Play on

by Anna Chinn / 30 December, 2006

===Auckland===

For best production for the year, nothing could beat the Auckland Theatre Company's Twelfth Night, Michael Hurst's playful and dazzling take on Shakespeare's giddy, lovestruck comedy. Setting it in the 1950s on a tropical island inhabited by tipsy colonial misfits and dreamers was a stroke of brilliance, and all aspects of the highly imaginative production, from John Verryt's exquisite beach design and David Eversfield's painterly lighting to the terrific cast, were perfect. It was a gorgeous, sensual show where Shakespeare's text was utterly comprehensible - a rare feat even in professional theatre - and if any actor stood out it was the irrepressible Oliver Driver as Feste the fool, who trod the right side of the line between comic genius and self-indulgent stand-up. A fantastic and unforgettable show.

Next best was Silo's tour de force, Take Me Out, a recent American play, directed by Shane Bosher. Ostensibly a coming-out drama, the play meandered around several themes but contributed some absolutely visceral theatrical moments - including the shower scenes - especially by Jeff Szusterman waxing lyrical about what baseball meant to him as a fan and Edwin Wright as the damaged white-trash baseball star, who gave outstanding performances in a mighty ensemble of 11 male actors.

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt was my favourite play. This gripping tale about possible sexual abuse in a Catholic school in 1960s Brooklyn pitted a reactionary Mother Superior against a charismatic priest with a superb design by John Parker and an excellent cast directed by Colin McColl. In particular, Elizabeth Hawthorne as the fearsome nun seemed at the prime of her talents and it felt a privilege to watch her.

She set an early benchmark for the year's best actress, which was trumped mid-year by Kerry Fox in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. Fox's solo performance as seven characters was exhilarating, despite the Australian play's shortcomings. Fox had that X-factor charisma and danger; you had no idea how she would say a line or convey an emotion. That element of surprise was what made her electric to watch live; there's no doubt she's a star. Utterly centred with no look-at-me flashiness, hers was an inspired, subtle - wigless - performance that ran the gamut of emotions, ricochetting from broad comedy to tragedy.

Other memorable highlights this year were, from the Silo, Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes with the dream trio of Mark Ruka, Sara Wiseman and Roy Snow; and Jacqueline Nairn in David Hare's Plenty. Also Mr Marmalade was a creepy, macabre but perfectly formed gem (adroitly directed by the ubiquitous Hurst) with Hannah Tolich as a four-year-old brat and Andrew Laing as her imaginary friend, a violent and bipolar businessman.

For local writing, ATC's The Ocean Star proved that Michael Galvin could give up his day job. In Galvin's darkly funny, emotionally gripping and humane family drama, Greg Johnson's heart-tearing performance as the agoraphobic dad was terrific.

Overall, the Auckland theatrical year was strong and diverse; in a word, healthy. Even if Menopause the Musical is still running.

by Natasha Hay

===Wellington===

The play may be the thing "to catch the conscience of the king", but theatre this year in Wellington has only intermittently caught the public's conscience, imagination or anything else. Ray Henwood and Jason Whyte were both terrific in A Number, Caryl Churchill's chilling two-hander about cloning, but they mostly played to tiny houses. Malcolm Murray, Carol Smith and Heather O'Carroll gave equally arresting performances in Martin Crimp's anti-pastoral The Country, but again the public stayed away in droves. Even the unashamedly local and hilarious The Underarm struggled to put runs on the board. Some blame it on marketing, others on rugby.

I blame it on the bossa nova. One of the year's biggest hits was undoubtedly the Downstage production of Alison Quigan's Mum's Choir. Why this likeable but thinly plotted singalong should have packed them in, when Ken Duncum's latest tour de force, Picture Perfect, didn't, is one of the deeper mysteries. Perhaps Duncum should try his hand at musicals, since another popular success was Paul Jenden's Troy: The Musical (original composition, Gareth Farr). We seemed to take forever to reach the siege itself, but mercifully Lyndee-Jane Rutherford would totter on from time to time as Cassandra, enunciating in Cohenesque tones: "Die! Die! Die!" Roger Hall's Aladdin was much more irresistible, with catchy tunes, good genre twists and a wonderful Widow Twankey in Julian Wilson. Best topical joke: "What's so magic about Feltex?" "Made my job disappear."

Bats as usual offered some bizarre delights. None more so than Jade Eriksen's Arcane. The programme encouraged us to approach the production as a kind of riddle. Fortified with mead, we duly climbed up a ladder and were imprisoned for a while inside a narrow passage (womb? honeycomb?), full of buzzing. Later, for half an hour or so, we watched a woman (queen bee?) very, very slowly revolve while other women in a shadowy 1960s kitchen performed dronelike household tasks. This, as a friend pointed out, could have been entitled Zen and the Art of Beehive Maintenance.

Less enigmatic and more viscerally powerful was Yours Truly, local playwright Albert Belz's take on the Jack the Ripper saga. Bats provided the perfect space for director David O'Donnell to re-create a pea-souper atmosphere of disturbing encounters in dark alleys and murky rooms. Nick Blake, acting against type, was particularly menacing as Sir William Gull, the Masonic-royalist surgeon. Yours Truly was much scarier than Downstage's Dracula, which couldn't decide whether to go for maximum terror or to spoof the whole thing, and ended up doing neither.

Stand-out performances of the year? For comedy, Tim Spite as the poetically challenged Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood (Downstage), revealed as Wales' candidate for worst poet in the world. For tragedy, George Henare as doomed American dreamer Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's perennially pertinent Death of a Salesman (Circa) - though, as I write this, I'm eagerly awaiting the Bacchanals' no-frills production of Hamlet with Simon Vincent in the title role. After all, the play is still the thing.

by Harry Ricketts

===Christchurch===

Best Production: Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill's brutal and beautiful portrayal of a family on the brink, is a masterpiece, and the Court's production was shattering. Sue Rider's understated and unsentimental staging and direction allowed O'Neill's tortuous characters and dialogue to snake slowly and truthfully through a story of grief, love and disappointment that has no ending. Yvonne Martin was remarkable as Mary, the morphine-addicted mother, and her transformation from sober matriarch to drug-addled ghost was frighteningly believable.

Best Play: John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-winning Doubt is a perfect play. Tightly written with fitting amounts of light and shade and a strong premise and characters, Doubt is a short yet wholly satisfying study of the complexities of human nature and morality, and the Court Theatre's production took no prisoners.

Best Actress: It was a rare treat to see Eilish Moran on stage twice this year; recently as the delightfully ditzy Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and earlier in the year as seven different characters in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. Silly title and the script's a little soppy, too, but Moran was stunning. She transformed convincingly and seemingly effortlessly from a serious doctor to a bimbo, a busybody, a bastard, a four-year-old boy, an elderly woman and back to Rhonda, the vengeful redhead, with just a few wigs and a dedication to detail.

Best Actor: Gareth Reeves again as Hamlet in the Court's dual season of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Although his Hamlet had, on the surface, a chaotic charm that might feature in a schoolgirl's fantasy, Reeves dug deep and nailed his character's challenging muddle of integrity and capriciousness and kept the audience on a knife edge as he lurched through madness, sanity, rage, petulance, humility and humour.

Best Director: Peter Evans is a director with balls. His productions take risks and although his interpretation of King Lear a few years back took one too many, in this year's dual season of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he got it right. In the past, Evans's strength has been more in the details than the vision, but here his inventive staging and design were matched by solid direction. Tony Geddes's Tarantino-meets-Mad Max set, the costumes - an eclectic mix of form and era - and broody lighting and music added yet another dimension to this ambitious and triumphant pairing of Shakespearean tragedy and absurdist comedy.

by Faith Oxenbridge

===Dunedin===

We had a photo finish in this year's contest for best production in Dunedin. My Heart Is Bathed in Blood at the Fortune had it by a nose, owing its win to the fact that it had a bellyful of local content. Just fancy: many of the white-haired audience members who attended this play would have remembered well the 1954 Dunedin murder case it recounted in true dramatic style, and possibly even known some of the characters. I reckon that's something to marvel at.

The play, by Michelanne Forster, also attained primacy in the categories of best director (Hilary Norris), for a production both honest in feeling and theatrical in presentation, complete with a Greek-style chorus; best actress (Mel Dodge), for making the tough psychological journey that was a young doctor's descent into murderous delirium; and best set (Peter King), for a revolve with three thematically charged facades. Although Forster is not exactly a local, her work probably qualifies for best new Dunedin play, too.

Runner-up for best production was The Shape of Things, mounted in the Fortune's studio theatre. A real sleeper hit, with a great script executed well, The Shape of Things ran in April and remained about the best thing I'd seen all year until it was pipped in October. It also bags second-equal best director (Jerry Jaffe), runner-up actress (Serena Cotton) and runner-up actor (Nathan Whitaker).

In a fantastic year for female roles, it has been hard to identify a best actor. If the category were modified to "best one-man band", however, Jonathan Wicken would emerge the clear winner for portraying all characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he adapted into a play, and for which he designed and made the set, and was the wardrobe master, at the Globe. It was especially fascinating to watch his three-way conversations with himself.

Also for a Globe work, that other runner-up director award goes to Louise Petherbridge for making Vita & Virginia far more than two women reading letters. Petherbridge deserves acclaim for somehow making complementary the performances of the experienced Terry MacTavish, as Vita Sackville-West, and heretofore English professor Jocelyn Harris, as Virginia Woolf.

Noteworthy, too, on the directorship front was Caroline Claver, for some hilarious slapstick choreography in The Witches at the Fortune. Overall a good year for directors, then.

Finally, an award for best pantomime - and several were produced in Dunedin this year. At the Playhouse theatre, director Claire Hewitt's wicked western In Cahoots with Johnny Sunrise was one of those shows you go to see with limited expectations, but throughout which you fall about laughing; with surprise at the quality, with delight at the daring of the script and boldness of the performers and with relief that you are not wasting your time. Written by Danny Still, In Cahoots also gets runner-up for best new Dunedin play, and a recommendation that Playmarket pick this one up.

by Anna Chinn

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