CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.
As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.
The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.
You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.
In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.
Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za
“Feed me, Seymour!” Little Shop of Horrors’s haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.
In this Hairspray-meets-Faustus 1960s-redolent musical, you get to experience the schlock-horror tradition from which musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show were spawned and blending some fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, doowop and Motown moves, Little Shop of Horrors is a hugely palatable production which engages with issues like urban decay, parochialism and abuse all couched in an unashamedly bizarre tale of a flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, which grows spectacularly through the show’s run.
Generally, in a show of this nature, it would be the plant itself that is the central focus and main character – and drawcard – but in this production, the cast and the set win over, in spite of a very vociferous and wittily positioned ‘Audrey II’. The joint-narrator, comprising Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon, performed by Dionne Song, Chantal Herman and Lelo Ramasimong respectively absolutely excels: the three, almost acting like a Greek chorus, lend the work the frisson of horror and camped up flippancy or added narrative that keeps it human and colourful; relative newcomers on Johannesburg’s stages, they’re fabulously cast and have exceptional character and voice.
With sterling performances by Michael Richard as Mr Mushkin, a stereotypical New York Skid Row Jewish businessman and Alan Committie, the hapless Seymour, thankfully holding himself back from too much ad libbing, the production has a kind of acid green-bubble gum pink flavour and this is its drawcard, perhaps, but also its downfall: the work in this theatre offers a technologically-rendered sound which is simply too big for the space, and it lacks nuance. It’s like a colour-by-number show where every element has the same level of intensity. And the effect, after your brain has synced to its rhythm, is deadening.
In this production, it’s like everything is ramped up as loud as possible and while the cast loyally and bravely do their best to retain focus and audience interest, sometimes that blend of really loud piped music that you feel in your molars and amplified vocals is so loud that you cannot hear the words. It’s not clear why this has been done: surely the technology of such a well-established theatre as Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien has the wherewithal to contain nuance or to make provision for what happens to a venue when it’s full of people.
It’s a pity as it reduces this otherwise delightful production, which features an utterly beautiful set that really steals the show, to an irritating squeaky squawkiness, which might well drive you away at interval – as the empty seats in the second half attested to, shortly after opening night.
Little Shop of Horrors is directed by Steven Stead, based on the book by Howard Ashman. It is designed by Alan Menken (music), Evan Roberts (original tracks), Justin Southey (musical direction), Janine Bennewith (choreography), Greg King (set), Tina le Roux (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound); with puppets by Greg King and Wendy Henstock. It is performed by Alan Committie; Zak Hendrikz; Chantal Herman; Brandon Moulder; Adam Pelkowitz; Lelo Ramasimong; Michael Richard; Dionne Song; Audrey van Litsenborgh; Jaco van Rensburg and Tim Wells, and is at Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, in Fourways, until August 9. 0115111818 or http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za