A house for every mouse, and every mouse in his house

ratrace

PHONING mum: Ameera Patel (top) and Roberto Pombo (bottom), articulate a tale of stress in the working world. Photograph for CuePix by Megan Moore.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you discover a blend of the wit and wisdom of a Greek fabulist from antiquity with the dynamics of pop-up book technology, all infused into a South African context. Rat Race takes the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, originally penned by Aesop some time before Christ, and yields something totally delightful, which your one year old will respond to with utter glee.

It’s a beautifully made piece in which Miles (Roberto Pombo), the chap who is based in the grit and stress of Jo’burg, meets Melissa (Ameera Patel), she of country air, compost, bicycle rides and chickens which must be fed. Blending puppetry and innovation, minimal diction with shapes and surprises, Rat Race is the kind of work that will hit the ‘funny’ button every time, for your sproglet. Particularly when Miles, the mouse with scant rural savvy encounters the chickens and believes them to be monsters.

It’s an allegory about the value of meditation and the horror of stress, and one that is about following your heart and cheating your fears. It’s told with a sophisticated understanding of the littlies in the audience, their attention spans and the things they will remember. First prize, however, must go to the set of this charming little work. Comprising a fabric construction on wheels which contains all the colours and decoupage, patch work and shapes that you can imagine, it’s a show which will make you think of Fisher Price toys in terms of how well it is designed and how there’s a hook or a container for every little element to the work.

And while there’s a sensibility and witty extrapolation on the day-to-day stress which we as people in a town context encounter and internalise, there’s several developed asides about the vagaries of living in the country – what, for instance, you get to boogie to, in a world where all you do is sweep, cycle, breath and sleep.

A tale of sunshine and being on the road, apple trees and window box flowers, this gentle work about love and the idea of home will worm its way into your child’s heart, and yours.

  • Rat Race is based on the original tale of Town Mouse and Country Mouse by Aesop and it is directed by Kyla Davis. It features design by Christelle van Graan (costumes) and is performed by Ameera Patel and Robert Pombo, in the Downstairs Theatre at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 15:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Space Rocks.
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On losing the plot and laughing all the way home

PlayWrong

THINGS fall apart: from left, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubungxa, Nicole Franco and Russel Savadier. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

YOU HAVE AN inkling as to what you can expect by the very name of this production, and you won’t be disappointed: very few things actually go right in this insane little bit of farcical frippery. The sheer skill that goes into clowning at its classically best, is remarkable, and this madcap cast of eight projects the loosely held together tale of a murder performed by an amateur dramatics association. And loosely is truly the operative adjective, when it comes to how the ingenious set itself plays a seminal and pants-wettingly funny role in the shenanigans.

From a dog that is mimed to a clock that doubles as the female lead, the work gets wilder and more insane as it unfolds. Corpses cry out in pain and floors fall. The sequence of lines becomes tumultuous at best, and the chap operating the special effects locates a missing Duran Duran CD amidst dramatic moments on stage. A bunch of keys doubles as a pen, some white spirits insinuates itself into the props in lieu of whisky and a portrait of a spaniel seconds as someone’s dad. In short, everything that can go wrong, does.

Featuring a splendid cast which hone this material and milk it for every laugh in the house, the work is headed by a delightful performance by Russel Savadier as the inspector. And while some of the errors in the splay of values of this work are so wrong that they’re too much – from the mispronunciation of terms by Roberto Pombo’s character to the woodenness of Sive Gubungxa’s character – the laughs will burst from your lips with abandon, and will develop their own momentum.

The danger of a play of its nature, however, is there is a limit to the kind of surprises that you can stomach, and at some moments, your eyes glaze over from too much raucous explosions and it becomes tedious. The crispness of the madness, the bizarreness of the mishaps becomes so great that they actually hurt the play.  If you think back to the inimitable Noises Off, performed a number of years ago in this theatre, there is a level of resonance with this work, but given that amateur is a part of how the work is premised, there’s a tad too much obvious over-acting, which makes the clowning veer a little on the side of crass. Something of Jemma Kahn’s Amateur Hour raises its head in this work.

Having said that, it’s a delicious bit of fun which will leave you still laughing as you drive home: the kind of tonic we all need right now.

  • The Play that Goes Wrong is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Alan Committie. It features design by Malcolm Terrey (costumes) and Bronwyn Leigh Gottwald (props co-ordinator) and is performed by Nicole Franco, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubangxa, Craig Jackson, Theo Landey, Roberto Pombo, Russel Savadier and Louis Viljoen at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino Fourways, until April 30 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 3 until June 17. Call 011 511-1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

cyrilandshirley

GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za

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.

Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.