Her name is Puhi and she could be an ingenue, a princess or a warrior in the making; she is elegant, ornate, traditional yet contemporary. She is one of only three of her kind in the world. It means whatever she will be, she is already a leader.
She and her two brothers are so rare and precious they are carried around in a padded and securely locked trunk which is carefully watched over. Puhi is a mask, created by carver Tristan Marler from totara wood and embellished with moko kauae (woman's chin tattoo). Along with her two brother masks, she will help initiate a theatre first: Maori mask theatre.
Te Rehia Theatre, a company established in 2012 and headed by Regan Taylor and Amber Curreen, is pioneering the new theatre form, Te Mata Kokako o Rehia, in its Matariki production Hoki Mai Tama Ma.
The play, named after the well-known folk song (Return to me, my boys), uses masks -- the newly created as well as Italian-style Commedia dell'Arte -- to merge modern Maori theatre and traditional performing arts, such as waiata and haka, with historic Italian comedy techniques.
The development fits Te Rehia Theatre's philosophy to create trailblazing Maori stories. The idea to use masks arose when Taylor told his friend and Hoki Mai Tama Ma writer Tainui Tukiwaho that he wanted to use masks in Maori theatre. "And then he laughed," says Tukiwaho, who portrayed comedian Billy T James in the biopic Billy, "but I was thinking, 'Why not?' and I went away and started writing the play."
Directed by former Shortland Street actor Gerald Urquhart, Hoki Mai Tama Ma moves between Matariki New Year celebrations in modern rural Aotearoa and Italy during World War II.
It follows Tama (Rawiri Jobe), who has just returned from Italy with his koro (grandfather), played by Regan Taylor. Armed with koro's wartime diary and the earthy logic of their best friend and neighbour Nuku (also played by Taylor), Tama reveals long-held secrets and learns the true meaning of forgiveness and whanau.
It is Tukiwaho's first full-length play and he says he set it in World War II partly because it's the most significant meeting of the Maori and Italian worlds but also an apt platform on which to explore and merge the art forms of both cultures.
Rehearsals involve learning lines as well as how the masks look and feel -- they are surprisingly light -- and what they can represent. Once this is established, the masks can be imbued with more distinctive characteristics.
Hoki Mai Tama Ma is not the only Matariki theatre project Tukiwaho is involved with. With Puti Lancaster, he's one of two recently appointed kaiarataki mangairua (similar to creative directors) for national Maori theatre company The company brings its latest production, Putorino Hill, northwards three days after Hoki Mai finishes its run. It, too, was created in a new initiative, a collaboration of Taki Rua and Christchurch's Court Theatre, which commissioned Chris Molloy to be its first Maori writer in residence.
Molloy says he sent through a one-paragraph submission, a vague notion based around quantum physics and the idea of universal connections because we are all made of matter and particles.
Having previously written for Taki Rua's touring Te Reo Maori seasons, Molloy says with his own plays, such as The Last Taniwha, he is used to doing everything from writing and directing to producing and marketing.
"At first, it was quite hard to adjust to just wearing the one hat and, at the beginning, I was struggling to come up with certain elements of the story so, although it's not usually the way I work, I thought I would go somewhere and see something.
"I took a bus from Christchurch and rode it to the end of the line. It came over Port Hills to this small settlement called Rapaki, which is on the waterfront and overlooked by a hill [Te Poho o Tamatea] and the bus driver said, 'This is the end of the line. There's a bus back to town in half an hour', so I got off, spent half an hour there and knew I had the inspiration I needed."
Raised in the isolated Bay of Plenty forestry village of Murupara, Molloy says his experiences of watching a town in decline also fed into the play, as did teachings from his Christian upbringing and elements of Maori spirituality.
Set in the fictional town of the almost deserted Reinga, Putorino Hill is part fairy tale, part rural legend and centred on the remembrances of old man Whiti who, as the play opens, is preparing to tell his life story to a local journalist.
"Essentially, Putorino Hill is about healing and what one person needs to do to achieve healing," Molloy says. "At the heart of it is an old man finally being able to tell his story."
Patupaiarehe (fairies), prophetic visions and miracle healings are woven into the story, which journeys back into Whiti's life. Actor Rob Mokaraka, who plays Whiti, says he enjoys the demanding physical nature of the play and its blending of theatrical and more cinematic styles. "It's become a very strong script, a real whirlpool about religion and spirituality, the abuse of power, loss of innocence and atonement, and there's a love story in there, too.
For me, I'm very interested in what it says about Maori responses to Western religion; I reckon there are ideas in there that will permeate long after the audience has left the theatre."
Directed by Te Kohe Tuhaka, it also features Jade Daniels, Lana Garland and Kim Garrett. It is the continuation of a busy few months for Mokaraka, who leaves next month to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and perform the play Strange Resting Places, which he co-wrote. It has toured regularly since 2007, including overseas.
What: Hoki Mai Tama Ma
Where and when: Mangere Arts Centre, July 3-5; Herald Theatre, July 9-12
What: Putorino Hill
Where and when: Q Theatre, July 15-19