A play about farts. The appeal is irresistible no matter how old you are. Add the magic of puppetry and a classic Chinese fable and suddenly the story is transported to Levin, the heart of rural New Zealand. Except the largest town in the Horowhenua district located between Palmerston North and Wellington has no distinct markings in this story and this play could literally start anywhere.
It’s a familiar fable: the younger hard-working sister must fight the gold-digging attempts of her elder-highly-manicured-‘Cruella-deVil’ sibling to save her father’s farm and her beloved pumpkins from sale while he returns to visit China. But alas, her evil sister succeeds in selling the farm and it is up to our young innocent heroine to save the day.
Aided and abetted by her trusty cat (whose help far exceeds merely driving a tractor) she goes up to the big smoke (Auckland) with her newly discovered talent and gives travelling salesfolk a run for their money – because her hot air can do wonders! Not just make the flowers bloom and cure the elderly but systematically whisk away all the evils from society, earning her a tidy profit along the way. So she can buy back the family farm just in time to welcome her father back.
It’s a children’s show with the appropriate level of bodily sound effects, squawks of horror, creepy long nails, musical references and of course visual gags. Ella Becroft (director and set designer) creates an interesting and versatile multi-layered set that has plenty of opportunities for quick transformations, change of landscape and perspective.
Yet despite its creative potential the story seems to remain remarkably flat with an aesthetic that ranges from mildly amusing (the rambunctious traffic lights seem to have a mind of their own) to cheap and easy (some of the lanterns, while their use was clever, seemed completely inadequate compared to what could be found a few 100m away in Albert park). But perhaps it is the nostalgia that accompanies the father’s trips back home that seem to be out of place, both in its staging and predictable narrative. Perhaps it could benefit from more than an iteration of a few familiar stereotypical images of paddy fields being replaced with skyscrapers.
The shadow puppetry design by Jewel Yan is beautiful though still in its embryonic state and while the majority of the other puppets seem somewhat cartoonish it is hoped that these apparent staple stylistic choices of Petit Workshop will continue to evolve.
Luckily for the show the unbounded enthusiasm of its cast, especially Xana Tang as our protagonist, and the team of devisors and puppeteers give the work an energy that for the most part keeps the hour alive. Switching between puppeteering to performing, Katrina Wesseling, Alisha Lawrie Paul and Emma Newborn are quick, sensitive and fully committed to the multiple roles they play, from manoeuvring paper puppets to being resplendent as the local veggie patch.
Adam Ogle’s musical accompaniment is spot on and weaves expertly through the show adding to the narrative’s almost mandatory multi-form story telling structure and Phillip Dexter’s lighting design, operated by Michael Craven, is subtle and evocative.
The three week period to get the work up is reflected in this first incarnation (which opened last week in Wellington) but the story itself, a feminised and updated version by Renee Liang based on a translation by her father (Dr. Allen Liang) is worthy of deeper exploration. It’s current palatable if somewhat flimsy state has its appeal but with so much talent involved it will exciting to see the future development of this work – for the young and the young at heart.
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