Hoke’s Bluff is a high-energy homage to the cornball America high school movie genre but comes with a beautiful undercurrent of pathos.
It is created, written and performed by Action Hero, theatrical outfits from Bristol, England, who are currently performing at Arts House, North Melbourne the outfit are visiting as the performance space’s company in residence for the next week. Hoke’s Bluff is one of the three productions on offer during this residency.
Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse are Action Hero. They have been working together for the past decade and they are simply a delight to watch. Their passion for theatre and for their story they convey is obvious. Their focus and energy never wavers. It is eighty minutes of sheer immersion into the screwball world and hackneyed formula of high school sports movie genres. Both actors have so much fun with it.
As does the audience! The razzle-dazzle of Americana is the first thing that hits you as you enter the performance space. It is set up like a basketball court with referee, Laura Dannequin, stalking about looking as serious as you expect a referee to look. Current popular dance tracks are pumped loudly through the speakers and we are greeted by the Hoke’s Bluff tiger mascot who is bouncing and waving about the stage. Add to this is the quintessential cheerleader superstar who works her pom poms with gusto. These two characters jump about gleefully encouraging the audience to take the all-American ride of all the excitement of the ball game.
Placed on each of our seats, or rather the bleachers, is the club’s flag, which we are encouraged to wave on cue. The space is set up in traverse style so both sides of the audience face each other and the simulated excitement becomes quite contagious. Members of the audience take each other’s cues and clap, cheer and Mexican wave as and when friendly wide-mouthed mascot demands it. The audience participates with enthusiasm and is acknowledged throughout the piece with several moments when the actors address us directly. An audience member has a sweat towel thrown at them and is then obliged to toss it back. Another member becomes part of a quiet scene on a hill looking at the horizon.
We are introduced to the many characters that Stenhouse and Paintin portray and the threads of teenage narratives unfold. Underneath all the hype of the ball game and the bubble of hope that guides, protects and buoys the characters we are given a look into their real lives, their inner workings as they learn about the world. It is a poignant piece because what Action Hero do is throw themselves with zany abandon into this make-believe and so well-known fairy tale life that defines particular genre and at the same time the duo uncover that even though the hope of sports stardom may bind us, real strength and heroic behaviour comes from relationships and from being resilient.
The characters suffer from unrequited love, from losing popularity and from dealing with family loss and drama all the while trying to be who their high school fans and friends want them to be. It is the notion of playing the game. The obvious theme is that we all do it; we try to please others or try to be the hero all the while ignoring what we deem important or genuine for us. This is what Action Hero does with subtlety and beauty.
At the show’s conclusion, referee Dannequin informs us of what became of the characters as they grew into adulthood and left their dreams and the popularity stakes behind them. It all sounds smaltzy and a tried and true formula – it is, but it is everything else Action Hero do that is exciting and so creative that makes this ride so fun and beautiful. So head for the bleachers and cheer the players on.