It's a political satire about Covid, with puppets that glow in the dark. Okay, says Joanna Wane, but where do Gandalf and Gollum fit in?
The essence of comedy is impeccable timing. Wade Jackson can laugh about it now, but his radar was dramatically off-beam when he scheduled the grand re-opening of his Auckland improv theatre for March 2020. We all know what happened then. Covid breached the borders and New Zealand went into its first full-scale lockdown, shuttering live venues right across the country.
"There was full-body, heaving sobbing for 10 minutes," says Jackson, who lost a major financial sponsor in the fallout. "That was a cathartic release. But improv is all about being in the present and letting things go. Don't focus on the scene you'd like to be in, focus on the scene you're in now. I decided to use that lesson in my life and not stress about this place. If it didn't make it, it didn't make it. But I was going to give it a good go."
Two years later, Covert Theatre is still standing and Covid is still trying to have the last laugh. The NZ Comedy Festival, scheduled for this month, was cancelled because of the pandemic but Jackson has decided to go ahead with the premiere of his latest show anyway.
A Lord of the Rings-inspired mash-up set during the three days Auckland went back into lockdown in February 2021, Covid Response Team is a political satire by way of an adult comedy puppet play. Written and directed by Jackson, it's billed as a world first and will be performed entirely under ultraviolet light.
It's the kind of mad plot you might come up with after smoking some Old Toby pipe-weed. An underground taskforce — let's call it a "fellowship" — has been formed by the Government to go on a road trip across the country to hunt down the virus and cast it into the fires of Mt Doom (well, Whakaari/White Island).
PM Jacinda Ardern's mentor, Gandalf, sets her up with Frodo — "They're surprised to find he's still in New Zealand" — who takes Chris Hipkins along for the ride as his Samwise Gamgee sidekick, with back-up from some Kiwi superheroes. Inevitably, that includes a couple of All Blacks and a supermodel. Exactly where Gollum comes in is a closely guarded secret but let's just say there are more than a few two-faced personalities involved.
The entire cast of 30 characters is played by just four actors, some running multiple parts in a single scene. Dressed in full blackout, they voice and manipulate glow-in-the-dark "puppets" that bob across the stage as disembodied talking heads.
Creator Sarah Burren hand-stitched each puppet face; the most detailed took up to six hours. Working from photographs, the intent was to create a recognisable impression while leaving plenty of room for artistic licence. Brian Tamaki is depicted as a phallic sword straight out of the Crusades. "As I say to the actors, these are just puppets without them," Burren says. "It's all about how they bring the characters to life."
Dr Ashley Bloomfield is the show's resident sex symbol, of course. Hone Harawira pops up as the "Guardian of the North". Film-makers Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi have cameo roles, while broadcaster Mike Hosking represents darker forces at play.
"Remember the other wizard, Saruman?" says Jackson, who recently rewatched the movie trilogy with his 12-year-old son. "He has his own plans, pulling other political strings ... "
Jackson actually auditioned for Lord of the Rings as a rider of Rohan early in his acting career, but didn't make the cut. In the mid-90s, he did some sketch comedy and stand-up at Kitty O'Briens while studying at Auckland University, then had bit parts in TV shows like Xena and Hercules before realising live theatre was his thing.
A founding member of the Improv Bandits, Jackson opened the original Covert Theatre on Karangahape Rd in 2001, inspired by the small volunteer theatres he'd performed at in Chicago and New York. It scraped by but he didn't end up renewing the four-year lease, instead making a decent living for the first time in his life as a high-performance corporate coach.
That's still his main paying gig. Since resurrecting the Covert Theatre at its new venue, a block back from Ponsonby Rd, it's been open less than it's been closed. Rent relief from the landlord and strong audience support has helped. Last week's school holiday programme was sold out and projects in development include a murder-mystery, a Bollywood concept and a biannual sketch comedy set to make its debut at the Fringe Festival in September.
As a volunteer theatre, Covert doesn't pay its members (there's a waiting list) but they have access to training workshops and can create their own shows. Improv and comedy remain at the core, and Jackson says it's been a lot of fun seeing Covid Response Team literally emerge from the shadows.
The arts are inherently liberal but he reckons there's plenty of fun poked at both sides of the divide. "Regardless of your political beliefs, the time and effort our leadership has put in [throughout the pandemic] would be enough to break marriages and ruin people's health and wellbeing. I fully tip my hat, man, cos it's been a hard job."
* Covid Response Team is on at Auckland's Covert Theatre May 11-21 (www.coverttheatre.com).