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CAPITAL TIMES - Nuclear Family

by Lynn Freeman

The experience of migrants in New Zealand has been looked at on stage from Pacific Island and Asian perspectives in recent years, producing some of our most memorable plays, think Krishnan’s Dairy. Nuclear Family introduces us to Venezuelan and Russian Jewish migrants living in Wellington, just before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. They miss home, but most have fallen in love with New Zealand, despite the fact it’s not entirely the land of milk and honey they’d hoped for. 

Writer Desiree Gezentsvey has mined her own family history, she was born in Venezuela, married a Russian and moved their family to New Zealand in the 1980s. The central characters in Nuclear Family share the same lineage and challenges.

Gezentsvey wrote the solo play for her actor daughter Yael and you can see her love for her family pour out of her on stage. She strikes an instant rapport with her audience and holds that bond throughout the hour.  

She has the qualities we’ve seen on stage from Madelaine Sami.

Yael plays a dozen characters, switching without need for costume or set changes, and she does so with the deft direction of James Hadley and such panache that you soon forget and feel you are indeed part of a family scene. But with so many characters you do have to keep your wits about you as an audience member. It does take a few minutes to get your head around the family and friends we meet, from the children to the equally cheeky grandmother who’s moved from Russia to support her children here. The set and lighting devices of illuminating letterboxes and fences might have helped if I’d twigged onto it earlier.

This show did very well at the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringes, which is interesting given many of the big laughs come from references to New Zealand in the 1980s. Interesting but not surprising, because migrants’ feelings of being torn between two homes are universal. 


THE HUTT NEWS - Nuclear Family

 by Simon Edwards 

"Aah, the joys of immigration... forever questioning if you've done the right thing,'' muses the babushka (grandmother) in the comedic drama Nuclear Family.

Surely the grass must be greener in 100 per cent pure, politically stable New Zealand for Jewish immigrants fleeing the Ukraine and Venezuela? But as the thought-provoking and semi-autobiographical play by Normandale-based Desiree Gezentsvey vividly portrays, it's not easy to start a new life in a foreign land when some of the people dearest to your heart remain in your home country.

Nuclear Family is making its New Zealand debut at Circa in Wellington after impressing audiences and critics in Adelaide, Edinburgh and London.  It's no wonder the compelling and well-paced script won the stage play award in last year's Moondance International Festival; in just 60 minutes members of the audience swing between amusement and tears as they watch the protagonists wrestle with their emotions, family traditions and the idiosyncrasies of the Kiwi way of life in the 1980s.

What really makes it a ''must see'' is the performance by Desiree's daughter Yael of all 12 characters.  On an almost-bare stage, with just letter boxes right way and wrong way up to emphasise families split in the northern hemisphere and Down Under, Yael slips seamlessly between the shuffling and instantly likeable babushka and her daughter Zena, who has come to New Zealand with her son but left a daughter with her divorced husband, a worker at the Chernobyl power plant (he can hardly bring his expertise to nuclear-free NZ).  There's also Abby from Venezuela, with her Russian scientist husband and two kids; a Maori neighbour; and Michael, a straight-talking painter with an eye for Zena.

Creepy jewellery shop owner Mr Potts only gets a few lines but Yael makes him instantly offputting and memorable.

For the first 15 minutes it's a little hard to keep track of who is who when there is only one person on stage but Yael's accents are pitch perfect and the mannerisms she gives each of them soon clear up any confusion.

Money problems, homesickness, interfering in-laws, isolation but mostly the huge desire for families to be reunited are the themes dealt with in an authentic way.  The ending is explosive, in more ways than one.

Wry humour and Yael's talent make this a memorable night out.


THE DOMINION POST - Nuclear Family

by Ewen Coleman

Towards the end of Desiree Gezentsvey's autobiographical play Nuclear Family, currently playing at Circa Two, one of the characters says “the joys of immigration – always questioning if you have done the right thing”.  And of course in such situations family and their support are crucial to surviving the rigors of a new life in a new land. 

All of which is central to this story of a Jewish Russian woman immigrating to NZ with her young son and grandmother, her Babushka, in the mid 1980's, leaving behind a daughter and sister.  Once here she meets up with Abby, a Venezuelan (the writer) who has emigrated from Caracas with her Jewish Russian husband and their two daughters. 

The story then unfolds of how, over the course of a year, these families interact in their attempts to survive in fresh green, nuclear free NZ.  This friendship replaces their extended family of brothers and sisters and in-laws back in Russia culminating in the Chernobyl disaster, hence the play on words in the title of the play.

But what makes this production so remarkable is that it is all told by one person.  Yael Gezentsvey, the writer's daughter and a very accomplished actor, and under the expert direction of James Hadley, takes on the roles of the various family members with consummate ease, fluidly moving from one character to another. 

And although – as is often the case in solo performances where the actor takes on a multitude of roles – the delineation of characters one to another becomes blurred and thus the various strands of the story are difficult for the audience to fit together, for the most part the story unfolds seamlessly.

Confidently and with boundless energy, Gezentsvey is one minute the delightfully intense Babushka, the old grandmother, the next the daughter playing up to her new found love Mike, a typical kiwi bloke. 

There are many comic lines in the play which Gezentsvey delights in regaling the audience with but there are also heartfelt and poignant moments of genuine grief that immigrants feel in adjusting to a new life in a new land giving the piece depth and colour.

The simple set of a white picket fence and brightly coloured letter boxes on one side of the stage in contrast to the upside down brown fence and not so brightly coloured inverted letter boxes on the other subtly highlights the sense of distance and the joys and yet difficulties of families communicating half way round the world to make this one hour solo performance well worth seeing.



by Dominic Sowa

Rating: 4 Stars

Nuclear family is a play that draws a great deal of its strength from its own filial quality. Written by mother Desiree Gezentsvey, loosely based upon her own family experiences, and performed by daughter Yael Gezentsvey it is a tender exploration of contemporary issues as well as personal dramas.

This play opens the lid on the complexity of life as a migrant in the western world, a topic of debate that has been sidelined by reactionary and extremist rhetoric spouted from both mainstream and fringe elements of society. By following the lives of a group of Venezuelan and soviet Jewish migrants living in 80s New Zealand, both Gezentsveys, along with another Gezentsvey on the tech desk, take the viewer on a charming, sometimes dark, always entertaining exploration of what it means to be a migrant in a foreign world.

The sheer skill and talent in Yael Gezentsvey’s performance is mindboggling. As the sole actress, she performs the role of a multitude of characters with various accents, idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Simply clothed in black and on a near bare stage, her talent and the well written script take precedence with no smoke and mirrors. Yael captivates the audience with her ability to perform complex scenes involving many characters. She jumps between characterisations that though initially were a bit confusing due to their number became immediately distinguishable as a result of her ability to capture each individual perfectly in an instantly recognisable manner. Playing man, woman, soviet Jew or Kiwi, she captures all perfectly.

The play itself has the intimate and passionate quality of being drawn from real life experiences. It explores the great challenges of immigrant life; the cultural isolation, the self-ghettoising nature tendencies but also the contrasting desire to enter into the adopted society and succeed. Nuclear Family explores all the heartache and hope of the predicament countless immigrant across the globe, then and now face. Easily summed up in a single line, the play is a homage to it; “The joys of immigration. Always questioning if you have done the right thing”.

For all its depth, the play is funny and endearing. Yael’s characters are as much comic and charming as they are profoundly emotional. They feel like stock characters with true inner lives. They are characters familiar enough to recognise, but with enough real life believability to them to make them also mysterious and captivating.

Although this is a heartfelt exploration of interfamily relations, as the name may suggest, the specter of the Chernobyl disaster looms heavily in the piece. Set just before the famous event, it places the whole immigrant dream into question. Though nuclear free and seen in opposition to the homeland, like is typically realised, New Zealand is not a perfect land paved with gold. Although the families are able to escape repression and find freedom in New Zealand, Gezentsvey's characters are forced to question their often false expectations and idealisations of life in the democratic world. They are also forced to question their own supposed control over their lives as the menace of Chernobyl grows large and possible doom draws nearer.

This is a play that deserves to become the talk of the fringe. It is a beautiful and poised piece that takes a heartfelt look at very complex ideas. This is a play rich in humour, emotion and pathos. It is just a shame it is only on for so short a run.



by Craig Slade

Rating: 4 Stars 

Seeing two solo shows in quick succession today – the first of which received zero stars and was by far the poorest show I have seen at this year’s fringe – it’s fairly safe to say I walked into Nuclear Family with low expectations. Pleasantly, however, my fears were assuaged when Yael Gezentsvey came out onstage and instantly won the hearts of her audience. The charismatic and talented actress, who managed to perform much of the play in a thick Ukrainian accent (and different characters’ voices within that accent, no less) made this piece very enjoyable to watch.

It follows a family from the Ukraine who have chosen to relocate to New Zealand in the mid 1980s, partly to escape Soviet oppression, partly for a fresh start. It deals with themes of long distance family relationships, culture shock and immigration from an immigrant’s point of view. This made the piece intriguing to watch. The script’s dialogue (if you can call one-woman discussions dialogue) was witty and had good progression throughout.

My sole criticism for the piece is that with several different characters from the same family group, with roughly the same accent, it is challenging to keep track of who is saying what to whom and when. Although Gezentsvey dealt admirably with the challenge I think it would have been beyond even the most seasoned performers to pull off every character with aplomb.

In a society where immigration causes such controversy, this sort of production needs to be performed – and heard and enjoyed by all. I may have made it sound like quite a politically focused piece, but that would be unfair. It’s a warm, friendly, and touching insight into one of the most difficult and least covered issues in the world today. If you enjoy one-woman shows then this will be among the best you’ve seen, and it is only my preference for ensemble pieces that prevents this getting an extra star.


THREE WEEKS - Edinburgh Festival Fringe Reviews - Nuclear Family 

by Daisy Badger

Rating: 4 Stars

‘Nuclear Family’ follows a family of ex-pats in New Zealand and is punctuated by thoughts and letters to the families left behind. Simple staging and full use of space brings the intricate writing and beautiful voices of the characters to life. Yael Gezentsvey seamlessly slips from character to character to create a vivid family dynamic; not only is it refreshing to see a one-woman show from half way around the world dealing with a very simple and thoroughly engaging story, but also The Gezentsveys remind us that people are funny, and the comic moments set off the more poignant instances – just lovely.


FRINGE REVIEW - Nuclear Family

by Lucy Campbell

Rating: 5 Stars

In the tiny space of Nexus Gallery, young actor Yael Gezentsvey is telling a universal story. It is a story about acceptance, about yearning, about culture and above all, family. Working from her mother’s script, Desiree Gezentsvey, Yael single-handedly illustrates a collection of characters as they struggle with living in New Zealand after emigrating from elsewhere, in particular the USSR. The groups are bonded by blood, Judaism and a physical and emotional yearning for their home and the people left behind. The characters are colourful but true, their humour and culture are lovingly brought to life by both script and actor. Struggles with assimilating into New Zealand culture are not caricatured, but are subtle, funny and deadly accurate.

It’s clear that Yael Gezentsvey is a uniquely talented actor. To be able to swap so effortlessly between roles without confusing either herself or the audience is a talent itself, but the real skill lies in her ability to embody the roles so completely, with the type of abandon one associates with a far more experienced, older actor. Men, women, children, old, young, are each given their own identities, idiosyncrasies, accents and mannerisms that make them unique and instantly recognisable.

The script too, written with heart, tragedy and a fair balance of true comedy, is remarkable. It veers between calamity and wit so deftly, and the characters are so well drawn, it feels and rings so true. And of course, Gezentsvey’s script is partly from her own personal experiences as a Jewish Venuzualan woman married to a Russian Jew, both now living in New Zealand. It feels personal and raw, emotional and also very, very well written. 

There is not much of a set, just a simple chair and a few glasses, and this really works to Yael’s advantage, for she is able to express the most complex of emotions with the simplest of gestures. There are no stage managers, or other actors, or fly in screens to break the spell of such a bare, riveting performance. The simple relationship of one woman and one director seems to have worked well, and director Dushyant Kumar, has easily made this show cohesive and easy to follow.

Ultimately, this isn’t a show just for migrants or the displaced, this is a story universal to the human yearning to survival and happiness, for belonging and for family.


FRINGE BENEFITS - Nuclear Family

By Emmica Schlobohm

Seeing a one man/woman show can often turn out badly…

It’s easy to become lost between transitions or incredibly irritated by the use of “themed” words to display such a change. Uttering “hope” or “pain” with an overly dramatic tone whilst striking a pose to emulate a switch in character can be very off-putting. Fortunately, Nuclear Family escapes all of these damaging practices and captures the audience with comedy and depth.

Presented in the quaint Nexus Gallery in the Lion Arts Centre, the intimate production is at home within its walls. The outside bar area, with rolled out grass and Mojitos provides a great start to the evening. It feels like you are tucked away in an uber cool nook of Adelaide.

Nuclear Family is both witty and moving and the themes represented are particularly relevant in today’s society. The audience observes the emotional journey of a multi-cultural group of intriguing immigrants. Individuals experience confusing and sometimes conflicting feelings while living outside of their home country. As they long to feel truly part of picturesque New Zealand, the separation from other loved ones also proves to be challenging.

The woman claiming the stage is Yael Gezentsvey who was born in Caracas, Venezuela and has inhabited New Zealand since 1985. Without knowing this however, it would be very difficult to affirm her natural accent. The play introduces characters ranging from child to grandmother and ethnicity spread from New Zealand to the Soviet Union. Each portrayal is flawless and familiar making it a breeze for the audience to follow.

Nuclear Family is wonderfully engaging and the audience is entertained until the curtain falls. An exceptional piece of theatre not to be missed!


THEATRE GUIDE - Nuclear Family

by Brian Godfrey

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

Desiree Gezentsvey’s short play deals with migrating and how it breaks up families, can form new ones and, ironically, bring those segregated parties closer together in the wake of a tragedy.

The tragedy in question is the Chernobyl disaster and the immigrants a family of Russian Jews leaving their loved ones behind in the land of the long black hammer and sickle and heading for that of the long white cloud - New Zealand.

This is no depressing rollercoaster of a theatrical journey, but rather a gentle, humorous and slightly

emotional trip made even more pleasurable by simple, clear direction from Dushyant Kumar and a tourde-force performance from actor Yael Gezentsvey. Ms Gezentsvey, wearing all-black with hair pulled tight, plays all the characters (male and female) and is a veritable United Nations of accents - Russian Jewish, Spanish, Italian and Kiwi. There is never any doubt as to what gender or nationality she is at any given time, thanks to her excellent mime and dramatic skills. It is evident that here is a well trained actor, when Gezentsvey can turn her back to an audience and speak to a wall or go behind a curtain to talk and still be heard clearly without the aid of a microphone (somewhat rare these days).

“Nuclear Family” is a very welcomed migrant to the shores of the Fringe; but hurry as it is here on a fairly short visa.


RIP IT UP MAGAZINE - Nuclear Family

by Jenny Roesler

Eleven immigrants head to New Zealand for a better life. They discover that while the grass - and politics - may be much greener there, they will always be caught in a heart-wrenching two-man’s land of wanting to both stay and go as reality hits home, abroad. The diverse group, each embodied
by the talented Yael Gezentsvey, further realise New Zealand has its own problems, despite any marketing or dreaming to the contrary.

Nuclear Family is a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties and joys all immigrants face: maintaining customs while trying to identify as a local and risking rejection for so doing – ultimately, everything is a compromise. A deft script would have benefited from lingering longer on each scene; even the lighting technician was confused by the rapid changes. A small quibble though, for this was a fine all-round performance – tender, humorous, realistic – certainly deserving of the audience’s sustained applause.

Final Word: Multidimensional