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BWW Review: WONDERFUL at Basement Theatre

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This one-man show starting Andrew Laing earns its title

BWW Review: WONDERFUL at Basement Theatre

This show is Wonderful.

Rarely do I get the chance to say that quite so objectively, and I have to admire the simplicity of writing about a show whose title also serves as its main review. I may have been tempted to leave it at that, but I have yet to meet a script honest enough to title itself Pretty Good But Drags a Bit Around the Start of Act Two, so on Wednesday evening I finished my term at school, said goodbye to my students for the next three weeks, crossed the street to the Basement Theatre, and stepped into a scenario hauntingly familiar and lifelike, as frightening as it is wonderful.

Dean Parker's one-man show tells the story of Brother Vianney (Andrew Laing), a Catholic schoolteacher in Napier of the late 1950s. The show takes place during a single class period, as Brother Vianney addresses his students, but finds more pleasure in the distraction of recounting the latest Hitchcock film and singing songs from his favorite musicals than in the prescribed lesson for the day. When the lights come up, Brother Vianney begins to sing. The only song in the show to use an orchestral track, his number is highlighted with colored lights, and his dance movements contrast starkly with what we might expect of either a priest or a school teacher. Then the song ends, the lights fix to a standard wash, and all Brother Vianney's passion melts away into a stern, weathered clergyman-educator.

That contrast establishes a great deal for the tone of the show. It shows a man with deep interests and a rich personal life that may be entirely fantasy. A teacher myself, I instantly recognized that his impassioned tangents implied a professional experiencing a deep personal struggle. The combined work of Parker and Laing brought out that subtlety more and more throughout the show, portraying a character who was strikingly real. To me, I thought of a priest from my youth, who cared for his congregation but secretly struggled with depression and alcoholism. I thought of any number of favorite teachers who sought to connect with their students in spite of being burned out. I thought of Robin Williams, who reportedly loved to entertain people and make them happy even as he fended off his own demons. Likely, every person in the audience was thinking of dear friends from their own lives.

While I enjoy books, movies and theatre, at the end of the day I can set them aside, retrieve my suspended disbelief, and tell myself, "They're just characters in a story." But Brother Vianney appeared more a real person than a character. He held my attention just like my favorite teachers, and I sometimes struggled to refrain from answering his questions and following along in the knee-jerk response to Catholic rituals I learned as a child. He dragged my emotions along in tandem with his own, and I hardly realized I had shifted from the manic excitement of recounting Hitchcock's Rear Window to the more somber, dramatic tone Brother Vianney had adopted by the end.

Prior to the start of the show, I was casually explaining to my wife how the ancient Greeks believed the purpose of theatre was to make the audience laugh or cry along with the characters, which would then heal them through catharsis. Within the next ninety minutes, I experienced that catharsis. Brother Vianney made me both laugh and cry.

"Haha," you say. "You've written three reviews for Broadway World and you're already resorting to the worst of reviewer cliches!"

I know that "I laughed! I cried!" doesn't exactly forge new ground as a writer, but I'm speaking honestly and literally. Laing's performance was so genuine I left the theatre in tears. Dean Parker's show is playing a very limited run in Auckland at the Basement Theatre, ending on the 26th of June. A very few lucky people will be able to get tickets for this show, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

This show is wonderful.

Photo courtesy of the Basement Theatre


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