Just Above The Clouds. People Who Play with Theatre.
February 4th – 8th. The Basement Theatre.
People Who Play with Theatre are presenting their original piece, Just Above the Clouds, for a return season at The Basement Theatre, Feb 4-8. Originally premiering as part of The Auckland Fringe 2013, Just Above the Clouds returns, reworked, to tell the story of “Boy” (Seamus Ford) taking to his “heart covered in concrete” with a pickaxe (Amanda Tito) to discover what’s inside – “Girl” who “knows everything” (Jess Sayer).
Written and directed by Ben Andersen, the piece opens with an acapella soundscape (which continued throughout) and paper lanterns floating, like clouds, in the darkness. Lights come up and one cannot help but be struck by the impressive set, co-designed by Andersen and Britney Pilling; towers of banana boxes offset by a cubist-inspired cardboard tree and sun. The set worked beautifully, allowing reconfiguration of the space at a moment’s notice, a device that could have been further exploited. The ensemble’s movement around the set allowed us to be dazzled by moments of pure surrealism (the moment when Boy is taken just above the clouds was magical, and the puppets lumbering across floating boxes enchanting). However, the ensemble at times pre-empted the movement of the set or the pickaxe, leaving the audience feeling jarred and immediately transported back to reality. Though the actors are all talented, it felt as though there were too many on stage and the focus was drawn away from the convention of puppetry and pulled to the avant-garde nature of the performance, to the detriment of the show.
The use of puppetry (in particular the exploration of the relationship between puppet and puppeteer/actor) was integral to the show. Boy and Girl were represented by two beautifully crafted puppets with papier mâché heads and wooden limbs; as the play moved towards its climax, the puppets take a back seat and the puppeteers/actors take on the characters. While the puppetry was intriguing to watch, the purpose of the device felt muddied, in particular when up to three actors operate one puppet. It was the simplicity of things like the paper lanterns representing the clouds or Katrina Wesseling’s hand-horse that the puppet rode that really ignited my interest. The character of The Cloud (Chye-Ling Huang) was a show highlight for me. Her commitment to the puppetry and the meteorological puns left me wondering why her character’s role hadn’t been expanded.
Andersen obviously had a clear vision for the show, which was achieved, though his text at times suffered from an esotericism, which felt like an attempt to balance its sentiment. Its musings on the nature of love through the focus on the relationship between Boy and Girl was interesting, but didn’t feel as though it warranted the amount of time spent on circumlocution. When we reach the climax one is left wondering why the journey was so indirect. That being said, the moments of poetry, such as the notion that it’s always a nice day “just above the clouds”, were enough to keep me interested.
Image Credit: People Who Play with Theatre.