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Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Wrap #2

RACE by David Mamet

Race has had many different iterations. Audiences may be familiar with the London, Broadway or the South Africa productions (and there are others as well) but this year’s Fringe reincarnation as part of the South African season is different – and once again adds to the list a rather unique rendition of how we engage, explore and debate race.

Set in New York with a cast of four excellent actors, David Mamet brings to the fore not just the issues of race relations but people – complex, multifaceted, poly-vocal people – it is not just an isolated story that is being told, it is a human story that unrelentingly questions motives, desires, perceptions and versions of truth.

The narrative appears to be relatively straightforward. Charles, a wealthy white client (Michael Gritten) is accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. He arrives, with some trepidation to ask for assistance from his prospective defence team: one black and one white lawyer, Hank and Andre (Peter Butler and Geoff Lawson) and a recent black female graduate Susan (Nondumiso Tembe). It is this trio who must decide collectively whether they should take this case and if so, does it even matter if the accused is guilty or innocent?

Mamet’s writing is brilliant and addresses issues that continue to fester beneath the surface of seemingly innocuous behaviours. Was Susan given a position at this leading legal firm because she was black and talented and deserved a chance? Did that justify a highly investigative background check into her past? Does it matter that Charles once wrote a careless postcard to his friend describing in flippant terms the weather in terms of a black woman’s privates? Is there really a difference between sex and race? Or are people just ‘stupid’ and some experience more shame than others, and others experience more guilt.

And so it continues and the audience find themselves implicitly cast as the jury – making personal judgments, rationalized decisions, biased and emotionally-driven conclusions; systematically sometimes, instantaneously at others – and each time as new evidence is gleaned and people reveal more to their multi-faceted constructions of themselves, we are forced to question where does it really end?

Nondumiso Tembe is an excellent performer, becoming the pivotal centre upon which much of the play depends. Her initial acquiescing, if somewhat effervescent to her superiors, blooms with slow but precise increments to reveal a sharp unflinching character whose seemingly naïve quick judgement proves to be a catalyst for the course of events.

The final climax however is just not quite as powerful or momentous as we have been lead to believe. And that may well be the point. But it simply happens too quickly, hurtling in the final scenes towards an end that doesn’t give those final moments the space to breathe, even briefly, before the lights go out and we realise that in those last rushed lines some of the biggest transitions have been made.

Distinct to this production are the moments of levity held in balance by all members of the cast but particularly by Peter Butler and Geoff Lawson. Their incisive remarks and consistent linguistic juggling locate the multiple realities of the work, in all its furrowing seriousness, in a world that is easily accessible, illuminating and recognisable.

Definitely a highlight of the Assembly season.

four stars

147 QUESTIONS ABOUT LOVE 

One actor talks. The other dances. Mostly. It’s advertised as an absurdist play.

Layers of metaphor are woven into endless questions, mundane yet human, specific yet ironically so deeply impersonal the effect is alienating.

This two-hander, set in a small intimate space, is essentially a duet based entirely on meandering contemplations – layering metaphor and meaning, blurring the lines between actor and audience and offering a glimpse into love and it’s multifaceted manifestations.

But it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t take risks or rise to the provocations of the text and its simplicity, while potent in and of itself, never reaches a level whereby boundaries are challenged.

Both actors have talent but the production is so safe, so conservative, it’s frustrating.

We don’t need a mirror lifted up to society to show us what we know, we need a shattered reflective surface revealing new angles or hidden aspects of ourselves so that there’s an opportunity for engagement beyond what we already feel and know.

Some may call it cute and I can see why. But cute is essentially dull – revealing a lack of direction and sculpting of the work which inevitably renders it mediocre at best.

one star

15% OF A SEAGULL

Whether you are a Chekhov fan or not, 15% of A Seagull is sharp little show made especially for theatre in small spaces.

And with the Edinburgh Fringe overtaking the city it’s not only a great marketing strategy to be able to sell out at packed limited capacity but actually provides quite an endearing intimate experience.

The plot is quite simple. Liberty Martin, actor and director, wants to put on The Seagull. But due to a number of her cast (in fact nine others) having jumped ship, she is forced to reconcile herself to the fact that this complex work has only two performers: Martin herself, and the seemingly empty headed Cheryl Mayer.

When it appears that no one will allow them to adapt Chekhov’s masterpiece for two (unless they perform it in Russian), the only solution seems obvious: perform 15% or less of the show.

What ensues is a series of glimpses into the rehearsal process of Martin’s company Classics for the Masses and her attempts to school Meyer in the art of bringing Chekhov to life: an ambitious undertaking with just two actors and a tiny portion of a complex text.

There are plenty of moments of hilarity peppered throughout, some occasional laugh-out-loud jokes and a set that should be used for a full scale production of The Seagull at some point.

Martin and Meyer (whose character names are identical to their real ones) are strong performers creating a world replete with coffee temptations, bad hair, great accents and of course silicon breasts.

The direction by Tim Schulz is steady and although the narrative is relatively predictable the actual story lacks substance. This is especially obvious in regard to Mayer’s transition from an actor who hasn’t read the text and is being consistently dummied down by Martin to actually revealing herself to be more aware and in tune with the ‘grappling themes’ that she is accused of being supposedly unable to comprehend.

A good show with plenty of laughs and potential to go a long way.

three stars

FREAK

When you stumble upon not just a good but an incredibly good show at the Fringe, it’s a liberating feeling.

Leah and Georgie share the same bed but their stories are worlds apart. Or so it seems.

High school student Leah is learning about sex, experimenting slowly, sometimes painfully; examining her body and furrowing over the expectations of the men who will inevitably take something from her… Something she can’t quite articulate.

Georgie on the other hand is jaded, teetering on the abyss of despair after her man left. Desperate to be appreciated, admired and adored, she chooses to place her body at the epicentre of her senses.

Freak is a powerful work interrogating a woman’s world, shaped by other women’s behaviour and men’s expectations. It juxtaposes the desire to be an exhibitionist, to show, to pleasure, to reveal – and yet on some level, if possible, to give pleasure to another without giving up one’s will.

Lyrical in its writing, this is fast paced contemporary theatre at its uncluttered best. Both actors are exceptionally strong, providing vivid engaging and committed performances.

Babyfaced Leah (played by Lia Burge), dressed in pink jammies and petting a cuddly soft seal, alternates between moments of innocence and wonder, delightful to behold, and moments of confusion and bewilderment.

At the other end of the spectrum April Hughes plays the older, not necessarily wiser but certainly more experienced, Georgie who perhaps at some point had the youthful glow of hope.

There are two main issues with this play. Firstly the staging, set in a bedroom, while intimate is unimaginative and often repetitive. There is little room for the risks and provocations that the text demands and occasionally it sinks into clichéd images. The second and more pressing issue is that the ending just doesn’t work: it reiterates the notion that somehow without women communicating honestly and fully with each other, things will simply work themselves out.

It’s disappointing for a show that takes writing to an intimate and honest level and then falters when the biggest concerns for young women are raised: when will they ever be old ‘enough’ to hear the stories, in full, of their mothers, aunties, grandmothers?  Will they ever? Or do they just have to find out for themselves?

Freak is captivating, strong and certainly a Fringe highlight and with a few crucial interrogations into the staging and final moments of the script it has the power not just to push boundaries but to shake the very foundations that have made monuments to the silence of women.

four stars

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http://www.theatreview.org.nz/reviews/review.php?id=7309