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Print Version

by Desirée Gezentsvey
directed by James Hadley

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 24 Jul 2012 to 4 Aug 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 25 Jul 2012

As life goes on and on and on we like to think we have free choice and are in some sort of control over the course it takes for us. Those who emigrate are entitled to feel especially proactive in changing the outcomes of their life choices.

But as Desiree Gezentsvey's Nuclear Family plays out, two words instantly alert us, in hindsight, to the realisation that other forces can and will upset our plans. They are ‘Chernobyl' and ‘share market' (OK, that's three words). Thus our perception of the human behaviour being performed is tainted: the confident plans and decisions people make which we'd normally have applauded now offer proof that life is indeed a confidence trick.

Most of the dozen characters made manifest by Yael Gezentsvey are Jewish immigrants to Wellington, from Russia or Venezuela. We know straight away we are well back into last century when a milkman is mentioned. The reference to Chernobyl as simply the place where other family members remain is another clue, as is the mention that Regan and Gorbachev are having ‘talks' to end the Cold War.

The focus on prosaic family events in the context of global forces is one of the play's strengths. In performance, the deft delineations of the multiple characters through simple shifts in physicality, accents and vocal tones are also impressive. And a perceptive wit enlivens the play as the different and same, particular and universal dance with each other for a steady hour.

I'd have liked more variation in the pacing, more peaks and troughs, and perhaps some music or actual dancing to break up what sometimes felt like a relentless flow of words. There could be a few too many characters. Some, like the Maori neighbour Marama, appear briefly – and impressively, performance-wise – but have no further role as the story unfolds. I had to consult the character board outside Circa Two to get clear on who was who.

On the other hand, just letting it all wash over you and getting to know them as well or as little as you might in real life does have a certain validity.

Babushka wins our hearts very quickly with her droll observations. It takes me a while to distinguish Zina – who has brought her son Danik to Island Bay but has left her daughter Anya with her ex (the father), and her sister Greta, in Chernobyl – from Emma who, with Alek, has two daughters, Becky and Linda, and is suffering from housewife syndrome.

House painter Mike, the good Kiwi bloke in love with Zina, becomes embroiled in a scheme to liberate Greta from Russia and I think it is the funds which Alek has gone and invested in the share market which were supposed to abet all that.

Exactly who is related to whom and quite where Venezuelan Abi fits into the plot remains a mystery. I was not alone in sometimes getting confused as to which woman was whom, although it must be Abi who talks about never seeing the midday sun directly above, as that is an equatorial thing.

The ever-present quest for better accommodation is also linked to the money and the cameo of Mr Rossi, the Italian landlord, is memorable. Mr Potz, another contender for the affections of Zina, is also played broad but true. (I can't place the character Jayanti, who is included on the character board.)

War-toy-toting Danik offers a high-point in physical acting and the naively romantic sisters Becky and Lina are a lovely contrast. Yael Gezentsvey is confidently fluent and fluid in her delivery and transitions throughout. While she shows no stress in meeting the considerable challenge, her audience may benefit from the odd breather to consolidate and get their bearings.

After its premiere at the Adelaide Fringe Festival 2011, directed by Duska Kumar, James Hadley (once programme manager of Bats, now working for Arts Council England) became the director. Also last year, Nuclear Family played the London Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Etcetera Theatre London, and earlier this year, the Norden Farm Centre for the Arts (in Maidenhead, Berkshire), so it is well run in.

With just a small table and chair, a bottle of vodka and a couple of glasses, the action plays out against a sky blue background, between wall-hung sets of a picket fence and letter boxes, one the right way up, the other upside down. There are no design credits for this witty image but apparently it is a collaboration between actor /producer Yael, writer Desiree, stage manager /operator Tim Bell and publicist Lara Phillips.

The work the audience is required to do – in keeping up with the who, what, where, when and why of the unfolding action – pays off when we feel rewarded for paying attention but it can have a negative effect when we feel left out. More ‘get it' moments and more modulation to better mark them would help. (I'm tempted to go again to get my head around it properly but that should not be necessary.)

The one climactic, and final, moment presupposes we all know what happened at Chernobyl in 1986. As for the 1987 share market crash, some of us will also know that is yet to come. We are left to ponder who would not have defied augury; whether anyone could or should have been ready; whether such events are as inevitable as the falling of a sparrow …  

Nuclear Family is an intriguing meditation on fate delivered with impressive skill. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Stephen Austin
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);