So I thought it best to start my blog with my first ever review. After writing this up it was mentioned that I should keep writing reviews, so here’s a blog for that among other things that I’m yet to decide on. Stay tuned.
Mayhem Live. 8th March, 2016.
Mayhem Live was a theatrical presentation of various literary works found in The University of Waikato’s own Mayhem Literary Journal, and its recently released anthology. Each issue features poetry and prose by, in their own words, “…students, staff and Alumni of the University of Waikato”. While Mayhem and its writers brought the script, it was Small Dynamite Theatre Company that brought the selection to life on stage. Before I take you any further I think it’s worth noting that I am not a writer – certainly not of the class within the Mayhem Literary Journal – but I will do my best to present my opinions of the performances and sprinkle them with uneducated opinions about the writing presented.
Almost as soon as the doors are closed and a few more audience members than anticipated found a place for their hastily given loose seats, the show kicks off with a found poem, “This is Not a Love Poem”, by Renee Boyer-Willisson. An apt title, this was certainly not a love poem, and was performed by Stephen Henderson and Kelsie Morland, alternating line to line. I have only seen photos of past Mayhem events, but this certainly created the effect of those; both actors had their own place at either ends of the stage, and a solitary microphone into which they performed. The combination of the microphones not actually being used to amplify voice, and the dual presentation of the piece, it appeared that this opening was to introduce us to the new method of Mayhem writing presentation; this was an act more than a writer sharing their work. To the poem itself; again, I am not well versed in poetry, but this was what I have been lead to expect – metaphors for love and loss and spoken so eloquently, and presented by Morland and Henderson to affect an argument between lovers. An interesting poem, however I picked up on some lines that were so powerful that I knew this wasn’t their home, and we’d come to hear some of those lines later in the show. This was our introduction to Small Dynamite’s brand of poetry readings.
After this followed a brief introduction to Mayhem Live by Small Dynamite members Conor Maxwell and Stephen Henderson, further injecting the theatre company’s own brand of humour into this Mayhem experience. As we quickly transition into the second performance, it becomes quite clear that the comedy of bickering lovers has been long forgotten. Maxwell performs Mike Bilodeau’s “The Morning After” to both the audience and Liam Hinton, Carmen Penny, and Moraig Humphries, actors who have occupied the stage from the moment the audience began to enter the theatre. Maxwell takes on the narrator of this piece quite well, even if it’s a character I do not entirely connect with; vindictive of short term sexual partners, represented by the mute 3 he is joined by on stage, the narrator speaks of wanting to love them, and gets into some beautiful thoughts of the insignificance of space and time next to their potential love. He quickly concedes that every beautiful word is simply a ploy for the casual sex they’ve shared. I found this piece very interesting; in a world of Tinder and Grindr casual sex is, at the least, accepted amongst the student demographic, and for the gracefully insensitive narrator to be so upset with achieving his goal creates a sense of, initially, discord between the anger at his partners and them doing as he wanted, but it reveals a notion that maybe our narrator would rather a strong bond than a “splitting headache and flooding feeling of regret.”
Melody Wilkinson’s “I Wasn’t Worried” followed, performed by Moraig Humphries. An American voice is not one that is out of place but certainly not one I expected. After years of documentaries, internet conspiracies and a Nicolas Cage movie, this is the first time I’ve ever felt a personal connection to the 9/11 attacks. Humphries brings a stable American accent that helps to place us in the heart of a nation devastated by the attack. The narrator takes us through their day, training to be a nurse and dealing with a midterm worth 50% of their grade. The sweet juxtaposition of daily life and terrorist attack that the narrator isn’t quite aware of the severity of slowly crumbles with realisation. The narrator spoke of their fondness for first responders and their invincibility and dedication to life saving; and in the end the crushing devastation as hundreds of firefighters are unaccounted for in the rubble of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers. Humphries carried us through this journey over the course of a few days in one person’s life after the towers fell, and it was the first time I truly connected with and understood with an event that 5 year-old me couldn’t comprehend.
After “I Wasn’t Worried” left us with a reminder of the world the 9/11 attacks has given us, one of fear and increased security and armed response, I thought I couldn’t get any more depressed that evening. Boy, was I wrong. Nick Hall gives us a heart-wrenching rendition of Carl Unternahrer’s “Hollow Point”. Finding his place on stage in a cold, calculated manner, the speech follows in the same manner. Hall tells us the specifics of firing a rifle, and explains to us the nature of a jacketed hollow point round, how it is designed to ensure massive damage to the target by disintegrating upon impact. The point is repeated that firing a rifle is a simple thing; a simple mnemonic that is turned on its head as the narrator tells us that what isn’t so simple, is turning the rifle on oneself, and why somebody would do that. It’s at this moment that I notice the glassy look in Hall’s eyes, and I find something catching in the back of my throat. The narrator goes on to capture the effect of a suicide on every member of the family, a mother glued to photographs of her son, a father who has never shed a tear breaking down, a sister turned to God and, in his words, “Have you ever seen [your grandparents] struck down by a stroke as their teary-eyed children deliver the news to their doorstep one Tuesday afternoon?”. The final Bruce Lee punch to my gut comes as Liam Hinton returns to the stage, and as Hall narrates, leaves a suicide note and follows the action of placing the rifle barrel inside his mouth, in sync with Hall doing the same. However, there is a resolution; the narrator tells us that they have come to accept the frailty of existence in our universe, which wasn’t good enough for their brother. There is an element of blame here which has followed through the entire piece, yet another angle for me to try not to cry about. The narrator chooses to write to deal with their grief and stops asking why, “There’s no point – the question is hollow.”
The piece that follows is what I can only assume is well written for it has a place in Mayhem; and this may be where my ability in poetry leaves me. As I read over “Theoretical Fringe Benefits” by K-t Harrison I found an interesting layout and complex metaphors. I can only say that this is where a theatrical rendition of poetry shows its necessity, as I understood well enough the poet’s intention when watching Kate Booker perform this rhythmically engaging piece alongside a silent, suited, and hair slicked-and-parted Conor Maxwell lost in a newspaper. Booker is energised and conversational, drawing the audience in with the artful text and depicting a conflict between herself and Maxwell, the text noting a conflict between Maori and colonial white. The similes of black and white in text and historical conflict being some of the few I picked up on. While the performance from Booker was interesting and engaging, I found trouble in following the text in its entirety. Perhaps I don’t get poetry, perhaps I’m too foreign (read: white) to truly understand the author’s point of view.
Going into Conor Maxwell’s prose, “Carmen Sandiego” after the depth of the previous performance, I was worried we’d entered the part of the evening when the unpoetic scum class would be asked to leave the audience. What I got was the writing I connected with most of all. Performed by Carmen Penny, she presented Maxwell’s writing and it gave the piece a neutrality of gender that I also found very pleasing. Carmen’s youthful, bright performance of the piece reminded me of the child at heart that I am, and especially in this tale of love. Penny takes us through the stages of love in the modern era for a young adult, where appearances are everything, and a Bar 101 fling is more appreciated amongst their peers than a high school-esque crush; but this is where the narrator is, ‘well and truly wooed”. We’re taken to the movie date, to the first kiss, to the preferred method – making out wherever able, and when the time is right, sex. It’s all presented in a personal point of view that I find all too familiar to my own awkward thought processes, and it finishes with beautifully optimistic thoughts of love, the future and family. If I can personally recommend the Mayhem Anthology for one piece of writing, it is Maxwell’s “Carmen Sandiego”, and I don’t think I could appreciate it so well without Penny representing my own feelings so uncannily.
So, I entered into Adele McKelvie’s “Your Life, My Rules” in rather high spirits – and the first response I had to Kelsey Toombs’ performance was laughter. She quickly set up Rule 1 for her partner on stage, Liam Hinton, that if he ever eats his cake before his pie comes, she’ll walk out of the lunch bar they’re in and never return. As the 2nd and 3rd rules continue in the same vein, leaving the narrator’s partner unable to do anything without risking the narrator walking out, I quickly gather myself from the laughter and remember everything I was told in those special school assemblies: this is an abusive relationship. This isn’t OK. Why hasn’t the guy walked out? Why is it OK if he starts to doubt himself as you so want, crazy narrator? Rule 7 answers my question. Simply stating, “Rule 7: Don’t use me”. Toombs looks to the audience with a sense of melancholy longing that is so different from the vulgarity so far and it becomes blindingly obvious. The common cycle of the abused becoming the abuser is apparent. The final rule, rule 8 begins rather like the last: don’t play me. Both follow with similar threats of breakup and social status destruction written so well it’s hard not to take the piece as a humourous one, though the theatrical take does help present the sad implications of such a relationship.
If unease would be the word to describe the previous performance, then complete shock is where we find Faith Wilson’s “Wunderkind”. Kate Booker sits on stage with beer to her right and whiskey not far behind. If this isn’t an indication of where we’re going, her opening lines might be,
“I’ve been an alcoholic
since I was eleven:
a good year, eleven.”
The narrator’s voice, through Booker’s wonderful portrayal, is that of charm and wit, as the character details youthful drinking from age eleven through her high school years, but the last stanza breaks into a sudden heightened pace as she details her casting as Lear’s Fool in the school production of Shakespeare’s King Lear; but nobody laughed so she was recasted and recasted through every role that didn’t suit until she concedes that she was too crazy for Lear, a bold accusation for anyone familiar with the tragedy of King Lear. I think this piece of writing meets a beautiful purpose of presenting a charming narrator, blasé in regards to her childhood lost to drink, but slamming us with the crippling self-awareness of how lost she is because of it.
Unaware until it progressed in front of me, the following two performances were combined. With both Kelsie Morland and Carmen Penny on stage, Morland performs “Normal” by Loren Thomas to a childishly dressed Penny, colouring at a nearby desk. Normal, from Morland’s performance, is envious of the girl she’s taking to, Penny is either ignoring or unaware of Morland’s presence. Normal opens with “And she’s the girl who writes fires with her words”, and follows up with lines about how confident this girl is, how fearless she is. It closes with Morland admitting that she is the girl she wishes she could be. Penny then goes right into Kristy Lagarto’s “Coloured Dirty”, a horrifying piece of writing detailing a daughter’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father and the writer does not fail to mention the absent mother in this awful situation. Penny’s portrayal in a school uniform and pigtails while colouring, and speaking with a voice so accurately child-like only increases the severity of how suddenly the performance has taken a dark turn, Morland also visibly horrified by the turn of events. In retrospect I’ve inferred that Morland’s envy of this strong, independent girl who is revealed to be a victim of rape is uplifting and empowering, but in the moment of watching Penny’s harrowing performance of Lagarto’s heartbreaking writing I was left feeling ill and unable to draw any meaning.
If “Carmen Sandiego” held a place in my heart as the representation of my thought processes in regards to love, “Pill Time” by Stephen Henderson is the exact polar opposite. Performed by Liam Hinton with Kelsey Toombs also present on stage, “Pill Time” is the narrator’s stream of consciousness while in a rehabilitation facility of some description. Very quickly Hinton exposes the instability of the narrator, with the line “Would you like to hear a little bit about me? Or me? Or me? Or him? I could tell you all about him?”. It quickly builds to an argument with himself about the paragraph structure, and as we begin to lose track of what exactly the narrator is talking about, Toombs calls “pill time” and Hinton swallows some pills, and downs it with water. Following this Liam presents with a calm, almost charming demeanour and introduces himself as 16 year old Stephen. When discussion gets to his lack of living arrangements, control is almost lost again before another “pill time”. This return to calm and followed degradation into madness is repeated throughout, with every cycle there is less calm and more madness, the last call of pill time ignored as Hinton smashes the glass the pills are dispensed into. The scene plays like a child who has too many stories to tell, but the instability in Hinton’s performance increases with every segment, and we learn that the 16 year old gravely injured a stranger, putting him in prison, and he is unable to see his girlfriend, whom he has only been told is “gone”. The implications set up by the lack of awareness the narrator has of what they’ve done and what’s been done to them due to their severe mental issues had my skin crawling. The combination of the violence of Hinton’s performance and the writing has made this one of the most uncomfortable theatre experiences I’ve ever had to endure.
The penultimate performance that evening was “A Short History of my Vagina” written by Onyx Lily and performed by Conor Maxwell. The writing is a detailed memoir of the narrator and her vagina, from childhood to giving birth and the emotional rollercoaster between, the hardships of such experiences are something I have absolutely no understanding of. I believe that presenting this writing in a theatrical sense makes it accessible to young men like myself who probably should be aware of the often painful experiences that our female counterparts go through. It then strikes me that significant writing such as this being performed by a man in a dress could potentially cause distraction from the text, which deserves to be heard. The performance opens with Maxwell in a dressing gown, make up, a bald cap and carrying a wig, before eventually changing into the dress and donning the wig. I will make clear that his performance of the piece was entertaining and his commitment to the character was consistent, but laughs came throughout the piece as the narrator spoke of first experiences with pubic hair and period misinformation from a young friend. I’ll admit, I laughed. It’s an unfortunate side effect of a small theatre community; I know Conor, audience members beside me laughed and pointed out to others, “that’s Conor!”, and it’s easy to laugh at your cis-gendered friend in costume they wouldn’t usually wear. I then have to interpret that maybe Small Dynamite wanted us to know that transgender women had to deal with similar issues, but my opinion on transgender issues and how relevant they are to cisgender issues or non-issues is not the purpose of this review. I will leave it at this note – “A Short History of my Vagina” is writing that is relatable for the women in the audience and worth a listen from the men in the audience and Conor Maxwell deserves congratulating not only for his bravery in appearing in his underwear on stage but further to that, dressing as a woman and committing to the role truthfully and consistently.
Finally, the show ends with a return from Stephen Henderson performing Karl Guethert’s “…Good Book Down”. Henderson is joined by Carmen Penny and Moraig Humphries, wearing a lion mask and a pig mask respectively. They both find their way around the stage, paying little mind to Henderson’s performance, save for a few moments of dialogue between the narrator and the embodiments of two sides of his inner thoughts. The play opens with Henderson proclaiming “I am an extroverted introvert”. Some stifled laughter, mostly a few raised eyebrows, he goes on to explain that this is a mask he hides behind, a statement that really doesn’t mean anything and gets him the same response the audience gave him there on stage. The piece is a recollection of the narrator’s happy experiences until one day in high school the dreams of the future collapsed. It’s at this point the masked figures make themselves known. The pig is quick to tell the narrator that nobody loves a balding teen, and that the narrator should kill himself. The lion attempts, meekly to provide reasoning why not to go through with it, but the lion leaves the stage as the pig’s shouts overrule anything the lion attempts to console the narrator with. A melancholy piece, the narrator tells us of how he came to believe his subconscious and fell into a darker place. That is until the narrator mentions a friend who told him how dark a place she had fallen into, and the narrator realised it wasn’t quite so bad. It took some time, but he began to move past the paranoia and eventually, the lion returned as the pig was drowned out by, as the lion tells us, “the
sound of how awesome you are.” In this end it’s quite an uplifting piece, as the paranoia and worry that so many of us feel was overcome with time and self re-evaluation, which is what we all really need sometimes. Henderson did well in presenting both the writing’s rather self-aware humour but also caught the darker motions of self-loathing very well.
“…Good Book Down” came to a close with the full cast finding a place on stage, and bowing as Stephen Henderson’s performance closed. With final thanks from Henderson and a rather vulgar farewell from Conor Maxwell, I left the show rather pleased with what I had seen. Not being a writer in any sense of the word I came to see Mayhem Live to find out what local talent Hamilton had, and my ears were revelling with the beauty and sadness of so many voices and the penmanship that brought them out. While I had my concerns about how some pieces were portrayed I was never disappointed – the class of acting in Mayhem Live was more than I could’ve asked for, and for somebody who informed their year 9 English teacher that poetry is boring, I think the writing not only deserved the theatrical touch but perhaps benefitted from it. Perhaps the great poets and authors need not write a play, but give their most treasured work to a talented director and the harmony of writing and theatre will truly be realised.