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Saturday, March 04, 2023

Review - The Culture (Powersuit Productions) Gryphon Theatre 28 feb - 4 March (Part of the Wellington Fringe Festival)

The 'Culture' tackles the very real and difficult modern landscape of relationships that have been tainted by the ever-present micro and macro aggressions that ooze from every pore of a tolerated, and often celebrated, toxic male culture.  
One that is present in nearly every nook of Western Society.  And they are over it.  They are over dating traps and pitfalls and clichés.  They're over swiping right!  They co-host a podcast called ‘Don’t Even Get Me Started’, the perfect platform to bitch about life, the universe and the poisoned hell that is hooking up in the modern world.   

Katie aspires to be Prime Minister one day, her role models being Julia Gillard and Jacinda Adern.  She quotes them ad nauseum, along with other female leaders.  The show even starts with sound bites and short clips of men in Office and on TV behaving badly.  Julia gives them 'what oh!' for being dicks in the house!  Too right!  

The couple have a number of 'routines' and in-jokes, developed over many years of BFF co-dependency.  Familiarity like brother and sister, lovers, mates.     At home, they are brave, fearless.  Safe, happy, cocooned bliss.  No one can hurt them. Everything they need. Almost.  But in the real-world things are more complicated.   Their sheltered sub-culture is tested when Katie falls for her co-worker, Kale.  Stupid name.  Stupid bloke.  but none the less.  A muscle-bound fitness freak.  A name like a salad vege.   

Will also pursues a romantic relationship, Kale's friend, who is still in the closet.  That sets up the dynamics.  The friendship is tested, in many ways - jealousy, abandonment, and later, when things go sour for Katie, a return to emotional support and a re-union.  Yes a spoiler.  But what did you expect? 

They’re safe, happy.  No one can hurt them. They have everything they need. Almost. Set in the Sydney club and dating world 'The Culture' is a look at a deep and enduring friendship, and the follies and, yes, sometimes dangers of looking for love in today's digital world.  

We are welcomed into their living room to watch this all unfold and, as a consequence are dragged into a more important, wider conversation. Although it's set in Australia, the cast, playwrite and actor Laura Jackson (Katie Monroe) and Mina Asfour (Will Archer) first performed the show in New York.  They told me after tonight's performance that following the Wellington run they were taking it to Adelaide and Sydney.  The Kiwi/Aussie crossover and references, were definitely stronger for the Capital's audience.  

Nods to Cherry Ripe (candy bars) and Jacinda's recent step down as PM, were topical and, fun but loaded with meaning, too.  References that we'd get more than an American audience, perhaps.   

Production Director Bethany Cuputo, who is an acting coach and director in NYC has extensive experience, working with Alec Baldwin, Laurie Metcalf, TV shows like 'FBI', 'Law and Order' and Marvel's Jessica Jone's' and her influence on the production shines through in the quick witted banter, delivered with perfect timing and energy.   The set is simple, created for touring and quick pack outs.  The furniture probably came from K-Mart or Ikea, all flat packs.  A couch, coffee table and two free standing wardrobes.  

The players will use these to change outfits, at pace, lounge on, roll about, sit and scroll.  Costumes are mainly street clothes.  Katie prefers geeky outfits that show off her lanky, awkward frame.  Exceptions are a hugely loud pink two suit and a contrasting black demure dress (which Will refers to, insultingly as 'Armish').  The dress is a metaphor for the containment of Katie's personality, which comes when her new boyfriend starts to control everything in her life, from her movements to her phone and dress.  Will is always in understated t-shirt and jeans.  His personality is loud, but his conservative dress reveals his, shy, insecurities.  He needs Katie to really shine out and this is clear through out the show.   

 Jackson's acting feels very natural.  Having briefly met her afterwards, she seems on stage pretty close to her character on stage.  Her experiences writing the show, she told me, came, in part from experiences from friends.  She didn't specifically say there was an incident that inspired the domestic violence that crops up towards the end, but a collective experience by just being a woman is clearly the pivot point for everyhing that feeds into this narrative. Will will sum it up, at a point where he states the hypocrisy of media reportage of victims of domestic violence as the women and children harmed but never mentioning the man who caused it.  That and the chilling fact that one out three women will come into contact with some kind of abuse in their lifetime.  "Not her.  Not Her. Her!" Katie singles out audience members like a police line-up in reverse.   Jackson plays Katie with an explosive energy that matches Asfour's, particularly in the early stages of the show.  

Asfour plays Will as camp and loud.  Both characters are clearly holding their optimism masks up high, to protect themselves.  Will hides his hesitancy, learned from trying to connect with men at school who aren't ready to come out, with bitter consequences.  Jackson carries the shame of teenage body same T- perfect on the outside but always vulnerable to the reminders of earlier days when she 'carried a little fat."   They both reveal these very real experiences. 

Why can't we go through our teen age years without being outed, judged, body-shamed?  That's the micro-aggressions that haunt us and force us to judge ourselves and others constantly.  And everything feeds into that - from advertising to politicians to newsreaders.  That's the culture we navigate everyday.   

 Credits should also go to sound designer Charlotte Leamon and graphic designer Brandon Wong who were instrumental in putting together the media sound bites and film footage that provides the context for the show and wider conversations as well.  There is the additional use of text messages, portrayed on the screen, which pop up, in certain places.  

My only bug bear was that these were a little small and hard to read from the back row.  But overall, that had no effect on the plot or my enjoyment of the show.  I should have taken my glasses.   

The show is immensely funny at times, witty and very clever.  It makes you think, it angers you, challenges you.  It pushes you, not too hard, in the right direction.  It will make you cry, at the end at least. This is an important work.  It traverses a huge range.  I wonder if it would be suitable for schools.  Many senior students would recognise themselves in these characters and their future selves as well. 

When Powersuit Productions return for the next Fringe Festival, and I hope they do, I'll definitely be going.  I can't wait to see what they do next! 

A final point.  Powersuit Productions, in conjunction with the Robson Jackson Foundation, supports the work of Wellington Womans Refuge and Te Whare Rokiroki (The Maori Women's Refuge), matching donations from patrons of this season of 'The Culture' dollar for dollar up to $2000 per show.   

Groove encourages readers to generously support the important work of those at the forefront of domestic violence.           

 SHOW CREDITS: The Culture Cast: Laura Jackson & Mina Asfour Director: Bethany Caputo Creative Producer: Carly Fisher Dramaturg: Catherine Fargher Lighting Designer: Capri Harris Sound Designer: Charlotte Leamon Stage Manager: Natalie Low Graphic Designer: Brandon Wong 

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