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FRINGE '04 REVIEW: Barbie is Dead

Despite active use of the defibrillator, resuscitation efforts failed on Auckland’s all-female improvised comedy act ‘Barbie is Dead’ at the 2004 Fringe Festival.

Barbie is Dead – Resuscitation Efforts Failed

Reviewed by Nicola Hill
When : 12 – 13 March
Where: Victoria University Memorial Theatre
Two stars ** = Bearable

Resuscitation efforts failed on Auckland’s all-female improvised comedy act ‘Barbie is Dead’ during the 2004 Fringe Festival. Despite active use of the defibrillator, the Covert Theatre group struggled to engage with the audience and passed away quietly at the Victoria Memorial Theatre.

Four players emerged from the darkness and began improvising a series of short scenes, and the very occasional song. Over the course of more than an hour, stories and characters began to appear, ranging from the death and after-life of a beached whale to the life and times of the country’s first one-legged stripper and the trials of a fashion victim who dieted within an inch of her life to fit a bikini. The show ended as it began, at a moment unclear to the audience and with the lights down. The crowd was left wondering not so much ‘how they did they do that?’ - as promised by the group’s self-professed ‘brainparent’ and Covert Theatre producer Wade Jackson - but ‘what happened?’.

Comedy improvisation is one of the most intimidating performance media and demands a unique relationship with the audience. Dwarfed in the three hundred seat theatre, and with only a small crowd, the players were disadvantaged from the start. The lack of interaction with the audience - no introduction or even any acknowledgement – made it virtually impossible for a relationship to develop. In this context, the open format of the show, with none of the crowd-pleasing theatre sports games that many probably expected, was a brave and ultimately fatal choice. All of the players worked hard and kept up a good pace, but they didn’t have the very considerable confidence and skills required and the show often didn’t make sense.

Barbie is Dead isn’t in fact New Zealand’s only all-female improvisation act as claimed by their publicity. The show was, however, a good opportunity to see what women do when left to their own devices in this male-dominated arena. There were flashes of individual inspiration - Cath Campbell (the French tourist) did some lovely character work, and, when she wasn’t making jokes at the expense of the scenes or her fellow players, Tineke Van der Walle (a superb flea) had stage warmth and nice physicality. Disappointments were the patchy teamwork (though the group’s one-legged stripper TM Bishop tried admirably hard) and the avoidance of a sex scene and emotion, with no one ever being remotely affected by the strangest of developments (such as a passenger landing on a motorbike from the sky).

This sister act is not recommended until Jackson lets the gals have a few more slumber parties together and they find a different show format that works for them and the audience. Watch this space, because in female improv - as in long romantic novels - tomorrow is always another day…


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