REVIEW: Man Lessons (Auckland Pride)

Review by Anjula Prakash

The Auckland Pride Festival is in full swing in its second week and if you’re going out to see a thing or two (or read, watch, listen to – there’s a beautiful array of activities in the program this year), you can’t go past this gem taking place at the Basement Theatre. Man Lessons, performed by Adam Rohe (he/him), combines a documentary six years in the making with live story-telling, to take us through the process and journey of transitioning. Rohe’s natural aahua and humour sets a welcoming tone before he navigates the audience through a very personal, introspective, and confronting journey. He even anchors the moment using a waka as a metaphor. 

Ben is joined on stage by documentary maker Ben Sarten (they/them), who films the show and occasionally becomes involved with the storytelling. Using only two car seats put together like seats in a theatre, a projector screen, and Ben’s camera, we are already immersed in the documentary as it is happening, and we get a sense that Adam is still in the midst of it all. 

Adam paints a picture of the important people and events in his life through anecdotes and candid footage from the existing documentary. At first it seems Adam’s close friends on screen are impossibly comfortable with the camera, but that might speak to Ben’s ability to capture the right moments. The footage is carefully edited to give us morsels of their lives, and who they are, while still leaving room for us to interpret and think about the people on screen. After the introductions, Adam tacks on, almost as a throwaway, that the story is about his transition as a trans man. The significant role the people around him play in the story is put to the fore, which becomes a way of saying, “there’s more to the story than just me.”

And there is a lot to the story. Sometimes Adam jumps ahead in time to talk about a pivotal moment in his journey – which becomes a barrage of overwhelming information, but then backtracks to break it down. This is reflective of the deconstructive and analysing tone that underpins the show, and also the chaotic nature of venturing into an unknown world. These moments begin to feed into a harrowing part of the journey as Adam heads towards psychosis. Sometimes, he gives us fables or allegories to help us delve deeper into his interior world.

You can tell the show has had time to mature in its ideas and storytelling. The whole project was initially only going to be a documentary, before it evolved into this live component beginning in 2021. The show went through a devising process with Nī Dekkers-Reihana and dramaturg Eve Gordon, before playing in Wellington and Whangārei. Sarten is also nearing the end of the filming process, and I know audiences will look forward to the feature length doco in the near future. Adam has put a lot of work into finding truths in his journey, and figuring out how to relay the honest truth to the audience. At times, even reluctantly, for example, when Adams gives the audience the story around the physical aspects of transitioning – “because that’s what people want to know”.

The story is largely a psychological one which grows to an emotional crescendo. We are given a multifaceted journey into the mind of someone learning to become who they are, when they’ve been told all their life that they’re not that person. All while trying to maintain a relationship, grow as an actor on the stage of the Pop Up Globe, or contending with the confusing experience of playing a role in The Vagina Monologues. 

Man Lessons is a compelling and honest look into the life of Adam Rohe. There is a great breadth of story to be told here that covers years in the making, but the selected parts come together in a moving and emotional piece of documentary theatre. I think anyone looking to understand, know more about, or be supported through transitioning will find the story valuable.

Man Lessons plays Basement Theatre 7-11 February 2023 as part of Auckland Pride.

This review is part of the Auckland Pride Review Project – a collaborative project between four local publications (The Pantograph Punch, Bad Apple Gay, Rat World and Theatre Scenes) to provide more critical discourse around queer theatre and performance work. We will be reviewing a range of shows throughout the month of Pride – so keep a look out and go support our local queer performers!

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