Theatre review: Putorino Hill

By Janet McAllister

Jade Daniels and Kim Garrett in Putorino Hill.
Jade Daniels and Kim Garrett in Putorino Hill.

Chris Molloy's atmospheric new drama, produced by Taki Rua, is ostensibly a period piece via reminiscence, but it contains clever, cutting commentary about present realities in Aotearoa.

When domestic violence and rumours that a "Maori evangelist [is] mixing Maori and Christian spirituality to target vulnerable Maori" are mentioned, the first issues that spring to mind are not those of the inter-war era.

Both script and staging are comfortable with tropes of the Maori family drama genre: a younger person asks an elder about hidden dark pasts, which come tinged with magic realism and veer off into melodrama (but the climax only needs to lose a couple of sobbing lines to become truly affecting).

The characters work not just as individuals but also as representations of groups: the escaped, the forgotten and the younger generation, ignorant but willing to learn (this eagerness is mocked; it's funny but a possible political misstep).

Their fates are sealed by relying on one "chosen" hero to lead a town, rescue a congregation or save a girl - like relying on a magic bullet to change widespread, chronic societal ills. While not all strands are satisfyingly tied up, the originality lies in the admirable, clear-eyed presentation of these biographies.

The first half contains many light-hearted moments but Te Kohe Tuhaka's direction, along with Matthew Eller's sound, stresses the heavy menace. Several lightbulbs are snuffed out with loud cracks in the prologue. Later, hopeful words are undermined by an unrelenting bass drone.

The action swings easily between past and present. Rob Mokaraka is an excellent and enjoyable central pivot, playing both the slick pastor and his grown-up grandson when he's "no spring kumara" with ease and a knowing sense of timing. Kim Garrett brings chutzpah and presence to her role as a young rural girl.

Empty portrait frames in Brian King's set evoke long-gone companions. Flickering lightbulbs representing the patupaiarehe (fairies) hang over the audience as well as the stage. Uncompromising, and offering much to think about.

Review
What: Putorino Hill
Where and when: Loft, Q Theatre, to Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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