Always My Sister;
The Motherfucker with the Hat

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_alwaysmysisterWritten and directed by Michelanne Forster
Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 10-21

It may sound foreboding to begin a review with a preface, but here I go: historical dramas are generally not my thing. I find that the genre is rife with summarising, with little depth, and tends to serve more as an educational tool and actor showcase than effective drama. I went into Always My Sister with trepidation.

However, Always My Sister surpassed some of those expectations while also meeting some of them. Based on a Devonport murder in 1840, where a man was falsely accused until the real culprit was found, Michelanne Forster’s script focuses on the women behind or beside this culprit, Joseph Burns (Chris Tempest). The women in question, the titular sisters, are troubled alcoholic and divorcee Maggie Reardon (Jess Sayer), and morally upstanding Sophia Aldwell (Torum Heng). It’s an interesting focus for this event, and lends it a contemporary slant that is intriguing.

As a piece of theatre, it is a curious fit for The Basement Studio space. With very minimal set, only one piece of furniture and candles, the space is never defined. While this means it can, with a simple lighting change, turn Sophie Aldwell’s house into a North Shore beach, the play loses some of the scale and becomes an intimate chamber piece. This is not a bad thing, but the play never sits comfortably in this style of theatre; everything is rushed through at a clip, across what seems to be years at points, and it rarely lets us rest in the story of Maggie and Sophia, instead appearing to be more interested in getting to the end of the story.

Part of this is due to the directorial choices; there seems to have been a conscious decision to make this a chamber piece rather than what we might expect from a historical drama, although this is also in the DNA of the script. Always My Sister checks in at a brisk 55 minutes, but rather than feeling like a snapshot of these characters and events, it feels more like skim reading a history book. Moments are never really allowed to breathe, and the relationship between the sisters is never fleshed out.

It comes down to Torum Heng and Jess Sayer to provide the subtext, and they do so in spades. Sayer carries the self-destructive Maggie Reardon through her arc effortlessly, creating links between the hopeful and fairly innocent woman at the start of the play to the jaded, guilt-ridden woman at the end. Removed from the action, Heng’s Sophia mostly serves as the audience surrogate, providing commentary and narration at select moments throughout the place, though she also anchors the play in a emotional reality that it needs. However, she doesn’t simplify Sophia as a moral compass, and has created a woman that has her own edges and a life outside of the text.

Chris Tempest plays the de-facto villain Joseph Burns, and while he is charismatic presence and hits some appropriately over-the-top maniacal moments towards the eleventh hour, the play writes him off as a villain from the start, while the character is not well-rounded enough to give Tempest enough complexity to work with.

Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s lighting design gives the play a sense of space and a haunting quality, while Charlie Baptist’s costumes capture the period well without ever seeming too showy or costumey.

Always My Sister is a show with great potential. There are times when it reaches for a universal, and still relevant, message about domestic violence and how a crime affects far more than the victim, but it’s hard for this message to land at this length and in this space. In its current state, however, it’s a chance to learn about a fascinating period in history through a writer’s distinctive lens with two great performances at the centre.

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img_withahatBy Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Edwin Wright
Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 10-21

It’s easy to get used to hearing New Zealand voices on our stages. I mean that in two ways: that it is easy to get used to hearing our accents say words that we hear ourselves say all the time, and that is easy to get used to plays by local writers. And it’s a delight that The Basement is host to so many of these voices. However, every now and then the venue programmes an international play, and it is rarely a disappointment.

Following in the footsteps of last year’s acclaimed Abigail’s Party—an international play that transformed The Basement space both literally and textually—Vibracorp Productions brings us The Motherfucker with the Hat, a play that intends to do the same. The title serves as both an indication and a warning: an indication that what we’re gong to watch isn’t going to be pretty, and a warning that it definitely isn’t going to be pleasant.

The play revolves around an ex-con, ex-drug addict (Calum Gittins) who, upon his release from jail, visits his long-time love Veronica (Saraid Cameron) to find the titular hat on his table and accuses her of cheating. He goes to his sponsor Ralph (Fasitua Amosa) for advice, which sets off a chain of events including cheating, relapse, redemption, and revenge. It’s a far cry from Abigail’s Party, is what I’m saying.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, it is not an easy one for the performers or the audience. A rapid-fire, insult-heavy series of scenes between deeply wounded and damaged people who end up doing bad things to each other is something that we’ve seen before, and although the characters that Guirgis constructs are new to these eyes, the play loses itself down a rabbit hole in its penultimate scene, where the main characters are discussing the theme of the play rather than engaging in the drama of the situation. This is not inherently a bad thing, but Guirgis hasn’t taken a strong stand on any of the opinions that his characters are firing at each other, so it appears like he’s throwing words at a wall until they stick. It makes for an ending that is engaging and close to affecting, but hardly profound.

When dealing with an international play like this, the text is always at the forefront of the mind while watching it. Why are we seeing this here and why should we care? On the page, The Motherfucker with the Hat doesn’t necessarily lend itself easily to a local production. The vernacular is so precisely from that part of New York, or is a decent approximation thereof, and the situation within so far removed from us, that it seems an odd choice to stage it here.

The text isn’t the main asset of this production. The main asset of this production is to see this group of actors dig into some truly meaty characters and juicy dialogue, and they don’t disappoint.

In the lead, Calum Gittins is not a natural choice in terms of casting, but he gets over that speed bump immediately with a character who is as internally bruised as he is heartbreakingly open. For as offensive as Jackie is, and as many wrong things he does throughout the play, Gittins never loses sight of the fact that this is a man who has been shaped more by his outside influences into the broken person he is than an inherently bad person, if that even exists.

Fasitua Amosa has a much more difficult task. The character of Ralph is less a character than he is a collision of attitude and theme; there’s no arc or core to this character. Ralph is a writing construct, not a human being. What initially could seem like miscasting instead reveals itself as unplayable writing, though Amosa impressively tunes into an emotional core for Ralph during key scenes so that the play never gets off track.

As Jackie’s cousin, John Tui is a clear highlight. Tui plays a man for whom camp is the core of his personality, and he finds both menace and heart in that character. He runs away with his scenes entirely, in a way that makes the play seem larger and more complex than it actually is.

However, the two best parts of this play are the two women, Saraid Cameron as Jackie’s girlfriend Veronica, and Andi Crown as Victoria, the long-suffering wife of Ralph. As written, these characters are always on the back foot, reacting to the men that the writer has put in the positions of action and power. They aren’t ciphers—far from it—but both actresses do a lot to even up the genders imbalance in the play.

Cameron absolutely lights up the room whenever she is onstage, and turns a role stuck between two men into the moral centre of the play. She plays Veronica with a dimmed fire; an incredibly fierce woman who has nonetheless been dulled by addiction and hardship in life. Cameron also fills out the inner life of this character; I can see a Veronica before and after this play, and it’s a treat to see an actor tune into this part of their character so well.

Victoria is an even slighter role with a more simplistic arc, but Andi Crown fleshes out her character with the same star quality she brought to Abigail’s Party. She nails her character’s seen-it-all quality and her own resigned feelings to her husband Ralph, and becomes a dark, twisty core of a late scene with Jackie. Rather than being periphery to the drama, Crown more than makes Victoria integral to this cast of damaged, self-imploding people.

Laura Smith’s production design, as well as the traverse seating of the Basement, allow the play to serve as a cross-section of these characters, vivisecting them for all to see. Rachel Marlow’s lighting design is evocative and sends home some of the ‘wham’ moments of the play with sharp clarity. It’s a credit to director Edwin Wright that the text not only sings for us, but is clear enough that we don’t miss a single word within all the insults.

This version of The Motherfucker in the Hat is a great production of a play that stumbles a little too much to be great, and is one of the most successful productions of an international play that The Basement has seen in some time. It bodes well not only for Vibracorp, but sets a high bar for all future international plays in this space.