Clever, Compassionate and Concise [by Sharu Delilkan]
It appears as if the play has already begun as we file into Q’s Loft space. Solo actress Adura Onashile busily writes on the blackboard with her back facing us and occasionally turns around to mouth words to her ‘other actors’ on stage. Before long you find yourself sucked into Henrietta Lacks’ world, retold with absolute clarity and compassion by the astute and talented Onashile.
Finding out that HeLa is the first play that she has penned is quite a surprise – something I only realised after the show. The writing is crisp, clear and above all encapsulates the ethical dilemmas that you as audience members come away from the show thinking and debating about for days.
Personally the fact that both factual data and insight into Henrietta Lacks' life are perfectly pitched and balanced throughout the show, makes for a heartfelt and compelling drama that's non-judgemental and doesn’t run into the perennial trap of being OTT at any point in the magnificent one-woman solo piece.
HeLa straddles science and human drama impeccably, with protagonist Henrietta Lacks at its heart. Based on the New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, HeLa tells the little known true story of Lacks, an African American woman who died at the age of 31 from cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951, whose tissue samples were taken without her permission and subsequently used as the basis of critical groundbreaking scientific research spanning more than six decades.
Icarian Heights [by Matt Baker]
"Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics" is not the definition I would use to describe Perfect Place. While there are no new stories under the sun, Colin Garlick's complete lack of an attempt to re-imagine, or at the very least thinly veil, one iota of the stories he has haphazardly drafted onto the page is frankly insulting, with the "stranger in a new world" stumbling over the "freedom of choice" tied together with a borderline plagiarised Tyler Durden-Mark Renton monologue. In what I presume was an attempt to compensate the barrenness of Garlick's script, As Expected have over-loaded the creative team with not only two directors, but a dramaturg. Regardless, Lauren Gibson and Zinzan Selwyn only have so much with which to work, and I'm at a loss to Katy Maudlin's contribution.
Taylor Hall's character has no backstory, which has apparently led Hall to not establish one for his own performance purpose. He's supposed to be our everyman, but he's the least interesting character with which we're presented. Eli Matthewson gives a pitch perfect performance – luckily, the lack of a three-dimensional character allows Matthewson to let loose his natural comedic abilities with complete abandon. Greta Gregory has the most layers, but her initial incomplete articulation in physicality, especially compared to Mathewson, means she doesn't earn the right to play them. Fasitua Amosa's best work comes when it has no surface-level play against in his way and the affability of his casual ability to entertain can shine. Amanda Tito has the most to play in regards to the extremity of the style of the production, but, again, she only has so far to go with the role.
Affairs of the Heart [by James Wenley]
Glancing down the program for If I Only Had a Heart, you might think that director Aaron Tindell compiled this cabaret show’s song list by typing “heart” in his iTunes search bar. Each song has “heart” somewhere in the title, helpfully bolded in red. It’s a mix of Broadway tuners that only the most dedicated musical theatre fan would have heard of, like ‘Listen to Your Heart’ from Young Frankenstein, to some more familiar hits like ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Anyone who had a Heart’. The oldest is 1927’s ‘Stout-hearted Man’ and the newest 2012’s ‘Never Give all your Heart’ from TV’s bombshell Smash and Cindy Lauper’s ‘Hold Me in Your Heart’ from the musical Kinky Boots.
It soon becomes apparent just how carefully Tindell has programmed the songs to speak to one another and take up different positions, surmounting the initial gimmick. This is helped considerably by the interpretative talent of performers Jessie Cassin, Cherie Moore, and Rebecca Wright. Individually they play to their strengths – Wright excels in expressing pain and vulnerability, Moore is a playful seen-it-all before storyteller, and Cassin is at turns petulant and optimistic – and each get multiple showstoppers. As a trio, they are a divine harmonising powerhouse.
Uncertain Futurecast [by James Wenley]
The Yo Future movement has been spreading across the country. First devised in Wellington in 2011, Director Jo Randerson has worked with youth from Invercargill, Hamilton, Wairarapa and asked them provocations like “What does the world look like to you?” and “what would you fight for?” to create their past, present and Yo Future.
The 14 member cast enter one by one and present themselves to us. With the audience split by traverse staging, the cast keep turning to see us all, and keep shuffling to get themselves in the right order. It’s a suitably awkward way to meet them, not quite sure of their place in the world. These are the Millennials aka Generation Y aka the Me generation aka the Peter Pan generation, born after 1984, categorised negatively by being narcissistic, lazy and politically disengaged, and categorised positively as open-minded, connected, and self-expressive.
The cast seem like a typical local cross-section, and they’re very much the real deal. Under Randerson’s guidance they’ve formed a tight ensemble core. Randerson calls the style “contemporary clowning” and “choral choreography”, and the show is built with a series of games and encounters. For example, they’ve built on the classic theatre exercise of ‘pass the object’, three of the cast participating in imaginative play as they passed an expanding invisible ball that had dropped from the sky. Just when I was starting to feel disconnected from this playing (it’s not shared with us), the first group of clowns strut in to disrupt their game. These are the Starbucks drinking, fashionista, look-at-me divas such as you might find on High Street, a parody of the spoilt millennials leaching money off their parents. Later we also meet a group of teen drinkers, selfie-obsessed and giggling like hyenas. Both are fairly strong critiques of these social types, both are groups of girls, and I wonder where the male clowns are at?
Soulless Depths [by James Wenley]
An hour before the show, Uther Dean is sitting on a couch in The Basement foyer, playing arcade games courtesy of Young & Hungry. He later hangs outside the venue. When it’s approaching the 9pm mark, he goes to the door to usher us in. Once we’re all in the Studio, he strolls in, finds his light, and immediately propels into Everything is Surrounded by Water. No apparent pre-performance ritual, no warm-up, no getting your head into the performance zone in the green-room, Uther is ready when we are.
It gibes with the origins of the show, written by Uther Dean and Hannah Banks (also director) of Wellington’s My Accomplice company, which was originally performed in his flat and other people’s homes in the Wellington Fringe earlier this year (for which it won Best Solo).
But I’m so struck by Uther’s apparent pre-show casualness, even laxness, because Everything is Surrounded by Water likes to mess with our notions of what it is and what it is doing; truth and artifice. Uther says he is no actor, this is not a show, but he wants to tell us a story, it’s his 56th time doing it. 90-95% of what he’s telling us is true, he claims, but not the parts we think. Water is like a 21st Century slacker spin on the Doctor Faustus narrative. Dean’s anxiety is that he has no essence when, after a series of humorously long-winded narrated events that gets him to this point in the story, he receives a medical opinion that he is lacking a soul. Turns out he gave it away as a child on a post-it note*. It’s a post-modern meta-text, continually making fun of its own construction and the Wellington jokes that are lost on its Auckland audience. It’s a tightly structured stream-of-consciousness, there’s looseness to its form, but it hits its beats with honed precision.
Tying laces before loose ends [by Matt Baker]
Not unlike last year, The Basement’s second season of Young & Hungry provides an excellent dichotomy of comedy and tragedy with its 2014 offerings, Second Afterlife by Ralph McCubbin-Howell and Uncle Minotaur by Dan Bain, respectively. Unlike last year, however, there is a strong similarity in the thematic style of each play.
As a side-note, I find it odd that Young & Hungry's “most talented selection of young performers and technicians” are being likened to our future Peter Jackson's, Anna Paquin's, and Taiki Waititi's in the programme notes, considering the latters' successes lies in the film industry rather than theatre.
No stranger to creating dramatic parallels with the real world, McCubbin-Howell explores the evolution of online profiles in what is more or less a theatrical adaptation of Scott Pilgram Vs. The World. Even when considering this as a youth production, it takes a few moments to adjust to director Leon Wadham’s style for the piece, which requires a necessary juxtaposition between the two worlds, but isn't fully realised due to the already heightened nature of the characters existence in the real world.
Bloom and grow forever [by James Wenley]
If you’re not completely won over by the time the Von Trapp children are skipping along to Do-Re-Me, you should see a doctor immediately to check for a heart condition.
The template for the New Zealand touring production is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2006 production at the London Palladium (for which he cast Maria through a reality TV show), and winds our way with a largely South African cast, and some talented local kids. Writing in the program, Lloyd Webber reflects that he was teased by his school-mates after attending the opening of the 1961 London production; musicals were an “unfashionable cause”. Those are sentiments I can certainly sympathise with. I have a high regard for The Sound of Music, the final masterpiece from Rodgers and Hammerstein, but to admit so was hardly fashionable for a teenage boy.
Scaling different heights [by Matt Baker]
It's easy to forget that the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition consisted of 13 men other than Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. With an equally warranted respect amongst the expedition members, and without the chance of generating jingoistic reprisal, playwright Gareth Davies offers us the narrative voices of expedition leader Sir John Hunt and schoolmaster George Lowe in the untold story all New Zealander's should know.
Davies clearly has master knowledge on the play's subject matter, with minute detail weaved into the overall plot. This is articulated further with Stephen Lovatt's performance as Hunt, with a slight British smarm and reverence that ingratiates him with his audience, as he brings the events to life with an honest and infectious enthusiasm. While there may not be the same level of interest in the content for each member of the audience, this enthusiasm, under the direction of Toby Leech, successfully avoids any monotony in its rhythm.
Insect Repellent [by James Wenley]
I’ve admired Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ work in Dallas trailer-trash set Killer Joe (his first play in 1996) and pill-popping American domestic-epic August: Osage County (2007). The Real Theatre Company, under Director David Coddington, have produced Bug (1997), Lett’s second play, and the first of which I haven’t been impressed by. Don’t expect Osage, it’s more a lesser Killer Joe.
Bug has Letts’ standard theme of the diseased American dream. Chain-smoking and desperately lonely Agnes (Jo Lloyd) is holed up in an Oklahoma motel room, hounded by phone calls from who she believes to be from her ex-con/ex-husband Jerry Goss (Chris Molloy) who is out of prison and trying to track her down. Agnes is introduced by her friend R.C (Tui Peterson) to Peter Evans (Alex Ewan), an ex-vet on the run. Put together in the motel room, Agnes and Peter are a volatile combination as they descend into their delusional world of paranoia, secret medical experiments, and an infestation of bugs that live under their skin.
Performance quality is scattered, and while accents slips make for an easy criticism, I found it especially distracting in this production, with Tui Peterson a prime offender. The characters of Agnes and Peter are the pivots of the drama and get the most stage time. Jo Lloyd is gutsy and has a strong focus on her outer actions, but together with Alex Ewan, the performance intensity is often too small for the stage. Only Chris Molloy and Edward Newborn (appearing all to briefly as Dr Sweet) rise to the potential of Letts’ chewable dialogue.
Striking set sizzles [by Sharu Delilkan]
When I heard that the NZ Opera was finally staging Don Giovanni, after it had been performed at the Christchurch Arts Festival last year, I was adamant not to miss this larger than life production. And unlike some productions that promise a lot and deliver very little, this NZ Opera production not only met but also totally surpassed my expectations.
Seeing Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra very visible from the pit as I took my seat was indeed a pleasant surprise, adding to the overall experience right from the word go.
John Verryt’s set adaptation is bold, striking and above all cleverly designed to enable multiple room and locations to be created by the mere swivelling of panels across the stage. Jeremy Fern’s stylised lighting works perfectly in harmony with the dramatic set creating a layering effect, using different coloured lighting to depict the entrance of the night club and hotel. That being said I did think that the lighting in both the Angels and Demons party along with the scene where “Commendatore” is discovered could have done with a bit more variation to add to the sexy nature of the party in the former and the mystery in the latter. Likewise despite Elizabeth Whiting’s hallmark amazing variety of costuming throughout the production, I felt the element of debauchery and sensuality somewhat lacking in both the costuming and tone of the Angels and Demons party.
The visually arresting set is effective in providing the perfect platform for director Sara Brodie’s different and insightful approach to Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni.