Against the Aristotelian odds [by Matt Baker]
Less of a re-imagining or reinterpretation of Homer's The Odyssey, and more of a performance piece inspired by the source material, Ithaca by Thomas Sainsbury and The Dust Palace is a true spectacle in the dramatic sense of the word. With a monopoly on home-grown cirque theatre, it would be easy for the company to rest on their precariously perched laurels and still provide entertainment of the highest quality, but company directors Mike Edward and Eve Gordon have a clear desire to not only present audiences with a truly unique theatrical experience, but also to extend the often flash-in-the-pan response to cirque theatre and validate it as a competitive theatrical mode.
It would be erroneous to assume each audience member knows the story of The Odyssey, but it would also be arrogant to presume each audience member will purchase a programme, which lays out the basic plot to this production. Whether a remedy in forethought or not, the exposition in the script is quite laden. It's a jarring juxtaposition to the ability to interpret meaning available to the audience during the physical work, which allows for an incredible range of emotional content and storytelling in its extremity.
While there are moments within Edward's performance where how he does what he does reveals the true nature of his character, this version of Odysseus is often at behavioral odds. Edward nails the comedic subtlety of the role, but is otherwise limited by the melodramatic dialogue. Hadley Taylor does well to balance this out at times, but also inevitably succumbs. This extends throughout the play into the meaning behind many famous moments, including Penelope with the Suitors, Xerxe (an effeminate yet male portrayal of the original Calypso) in general, and the blinding of the Cyclops.
What will Jesus Do? [by Matt Baker]
Director Oliver Driver's programme quote may be a great pun, but it also makes perfect sense. Based on an original concept by Driver, choreographer Lara Fischel-Chisholm, script coordinator and lyricist Thomas Sainsbury, performer Gareth Williams, and Elise Sterbeck, Gabrielle Vincent, and Sam Snedden of the Basement Theatre staff, Jesus Christ Part II, like Jesus Christ Superstar, is a product of its era.
The core cast of Julian Wilson, Victoria Abbott, Gareth Williams, and Hayley Sproull, as God, the Virgin Mary, Judas, and Mary Magdalene deliver one of the best pieces of ensemble work this year. While necessarily comedically extreme in performance, each bring their own unique subtleties to their respective characters, so much so that their individual flair is incomparable.
While the play does come together in the end, it doesn't quite become more than the sum of its parts. This is worth noting only because this frivolously festive musical ironically has the opportunity to be that much more. While the consequential drama of the second act does drive towards the ideological messages associated with Christmas, the plot of the first act, prior to the act one final number, is too sequential - it lacks the necessity to drive these ideas as they are established in the first scene.
Not long until the Auckland Theatre Awards, held at the Civic's Wintergarden on Monday 7th December.
Who will win most original production? Best ensemble? Best pash?
You can nominate winners for these categories and more for the 2015 People's Choice Awards. Get voting.
Pro-tip: Before voting scroll through Theatre Scenes to remind yourself about all the productions this year.
This year's ceremony is hosted by Kura Forrester. Tickets from Ticketmaster.
Monologist Pleasures and Displeasures [by Matt Baker]
In its modern usage from the literal French translation, la petite mort, "the tiny death" articulates the transcendent moment during the loss or weakening of consciousness associated with an orgasm. It is a euphoric state; love and life reflected in a moment of fragility so near to our inevitable last. While not all of the eleven monologues that make up Wellingtonian theatre-maker Uther Dean's scripts reach such a particular state in the theatrical sense, the variety offered in Tiny Deaths allows for a range of consideration on why, and sometimes what, we love.
Perched on Christine Urquhart's elevated AstroTurf stage, ten performers surround the Basement studio audience. While some appear more conventionally clothed than others, all have an essence of absurdity hidden behind their black eyes. Lighting by Marshall Bull allows for both performers and audience to disappear into the privacy of the shadows as the focus draws towards each monologist, an atmosphere that is at once personal and collective. These design components provide enough unity to carry each monologue to the next, but it is up the performers to hold our interest.
Elizabeth McMenamin sets an immediate and distinct benchmark for the proceeding pieces. Her vocal work accentuates the light play-against to the dark humour, which allows for the shade in the text to reveal itself. Amanda Tito is entrancing as she dissects the intricacies of the nature of a parasitic relationship. With the subtlest of smiles and smallest glimmer in the eyes, Tito turns each word to flesh, breathing life into one of the more allegorically applicable pieces of the night.
As fleeting as your Newsfeed [by James Wenley]
This year research came out claiming that our attention spans were now shorter than a goldfish's. Whereas in 2000 we could hold a thought for 12 seconds, now it is down to 8.
Why do I mention this? Oh yes – Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information may well be a vision for theatre’s future, perfect for a YouTube and Smartphone generation ready to see what’s on the next app or tab.
The thing with Love and Information is that, to quote director Cameron Rhodes, there up to “76 scenes, over 100 characters, and no narrative”. Most of the scenes are short. Really short. Rhodes makes a running gag of piling a whole lot of actors onstage, creating a stage picture, starting a scene, and then bringing the lights down on the actors mid--
For example, one scene consists of a character saying to another: “We could go for a walk, it’s a beautiful -- ”. And that’s it.
Where was I? Oh yes - following 2063 from Unitec’s graduating class of actors, The Actors' Program are second out of the gate with their production. As choices to mark the actors’ entry into the industry, they couldn’t be further apart. Unitec have made a new devised show, The Actors' Program are grappling with an intricate and demanding 2012 text from a British legend. Love and Information fits snuggly in The Basement, and could in fact pass as a sophisticated Young & Hungry play. Churchill’s got her finger on the touchscreen.
Present Future-gazing [by James Wenley]
There seems to be a bit of a future-casting trend in recent New Zealand drama. In Shepherd (2015) Gary Henderson painted a disturbing sci-fi vision of a Fiordland farm feeding a hungry world. In Aroha White’s 2080 (2014), New Zealand’s population had exploded by resettling economic refugees in the South Island, and Pacific refugees from climate change in the lower North Island.
2063, devised by the graduating 2015 Unitec actors and directed by Pedro Ilgenfritz, has a very similar premise to White’s play. There must be something in the water. With rising sea levels displacing global populations, New Zealand was a haven that opens it borders to an extra 8 million people. By 2063 there has been a push back against these policies, and the diverse communities that live in the “Southern Lands” are viewed by the New Zealand elites with distrust.
It is encouraging to see a show engaging the refugee crisis, showcasing the power of a devised work to respond rapidly to events that define our epoch. Making a break from Unitec’s graduating productions of recent years, 2063 is presented at Q Theatre, a canny move to have these industry-ready actors seen by a larger audience. The class of the 2015 were the same group that bolstered the ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar. Earlier this year they performed strong productions of Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew at their home at Unitec.
A Whole New Story [by James Wenley]
I’ve always liked Jafar. His sleek robes, his slimy voice, his talking pet parrot. This might be part of the reason that it wasn’t the VHS of Aladdin, but its direct-to-video sequel Return of Jafar, that was played to destruction in childhood. Jafar is a straight up badass, one of Disney’s greatest villains.
In telling “the untold story of a Royal Vizier”, Twisted is a musical parody of both Aladdin, and the 2000s revisionist phenomena to revisit classic villains and turn them into goodies (which arguably reached its nadir with Disney’s own Maleficent). In an opening sequence ripped not from Aladdin, but Beauty and the Beast, Ja’far (Brady Peeti) enters reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire. So that deals with that: yes, this is exactly like Wicked, now sit back and enjoy.
So now Ja’far is an ethical crusader and idealistic reformer, the one good man in a corrupt political system, the Commissioner Gordon of Agrabah. And as John Key knows, when you’re in charge, you get blamed for all sorts of things that go wrong. “Fuck you Ja’far” is the common refrain.
Meanwhile Princess Jasmine (Kate Castle) is a naïve monster of privilege (inequality could be solved if the poor were given slaves too), and Aladdin (Hadley Taylor) is – what else – a playboy and opportunist trying to sleep his way through the kingdom. The ‘Whole New World’ moment turns into a duet where Aladdin implores the princess to “take off your clothes”.
And so it goes. Already you should know that prerequisites for this include a love of Disney, Wicked, and let’s throw in South Park. There’s a certain delight to be had in imagining these Disney characters as potty-mouths, but if it was just to coast along on swears and outrageous one-liners – which it did seem to be doing early on – there wouldn’t be much to recommend.
Kitchen Sink Birthday Party [by Matt Baker]
If you've been to Basement Theatre recently, you may have noticed a few changes around the studio door. A car back seat, a toilet, and some graffiti are just a few of the components to set designer Tim Booth's* refurbishing for Northern Glow, a mini three-act one-woman show that introduces us to the members of a working class North England family. Written and performed by the chameleonic Bryony Skillington, there's Darren, who's running the bingo and petitioning to save jobs at the mill, Lauren, the birthday girl who's running the show, and Jill, the long-suffering wife and mother respectively.
Broken into three scenarios, each separated with enough time to get to the bathroom and grab another pint, the night starts off with a bit of light entertainment in the Basement bar, before we are encompassed by even more of Booth's design in the studio. Upstairs, we've been invited to Lauren's sister' birthday party, but that doesn't stop Lauren from taking the spotlight. There are games to play, and old friends and family you'll be surprised you didn't recognise earlier, and it comes complete with sausage rolls, savouries, and something for the vegetarians too. There's seriously plenty of food to go around, so don't fill up before the show.
Director Ahi Karunaharan encourages Skillington's natural comedic talent in the first two parts, but ensures the more dramatic performance aspect is executed with precision and pace. Neither he nor Skillington are afraid of taking their time and letting the moments in between the words do their work. Though more structured beats would aid the drive of the first two acts, these are the dramaturgical necessities that more often than not come after a first season a Basement Theatre.
A Simple Dish [by Matt Baker]
Before the plethora of cooking shows both at home and overseas, there was Peter Hudson and David Halls. Commissioned by Silo Theatre, Hudson & Halls Live! is the fictional account of New Zealand's best cooking duo, two men whose love of cooking, entertaining, laughing, living, and most importantly, each other, introduced an entire nation to the idea of accepting their own foibles, and humanity.
Todd Emerson gives an incredibly understated and resonant performance; with nothing more than a moment of sustained silence, a grimaced smile, or a glare of the eyes over his glasses, we see the moments of worry and pain that underlies the straight man in this comedic duo. Chris Parker is perfectly-cast as the Corbett to Emerson's Barker, but is his moments of quiet and restraint that truly punctuate the comedy. His portrayal is inarguably accurate, but David Halls' television persona is not the same as David Halls the theatrical character, and the latter is lacking in dimension on the page. There is a moment of cohesion illustrated between the couple, as they describe Watkins' eye colour, but beyond this there is little of their love that has been described by their contemporaries from the aptly named documentary Hudson and Halls – A Love Story in this show.
Daniel Williams' set is a more or less authentic replica of that from the original show, and, in addition to Elizabeth Whiting's costume design it is nostalgia at its best. Throw in the obligatory remarks about David Lange, Keri Hulme, and Telethon, and the transportation back to 1986 is as heart-warming as the memories are found. That doesn't mean those who never saw the show on which this production was derived will miss anything, as Emerson and Parker will no doubt introduce an entire generation to Hudson and Halls, and perhaps reintroduce another.
All that glitters is not gold [by Sharu Delilkan]
Having followed Black Grace almost as long as we have been here (over 13 years now), I have a vivid recollection of their 10th anniversary show held at the Viaduct a decade ago. At the time it was a new experience seeing Pacific and contemporary dance infused to such a high standard. It was also a great introduction to the world of dance in Aotearoa. But I digress.
Siva, a culmination of 20 years of excellence by Black Grace, was definitely a milestone that I'm sure everyone who has been religiously following them has been hanging out to see.
Siva – which is Samoan for dance - is indeed a percussive and strikingly beautiful work, rich in imagery and which undoubtedly acknowledges our ever-changing world.
With Neil Ieremia at the helm, the formidable team that has been assembled for this larger than life work has definitely left an indelible mark in my memory. But ironically it is the superb production values of the evening that has made this lasting impression.