Reviewed by John Cohen-Du Four.
Ghost Light Theatre becomes a bar, complete with piano player in the back of the room. The audience arrives as bar owner Pauline struggles to be the gracious host, endlessly greeting, fretting and wiping tables – a well-intended buffoon soon to be host to an ever-changing coterie of characters, both masked and unmasked. They mix and intermingle, their lives briefly entwined in largely unspoken encounters.
This is the neat set-up for Trance Mask’s Nelson Fringe improv show, Drop the Mask. And at times it works brilliantly. Like when a punter at a table on stage has his hair nonchalantly trimmed by a masked wannabe hairdresser; or when another masked punter takes to a mic on stage and, in total silence, mimes a stand-up routine where no one knows what the gags are, but the entire audience willingly claps and laughs enthusiastically every time the comic stamps his foot to indicate a punchline; or when neck massages around the table cause the masked recipients to delightfully ooze their way to the floor; and whenever the confused and ever-apologetic (and interestingly, unmasked) Pauline takes the spotlight to help steady the ship of this unscripted – and, at times, uneven – hour.
Mask is a beautiful art form. At its best it serves to illuminate the human condition – the ultimate in embodiment and nuance. But it is also unforgiving; as was evidenced in the clumsy movements of those inexperienced with the masks they wore. It can put an audience on edge when they are inadvertently watching the stage for slips, trips and falls, rather than getting lost in the story. Wardrobe malfunctions such as a repeatedly falling hat, unless intended for humour, need to be ditched immediately, not struggled with endlessly.
For the performers, it is never enough to merely hide behind the mask – they need to gloriously inhabit it, fill their characters out completely with everything but a changing facial expression. This lack of experience showed in the locally assembled troupe, and meant the show fell, from time to time, into theatrical holes; not helped by the fact that when (unmasked) actors did speak, more often than not they were poorly heard within the busy theatre space. That said, the audience was forgiving, and there for a good time – which they largely got.
There is never enough theatre of the absurd, certainly not in Nelson – making this a welcome, if somewhat patchy, visitation.