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Fringe Review: Buffoon's Birthday

Fringe Review: Buffoon's Birthday

Review by Lyndon Hood

buffoon's
birthday
Click to enlarge

Rehearsal image from fringe.org.nz

Buffoon's Birthday
Liminal Theatre
Written and directed by Damien McGrath
Bats Theatre
February 19–22, 6.30pm
$16/$13
book@bats.org.nz

When actors discover masks they can be like a child let loose in a candy store. In more senses than one: some disciplines of mask work rely on the psychological effect – something like possession – of replacing your own face with another. Among the kind of basic personalities and undiluted urges these masks sustain, that kid in the candy store would not be out of place. Such creatures have an explosive stage presence, but would be difficult to wrangle into any kind of public performance, or to sustain for any length of time.

Other ways of working with masks, though injected to varying degrees with this mask-personality, are under the deliberate control of the actor. Here, to maintain that stage-glow of the mask requires conscious skill. Absent the face, the body is the mode of expression. Working with anything from impulse or deep technique, the position of every part of the body matters, out to the fingers and in to the spine, as well as the position of the mask with regard to the audience.

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In either case, used properly, a mask is a potent device, symbolically, but most of all theatrically.

Buffoon's Birthday is performed in mask, and the production serves as a reminder of how difficult that magic is. It does achieve this theatrical alchemy, but only sometimes.

Each actor certainly has at least one moment of it, as they present the grotesque, amoral and finally anti-moral 'buffoons'. The play is structured around introducing them as each – Meat, Skin and Blood – offers a birthday present to the oldest, Bones. The introduction and presentations are made in an atmosphere of madcap physical chaos – and bodily idiosyncrasy, such as the piglike Meat's chewing and sniffing or Skin's extended tongue. A rather more appealing character, Herald, facilitates and commentates on this action.

Their moments of magic tend to come at the beginning of each character's introduction, as with Bone's (Lance McBride) insectile, twitching movements as the play begins, or Meat's (Hamish Parkinson) distilled amplification of drill-seargent stomping.

But Julia Guthrey, as Herald, does keep the mask alive, remaining eyecatchingly watchable through the whole performance. The style of her expressive, conrolled movement is (like her mask) reminiscent of the daft charmer Arlechinno of the traditional Italian masked comedy Commedia Dell'Arte. She is often the most interesting thing on the stage.

The impact of the masks is probably diminished by the lighting. The stark angles emphasise the contours of the white half-masks (as opposed to full masks, these do not cover below the mouth) but mostly does not reach the eyes of the actors, diminishing the illusion of life. Some of the most arrestingly vivid visions of these strange creatures were actually in the moments of dreamlike half-obscurity as the lights faded.

Another thing that may not help the masks is the script. Full of extended monologues, rhyming couplets and poetical reversed syntax, it sits oddly with these visceral characters, especially portrayed in mask. While the actor's vocals are as distinctive as their physicalities, this verse makes their actual speeches more uniform. The amount of verbage limited the space the physical aspects of this piece of physical theatre had to breathe, and much of it seemed there more to finish lines of poetry than from dramatic necessity.

I can't help thinking this text might have been better performed without masks. The self-aware freakishness of the buffoons might be as effective, the slapstick set pieces as absurd and the speeches more compelling outside what is, it seems, and unforgiving medium.

As it was, much of the speech seemed a distraction, and did not hold my attention enough to reveal what, if any, point there was to the play as a whole.

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Buffoon's Birthday press release
Scoop Full Coverage: Fringe 2010

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