New Zealand theatre reviews, performace reviews and performing arts directory



A VERY UNNATURAL DISASTER

Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
MY BEAUTIFUL DISASTER
Written and produced by Nataliya Oryshchuk
Co-directed by Nataliya Oryshchuk and Damien McGrath

at Gryphon, Wellington
From 14 Feb 2013 to 17 Feb 2013
[40 mins]

Reviewed by Caoilinn Hughes, 15 Feb 2013


It is a difficult and onerous task to represent anxiety disorders in any art form, particularly so when the anxiety being represented is one as crippling as the fear of natural disasters. Even more so when this is being represented in a country where natural disasters have occurred, and audience members will likely include sufferers of the phobia.

Authenticity, relateability and sincerity are key, even if there is no positive outcome or catharsis allowed. Accurately representing the condition is crucial, if the goal of the performance is to ask (as the play in question literally asks): “Can you understand? Have you ever felt this way?”

That is what drew me to the production My Beautiful Disaster, written, co-directed and acted by Ukrainian-born Nataliya Oryshchuk. I thought: this is bound to be heart-felt and authentic, if the play is written and performed by the same person; at least there won't be the issue of the performer not carrying off the script.

I would like to address the play itself, independently of the performance. The programme describes the plot simply as: “Lonely Frau Agnieszka lives in a big house by the sea. Surrounded by her lovely tea cups and other knick-knacks, she is deeply afraid of the unknown disaster that creeps closer and closer with every tick of the clock...” Already, I was sceptical of the writing. A person with real fear of natural disasters would not live by the sea – I hate to say, but I can speak from experience.

Yes, there is a sentence halfway through the play that tries to explain this, but it is not enough. If the character must live by the sea, then the reason behind that needs to be central to the play: is the character living there in defiance; in a brave attempt to face her fear every minute of every day? Is she financially-bound somehow to the house? The reason would give the character some depth, and help to complicate her place in the world. (The play is sparse of all detail – all the textures of location and narrative – in an almost Pinteresque sense; but, unfortunately, without actually being absurdist.)

From that program sentence alone, there are more issues, besides the patronising and misrepresentative description of her “lovely tea cups and knick-knacks.” “She is deeply afraid,” it says. Deeply afraid doesn't really cut it, when you're talking about a severe anxiety like this. It is the difference between being ‘very tired' and being an insomniac. She is cripplingly nervous with the phobia. She is unable to carry out simple, everyday tasks. The problem with the program description, and the play as a whole, is that it doesn't seem sure exactly what it is trying to represent.

Some moments, Frau Agnieszka is playful and giddy: she wears a sparkly birthday hat; she makes faces at herself; she moves like a marionette; she is caricatured. At other moments, she seems to be trying to display naturalistic, emotionally-resonant anxiety and terror: climbing under the table, suffering headaches and agonies from her nervousness, being uncomfortably aware of the ticking sound of the clock and the swell of the waves outside. Because there is no consistency in the style of representation, it is hard to know what she is doing or going to do.

The few moments the character is meant to be breaking down – suffering a panic attack – performer Oryshchuk covers her face with her hands, so we can't see any genuine feeling. Comically ticking eyes will have to do. Comedy? Tragedy? Absurdity? Realism? Soap opera? Drama? Melodrama?

Moreover, the character suffers from on-and-off Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (think polishing teacups, repeatedly repositioning picture frames, and supposedly washing the carpets in seawater every day). This disorder is quite an unusual one to pair with a crippling fear of natural disasters: the former condition is all about control; putting things in order; having patterns and schedules and tidiness and logic. The latter condition has to do with lack of control: the fear that at any given moment, one's world can be broken into and destroyed by an ungovernable, unfeeling force. They conditions are contradictory.

However, this could have been very interesting, in being so unusual… if it had been thought-through; if it had been fully explored; if it had been convincing in the slightest. 

There is a second character, Gunda (played flatly by Stephanie Cusick) who comes to visit Frau Agnieszka. Why? We're not really sure. Out of a sense of obligation, perhaps? Gunda is uncomfortable from the first minute, she makes no effort at conversation, her character is written almost misogynistically. Again, if it were clear that Gunda were a caricature of a materialistic, unfeeling snob, then it would have been justifiable that the character has absolutely no depth or credibility at all, but it is not clear whether she is meant to be a cartoon or a human. She comes and goes without showing a single moment of humanity, or depth of character. She asks just before she leaves: “Has a disaster ever actually happened to you?” To which Frau says, “No, but …” So Gunda leaves, happily suggesting the use of vinegar on the carpets.

The fact that Gunda is an irresponsible human being doesn't really matter, because she isn't a human being at all. If the point of the play is to say ‘society doesn't understand this phobia,' it is not effectively communicated. Where is the embarrassment, the self-reproach, the statistics learned by rote in defence of your fear? I have gone to people in moments of severe anxiety, and they have said: “Let's have a beer and watch House. That'll give you something to worry about!”

People simply aren't cruel in the simplistic way represented in My Beautiful Disaster; and if they are, then they should be fascinating characters on stage. We should want to know: how can they be so callous? Is Gunda actually fearful that Frau Agnieszka is manic? Does she fear for her own safety, perhaps? Does she think the phobia might be contagious, if she spends too much time considering it? That would be interesting.

There are three other performers involved in this production: dancers and acrobats Cameron Mason, K.B.G. Purple and Amber Liberte, described in the program as Creepy-Crawlies. These three characters are dressed in blue body socks that cover their faces. They represent fear (faceless).

These sock-monsters open the play by skulking around in the dark and sniffing. Are they trying to invoke fear in the audience? They appear in various contemporary-dance interludes through the play. One of the three seems to be an acrobat, and does some incongruous flips. Who knew ‘fear' could do cartwheels.

These scenes are frankly bizarre and, again, it is a strange mishmash of styles, aesthetics and confusing intentions. It would have been so much more powerful if these three fear-mongers stood still at the back of the stage for the entire duration of the play. Fear is always there: maybe they could step closer at times. Or perhaps I am missing the metaphor in fear doing back-flips.

Finally, there is the closing scene, which I will briefly say something about. In the penultimate scene, there is an actual earthquake, or a storm, where all Frau Agnieszka's belongings fall to the floor and shatter. She is safely tucked under the table. After this scene, the lights glow bright yellow, indicating the calm after the storm. The program promises “emotional liberation and re-birth.” This promise of catharsis is a very uncomfortable one, given that a real disaster supposedly took place. In reality, people die and houses are destroyed. If the play feels it needs to offer a ‘re-birthing' scene, it must be extremely sensitive to the fact that there are real implications for families who endure natural disasters.

I find it very hard to believe that someone whose worst fears have been realized would literally dance around in the ruins of their home, post-disaster, and punch their family pictures out of their frames in order to give a clown-like grin through the frame. Frau Agnieszka encourages the audience to partake in wrapping her in celebratory crepe ribbons. She twists around in them: an action absolutely incongruous to either a person who suffers from OCD or fear of death (she could choke.)

This scene does not do justice to the mental health conditions represented, nor is it credible or cathartic. In the end, it is a circus performance, which is what Nataliya Oryshchuk does, when she is not writing, producing, starring in and directing plays.

My Beautiful Disaster is, in short, a very unnatural disaster.
_______________________________
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:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);

Comments

D Brown posted 15 Feb 2013, 11:30 PM / edited 21 Feb 2013, 12:20 AM
 

I'm sorry but the reviewer here does not seem to understand the themes within the play nor the conditions upon which she bases her criticism of its content.
Being from Christchurch perhaps gives a different perspective, we do know a thing or two the type of chaotic disaster presented therein, and the general anxiety concerning them, it was excellent and yes cathartic, and relevantly I saw the show in the company of someone who suffers from anxiety disorder (also from Christchurch). She described the portrayal of Frau Agnieszka's anxiety and coping mechanisms as extremely accurate (and I've directly observed such). In regards to the reactions, to quote her, ‘especially in regards to the clock, when you're that stressed, you hear every single sound thrumming with tension', the portrayal of which is dismissed here as comical.
The reasoning used here is overtly faulty, -to claim that trying to create order, feeling a compulsive need to, is contradictory with a fear of disorder? That's nonsense.
Claiming any person with such a condition could not live by the sea, is factually incorrect and condescending. Many here have understandable issues with disasters, and we're an entire city by the sea.
And actually it's quite astounding that the critic would invoke the serious effects of the earthquake in her criticism of the play, given our direct awareness of these facts and experience of such here in Christchurch. I have walked through my house in such a shambolic condition and felt just that, that easpect of the show is clearly lifted directly from reality, and was also extremely appreciative for that which had not been lost. To have your worst fears realised and come out the other side? Of course that's cathartic. The tension of anxiety is in the fear and anticipation, when that event has happened, it is as though a huge pressure is lifted. This was more than accurately and genuinely reflected within the play, and an excellent exploration of what we experienced here.

Daniel Webster posted 16 Feb 2013, 02:29 AM
 

Wow, this review is almost as entertaining as the show itself!

Would be really keen to hear your thoughts about Postman Pat and its inaccurate portrayal of the daily lives of postal workers. The notion that Pat is a 'very happy man' seems completely at odds with the mundane, oppressive drudgery of his wage slavery, especially considering that many postal workers in the UK earn close to minimum wage. Its failure to represent the class struggle of the Communication Workers Union is baffling to say the least.

No explanation is given for the strange behaviour of his black and white cat, who follows him everywhere he goes. Anybody who's ever owned a cat knows that they are highly averse to vehicle travel. Is this cat somehow 'different' from other cats? Or has Pat placed it under sedation due to some obsessive need for its company, which surely suggests some kind of Social Dysmorphia in Pat himself, as well as raising profound issues of animal cruelty. These points are never addressed in the show, when they quite clearly ought to play a key part in its narrative.

But anyway, I digress. Y'all should go see this show. It's cute and whimsical and highly entertaining and bursting with personality and awesomeness. And refreshingly unpretentious, though sadly the same cannot be said for certain theatre critics.

Diana Burns posted 17 Feb 2013, 10:06 AM
 

I don't agree at all with the negative review above. This is an exciting show, and just the sort of thing we should be seeing at the Fringe. It has energy, power, and makes you think. I see it as a fascinating look at an isolated, lonely woman who is descending into madness...and what happens when she finally gives in to it. The lead actress, Nataliya, has one of those wonderfully cinematic faces - someone give her a film role, please! And the physical theatre performers, in their blue body suits, are amazing. I also really liked the evocative sound and music. Go and see it!

Fergus Aitken posted 19 Feb 2013, 03:08 PM
 

I also find this review to be patronisingly singleminded.  The writer appears to have made some fundamental decisions about what this play has set out to achieve and based their critique on the importance of these decisions...

Authenticity, relateability and sincerity are key, even if there is no positive outcome or catharsis allowed. Accurately representing the condition is crucial, if the goal of the performance is to ask (as the play in question literally asks): “Can you understand? Have you ever felt this way?”

What about creative license?  As in, the personal right(s) to create this work using whatever imagery, text and movement, including theatrical conventions, that she chooses?

 

Some moments, Frau Agnieszka is playful and giddy: she wears a sparkly birthday hat; she makes faces at herself; she moves like a marionette; she is caricatured. At other moments, she seems to be trying to display naturalistic, emotionally-resonant anxiety and terror: climbing under the table, suffering headaches and agonies from her nervousness, being uncomfortably aware of the ticking sound of the clock and the swell of the waves outside. Because there is no consistency in the style of representation, it is hard to know what she is doing or going to do.

...The few moments the character is meant to be breaking down – suffering a panic attack – performer Oryshchuk covers her face with her hands, so we can't see any genuine feeling. Comically ticking eyes will have to do. Comedy? Tragedy? Absurdity? Realism? Soap opera? Drama? Melodrama?

Umm... I would love to see this work developed with even more focus on movement. And while I partly agree about consistency in movement conventions utilized, I so disagree with the 'need' to be confined to fewer styles, or to 'know what will happen next' that further analysis of this long detailed review will only create another dull, long and detailed critique, of your critique.


In the end, it is a circus performance, which is what Nataliya Oryshchuk does, when she is not writing, producing, starring in and directing plays.

Seriously, could you be any more ignorant or patronising?

 

Suffice to say, I feel what you've largely missed here is that this is a work-in-progress, very much worth further investment and development... Surely this is precisely what the Fringe Festival is for?