Strange and Wonderful Programme A

Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Road, New Lynn, Auckland

22/09/2016 - 25/09/2016

Going West Books and Writers Festival 2016

Production Details

Five playwrights.  Five plays.  Five monsters. 

The most interesting characters are the baddies.  The controlling mother, the off the rails sister, the foul mouthed workmate, and the classic evil step-mother ‘Queen’.  This season of five plays celebrates these ‘baddies’ in all their strange and wonderful glory! 

Gary Henderson and members of his Graduate Studio are presenting these works, at Te Pou Theatre in September.  As part of the Going West Book and Writers Festival, the season showcases five playwrights, all graduates of Gary Henderson’s Theatre Writing Course, who are creating their work from inception to performance, and everything in-between.

Program A has three plays
Thursday 22, Saturday 24 September 2016, 7:30pm
Sunday 25 September 2016, 2pm

GEHENNA (45min)
By Paula Crimmens, directed by Margaret- Mary Hollins
Actors – Ascia Maybury, Phoebe Borwick, Felix Seacroft, Donogh Rees, Gary Stalker.

Interval (15min)

Written and directed by Aunty Ree
Actors – Johnny Aukusitino, Zachary Robinson

BAIT (15min)
By Ken Burns, Directed by Aunty Ree
Actors – Max Palamo, Zachary Robinson, (one more actor TBC)

Program B has two plays:
Friday 23 September 2016, 7:30pm
Saturday 24 September 2016, 2pm
Sunday 25 September 2016, 7.30pm
See here for details 

Te Pou Theatre, Portage Rd, New Lynn
Tickets $15-$20
Book at, ph. 0508ITICKET

Theatre ,

Considerable scope and potential

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 25th Sep 2016

Bored out of my brain in Wellington sometime in the early ’90s I found myself at BATS Theatre – quite a different place to the BATS Theatre of today – enjoying, against all my better intentions, a thing called The Big Blue Planet Earth Show. That experience did two things. First, and probably most important at that time, it took me out of my capital city malaise. Second, and ultimately the more important outcome, it was my introduction to the writing of Gary Henderson.

Since then my admiration for Henderson has grown out of all proportion. Sunset Café, also at BATS Theatre, was an eye-opener, a new way of seeing, a new and unique New Zealand voice, and later, at the Court Theatre in Christchurch I saw what was, at that time, the best piece of New Zealand theatre I had ever seen. This was, of course, the magnificent Skin Tight,* which married, almost indecently, three of my favourite things: extreme physicality, an existential lens on the New Zealand psyche, and the poetry of an all-time hero, Denis Glover. I grew up in and around the influence of Glover and his capacity to reach deep into my soul and twist my gizzard has never ceased to shock and astound me.

Those actors, Jed Brophy and Larissa Matheson, were extraordinary, that’s a given, but it was the text that really blew me away. I can vividly remember sitting, post-show, with a friend in Le Café at the Arts Centre of Christchurch engulfed by silent astonishment, my cherished cappuccino going cold on the table in front of me. I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing a better piece of work than that. I was wrong, of course, but only because I had failed to anticipate An Unseasonable Fall of Snow which fittingly concluded the ’90s, and a significant part of my life, for me.

Much of the next decade was spent exploring a new me, a new and special relationship, and late in life parenthood so it wasn’t until 2014 that I again caught up with Henderson’s work, in this case via Massive Company’s fine production of My Bed My Universe. In the intervening time I have seen a number of productions of An Unseasonable Fall of Snow and Skin Tight, each of which has affected me deeply but none so much as the first seminal experience of each of these extraordinary plays.

As a result I have to say I was pretty excited at being invited to review a season of new plays written by students of Gary Henderson and staged under the title ‘Strange and Wonderful’ as part of the Going West Book and Writer’s Festival at Te Pou, by far my favourite venue, as part of their Studio Season, 2016. 

This unique season is divided into Programme A and Programme B and plays over four days with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday evening there is an additional treat in the form of a Writer’s Forum at 5.00pm where audience members can ask questions and discuss play writing with Henderson and his students. This review will cover the first three productions (Programme A) and a subsequent review will address the final two (Programme B).

Gehenna by Paula Crimmens (directed by Margaret-Mary Hollins and Judy McIntosh) is described in the programme notes as “a woman tries to save her grieving sister and is drawn into a hostile underworld.” I am fascinated by the title and, prior to researching this production, knew only that Gehenna referred to a Judeo Christian version of hell. The name, I discover, is derived from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom which includes parts of Mount Zion. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was the place where kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire and as a result was considered to be cursed. 

In Jewish Rabbinic literature, and Christian and Islamic scripture, Gehenna is the final destination of the wicked and all biblical references to Gehenna, except for one in James, are purported to be from the lips of Christ himself and have an emphasis on the punishment of the wicked after death as being everlasting.  It’s a heavy message, a powerful metaphor for this play, and it works as a context for this classic story of good versus evil with the question ‘which is which?’ left hanging powerfully in the air.

‘Gehenna’ has also found its way into pop culture via the heavy metal band Slip Knot and their song of the same name.

Crimmens’ clever script is further deepened by the use of names that have a symbolism of their own. Madeleine is a deconstruction of The Magdalene with all the traditional echoes associated with the fallen woman and Christ’s number-one disciple (see the Coptic [aka Gnostic] Gospels: Gospel of Mary]. Jessica, in the Hebrew form, means ‘God sees’ or ‘God beholds’, while Seth, in all the Abrahamic religions, is the third son of Adam and Eve, was born after Abel’s murder, and Eve believed God had appointed him as a replacement for Abel. In Egyptian lore, however, Seth was an evil god who murdered his brother Osiris and wounded Osiris’s son Horus. So, good or evil, you can take your pick. 

The co-directors have pulled together a highly capable cast and their exploration of this particularly complex work largely does justice to the playwright’s intention. The narrative centres on the character of Madeleine (Phoebe Borwick), a nun living outside the mediaeval restrictions of the traditional convent. Crimmens’ doesn’t allow her heroine to get completely off the hook, however, and Mother Superior (Donogh Rees) gives as good as she gets. Madeleine’s twin sister Jessica lives a far more secular life than her cloistered sibling. Her childless marriage has terminated due to her husband’s infidelity, with her new wild lifestyle ensuring that she’s almost completely estranged from her family.

She’s got herself involved with some pretty low life characters, all of whom are manifest in the character of Seth (Felix Becroft), an enigmatic underworld character with seedy connections to both the drug trade and sex industries. The girl’s Dad (Gary Stalker) is suffering from what we’re led to believe is a terminal illness but he’s doing his best, unsuccessfully, to keep the pain of this from his daughters.

Mother Superior (Donogh Rees) has the responsibility of keeping her young acolyte on the straight and narrow which proves to be somewhat more difficult than might at first appear. The production is performed on an empty stage with five stools as furniture which admirably suits the multi-scene, episodic nature of the text.

The acting is uniformly good with stand-out performances from Rees as the symbol of all things good (or is she?), Becroft as the baddie (or is he?) and Borwick as the essentially good girl stuck in the middle and corrupted either by an immoral secular world or by the inhumane demands of the church and the religious life.

An impressive Longfellow-like set of rhythmic verses accompanied by an incessant beating drum begin and intersect the scenes to considerable theatrical effect but the Hiawatha-like rhythms somewhat overshadow the sense carried within the carefully crafted words. We learn enough about the characters from triggers embedded within the text to enable us to engage fully with the narrative and to understand and empathise with the moral dilemma of the central character, but more vocal clarity in the spoken verse would add considerably to the intelligence and not just the theatricality of the piece.

Overall, the narrative of Geheena exposes trustworthy characters, a credible story, a deliciously evocative context and the whole thing works splendidly – which is not to say that it won’t benefit greatly from both this public airing and the opportunity for the text to be revisited. 

The second play of the evening is A Miner Disaster, written and directed by Aunty Ree. The programme informs us we are trapped underground by “accident … Kept in the dark by secrets.” That’s enough to whet any appetite. There are translucent screens set centre stage and a sizable wooden kitchen table against the stage left wall.

A somewhat dishevelled man – we learn later he’s called The Doc (Johnny Aukusitino) – enters with a music stand, sheet music and a guitar and proceeds to sing, rather well, an American folksong entitled ‘1913 Disaster’ (the music and lyrics of which were written in 1941 by iconic American folk hero Woody Guthrie). The song tells the story of a tragedy that took place on December 24, 1913, in the Calumet, Michigan Italian Hall. Over five hundred striking miners and their families had gathered there for a Christmas party. The only way into the hall was by a steep stairway and this, along with a poorly-marked fire escape accessed by climbing out of the windows, was the only available exit.

During the party, a person still unidentified, shouted ‘fire’ although there was no fire. The guests panicked and, while trying to make their way down the stairs, seventy-three people were trampled to death. Fifty-nine of the dead were children. While this ballad doesn’t provide a narrative for the play it does identify a lifelong management refusal to observe anything like what’s needed to care for workers in dangerous workplace.  Those killed in Calumet, Michigan were striking miners and the characters in Aunty Ree’s play are miners too. The tragedy recorded in the play, though on a smaller scale, is no less tragic and it is to Ree’s credit that she raises this issue.

This is a well-intentioned production of what is clearly a script with real guts. The over-arching theme of the season is monsters and Aunty Ree’s Queenie (Johnny Aukisitino) is certainly that. She’s a health and safety nightmare. Aukisitino carries the role of Queenie well enough and Queenie certainly puts the acid on her son Max (Zachary Robinson) in her attempt to ensure no money is spent making the workplace she owns a safe place. Little space is left in the subtext to develop a narrative through-line that will make a mother son relationship multi layered. Queenie simply takes the place of whoever shouted fire in Calumet, Michigan way back in 1913.

Max, however, isn’t having a bar of it and simply says ‘no’ to his mother, not that it has any effect, as we witness in the final scene. Even a blackmailing “all this will be yours one day” and “you do want to make mummy proud, don’t you?” fails to move Max to support his mother as he is hell-bent on finding out just exactly who is father is. No admission is made and we’re left making assumptions about the role played by The Doc in these machinations. 

In theory, having the same actor play both Queenie and The Doc is a good idea but in practice, less so. Marrying the monstrous mother with the honourable but somewhat weak father has lots going for it but in reality the costume changes between scenes simply take too long. Linking the scenes with poetry however is very successful and supports the main storyline. In what seems like no time at all we find ourselves deep underground in a collapsed mineshaft of Queenie’s mine and all Max’s concerns become realities. This effective scene becomes even more powerful when lit solely by the lamps on the miner’s helmets and the decision to unite discussion of the paternity issue, the instinctive fear of men facing a dark and painful death, and the blunt weapon of calculated corporate inhumanity, works very well.

It must be difficult for the audience to keep echoes of the Pike River disaster from invading their thoughts and I have little doubt that this has been the intention of the playwright all along. I find the unashamed political nature of the play deeply satisfying and while there are times when I ache for more subtext I have to admit that what is presented is enough in itself, linking beautifully as it does with both Guthrie’s lyrics, his sociocultural reason d’être, and his politics.

The final production and Programme A is Bait by Ken Burns and this work is again directed by Aunty Ree. The description “workplace siblings competing for the affections of the new guy”, hardly even touches on what this play is about, nor does it go near the impact its content has on the audience. The programme note does warn that Bait contains language and sexual references that may offend but it doesn’t mention Tourette Syndrome, and if it did we might have more of an understanding of just what we are about to experience.

The siblings in question – Miles (Rory Janssen) and Sarah (Zachary Robinson) – are potty-mouthed, sex-obsessed teens who work in the C**ntdown Supermarket. We know this because it says so on their aprons. There is the suggestion – in fact it’s stated many times – that this is all a little bit gross. It’s not of course. It’s vulgar and at times it’s hard going, but compared with many of the productions from the 1970s and more recently that fit the category of ‘offending the audience’ – in particular the dark comedy of the same name by Peter Handke and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking – this aspect of the show is nothing to write home about at all. It’s not tame, that’s for sure, but it could do its job even better. 

At best the production can be described as rough theatre but that’s OK too. It is what it is. The characters are hard edged and the language matches the characters themselves. It’s sexual and at the extremity of what might be acceptable in a workplace such as a supermarket. The innuendo between the siblings is never ending and the whole thing is perhaps best summed up by the music ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ that leads into it.

In essence the plot revolves around two horny siblings each of whom has their eye on Henry (Johnny Akusitino), the new deputy manager from the meat department. Henry, we learn, comes off his meds late every week so that he can enjoy his social life on the weekend. We find that he and the siblings intend to meet for the regular Friday night drinkies and that they all anticipate hanky-panky. To give you a sense of the nature of the dialogue, Sarah at one point fondles two large Kiwi fruit and asks her brother, “I wonder how big his balls are?” Miles responds by exaggerating the size of his own. At least, I think he’s exaggerating. 

We skip to Friday night which begins with Sarah vomiting in a bucket. Henry arrives and the conversation quickly progresses to whether or not he’s seeing anyone. He says he isn’t because his last girlfriend had narcolepsy and the relationship ended when she embarrassed him by going to sleep over a restaurant dinner and ending up with her face in the soup which soaked her and her hair. We’re aware from the nature of Henry’s interruptions and the uncontrolled bursts of profanity that he suffers from Tourette Syndrome but no one seems to notice because it seems little different to the language of all the characters all the time.

[Spoiler alert] Having dropped this bombshell, Henry casually informs the siblings that he has another affliction as well. It’s called Diphallia and when neither Sarah nor Miles know what this is Henry willingly offers to show them. He turns his back on the audience and the siblings gleefully get down on their knees. Henry drops his pants, Miles explodes. “Fuck me, two cocks!” and Sarah, with nary a beat, shrieks, “I’ll have the hard one!” [ends]

Yes, it’s a hoot from beginning to end but it’s not a piece for the fainthearted. While it’s great fun, the production requires slicker direction and a somewhat more refined approach, if I can suggest such an outrageous thing. It’s a clever script and I would love to see how it develops through the next phase of its evolution. 

The scripts in Programme A have considerable scope and potential. I particularly enjoy the context for each piece and how this is accurately – and creatively – connected to the theme of monsters and the title ‘Strange and Wonderful’. Gehenna comes from the same culture that gave us the exorcist and A Miner Disaster is rich with sociocultural resonances that are particularly pertinent for today. Bait is also especially relevant, exploring as it does what shocks and what fails to shock in this modern world.

Each play has at least one monster – some subtle, some less so – and I’m fascinated to see what horrors programme B will offer us tomorrow evening. 

Gary Henderson’s playwriting workshops are clearly producing writers with the ability to craft an idea into a script that is both evocative and performable and this is a considerable achievement. 
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*Theatreview was born too late to review the original Brophy/Matheson casting but this link is to a review by Lexie that includes more of Skin Tight‘s stellar history. 


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