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TOME | Freeroam Theatre

Attended Friday 14 May by Kati Murphy

If I invited you to a show like TOME, with no costumes, no props, no soundtrack, and not even a curtain for the performers to emerge from… would you be excited, or would you be wondering what is even left? Never fear, as Freeroam Theatre were improvisational superstars, and their personal soundscape offerings were second to none. This was intelligent entertainment, as the performers navigated their way through a one-hour show with only each other to rely on. As for the S word (script) they left it behind a long time ago, back in their home town of Wagga Wagga.

In a highly compelling introduction that was dark, strange, and beautiful all at the same time, I felt like I was witnessing these clandestine moments through a peephole. This set the tone for a highly evocative series of vignettes that were extremely diverse, but the ensemble managed to bring it all together through their strong connection to each other, and their alter egos. In turn their complicity translated into powerful onstage connections between the myriad of characters they created. There was an underlying and somewhat connecting theme, but I don’t like to give away spoilers. Besides, it was pretty absurd. Umm… let’s just say, bird is the word. And just in case that has you wondering, I can assure you there was absolutely no cruelty to animals in this show; that is real animals anyway.

In all seriousness though, it would almost be impossible to give away spoilers to this show as it is totally new every time. Not only do these actors improvise their lines and whatever else happens, they also add different scenes or running orders for every single performance. This fact becomes more impressive to me the more I think about it, especially as the show was infused with excellent comic timing. The team of five have obviously worked tirelessly to make this look seamless, and it did.

Keeden Hendriks, kicked off with a charismatic solo and some very intriguing superpowers, owning the stage in a murky green light. I felt nervous as he peered into the audience in my direction, but luckily for me this energy vampire had already chosen his prey, the guy sitting right in front of me. Hendriks made a strong connection with the audience from the beginning and has a natural comedic ability he should definitely aim to master. This included a bunch of memorable characters with hilarious accents, ranging from a redneck southern cop, all the way to Jim at his job interview speaking fluent money, which wasn’t really language but more so repetitive babbling, as part of a genius caricature.

Sally Jackson’s acting was raw, vulnerable, and steeped in emotional intelligence. Her moments on stage were breath-taking at times and drowning with meaning. Jackson’s depictions were so real I felt like interrupting in almost every scene she was in, from her little girl lost, and serious stepmother Sandra, to the woman who comes to us from the dark… so many times I wanted to just take her hand. Just when I had her pegged as the total straight man though, she gave us a gut busting comic portrayal as an evolving statuesque type organism, that much like Icarus flew too high, too far, too soon.

Charles Sykes is a captivating provocateur who certainly doesn’t shy away from dark matters. He is highly expressive and his portrayals so realistic that in most of his scenes I forgot it was a work of fiction, and an improvised one at that. Although he excels at playing the unlikable, from the man who took a little too much interest in children all the way through to his hoity toity corporate boss, Sykes is a highly versatile actor. This was never more evident than in the highlight of his work for me, his comic portrayal of the dreamy gigolo, Gunther the Hunchback.

Haya Arzidin has a formidable comedic ability that was never too far away in her confident portrayal of an array of mostly madcap characters. For me, her defining quality was strength, as even when she played the vulnerable little girl, and the content pigeon she had a fierce magnificence. I could watch her all day long. For me, the highlight was her comically brutal brothel Madam with the heavy accent and a deep sexy voice, who had literally been there forever; but coming in a close second was her ever evolving bird of prey. I have to say her sound effects were particularly impressive, from her sweet pigeon vocalization, and the voice of the little girl on the swings all the way to her hungry Velociraptor.

Natasha Shimpf’s standout moment was definitely her nervous brothel virgin accidentally breaking into high pitched song at the end of a sentence as you could hear the whole room laughing; however, she played a beautiful assortment of other kooky characters as well, ranging from what I can only call a light absorbing entity, through to an intrepid bird enthusiast. She is an exciting performer to watch as she was not afraid take chances and it paid off. She also gets extra points for her physical comedy, as I can’t stop replaying a moment in my head where she kind of resembled a unicorn moonwalking backwards. Originally, my date for this show dubbed her the dark horse, but it didn’t really sink in at the time. When I came back to him later to talk about how clever certain elements of her performances were as they were clinging, coming back to, or growing on me, he just laughed and then I remembered his comment… Shimpf really was the dark horse of this evening.

As to the hypothetical question I posed in the beginning of this review, I can confirm my date was super keen to see what Freeroam Theatre could do with the bare bones of entertainment, and we were both blown away with what they achieved. Since we were already talking about it, I cheekily asked who his top actor was for the night. To my delight he wanted to talk about it, and he named Charles Sykes. I expressed mine was Haya Arzidin, and from here a grand conversation has ensued. Interestingly when we got around to talking about a second pick, we both named the same actor, Keeden Hendriks. Then as often happens with such prolific material, we found ourselves saying things like, “Oh but in this scene this actor was my favourite”; or “I can’t believe how brave the actors were in that moment”. Which of course led us to talking about our favourite scenes of the evening. Initially I thought mine was the birds without a doubt, but after finding out his was the statuesque organism scene (both involved all five players) I started to feel like maybe that was my favourite after all.

There was so much to discuss, and as we did the postmortem, I realised… just as the scenes were all amazing in different ways, so too were the artists who created them. They just cannot be pigeon-holed, not even by my bad puns. We definitely would love to have seen the last two incarnations in Brisbane. Funnily enough, as I write this review, I also find the scene that has made the most significant impression on me in the end is in fact neither of our initial favorites, but one remarkably simple piece starring Sally Jackson and Natasha Shimpf, about a girl just wanting a little more light so she can see her friends. And I feel like this is a metaphor from the show worth holding on to forever. Look for the light, watch over your friends, and remember to find the happiness in simple pleasures. Thank you for the reminder Freeroam Theatre!