Review: Shift Your Paradigm (No Chairs Required) – a high-energy deconstruction of a scam

Erin Harrington reviews Shift Your Paradigm (No Chairs Required) at Little Andromeda, Thursday 14 July, 2022.

Shift Your Paradigm (No Chairs Required) brings us into the shady world of multi-level marketing. The schtick of this high-energy black comedy, created by Wellington-based artists David Bowers-Mason and Mitchell Botting, is that we are the in-person audience at a live-streamed sales seminar for network marketing company Do Be Us. It’s designed to get us hyped enough that we’ll empty our savings accounts and buy some definitely high quality definitely on-trend office furniture, price not inclusive of administration costs, packaging, shipping or GST. Or maybe it’s a training session, or a recruitment opportunity? I’m not sure, but if we are (un)lucky Do Be Us affiliates Zoe (Isabella Murray) and Eric (Bowers-Mason) might also drag us into their downline – after all, it’s better to get people to sell stuff for you.

But Eric’s in a tight spot. He’s the top sales person, but that’s because he’s burned through the goodwill of loved ones, he has a house full of old stock, and he’s drowning in debt. He has to move this product fast to beat the switch to next season’s models. Even though his dad’s sick the doors are locked until he can hit his sales target.  Zoe’s under pressure too. She’s secretly a journalist hoping (in the spirit of 70s conspiracy thrillers) to blow the whole thing wide open, even though her editor’s got no time for her story. High stakes, then; the whiff of desperation is in the air. To make matters worse, the seminar keeps being disrupted by video calls from aggravated friends and family, disgruntled downline affiliates who’ve been sucked into selling, and the ridiculously villainous CEO-slash-chair guru, the High Chair Man – Kevin Orlando, in a great, manic turn.

The show deftly demonstrates and deconstructs the way pyramid schemes, sorry, ‘multi-level marketing opportunities’, love-bomb, isolate, manipulate, cajole, then financially eviscerate people who are just looking to get ahead, all in the name of propping up those further up the ladder. We have dubious (hmm) contracts, messed up promises, bizarre rules and unachievable rewards. It reminds us that models like this, and the sunk cost fallacy, blames individuals for failures that are baked into the system. (The gig economy, anyone?) From a strong start, the show romps its way up the absurdity curve as we learn more about Do Be Us and the things our affiliates must to do to appease the High Chair Man to even stay in the game. Bowers-Mason and Botting’s witty script is grounded in the pair’s growing friendship – or alliance, at least – as they realise that while they’ve been using one another, they are also up against a common enemy.

And as a conceit it’s really fun. Both Murray and Bowers-Mason are charismatic, dynamic performers who race around the stage in their branded red polo shirts, switching between rictus grin enthusiasm and vulnerability with ease. The small stage space at Little Andromeda is a little tight, dominated by two big office desks, but the pair, as directed by Botting, make the most of it with physical performances and lively blocking (even if the New Zealander in me winces every time someone sits on a table). This is helped by strong sound and lighting, and projections, above the heads of the performers, that combine animated graphics and pre-recorded video call scenes. Transitions are swift, often very funny, and it’s all integrated very well – although sound levels sometimes drown out the performers. We have a small audience the night I attend, bums on non-Do Be Us seats marred by significant numbers of sickness-related cancelled bookings, and I appreciate that the performers latch onto this sense of intimacy. All the better to persuade you with, etc.

For most of the performance, though, our presence – even the notion that this is a seminar / corporate pep rally that’s being livestreamed – becomes an afterthought. There’s a disconnect between the rapid-fire narrative and character beats, which themselves are very satisfying (albeit extremely tightly packed), and the frame narrative, which requires the characters’ perpetual visibility in person and on a livestream, as well as an acknowledgement of our physical presence. There’s a lot going on.

The fact that I’m not sure if this is a bug or a feature makes me think that this is a bit of a wasted opportunity, and that there’s still some development needed to make the show’s many moving parts fully cohere. Are we in Wellington, or Christchurch? What is our role, really; are we here to be persuaded to buy, to join up, to revolt, or just to be fly-on-the-wall observers? I recognise that Shift Your Paradigm isn’t meant to be a properly interactive show, in the way I’ve experienced other seminar-framed productions. Nonetheless, can our presence in this locked room and our relationship to the characters be made better use of to amplify tension, action, or comedy? After all, we start off as a bunch of presumably easy marks – we’ve already handed over some money – so perhaps there’s more scope in this otherwise highly enjoyable show to bring us into the Do Be Us family.

Shift your Paradigm (No Chairs Required) runs at Little Andromeda until Saturday 16 July, before a second Wellington run at BATS from 19-21 July 2022.

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