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ABSORBING INTERPLAY COMMUNICATES RICHLY

Print Version
Gaga: the unmentionable
Writer/producer: Louise Tu'u
Production design by Kate Burton

at Old Folks Association Hall, 8 Gundry St, Newton, Auckland
From 3 Dec 2012 to 4 Dec 2012
[1hour 10 mins]

Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte, 6 Dec 2012


Louisa Tu'u is well known as a writer, director and producer, also as the blogger and community theatre activist We Should Practice, and as someone who brings the real stories of ordinary people into the theatre to share with others.

In her latest work, Gaga: the unmentionable, the material comes from her own life, touching on her struggles with Gagana Samoa (Samoan language), her experiences while being raised in Auckland by hard-working parents who regularly sent money back to Samoa to help relatives, and with neighbours and other members of the community as she passed through primary school. Throughout the work there are references to the selfless gift of love, skill and commitment required from performers and their family members if art projects are to be brought  to fruition.

Other members of the cast for this cross-disciplinary work – Louisa's mother Lafitaga Matua, Ilasa Galuvao,  Leki Bourke Jackson (of Massive and Lima Productions)  and  Nisha Madhan -  bring their own personal experiences to the work as well, and they create a relatively low key, open style of presentation  that quickly absorbs the audience into the situations they present.

The structure is episodic, the segments disjunctive, allusive, yet for all that, the sequences come to mesh in mysterious ways to arrive at a sense of a whole as the work draws to its conclusion.

Nisha lies on her back in a square of flour, meditatively making snow angels on the floor towards the far end of the Old Folks Hall, steadily becoming coated in flour as everybody watches.  Leki and Ilasa walk around the room with trays of warm, wet flannels which are handed out to the audience and to Nisha. We all freshen up for the evening by washing our hands, and some wash their faces, before dropping the flannels into large buckets where they slowly cool.

Nisha rolls over and back restlessly in her flour-bed, and starts to tell a story about  darkness, the way people fear it, the way the Gods see it from above, and how it is for The Darkness being caught between them when she has been nursing a cold for a few days and it takes all her roars and sneezes to get the Gods to leave her alone til she recovers. Leki and Ilasa gather round and start bombarding her with letters and gestures, and she complains that everyone in the developing world needs her attention. A, B, C  D, E F… they shout individual letters and make their shapes with their bodies til she seeks her escape.

Louise dons workman's overalls and gets down to work, with a series of bizarre and exhausting actions which provide a kind of mnemonic device, crouching down with her hands on the floor, then jumping her feet up into the air as if hoping to perform a handstand, at the same time rehearsing a string of words  or phrases in Samoan, repeating some sounds as if stuttering, and generally seeming baffled and frustrated. Occasionally this is preceded by tossing a rolled up extension cord ahead of her.

Each iteration of the crouch-and-jump-the legs-up is accompanied by determined facial expressions, and an array of body positions as her feet land back on the floor, sometimes slumping to the ground or sitting between her feet rather than maintaining a crouch. At times she resorts to cheat sheets – looking up  words scrawled on her hands and up her arms before she starts the sequence of utterances. Eventually she consults  a full sheet of foolscap paper covered in handwriting, frowning and sighing as she launches into longer strings of words and that exhausting jump. Eventually she discards the overalls and the extension card, and sits back in the audience.

The others continue with their sequence of letters – G, H, I,  J,  K,  L... passing around and wearing the overalls, or a lavalava, or wielding these items symbolically  in various way to allude to various social situations. At one point, Nisha kneels down and forms a tabletop and Leki covers it with the lavalava and sits as if typing. He reads aloud to us the letter of an old man from Grey Lynn as he types:  “I have washed this shirt everyday for 25 years. I write to you because I would like a brand new house and car – perhaps a Lexus.”  At another point, Nisha flips and flaps the cloth as a toreador's cape, enticing the others to rush at her.

At the mid point, Louisa, Ilasa and Louisa's mum form a triangle and begin a series of gestures which build into a dance, initially accompanied by alternating pronouncements, but subsequently by quickly changing clips of disco music which influence the mood of their capers. It's subtle, but there does seem to be a degree of  deference to Louisa's mum as the leader of things, and she steadily becomes the focus of everyone's attention, with her intense concentration, quick gestures, sudden flurries of flashing arms or shimmying hips contrasting with the less adventurous sequences the others pursue. Traditional cultural dance fragments are intermixed with bits of disco, sports gestures and some kind of free improv, so it's very much a movement pastiche, wildly unpredictable and beyond any sense of cultural boundary or shared codification.

There's lots more byplay as the sequence of letters continues from M to Z and the lavalava and overalls are variously deployed.  Various social language situations are explored, childhood memories are exchanged, what you love and/or miss about life in Auckland and/or while being in Samoa touched on, and  favourite stories repeated – one about the octopus and the rat which Louisa's father always tells is completed in both Samoan and English by Louisa's mum, before she takes her own turn in the spotlight, telling her story of raising a family in Auckland while working 4 jobs, and concluding with another dance recalling her early years.

As the lights go off around the room, the applause is sustained, and when the lights come on again there are shining eyes and big smiles all round.  There is something very satisfying in this work,  with its multiple forms of subtle communication and a deep level of engagement between performers and audience. What you take away from this experience is not necessarily anything that can be explained in words, and probably not even the same thing for any two people, but it's the kind that encourages you to go and experience more of their work, if you get the chance.


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