Those theatergoers drawn to “Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds” for the authentic music and culture of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand might feel blindsided by what seems like a Las Vegas-like lounge act.
Dressed in black suits, black shirts and red ties, the four men strum and croon like Elvis, crack cheesy jokes, and exhibit an oleaginous Rat Pack rapport.
As it turns out, they are portraying characters, and there’s even something of a plot.
Big Bro (Maaka Pohatu), guitar in hand, offers the first clue, as he introduces himself to Bub (Matariki Whatarau), who has shown up late for the “gig” and is the newest member of the quartet.
“I had it all baby,” Big Bro says. “Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and cancer of the colon…. I had a heart attack and now I’m outta this world…literally.”
The four Maori singers, you see, are dead, and in purgatory. To get out, they must each tell their story. The “Two Worlds” of the title are, apparently, the living and the dead.
Yet, it’s a testament to the talent and charisma of the performers, and the beautiful harmonies of their songs, that the chintzy framing of the show doesn’t smother its appeal. “Two Worlds” offers a mix of traditional and original Maori music, some in English, most in the Maori language. What might be most intriguing to the uninitiated is how much “Maori music” incorporates Western-style blues and rock and ballads.
One suspects that the two worlds of the title could be describing the lives that the Maori people, an ethnic minority, must navigate in the larger New Zealand society. We get a glimpse of what that means in the stories that they tell. Bub, for example, who died apparently from the stress and self-medication of his being the first in his family to go to college:
“If I could go back… I’d do heaps of things. Like vote. I could’ve been the first Māori Prime Minister of New Zealand. I would tell them to stop selling off our land to foreign investment and to stop taking our babies away from us.”
This is tantalizing stuff, and a bit frustrating. As with “Wild Dogs Under My Skirt,”the other show from New Zealand that I saw this month at Soho Playhouse, “Two Worlds” presumes a level of knowledge about New Zealand history, politics, language and culture that most New York theatergoers don’t have. It’s a shame that we aren’t offered any kind of context – it would have been great, for example, to have access to translations of some of the songs, at least in the program, or even at MMQ’s website.
But, as with “Wild Dogs,” there’s enough here that’s fascinating and entertaining, even without translation.
Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds
Written and directed by the members of MMQ
Sound, lighting and technical design by Matthew Eller + Square (LX)
Cast: Matu Ngaropo as Koro, Jamie McCaskill as Uncle, Maaka Pohatu as Big Bro, Matariki Whatarau as Bub, Kura Forester as “Miss” (a recorded voice)
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Modern Maori Quartet: Two Worlds is on stage at the Soho Playhouse through January 18, 2020.