The Naked Self: A Review of Non Flower Elements

Kate Prior reviews new work from Ash Jones and Arlo Gibson which mixes Buddhist philosophy with a couple of self-important casting directors.

Kate Prior reviews new work from Ash Jones and Arlo Gibson which mixes Buddhist philosophy with self-important casting directors.

This review discusses the ending of the work.

Ash Jones and Arlo Gibson play Charlie Au'Charles & Rumple S Tealskin – two terrible gold-chain, skivvy-wearing casting directors who seem to have emerged from early-80s London. They usher us into the Basement Studio, and once we’re inside we discover we’re all actors auditioning for the role of Ash and Arlo in a show about Ash and Arlo, two characters who have a tough time relating to the world, under the watchful eyes of our casting directors.

First up we’re all on our feet, being taken through scenarios by casting director Charlie Au’Charles to warm up our physical memories. We then watch as Ash auditions for the role of himself (or Arlo? I’m not sure), does a terrible job, and the casting director walks out in frustration. This happens again, roles reversed, with Arlo. There’s more acting games from us, some songs with the resident live band, and then all of a sudden Ash and Arlo are completely nude, dicks swinging and full-voice singing Seal’s Kiss From a Rose.

Non Flower Elements is a loose, slightly confused riff on the performative nature of our relationships, how we’re always playing a role, ‘cast’ by ourselves or others, and how do we just be, man? The figure of a casting director is therefore a potentially really useful master and gatekeeper of that particular identity circus; a wanky shaman of shapeshifters through which to explore this philosophical territory of ‘self’.

Its clear Ash and Arlo are sharp and funny performers, but in Non Flower Elements, the ‘casting room’ never amounts to more than what it usually is – a bit of a tired in-joke between actory types. It’s probably just drama school PTSD talking, but walking round the room doing wacky dancing loses its novelty pretty fast, and the inherent LOLs of bad casting scenarios is some well-worn territory.

It only feels like that because I’m not too sure what Ash and Arlo want from us – the actors auditioning for 'their roles'. For all the appearance of participatory 'game', the relationship with the audience is quite inert; there’s no pressure on us to actually do anything with the role of 'actor' we’ve been cast in. The focus keeps flicking back to the performers, and I wonder if I’d feel more connected to the nub of what the creators are exploring if the attention was less on how hard it is for Ash and Arlo to be themselves in this world, and more on the effects of the fake-smooth-but-actually-tyrannical casting directors on us.

The centrepiece idea, as expounded by Rumple S Tealskin, is a quote from Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh which, in order to refute the idea of the individual separate self, uses the flower as a metaphor for how interconnected living things are. Just as the flower contains 'non-flower elements' of sunlight and water, so do humans (of earth, sun, parents and ancestors) which we cannot separate ourselves from. It’s tough though, this old self-doesn’t-exist stuff, and the (intended?) paradox at the core of the show is that Ash and Arlo spend so much time wrangling with their inadequacies as humans in their earnest monologues and heartfelt one-on-ones, that they can’t see the Buddhist woods for the Western trees.

While penises are never not funny, in this case getting your dick out and dancing reads as purely exhibitionist last resort.

This culminates in a sudden come-to-Jesus moment where Ash and Arlo step out of the several worlds of the show and just get real with each other. 'Fuck this show' they repeat to each other as they pull at their clothing. 'Yeah, fuck this show'. But this pressure – between 'real' Ash and Arlo and the making of 'the show' – hasn’t existed in any way up to this point, so this deep need to reject the show and get naked (I'm guessing back to the most pure 'self') seems to appear out of nowhere. And while penises are never not funny, in this case getting your dick out and dancing reads as purely exhibitionist last resort.

I wonder, as I watch these naked bodies, is there anything more drunk-21st-party indulgent than a white guy with his wang out yelling to 80s hits? Perhaps that's the point. But I do wonder how far we've got to go with the 'guys performing indulgence to highlight their own indulgence' hall of mirrors. It's hard making theatre, but getting naked can sometimes seem like the easiest save in the world.

Non Flower Elements runs from 22-26 August at the Basement. Tickets available here.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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