ITSAZOO Productions finds its Mojo as wit and blood spill
“I picked up a litre of fresh blood yesterday!”
Director Chelsea Haberlin is ready for Mojo, the new site-specific black comedy from ITSAZOO Productions. Like most shows in the company’s history, this isn’t your typical night at the theatre, least of all because of the bloodshed. For starters, there’s no real stage, the dialogue is so fast-paced, one almost needs surtitles, and in the second act, the audience becomes part of the action.
“It’s going to be a real fly-on-the-wall experience,” Haberlin promises. “It’ll be as if you’re actually sitting in a nightclub working hard to follow the story, which I think makes it a little bit more interesting. It will be very immersive.”
It’s two weeks before opening night, as Haberlin offers a preview of Mojo’s first scene and a tour of the venue. Walk downstairs, into the belly of the multipurpose Russian Hall, and suddenly you’re in the cool, dimly lit backroom of a nightclub in London’s Soho district, circa 1958.
This is the setting for the first half of Mojo, the tense, talky 1995 play by Jez Butterworth, who came out of the British In-Yer-Face theatre movement. It follows a group of lowlifes attempting to capitalize on the potential of dreamy teen singer Silver Johnny (Matt Reznek)—if they don’t kill themselves or each other first, through drugs, drink, and dodgy scruples.
Like the work of Dickens or Shakespeare, Butterworth’s rapid-fire dialogue is rich but not easily digested, and the sheer volume of London slang doesn’t help.
This is where actor Brett Harris, who plays the cheerful but mentally unstable Baby, has proven indispensable. As the only authentic Brit, Harris has also served as translator and accent coach throughout Mojo’s rehearsal.
“It was painful at the start,” Harris remembers, laughing. “The first read-through, I kind of just had to close my ears. Everybody was trying to imitate what I was saying back to me. I was trying to get them not sounding like a hybrid of Australian mixed with South African. But they’ve come on immensely.”
“Nothing we ever do is easy as a company,” Haberlin concedes. “We always choose things that are really hard.”
Part of the challenge during ITSAZOO’s four years in Vancouver (the company began in Victoria in 2004) has been its almost exclusive focus on producing original work. But Haberlin says they were ready for a change, and Mojo happened to satisfy many of her artistic impulses.
“I feel myself drawn to testosterone-y, violence-driven, sexual pieces,” Haberlin says, laughing. “I don’t know why I really love them. I’m not like that in real life, but for some reason in art I love that.”
It’s easy to see why Haberlin finds the play’s audacity (think David Mamet meets Guy Ritchie) appealing, and wisely she’s let it inspire her vision for the show. The violence and tension of Act 1 climaxes in Act 2 when the action moves from the backroom to the club itself, upstairs in the Russian Hall, with the actors prowling between tables and audience members as the characters unravel and blood spills. Haberlin hopes that amid the well-orchestrated chaos, Mojo’s themes, perhaps even more resonant now than they were 17 years ago, will surface.
“No one says mojo once in the whole play, and that says everything,” Haberlin suggests. “It’s this magnetism, this magic that Silver Johnny possesses. If they can hold on to this magic, they’ll be on top of the world….It’s still so relevant. We don’t see these celebrities as people, but we all want to be as close as we can to what they have.”
ITSAZOO Productions presents Mojo at the Russian Hall from Wednesday (August 8) to August 25.