By Briar Grace-Smith
Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | March 20-April 12
Paniora! was never going to be anything but fascinating. With the subject matter, a Spanish-Maori family clinging to both sides of their heritage, and with this creative team, it was always going to be an event on Auckland’s theatre calendar. And it is, without a doubt, an event. It’s a brave, affecting piece of storytelling, if also one that doesn’t quite hit the high marks it sets for itself.
A collaboration between The Auckland Theatre Compay and Okareka Dance Company, Paniora! is also a new Briar Grace-Smith play. It tells the story of a family descended from the Spaniard, Manuel Jose, who married five Maori women and started the Paniora bloodline in the 19th century. The family, in present day, has gathered to celebrate the restoration of the wharenui, even going to the lengths of bringing in a Spanish drifter to play the matador.
Briar Grace-Smith’s play is playing within the realms of melodrama, a genre that can be rich with nuance, emotion, and weight. There are parts of the play, especially the machinations of Te Mamanui (Nancy Brunning), the self-appointed matriarch of this family and the internal dramas of Maria Martinez (Miriama Smith), the prodigal daughter who has come back home with her head full of sturm und drang.
Grace-Smith’s script is a fascinating thing, one that appears both under and overworked. Her initial concept is great, and ripe for much drama, but the entire show is weighted by clunky exposition that continues well past the second half of the play, and the play is an awkward length. It currently sits at a 100 minutes and feels like it is rushing through things, while at the same time not giving its characters and their arcs the proper weight. This is evident in the second half, where characters disappear without warning and the play focuses on characters who have not yet drawn our attention as much as they could have. It’s a story that could easily sustain two acts with an intermission.
Undoubtedly the most stark and exciting part of Paniora! is the dance sequences. Assisted by Jane Hakaraia’s gorgeous lighting design and Sean Coyle’s lush set, these give the play an emotion and a heat that the rest of the production sorely lacks. The gorgeous choreography of Taane Mete blends Maori and Spanish dance to really carry across the blend of these two cultures and bloodlines. It gives the words of the play life force, and more importantly, history.
A major oversight of the play, and this production of it, is that it never commits to the melodrama it is set up for. Only one member of the cast, the unimpeachable Nancy Brunning, taps into the high drama of the piece, while the rest seem perfectly willing to cede every scene and moment to her. It’s a jarring view to see one actor giving their all, while the rest of the cast operates on a fairly naturalistic level. It’s what makes the dips into flights of fancy and fantasy even more jarring, even if these are by far the best and most memorable parts of the play.
If Brunning fairs best, it’s the other female actors in the cast who come off looking worse for wear. As our defacto protagonist Bonita, and the character who goes through the most significant arc, Keporah Torrance has a charismatic earnestness but lacks vocal weight. I believed this character would exist, but not in this way. There’s a lack of passion in her performance, and it’s difficult to see the heat that runs so easily through Te Mamanui carrying onto her granddaughter. Miriama Smith has a harder job with a more difficult and initially unlikeable character, and she initially casts a striking figure as the unstable Maria Martinez, but as the play goes on and makes her jump through hoops, the gaps in the performance show. Her voice is often stuck in her throat and when it comes to the passionate scenes with the male actors, the heat fizzles. However, she sends it home in her final sequences, and she is always stunning to watch move onstage.
Hera Dunleavy has perhaps the most difficult role in the play as Terry, nakedly written for comic relief and to be laughed at, but she gifts her character with an appealing self-deprecation and need to be accepted into this community. The character serves a crucial balancing role in the narrative, and Dunleavy has to communicate the idea that Terry represents the outside world in this play without ever overstating it. Dunleavy achieves this in spades, and it’s the most loose and fun work I’ve seen her do onstage in ages.
The male cast are varied in their quality. Kirk Torrance has the largest role and brings his gruff, bloke’s bloke quality to it, but there’s a lack of theatricality and flair to his performance that makes me feel like I’m watching him onscreen. Calvin Tutaeo initially has a similar problem, but as the play goes on, his commitment to the drama exponentially increases and he owns some of the more affecting moments in the play. Barnie Dunca, as the travelling Spanish drifter, has a role that is designed to steal scenes and the entire show. Duncan does this well, even if there’s the feeling that he’s retracing steps he’s walked before. These are fun steps and he’s never a bore.
The success of the cast is largely based on commitment to the high drama that the script sets up, and the same could be set of the entire production. The script sets up high stakes for both the characters and the entire family, but the production is often a cold, workmanlike thing to watch. The dance sequences inject emotion into it every now and then, but once the dancing stops and the text picks up again, and it’s like dipping into a cold pool.
This is not to say that Paniora! is a bad play. I don’t think it is. The dance sequences are some of the most outright gorgeous things I’ve seen onstage in some time, and the production has a lushness that can only come with an Auckland Theatre Company show. Brunning’s performance is one that has played on my mind since seeing the show; it belongs in a Tennessee Williams play and this is the highest compliment I can think of. She’s entirely in sync with the style and it’s a joy to watch her draw the energy of everybody onstage, and in the audience, into herself. There are isolated moments—I think of one when Maria is slowly walking up the set while she is drowned in blue light—that took my breath away. Despite this, it is a play with flaws that do nag away.
The play also engages with some pertinent themes of heritage and its impact on those that follow us. Te Mamanui’s obsession with her heritage, as well as Maria’s, is initially presented as an honourable and laudable thing, but as the play continues on, we’re allowed to draw our own conclusions of whether it’s worth hanging on to our ancestors if it causes us so much grief in the present, and in the future. Especially in this country, which is made up of people of mixed heritage and long histories from other places, it’s an important and prescient point to be making, and Grace-Smith deals with this matter with both elegance and incisive intelligence.
Flaws aside, Paniora! is an event. It’s a Briar Grace-Smith play. It’s an Auckland Theatre Company production of a New Zealand work. It’s talking about things that are important to people, and especially people in this country. It has Nancy Brunning in it. You should see this play and more importantly, you should talk about this play.