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PAPER SKY: A Love Story
directed by Kate Parker and Julie Nolan
Red Leap Theatre, NZ

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 2 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 3 Nov 2012

The typewriter sets the scene at some decades ago. He's snappily dressed for a writer who works at home, in a headspace awash with white paper.  

Because so much of the pleasure of Paper Sky arises from watching it all unfold, from interpreting the reality of his story and his stories as they all play out, to say much more may constitute a spoiler. But I want to capture its essence for the historical record. And nothing can beat experiencing it in performance, moment by moment. So it has to be your choice whether or not to read on.

Some assumptions I make change as I witness, respond and think it through, both during the show and afterwards.

The reindeer aloft beneath the full moon as the typewriter types on suggest this is the story he's writing, set in some northern alpine clime. What I think is a flowerbed, as it appears within the morass, becomes an exotic tropical forest, albeit white, when a small puppet female puts it into perspective. The only colour is a red glow deep within the flower she plucks.

Now wolves are howling aloft as the furnishings of his room appear then, suddenly and contrapuntally, he is physically in his own story (but is it his real one or the one he is writing?), almost drowning in the billowing paper, calling her name, grasping for her hand – a real one reaching up through the billowing brine. Losing his grip, it is he who howls now: “Rosa!”

The music and soundscape pump up the drama but despite the melodramatic scenario, Emmet Skilton, as the writer – Henry, his name will turn out to be – convinces us his trauma is real. So was it? Or is his writing just very compelling? The photo he mourns over, alone on his sofa, suggests it was true, or at least that he has suffered the loss the woman he loved. 

A trio of alter-egos – Veronica Brady, Alison Bruce, Justin Haiu – echo and otherwise manifest Henry's inner feelings, sometimes with compassion, sometimes compelled to protect him from further hurt.

Someone moving in next door adds the interest – and threat – of something new in his real world. This will turn out to be Louise, an enterprising, renovating, karate-practising, happy-to-be-friendly and soon-to-be-admiring young woman, wonderfully realised in a delightfully physical performance by Julia Croft.

With barely a word to say out loud, Skilton manifests every emotion and thought Henry experiences with profound authenticity, as he battles his conflicting needs to meet his deadline – an impatient publisher called Bob (Bruce) keeps phoning – maintain his loyalty to his lost love and resist, or not, the fresh breeze of Louise.

The aforementioned trio also animate the effects and the set itself (along with their stage manager, Chelsea Adams). And Brady animates Henry's fictional heroine, Lumina (the programme note tells us her name), as she battles her own demons – or are they his? – in the shape of the wolves and the elements, all the while carrying a satchel that glows with the red-centred flower.

It is no secret (the programme note tells us as much) that we are witnessing and empathising with Henry's subjective experience, of loss and renewal through cathartic creation.

Lumina, it turns out, was plucked from a stormy sea by an albatross and taken to apparent safety, although the ravenous wolves suggest otherwise. She endures a number of highly melodramatic life-threatening incidents before she brings her love – the flower – home to her creator at last. If this is what Henry is literally writing, we have to wonder how Bob the publisher will react.

But in the time-honoured cliché of Hollywood scribes, he keeps tearing pages from his typewriter and throwing them away – sometimes questioning whether this is what he wrote at all – and these are what Louise discovers and falls in love with. It is she who gives him the confidence to continue and complete … And she who calls them “stories”, plural, which I take as a clue that what we have seen animated is not what he has actually written.

I would like to think the co-directors, Julie Noland and Kate Parker, and their devising cast, are clear about what is real and what's not – what is tangible and what is metaphor – because what's the point of our trying to solve the conundrum if it's just one of those wishy-washy ‘up to the audience to decide' cop-outs?

Given my confidence in the creators, however, and knowing Paper Sky has developed considerably since it premiered at last year's Auckland Arts Festival, I'm happy to trust it and so indulge my own compulsion to decode this magical experience. (Magic, after all, only works when the magician knows exactly what is real and what is illusion.)

The design elements are a huge part of what makes it all such a delight. John Verryt's set, which mobilises to suggest two adjoining apartments, and the effects he's designed with Kate Parker – all made of paper! – become performers in themselves in the talented hands of the cast and crew. Jeremy Fern's lighting and the compositions of Clare Cowan and Andrew McMillan (who also designed the sound and directed the music) add dramatic texture and emotional depth. Elizabeth Whiting's costume designs speak volumes about the characters who wear them.

Parker and Nolan's Red Leap Theatre have become major players in New Zealand's theatrical landscape, venturing into creative domains where many fear to tread. They and this production are treasures to be greatly valued. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Sian Robertson
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
 Johnny Givins
 Hannah Molloy