Tuesday 25 February 2020

Chook - Theatre Review

What: Chook
When: 24 - 27 February 2020
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Ava Campbell, Claire Bird, Kaine Hansen, William Strom, Dominic Weintraub, Hugo Williams
Kaine Hansen, Claire Bird, and Hugo Williams
Chook is one of the first lot of shows kicking off the inaugural One Act Play Festival at The Butterfly Club this year. Created by a freshly minted set of VCA graduates, Company 19, Chook is a frenetic action thriller about the relationship between humans and chickens, much in the style of Planet of The Apes but with a lot more laughs.

The VCA school of theatre has always had the tradition of naming graduate groups by the year they graduate. The idea/hope was that those groups of students - after three years of intensive undergraduate training - would go forth and create theatre companies. It worked sometimes.

Of course, this concept began when production, acting and theatre making were all one school. So, for example, I am Company 97 (and Company 16, sort of, but that's a vaguer connection). The bigger concept crumbled once Production divorced Theatre (although a success story for a while was Hayloft Project). It all became even more ambiguous when theatre making disappeared in favour of the autonomous actor.

The Theatre School kept up the tradition however and there have been some very successful outcomes including Hotel Now. In fact, Chook reminds me very strongly of Hotel Now's Dog Show and What's Yours Is Mine although Chook is not quite as sophisticated...yet.

The Wheel of Life (Samsara...) keeps turning though, and Company 19 are the first graduating class from the recently reinstated undergraduate theatre making stream. By the looks of Chook, the emphasis of the training still sits very heavily in acting over dramaturgy but there are nuggets of very powerful possibilities in Chook if the group continue to dig into the idea with perhaps a bit more rigor.

It is billed as an experimental work, but really all collaborative theatre falls under that category as a technicality. I would be more likely to consider multi-media or cross-form work experimental. Having said that, Chook is a fast-paced piece of physical theatre performed by a team who have acting skills only VCA graduates emerge with. Their knowledge of how to use the body to tell stories is outstanding and they still have that energy, sense of fun, and connectedness which comes from being recent graduates. It all comes through in the work.

Underpinning Chook is the Orwellian idea of animals revolting against humans. Rather than retell the story of Animal Farm though, Company 19 have chosen to focus on one animal - the chook.

I kind of want to disregard the introduction and the first scene because they are just set up to gain cheap laughs and don't have much narrative logic. The Perfect Match game show premise is so overused now it doesn't have any flesh left on it's bones and I found myself wondering if anyone under the age of 40 even really gets that trope? We are in the age of The Bachelor and Love Island now so I think we can put those old style game shows in their grave now.

Once the show moves on though, things pick up quickly and Chook gets very dark (in a comedic way) very fast indeed! It starts with a cooking show on how to cook chicken for kebabs and for roasting. A chook (Bird) comes out and teaches us how to paralyse a bird but ends up accidently paralysing herself. The next thing we see is her being pre-baked and then stuffed into another chook (Williams) to make a ch-chicken. This is where the rebellion begins.

Chook doesn't enter into any particular political debate beyond that point, but instead uses manic clowning techniques to tell a science fiction tale about evolution. Having made a h-human in retaliation (Campbell and Weintraub), the chooks learn to use human technology.

Along the way they develop human behaviours as well. Eventually they begin to create art and through interpretive dance we learn about the rise of the Chook civilisation.

I loved the central concept of Chook and how the clowning is used to blacken this dark, dark tale. The boundless energy which is Company 19 is totally infectious and I like how they are not afraid to go wherever their scary minds take them. What I would like to see is a greater commitment to dramaturgy. I don't think they actually trusted that this show would work and it comes out in the shortcuts they have taken.

They probably need to slow a bit of the physical stuff down too. Yes, the audience full of VCA comrades got it because they have been in classes with them, but some of the clever detail work goes by so fast I don't think an uninitiated audience will catch it all and it really is too good to miss.

I strongly recommend going to see Chook. It is high energy, quite hilarious, and has an enchanting darkness which actually made me shudder because it became so visceral in my mind.

3.5 Stars

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