REVIEW: Tea For Two Valentine’s Special (Loft at Q)

Review by Anjula Prakash

Photography by John Rata

What an absolute treat it was to see Tea For Two Valentine’s Special. I arrived early at the Loft at Q Theatre and found a seat front and centre, only then realising that I was at a Valentine’s show by myself. Theatre goers file in and decide to leave a number of conspicuously empty seats around me. The one woman show begins (well, one woman plus one assistant who hangs back with the audience), as does the audience interaction. The masked character, Anahera, skilfully played by Tamara Gussy (Basket Case), is quick to notice my predicament, and with wide-eyed and endearing enthusiasm she promises to find me a date by the end of the show. 

The premise is that Anahera is Aotearoa’s leading dating expert, and that the audience is in for a night of interactive theatre, comedy, and clowning. It’s not often we get to see theatre in the style of commedia dell’arte. Although theatre company Indian Ink features masked characters in their productions, Pickle King would be their most directly dell’arte inspired show. There is a connection between Indian Ink and this show in the inclusion of the character, Joy (Catherine Yates), from Dirty Work. Joy is the assistant who lets us know she’s there to “help with the lights and stuff,” thus breaking the fourth wall and easing us into the interactive theatre experience. Her role is somewhat minor, but every interaction with Joy brings hilarity. In keeping with a clown character, she is a caricature, sans a mask, but dons a pair of false buck teeth, an orange boiler suit, and a thick kiwi accent to rival Rhys Darby’s. 

When Anahera enters the stage, something magical happens. She immediately captures the audience’s attention through the intense expressiveness that a masked character brings. Her consummate skills in dell’arte are evident in her vocal work, physicality, and repertoire in improvisation. I get a sense of the centuries old tradition of the art on stage, which speaks to director/creator Pedro Ilgenfritz’s (Leilani, One by One) proficiency in dell’arte. The use of a simple set allows the masked character to be the medium to the many facets of storytelling. As the dell’arte theatre troupes have done for many years, the social commentary and jokes fit the current social climate and location. Matchmaking is the subject (and game), and our everyday foibles in dating are scrutinised. Our common embarrassing scenarios are played out, but Anahera is always on our side.

This is the second iteration of Tea for Two, which first played at the Basement Theatre in August last year. Tamara then received a scholarship to study mask in Pordenone, Italy under Ferruccio Merisa as part of the L’Arlecchino Errante festival. Anahera is a Columbina-esque character – Columbina being the stock character archetype of the comic servant. The supporting and guiding nature of Anahera, which is magnified tenfold because she’s a clown and caricature, had the effect of getting the audience to let down their guard. When we were asked to wink and flirt with complete strangers the atmosphere of ease and the playfulness on stage transposed to the audience, making even the shyest crowd member dare to enticingly lock eyes with a complete stranger. The climax of the show was when two volunteers from the audience, who were friends for four years, simulated a date scenario and ended it with a real kiss. I was honestly expecting a handshake for the laughs, but they went for it and it really was the best thing that could have happened for the show that night. The audience was rapt. 

The character, Anahera, was developed under Pedro’s tutelage when Tamara studied at Unitec/Te Pūkenga and this history makes for a brilliantly crafted show. Our time with Anahera flew by and we left feeling we had a shared and memorable experience. I think anyone interested in comedy should see commedia dell’arte for this form shines a beacon on the essence of what makes comedy. Of course, dell’arte is and always has been for everyone.

Tea for Two Valentine’s Special played Q Theatre Loft 7th-10th of Feburary 2024

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