Rhinoceros (Lyceum Theatre: 23 March-7 April ’18)

Cast of Rhinoceros. Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic.

“A phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

There often comes a point in allegorical pieces of theatre where an audience may understandably begin to tune out – the moment where they ‘get it’. Perhaps the thinly veiled stand-ins for real-world issues and figures wears tiresome, or the existential point of the play itself has simply been repeated ad nauseam. To the immense credit of director Murat Daltaban, adaptor Zinnie Harris, sound designer Oğuz Kaplangi, and the entire cast of The Lyceum’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurd masterpiece Rhinoceros, during this production, that moment never comes.

Instead, this 96-minute masterpiece enraptures the audience at breakneck pace from start to finish, as it follows a quiet provincial town through a terribly sudden series of disastrous encounters with immense rhinoceroses who seem to come out of nowhere. As the townspeople begin to realise that their own citizens are transforming into the rhinoceroses around them, the remaining human beings react with a mixture of confusion, anguish, and disbelief, which all-too-quickly melts into skepticism, complacency, and inaction. Just motley, disheveled protagonist Berenger (an electric Robert Jack) seems to react with sheer panic and disgust for the beasts, and angles to figure out what to do, only to be talked over and ignored by everyone else.

On the subject matter, one can understand why Zinnie Harris’ adaptation of Ionesco’s hot-blooded anti-fascist play won over audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival this past year with its infuriating banality. The choice to follow Orson Welles’ example (when he directed the first English production of Rhinoceros at the Royal Court in 1960) and relocate the action from France, the original setting, to pseudo-modern Britain — possibly even Scotland…possibly even Edinburgh — is a commendable one, as the calamitous loss of reason and morality among society feels all too believable when delivered with accents as local as these. Even since its 2017 festival debut, the play has gained even more harrowing relevance, considering the looming deadline for Britain’s inflammatory exit from the European Union and the unimaginable complacency on display inside the Republican-led US government to its own all-American brand of authoritarianism. Harry Ward’s pitch-perfect and side-splitting rendition of The Logician’s “re-contextualizing” of the most pedantic and existential elements of the rhinoceros question, (instead of just focusing on what to do about it), is all too familiar, and a clever jab that lands brilliantly.

The play is full of commendably measured performances, including standout bone-headedness from Sally Reid as Botard and Myra McFadyen as a suspiciously familiar-looking Monsieur Papillon. Esin Harvey, John Cobb, and Natalie Arle-Toyne also turn in hilarious and eye-catching portrayals of variously deluded and theatrical supporting characters. But the real scene-stealer is Steven McNicoll as Jean, the rotund and incorrigible gentleman who bats Berenger around verbally and physically as he opines on the world, almost always in a completely unproductive direction. McNicoll plays Jean with such revolting yet somehow delightful arrogance and verbosity that in the genuinely terrifying sequence where Jean falls victim to the mysterious affliction, it is sad to see him go.

Complete loss of humanity, and the structures and pillars upon which ‘decent society’ are meant to rest, are ingeniously realised onstage. The set itself develops alongside the narrative by steadily adding platforms to raise the action higher and higher above the open settings the first scene. With truly nightmarish effect, the playing area for the performers becomes smaller and smaller, and physically farther away from where they began: a ‘rising tide’ of fascism. In addition to the set, the impressive stagecraft features delightfully insane costume design by Tom Piper, effective and visually arresting lighting design by Chris Davey (particularly memorable when Jean’s silhouette is portrayed in full during his horrifying transformation into the eponymous beast), and a pitch-perfect soundscape, composed and mostly performed onstage by Oğuz Kaplangi.

The ingenuity of Kaplangi’s sonic contribution is first introduced as the first rhinoceros stomps by, signified by a cacophonous racket that echoes behind and around the audience, leaving the viewer to fill in the visuals with their mind’s eye to match the might and ferocity that the onstage townspeople are witnessing. The fabulous use of sound and music only improves throughout the play, and it is striking how often the unsettling and masterfully composed soundtrack re-enters so subtly that the viewer might not notice its recurrence until it reaches an intense crescendo. Kaplangi also turns in perhaps the most unexpectedly memorable performance as a local cat, who saunters across the stage at the very opening and introduces the tone of the production perfectly.

This production deserves to be seen by a wide and receptive audience, even though it falls victim to some less inspired elements. Harris, has for some reason, inserts repeated opportunities for the onstage performers to interact with the audience and generally poke and prod at the fourth wall. There are references to how hard it is to memorise some of the long words in the script, a direct description of how great the Royal Lyceum Theatre is, and quite a few winks to the audience about how insane the play has gotten. The production is so well-executed in nearly every other regard that the self-deprecation comes off as cheap and unnecessary. There is also a particularly aggravating sequence where Berenger and Dudard, at the peak of the storyline’s mayhem, conduct an entire conversation without looking each other in the eyes; and though this is quickly reframed as a deliberately surreal choice, it is perhaps too distanced from the narrative urgency of the scene.

One last note: perhaps this production’s most intriguing effect is the startling realisation that Ionesco’s cautionary tale of a society allowing itself to be consumed by monstrous, unacceptable forces, fits well into rejections of widespread societal change as a whole, both left and right wing. To be clear, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is unmistakably anti-fascism and anti-fanaticism, and Daltaban pulls no punches about who to reference and ridicule. Yet Berenger’s climactic monologue, alone atop a mountain of crumbled society, announcing that he is the “last white man left,” and remarking on the foreign skin colour of the ubiquitous animals, leaves an oddly white supremacist taste in the mouth. Perhaps Harris and Daltaban, and even Ionesco himself, are intentionally reframing the ‘lone hero’ of Berenger as unreasonably disdainful of the new form of his fellow citizens, or perhaps society today regards Berenger’s self-assumed superiority more skeptically than Ionesco’s 1960 production would have, making what was once a statement of European decency sound more like a nationalist wail. Whether or not you agree, this heavy question serves as yet another reason to head over to The Lyceum for a night of hilarious yet harrowing théâtre de l’absurde. 

With such a phenomenal combination of cast, crew, sound, visuals, and timeliness, Murat Daltaban’s production of Rhinoceros is not one to miss.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 March)

Visit The Lyceum archive.

 

Hedda Gabler (Festival Theatre: 17-21 October ’17)

Photo. National Theatre, London

“Glistens with sparkling elements”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wonder if there is a word, other than bewilderment, for the reaction to a writer who receives praise despite mediocre work. This is what Patrick Marber’s writing stokes inside me. His re-writing of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is by far the most lamentable element of this National Theatre production, which sometimes glistens with sparkling elements, but includes far too many misjudgments at the head-in-hands level .

To name a few: Leonard Cohen’s lovely yet done-to-death “Hallelujah” plays over a somber transition. Pale blue lights shine intermittently on the assembled actors, for no apparent reason. Physicality is dishearteningly overplayed at times, making the performers appear more like wet marionettes than characters telling a story. And yet, Marber’s script outdoes them all.

The play concerns itself with a day and a night in the apartment of academic wet blanket Tesman and the eponymous Hedda, his new, unfulfilled wife. Friends and former lovers of theirs come and go to moan and wail about their various woes, from dead-end marriages to unrequited love to jealousy over academic rivals’ successes. There are intriguing elements to these episodic entrances and exits, most compellingly when Tesman’s semi-rival Lovborg lays out his plan for his next work. This is what most frustrates about this show: there are so many glimmers of intriguing theatre, many stemming from Ivo Van Hove’s smart (yet here unexceptional) direction, but they are all but snuffed out by Marber’s tone-deaf phrasing and (I hazard) self-importance.

Hedda, a groundbreaking and fresh character in 1891, is nowadays much less extraordinary. She is the daughter of a prestigious general, and a young woman with many suitors, yet lacks any real goals or interests in life. This “poverty of spirit” as the play decides to call it, leads her to seek out increasingly sadistic means of exerting some kind of power over something, whether it be tearing up flowers or firing her father’s pistols at unsuspecting guests, and eventually much worse. This kind of bourgeois-fetishizing story creates just the sort of middle-of-the-road tension and intrigue that should be right up Marber’s alley. Is Tesman going to get his professorship? Is Hedda fulfilled? What is that maid doing there? Yet Marber seems to think he doesn’t need to convince an audience to care about these central questions of the script. So he fails to.

Much like in his magnum opus, Closer, Marber’s word choices can prove unfortunate and even unpleasant. The storyline is treated with such carelessness that it is unclear whether it is satirizing its own pomposity or reveling in it. It looks like Ibsen’s text has suffered a form of quantitative easing and the original is struggling to get back into shape. Certain big monologues (that strain the runtime for no apparent reason) are answered by brief ironic retort: when one character loses the precious, handwritten single draft of his upcoming masterpiece, he waxes poetic for no less than five minutes about his loss — to which another character quietly quips: “It’s just a book.” Somehow, this self-awareness gets squashed and replaced with showiness and shiny things.

There are many shiny things. The set is the unfurnished apartment owned by Hedda and Tesman and is immaculately underdressed. Hedda’s costume is a shiny nightgown. The lights gleaming out of an impressive side window are shiny, as is the display Hedda creates as she plays with the blinds out of increasingly aggressive boredom. The two handguns on show in their upstage glass case  are shiny, and even shinier when they are — spoiler alert — fired at certain characters. But shiny objects do not tell good stories by themselves. We seem to have a production that thinks having a smooth set and glossy production values can make up for a certain percentage of the narrative. They cannot. Some more work on character dynamics and relationships and a little less time stapling roses to walls would have helped quite a lot.

That being said, there is still much to be appreciated in the production. For their stamina alone, the actors deserve some credit. Wading through these lines with such patience must have been hard. Lead actress Lizzy Watts gives Hedda some delightfully cruel ticks, from turning her back on anyone she finds unworthy, to consciously tormenting her guests with their worst vices. Her dynamic with Richard Pyros, playing Lovborg, was the most electric to watch, especially as she toys with his teetotalism in the most vicious way. Adam Best as corrupt judge Brack is the most bombastic onstage presence by far, and his was a refreshing performance. Annabel Bates is good at looking sad, that’s for sure. Abhin Galeya waves his hands around far too much, but otherwise is a solid Tesman — though the character seemed meant to be much more pathetic than the relatively proud man Galeya has created. Christine Kavanagh is a charming red herring at the beginning, as her Aunt Juliana character deftly introduces the audience to the show, then disappears — which is a shame, as Kavanagh’s energy was possibly the best-measured. Madlena Nedeva is a solemn and well-crafted presence as Berte, the maid, yet her character is so untapped that she quite literally becomes more a piece of furniture than a participant.

Overall, an underwhelming and overwritten production of an important play. It is surprising and disappointing that others have eaten it up nonetheless.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 17 October)

Go to Hedda Gabler at the Festival Theatre

Go to Edinburgh49‘s Festival Theatre archive.

 

The Threepenny Opera (King’s Theatre: 15-16 September)

“A charming production full of talent”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The musical legacy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vibrantly satirical ‘play with music’ The Threepenny Opera is a curious one. Its opening anthem, “Mack the Knife,” has subsequently gained far more acclaim and recognition as a jazz standard in English since its debut in 1928 Berlin. The sultry refrain still tells of the deliciously violent antics of the notorious Macheath — every bit as much a bloodthirsty criminal as a salacious womanizer — but the original Socialist criticisms of capitalism and societal greed inherent in the original context of the character have somewhat faded. However, in their current production of Weill and Brecht’s piece, The Attic Collective yank the socialism and social Darwinism back into focus with grandiosity and verve to spare.

The assembled talent has carefully chosen a threadbare aesthetic and a frantic tone, both of which are appreciated considering it’s nearly three-hour runtime. The blocking, choreographed by Dawn-Claire Irvine, is frenetic, with bodies and props being hurled around the stage with sometimes dizzying energy. The set, managed by Tony King, is almost completely empty, save the minuscule bandstand area and temporary furnishings wheeled on to create a sense of space, which is accomplished well. The band is led with both humour and talent by Simon Goldring, whose musical direction fits well into the play’s dingy background. The most remarkably funny aspect of the stagecraft is the use of projected slides to flatly assert location. Before most scenes, white typeface bluntly explains context, and briefly puts up an Edinburgh equivalent of where these London-set scenes might take place, eliciting many a laugh for their timing and matter-of-factness. Had these been paired with a more self-serious, pretentious production, they would seem tacky; had they been employed by a less dynamic, more straightforwardly silly group, they’d be out of place for their dry humour. But to their credit, The Attic Collective’s decisions like this strike exactly the right tone (more often than not), between gormless and grandiose, threadbare and thrifty, funny and frank.

Max Reid is excellent as the appallingly villainous Mr. Peachum, particularly for the bombast he brings to his first scene, directly after the chorus’s “Mack the Knife” introduction. Reid successfully guides the audience from the familiar sounds of the standard to the viciously satirical tone of the rest of the production, which is no easy feat. As (occasionally) the cruelty and pitch-black comedy of Brecht’s script might come off as too much to find funny, it is particularly commendable that director Susan Worsfold has chosen to emphasise the comedy wherever possible. Toby Williams, as a hapless and clueless beggar, is hilarious with excellent timing, and Hannah Bradley as Mrs Peachum displays a genuinely impressive talent for balancing daft operatic turns of plot and phrase with an accomplished singing voice and terrific stage presence. And this is all the first scene.

Charlie West’s Mack the Knife takes time to get used to, but ultimately shines as the play pushes his character farther and farther from the archetypal ladykiller/people-killer role. His singing is good, and well-suited to the choppiness of Brecht’s plotting, as some intentionally off-kilter scenes and character dynamics look and sound more grating than polished. Given the tone of the production, these are presumably meant to be that way. West also displays nice comedic timing, but the truly gifted comedic dynamic was found more frequently among his criminal posse: Lewis Gribben, Elsa Strachan, John Spilsbury, Mark O’Neill and occasionally Conor McLeod. They all display real camaraderie and genuinely funny quips whenever present: another respite given the sometimes exhausting length of the proceedings.

Mack’s various women, played by Kirsty Punton, Megan Fraser and Sally Cairns, are characterised well, and each command the stage when given the opportunity. Special note goes to Cairns’ exquisitely gauche costume. In fact, the behind-the-scenes decisions are some of the most impressive aspects of the show: the use of the King’s Theatre’s actual boxes during a brothel-based interchange in particular is an inspired choice, delivering further hilarity.

The political and societal implications, are however, noticeably muddled, from the greediness and homoeroticism within head of police Tiger Brown (Andrew Cameron), to the jarring humour on display while Mack languishes in a prison cell waiting to be hanged by the distinctly humourless guard (Adam Butler). The spaces crafted by mime and sparse prop work, including a very funny use of a ladder as all-things-jail-call, but frequently have their implied rules broken, from doors switching to windows, walls vanishing entirely, locks fitting into keyholes where previously there was nothing, and entire crowds miraculously appearing and disappearing: the staging too often does not make any sense. Granted, these are aspects of Brecht’s dismantled view of theatricality in general, but when the plot twists and turns so freely it would have help to define spaces a little bit more.

Overall, The Threepenny Opera is a charming production full of talent and featuring some particularly inspired choices and aesthetics. There could be a little more there in the way of clarity, but hey, it’s Brecht. Most charmingly, it gives a whole lot of context for the flawless “Mack the Knife” standard itself, and for a superfan like myself that’s welcome. And if you weren’t a fan of the song beforehand, you will be once the curtains have closed.

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 15 September)

Visit the King’s Theatre archive.

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Woke (Gilded Balloon Teviot: 4-28 Aug: 14.00: 60mins)

“Quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Given the many difficulties faced by millions of people around the world in our current climate, every civil rights-focused spotlight is worthy of attention. Apphia Campbell’s Woke, however, is not just another “worthy” civil rights-focused show decrying injustice for being injustice — it cuts deeply into the structures, limits, hypocrisies, and evils that allow racism, injustice, disorder, and oppression to continue and continue and continue. If you have ever claimed or had the urge to claim that the current racial climate is “not that bad,” please let Woke wake you up.

These issues are never simple. Many pop culture statements have garnered great praise, and some rightful ire, for presenting race relations too simply. From Zootopia/Zootropolis to Crash, mainstream outlets seem to eat up stories that are easy to swallow, that present problems as apparently easy to fix. Campbell’s play soars above simplicity by presenting the sometimes charming, sometimes harrowing stories of two black women, one speaking from 2014 onwards, the other speaking from the Black Panther Party of the seventies. She masters not only the nuances of storytelling but of stagecraft as well, as lighting, sound effects, props, and choreography are all of the highest creative quality.

The audio introduction repaints the mental pictures of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, and from there Campbell segues into an absorbing rendition of Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues.” The transition, spanning decades yet recalling the same geographical location, Missouri, offers foreshadowing for the overarching structure and central observation of the show — just how far have we come since the ‘Civil Rights Era?’ According to Campbell, certainly not far enough.

What is most striking about the plotting of Woke, is that both characters Campbell breathes life into are not only vividly characterised, with engrossing nuances (credit to director Caitlin Skinner) but also experience a noticeably, tragically similar hardening. Ambrosia, who speaks of 2014, initially believes in the righteousness of the police and questions the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement in her Washington University classes. Yet over time, she experiences so many abusive, prejudiced cruelties at the hands of police officers and the law writ large that she, and the audience, have no choice but to accept that society still fails to treat people like her as equal citizens. The pacing of these developments is gradual, yet her hellish experiences continue and worsen with a palpable, sickening sense of inevitability. Campbell’s writing does well to put the audience in the shoes of Black citizens’ everyday anxieties, from questioning one’s trust in the police to fearing for one’s safety where other citizens would never.

The other character Campbell focuses on is a well-known figure, Assata Shakur, who was convicted of the murder of a state trooper in 1973, and fled to Cuba after escaping prison. The legitimacy of this conviction is dismantled with brilliant progression, as she establishes Shakur’s positivity, righteousness, and honour, before displaying her growing terror as establishment forces seek to slander and imprison her.

The genius of Woke is in its building unease, the sure feeling that something terrible is at play. The steps of injustice are on full display, so the audience can understand it is never just one slight or careless comment that perpetuates racism, but a seemingly impenetrable societal structure. This approach encapsulates the fear at the heart of being “woke” — defined, in my opinion, as learning about, following and speaking out on the injustices faced by disenfranchised members of society. The fear is that one might uncover too much to comfortably continue as a member of society anymore; that understanding the truth of the horrors that white-dominated civilization has inflicted on non-white individuals, it will be too hard to ignore their lasting effects.

In my opinion, Campbell’s production is quite possibly the best presentation of the nuances of race relations from the unjustly-treated point of view one can experience today. Theatrically, it is worth a run of standing ovations. Thematically, it is a revelation. Societally, it is required viewing. Ultimately, Woke is a statement that deserves to be lauded in every way.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

 

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Girl and a Gun (Summerhall: 2-27 Aug: 18.00: 60mins)

“A greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

Louise Orwin is one savvy film buff and her one-woman show, A Girl and a Gun (the title of which is derived from Jean-Luc Godard’s notorious quote “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”) is sixty minutes of finely crafted satire/tribute/criticism/fun on that very notion. For cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike, A Girl and a Gun offers laughs, thrills, and intimate insights into some of popular culture’s most beloved genres and setups within film, while asserting a masterfully subversive message.

Orwin is an electric performer, constantly keeping the audience guessing and engaged as she flits from scenario to scenario as “Her,” representing the interchangeable, lazily written female in so many Hollywood films. She is accompanied onstage by an unspecific male counterpart, as “Him,” a random actor who had responded to the show’s online call for male performers, and who is a different person every night. “Him” reads his lines from a teleprompter, and is, charmingly, just as surprised, shocked, amused, and impressed at the show’s content as the audience is at every turn. For Orwin has created an amalgam of sorts, of every misogynistic and abusive male-female dynamic presented in male-ego-centered films, to prove how toxic and destructive masculinity in popular culture can be.

“Him” is scripted to seduce, kiss, betray, bully, abuse, physically hit, and generally mistreat “Her” in carefully structured ways, so that sometimes he has free reign to strut around and take advantage of the audience and damsel in front of him, and other times he has no real choice but to act like a heel. Her commentary is strikingly simple, as she uncovers the terrible unfairness and cruelties beneath many a male/female action hero/damsel dynamics.

What is most impressive and reassuring about the show’s approach is the level of research evident behind the faithful recreations of the films it satirises. It is presented in a format all Tarantino fans will recognise; divided into chapters with pseudo-poetic titles like “Cherry Picker” or “Why You Don’t Have to be American to have an American Dream,” which is a particularly impactful one. Taglines, catchphrases and devices from lots of Tarantino’s writing are featured, including dances reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and Death Proof, and the opening theme from Kill Bill – indeed the piece is chock-full of cinematic observations and criticisms that are spot-on if you are a fan of the retro-worshipping, Western-esque American odysseys Orwin comes after. There is a particularly impressive and hilarious sequence in which Orwin and the male actor recite all the typical names of “Him” and “Her” in these films, like Charlie, Bobby, Big Charlie, Big Bobby, Tommy, Tony, Big Tommy, Big Tony; Suzie, Jenny, Little Suzie, Little Jenny, et cetera.

Points like these are also, in a larger sense, what makes Orwin’s show so clever and incisive; there are no individual films or even individual scenes that are criticised on their own. Rather, A Girl and a Gun takes aim at the sheer repetitiveness and laziness of re-used, tired tropes, with great success. One of the most memorable sequences comes near the ‘end’ of the experience, when “Him” has forsaken “Her” and she must, as she does in so many films, die. Orwin’s “Her” dies at least ten times in a row, in various gruesome fashions, from being shot with numerous types of firearms to being tied to a train track and run over. Her point lands with a surprising amount of grace, as we recall so many female characters who have been extinguished simply to prove the male protagonist’s point, and it is the sheer quantity of such deaths that packs the greatest punch.

The attention to detail in this show is also commendable, from the use of projection and subtitling to recall a movie being written and filmed, and on-screen directions for “Him” to don various costumes, play with numerous prop firearms and “act like he is in an action movie”. This device in particular leaves a meaningful impression, presenting both “Him” and “Her” as pawns of the written scripts, and suggesting it is not necessarily inherent to a man’s composition that he acts so cruelly — he is written that way, much as many men may have learned their behaviour from movies where that very same behaviour got the girl and saved the day.

A Girl and a Gun presents an ingenious deconstruction of male ego, cinematic influence, and the truth beneath the beauty of so many of society’s favourite films. It is a greatly rewarding hour of insight and grace, plus a goldmine for cinephiles, feminists, and iconoclasts everywhere.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

 

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Gun Show (Space Triplex: 4-26 Aug: 19.40: 60mins)

“Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Of all the takeaways from E.M. Lewis’s one-actor project The Gun Show, there is none clearer than this: lead actor Vin Shambry is one of the most powerful and talented performers at this year’s Fringe. As the sole actor, his voice, mannerisms, physicality, and humor are magnetic, charming, and immensely human; he could be talking about throw pillows or breakfast cereal for an hour and it would probably still warrant a standing ovation.

But in this play Shambry talks about guns. He talks about them over five stories, which are delivered with grace and rhythm, but written with a somewhat vague sense of pace and subject matter. From a charming opening anecdote comparing the blood-soaked climax of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to modern gun-filled headlines, the tone is set as one of culturally relevant iconoclasm. The plot overall weaves personal stories – such as a retelling of a harrowing  robbery at gunpoint – and very public true ones, including a shocking reenactment of professional lunatic Alex Jones defending the Second Amendment days after the Sandy Hook massacre. Shambry’s performance throughout is engrossing and electric, with clever audience interaction that entertains and commands the room.

The play at first seeks a deceptively simple point about guns in America: that the conversation has devolved into two sides that insult and deride each other without helping anyone. Lewis writes of the Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening left, and the gun-toting, NRA card-carrying right, lamenting that the vastly larger middle ground opinions are drowned out or ignored. Stories of the responsible, sensible use of guns are convincing, as are cautionary tales and assertions about how guns can be used for true destruction and terror. Points raised later in the play are strikingly personal, and to director Shawn Lee’s credit, masterfully withdrawn.

There is a moral stickiness to elements of the overall approach, however, that one cannot shake. Shambry performs specifically as Lewis, whose identity and backstory are revealed slowly and subtly throughout the performance, and there is a vague sense of a plot-twist as it becomes apparent that Shambry is not playing himself, but speaking of experiences from people of differing genders, race, age, and background. The Gun Show exists on at least three planes in this sense. Firstly, there is Shambry delivering a powerful spoken essay on gun violence and the complexity of personal firearms. Secondly, there is Lewis, writing as a woman who has intentionally chosen a vessel very unlike herself to deliver these statements. Thirdly, there is a back and forth actor/writer dialogue, at times literally shining a light on Lewis, who is present in the audience, with recognisable moments of mutual understanding that he is playing her, and she is writing for him, yet as herself. This aspect of the performance is both disorienting and brilliantly simple.

The stickiness, however, comes from the misleading qualities of the advertising and format. On the poster, Shambry’s face, as a Black man, juxtaposed against an American flag with the tagline “What the hell is happening in America?” seems geared towards a specific set of issues that will be discussed, specifically race-related gun violence. Yet The Gun Show never once addresses the innumerable and unnecessary deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, instead favouring a much more general take on the gun conversation, written specifically by a white woman. While the play itself does not necessarily suffer for it, this bait-and-switch from a topic as devastating and unjust as racial inequity can’t help but feel slightly distasteful, as if these stories are teased but minimised in favour of a separate issue. That’s acceptable, given Lewis’s admittedly gripping stories, but The Gun Show will leave a sense of unease in your stomach if you expected something else.

This show commendably begins the conversation of just what the hell is happening in America, and – for Americans and non-Americans alike – proves the conversation is well worth having. The writing could be sharper, and the points broader, but when you’re hearing them from someone like Vin Shambry, it’s simply unmissable.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Louise Reay: Hard Mode (The Stand Four: 3-27 Aug: 17.55: 60mins)

“A unique and insightful project perfect for Fringe audiences”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

This is a very clever show. Through a healthy mixture of character work, pre-recorded videos, impressive knowledge of modern Chinese society, and truly human moments, Louise Reay has crafted a unique and insightful project perfect for Fringe audiences. Some fine tuning of the details and the flow of the show would be useful to make its 60 minutes shine brighter, but overall Hard Mode is a worthy offering.

The show’s title derives from the idea that in modern China, life is lived as if in ‘hard mode.’ Reay takes care to share a genuine taste of what that kind of life means, from tampering intrusively with audience members to stationing masked cronies around the room to watch and possibly punish the viewers at all times. She uses clever techniques like distributing identical napkins for all audience members to wear (to recall authoritarian homogeneity), and leading the room in hive-mind chants in between musings on what having a free society means now and what losing it could mean later. The masked guards do stay unsettlingly in character the whole time, even banishing non-compliant individuals who dare to remove the napkin to the ‘jail,’ which is the corner of the room. Though some of the points on surveillance are presented somewhat simplistically, the dark sense of forced enjoyment is done well. This show, to its credit given its subject matter, is effectively unpleasant.

Reay bases this societal reenactment on her lived experiences in China, thankfully. A few lines and jokes would seem like sweeping (and potentially offensive) generalisations if she hadn’t proven her extensive knowledge of Chinese culture, from the language to the media to the in-jokes. On the comedy end, the highlights of the show are her stagings of a possible future where the Chinese government has bought and hawkishly runs the BBC. Her David Attenborough-centered skits are hilarious, and her all-Chinese rendition of ‘Far-EastEnders’ is impressive for her sheer capability with the language, as a native English speaker.

On the dramatic side, and yes, there is a somewhat unexpected dramatic side, Reay mixes in her own real life in ways that teeter on the edge of too much. Without giving anything away, the sense of ‘hard mode’ in a societal sense is re-purposed in a personal sense, which at times is truly affecting, and at others feels like retreading and backtracking on points that have already been made.

Reay’s use of an actor to portray Chinese artist and social activist Ai Weiwei in a pre-recorded video conversation Reay apparently had with him feels strikingly off-kilter with the rest of the piece, and not only because it is never truly verified that Weiwei actually said any of the statements in the video. The actor’s timing is jarring, the delivery is confusing and flat, and points are muddled and indistinguishable — under what is admittedly fabulously intricate facial hair. For me, these filmed asides are revisited too often, and though most of Reay’s recurring jokes are quite funny and/or poignant (special nod to the unforgettable Loneliest Newsreader in the World), the Weiwei scenes feel poorly executed.

Overall, if you are looking for a bizarre yet poignant hour at the Fringe, and happen to be in the relatively far away lands that house the Stand Four, Louise Reay’s Hard Mode might be for you. Just be sure to set your expectations to Weird Mode.

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED