As the Guardian pointed out in an interview with the performer earlier this year, what Trygve Wakenshaw does is not, by popular opinion, ‘cool’. Clowning is not cool. And within the school of clowning, mime is probably the least kind of cool. Except for maybe the diabolo.
Yet, with gangly limbs and a mind teeming with delirious mischief, Wakenshaw is staging a coup d’etat conversion in audiences worldwide. Scooping up awards at major festivals for previous hits Squidboy and Kraken, he has done much to redeem the scorned art form to give it a hip status not enjoyed for generations. Now back from the Edinburgh Festival in his native hemisphere (Wakenshaw is a New Zealander), the thunderous applause of 600-strong crowds in his sails, he brings to Perth Fringe the third and most ingenious of his Don’t Be Lonely productions yet.
Nautilus has a cast of one, and a prop count of nix. Our performer materialises before us on an empty stage in ill-fitting grey suit, sporting long red socks and hair that a barber would have to take several deep breaths before rounding in on. One could describe his look: rumpled waterfowl.
From here, what ensues for 50-odd minutes is nothing less than shapeshifting magic, crackling with the joyous macabre – where through the contortions of angular limbs and a wild sortie of expressions, Wakenshaw conjures up a host of fantastically twisted characters and stories to send audiences into raptures of grinning delight.
Like a more lithe and twisted Mr. Bugs Bunny Bean, commanding a face that can go from coy princess to maniacal crab in an instant, the air becomes thick with his inventions. And he populates it with all kinds – the sleepy velociraptor, who goes through his before-bed routine after being hit with a tranquilizer (we see him chuckling cutely to Facebook memes in bed when sleep still evades him); the schmoozing, chain-smoking, cow-fondling git Prince Charming, who oils his way through multiple scenes; and the poor, kind-hearted chicken, who thinks her breasts are admired by Charming for their beauty, rather than their anticipated roasted succulence.
At first, it would appear we are simply being treated to a sequence of disparate sketches, in-between which Wakenshaw glories in the just-delivered pay-off by cavorting around the stage to Justice’s D.A.N.C.E. Soon though, we realise each creation does not vanish out of existence in the segue at all. Instead, a whole rich, bizarre and miraculously semi-cohesive universe is being manufactured right before our eyes.
Characters from previous sketches pop up unexpectedly to either meander in or make comment; call-backs tighten the narrative threads; time bends so that we round back on the same scene, but from another character’s perspective (like in our double witnessing of an Aretha Franklin hit, first from the perspective of the possibly sociopathic lead singer, then the increasingly alarmed chorus girl). The Messiah appears so often (“geh?”, ogling the dinosaur performing its nightly prayers) that we come to suspect he’s there the whole time.
This is mime, yes, but it isn’t completely wordless. Instead, Wakenshaw deploys a Chomet-like technique, where any speech deemed necessary for plot movement or motive clarification is deliberately under-articulated – muffled and mumbled in yet a wide range of distinctive character tones. It’s incredibly effective clown logic, which aims at economy and allows movement and gesture to dominate to their fullest extent. (Tellingly, one sketch is devoted entirely to a silent stand-up comedian.) It also means that the rare articulated phrases (“Moo means moo!”, or “David!”) succeed in rupturing the worked-upon tension, startling the audience into great rolling guffaws.
A trained clowning professional and theatre actor of ten years, Wakenshaw is a superlative and deranged powerhouse of physical wit. Buffoonery just doesn’t look this smart that often. It makes Nautilus a must-see for the 2017 season – guaranteed to have you bouncing out afterwards, filled with the fondest memories of hapless riflemen and naked sheep.
Trygve Wakenshaw: Nautilus
Studio Underground – State Theatre Centre of WA, 174 William Street, Perth
Performance: Friday 27 January 2017
Season continues to 4 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.blueroom.org.au
Image: Trygve Wakenshaw in Nautilus – courtesy of Don’t Be Lonely productions
Review: Kate Prendergast