O A'u

is a serious spoken-word solo dance piece which evokes the creation of a drag queen or rather, the coming-of-age of a young Pacific man expressing queer sexuality and gender within an often hostile world.

As part of Auckland Live's International Cabaret Season, Spencer Papali'i performs movement to his own recordings of autobiographical poetry. Unusually, while there is a lot of speech, none of it is live.

We start in the dark with a snippet of extremely catchy dance music which is soon stopped abruptly by the tolling of a church bell. We hear tut-tutting about earrings and long fingernails, and this church gossip reverberates as hurtful gospel: "I just love his parents sooo much and now he's being selfish with sin."

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Papali'i himself designed the sound and although more variation in the lilting tempo of his voice would have been welcome mid-show, the soundscapes throughout are nicely put together. Describing false eyelashes "perfectly stacked like a Big Mac burger", his intonation puts the "sin" into "synthetic".

Other pieces celebrate the love of performing traditional Samoan dance, and the transformative power of make-up, although there's no onstage makeover apart from a bit of lippy and a lovely last costume. The dramatic lighting by Molloy of Creative Ambiance is superb - sometimes coy, sometimes celebratory in its use of shadow and colour.

Taane Mete's direction and choreography of straight-arm motifs and fleeting provocative boudoir moves is effective, revealing Papali'i's large gracefulness particularly when he dances in his underpants and bra. Facial expressions move from anguish to come-hither eyes in a flash.

The finale is exultant without being forced. This is 45 minutes of polished, heartfelt, solemn theatre, introducing a young theatre practitioner with multi-directional potential.

What: O A'u - Auckland Live International Cabaret Season
Where & when: Basement Studio, until Saturday
Reviewer: Janet McAllister