Hedwig takes it all the way

hedwig
OPEN wide: Paul du Toit is Hedwig. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

YOU KNOW THAT headache you get when you are grinding your teeth really energetically to ensure that the outer chaos doesn’t make your whole head implode? That is the kind of feeling you may emerge with when you exit Hedwig and the angry inch. It’s a mash up of 1970s David Bowie dress-up values with the fierce weirdness of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a splash of the aesthetic of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a generous heaped tablespoon of the kind of stuff that Pieter-Dirk Uys used to fuel Evita Bezuidenhout’s sinister Nazi sister, Bambi Kellerman. Does this make it a transgender anthem? In spite of rave reviews the world over, this is not a certainty.

Telling the story of an East European cabaret singer with a horrid past and a botched sex change operation, it’s a tale of love and disappointment, abuse and self-deprecation, filled to the brim with sexual innuendo. Its hammer comes down not only on the biases tilted at the gender-uncertain,  but on everything and everyone else as well. The Holocaust, epileptics and deaf children are part of the butts in the jokes repertoire and they reach so far down in the bin of distaste that there’s almost a turnabout in your knee-jerk reaction to be offended. Do you laugh, though? Or do you feel the smile freezing horribly on your face?

You don’t get the space to think about that, because on top of all this wretched and ragged humour, are vicious lashings of strobes, in a theatre where the sound is about seventeen times bigger than the space itself. The casualty, as always, becomes the intelligibility of the lyrics, which is a pity – those that you do hear are tight and bitter, strong and wicked.

And while Genna Galloway and Paul du Toit shine unequivocally in their complex genderised roles which dodge stereotypes and stir up discomfort, with humiliation and cruelty spread all around with abandon, there’s just so much of a sensory assault in this work that something of the wit and the wisdom, the schlock and the social critique that you know it embodies feels lost.

It’s staged in a fantastic set that brings all the mess and unglamour, the grubby clutter of a caravan and a drag artist’s sense of self to the fore, where barely an inch of space is left bare. The band performs from above the set and the work is outrageously cluttered with shocking pink spangly stuff, vinyl records and washing pegged on lines.

The songs in this work are potent with potential. They present quirky narratives that resonate with tales from Ovid; and there’s a moment of hand-drawn animation which will make you stop in your tracks to adore it.

A work which leaves you rushing home in a quest for painkillers, but also one that opens your head and eyes to war narratives which have not yet been explored on a popular platform, Hedwig and the angry inch is a strong show with a weak sense of the power of gimmicks. It leaves you pondering what it would feel like if du Toit and Galloway were allowed to wow their audience without the dazzle and flash of the technology.

  • Hedwig and the angry inch is written by John Cameron Mitchell and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), Wessel Odendaal (musical direction) and Niall Griffin (production design), is performed by Paul du Toit and Genna Galloway until April 1 at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways. Call 011 511-1818.

Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

ChristmasCarol
BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

IrmaVep
DON’T stint on the smiles, my dear: Jane, the maid (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Lady Edna, her new madam (Weslee Swain Lauder). Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

FEEL LIKE AN evening of manners and frippery, ghosts and howling wolves, complicated hairstyles and seriously big dresses? The Mystery of Irma Vep has something for everyone, and it’s a slick, quick and deliciously fine production that will keep you laughing for months.

The Pieter Toerien theatre has become known for staging crisp and fabulous farce, but this piece of theatre ramps things up considerably. Mashing together the notion of the Victorian penny dreadful with Charles Ludlam’s inimitable approach to the ridiculous, in an utterly over the top two-hander, which offers not a little sleight of hand magic in the wardrobe department, The Mystery of Irma Vep is utterly brilliant. The performances of Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth beg comparison with those of no less than Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in the fabulous 1970s film, Sleuth.

It’s a mad little yarn involving many things that go bump in the night, as well as a maid of a Victorian manor who has a couple of unexplainable talents and a hairdo to match. She’s obliged to serve the manor’s new mistress, one Lady Edna, of whom she isn’t awfully fond. There’s a painting with a weird aura, a werewolf or two, an oddly sinister ragamuffin manservant with a wooden leg called Nicodemus as well as some anagrams to spice things up. And of course, as the genre demands, there’s a foray into Egyptian tombs, a couple of jagged chases around the auditorium, and a delicious peppering of sound effects. Not to forget an unforgettably terrible improvisation for dulcimer and recorder which is so bad that it is fabulous, and some wigs and costumes that have so much personality, they should be listed on the cast list. But that’s not all: Lady Edna’s facial expression in times of great horror blends faux high drama with the ludicrous so finely, it deserves programme credits of its own. In short, this production is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Think of Mary Shelley’s Dracula, with the earnestness contorted into utmost hilarity, and the characters drawn at the bizarre and pants-wettingly funny tilt of caricatures emphasised to the hilt, and you might get a sense of the fun that is to be had as you discover the unrolling mystery of Irma Vep. But be warned: you will be lost in your own laughter way before the plot grabs you by its own tale. It’s a convoluted one, but it doesn’t matter. The work is so crisply constructed, and utterly flawless, it just doesn’t miss a beat. Clocking in at about ten minutes too long, it’s a theatrical experience in which you may find your face begins to ache as a result of too much laughter, but the funny never stops.

  • The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful is written by Charles Ludlam and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Wessel Odendaal (composer and sound design), Pierre du Plessis (wardrobe), Oliver Hauser (lighting) and Nadine and Louis Minnaar (Set), and is performed by Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until July 30 and at the Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, August 3-19. Visit pietertoerien.co.za