The Pleiades constellation may be obscured in the drizzly haze of Auckland's pre-dawn skies but contemporary Maori theatre is shining brightly as the Matariki Festival provides a showcase for a remarkable new work by playwright Tainui Tukiwaho.
Te Rehia Theatre is a new company whose work is grounded in te reo Maori but employs an expansive, boldly experimental approach aimed at revitalising traditional forms.
In Hoki Mai Tama Ma they have pulled off an extraordinary fusion that sees kapa haka combined with the Italian clowning tradition of commedia dell'arte and the hard-case humour of contemporary Maori story-telling.
The exquisite wooden masks created by carver Tristan Marler bring an eerie, otherworldly quality to the familiar gestures of the powhiri.
At other times the anarchic buffoonery of commedia's stock characters is put to work in a hilarious cross-cultural exchange that has a pair of Maori prisoners explaining the intricacies of the hongi to an Italian soldier decked out in a long-nosed pantaloon mask.
Director Gerald Urquhart provides plenty of theatrical jolts as he swings the action between a present-day rural community in New Zealand and an Italian WWII prisoner of war camp.
The script features some very clever wordplay as family secrets are revealed and an endearingly cute love story unfolds. It also throws up some provocative thoughts on whether ethnic identity is self-constructed or exclusively derived from genealogy.
At times it feels as if the cocktail has too many ingredients and the commedia might have worked better with a lighter, more satirical story. But any reservations are swept away by the exuberant energy of the performances.
Amber Curreen, Rawiri Jobe and Ascia Maybury skilfully manage the transition between masked and unmasked characters, while Regan Taylor displays an enormous comic talent as a smalltown Maori boy with an inexhaustible supply of weird facts, earthy wisdom and catchy songs.
What: Hoki Mai Tama Ma
Where: Mangere Arts Centre - Nga Tohu o Uenuku, to July 5 and Herald Theatre, July 9-12