Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland, by David Geary, directed by John Bolton for Taki Rua Productions
Soundings Theatre, until March 21
Much of New Zealand's colonial history has been recorded from a British perspective, yet few probably realise that a prominent American travelling through the country in the mid-1890s made some rather astute observations on our race relations, which didn't go down well with his fellow Europeans.
The American was Mark Twain, on a worldwide speaking tour to raise money to pay off debts. Arriving in New Zealand, he visited many towns, including Whanganui, which is where David Geary obtained ideas for his play Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland.
Yet while the play shows up Twain's attitudes toward colonialism, organised religion and racism, he almost becomes superfluous, his writings acting as a mirror to reflect what was happening in Whanganui at the time.
And it is the Maori aspect at the heart of the play that works most successfully. In a series of vignettes using various types of theatre styles, including vaudeville, Western-style movies, narrative and mixing dramatic realism with elements of the surreal, numerous incidences occurring in Whanganui at that time are portrayed.
Symbols of the present are also incorporated into the production, such as the bright orange plastic bag over Twain's head and the half-filled plastic water bottle as a paddle, the sound of the water sloshing most effective.
Considered a superstar of the period, Twain (Stephen Papps) is introduced at various times to the populace of Whanganui during entertainment evenings at the Oddfellows Hall. He is taken up the river, then spends much of his time observing and writing about what he sees and hears.
The simple set of a large white canvas across the stage running right up to the back wall and beyond - no doubt symbolising the river - with black curtains is effectively used by the confident and spirited cast.
Under John Bolton's direction, they bring much physicality and dexterity to their performances. The hilarious vaudeville double act of the Anglican priest (Aaron Cortesi) and Catholic priest (Allan Henry) is in complete contrast to the creative and dramatic battle on Moutoa Island between the Hauhau and local Whanganui Maori with Ra (Maaka Pohatu), assisted by Piki (Ngapaki Emery), leading the charge in spectacular fashion.
And although the many threads don't always weave this production into a satisfying whole, it is nevertheless another commendable New Zealand production giving a fascinating insight into a little- known piece of history that resonates as much with today as it does with the past, aptly summed up in the words of Mark Twain - history may not repeat, but it sure does rhyme a lot.
- The Dominion Post