Bushfires is the type of show that the Fringe is all about: young performers writing and performing their own work, essentially taking their hearts out of their chests and putting them on the stage floor. Hoping like hell that a hostile audience won’t crush them. Chasland and MacGill, two recent Wellington Performing Arts Centre graduates, put their hearts out there and won the gamble. A political satire piece, at times Bushfires came dangerously close to straightforward Bush-Bashing but redeemed itself with some brilliant acting and a biting, confrontational style.
The duo portrayed four characters, all examples of various stereotypical American views on their current commander-in-chief. From Mary-Beth, the peppy high school girl from conservative Middle America to Sammy, the schizophrenic recluse who blames “Georgie” for the loss of his family during Hurricane Katrina.
MacGill’s Mary-Beth confronted the audience in an unabashed fashion, expounding far-right views on homosexuality and foreign affairs that New Zealanders generally find jarring and offensive. This theme was paralleled with Mary-Beth’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner (imagine fingernails running over a chalkboard, very very slowly). Chasland’s performance as Sammy was highly polished and professional. At times comedic, at other times haunting, but beautifully acted throughout. The characterisation at no time overpowered the message of the scene as is often the case with particularly eccentric or mentally unstable characters.
However it was the scenes where the actors played Ben and Karen that really stole the show. Ben, a peace-corps officer in the American army meets and falls in love with Karen, a liberal-democrat with a burgeoning career in television journalism. These scenes show how everyday Americans are affected by the decisions of the Bush administration and how, despite the upheaval, life must still go on. When Ben tells Karen he has volunteered to be deployed to Iraq, MacGill’s process from confusion to contempt to sadness makes for a highly poignant scene that threatened to elicit a few silent tears from the audience.
There was good use made of the movie screen at the back of the Paramount stage with documentary style comments from members of the Kiwi public playing between each of the scenes. The concept worked exceedingly well as a whole, but to be at their most successful, the comments needed to be punchier sound bites rather than the narratives presented.
While the writing was lacking a little in subtlety, as a piece of original theatre Bushfires was well thought out and performed – especially for a first attempt by these talented young performers.
Written and Performed by Kate MacGill & Jason Chasland
Directed By Gene Alexander
Paramount Theatre 1 – 4 March