Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Aotearoa Dell'Art unmasked

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Wearing masks allows actors in Leilani to entirely vanish into the characters
Wearing masks allows actors in Leilani to entirely vanish into the characters

In an office crammed with books and stage memorabilia, theatre-maker and teacher Pedro Ilgenfritz finds space for a battered brown suitcase, opens it and produces 11 different characters.

One is a well-to-do "Remuera matron", another is a homeless man and there's a chap who's doing his best to be politically correct but not quite hitting the mark. Then there are three girls, including two who are rivals for the affections of a young man who also emerges from the suitcase.

Out of one case?

When you're working with masks, the range of characters you might create becomes almost limitless. Delicately wrapped, these half-masks will be used by actors Irasa Siave, Natasha Daniel and Aymee Karaitiana to bring to life a collection of eight disparate kiwi archetypes in Leilani.

Inspired by Italian Commedia Dell'Arte, which grew from poking fun at the power structures and stereotypes of 16th Century Italian life, Leilani casts a critical - but humourous - eye across New Zealand society.

The story starts with sweet, young Leilani arranging an extra-special night out with boyfriend Junior but it appears to end in tears when he dumps her. She finds herself homeless and friendless, but meets a cast of characters who inhabit our world even if we don't always notice them.

It's the debut show from Mahuika Theatre Company and the second in Q Theatre's 2016 Matchbox programme. The programme aims to "light a creative spark" by giving new performing arts groups practical help to bring their ideas from the page to the stage.

Named after the Maori fire goddess and with the aim to bring more women, from diverse backgrounds, into producing and performing theatre, Mahuika is a perfect fit for the programme.
Ilgenfritz, a senior lecturer from Unitec who teaches mask and movement, will direct while Gracie-Rose Kay produces.

The Mahuika team has spent about two years developing characters, sculpting and workshopping Leilani, which they've dubbed Aotearoa Dell'Arte. It might draw on Italian traditions, but was developed with Aotearoa/New Zealand firmly in mind.

"I use masks in my classes, but got to thinking how Anglo-Saxon they looked and what masks from New Zealand today might look like," says Ilgenfritz, who turned to the book 8 Tribes: The Hidden Classes of New Zealand for inspiration.

It means the masks in Leilani are more ethnically diverse, they skew slightly younger and they're transformed into characters with unique reasons for living in New Zealand who face contemporary challenges: homelessness, relationship breakdowns and simply trying to fit in.

Siave, Daniel and Karaitiana play all eight roles and say the masks allow them to appear and re-appear in a number of different roles which tests their abilities and lets them explore characters they might not normally get to portray.

Watch them put on the various masks and you see exactly what they mean when they talk about vanishing entirely into a role. They hope Leilani will be the first in a number of Aotearoa Dell'Arte shows they can tour nationally and internationally.

What: Leilani
Where & when: Q Theatre, Loft; August 4 - 13

- NZ Herald

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