Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Harbinger at La Boite - Round 2

(Source: Anywhere Theatre Festival)
Besides Ovo, and for totally opposite reasons, The Harbinger was the piece I was most interested in seeing this year. In his welcome, David Berthold comments that last year's season of The Harbinger "gleamed with promise". The piece has improved enormously since it's last incarnation, but although it's enjoyable it feels like what needed work before still needs reworking.

The Harbinger tells the story of a street rat who hauls up in a forgotten bookstore, claiming that she has been pursued by a monster called Mr. Nobody. The bookstore is home to a tired and bitter old man, Albert, who is resentful of the world after the death of his wife. The two forge a strained relationship when the Girl refuses to leave, and promises she will build metallic insects in return for sanctuary.
Albert and Adelaide (Source: Anyone's Guess).

There's a lot to like in this performance but there are a few things that really limit how lost you can get in the show. The writing is problematic - the story has a lot going on in it, but since it feels like it wants to go in a thousand different directions when the conclusion comes to wrap up all the plot points none of them are particularly satisfying. The pacing is also really uneven, where the beginning feels like it's drawn out way too long and when the ending comes around the jump to a conclusion feels a bit rushed. I don't know how much that has to do with having two directors and writers - in co-productions I find that creatives who share the final decision often have conflicting visions, and in The Harbinger you get the feeling you watching two different shows. Whatever happened, there isn't enough character development with the major characters, so at the conclusion of the piece the brief moments of wonder presented quickly feels very superficial. The dialogue is also pretty bland in a lot of places and has a tendency to throw in unnecessary coarse language which feels like it obliterates the feeling that you're in a dream world (like my writing style). It reminded me of a theatre technician scolding an actor - the actor puts their grubby hands on everything, makes impossible demands and whines a lot, while the technician is irrationally mean and unfairly condescending at every opportunity. 

This makes it really difficult to connect with either of the two main characters. Barbara Lowing voices Old Albert, and although she's delightfully spiteful and cynical, she seems wrong for the role purely because her voice (as a woman) doesn't suit the giant puppet (a man). I know it's pretty old fashioned of me, but I like it when men play males and women play females - I found it impossible to buy in to the illusion that this puppet was alive and being voiced by a woman wheezing to try and make her voice more imposing and masculine. Kathleen Iron plays the other principal, a wretched girl who apparently make it her aim to grope every object in the room, ultimately kicking furniture and then whining about how cruel and malevolent it is for being locked. She then proceeds to disobey every instruction given to her by Old Albert, destroying his possessions or ransoming them back to him, threatening him with these awful guttural wails. She might claim to be a victim pursued by Mr. Nobody, but given her behavior I'd say the real victim in this scenario is common courtesy.
Adelaide and the tree sapling (Source: La Boîte).

Meanwhile, in the other half of the story there are a trio of women who surround Old Albert (Anna Straker, Niki-J Price and Giema Contini) and move wonderfully around the stage, operating several puppets in addition to moving the hands of Albert. In contrast to the world of the girl and Old Albert is enchanting, and I fell in love with the mirroring story of Albert's earlier life (I don't know why, but I didn't mind Price playing younger Albert). The dialogue is lighter, the scenarios are more enchanting, and the characters are a thousand times more likeable. All three women are wonderfully skilled, and each of their characters were really enjoyable to watch. Price's bashful and awkward Young Albert are endearing, and Contini's voicing of Princess Happy is hysterically animated and her Mr. Somebody channels this Willy Wonka charm as one of the most delightful characters I've seen. Straker's performance is especially sweet. Perhaps it's because she's playing a female character, she seemed the most natural performer. Her soft and quietly resigned attitude totally brings Adelaide to life, building an emotional connection, and leaves you unaware you're watching a puppet.

Amusingly in one section a balloon popped out of a chest representing the moon, and a woman sitting a few seats away grabbed her friend (?) and snarled that the balloons were used "Just like in A Dinner With Gravity." For anyone interested in the integrity of this claim:
  • Similarities - Balloons. 
The sound design is pleasant, if a bit uninspired. There are a few clangs from the original score which were suitably inserted this time and made me pretty nostalgic, though most of the cues were comprised of arrangements of Gymnopédie No. 1. The choice of the impressionistic piece is lovely but it doesn't really seem to evoke anything in terms of emotion or thematic commentary (although the last time they used a Satie piece everyone company in Brisbane did, so expect to see it around and remember you heard it at The Harbinger first). On the other hand, the set and lighting is gorgeous. It retains its previous aesthetic of ancient elegance in an enchanting world. Books and pages fill the space which has been rescaled and shaped to now include a sleeping tree standing prominently at the head of the stage. Trees inside buildings excite me.

I still have my ticket from the first time I saw The Harbinger - this reworking is a monumental achievement for Dead Puppet Society. There are some things that need attention, but in terms of what has been created this is absolutely the most magical thing to grace the La Boîte Roundhouse in a while. It has a lot of writing issues, but it has an enchanting aesthetic and some wonderful characters which are brought to life by talented puppeteers. Like most people I wouldn't say I was disappointed, but I was expecting more - but when am I not . . .

Tickets for Dead Puppet Soceity's The Harbinger are $30-$54, and is showing at La Boite Theatre Company's Roadhouse Theater until September 1st. Duration of approximately 90 minutes. Book by visiting La Boite's website.