From rollicking comedy to Greek tragedy and the big issues, our writers give their
festival picks.

Dione Joseph:

Nathan Joe's I am Rachel Chu was a smart, funny and layered parody of blockbuster film, Crazy Rich Asians. Joe drew attention to the distinct personalities of different people who have been carelessly lumped under the vast continental frame of Asian. Laced with insights and witticisms, I am Rachel Chu interrogated the deliberate and damaging tropes that, when embedded into Hollywood rhetoric, quickly become taken-for-granted stereotypes. With Joe in the background as narrator, Amanda Grace Leo, Ravi Lloyd Gurunathan and Angela Zhang performed different characters with rapid-fire costume changes creating a touching, humorous and geuinely hilarious hour of theatre.

Life, love and the various experiences we encounter as children of difference were some of the themes of Long Distance Phone Calls, a beautiful sonic experience in the Auckland Town Hall that brought together poets under the helm of director (and poet) Vanessa Crofskey. Led by MC Grace Teuila Taylor, the poets shared stories, from ancestors to first world problems to family, heartbreak and language. The audience was seated in the balcony and while this supported the titular concept, the distance itself wasn't necessary.

From words to the body, Tide Waits for No Man was one of the most exquisite works seen on our stages. Taiwanese-New Zealand artist Nikita Tu-Bryant is the tour-de-force who wrote, directed and performed in Tide Waits for No Man: Episode Grace. Shadow puppetry, movement, traditional chants and calligraphy tools came together to create a stirring and quietly profound performance. Irrespective of language barriers, this was a thoughtful elegy to the past, one's ancestors and her[story]. Crafted with love, care and thoughtfulness, the non-verbal performance reflected Tu-Bryant's dedication and the rich textures provided by her collaborators and performers Chye-Ling Huang and Marianne Infante.

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From the body to the soul, (on) Whatipu was also deeply personal. The multi-media production traced grieving Nina's (Dawn Glover) decision to face her past. A migrant to Aotearoa from the United States, she has suffered immense loss and finds solace on one of Auckland's western beaches and in the murmurings of a whale. Haunted by a range of dead relatives, Nina continually waded into the past, glimpses of which flitted across the backdrop. Matt Smith and Courtney Eggleton also gave notable performances but it was Glover (lead performer and also creator, co-writer and director) who was the soul of the work - especially when she unleashed her magnificent voice. The production itself is still in development and with further pruning the drama of (on) Whatipu will sweep us up into its poetic trans-Atlantic story.

Ethan Sills:

When it comes to technicality, it was hard to fault the performers in Le Aerial. The aerial artists delivered exactly what you would expect, with high flying set pieces that were dazzling to watch as their bodies contort impossibly around poles and frames. If it was a test of skill, this would be a pass. Le Aerial clearly hopes you agree, as they present their talents with little to no theatricality. This was an impressive but cut and dry demonstration of their craft with one performance moving quickly into the next without narrative or thrill, the props dragged on in full view of the audience. Even the costumes were unremarkable, with the most exciting piece – a glowing, butterfly-like cape – thrown aside after barely a minute. Singer Mark Oates attempted to add gravitas with live vocals but simply distracted as he melodramatically crooned beneath the performers. His drawn out rendition of Lorde's cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World turned the finale into a torturous affair. It was disappointing as the stunning aerial acts were diminished by the uninspired set up.

Auckland should feel very lucky that British company Heady Conduct Theatre picked us for the international debut of its show Tiresias. The clearly talented company brought a warming, thought-provoking and imaginative show, which artfully reimaginedand rejuvenated classic Greek stories. We followed Tiresias, a recurring character in Greek mythology cursed with blindness but gifted with prophecy, as he recounted his long and grim life story. He was portrayed with nuance and subtlety by Briton Simon Rodda, who excelled in what is essentially a one-man monologue. He got to play with other characters from Greek myth, gifting them a Northern twang that lightened somewhat grim Greek tragedies. That mood was further lightened by local musician Shimna Higgins, who underscored the show with a consistently beautiful yet ethereal score, wordless lyrics and the gentle tone of a violin underpinning Tiresias' tragedies.

High expectations surrounded Run Rabbit; the one woman show from rising star Victoria Abbott. It debuted to rave reviews and such demand last year it returned to Fringe for a short season. Instantly, you could see why. Abbott leapt on stage to a thumping, electrified, Celtic-infused beat, and just as vigorously settled into the story of her Scottish ancestor, Black Agnes, who spent months defending her castle from the British. Agnes gives Abbott license to shine, committing to a strong Scottish accent and determinedly interacting with the audience, but she is just one of Abbott's arsenal of eccentric characters. Abbott shifted effortlessly between the various beats, jumping from quiet sincerity and outrageous boldness in the blink of an eye. This is theatre at its most theatrical. It felt occasionally like an audition reel, Abbott showcasing as much of her talent and potential as possible in 60 minutes, but she succeeded in bringing the show's disparate elements together in a moving and emotional climax. It risks being almost too experimental and reliant on (often unwilling) audience interaction but Run Rabbit pegs Abbott for brighter things to come.

Raewyn Whyte:

Alexa Wilson was frenetic in her one-woman show, 999: Alchemist Trauma Centre/Power Centre. Photo/Bea Rodrigues
Alexa Wilson was frenetic in her one-woman show, 999: Alchemist Trauma Centre/Power Centre. Photo/Bea Rodrigues

Alexa Wilson's 999: Alchemist Trauma Centre/Power Centre immersed us in the kaleidoscopic whirl of a woman struggling to make sense of the uncertainties of contemporary life. Something under her skin made it impossible for her to settle or feel secure so she restlessly and constantly moved. At times, she was a confrontational feminist performance artist; at others simply naked. With microphone always in hand, she conversed and ranted, told stories, delivered meditations and poems which address aspects of trauma and healing. Occasionally, she made the audience laugh but, more significantly, she sent our minds burrowing into social, personal and global concerns.