Downstage Theatre
Sept 23-Oct 3 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

IT’S HARD to believe that Toa Fraser’s Bare is ten years old – this 10 year anniversary production of the award-winning play, directed by Oliver Driver, feels anything but dated. Bare still ‘speaks’ of and to New Zealand culture in a unique way – and that is what is at the heart of the play – an attempt to capture the word, the voice, the song of multicultural youth at a time when the term multicultural seems to have lost its meaning, as expressed through a multiplicity of characters. As such Bare sets a challenge for its actors and director, which Driver and his two young performers, Curtis Vowell and Morgana O’Reilly, rise to meet in an interesting way. They bring a varied tone to the piece that never looses an uncompromising thrust.

As the title would suggest, Bare is concerned with exposing and laying open cultural attitudes to art, bodies, sex, love, education and a range of other topics. The actors play about 15 roles in total – some of which are hilarious cameos; others of which have more of an emotional heart and are returned to. However, for me it is not the subject matter which sets this play apart – it is the use of language. Without loosing theatricality, Bare is like a poem in its exciting and creative use of language. Words are interrogated and played with – language as the shaping force of culture is a fore theme.

Driver has wisely opted for a neutral set, which allows the actors to fluidly move around between their monologues. The set bears the hallmarks of a student flat living area and kitchen – or perhaps the rehearsal room. The jug is boiled for tea and food is prepared in a microwave, the actors lounge on a dilapidated couch, sit at a formica-top table or come forward into generous pools of light to deliver monologues. There is minimal interaction between them – in fact the disconnection seems to be at the heart of the play – they have so many words but no one who is really listening to address them to. When they do connect lighting assists in creating an unidentified territory. I preferred it when they sat neutrally when the other actor was delivering their monologue – sometimes the background activity could be regrettably distracting.

Curtis Vowell and Morgana O’Reilly handle their multiple roles well. O’Reilly captures the vernacular which is crucial to the success of the play and she is an engaging actress to watch. Her final monologue in particular is excellent and moving. Vowell brings a comic sweetness to his recurring role as Dave the movie-buff who wants to high tail it out of the multiplex and work at Burger King. He has a tougher ask in portraying a Fijian grandfather – together with the American TV exec – this is the character that skates closest to stereotype.

A film adaptation is reportedly on the cards for Bare – following on the success of No. 2 – I’m not sure about the wisdom of this, although if Fraser is at the writing helm then it could succeed. But Bare deserves to be seen as a theatre piece by as wide an audience as possible. I am filled with regret that I did not see the original production of the play. On that note, the small audience at Downstage was disheartening on the night I attended given that this was an iconic NZ play being performed. Perhaps this was due to the high ticket prices ($42 for full price, $33 for concession) that puts the youthful demographic off or apparent the lack of publicity (this is just a personal observation – the opening night of this show entirely passed me by and I tend to keep an eye on what is coming up in theatre!). For whatever reason, this production deserved far greater houses and a full length season.