Updated: Jun 20
Review by Harry Bower
It’s rare that you find yourself sitting in the front row of an intimate play holding a torch and shining it at the performer, while clutching an origami crane and a piece of paper with what looks like a phallic microphone painted on it. At more than one stage in this forty five minute, one woman work in progress, it felt as though I might have unwittingly dropped a tab of acid. I can honestly say it was the most brilliantly bonkers yet puzzling pieces of theatre I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. If you picture an audience of about 25, sat in a tiny square room, open mouthed, while being serenaded by a performer singing ‘la la la’ into a microphone for literally several minutes in a row, you’d be close to understanding the sort of tactics used to create this absurd piece of audience torture (which I mean in a complimentary way).
Taking our seats, we survey the set. A seemingly random collection of physical prompts litter the stage. Empty water bottles on the floor, scattered. Hand painted microphones on pages from a notebook are stuck haphazardly to the wall. Trader Joes paper shopping bags, a wonky lamp, a single stool, and a bunch of smaller props complete the look. A single microphone on a stand suggests we might be in for an unorthodox stand-up routine. In many ways, that’s what we get; Around The Lake At Echo Park is almost entirely improvised, devised live by the writer-performer in the moment. The genius of that is in how the performer fully involves the audience, asking them to make decisions which impact the narrative, and guide the characters in their journey. I say narrative, when in reality, there sort of is none? It’s extremely loose. The main premise is that a dream girl searching for fame ends up in a surreal version of Los Angeles. What happens next, not even the performer knows. By improvising based on her own imagination plus a healthy dose of audience interaction the story unfolds piece by piece, and no two shows will ever be the same.
Primarily the humour comes from the awkward moments of storytelling clunkiness, the surprising direction of the audience instruction or the unpredictability of the dialogue, but also from the corpsing, of which there is a healthy amount. Thankfully that doesn’t detract from the experience. What does detract a little is that the audience go in blind to the sheer dramatic extent of the improvisation; it took a good ten minutes before we stopped laughing at how awkward it was, and started laughing at the performer’s intelligent crafting of surreal comedy on the fly. It also wasn’t clear that when the characters she was inhabiting asked open questions, there was supposed to be audience interaction. Audience feedback and involvement is always tricky to initiate if you don’t lay out expectations at the top of the piece and tell the audience that it’s okay for them to get involved. Theatre etiquette, especially when it comes to a work in progress fringe piece, prevents us from feeling liberal with our contributions unless heavily encouraged. We got there eventually but it took more than a little teasing and one very overzealous audience member to crack the nut (and once it cracked, boy did that audience member have trouble uncracking it).
The brainchild of Kaarina Kendall, ATLAEP requires a very strong performer to pull it off. It would be cruel to devise such a piece and expect someone else to perform it, and so wisely Kendall takes the reigns and is absolutely fantastic. Her energy levels despite the late-start (not her fault) and the needing to find entertainment within endless repetition, was impressive. Her comic timing is elite, and you could see her eyes flickering away with ideas and inspiration throughout the piece, which gave away just how much she was enjoying performing it and by proxy made the audience enjoy watching it more, too.
The use of set, lighting, sound (live guitar), and other surprises, was inventive. It felt like these devices added value to an idea which would otherwise quickly become stale. Ultimately I think that is this format’s biggest challenge. Even if the audience had been briefed at the start about how to behave and even if the show had run sixty minutes instead of forty five, the narrative still runs dry without significant pre-planned twists or elaborate props to surprise us, or new characters introduced. This iteration of the show had all of those features but still felt as though it was drifting. There were points in which we were genuinely invested in the woman. Although I’m still not sure why – the brilliant and charming character acting, probably - the story didn’t really come to any meaningful conclusion. Maybe that’s okay, if the show had ended on a punchline or some sort of inventive piece of creativity. In reality it meandered back to where it had been for much of the run time (singing into a microphone), which felt to me like a missed opportunity for the completion of a journey. For me the perfect version of this show, if such a version exists, is framed around a bit more of a structural backbone to ensure the middle and end satisfy an audience’s need for conclusions. And I say that as a huge fan of improv!
I really enjoyed my time in Echo Park. It was as surreal as Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy and could have been lifted straight from a UK Sketch Show episode. There were moments of comedy genius, and other moments which need a bit of overhauling; but that’s what work in progress shows are for. Some people won’t ‘get’ this format. Personally I find it exciting, dangerous, and hugely entertaining. It takes a massive amount of time and skill – despite the appearance of chaos – to pull of something quite so deliberately messy. It takes even more confidence and creativity to stick the landing, and sometimes, it just takes time in front of an audience to refine an idea and hit the nail on the head. With a bit more of the latter, Around The Lake At Echo Park could have audiences eating from the palm of Kaarina Kendall’s hand.
Around The Lake At Echo Park played at A Pinch of VAULT, part of VAULT Festival’s new and work in progress mini fringe festival. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/