Haka and High Kicks: A Review of Super-HUGH Man

Janet McAllister reviews Rutene Spooner's Super HUGH-Man.

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Janet McAllister reviews Rutene Spooner's Super HUGH-Man, a new show of storytelling and song currently playing in Auckland Live's International Cabaret Season.

The 12-year-old was resistant. I haven’t really read that many X-Men comics, she said. But I put my evil stepmother foot down: you’re coming to a one-man autobiographical comedy about Wolverine and masculinity whether you want to or not. Look, he’s wearing table cutlery between his knuckles on the poster, isn’t that funny? Warmed up by a Karma Cola and the Basement’s crowded hot-mess foyer, where a drag comedian was singing Avril Lavigne and telling off-colour jokes, she conceded that maybe it was.

What neither of us was expecting was a show for aficionados of rock operas and musicals, a 60-minute coming-of-age tale of a musical fan’s musical fan. If you know the difference between Chicago and Oklahoma! – about 600 miles, haha – this is a show for you as well as for people wanting to see a send-up of Patrick Stewart’s uptight accent as Professor X. Writer/performer Rutene Spooner expects you to know a bit of stuff – he’s not going to tell you he’s singing Hurt because the Johnny Cash version was on the Logan soundtrack; he’s not going to say that Hugh Jackman won his 2004 Tony for a musical called The Boy from Oz, about a gay musician called Peter Allen. Then again, my co-reviewer knew none of the above and she still thoroughly enjoyed herself (she did know that Hocus Pocus was a Disney TV thing; I was grateful for that titbit).

The end of a life is not like the end of a song, all neatly tied up; it’s a sudden stop when we expect more.

Over the cabaret tables, one first sees John Verryt’s clawed-crusader metal-curtain backdrop: the image is black silhouette in some lights, blue-faced in others, which is a pretty cool effect by lighting designer Amber Molloy who is on a roll, having also designed the startling lighting for O A’u (currently playing upstairs from Super HUGH-Man, in the Basement Studio). The two-tone curtain even foreshadows tonight’s theme of The Double: you can do two things! As in, people who do kapa haka might also be interested in musical theatre. Which, from one point of view, is not surprising at all (singing and dancing FTW), but apparently in Gisborne ten years ago any boys doing drama were considered 'poofs'. Rutene-the-character resists that prejudice from the beginning, but he only feels comfortable doing so when he considers that Wolverine stars in musicals as well as in X-Men. That makes it official: a tough guy can use a powderpuff.

The show starts slowly; Spooner is good at holding back, giving us room. But when he gets going, his singing voice is warm, smooth and strong. I marvelled at how one guy dressed in boring black could hold our pinpoint focus through sheer “triple threat” performance – all singing/acting/dancing. (He is directed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand, described in preview press as having “starred in Shortland Street and the Australian comedy series Full Frontal”, amusing picks from a full CV.) His mockery of jazz-hands choreography is funny, as is the fleeting mention of the Disposable Woman trope  (“I imagine my imaginary girlfriend killed before my eyes!”) but wonderfully, as comic and upbeat as the show is, there are also moments of true emotional force. The “Valjean Soliloquy” has real psychological intensity, and when Rutene-the-character realises that (Logan spoiler) Wolverine is actually dead, Spooner breaks off strumming “Hurt” in the middle of a phrase. The end of a life is not like the end of a song, all neatly tied up; it’s a sudden stop when we expect more. I appreciated the aural metaphor.

It earned me a freely-admitted “I’m glad you dragged me out” from the kid.

Small things: it felt one song too long and a few aspects left me a little uneasy. Briefly sending up a kapa haka practice in front of a mostly non-Māori audience the night I went risks laughter at rather than laughter with – showing insiders in front of a bunch of outsiders. On the other hand, comparing a kapa haka coach’s exhortation to “let out the mean!” to Professor X’s order to “channel the anger!” works well: the general stereotype of the exacting trainer can’t be misconstrued as punching down. There’s also a missed opportunity to stress that the problem with using “poof” as an insult is with the name-callers, not the poofs. A shout-out to the queer Wolverines and Loganberries would have been nice, an acknowledgement that one’s position on the spectrum from tough guy to powderpuff doesn’t dictate one’s sexuality. Still, maybe, in front of a Basement audience, this could be taken as read.

All in all, it was a fun, entertaining one-man variety show, and earned me a freely-admitted “I’m glad you dragged me out” from the kid.

Super HUGH-Man runs from September 20-23 at Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.