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IDENTITY CRISIS IN THE TEENAGE JUNGLE

Print Version

MANCUB
by Douglas Maxwell
directed by Bryan Johnston
presented by re:Generate Theatre

at The Basement Studio, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 13 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012
[1 hr 15 mins, no interval]

Reviewed by Nik Smythe, 14 Nov 2012


Beginning outside the entrance with camo-netting type jungle foliage adorned with a handful of stuffed rabbits and possums, the set itself is a two-angled white wall, inset with numerous hatches, windows, doors, slide-out bench seats and a rotating blackboard.

The first production from the nascent re:Generate Theatre is the curious coming-of-age tale of Paul, a 16-year-old high school student played with heart and humour by Ryan Dulieu.

Bryan Johnson's tight direction starts off at a tight clip and rarely lets up through the hour and a quarter, Dulieu in particular narrating Paul's intriguing tale of reverse-anthropomorphism with motor-mouthed intensity.  

Paul's sensitive struggles with his family, the neighbourhood dog, his teachers, his friends and scariest of all, the girl he likes, all seem typical enough, in an Adrian Mole sort of way.  At first his observations, comparing the behaviour of the people around him with various creatures in the animal kingdom, appear to be just that: astute insights into the animal nature of the human condition. 

But as the story advances his personal reality becomes increasingly ambiguous.  He starts communicating with animals, eventually believing he can actually transform into different creatures. The drama comes to an unnerving head when traumatic events lead his bestial instincts to take control over his human sense of reason. 

The supporting players share an eclectic line-up of characters with impressively unpretentious versatility. Tansy Hayden in turn infuses Paul's chirpy Mum, his stuffily conservative biology teacher and bright, blossoming love interest Karen, among others, with engaging, credible personalities.

So does Richard Osborne as the oppressive, bull-headed Dad (actually ant-headed according to Paul), the aggro, boisterous neighbourhood dog, the blustering Scottish football coach and Paul's whiz kid/class clown best friend Jerry, et al. 

Dramatically speaking, many questions are raised in the plot which may or may not be fully explained or resolved by the end, the overriding mystery is whether Paul is the reincarnation of a shape-shifting Dr Dolittle, or just plain cuckoo?

The setting for this production of Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell's script has been shifted to ‘Auckland, New Zealand, Earth, the solar system…' albeit an indistinct, pan-dimensional Auckland where the only zoo is a scody dump an hour out of town.

Ultimately the plot is unaffected by this trivial point, but it does kind of defeat the purpose of placing it locally, supposedly to lend a sense of pseudo-familiarity to the audience, then have the geographic description fail to match the real place.  Meanwhile, the variant English/Kiwi/Maori/Scottish accents employed to distinguish the characters aren't so confusing, in fact they make a fittingly cosmopolitan impression.

Maxwell's intensive, comical script is a cerebral juggernaut.  Extremely verbose, with almost every relationship and action described in the dialogue (predominantly by Paul), it would easily translate to radio practically unedited.  I'm curious now to find out how closely the extensive description matches the text of the original young-adult novel Flight of the Cassowary by John LeVert, upon which Mancub is based. 

Along with the cast's demonstrative skills in physical theatrics, Nick Greer's versatile set design aids greatly in drawing the story off the page.  Every orifice and extension on the rear wall provides countless symbolic props and frames that give visual credence to the discursive text, with Katherine Hair's unobtrusive lighting design adding more textural layers.

It's partly thanks to the script's expository style that Johnson and company are afforded a license to stage each scene as naturally or abstractly as they see fit.  For instance, Paul's endearing relationship with his little brother Luke belies the fact that Luke's a floppy doll dressed in kid's clothes and with a head resembling something between an owl and a lemur, voiced by Hayden through one of the wall openings.

In summary, re.Generate's inaugural production, exploring identity crisis in the teenage jungle, is a worthwhile experience, successfully showcasing the young cast and crew's exemplary skills in the field of theatrical production, without becoming unnecessarily showy or gratuitous.  
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