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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Nuclear Family

Written by Desiree Gezentsvey, directed by James Hadley, performed by Yael Gezentsvey

Nuclear Family offers a fresh take on a story many New Zealanders are familiar with: that of emigrating and finding a new home in a strange land. Set in the late ‘80s on the eve of the Chernobyl disaster, it follows a rich cast of characters of Venezuelan- and Soviet-Jewish heritage all coming to terms with the sacrifices and benefits of moving to New Zealand.

The context and framework for the story have plenty of intrigue. The Jewish community is one whose story is often omitted in the history of New Zealand as an immigrant nation, and the cross-cultural perspective provides a fresh take on some meaty themes. The climate of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement is set poignantly against the Chernobyl disaster, and our spotless international image is called into question. These ideas are touched upon, but ultimately fade into the background as Nuclear Family’s preoccupation with family drama dominates. Herein lies some difficulty.

Yael Gezentsvey is clearly a very talented performer, and for the most part she remains engaging and magnetic. Her characterisations achieve a clever balance of comic caricature and emotional depth, her transformations are exciting to watch, and her accents pitch-perfect. The portrayal of Babushka, overprotective and sublimely Russian grandmother, is particularly fun. Such is Gezentsvey’s achievement that the set—little more than a visual pun—makes no difference. She could perform this in your living room and it would be the same show. But one person does not a show make.

There is a lot of text in this script to fit in 60 minutes. Whether this is the reason for the show’s breakneck pace or if that is a directorial decision is hard to tell, but either way, Nuclear Family is relentless. With the amount of exposition required to fill in each character’s backstory, combined with the sheer number of characters, I felt I was playing catch-up for the duration. For clarity’s sake, the text could do with some serious reigning in: as it stands, the script is simply unwieldy.

A fast tempo in itself is never a bad thing, but rhythmic variation is required to keep it interesting. Nuclear Family, however, is mono- rhythmic beast. I get the feeling the director is trying to build momentum irrepressibly to the show’s emotional climax—a fine tactic— but with no undulations on the way up, the journey quickly begins to feel monotonous.

The script is not aided by the staging. I tried to find a logic to Gezentsvey’s transitions but was completely baffled. The lighting adds to the confusion, switching variously, but never consistently, to denote changes of character, space, time and emotion (the latter is a pet- peeve of mine; let the actors do their job). Many of the scenes were three-or-more person dialogues, and without a handle on who was talking when, I was soon lost. Honestly, I have never come out of a show with as little grasp on the narrative as I did this one—and I have peers to corroborate this experience (it is quite a sight to see the reviewers for Salient, Lumiere, and Theatreview huddled around the photo-display trying to figure out which names match which characters). However, my accomplice that night asserted, disparagingly, that she followed the story perfectly well, and ascribed my incomprehension to my gender. Well, perhaps.

Somewhere under all this, there is a magical show, and judging by the stars adorning the publicity other audiences, overseas, have found it. Certainly, the cast of characters is colourful, well drawn and lovable, and the story charming and fresh. But this is largely lost under a great deal of clutter. Be it pace, characters, time, or length, something needs to give, because Nuclear Family desperately needs space to breathe.

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