Theatre review: Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas!, QPAC

This new work by the ever-inventive shake & stir theatre co. is a joyous and heart-warming follow-up to 'Fourteen', their successful 2022 Brisbane Festival show.
Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! Maxi Shield and Maya Dove Photo: Damien Bredburg

Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas!, created and written by shake & stir’s co-director Nelle Lee, is based on a true story of her sister’s life. Paralysed when she was just six years old after a tragic car accident, Estee Lee, known as Tae Tae, is in hospital and going through yet another spinal surgery when the play starts. Now 20 years of age, she is beginning to question what her life means and struggles to cope with her reality, while questioning what the future holds for both herself and her immediate family.

These are deep questions and could make for a depressing 90 minutes, but Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! is anything but that. While there are some contemplative and considered moments, we are mostly treated to a joyous and fun roller-coaster ride as Tae’s world opens up to new possibilities. Her younger sister, Annie, tries to cheer her up by creating a fairy tale world, summoning up a Fairy Godmother to help their plight. As only theatre can do, a quite extraordinary Fairy Grandmother figure arrives, who is nothing like the traditional image. She takes them to the magical world of Yaaas, which then proves the basis of the developing play. Interwoven with both real and imagined scenes from the past, present and future, the work moves at a pretty slick pace, interspersed with songs and dance. 

As Tae, Maya Dove, in her first professional stage role, is a strong and commanding presence.  Having lived with a spinal cord injury since birth, Dove plays Tae as a fiercely independent person wanting to be treated equally with dignity and respect. Tae commences in a bitter state of mind, reacting forcefully to any stupidity around her. Gradually as the play progresses and she comes to both understand and accept the wisdom of others, her life becomes sunnier and more positive. Using the inner strength of her character, Dove turns the raw and naïve young Tae into a wiser one giving an authentic and truthful performance that is astonishingly good.  

Nelle Lee as Annie and Maya Dove as Tae. Photo: Joel Devereux

Legendary drag queen, Maxi Shield, gives a superlative and immensely engaging performance as the acerbic-tongued and witty Fairy Grandmother. Her sharp one-liners, especially in response to Tae and her sister, are first-rate. She wears the most outrageous tight-fitting glittery dresses, high heels and wigs, obviously repeating much of her stage show as a drag queen in the numerous mimed and well-known songs. These numbers are not only joyous and fun, but they are cleverly integrated into the storytelling, making her eccentricity in this highly original role even funnier. Her role makes the piece work in a unique and quite magical way.    

Tae’s sister Annie is played by Nelle Lee, in a sense playing herself in this story, which she does with great experience and truth. She offers an authenticity in her love and care for her sister, in a joyous and heart-warming rendition.     

Johnny Balbuziente plays multiple diverse characters with great aplomb and conviction. He is a sympathetic hospital doctor, a weird and villainous “mother-plucker”, Prince Charming and Tae’s imaginary future husband, as well as her father in a very well-staged car crash scene. He makes quite an impact in the small role of Patrick, a boy similarly disabled in a wheelchair. His pièce de résistance though is as Jamie – her slouching, mumbling 15-year-old brother – playing an adolescent to perfection.

Helen Cassidy gives us Nurse Alison in the opening scene as an irritating, patronising medic and later is an over-the-top imaginary eccentric school principal, as well as the second weird “mother-plucker.” Her major role as the mother of the three children is beautifully portrayed, in a well-crafted, multi-layered and perfectly delivered performance.

All credit to Lee for writing a piece which, with all its back and forth in time and place, really works and progresses this important narrative well. Ross Balbuziente directs with a firm hand, his clear and well-realised characters matched by a terrific use of the stage and set, despite some chaotic staging with wheelchairs, bicycles and roller skates all competing for space.

It occasionally gets out of control, while much of the imagined world is certainly over-the-top. But Balbuziente manages to rein in the cast quite well when there are more serious messages to impart. 

Josh McIntosh’s set design is bright and multifunctional, its moving colourful back and side panels with opening doors and windows well-utilised and efficient. There are a minimum of stage props and furniture to assist the action to flow seamlessly.

READ: Meet the creatives behind Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas!

Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design cleverly enhances the set by lighting up distinct panels and creating magical fairyland effects, with contrasting reality scenes well-designed.   

Guy Webster’s sound design is first-rate, with its complex arrangement of miked songs as well as live music and dance. There are also a number of extraneous stage noises, reverberations and a distorted soundscape for the scary “mother-pluckers”, all of which worked expertly and effectively.

Angela White’s costume designs, with a range of eccentric wigs, are well-realised for both the real scenes and the wildly imaginative ones. They greatly assist the characterisations. Maxi Shields’ outfits are gloriously over the top, brilliantly colourful and extremely well-conceived.

The play opens and closes with the beautiful Doris Day rendition of the song, ‘Dream a Little Dream Of Me’, a tribute to the heart of the play and to what the power of live theatre and storytelling can do. It perhaps sums up what this heart-warming and uplifting play is all about, offering hope when all seems lost. Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! is in so many ways very much a play for our times and should not be missed.

Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! by Nelle Lee is presented by shake & stir theatre co, QPAC and Brisbane Festival in association with CPL – Choice, Passion, Life
Cremorne Theatre, QPAC    

Director: Ross Balbuziente
Creative Producer: Nick Skubij
Set Designer: Josh McIntosh
Costume Designer: Angela White

Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest     
Sound Designer: Guy Webster

Choreographer: Dan Venz
Cast: Maxi Shield, Maya Dove, Johnny Balbuziente, Helen Cassidy and Nelle Lee

Tae, Tae in the Land of Yaaas! will be performed until 17 September 2023.

Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.