilities of its creators, it builds frustration without relief, yet I can never quite bring myself to look away.

The English-language debut of French filmmaker Leos Carax, Annette is an almost dialogue-free sung-through musical with story and songs by Avant-Garde art-pop duo Sparks. Adam Driver stars as comedian Henry McHenry, who falls madly in love with Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer portrayed by Marion Cotillard. The birth of their daughter Annette reveals cracks in their star-powered romance, and the plot thickens further when it is discovered that Annette is a prodigy vocalist herself.

Carax is not remotely interested in the real, which we are told from the opening number, a meta tune in which Sparks themselves join a chorus and our lead actors in asking, “so may we start?” This teases a bubblegum musical that never arrives, as once we truly enter, things only fall deeper and deeper into the abyss.

It’s certainly brave to leave us with a lead character this vain, repugnant, and egotistical. Henry’s comedy act relies on shocking his audience, and it seems his presence in Annette is designed to have the same effect on us. This could have been effective had he been portrayed by a lesser-known actor, but here we have Driver – the dude from Star Wars – and it confuses the portrait Carax is trying to paint. 

Carax’s audacious visual inventiveness constantly tests the audience; sometimes they suck me in, other times they push me away. Henry and Ann’s waltz atop their yacht, backed by a rear-projected storm, is mesmerising, while the cartoonish ‘Showbizz News’ segments boast greenscreen effects so intentionally terrible they would be better suited to a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Every frame and story beat of Annette demands dissection, and it is destined to become the subject of cult fascination. It will always feel somewhat empty and muddled, but never will it lose its sense of wonder and weirdness.

Maximum Benefit | Regional News

Maximum Benefit

Performed by Max Porozny and Ben Jardine

BATS Theatre, 1st Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

The cleverly named Maximum Benefit is Max Porozny and Ben Jardine, who specialise in long-form improv. Taking a few suggestions from one audience member – in this case, accidentally, me – the duo perform an entirely made-up story from start to finish over one hour of laughter and joy.

Our Level 2 masked-up affair starts with the two asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. I shouted “astronaut”, but when asked to go into more detail about my failed career plight, panicked and changed my answer to popstar. I also managed to outline my first ‘gig’ standing on a chair at Valentines Buffet Restaurant at the age of 11.

And so began a show about a jazz musician named Sanders Valentine, an agent with a dubious accent (or four), a budding young busker-hating police officer on his first day on the force, a kindly burger-maker, and perhaps most importantly, taco night at Mum’s place.

The great thing about reviewing improv is that I can’t spoil the show – because no two shows are ever the same. Unless you were in the audience with me, you will never see what I saw, which was two alarmingly calm and collected actors ready for whatever the night threw at them. Their quick wit, intellect, craftsmanship, and chemistry served as catcher’s gloves when a ball was dropped. 

While there were a few hiccups, most were minor and quickly saved by these proficient players. The only real confusion for me was when they switched established characters – for instance when Porozny suddenly became Sanders after Jardine had played him for most of the show. Just a few solid anchors, like a couple of main characters that don’t change, would help the audience to keep their place amongst the sea of silliness, fun, and chaos.

Overall, this was a supremely entertaining show that I’d happily watch again and again. Just ignore me when I yell about astronauts next time.

Murder on the Menu  | Regional News

Murder on the Menu

Written by: Devon Williamson

Directed by: Braden Lister

Gryphon Theatre, 29th Sep 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

First-time director Braden Lister has made a good fist of his debut production, despite COVID disruptions and a last-minute pack-in at the Gryphon Theatre, which is not New Players Theatre Company’s usual venue.

In Murder on the Menu, friends Skye (Ruby Braam) and Sophia (Sarah Upston) buy a dilapidated theatre which soon reveals itself to be full of the ghosts of Shakespearean characters who roam the auditorium declaiming lines from their famous plays. ‘Tights Boy’ Romeo (Pippa Liley) is the first to appear, followed in quick succession by Hamlet (Lyndon Jones) forever searching for drama queen Ophelia (Danica Frentz), a vain Juliet (Liv Calder), and the haggis-obsessed Macbeths (Euan Lucie-Smith and Yvonne Fisher). Skye and Sophia need to rid themselves of these pesky ghouls to be able to open a café, but how do you kill a fictional character who is already dead?

While the script is not high on intellectual challenge, Shakespeare fans will enjoy the revisioning of the most famous of his characters and the meta theatre jokes that pepper it. Those not so familiar with the theatre lexicon will enjoy the lively comedy that arises out of the murderous intentions of two people trying to off a group of ghosts.

The cast playing the Shakespearean characters all inhabit them with energy and relish, clearly enjoying the expanded dialogue and larger-than-life histrionics as they interact with each other. Lucie-Smith gives the performance of the night as Macbeth, revelling in his brash bonhomie, healthy appetite, and predilection for fart jokes. Braam and Upston are the glue that holds the narrative together and deliver that function with verve and good chemistry.

The lighting design by Jonassen Productions deserves special mention for its appropriateness and attention to detail. In one lovely moment, three lights that are seemingly just props unexpectedly come to life to great effect.

Congratulations to the whole team at New Players for a fun night of theatre that brings a splash of joy in these COVID-limited times.

Pig | Regional News

Pig

(M)

91 Mins

(2 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

An unusually restrained Nicholas Cage, dark secrets of a notorious past, and a pig drive this melancholic and often aloof tale. Writer-director Michael Sarnoski strives to find depth in sparsity, meandering through an increasingly disenchanting story led by a promising character we observe but, sadly, never absorb.

Rob (Cage) is a recluse living in a cabin deep in the Oregon forest. His only companion is his pig, his only income the truffles she helps him find, which he trades with high-end restaurant supplier Amir (Alex Wolff). One night, Rob is attacked and his prized pig is stolen, forcing him back to the city to find the people responsible.

I know what you’re thinking, John Wick 4 has arrived early. Well, not exactly. This isn’t a revenge picture, and far more closely resembles a Leave No Trace than a Taken. What we have with Pig, on the surface at least, is a film about isolation, but beyond that I can’t decipher what it’s trying to say. Rob appears to be an interesting man, complete with a shady past, an apocalyptic worldview, and the ability to cook Michelin star-worthy meals in the middle of the woods. And yet, as we are drip-fed answers to the riddles he invites, I’m left more and more unsatisfied.

That said, it’s never for lack of trying. Patrick Scola’s photography is undeniably rich; the aromas of damp moss and bark permeate the screen when we hunt for truffles alongside Rob and his pig, while the bright lights of high-society Portland blur into a trippy kaleidoscope of artificiality. Our leads, Cage and Wolff, are each as compelling as the other, Sarnoski simply hasn’t given them enough meat to chew on. When he tries to toss in a left-field idea – an underground fight club for wealthy restaurateurs, for example – it comes off disingenuous in a film that otherwise lacks urgency.

Stylistically, Pig is an intriguing debut for Sarnoski, and with the right story he could surely soar in the future. This just wasn’t it.

Community Noticeboard | Regional News

Community Noticeboard

Presented by: Best on Tap

BATS Theatre, 15th Sep 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Community Noticeboard has the dubious honour of being literally the only show in town, thanks to COVID-19. If you can drag yourself off the couch, it’s well worth an hour of your time to head to BATS, join the masked-up and physically distanced audience, and let your mind be absorbed in this beautifully rendered piece of “truth-based, spontaneous theatre”.

The premise is a simple one: take real-life notes found on the community noticeboards at supermarkets throughout Wellington and explore the needs, wants, desires, lives, and relationships behind the notice writers and readers.

This is improv, so a member of the audience is invited pre-show to pick a dozen notices from a bowl and pin them to the board that forms the minimal set, which the actors then choose from and read out to form the basis of each scene. While the detail of the short scenarios is improvised, the flow is structured well to keep it varied and interesting.

The excellent ensemble cast of Best on Tap (Nicola Pauling, Mary Little, Geoff Simmons, Tim Croft, and Barry Miskimmin) creates a stream of poignant and often hilarious mini stories of the human condition from offers of sale as diverse as a train set, silver horseshoe, and Insinkerator. Their talent for instant but genuine characterisation is evident in the diversity and warmth of the relationships they produce from set-ups such as a couple on a first date, a mum and two annoying teenage sons, women bonding over the physical decline of a loved one, and even two fish in a tank being terrorised by a cat.

The action on stage is expertly supported by Matt Hutton and his keyboard and lighting improvisor D' Woods. In one particularly brilliant moment, the lights in the dome respond perfectly to the mimed actions of a young man being taught wiring skills by his dad.

Community Noticeboard runs only until Saturday the 18th of September and ticket sales are necessarily limited. It’s a treat. Don’t miss it.

Gays in Space | Regional News

Gays in Space

Written by: Tom Sainsbury and Jason Smith

Directed by: Tom Sainsbury

BATS Theatre, 10th Aug 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Gnoagh McGower (Daryl Wrightson), a straight-seeming NASA employee, is getting ready for the first all-gay space mission to probe Uranus. He is joined by Brahim Akbar (Zak Enayat), a model who believes the stereotype that he’s good-looking but stupid, and Dayj Cheeseman (Chris Parker), an ultra-camp social media addict who’s doing it all for Instagram. Also present on their suspiciously penis-shaped rocket is Sexbot (Blaise Clotworthy), who quickly becomes the subject of much jealously among the three astronauts.

On their seven-year journey to Uranus, they fend off a glamorous asteroid (Tom Sainsbury), have a Grindr date with a big-bottomed, bright pink alien called Zabian (also Sainsbury), and suffer space-induced conditions such as moonface and loss of bone density while all sharing the same bed. When they finally arrive at their destination, all is suddenly not what it seems.

These narrative shenanigans are accompanied by catchy, clever, and well-executed songs (Jason Smith), a highlight of which is the title track which my friends and I find ourselves singing in the foyer after the show. We also laugh like drains at the deliberately awkward rhyming of ‘love’ with ‘approve’.

The cast clearly enjoy performing this show and all deliver it with polish and energy. Special mention must go to Clotworthy whose beautiful singing voice, strong dance moves, and ability to create a fully rounded and sympathetic character from a robot are a standout. Sainsbury also showcases his enviable versatility in a variety of supporting roles.

Designer Molloy does a great job with the set and lighting, which are uncomplicated but appropriately spacey and effectively support the action on stage.

A quirky, fun, laugh-out-loud musical with a twist, Gays in Space does much more than just provide “great escapism”, as claimed in the programme. It also highlights with genuine pathos the pains, pressures, and prejudices faced by gay men as they navigate their lives and is all the stronger for it.