Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo take the piss out of hell itself, with complete aplomb

Dirty: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

Lascivious with smeared mascara and dirty words: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

There’s an element of such blatant lasciviousness in the framework, articulation and texture of Jemma Kahn’s new kamishibai-redolent production that you have to laugh. Sex, like death onstage, needs to be handled with a level of spoof that expunges earnest urgency and enables it to entertain without sliding off foolishly. Kahn, opposite Roberto Pombo demonstrates the intelligent sophistication necessary for this work never to teeter into gratuitous eroticism. They retain the upper hand, in keeping the work as light and frothy as possible, without losing the entertaining edge.

And touch on sex and death they do – even allowing their proverbial fingernails and tongues to explore beneath the hypothetical surfaces. The work offers an understanding of power, seduction and horror, and in its narrative tightness and Kahn’s articulate performance, it’s never overstated.

We didn’t come to hell for the croissants, like its forerunner under Kahn’s hand, the Epicene Butcher – boasts a raft of stories for consenting adults. It embraces an unapologetically contemporary western take and loses the Japanese flavour of the first show. The device of Chalk Girl, a theatrical foil written by John Trengrove for Klara van Wyk in the Epicene Butcher, has transmogrified into Pombo’s almost demented silent character, dressed as he is in a hybrid costume that’s part peep-show tawdriness, part magician’s assistant in its rude, oft crude suaveness, which raises a giggle rather than an eyebrow: while the work certainly isn’t tame, its parameters enable it to retain its stage production identity.

This is what successful theatrical entertainment is about – the stories have morals, but they’re constructed to surprise you, to make you laugh and in a grown up sense, be titillated. There’s nothing soft about these pieces which consort with the devil with as much abandonment as you can muster or imagine. The work’s certainly not for children or the prudish, but the level of sublime manipulation of tone and content, the manner in which words are allowed to twist happily on their own meanings or nuances, and the way in which punch lines are delivered with a slick hand and a teasing eye leave you unable not to wonder what magic and poetry this team could create if they were performing Shakespeare or Beckett.

Croissants is an excellent showcase, in so many literal and figurative ways, for the unquestionable skills of Kahn and Pombo – and the writers and illustrators whose work appears in this format. But its existence is about more than frankly being in the world: it’s about the need to reshape one’s identity in a theatre world where jobs are scarce and auditions bad for the ego. Kahn has reinvented this wheel with all the chutzpah, laughter and derision necessary: may she continue with abandon.

  • We didn’t come to hell for the croissants: Seven deadly new stories for consenting adults is directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza with writing by Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Justin Oswald, Nicholas Spagnoletti and Louis Viljoen and illustrations by Carlos Amato, Rebecca Haysom, David Jackson and Jemma Kahn. It features production design by David Hutt (costumes) and is performed by Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo. It was part of the Wits 969 Festival during July and will perform at POPArt theatre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg August 26-30 and for an extended run in Cape Town towards the end of the year.
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