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Fringe Review: Undergrowth

Fringe Review: Undergrowth

Review by Lyndon Hood


Image from fringe.org.nz

Undergrowth
Kristin Herman and Peter Willis
19 – 21 February
9pm Fri & Sat, 2pm Sat & Sun
Wellington Performing Arts Centre


They have chairs strapped to their backs. Why do they have chairs strapped to their backs? One answer might be that, if they had been dressed only in the overalls and t-shirts that were the rest of their costume, their appearance would have been out of kilter with the rest of this arrestingly strange production.

If you think the title 'Undergrowth' sounds, in the context of fairy tales, a bit freudian, you'll probably find plenty to chew on in the production itself. The approach is not particularly based on freudian analysis (though there are moments), but the performance is composed almost entirely of tantilising images and semi-opaque symbols, scented of deeper meanings.

Undergrowth uses a mixture of images, storytelling and music to explore or expand from the story of Hansel and Gretel. The stage is divided into quarters by line of breadcrumbs set with a selection of objects; some of the forest – a circle of leaves, a picture of trees from which tuberous roots extend into the space – but mostly household goods from a poor home.

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Over the course of the performance musician Peter Willis joins in the action and uses most of these objects as musical instruments, as well as playing slow chord progressions on an upright piano, decorated with candy and bones, to punctuate the four acts of the performance.

Kristen Herman tells the story, beginning with simple storytelling, where she gives each sentence – each sound – it fullest weight. As the story goes on the sentences become disjointed – words drop out and other parts of the story break in. Then we move into images, stage events constructed of those props, the performers' bodies, of phrases chanted or sung, or of another story – a dream of a dangerous forest.

Herman speaks and acts with an unrelenting ritual certainty; accompanying her, Willis moves with a more cautious simplicity. These attitudes, and the careful steady rhythms of the performance, keep the often flagrantly weird moments on the side of the surreal rather than the ludicrous, and the sheer volume of invention in them demands to be taken seriously. They also, helped by Herman's storyteller's trick of catching the eyes of the audience as she spoke, kept my attention throughout.

One might judge such a performance by the resonant power of its images; in evoking ideas, in working on the psyche or in sparking potent daydreams in the receptive watcher. While many moments in the production were merely interesting some have stayed with me. In the third part, Herman gleefully portrays a grotesque and alarming – and yes, freudian – witch, throwing lollies she pulls from a swollen belly (more than one of us did eat them).

The witch costume was partly supported by the plastic seat on Herman's back. In a different kind of moment, at one point when Willis turned away from us my attention was caught by the spectacle of his chair, floating just above the piano stool as if gathering the will to play.

The impact of all these images might have been enhanced by changes in lighting – as it was there was only one lighting state, and Willis had to step over to the side of the stage to turn the house lights up at the end. Also, on Saturday night, many of the careful silences of the piece were also broken by the sounds of city partying that leaked through the Performing Art Centre's roof.

But the performance succeeded in creating as sense of ritual significance in the space, and in flirting with the unfathomable.

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Undergrowth press release
Undergrowth MySpace page
Scoop Full Coverage: Fringe 2010

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