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]
Valentines Day. Shakespeare commandingly performed. The breath-taking surrounds of the Pah Homestead, The TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre. Utter class. It couldn’t have been any more romantic. [Review]
Angels in America
Shane Bosher’s last great undertaking for Silo. A treat for himself, and a gift for us. When you have great writing, great characters, and a great production, sometimes you don’t want a show to stop. Thankfully Angels, Parts One and Two was long – eight hours long. Silo likened it to an HBO marathon. I gobbled this one up and savoured every beat. [Review One + Two]
I really couldn’t stop raving about Daffodils. Rochelle Bright raided then renewed the Kiwi songbook in selecting local songs to help tell the story of her parents Eric and Rose. It was performed with perfection by Todd Emerson and Coleen Davis (remember Anchor Me and Language?). I wrote: “Watching Daffodils is like watching a little miracle come into bloom… this is an incredibly special theatre experience of a kind that almost never comes along. I go to the theatre again and again in the hopes of experiencing a show like this.” What this show says about kiwi masculinity floored me, and what hits home emotionally is the fraught attempt to understand your parents. I was lucky to go twice before it sold out, so if you missed out last time, ensure you bring your loved ones to the 2015 season. [Review]
Squidboy / Kraken
Trygve Wakenshaw’s double hit of Squidboy and Kraken were the best shows in the Comedy Festival. He makes mime cool. So many moments of joy. [Review]
Trees Beneath the Lake
There’s nothing quite like watching a play unfold for the first time, constantly guessing as to how it’s all going to end up. With Lake, Arthur Meek pinches from the greats, a bit of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and mixes his own contemporary NZ morality play about a money trader whose deals have caught up with him. Meek introduces a Chekhov’s gun (a hunting rifle), and the most electrifying part of the play comes in the final minutes when we find out if Meek will or won’t pull the dramatic trigger. It’s a tension that can only be captured in your very first experience of the play. That didn’t stop be buying the print edition of the play immediately afterwards (fantastic initiative ATC)! [Review]
The Night Sky
Lying on a beanbag, listening to a Ziggy Stardust-ified Blackbird Ensemble perform numbers inspired by the Night Sky is bliss. Then they started the Star Wars Imperial March, and my inner-geek beemed. If you haven’t been to a Blackbird Ensemble show yet, make sure this is on your list for 2015. Claire Cowan and team curate and arrange classical and contemporary standards and obscurities. The result is musical and theatrical alchemy from these dark geniuses.
Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys / Wine Lips
I named Sam Brooks the “most exciting” Auckland playwright in Metro, a moniker he has run with on social media (@sbrookbrooks: I am now shunning FOUR parties in order to lie on my bed and rewatch comedy specials I’ve already seen. #mostexcitingplaywright.) In 2014 he went site-specific. Cars was set in a silver hatchback outside The Basement, Wine Lips was set inside the greenroom of the same venue. His plays are populated by wonderfully flawed characters that can’t help hurtling into one another. Wine Lips was a must see play for the industry, speaking truth to the struggle of making theatre in Auckland. One of the best parts was the show we didn’t get to see, the fake queerlesque show playing in The Basement Studio while Nic Sampson’s character stage-managed backstage. [Review Cars + Wine Lips]
Lies and What Have you Done to Me?
Stephen Bain and Nisha Madhan took over The Basement and turned it into a theatre laboratory for as they messed with expectations of the traditional audience-actor relationship. What Have you Done to me? we were invited to be just as creative as them, and my moment of bliss was making funny noises and actions with Stephen Bain in the near darkness. It really was a show that you had to be there to understand, but the company’s review project, where they solicited reviews from experts in any field other than theatre [thus no reviews from us!] is well worth a read.
Packed under a tiny circus tent upstairs in The Basement, the teenage freaks of Giant Teeth performed for our horror and delight. The atmosphere was electric as the young actors proudly shared the show they had devised with Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin. [Review]
Basement Foyer fun and games
The Basement have embraced the notion that engagement with a show goes far beyond what happens inside the theatre. This has meant a few special things happening in the foyer. For Velcro City, we got to design our own costumes to Velcro on the poster versions of Eli and Hamish. In Luncheon, Aroha Awarau’s play about a best Supporting Actress Oscar Race, we had the opportunity to hold an authentic Oscar. That was incredible, and the resulting photo remained my Facebook profile for the rest of the year! “I’d like to thank my loyal readers…”
I do admit I was dubious. Setting Oscar Wilde’s romp in a gay nightclub accompanied to the tunes of Cher. What? Well turns out sometimes the subtext is a lot more fun when it’s out in the open. I loved Earnest when I first saw it as a child, but after Auckland Theatre Company’s white-washed production a few years back I felt like the play’s charm had gone for me. Director Benjamin Henson helped me find the joy and realise the vital importance of being earnest. [Review]
Jesus Christ Superstar Sing-a-long
On opening night the audience were exalted to dance and sing along to the final title number as glitter fell from the heavens of Q. That was special. Confession time. As a fan of Superstar thanks to my well-worn DVD of the 2000 version, I knew I wanted to check out the sing-along. When I couldn’t convince anyone to join me or pay the ticket price, I went along anyway and found myself seated next to two vociferous super-fans, one of whom who had already seen the ATC production an alarmingly amount of times (Rose Matafeo would tweet she was at the sing-along by herself, so at least I’m just as cool as her). I’m so glad I went. It must have been peculiar for the actors, having their lines echoed. In a charming moment, Julia Deans let the audience take over. Even Director Oliver Driver was making wise-cracks at the silliness of some of Tim Rice’s lyrics. There’s was a feeling of community, shamelessly worshipping at the church of Lloyd-Webber. [Review]
This has been the fifth year of writing a Year in Review for Theatre Scenes. Incredible! I’m encouraged by theatre criticism in Auckland. The Pantograph Punch has a strong commitment to theatre, and has carved out their space with their brilliant ‘round-table’ style reviews. Sam Brooks at the Lumiere Reader is consistently insightful, following in the footsteps of Bruce Mason as a New Zealand playwright-director-reviewer-everything. Our friends at Theatreview continue to cover every production around the country, and as a researcher, I know how valuable this is. This year has marked a milestone in my own criticism when I was asked to be a contributor for Metro Magazine and go “pro”. I’m so proud to have written five reviews for Metro this year under the astute editorship of Simon Wilson. So look out for my reviews on Metro, and also on here. Theatre Scenes isn’t going anywhere. Matt Baker, Sharu Delilkan and myself are the reviewers you know and trust (or know not to trust!) and we’re looking forward to 2015.
Those were my moments. What were yours? Share below in the comments.
FOR MORE PERSPECTIVES ON 2014, SEE ALSO:
The Pantograph Punch: 10 plays we loved in 2014