Magnificent Maori Matadors [by Sharu Delilkan]
The ‘Len Brown Sux’ protesters outside The Maidment Theatre provided a rather obscure start to the evening. Fortunately everyone seemed more pre-occupied with the opening night of Auckland Theatre Company’s Paniora! to care. Within the lobby though it was so refreshing to see more ‘Browns’ than just Len. Often many ATC shows tend to attract a predominantly pakeha middle class audience so it was great to see the tonight’s crowds’ rich diversity. The play’s content no doubt was a big contributor, but I’m sure it can also be attributed to ATC’s drive in recent times to spread their appeal with their hook ups including PIPA (Pacific Institute of Performing Arts), KKK (Kila Kokonut Krew) and the Mangere Arts Centre for shows like Pollyhood in Mumuland and Being Brown.
Tonight’s show Paniora! by Briar Grace-Smith was truly unique in terms of its content – the portrayal of Spanish-Maori. It had an appealing and intriguing premise, one I had never heard of or even imagined before.
The Spanish-Maori mix provided plenty of rich pickings for culture, humour, confusion and contrast, with great success. The accents were awesome and the programme along with the writing gave us just enough clues to keep track of the flamboyant and complicated family tree portrayed in the story.
But the story that unfolds is not the only element that the audience is treated to in this dynamic ATC production. The addition of movement to the traditional dramatic media, that ATC is renowned for, was not only exciting but truly enhanced the production taking it to another level. In short I was chuffed to see dance being featured quite prominently in this show. The amazing Okareka Dance Company dancers, astutely choreographed by Taane Mete, shone beyond my wildest dreams. A creative triumph that artistic director Colin McColl should be extremely proud of. How else would one depict the richness of the Spanish culture on stage but through the emotive language of dance? The dancers also provided welcome interludes during scene changes, which was a refreshing departure from traditional theatrical blackouts with piped in music. The bullfighting dance sequence is a particular favourite due to its clever delivery and its nod to both Flamenco and kapa haka, stunningly combined. And of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the genius of Taiaroa Royal’s movement as the Whatupo (owl). His entire body, including his eye movements, made his interpretation of the Whatupo a sight to behold.
Eden Mulholland’s sound scape works perfectly with the movement, which totally made sense when I discovered that the two elements had been developed concurrently. This translated beautifully on stage with the dancers totally in sync with the music and vice versa.
A large part of the production’s slickness is enabled by Sean Coyle’s amazing set. So simple and effective, it allows multiple combinations of space, silhouette and scene change to take place with such panache.
As a Spanish food lover, who appreciates the likes of paprika and saffron, I must admit that the overall feel of the show lacked the spice of the likes of paella and my favourite tapas dishes. Maybe a little bit more of ‘seasoning’ could be added especially when it comes to the relationship between Jimmy Hotai (Kirk Torrance) and Maria Martinez (Miriama Smith), to help create that missing passion.
Actress Nancy Brunning as Te Mamaenui the grumpy matriarch of the family steals the show with solid, consistent acting and beautifully delivered one-liners. As the thread that holds the show together her acting has to be, and was on the night enthusiastically applauded. Her ability to flit between her bossy grumpy character to being almost flirty with the charming Spaniard Esteban Valdez (Barnie Duncan), is absolutely fabulous and a testament to her lauded talent. Speaking of the Spaniard, Duncan is perfectly cast in this role too. His accent gives his character an air of authenticity, which adds to the colour of the production. Another standout for me was Hera Dunleavy as Terry Hotai (Jimmy Hotai’s third wife). Having seen Dunleavy in many ATC productions it was great to see a role that fit her like a glove. She was witty, natural and downright perfect for the part.
Last but definitely not least Jane Hakaraia’s lighting design is the icing on the cake. It combined seamlessly with the music and set accentuating the dramatic and poignant moments impeccably. Her ability to make Coyle’s minimalist set come to life using a varied colour palatte helped create the varied moods and themes in the show.
Paniora! as a story is a long entanglement of love, loss, duty and destiny. However for me the promising premise doesn’t quite lead to a resolution as swiftly or as satisfactorily as I would have liked. I agree that not that everything needs to be resolved, but I did notice some shuffling of feet and drifting away of some audience members more than halfway through the nearly two-hour long show. A number of comments from the audience at the after party indicated that compressing some of the scenes could possibly have helped pick up the pace a little.
In summary the set, lighting and sound were exquisite, the acting was consistent, the dance incredible which made the whole experience uplifting, intriguing and tinged with professionalism. With the gorgeous visuals, choreography and sound the audience was certainly treated to a spectacle. With a three-week run ahead, there’s definitely time to tweak the pacing and length, which could easily move Paniora! from great to excellent.
Co-produced with the New Zealand Festival and presented in association with Okareka Dance Company, Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Paniora! plays at The Maidment until 12 April. Details see Auckland Theatre Company