The Auckland Fringe Festival has just kicked off and offers up a veritable smorgasbord to us lucky Aucklanders. It’s always fun to get along to at least one or two of the events, and I was lucky enough to be witness to the opening night of The Salem Bitch Trials.
MacKenzie’s Daughters, as the performing troupe of fabulous wahine are known, won the 2018 Fringe Award for best comedy ensemble so this show was much-anticipated and patronised by an eager and excitable audience. However, two factors had made me feel trepidation before even setting foot in the Basement Theatre. The first was that I knew the show was a parody of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play set in the time of the Salem witch trials which was later adapted for the silver screen and starred Daniel Day-Lewis. Having never seen either the play or film, I hoped not to be disadvantaged. The second was that as a bit of an improv novice, I worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the format or worse, that I would be picked on for audience participation. I need not have worried. From the outset, we were in the capable hands of a troupe of players who clearly know and love the craft of improv. The original story provided a broad framework for setting and some context, but the action on-stage quickly dominated, meaning that my lack of prior knowledge was a non-issue.
Using audience suggestions as a guide for the premise of the narrative drama, the performers had them eating out of their hands from the get-go thanks to the atmosphere of relaxed fun created upon arrival into the theatre. What followed was a high-intensity, high-drama, laugh-out-loud hour of pure entertainment which would fit in just as well in the Comedy Festival as in its current context. Belly laughs, chortles and snorts rang out from an audience willing to be led in whichever quirky or unexpected direction the players decided on in a given situation. Mistakes, hiccups and stumbles were seized as opportunities for adding to the hilarity with quick reactions and witty one-liners.
These women know what they are doing and are clearly comfortable working as an ensemble. Any audience nerves soon dissipate as you realise you are in the presence of pros who are delivering quality and enjoying it. An added delight was sneaking a glance at players who were temporarily off-stage and seeing that they were having just as hearty a laugh at their peers’ antics as the rest of us. By the end of the night, the audience was in a frenzy of cheers and laughs, and we spilled happily out into the warm evening air with smiles on our faces. If the rest of the Fringe events are as good as this then we are in for a treat, Auckland!
The Salem Bitch Trials is on at the Basement Theatre until 23rd February as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival.
Reviewed by Steph Bean.