Friday, 28 February 2014

Designing The Bare Mask Experience

About two year ago I found myself in the courtyard of the Collage of the Arts bearing witness to the theatrical wonder of Blessing Mbonabi. My sister, Junelle Stroh, had long spoken of his talents and on this evening I was stirred by both their performances in Journey into the Other Side of the Night. As actors, they could both hold me, in a single moment of air, suspense and the human condition. The now moment. Since then, they've both gone onto countless productions including Theatre Sports and Blessing has been honored with a hat trick of accolades at the Namibian Film and Theatre awards.

When Junelle approached me to design the poster for a project titled The Bare Mask Experience, I was all ears. The experience was essentially a double feature theatre performance, in the hallmark style of a comedy and a drama - both written by Blessing.

With their encouraging open ended brief and a single iPhone photograph, I set forth to create a faceted face of human experience. Stark graphic images were created combining Blessing's portrait combined with comedic and tragic theatre masks to create a new realm of persona, prevelant in his play. A simple red line and type set in Futura completed the poster.

Thank you to Junelle and Blessing for a wonderful opportunity to create some engaging work!
The Bare Mask Experience is showing till Saturday at the Collage of the Arts Theatre School.

Martha Mukaiwa, my favourite arts journalist had this to say about the production.

Don’t miss ‘The Bare Mask Experience’
Martha Mukaiwa

 Blessing Mbonambi writes a play like he’s writing a screwball comedy that just happens to be linked to an after intermission film with about as much levity as a Darren Aronofsky picture.

Like his award-winning reimagining of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Blessing’s ‘The Bare Mask Experience’ is designed like a movie but plays out on stage, thus creating an intriguing hybrid of film conventions made hilarious by the immediacy of theatre. Playing fast and fantastic with music, montage and a little sprinkling of self-reference, ‘The Teachers’, the first play in this double feature, is funny, fun and explodes the talents of comedienne Junelle Stroh and dazzling newcomer Mari-louise Labuschagne.

 Junelle’s star rises with her ability to pull uproarious faces while doing the strangest things with her extremities.

 Stealing the show in her comedic niche as Miss Saunders, a bitter actress turned drama teacher, Junelle sets the mood with a cynical soliloquy that laments the realities of having a dream of working with Woody Allen to seeing that dream devolve into fourth grade productions of ‘Simba in Otjumuise’.

 Acting as the yin to her disenchanted yang is Miss Martin, an enthusiastic and slightly desperate teacher who has seen the horrors of minimum wage and takes up a newly available drama teaching job at Miss Saunders’ school.

 In this Mari-louise Labuschagne bursts onto the scene in an energetic ball of wide eyes, big smiles and glowing skin that is a marvel to behold. Effortlessly transforming from grinning optimism to the dejection of budget cuts, Mari-louise is certainly here, happening and hopefully working on much more.

True to terrific form, Blessing stars as the principal in the production and while he has some laugh-worthy meltdowns, the writer-director steps back somewhat and lets the comedic chemistry between Junelle and Mari-louise bubble over to exceedingly entertaining results.

 Starring an intense and enflamed Blessing as the poet and a petrifying Risto Nghambe as Beelzebub, who is somewhat Darth Vader in voice, Morpheus in coat and Joker in make up, ‘Journey into the Other Side of the Night’ is a violent, vocal and mostly furious existential rumination that showcases the depth of Blessing’s poetic mind in lines like “the sun dried up and the lilies don’t shine.”

 At times a little esoteric and a little underdeveloped in terms of character, particularly with regard to Helouis Goraseb’s sultry role as Lust, juxtaposed with a surprisingly timid turn by Junelle Stroh who plays an angel, ‘Journey to the Other Side of the Night’ suffers due to not enough back-story and minimal plot that boasts brilliant clusters of words but prompts very little audience investment in the characters. Still, it is strangely engulfing. One catches what they can, shrinks under the red light and the gin-soaked voice of Risto Nghambe while immersing themselves in the depths of discomfort and ellipsis. With regard to staging, Blessing and stage manager Taryn Markus are fearless.

 Beginning the action outside, taking it through dance interludes under helium balloons by Alicia Brandt and Mari-louise Labuschagne before showcasing the theatre mask mimicking production of comedy and tragedy right in the heart of the theatre, the play redefines the use of theatre space and pushes the boundaries of what is suitable on stage.

‘The Bare Mask Experience’ is what happens when you combine hard work with pure passion. It’s written by a man who can reference Tennessee William just as easily as he can slot in some Max Richter. Cheesy as it may sound, Blessing is without a doubt a blessing to local theatre. As a writer he gives the talent smart, funny material to present smart, funny productions. As an actor he is alternately fun and fearless and as a creative he is nothing less than luminous.

‘The Bare Mask Experience’ is running at The Theatre School at 63 Robert Mugabe Avenue between 25 and 28 February at 19h00. The final show will be a matinee on 1 March at 14h00. Tickets are N$50 and will be available at the door. For more information, call 081 834 5640. – @marth_vader on Twitter
Article from The Namibian

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