The right mix [by James Wenley]
With a sprawling ensemble cast of young refugees, migrants and locals, in Bitter Sweet Mixit repurpose the Romeo and Juliet proto-narrative and respond with a unique collective voice that can only come with having so many distinct voices in the devising room.
In this tale you’ll find aspect of the familiar. Two households, both alike in dignity, but lacking in humanity. Two star-crossed lovers. Some biting of thumbs and a wild party. But when Tawanda Manyimo, the seen-it-all-before narrator, intones that “never was there a tale of more woe than a mother, and her Antonio” any preconceptions are dashed. I had to check with my partner that I’d heard it correctly. Who is Antonio and his mother, and what is their story?
Out of the Concrete Jungle [by James Wenley]
Conventional thought has it that January is a no-go zone for theatrical endeavours in Auckland. Aucklanders prefer the sun, surf, and music festivals. Rolling up bravely into this cultural desert are the unconventional New York performers of Empire. They’ve put together their Spiegeltent at Wynyard Quarter in the hopes of enticing us into the “world’s most outrageous Spiegeltent show” they say.
I’d say these folks are doubly brave because Aucklanders have been rather spoilt by the adult-circus-in-the-spiegeltent genre over successive Arts Festivals (and yet another, Limbo, is on its way in March). Empire is described as a “theatrobatic show” which combines cabaret, acrobatics, burlesque, vaudeville and comedy. The expectation is not only for dazzling feats viewed up-close, but also cheeky humour, outstanding music, and some sort of narrative, thematic, or atmospheric coherence.
Let’s check them off shall we? From the opening set-piece of provided by contortionist Miss A in a Bubble (Lucia Carbines), who performs in a see-through sphere above our heads, Empire knows exactly how to wow us. Humour? Brash New York ringmaster couple Oscar (Jonathan Taylor) and Fanny (Anne Goldman) might have found us a little reticent at first in their attempts to break the ice, and with all their talk of male and female genitalia (to the extent of threatening an audience member with balls to the face), we perhaps found them a little too full-on crude to begin with. Oscar says his favourite part of the evening is following their “quick change” act when the audience begin to realise what kind of show this is, so fair warning. After some initial shock, we do get used to their idiosyncrasy as this pair cycle through gross-out humour (a banana party trick) and sexual fluidity. “Don’t be shy we like to swing”, they gleefully inform us.
My Favourite Moments of the Year [by James Wenley]
With stages empty and the theatrical year in blackout, I’ve planted myself in front of my computer to reflect on the performances that have provoked, challenged, and bought a smile to my face this past year. I’ve already written about happenings this year extensively, in Playmarket’s 2014 Annual (read online) and Metro’s Best of Auckland (December Issue). In the latter publication, TV gets one page but theatre gets TWO and a bonus full page portrait of the cool cats that run The Basement. How great is Metro. Have a read of both for some critical discoursing.
So as not to repeat myself too much, I’m going to do something a little different for my end of year review for Theatre Scenes. I’d like to celebrate the ephemeral moments that have stayed with me. They are the reasons that I love the theatre, and why I keep coming back. This year, these are the moments that remain the most vivid:
Gosh 360 was brilliant. A circular donut-shaped stage constructed on The Civic Theatre’s stage, enclosing seating of swivelling office chairs. With action constantly all around you, you got to choose where to swing around to look too. That was endlessly fun. The content matched the form brilliantly, and along with a seal, and exploding cannon, the indelible image that remains is a swan puppet serenely swimming around us. [Review]
Silly Seas [by James Wenley]
The Basement Christmas show feels a little less ambitious this year. Long gone are your Kim Dotcoms and entire children’s choirs that have featured in Christmas shows pasts. The most ambitious thing in Hauraki Horror is probably the boat set designed brilliantly by Grant Hall to fill the length of The Basement, and one of the best sets The Basement has had all year.* Meanwhile, the musical numbers are unapologetically, shamelessly, awful. In the hands of this year’s writers Tom Sainsbury and Chris Parker and director Rachel House, Hauraki Horror has gone back to basics with unpretentious silliness, and I reckon that is no bad thing.
On the good ship “Red Herring”, a nautical bash with the sour cream of Auckland’s celebrity set (including the Ridges, Kiri Te Kanawa and er, Kelly Tarlton…) turns into a murder mystery when Captain Dick Rancid (what Richard Branson would be like if he was a crude kiwi entrepreneur) is murdered on his own ship. Paparazzi duo Tom (Sainsbury) and Chris (Parker) take it upon themselves to uncover the murderer.
If you've seen Sainsbury in the Yeti Trilogy or Parker in anything this year you know what to expect from these two, and they hold the show together with their slacker act. Both highly energetic, Parker’s character is the quick wit, Sainsbury the slow, they’re like excited kids in oversized bodies. They litter their script with malapropisms, kitschy 90s New Zealand nostalgia, and a boat load of nautical puns. I’ve already mentioned it’s silly, and sometimes a bit too silly, but they are so unabashedly charming you can’t help but giggle.
In the Wake of Genius [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
Victor Rodger’s uncanny ability to write dialogue, that’s often self-censored in real life, is both refreshing and hard-hitting, which captures our attention right from the start. And this is evident as soon as Joan (Lisa Harrow) opens her mouth. The barrage of profanities that emit her gob can only be likened to proverbial verbal diarrhoea. There’s no question that we’re in for a no-holes-barred bumpy ride like no other.
The storyline inspired by Rodger’s own family background aptly answers the burning question he must have grown up wondering i.e. ‘What it would have been like had his estranged Samoan father, Scottish grandmother and him ended up in the same room together?’
Director Roy Ward obviously has a keen understanding of Rodger’s voice, having directed both Black Faggot and My Name is Gary Cooper. His ability to bring this ‘fictitious’ scene to life, that Rodger has created, results in an extremely poignant and heartfelt story that everyone who has ever had a family or been part of one would definitely be able to relate to.
Rodger’s writing and McIntyre’s staging combine beautifully. The presentation of Harrow’s acerbic character on stage and Pelesasa’s character Robert’s offstage bitchiness, set the scene for an inter-generational, inter-racial love-hate relationship that is painful, comforting, familiar, excruciating and ultimately tested to the full extent.
The actors were impeccable. Veteran actor Harrow (Step Dave, Kavanagh QC, The Omen III and The Last Days of Chez Nous) plays her role flawlessly as Joan the grandmother/mother-in-law. Perfectly cast as the chain-smoking, booze-swilling mother holding court at her daughter’s funeral, Joan ignites the already tense emotional situation by speaking her mind, without considering consequences. This ultimately erupts which is inevitable given age old grudges bubbling under the surface.
Robbie Magasiva as Tofilau was sublime and displayed a humble, confused, respectful, but charismatically – and possibly flawed – Samoan father trying to do the ‘right thing’, with ease. It was great to see Magasiva in a rare casting where he is not the hunk and stud of the piece. Tofilau is a great role for Magasiva as he is able to demonstrate the length and breath of his acting ability – not just the pretty face that we have come to know and love in shows like The Strip and of course Shortland Street.
Newcomer, in relation to his fellow cast members, Taofia Pelesasa (The Factory, Black Faggot) gives a stellar performance and holds his own despite the giants he is pitted against on stage. The relatively new face to theatre gives a stunning performance as the gay grandson/son who has returned from New York to attend his beloved mother’s funeral.
Mark McEntryre’s simple but effective backdrop makes a great statement mirroring the off the wall and quirky subject matter that we witness in the foreground. I also really liked the reflective panels in the wings, stage left, which allowed us to see the expressions on the actors’ faces when they turned away from the audience – well done for an incredibly successful and innovative use of The Herald Theatre space which we are all too familiar with.
Phillip Dexter’s lighting subtly enhanced the mood and the spaces portrayed, and Sara Taylor’s costumes were not only apt but cleverly used as props to complement the storyline within themselves.
Pretty much all possible human emotions were explored concurrently, including age, race, sexuality, betrayal, love, devotion and of course secrets and lies. While some plays try and combine drama, tragedy and humour and are only partially successful At the Wake manages to find the perfect balance.
At the Wake, with less sensitive direction and less perceptive writing could have skewed towards a French farce or English sitcom, but it most definitely doesn’t. This is theatre at its best, where all involved shined brightly without eclipsing each other and end result is not a dry eye in the house through either tears or laughter. Wonderful.
Multinesia Productions presents At The Wake playing at the Herald Theatre until December 6. Details see Ticketmaster
Es gehts [by Matt Baker]
Selecting a graduation/showcase production for an acting/industry institution is not aneasy task. Numbers aside, gender and the suitability of sensibilities can be a difficult jigsaw to manage. Director Ben Henson has chosen wisely by gifting The Actor's Program 2014 class with Arthur Meek's Sheep, which has been adequately expanded to its full cast size. Henson's tweaking of Meeks' 2011 text provides its episodic narrative with a sense of cyclical completion, but there is only so much that can be done with a script that does not equal more than the sum of its parts.
With a focus on Anglo-Germanic relationships, it's a shame that the accent of the latter is unsuccessful, specifically with the men. Leonardo Afon's Eastern European origins explain, though no more justify, his Slavic pronunciation, though his earnestness does not trump his lack of listening. Fortunately, Zöe Robins anchors him with an emotionally full and ironically suitable screen performance.
Successful Sequel [by Matt Baker]
Breathing and listening. They're key components to acting, and they feature in Toa Fraser's direction and latest script, Pure and Deep. Even for those who haven't seen Fraser's first full-length play, Bare, the nostalgia embedded in this, its sequel, along with performers Ian Hughes' and Mia Blake's trust and familiarity is enough to sense the successful completion – not often found in sequels – it permeates.
While Fraser doesn't pontificate, his liberal voice as a playwright is heavy-handed at times, and may distance audience members of a more right-leaning, conservative political or social philosophy. It's sixteen years later, and where Bare explored two people coming together, Pure and Deep takes the logical evolutionary step and explores these two people and their place in the world.
The first monologue feels forced and presentational, as if Fraser has written a clumsy opening disclaimer to acknowledge the transmedia element and technological advances over the past 16 years, which is unnecessary, as all latter references are cleverly and humorously placed. Hughes and Blake are excellent chameleons, playing both fictional and real-life New Zealand personalities, and although some of Blake's characterisations get in the way of her performance, the subtlety of her pathos is well-pitched.
Beyond the Binary [by Matt Baker]
From programme notes to performance, choreographer Lydia Zanetti and her performers take an intellectual approach to the subject and theme of gender. The group's etymological exploration delves much further, with Tallulah Holly-Massey's haunting hair-masked crawler (designed by Leonie Nicholls) allowing for Freudian interpretations of castration anxiety. That's not to say that the show doesn't evoke any emotional, simply that any reaction one will most likely be the culmination of a mental process as opposed to a visceral organic response to raw material.
Isobel MacKinnon's character draws on the core, child-like perception of the clown, which prevents the exploration of the phallic symbol being crudely dealt with – an all too common trait on stage. MacKinnon's joy is infectious, and her ability to hold an audience (no easy task) is laudable. Lisa Greenfield gives an incredibly nuanced performance, finding a variety of subtle yet affective variations in stillness. Mattie Hamuera switches from camp and playful to masculine and serious with excellent precision, without ever milking the humour it creates.
Famous Flora Fascinates [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
Choosing to stage Elisabeth Easther’s premiere about Flora Mackenzie, one of Auckland’s most notorious Mesdames, at the White House was a stroke of genius. The venue not only gave the show added dimension, being totally apt, but also acted as an eight character in the 7-strong cast that entertained us at the opening of Famous Flora last night.
In keeping with Mackenzie’s bold historical persona in Auckland, that of a madame supreme who ruled the city’s underworld sex scene for thirty years, the choice of venue was reflected on the faces of the audience members as they arrived to see the show. Many of whom made a point of saying out loud at the top of their lungs: “This is the first time I have been here”. Which almost seemed to mirror Shakespeare’s famous quote “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks”. But I digress.
The story flits between Flora in her heyday of the glamorous and stylish 1940s and the moral panics of the 1970s, resulting in comprehensive insight into her public and private lives all rolled into one. Easther’s ability to weave both eras together to form a pretty package is commendable. That being said I think some of the dialogue and build up could do with a little more tightening up as the show’s resolution is reached without much warning. Maybe a bit more time spent on the finale would help balance the meticulously crafted build up.
Not just blind luck [by Matt Baker]
In a similar vein to last year's White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Silo Theatre presents a production that's success banks almost entirely on each individual show. Appropriately titled, actress Natalie Medlock literally has no idea whom she is about to meet, the show more or less improvised around some narrative points and direction via text and mobile phone calls. While director Tanya Goldberg mentioned that even the disasters make for interesting dates, there will inevitably be those that come together in a more theatrically fulfilling way. Fortunately, the calibre of actors Silo has supplied is high.
Brad Knewstubb's bar construction and Celery Production's set design successfully transforms The Basement mainstage into a fully-functioning and immersive karaoke bar, where patrons can sing songs pre and post show and even order a drink during. Karaoke Queen Bryony Skillington serves the drinks and cues the characters' songs to assist the narrative structure, though her own willingness to sing is in opposition to her surly demeanour.
There are subtle variations to Medlock's characterisations, but, from the two shows I witnessed, it is more or less the same character but with different objectives. Seeing the show twice, one is immediately able to identify the structure of the play and some of the methods used to incite particular narrative lines, as well as the most obvious variation; the Mystery Date.