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

REVIEW: Bellevile (Silo)

Ça Va  [by Matt Baker]

Belleville - Sophie Henderson and Matt Whelan (Andrew Malmo Photography)

Belleville - Sophie Henderson and Matt Whelan (Andrew Malmo Photography)

Other than its professed Hitchcockian style and some season-orientated pensive posters, I wasn't sure what to expect from Silo's production of Amy Herzog's Belleville other than a psychological relationship thriller. Hitchcock, however, was the undisputed master of suspense. Red herrings are not MacGuffins, and where Hitchcock would show, Herzog tells. There are, of course, moments of drawn-out silence in Oliver Driver's direction, where the drama occasionally balances on a knife's edge, but otherwise these characters spend a lot of time talking. Herzog has said that "the play is about, among other things, this [romantic idea] being totally deconstructed and savaged for [Abby]," and while said deconstruction does occur, its lack of sustained progression becomes rather boring.

Matt Whelan has an incredibly difficult character arc, and resorts to being quite showy to keep the audience up to speed with his psychological journey due to the lack of roundedness in the writing. His focus on his fellow actors, however, is diligent. Sophie Henderson enters the stage with an entire emotional character history in tow and works her way through every beat, never letting Whelan or the audience off the hook. Tawanda Manyimo and Karima Madut both incorporate an authentic Parisian rhythm into their actions, although Manyimo's shoulder tension does result in incomplete gestures. Madut portrays the pragmatism of a landlord's wife without ever becoming shrewish, but can afford to push it even further.


REVIEW: Earnest (Fractious Tash and Last Tapes Theatre Company)

Earnest goes Wilde [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]

Cole Jenkins belts out some period tunes with great gusto.  (Photo by  Tatiana Harper)

Cole Jenkins belts out some period tunes with great gusto. (Photo by Tatiana Harper)

It’s interesting that The Importance of Being Earnest is often performed as a ‘straight’ interpretation, which is ironic given the gay essence of the closeted homosexual playwright’s well-known work. And to be honest a key reason I was keen to see this version was its premise of a fresh innovative take on this tried and tested classic.

But fresh is probably an understatement when it comes to director Ben Henson’s vision to realise the homosexual subtext of Oscar Wilde’s infamous piece. Just a word of warning…if you’re an Importance of Being Earnest purist my advice is stay away. But if like me, and happy to put your trust in Henson’s OTT reimagining of Wilde’s gem, then this is definitely not to be missed.

You know devilish delights are in store as soon as you start walking up the stairs to Q’s Loft, particularly when you’re greeted by a number of the actors already in character. And the live band equally set the tone for the smoky 1950’s London-esque gay bar we’re inadvertently thrust into. Pointedly the live band were all female as a counterpoint to the all-male cast, apart from the pianist aka musical director Robin Kelly.


REVIEW: Wine Lips (Smoke Labours Productions)

Eight out of tannin  [by Matt Baker]

Backstage drama

Backstage drama

If you've ever wondered what The Basement greenroom looks like, or the stories its walls could tell, Wine Lips is the answer. From the authentic show posters featured on Bex Isemonger's set and Amber Molloy's inventive lighting design, both of which thankfully make full use of the greenroom mirror, to the stalwart ease of actress and actor Chelsea McEwan Millar and Nic Sampson, and the brutal honesty of writer/director Sam Brooks's script, Wine Lips is as close as you'll get without having to step a foot into the industry. There are, however, myriad meta-fictional jokes, many of which would go over non-industry audience members' heads, and the references to both real and fictional people, performances, and places awkwardly blurs the line of witnessing a based-on-a-true-story/names-have-been-changed-to-protect-identities style tale.

Sampson (Scotty) plays a nicely understated balance between the genuine mourning and misplaced defences of both a cynical ex-partner and disillusioned director, his motivations betraying his actions. McEwan Millar (Brit) proves that you can take the girl out of the theatre, but you can't take the drama out of the girl in a well-pitched intellectually and emotionally resonant performance, the fragility of the latter on the constant verge of breaking in response to Sampson's unrelenting drive. Before anyone cries "poor actor", I would suggest they turn the arguments onto their own lives to see the validity in case. While no one likes to think of themselves as the "bad guy" in any relationship, Scotty's honesty somehow prevails over Brit's convictions.

Brooks' script doesn't introduce anything new to this all-too-familiar storyline, however, the context and site-specific performance are enough to prevent the material becoming stale – no matter how well we might know the dialogue from our real lives. While this dialogue has a solid ring of truth to it, there are some lines, especially in regards to the industry, that sound unnaturally clean in their content, and which Sampson and McEwan Millar deliver unconvincingly. It's ironic as much as it is expected when the text is undoubtedly so close to the bone.


REVIEW: Totem (Cirque Du Soleil)

Cirque Evolution  [by James Wenley]

Evolution of Man

Evolution of Man

Theatre-types will be interested to know that Totem comes to Auckland via collaboration between Quebec’s Cirque Du Soleil (now celebrating their 30th year) and Quebec’s writer-director Robert Lepage. Theatre visionary Lepage, whose work Needles and Opium and The Andersen Project have toured to the Wellington and Auckland Festivals respectively, is known for fusion of technology and performance and transformative visual spectacle. Totem makes for a rich creative collision. Breath-taking awe begins early: a sparkling silver spinner drops from the heavens above and a giant turtle shell is uncovered to reveal a skeletal frame housing creatures from a primordial stew.  The creatures bounce and spin so quickly that their abilities do indeed appear non-human, their tongues flicking out to signal applause.

This is a changing circus environment full of surprises, as incredible graphics, machinery, and good old stage tricks change the setting – from the beach to the moon - to suit the act. It’s certainly one of the most visually impressive shows I can claim to have seen, and that’s before even the performers, exquisitely costumed, are taken into account.

The conceit of Totem is “the birth and evolution of humankind”.  While it makes some sort of coherent sense retrospectively in the captions provided in the program, in the midst of the show the narrative comes as a confusing mix of tropes: the noble indigenous people at one with nature, buff Hasselhoffs showing off at the beach, and a simplified version of man’s evolution from crouching ape to bipedal businessman. The evolution jumps back and forth without logical sense; the beach muscle-men appear well before the Neanderthals (maybe this makes sense after all).


REVIEW: Sunset Road (Tawata Productions)

Easy ride along Sunset Road [by Sharu Delilkan]

Miria George pays tribute to her grandparents in Sunset Road.

Miria George pays tribute to her grandparents in Sunset Road.

Only after watching the show did I discover that Sunset Road is Miria George's first play focussing on her Cook Islands whakapapa and gave me more insight into why the show was set in the 1970s, charting her grandparents’ story.

A multitude of themes resonate within Sunset Road, the same way that the base drum does in the opening scene of the piece.

Jamiee Warda and Wai Mihinui’s set design is intriguing, assaulting and downright fascinating. They have created a very versatile rooftop set that covers two thirds of the stage in perpendicular adjoining modules. But what is most exciting is the fact that the cambre of the gradient makes for great momentum when the twins Lucia (Aroha White) and Luka (Nathan Mudge) get on his classic triumph motorbike aka his trusty Bonneville, which symbolises freedom. Tony de Goldi’s design of the kana (stool-type coconut grater) and bench design is simple with clean lines and are equally utilitarian as they are aesthetically pleasing. Rose Miller’s print design that adorns the floor in a geometric delination of the stage is very clever and adds a great Pacific Island feel to the overall flavour of the set.


REVIEW: Hairspray (North Shore Music Theatre)

Shake and Shimmy  [by James Wenley]

The only thing better than Hairspray...? Hairspray on stage!

The only thing better than Hairspray...? Hairspray on stage!

I have a distinct memory of sitting in the cinema in 2007 when I was intoxicated by my first whiff of Hairspray. The opening West Side Story shot of Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad getting out of bed, dancing down the hallway… from that very first “Oh, oh, oh…”, I was hooked. You would have seen a huge grin on my face as Tracy tapped down the streets – oh look its John Waters flashing – as she sings her ode to her neighbourhood. Good Morning Baltimore is a perfect mix of Musical theatre pep and subversion. My point is the movie hooks you from the opening beat.

I’m pleased to report, so too does North Shore Music Theatre’s production of the 2002 Marc Shaiman composed Broadway Musical. We’re in good hands with Heather Wilcock's adorable Tracy Turnblad’s big belting voice, and when she hops out of bed we meet the rats and flasher in turn, not to mention the energetic ensemble. They say if you can get ‘em with the opening and closing number then the punters will come away happy, and this show certainly does that, but the numbers in between are equally bursting with pizazz thanks to the cast and director Grant Meese, Musical Director Catherine Carr and choreographer Rhonda Daverne. It’s a toe-tapping joy from start to finish.

Adapted from John Waters 1988 Film, Hairspray is a bright nostalgic vision of the early 1960s. Tracy Turnblad dreams of being a dancer on the Corny Collins show (and being heartthrob Link Larkin’s special girl!).  But when she joins the show and becomes a hit, she and her friends have a bigger struggle to overcome: racial integration. You can easily accuse the musical of simplifying civil rights battles through equating this with body image discourse. All conflict melts away in a song and dance number to end all song and dance numbers (You Can’t Stop the Beat). You can certainly agree however that if we had more Tracy Turnblads the whole question could have been settled a lot earlier.


REVIEW: Dog (Wolfgang Creative)

Rough Mutt  [by Matt Baker]

Mick Innes and Dog

Mick Innes and Dog

Dog "has been through a number of development phases", however, while playwright Ben Hutchison states that this production understood what he "was aiming to achieve", the result seems ironically underdeveloped. The play starts off promisingly, with a strong balance of both verbal and physical humour, setting a well-pitched comedic tone in regards to the context, however, under the direction of Jeff Szusterman, this tone and pace never changes. The result is that the play becomes very drawn out, with the second "act" playing out uncomfortably longer than the first. While some elements of the script planted in the first half complete themselves in the second, there is a sense of sudden, unnecessary dramatic drive in the latter, turning the play into two separate stories, instead of a sub-plot emerging from an initial premise.

I can't help but be aware of the dramatic irony of Gareth Williams' mentioning of a stroke when considering actor Mick Innes. While the effects are evident, albeit to a very minor degree, his ability to drive the first half of the play and make an underwritten emotional journey and psychological shift are made with great clarity. His thespian drive parallels his on-stage objectives, and even the glimmer in his eye when engaging with Ruakere somehow seems to disappear when reaching the apotheosis.

While not her theatrical debut, Shavaughn Ruakere has yet to truly tread the boards as an actress. However, even with her lack of theatrical training, as evident in some of her vocal work and stage craft, Ruakere has a remarkably natural ease on stage. Her internal drive is constant, if not misguided by the writing, and both the humour and sadness that her inner turmoil evokes is well-pitched in The Basement's main stage.


REVIEW: Fix (The Basement)

Fix transfixes [by Sharu Delilkan]

The cast of Fix.

The cast of Fix.

Knowing that playwright Jess Sayer wrote this play when she was 21 is both amazing and somewhat disturbing. Her carnal knowledge of what it is like when someone experiences a personal crisis is phenomenal for someone of such a tender age.

However I quickly forget that this is the case as Fix basically sucks us all in as audience members. Whether you like it or not Sayer takes you for an emotional roller-coaster ride like none other. The beauty of this play is not only the sensitive subject matter but Sayer’s amazing turn of phrase that gives the whole piece it’s genuine feel, making us buy into the storyline from the get-go. Her ability to write such compelling conversational dialogue is fabulous, no wonder Fix was awarded the 2012 Playmarket Award.

Another thing that I didn’t actually clock, but was pointed out by my theatre buddy for the night, was that the show could very easily be something that could be transposed to television i.e. Sayer’s writing style and metre is somewhat TV-esque, which could have come from her own TV watching experience, but I digress.

In addition to Sayer’s absolutely extraordinary writing talent, we feasted on amazing acting talent. As expected, Elizabeth Hawthorne as her mother Dorothy is outstanding. Her stage presence is bar none, an utter joy to witness the doyen of Kiwi theatre up close.


REVIEW: The Good Soul of Szechuan (Auckland Theatre Company)

Brecht-Through Experience  [by James Wenley]

Robyn Malcom as Sha Tui photography -  Michael Smith

Robyn Malcolm as Shui Ta photography - Michael Smith

It’s surprising to learn that The Good Soul of Szechuan* marks the first time Auckland Theatre Company have produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Surprising perhaps because a Brechtian sensibility is very much apparent in Artistic Director Colin McColl’s signature ATC productions – recall how often he strips back the stage of the Maidment such as in Other Desert Cities or Awatea, reflecting the Brechtian impulse to draw attention to the theatrical conceit, to make the familiar strange. I think of his interpretation of August: Osage County, the sloped stage so different from the originating Chicago production that recreated a three-storey house. While Brecth’s plays are rarely revisited here, his influence dominates our modern expectations of theatre. Brecht is everywhere, and nowhere. So how thrilling to have a full blown production of a Brecht play, unseen in these parts since Silo’s The Threepenny Opera in 2008.

A cynical modernist update of a morality play, a trio of Gods arrive in Szechuan looking for someone righteous and good. The presence of trio of Gods – a muted Cameron Rhodes, Simon Prast and Browwyn Bradley in white chem suits – is barely noticed by the down-on-their-luck inhabitants of a plastic shanty town, too consumed with questions of their bodily existence than any spiritual concerns. Only a humble water seller, Wang (Shimpal Lelisi) is there to greet them. The only place to stay is the abode of prostitute Shen Te (Robyn Malcolm); and it is she, society’s transgressive tabooed figure, that is declared to be the town’s one good soul. Shen Te deals with the consequences of this proclamation, drowning in the gulf between her will and reality. With an under-the-counter payment from the Gods, she invests in a Tobacco shop - a symbol even more striking today with the demonisation of said product – to help fund her charitable desires. But the more she tries to be good she attracts an equal amount of negative energy and leaches into her life, and the more misery she creates for herself.


REVIEW: Putorino Hill (Taki Rua)

Hill of Memory   [by James Wenley]

Putorino Hill by Chris Malloy

Putorino Hill by Chris Molloy

“More of a murky puddle than a fresh water spring” is how Whiti (Rob Mokaraka) describes trying to look back into his past. Taki Rua’s new work, Pūtōrino Hill by Chris Molloy by is a captivating memory play where the past’s reflection is a murky place indeed, revealing curses, hushed up scandals, patupaiarehe (fairies) demons. When your turangawaewae is cursed, what are the foundations on which you stand on?

A researcher, Sarah (Lana Garland) has come to the rural Reinga to research its history and myths. She knows of the stories of the patupaiarehe and ancient tapu that has cursed the land, and the prophecy of a lost pūtōrino (flute). She’s come to kaumatau Whiti for his oral testimony.

No longer a “spring kumara”, Rob Mokaraka’s old Whiti is a beguiling figure, who is charming and sincere in the present, but when his eyes go blank, slips into the terrain of his interior. This is how he is when Sarah, and we, first meet him, a long introduction in which he shuffles forward as if in a trance, until Whiti breaks the silence – “away with the fairies again nē”. Mokaraka gives a remarkable performance, believably crumbling into the skin of someone much older, Whiti’s mana radiates out of Mokaraka.

Director Te Kohe Tuhaka fully explores the theatrical potential in Malloy’s script of Whiti witnessing the events from his past, as actors Jade Daniels as Young Whiti and Kim Garrett as childhood friend Hana replay the formative events of his childhood (the only period when, Whiti says, you are fully engaged with the here and now).with the here and now”. Whiti looks on through empty picture frames hanging in rows from the Loft roof stage left, Sarah watching Whiti with anxiousness and intrigue, trying to see what he sees.