[Slice of Nightlife]
Born from writer and director Hone Kouka’s own experiences as part of the 90s dance party scene in Amsterdam, The Beautiful Ones is a multi-disciplinary love letter presented by Maori and Cook Islands theatre company Tawata Productions. By transplanting this nostalgia for a lost time to a present day Wellington setting, the homage becomes a platform to showcase his talented cast and crew, mixing actors, dancers, visual artists and musicians.
Best known as an award-winning playwright, Kouka surprisingly eschews dramatic conventions to tell this story. There’s no real hook or conflict except the presence of The Lady (Ria Hall) who appears to be scouting for new dance talent at The Lord’s (Scott Cotter) nightclub. They observe everything over a balcony, often talking about the other characters like they’re chess pieces, drawing parallels to the gods of Ancient Greek tragedies. Despite being significant players in the story, they often feel more like devices than characters, floating in and out delivering exposition. This is less of an issue for Hall who commands the attention of the audience during her show-stopping musical performances, more than justifying her presence.
The rest of the show has an intimate and slice-of-life quality to it, through it’s punctuated with dance and song. Best told in vignettes or moments, the interactions the characters have with each other feels less like acting and more like real people hanging out, with the natural charm and personality of the cast shining through. And while it’s a glimpse behind-the-scenes of a world most people hardly know, the usual stereotypes of nightclub culture are subverted by a playful innocence. You won’t find any of that in-yer-face sexuality or risky business normally associated with the environment. The focus here is on a celebration of the people and the community who inhabit this scene.
In building this world for his characters to inhabit, Kouka inevitably sets up certain narrative expectations, despite doing his hardest to avoid them. As an audience, we crave conflict and drama, but the show often delivers characters who aren’t given enough development and some rushed romantic subplots, leaving us with loose ends that either need to be tied up or cut altogether. The show currently works best when it lets the performers shine with their respective talents, rather than when they’re forced to play lip-service to the incomplete beats of the story.
Alongside Laura Dean’s lighting design and Wai Mihinui and Ebony Tiopira-Waaka’s set design, the nightclub setting is simply but effectively conveyed without ever foregoing a functional space for Teokotai Paitai’s impressive choreography. The costumes by Sopheak Seng also inhabit the perfect balance between kitsch and cool with the mixture of faux-fur, glitter, kimono and sweatpants, calling back to club culture without turning it into a period piece.
While the function of Johnson Witehira’s AV design isn’t revolutionary, often relegated to projecting a city alleyway on the walls of the set, it does come to life during the performances to better effect, displaying kaleidoscopic patterns, evoking the cultural as well as the psychedelic influences on the play.
The reticence of some audience members (at least on opening night) to fully embrace the interactive dance sequences of the show occasionally proves an obstacle, though the playfulness and joyful tone is usually recovered without much trouble. While a nice touch, the impact of these moments is lessened with repetition, and done maybe one too many times.
Part of the charm and problem with The Beautiful Ones is it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, resulting in a watchable though scattershot experience. Taken as a dance show, first and foremost, it’s an entertaining and unpretentious evening, lifted up by some soulful musical performances and a light narrative touch. But going in expecting a story-driven play will leave you hungry for more.
Though The Beautiful Ones crafts a strong creative vision with minimal text, it’s hard not to imagine stronger narrative threads serving the world and the characters better. Doing so could lift a fun night out into a truly moving one. Despite feeling like an unfinished product, this is a feel-good experience that captures the atmosphere and experience of being at a nightclub in a theatrically accessible way.
The Beautiful Ones is presented by Tawata Productions and Auckland Live and plays at the Lower NZI, Aotea Centre until 26 November. Details see Auckland Live.
SEE ALSO: Theareview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes