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Uma lava is other people

Three damned souls are brought to Hell, which turns out to be plain room where two declare their innocence while the third demands they stop lying to themselves in Jean-Paul Sartres' play No Exit. It is this character who decides they are to be one another's torturers.

And it is this premise award-winning playwright Victor Rodger has based his play Uma Lava on, a rehearsed reading of which will be staged as part of this year's Tairawhiti Arts Festival.

Uma Lava, says reviewer David O'Donnell in The Theatre Times, is an uber-black comedy that explores existential angst while testing the limits of theatrical bad taste.

When Rodger is asked about his play, laughter in the key of glee gurgles down the phone line.

In the Samoan language, uma means “fullstop” while lava means “this is it”, he explains.

“The play is set in a place which is final. Three disparate Samoan strangers — a lesbian academic, a politician and a horny minister — are trapped in a room they can't leave as they find out to their horror as the play progresses.”

The Samoan-European playwright agrees with British comedian Ricky Gervais who told 60 Minutes, “There's no subject you shouldn't joke about . . . people get offended when they mistake the subject of a joke with the target and they're not necessarily the same.”

“The difference is I'm dealing with Samoan characters. I expected a lot of pushback with this one but in Wellington last year people were into it.

“There's a spectrum . . . for me as a Samoan writer I always want to widen the roles. There's family friendly stuff then there's more outlier material.

“I set a shining light on other things not so friendly.”

Sacred cow as corned beef

The playwright keeps the audience on the edge of transgressive laughter, says O'Donnell.

“Rodger hilariously traverses various sensitive topics such as gay conversion therapy, Samoan cosmology, mixed-race identity, Christian religion and academic tenure with total disregard for political correctness.”

Or as the arts festival programme notes for Uma Lava say, expect nothing less in Rodger's own comedy of terrors in which no sacred cow is left unslaughtered.

“Uma Lava was the most fun I ever had writing a play because I wrote it specifically for three actors,” says Rodger.

Two of those actors are anticipated to perform in the rehearsed reading as part of the Tipu Te Toi: Works in Development programme at the Lawson Field Theatre. One of the actors Rodger had in mind while he wrote the play was award-winning director Anapela Polata'ivao who directed and performed in last year's rehearsed reading of Barbecue. She also performed in the confrontational Wild Dogs Up My Skirt.

“When I gave Anapela the script and she saw what she had to do — I can't repeat what she said.”

Having worked on play readings for the past five years, Rodger enjoys the freedom a play reading allows and the commune it enables with the audience.

“Play readings give an audience an idea of what the play could be. They also let people's imaginations play more.”

His last words before he brings Uma Lava to the arts festival are “get ready”.

“Say your prayers, Gisborne.”

LAUGHTER IN THE DARK: Award-winning playwright Victor Rodger (centre), pictured here with Goretti Chadwick (left) and Anapela Polata'ivao, returns to Gisborne next month to be part of a rehearsed reading of his play, Uma Lava, in the Tairawhiti Arts Festival's Tipu Te Toi: Works in Development show.Picture supplied