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Positively Pasifika 2013
Writers: Oscar Kightley and Erolia Ifopo
Director: Sasha Gibb
Producer: Judy Seluia Iva

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 17 Jan 2013 to 19 Jan 2013

Reviewed by Nancy Catherine Fulford, 19 Jan 2013

“What's in a name?”  

Romeo and Juliet: a phrase as synonymous with a love story as any combination of words could ever hope to be. So prevailing is the association that even “Romeo and” leads us to anticipate star crossed lovers and a balcony scene.

And so it is, waiting in the foyer of the Whitireia Performing Arts Centre, that we imagine the character Tusi will be young, beautiful and hot for Romeo, though it's a good guess she won't be from “fair Verona” but more likely hail from an island in the South Pacific that abounds with swaying palms.

Indeed playwrights Erolia Ifopo and Oscar Kightley have deftly set us up to expect a Pacifica take on conflict between clans, clandestine love and some notable supporting characters along the lines of Nurse and Friar Lawrence who bumble the course of true love which never did run smooth; don't we all know it.

The play delivers all of this, bringing fractious neighbours from different cultures together through a high school production of R and J. True love prevails, though of course I can't tell you the precise ending (that would spoil it), but that's it for plot. The genius of this production is all in the telling.

Opening night, Whitireia's large foyer was abuzz. The Pacific community in particular had come out in force. While the chat was still high, a no-nonsense character in an ecumenical robe stepped up to a podium at the entrance way and brought us all to attention. Within a sentence of Samoan minister speak, I fell under the spell of the Pacifica Friar Tuck who doesn't take no for an answer, especially with regards to the holy task of tithing. We are invited to begin on the spot via the large bucket Friar carries with Donation written in bold letters across its middle and so begins the social commentary that knows no sacred cows.

Friar is played by Taofi Mose-Tuiloma, and while short of stature (perfect for the role) she is large of presence. It is hard to resist ‘the Minster', on or off stage, with her hyperbolic advice peppered with quotes from the Bible, the Beatles, and TV Three News.  Even better are her semantically challenged parables brought to life with side-splitting comi-ography. As with the rest of the cast, Minister Ms Tuckala Taofi is musical, circus agile and has legendary comic timing.  I won't say too much lest I spoil it for you but if you don't laugh out loud at Friar's antics, you're cold-stone dead and nobody's had the heart to tell you yet.

We are led into the auditorium by ‘Minister' and left in darkness to wonder how much this event is actually going to cost us.  In the opening scene three coloured spots bounce up with classical music at a raucous volume. In one sits the Capulets; in this play that's teenage Tusi (Mel Andrew) and her Mother Mrs Ai'u (Judy Iva) who frenetically fans herself and wears a floral mumu. Across the stage are the Montagues, albeit Anaru Heke (Shaun Martin) and his Mom (Sina Leasuasu) in something altogether more casual than a Swandry.

In the third spot upstage centre is Ruby (Matthew Dussler), the leggy fa'afafine with a terrific passion for… everything really, and the quoting minister who comes up to Ruby's armpits, almost. They offer a fabulous dialectic and foil to all things mundane. They could both have their own TV shows and I'd be tuned in.

Two other actors – Ngahiriwa Rauhina and Seruia Pou – appear as friends to the teenage lovers and as the cops who arrive after the families dob each other in for being illegal ‘Coconuts' or dope growing ‘Kumaras'.

That's the team and team they are. The opening scene might as well have begun with a starter's gun, this production moves at such a pace, though the mode of delivery and the rhythm of the different characters is widely varied. The energy of the actors in combination with the dynamic stage chorography make it a whirlwind of a comedy in the opinion of this audience member.

I am in awe of the slick transitions and the productions general love affair with the space. I find it hard to believe it was opening night, but this is not a first effort. Romeo and Tusi has been a long time in the growing. After the show I talked to the director Sasha Gibb. Ms Gibb had directed this production previously and the current Positively Pasifika Festival 2013 season has given her an opportunity to take things further. She says one of her goals was to devise a physical score that took the actors out on a choreographic limb and extended what is already a solid comedic text a step further. “We do a lot of work on character development, becoming sure of our back story and relationships. It optimizes our ability to bounce off each other.” The positive results of their collective efforts are clear from the audience response.

I also managed to talk to two members of Pacific Underground Theatre, which celebrates it twentieth anniversary this year. Playwright Erolia Ifopo had come along to support this Jandals Inc. production, as had actor Mishelle Muagututi'a who played Tusi during the play's first run in 1997. “It was some of the best times of our lives.” They both said that in different ways, and spoke of how they had done a lot of serious work creating theatre concerning issues facing the Pacific community so this was a comedic blow-out in a really good way. “It was like a working holiday. Even though we did it over and over again we'd still step back and see the humour in it and crack up. In fact it was really hard not to crack up on stage. But you can't of course.” I could hear their commitment to the craft. “But tonight watching in the audience you realise how funny it is”, said Ms Muagutui'a. I agree.

I personally can't remember laughing that loud, that often in years, maybe ever. There is so much I love about the show but a stand out scene for me is the love dance between actors Shaun Martin and Seruia Pou. It is an innovative mish mash of farce, slapstick and the ridiculous so how can I resist telling you the result is sublime. As physical comedy goes, it truly is.

While the director has chosen to work with only a few chairs on stage, the production is well supported by light and sound. The music is a strong feature of the script with an eclectic mix of classics from across the ages subverted to a comic end and forming a platform for many of the memorable ‘dances'. Gene Kelly's ‘Singing in the Rain' jumps to mind with Minister runing along pews, dancing his heart out as per usual. The lighting was sharp and impactful.

While this play relies heavily on identification with or at least recognition of the exaggerated – worse case, stereotypical – Island and Maori families who live at the TAB and poke fingers at each other, even if you had just arrived from Iceland the universal rivalry between different cultures that are forced into proximity rings true.

Romeo and Tusi is a visual and rhythmical extravaganza and while living in New Zealand and having an awareness of the current social climate will privilege you to the full range of humour, anyone would easily access the comedic entertainment value and social commentary.

I highly recommend going and taking the whole family.
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