Grate the Skin, Grit the Teeth, Probe the DNA [by James Wenley]
When the diversity featured in The Selecta moves up onto the mainstage, Auckland’s theatres will be a very exciting place to be. Following last year’s outstanding immersion in teen drinking culture, Like There’s No Tomorrow, Auckland Theatre Company have gone back to the three-shows-in-one-night format to showcase Gen Y talent in their Next Big Thing program. In The Selecta you’ll find a carnival ride of hashtags, schoolyard packs gone wrong, and talented performers staking their claim for their voices to be heard.
In Skin, directed by Rising Voices Youth Poetry Movement’s Grace Taylor, the company delve deep past the surface to deliver a series of profound, self-penned spoken word meditations on their lives, experiences, and attitudes. The content is diverse, as an example, Alice Pearson opens with a reflection on the inadequacy of glad wrap, which transitions into a thoughtful consideration of Rewa Worley’s contemporary Maori cultural identity. Pearson wraps Worley in the wrap as we enter, the visual image of containment finding release in Worley’s words.
The poetry, honed through workshops, and deeply felt by the writer-performers, sends shockwaves through my own skin. There are vital issues canvassed here – rape culture in Pearson’s Wolf Gang, the climate plight of Kiribati in Naotia Atiana’s Sink or Swim (“forced migration / relocation”) and the rejection of traditional gender roles in Zech Soaki and Ilena Lameta’s moving collaboration Galaxy. In Courtney Basset’s changing rooms, I’m caught by her feeling that she’s “out of the womb too soon” as she considers the other girls in the changing room. Mohammed Hassan draws us in with his Palm Reader. Ileana Lameta’s vulnerability and storytelling control in The Voice is Mine, beautifully accompanied by music, is completely compelling. There is strong work also from Arizona Leger and Hanna Olsen – they are all great.
The whole package has a strong rhythm and visual sense, with Taylor and choreographer Jahra Rager Wasasala creating stage movement that elevates the words; poetry in motion. Skin has a different beat to what we usually see on The Basement stage, and a solid layer of authenticity.
One of the snatches of poetry I wrote down was “this brief interaction means nothing”, but actually there’s an awful lot of meaning to be found in this all too brief interaction; Skin is a wonderful shared gift from the performers, comfortable inside and outside their skin, to their audience.
Giant Teeth, devised by its cast, shares thematic similarities with Skin, also displaying a distinct generational point of view, but the format could not be more different. We move upstairs, ushered through a hurried and outrageously carnivalesque-costumed cast making last minute preparations backstage (I’m asked to help straighten the neck of a blue PVC sailor’s costume), given crazy hats, and find ourselves in a unrecognisable Basement Studio with its very own (not very) big top calico circus tent. We are now in a world of the teenage freaks; where bodies don’t always do what you want, and fear and delight come in equal measure.
The vaudeville company have many tricks up their sleeves: they sing (beautifully!), dance, and boost the audience’s selfie self-esteem. To name a few acts: Ella Edward is contortionist Lucky Penny, who can perform 12 Facebook statuses in a night, let off her leash. Mataara Stokes is the Wild One, fabulously attired in a corset with a huge mane of fur on his head and shoulders, like a Rocky Horror Gladiator. Ruby Love is the elegant Black Eyed Nelly, who can read all our secrets with her mind. There’s also a balloon-animal making nurse (Brie Hill), a philosophical doctor (Adel Abied), a ladies man sailor (Alex Dyer), a complimenting Baby Joe (Keirron Diaz-Campbell), an outcast Geek with a secret talent (Sean Janssen), a life-size doll (Katie Longbottom), a hashtag obsessed ballerina (Caela Groenewald) and a German harmonica player with a dinky leg (Michelle Atkinson) who all earn their moments in the spotlight.
But star maker award goes to Ravi Gurunthan as Ahi the Great, as our ringmaster, narrator and mystic enchanter. With luscious golden lips, platform shoes, and vertically striped black and white leggings that elongate his spindly legs to superhuman lengths, he captures us from beginning to end with his sly humour and utterly unique and eccentric dance stylings. This guy is cool.
Giant Teeth is a beautifully bizarre mix of adolescent experimentation meeting theatrical experimentation, lovingly corralled by co-directors Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin. They’re pushing at the boundaries of acceptability and conformity, just as they’re pushing the boundaries of the stage. The result is a wondrous ode to those who don’t belong, which left an electric buzz amongst the audience.
DNA, by British playwright Dennis Kelly and directed by Benjamin Henson is the odd one out in the lineup. Though localised for the Auckland cast, Kelly’s dialogue – disjointed faltering articulate teen-speak – is performed with less apparent ease by the cast. As we learn at the play’s opening Adam is dead, “dead, dead”, and a group of his peers are responsible; they tossed rocks at him as he walked a grille above a large shaft, which sent him plunging to his death. They turn to Kate (Holly Hudson), an intelligent but damaged girl who only communicates when absolutely necessary, for guidance as to how they can cover their tracks. Kate provides an elaborate plan as to how to get away with manslaughter, but of course, complications ensue.
Though this group of teens, decked in private red school blazers, would seemingly have a higher proportion of those with sociopathic tendencies amongst their number than normal, it’s a plausible enough update of a Lord of the Flies scenario. But whereas Flies shows the gradual descent, here they’re pretty quick to threaten bad outcomes for anyone who transgresses the good of the group.
DNA provides a good showcase of histrionics amongst the cast, though the shouting in the early scenes doesn’t give much variation. Hudson gives a fascinating and controlled performance, suggesting a perpetual storm behind her silent exterior (Kate was Phil in the original script, does this gender swap make the play even more disturbing?). She’s complemented by Matthew Kereamai by Lee, who is provoked by Kate’s non-responsiveness towards a tumbling stream of thoughts. He reflects how the study of warring chimps as our closest relatives may have led us to a darker conception of humanity. It is the peaceful and promiscuous bonobo, he says, that we now know to be our closest ape relative – how would that have changed our understanding of ourselves and the path of human history?
DNA is an interesting probe of group dynamics under stress, though it is ultimately to the play’s detriment that only a few of them become clearly delineated individuals, as we don’t get to see how they operate beyond it.
Judged on its own it’s a competent and edgy drama, but placed after hearing the personal voices of the casts in the previous two plays, DNA falls a little flat, especially after the euphoria of Giant Teeth. The curation doesn’t quite work.
There’s buskers to be found in the foyer on each night of the season, meaning The Selecta experience continues into the foyer before, during and after the shows. I loved the passion of the dance crew Fine Fatale that welcomed us to Skin.
Simon Coleman’s set design deserves special mention. Downstairs in The Basement’s mainstage he’s contained the stage action of both Skin and DNA in a rectangle, allowing the audience to peek in from either side of the space (with clever spaces for Rachel Marlow’s light fixtures). The floor is broken, raised on one side as if from an earthquake, the angle giving the directors some strong blocking possibility, which Henson uses to eerie effect in a turning point encounter in DNA.
Upstairs, his tent is a marvel. I almost wish the Basement Studio could be permanently set-up in this fashion, and the cast of Giant Teeth installed as the indefinite company in residence, making more delightful freakshows. I know I’d come back for more.
The Selecta is presented by Auckland Theatre Company’s Next Big Thing and plays at The Basement until 26 July. Details see ATC.