Theatre Review: Firefly – Mooning Over Magic, Or A River Runs Through It

April 4, 2022


Firefly / Directed by Toni Morkel / Flipside, Baxter Theatre, Cape Town


Some stories, and the way they are told, are difficult to explain. Not because they are vague or told in an obtuse manner, but because they are about tone and movement and light and fantasy as much as they are about a plot. Firefly is a fairy tale, a fable and a musing all at once; at once a comedy, a drama, and a love story.

There are few actors in South Africa as accomplished at combining clowning and physical theatre with more conventional acting than Sylvaine Strike and Andrew Buckland. They are long-time friends and collaborators and so have an understanding that goes beyond the results of discipline and rehearsal – to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if some blink-and-you’ll-miss-them interactions between their characters during the play are fully scripted or some clean, confident improvisation.

The story, written by Strike and Buckland and bringing to mind the warped, wonderful imaginations of Neil Gaiman or the Brothers Grimm, concerns three couples. One, the bickering Ferine and Ferase, tell the story through their words and actions. The others live on either side of a river. One pair is an eccentric countess and her Igor-like companion; the other is a zealous entomologist and his sweet, naïve wife. There is little or no interaction across the natural boundary until an event – to do with the insect the play is named for – occurs. At which point what has been quirkily comic becomes somewhat darker.

One of the factors that make this piece so unique is the range of imaginative theatre traditions and techniques used. Clowning and its associated physical tics and contortions combine with perspective switches in both action and narration to help the audience understand which couple they are engaging with and what sort of emotional connection is likely most appropriate. An incredible level of detail adds a dozen extra layers – costumes that contort to reflect a character’s emotional state; a tiny peephole in a giant curtain, used just once, but revealing the specific headspace; the precise movements of one or both of the actors as they contort their bodies to fit an hilarious description of their appearance. Strike and Buckland, along with director Toni Morkel, ensure that nothing in this tidal wave of creativity exists purely for the sake of filling a gap, with each nuance helping to first establish an understanding of the story and then to inspire a feeling of ever-growing wonder at the poetic, desolate, hysterical, exultant genius of it all.

With all of that going on in the centre of the stage, it’s almost possible to forget the impact of the soundtrack to the entire show, played live by Tony Bentel on a keyboard set just on the edge of the lighted stage space. Again, proper attention has been paid to the impact of his input, with the volume level of the music exactly right to support the energy level of whatever is taking place at the time; to create an ambience and atmosphere in which the variously sweet and startling action makes sense; and to contribute compositional choices that add to the tale in ways beyond just the way they sound – Dvorak’s Song To The Moon, for instance, underlines the fascination some of the characters have with that body.

This is unconventional, frankly astonishing theatre. The most accurate single-word synopsis would be “magic”. And for this Baxter run, there is an opportunity to end the show with an overwhelmingly beautiful surprise for the audience.