Devised and Performed by Fasitua Amosa, Beulah Koale, Max Palamo
Directed by Shadon Meredith and Amelia Reid-Meredith
Presented by Polynesian Laboratory
Basement Theatre, Auckland | March 19-30
It’s difficult not to be impressed by Le Tonu—The Decision, a new play about the patriarch of a Samoan family who has aged to a point in his life where he needs to be cared for constantly, and a decision that has to be made by his son and primary caregiver. It’s a simple story, and an affecting one at that, but it’s the grace and depth that the cast and directors imbue it with that make Le Tonu really worth seeing.
It’s all up to the cast to sell this piece. Actors Fasitua Amosa, Max Palamo, and Beulah Koale form the strong ensemble, playing Peni, the son and caregiver, Poppa, the patriarch, and Peni’s nephew Lucky respectively. In the centrepiece of the play, an extended series of scenes at Poppa’s birthday party, they all take on other roles, from Poppa’s grandsons to the chatty, exaggerating aunties. These roles provide some of the biggest comic relief in the play, and all actors excel at it, particularly in one scene, which captures exactly the kind of hushed whispers that go on in kitchens at parties. However, it’s in their main roles where the actors really shine.
Amosa plays Peni with an endearing simplicity. This man has no ulterior motives; he’s just trying to get himself and his family through as intact as he can. When the narrative gets heavier, this simplicity becomes the heartbreaking core of the play, and Amosa plays through the developments beautifully. Koale’s Lucky is the fire of the piece; he has an excited physicality that is brilliantly muted towards the end of the play, where the other actors bring out the depths of the character. It seems unfair to single out one actor, but Max Palamo’s Poppa is the highlight of the script. There are no tics or actorly tricks in how he plays Poppa’s deteriorating mind; rather, there’s a disarming forthrightness and honesty that only gets more impressive as the play draws to a close. The play pivots around Poppa, and Palamo’s performance gives it reason to.
One of the most impressive things about Le Tonu, for me, is how it captures a plot that is familiar to most of us, and frames it through a Samoan point of view. It would be easy for this story to be bogged down in cliché like bedside weeping or strained phone calls. Instead, it is told matter of factly and with genuine cultural truth. The short scenes we get of Poppa remembering his younger days in Samoa are poignant, but they also give this story additional depth. Le Tonu is as much a story about a man forgetting himself as it is about a culture forgetting their roots.
Directors Amelia Reid-Meredith and Shadon Meredith keep the staging clear and simple. There are only two props, a stick and a wooden construction of some sort (I am not a construction person), which the actors use to fill in for a multitude of props, and the only piece of set is a chair. They wisely put a lot of trust in their charismatic cast to carry the story, helping along the transitions between places in time, character, and scene with subtle lighting and sound cues.
Le Tonu is a short show, and is one that I’d love to see developed further to explore these characters and their stories. (I understand that it was previously produced as Hypothesis One.) They’re deep and rich enough to deserve it, and these performers are talented enough to pull it off.
But as is, Le Tonu is a gorgeous, well-told, and affecting story, and one that deserves to be seen.