Theatre Scenes: Auckland Theatre Blog (Reviews, interviews and commentary)

REVIEW: Lysistrata (Auckland Theatre Company)

Make love... and theatre... not war [by Matt Baker]

Lysistrata, Auckland Theatre Company.  dir. Michael Hurst.  Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography -  Michael Smith

Lysistrata, Auckland Theatre Company. dir. Michael Hurst. photography - Michael Smith

The serendipity of coming across the fourth entry in this Cracked article today was not lost on me. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata over 2,400 years ago and, according to the opening night audience, dick jokes are just as funny now as they were then, and if there is one person in New Zealand to not only direct, but adapt, such comedy for the 21st century, it is the ever humorous Michael Hurst. Staying true to the original text, Hurst does not hold back on any of the stereotypical attributes Aristophanes placed on either gender. The women gabble and gossip, Amanda Billing's titular character being the sole motivator of their cause, while the men's excessive egotism wanes in direct opposition to their erections.

Direct opposition is also incorporated in Rachel Walker's traverse set, which, even when sitting predominantly at one end, is not difficult to watch. Traversing said set, the 13-strong ensemble work in excellent cohesion with one another, with Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Naomi Cohen in particular providing an individual flair without detracting from the play. Cameron Rhodes is so perfectly cast he could submit his performance as an Auckland mayoral bid,  while Peter Hayden gives a hilarious turn as a gruff, cigarette-smoking, Dr. Strangelove-esque wheelchair-bound misogynist.

It must be noted that Lisa Greenfield, who plays the hilariously named Spartan slave, Doris, has been incorporated into the production due to injury, and, while Lucinda Hare's absence from the more physically demanding choreography is notable, the solution has a foundation of genuine theatrical convention to support it. Hare herself steals the show with an Austrian-influenced accent and brutally open directness that extrapolates the humour of even the simplest one-liners.

Prolific Lysistrata translator Douglas Parker attests that the "fundamental relationship is not about blind sexual gratification... but love in its civic manifestation – the bond between husband and wife". In this production, both propositions have been incorporated, personified particularly well in both their sentimental and comedic extremes with Darien Takle and Hayden, and Sia Trokenhim and Fasitua Amosa respectively. However, the dichotomy between the sexual theme and the political message of the text does not play on the same spectrum. While not inherently problematic, as both Billing and Rhodes orate with a fervent intellectual and emotional capacity, the noticeably polemic shift in the playwright's voice lacks comparative subtlety. There is an argument to be had as to whether this is a problem in the original text or the direction, but, either way, the play is a comedy and the comedy in this production is its strength.

With a play this absurd and heightened in both its genre and artistic heritage, Hurst stamps the production with his signature comedic and highly stylised direction. This stylisation is best illustrated in his employment of John Gibson and Shona McCullagh's music and choreography respectively, which provides what is quite simply an outstanding spectacle component to the show, ranging from the chaotic to the heartfelt.

What Hurst has presented, within the confines of a black box theatre, is the closest theatrical experience one can have to that of the play's original audience. Without encouraging hecklers, it's the sort of show that requires an active and engaged audience, one to whom the actors can respond, and generate the symbiotic relationship that exists between performers and spectators. Both Billing and Rhodes, again, exemplify this as they address the audience, responding to the odd supportive interjection from the audience.

It is moments like these that remind us of the communal nature of theatre, the sharing of ideas through entertainment, that sits at the heart of Hurst's production, and while the "ruinous conflict" at heart of the play has yet to find its place within the production's dramatic exchange, there is no doubting that the theatrical value of Lysistrata will be of thorough entertainment to all audiences.

Lysistrata is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays until August 26. For details see ATC.

SEE ALSO: review by Lexi Matheson and Metro Magazine review by James Wenley


REVIEW: Success (The Basement)

High Achiever [by Tim George]

Jeremy Ellwood is a Success

Jeremy Elwood is a Success

It is hard to write a dramatic story involving stand-up comedians, mainly because it requires good jokes. Everyone remembers Punchline, the Tom Hanks movie about the gritty backstage world of standup, right? No, of course not. If you're going to write a story about comedians, it has to be funny. As with that old story about Chekhov's gun, if you set something up, you have to provide a payoff.

Stephen Sinclair's Success manages to tackle that issue by having three veteran actors with stand-up backgrounds. According to his mission statement in the show notes, the three players were allowed to develop their own routines and comic personae, using their characters as inspiration. The results are a significant part of what makes Success such a, uh, well you know what I mean.

REVIEW: The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett (Bullet Heart Club)

Why should we care about Jack? [by James Wenley]

Make the singing stop already!

Make the singing stop already!

Did you see Daffodils? Wasn’t it great? For Metro Magazine I named it best debut for the 2014 best in theatre wrap-up. Rochelle Bright and her Bullet Heart Club collaborators have acknowledged their sophomore work, The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett is like a much anticipated second album. The difficult second album. They’ve gone darker. There’s no light relief. Todd Emerson spends half of the show scowling at us. Musically, they no longer have the safety net of the kiwi pop song. I think they know that this time their show won’t be universally adored. I think they know that some people are going to walk out afterwards hating the show.

I hate that I have to write this, but that includes me.

I know what you might be thinking – James, you were just expecting another Daffodils and set yourself up to be let down. I wasn’t. I think their instinct for the tone and subject matter of Jack Hartnett was absolutely correct. They could have given us more of the same. That would have been the easy option.  Instead, Bullet Heart Club are experimenting with genre, story, and song. Musically Abraham Kunin’s songs can’t be compared readily to any other musical show. I applaud that. But when I struggle to connect, when they deliver a hollow story and characters, when I’m sitting there actively willing the show to come to an end, that’s where I feel let down.


REVIEW: The Next Big Thing Festival 2015 (Auckland Theatre Company)

Inky, Pinky, Go! [by James Wenley]

The Next Big Thing Festival 2015

The Next Big Thing Festival 2015

The girl on the program cover is all wrong. With her exuberant expression and red sparkly jelly party hat, it suggests kids playing dress ups. Next Big Thing is anything but. Maybe it works as an image for their adult subscribers:  come and see what those kooky kids are up to. But as an image for teens and young adults? It’s infantilising. Auckland Theatre’s Company’s Youth Festival is cool and sophisticated. It might be one of the most important initiatives the company does, but they still haven’t learnt how to market it properly.

The imagery might be out of touch, but the shows aren’t. ATC’s youth shows have been running long enough that they are able to revive one of their previous hits from 2009, Sit on It by Georgina Titheridge (once again directed by Ben Crowder), for a new generation of youth coming through. Set in a women’s bathroom at a club (where you wouldn’t be caught dead in a red sparkly jelly hat), we get a new cast, new background beats, a new selfie stick, but the same parade of young women (and two boys) fuelled by alcohol and drama. Young and Hungry alumna Virginia Frankovich directs Bed by Benjamin Henson, devising with the cast all sorts of wonderful tangents in one of the bizarrest dreamscapes you can imagine. Inky Pinky Ponky, directed by Fasitua Amosa, is a confident debut from new writers Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke.


REVIEW: The Mourning After (Prayas Theatre)

Needed Mour [by Matt Baker]

Prayas Theatre

Prayas Theatre

New Zealand's first full-length Sri Lankan play. A sell-out season before opening night. It's an exciting premise to the beginning of a new branch of New Zealand-Asian theatre. Upon entering The Basement, the audience is greeted with Karnan Saba's soundscape, both captivating and subtle, with all the originality and instant identity of a John Williams' score, and Christine Urquhart's set design, the remnants of a tsunami stricken Sri Lankan home, and a door behind which we know something is hidden. These spectacle elements are immediately gratifying, but merely teasers to a play that lacks substance of greater, or even equal, value.

Ahilan Karunaharan's pioneering script is developed from a solo show post drama school training, developed into an ensemble piece upon "being in the presence of other South Asian actors". The play is a surreal drama, but, at its heart, there is no conflict. It's a "...journey of discovering a family secret... these characters and their heartbreaks", but with only two lines throwing fish hooks to the audience, which are never reeled in, and no subsequent clues peppered through the script, the discovery is not done by the audience. Eventually, we're told everything, as characters come to realisations without us seeing them go through them.


REVIEW: Orangutan (The Basement)

Not yet a Great Ape [by Matt Baker]



In a black box conversion of The Basement studio, creator and performer Alice Canton sits and waits on a pile of dirt and bark. The elevated and shallow seating block doesn't seem to manage The Basement studio 65-seat capacity, leaving audience members sitting on the floor, which I imagine results in false sightlines to which Canton's mask-work plays. In such an intimate space, it's disappointing that, while not necessarily carved with the intention to perform in this specific space, we lose Canton's eyes behind the mask. In addition to the lack of vocals in the production, this prevents us from connecting with the humanity (ironically) inherent in animals and, more specifically, her hybrid character: Hanoman (White Monkey King) and Topeng Tua (Old Man).

The simplicity of a half mask provides myriad emotional performance on its own, but I can't help but feel slightly cheated at the lack of further authenticity within the costume, and, to degrees, the performance. At times Canton presents intricate articulation, at others she moves too fast within the physical limitations of the character and rushes through moments. But it's an example of how even our exposure to and experience of theatrical components, let alone theatre itself, in New Zealand is limited when presented with variations in conventions with which we have little knowledge.

Lighting designer and operator Brad Gledhill provides striking contrast in cohesion with the play's dramatic shift, from a hauntingly beautiful red glow to an offensively stark blue flood. The dramatic undertone of the latter, however, seems to go unnoticed by the audience. Thomas Press' sound design is a character in itself, although its relationship with Canton left me wanting even more dynamism incorporated between them.

In refocusing her original investigation, the "small but important" narrative of Orangutan is too insular a piece to convey the aims Canton has with her work. The show essentially plays out one beat with subtle and increasing variations, but, on their own, they do not build to anything greater than the sum of their parts. While an interesting character exploration, Orangutan now needs to find its place in Canton's self-acknowledged lofty ideals.

Orangutan plays at The Basement until July 3. For details see The Basement.

SEE ALSO: review Nik Smythe


REVIEW: Rupert (Auckland Theatre Company)

Rupert Bare [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]

Stuart Devenie and Damien Avery embody Rupert through and through.

Stuart Devenie and Damien Avery embody Rupert through and through.

It's rare that a show about someone's life is introduced by the main character as "a show about my life" but Rupert, a biography of media moghul Rupert Murdoch breaks many of the norms of theatre as he does the fourth wall.

David Williamson's Rupert encapsulates a multitude of genres – it's a story, biography, cabaret, comedy, adventure, cartoon, love stories, political thriller and even a buddy movie about the older and cynical Murdoch juxtaposed against his younger brash and fearless self.

The zany production colourfully describes the rise and rise of a Colonial battler, against business rivals, socialists, political enemies, family dynamics, the English establishment and American press barons with a determined and unapologetic Murdoch unbound at the end by challenges, scandals and frequent popularity.


REVIEW: Ngā Pou Wahine (Taki Rua Productions)

Mana Wahine [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]

Nga Pou Wahine still relevant after all these years.

Nga Pou Wahine still relevant after all these years.

In many ways it's hard to believe that Ngā Pou Wahine premiered two decades ago. Yes Māori theatre has moved on, gaining more and more prominence within the New Zealand theatre tapestry, however many of the themes that the play touches upon are still relevant today.

Although this show is an historic piece of Māori theatre, we were privileged to witness yet another historic moment in the making with both the directorial debut and solo debut of Miriama McDowell and Kura Forrester respectively. These two prominent Māori wahine most definitely shine brightly which is befitting as it is part of Auckland Live's Matariki programme.

From the minute Forrester takes to the stage she commands our undivided attention. The sentiment is echoed by one of the punters that I talk to after the show: "I was so mesmerised by what was going on on stage that I totally forgot to drink my wine (and I definitely like my wine), which I only realised when the play ended".


REVIEW: Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Silo Theatre)

Download Incomplete - Error Occurred [by Matt Baker]

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

There is a fine line between playwrights providing what is necessary outside of dialogue for practitioners to convey the meaning of their story, and prescribing the text because they cannot see it any other way. On one hand, theatrical theories, conventions, and practices can shift dramatically over the years, leading to limited explorative opportunities for future practitioners. On the other, it can severely diminish or even conversely alter the entire perspective to which the playwright wishes to adjust an audience. Regarding, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, playwright Declan Greene clearly believes the latter, so much so that not only is it a condition of the play's licencing, but in the case of Silo Theatre's production has warranted a written note to be provided to the audience – which has in turn resulted in a response by Silo Theatre themselves. The response does not provide justification – and is therefore unnecessary – and the production should be left to speak for itself. The irony, however, is that Greene's note, without including Silo Theatre's response, provides more drama to the evening than anything he's written in the play to which the note itself refers.

That's because nothing actually happens in this play. There's a beginning, in which performers Bronwyn Bradley and Mark Wright immediately endear themselves upon the audience with self-deprecating confessions executed with great comedic skill. There's a middle, which doesn't exactly emerge from what we've just seen, but does provide potential dramatic conflict, even if it is awkwardly inserted like a virgin's fumbling fingers. Then there's an end, in which the cast recite postcard confessions, which I'm sure Greene thought would provide a self-reflective personal catharsis for each member of the audience, but just doesn't.


REVIEW: Cover Lover (All You Can Eat productions)

Nothing new under The Basement Lights [by Matt Baker]

Cover Lover

Cover Lover

29 performers, numerous acts, and one creative mind behind it all. It's a recipe for a potentially excessive and hubristic night at the theatre, but creator Jessie McCall has pulled together a diverse assortment of dancers, actors, and musicians under the unifying theme of artistic copyright to produce a truly entertaining evening.

From intricately mechanical and captivatingly repetitive choreography, accented particularly by Sofia McIntyre's physical articulation, to a stunning rendition of "Chandelier" by Malvina Domar, the variety within the show offers a high degree of genuine entertainment value for all audience members. Humbly inspiring acts like The Hardchorus' Youtube clip rendition of "Truly Madly, Deeply," by Savage Garden and the breaking free of David Toomey's ancestral roots rap are juxtaposed with lip-synchs, a classic cover convention, hilariously presented by Tim McPoland and Amanda Tito with Christina Aguilera and Bette Davis respectively. There is also an excellent commentary on what could be considered one of the most notorious covers in history, with the ever-funny Hamish Parkinson leading a literally metaphorical bible-verse group, and Phoebe Borwick inter-webbing of Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk on "Your elusive creative genius" is as intriguing to watch as the original clip itself.