OCTOBER 2023 | Volume 232
Te Tangi a te Tūī Ft Eve Gordon & Paku Fernandez. Photo by Ben Sarten.
TeTangi ā teTūī
by Amber Curreen and Tainui Tukiwaho
TeRēhia Theatre and The Dust Palace (Aotearoa / New Zealand)
The Cultch and Urban Ink
www.thecultch.com or 604-251-1363
The Tūī, a native of Aotearoa (New Zealand), is renowned for its distinctive call – a harmonious symphony that's unique to each bird, with the remarkable ability to mimic other birds and even human speech. In TeTangi a teTūī, the Tūī bird’s song echoes with power, materializing as the first sensory plunge into a vivid world. The cry of a Tūī, accompanied by the chirping of insects, rustling leaves, and the gentle, glimmering water, envelops the senses as the stage gradually comes to life.
Māori theatre company TeRēhia Theatre and cirque-style theatre company The Dust Palace bring a vast ngāhere (forest) onto the Cultch’s York Theatre stage. Within this dense forest, humans coexist alongside Patupaiarehe (fairy folk) and Koiriiri, a bird who walks as a man. The interactions among them unveil generational love and loss stories, with Māori mother Aotahi (Amber Curreen, also the show's co-writer and co-producer) and her teenage son Piri (Paku Fernandez) caught in the crossfire. Communicated through Māori dialogue and cirque-theatre, the intertwined journeys intricately blend folklore, the enduring impacts of colonialism, and the challenging and life-affirming process of reckoning with the past and envisioning the future.
The show pulses with an enigmatic and lively energy, owing much of its uniqueness to its blend of storytelling. Physicality plays a vital role in conveying the essence of the play’s world. From the outset, we gain insights into the characters and their circumstances. Human characters carry a resolute presence, firmly planted on the ground, armed with weapons and watchful eyes.
In contrast, the Patupaiarehe, a team of six highly skilled cirque performers, playfully glide across the forest on aerial silks and poles or execute ethereally elegant contortions. Koiriiri (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) treads an intriguing line between both worlds. His physical language initially exudes curiosity and later transforms into a dark aura when he becomes the victim of betrayal by human warriors.
The cast’s physical prowess remains consistently impressive and dramatically sound. The troupe's gravity-defying feats are not just exciting to witness; they also serve as ingenious storytelling tools. They quickly draw the audience into the emotional currents of the narrative and keep a firm grasp on them, through gasps of astonishment or sighs of relief. An emotional high point comes in a heart-wrenching adagio performance, which tells the poignant love story ofTePua o Te Reinga (the fairy folk’s ringleader, played by Eve Gordon) and Piri's ancestor (Luis Mierelles).
A lyre that doubles as a flute and branch-shaped aerial poles highlight shifts in the play's timelines. Earthy tones bathe the costumes and set design, while lighting design conjures the forest's murky depths. Often striking and dramatic, there are moments when the lighting doesn't seamlessly align with the nature of cirque theater, especially during high-paced sequences. However, when it aligns perfectly, it stands out—especially a second-act scene that evokes a nearly psychedelic glimpse into the horrors of colonization, featuring pulse-quickening crimson lighting, queasy organ music, and Bible verses. Notably, this is the sole instance of English dialogue in the entire show.
I would say it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the play’s context before viewing. While the emotional resonance and context clues are certainly there, reading up on some of the story's details (accessible via the show program or a more in-depth English audio track on The Cultch’s website) brings the weighty themes into sharper focus.
TeTangi a teTūī is a genuinely unique experience, providing the rare privilege of a story directly speaking to and performed in its traditional language. It is beautifully crafted, full of love, talent, and creativity that compellingly look towards the past and the future. As you delve into the show’s layers, you’ll find an uncompromising, free flowing, yet thematically sophisticated tale, complete with sensory rushes that will have you perched at the edge of your seat.
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