It's hard to know where to begin with Mr Red Light, largely because it's a play that refuses to be boxed in. The latest creation from writer Carl Bland, director Ben Crowder and theatre company Nightsong is one of the most surreal, beautiful, hysterical and outrageously original shows to grace an Auckland stage this year, a bombastic tale that leaps between ideas and concepts in a maddening, tightly constructed 90-minute joyride.
It begins simply enough in a branch of chain pie shop "Jokers", where the cashier known only as Joker (Richard Te Are) struggles to chat up sharp-tongued customer Chrys (Jess Sayer), interrupted constantly by demanding elderly regular Eva (Jennifer Ludlam).
It's a low-key, sitcom-like opener, the calmest part of the show before an attempted bank robber bursts into the store and holds the trio hostage. The titular "Mr Red Light" marks a welcome return to Auckland by Trygve Wakenshaw. He proves why he has become such a hit on the international festival circuit, delivering a tour de force performance as the tragic clown who is as annoyed by the situation as those he's holding hostage.
He brings much of the comedy despite having a gun in hand, though the show is ceaselessly funny, parodying cop drama tropes mixed with a plethora of sight gags and bizarre asides (Simon Ferry shows up in various cameos, most notably as a lonely ant caught up in the drama).
Yet the genius in Bland's script lies comes from the pathos of his characters. As the hostage drama drags out, all four characters reflect on their lives and how they've reached this point, their terrifying, tense situation drawing out their best selves. Ludlam, in particular, shines as the widowed Eva, committing fully to the play's surreal seriousness, seen best when delivering a powerful speech comparing life to a dungball.
Perhaps the best character, though, is the set itself. Designer Andrew Foster has replicated in vibrant detail the type of gas station-food court you'd find on State Highway 1, grounding this eclectic world in realism, before his hidden traps and visual puns throw you back into the chaos. Jokers is constructed to feel intricate to the story, aided by Charley Draper's constantly revolving slideshow of themed pies that shore up many of the jokes.
If there's a flaw, it's simply that there are so many wonderful ideas and set pieces, from surprise sing-alongs to rousing action scenes, that the central themes of connectedness and shared experiences can get lost in the madness.
Still, Bland and co-director Ben Crowder have crafted something truly unique, delivering a bold, eclectic, unforgettable vision that demands, and rightfully earns, your attention.
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What: Mr Red Light
Where & when: Herald Theatre, until September 22nd
Reviewer: Ethan Sills