Easy ride along Sunset Road [by Sharu Delilkan]
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.
Shake and Shimmy [by James Wenley]
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.
Rough Mutt [by Matt Baker]
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.
Fix transfixes [by Sharu Delilkan]
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.
Brecht-Through Experience [by James Wenley]
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.
Hill of Memory [by James Wenley]
“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.
Grate the Skin, Grit the Teeth, Probe the DNA [by James Wenley]
When the diversity featured in The Selecta moves up onto the mainstage, Auckland’s theatres will be a very exciting place to be. Following last year’s outstanding immersion in teen drinking culture, Like There’s No Tomorrow, Auckland Theatre Company have gone back to the three-shows-in-one-night format to showcase Gen Y talent in their Next Big Thing program. In The Selecta you’ll find a carnival ride of hashtags, schoolyard packs gone wrong, and talented performers staking their claim for their voices to be heard.
In Skin, directed by Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement's Grace Taylor, the company delve deep past the surface to deliver a series of profound, self-penned spoken word meditations on their lives, experiences, and attitudes. The content is diverse, as an example, Alice Pearson opens with a reflection on the inadequacy of glad wrap, which transitions into a thoughtful consideration of Rewa Worley’s contemporary Maori cultural identity. Pearson wraps Worley in the wrap as we enter, the visual image of containment finding release in Worley’s words.
The poetry, honed through workshops, and deeply felt by the writer-performers, sends shockwaves through my own skin. There are vital issues canvassed here – rape culture in Pearson’s Wolf Gang, the climate plight of Kiribati in Naotia Atiana’s Sink or Swim (“forced migration / relocation”) and the rejection of traditional gender roles in Zech Soaki and Ilena Lameta’s moving collaboration Galaxy. In Courtney Basset’s changing rooms, I’m caught by her feeling that she’s “out of the womb too soon” as she considers the other girls in the changing room. Mohammed Hassan draws us in with his Palm Reader. Ileana Lameta’s vulnerability and storytelling control in The Voice is Mine, beautifully accompanied by music, is completely compelling. There is strong work also from Arizona Leger and Hanna Olsen – they are all great.
Seven Deadly Narrative Sins [by James Wenley]
In a secular society, what does it mean to sin? When you are encouraged to take whatever you want, who decides mortal morality? If there’s no-one there to judge you, who is there to stop you? In Outfit Theatre Company’s devised show around the seven deadly sins, what is striking is that religion plays no part in the lives of the contemporary Aucklanders that make up the characters. Sure, Ryan Dulieu stalks the stage, clutching an apple, like some sort of tempter-serpent figure, but at rarely do the characters stop and think about any of the big questions of right and wrong. If these are sins, who is counting?
Outfit Theatre Company have been absent from Auckland’s stage since a massive year in 2012 (with just one kids show in 2013), as the company took stock and worked on that most vexing of questions: how to make their ensemble model sustainable? Sin returns the company to what they are most well-known for, like The Sex Show, a large ensemble cast, contemporary (mostly) 20-30 something characters, and a show devised around a sexy topic. This time it is the seven deadly sins, devised by directors Sarah Graham and assistant Andrew Ford and the cast using material through both anonymous surveys and face to face interviews. It’s a well-trodden theme (Vice in April played in similar territory), but while Aucklanders flirting with their dark sides holds much fascination, Outfit bring little new to the table.
Cross-Commedia Clarity [by James Wenley]
The masks, masterfully crafted with aroha by maker Tristan Marler, are exquisite. The etched mokos glimmer with detail under the stage light. The performers tongue flicks out from under the half mask. It’s as if the ancestors, carved on the beams of the wharenui, have jumped off and sprung into fresh and blood life. It is these masks that make Hoki Mai Tama Mā special, a new artform Te Rēhia Theatre Company call Te Mata Kōkako O Rēhia, blending Maori tikanga and the Italian art form of Commedia dell’Arte.
It’s remarkable that somebody hadn’t thought of this before. Indian Ink are the immediate touch point that in this country that have been experimenting and localising mask form, more recently embracing Balinese mask in Kiss the Fish (indeed, Justin Lewis assisted the company). Regan Taylor wondered what would happen if a Commedia mask spoke Te Reo, and the result is the new tangata whenua form from playwright Tainui Tukiwaho and Director Gerald Urquhart.
In Hoki Mai Tama Mā, two storytelling forms play opposite each other – the world of Mata Kōkako, and a more usual naturalistic drama (sans masks) – which finally merge at the end of the play in a refreshingly unexpected way. Tama (Rawiri Jobe) has returned from Italy, just in time for Matariki. He went there to track down his Koro, who had gone awol overseas, however Tama had neglected to tell anyone, and neither his cousin Bella (Amber Cureen) or girlfriend Patricia (Ascia Maybury) are very happy with him. Reviews from its opening week at the Mangere Arts Centre indicated that the play’s opening was problematic. While its second week at the Herald Theatre seems to have increased the energy, the focus in the opening scenes seems to be in the wrong place. The conflict is generated around Tama’s absence, and the initial one-dimensional characterisation of Patricia as the pissed off Pakeha girlfriend is at odds with the more nuanced and supportive character revealed later. In short, it’s not the most engaging opening, and the heat surrounding Tama’s travel soon disappears. What drives the play’s engine is the mystery surrounding why Koro went to Italy, and it is question that the conflict could be more meaningfully associated.
Okareka Wows [by Sharu Delilkan]
Being a bit of an Okareka Dance Company junkie I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Auckland debut of their new original piece Mana Wahine. And I realised that I was not the only one there to get their Okareka fix.
What can I say but Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete (Okareka’s artistic directors) have blown us away yet again! And the winning combination of World of Wearable Arts (WOW) artistic director and principal choreographer Malia Johnston was obviously a stroke of genius that has made this company’s Matariki offering jaw-droppingly memorable. Watching Mana Wahine was indeed a treat, comprising stunning music, lighting, imagery, set and costume that exquisitely complemented the astounding choreography and fabulous dance performances.
Never had I seen an audience so transfixed, so attentive, so mesmerised, so moved all at the same time. And the audience erupting in a spontaneous standing ovation clearly depicted that the crowd was just itching to show their delirious euphoria.