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Finding The Buffalo - Review

Review by Katrina Schwarz

(from lowdown april 2001)

Powerhouse Youth Theatre and Citymoon Vietnamese Youth Theatre by arrangement with the Phuoc Hue Temple.

Finding the Buffalo

by Bruce Keller and Hoang Ngoc-Tuan

Co-Directors: Binh Ta, Michael McLaughlin and Bruce Keller

Composers: Hoang Ngoc-Tuan, Angela Grima and Reza Achman

Costume Design: Annemaree Dalziel

Lighting Design: Richard Montgomery

With a Gregory's street guide open on your lap, industrial lot after kitchen showroom after smash repairs whizzing past your window, you are searching ... for buffalo. Not an animal indigenous to the outskirts of Western Sydney, you would have thought. But as suburban cladding and steely industry give way to the dazzling - if rather disconcerting - sight of gilt dragons, towering pagodas and serene buddhas, one can perhaps sense the teasing possibility that Wetherill park may yet record its first buffalo sighting.

The Phuoc Hue Temple, an important spiritual centre for Vietnamese Buddhism both in Australia and internationally, is a vital and evocative setting for the second collaboration between the Powerhouse Youth Theatre and the Vietnamese Australian Contemporary Theatre Company, Citymoon. Like their first work, 1999's 'Journeys West', which took place in the gothic surrounds of the old Liverpool asylum (now TAFE), the choice of setting serves a role above and beyond that of mere backdrop. Location, rather, becomes the most striking and singularly significant component of 'Finding the Buffalo' governing both the structure of the peripatetic work - the audience, having been divided into six colour coded groups, travel to allotted performance sites in and around the temple - and its thematic content.

Figured as 'a journey into the self' the search for the buffalo is essentially a spiritual meditation derived from, and an exposition of, Zen Buddhist teaching. "What is Zen?" is a refrain to which the performers time and time again return - 'something to drink', 'Luna park', 'www.buddha.com'. The variety (and hilarity) of the responses prompted by this question proves instructive. Zen, like the allegorical buffalo, like the murky depths of our consciousness and like the performance itself, evades a singular or stringent definition. 'Finding the Buffalo' is an experience not if linearity and clarity but of convolution and confusion. As I followed in the wake of my flag bearing guide I was not always entirely sure of where I or the performance was heading or, crucially, of the statement being made along the way. Although my reception of the performance would have been aided by more even acoustics and stronger vocal commitment, this as a criticism of the performance (which would be to judge it on entirely inappropriate terms) but rather an acknowledgement of the challenge it posted.

'Finding the Buffalo' was best encountered not as a celebral experience. Under the skilled direction of Binh Ta, Michael McLaughlin and Bruce Keller, the Powerhouse/Citymoon collective created for their audience a journey not only through the temple but through the senses. With its lush location, warmly lit by Richard Montgomery and supported by Annemaree Dalziel's simple but elegant costuming, 'Finding the Buffalo' packed a powerful sensorial punch. Although the visual dominance of the Phuoc Hue Temple cannot be overlooked, it is a tribute to the skill of the young ensemble that they were not dwarfed by the scenic splendour of the performance site.

Having trained together since October 2000, what was notable about the large and diverse performance troupe, composed primarily of young people who live in the suburbs and regions surrounding the temple, was their strong and assured ensemble focus. This was particularly evident in the fluid choreography of the first movement piece. Backed by a percussive sound-scape, the sixteen strong ensemble were mesmerising as they moved through a series of t'ai chi-like gestures and, as the percussive accompaniment sped up, into a more frenetic and looser mode. 'Finding the Buffalo', however, also provided a showcase for the individual skills of its performers, such as the impeccable comic timing of a duo of mad cooks whose subversive/slapstick antics recall the high farce of the Stooges and the smooth styling of a rap artist who, in a highly comic scene, upstages and upsets a Vietnamese opera singer clearly unused to sharing the spotlight. Special mention must also be made of the contribution made by the musicians - percussionist Reza Achman and particularly Angela Grima, whose haunting lyrical incantations did much to create the sense of mystical otherworldliness so integral to the performance event.

I never did catch sight of my buffalo. The animal, like the search for decisive meaning, eludes me yet. What I have learnt, however, is that 'Finding the Buffalo' / enlightenment is not an end point but a process - a journey made in exploration and celebration of difference: "There is no one true path. There are many paths to finding the buffalo..."

The path taken by the performers and creative team if the Powerhouse Youth Theatre / Citymoon collective is to be commended - it is an inspired, stimulating and ultimately rewarding journey.

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