Postcard from Perth 47
Perth Fringe World (Weeks 1 and 2): MKA Being Dead; Zoe Coombs Marr, Dave 2; Maude Davey, My Life in the Nude; Laura Davis, Ghost Machine
I’ve concentrated my Fringe-foraging over the past couple of weeks on the Summer Nights Season at The Blue Room and PICA – with occasional forays to tent-venues nearby – and followed my own personal interest in theatre rather than comedy, cabaret or circus. Nevertheless much of what I’ve ended up seeing has been performed by solo artists and had a decidedly burlesque feel. Perhaps I’ve simply succumbed to the overall Fringe vibe, but the idea of seeing a conventional (or even unconventional) ‘play’ somehow hasn’t appealed to me as much as watching an individual artist expose themselves one way or another and lay it on the line, so to speak, both personally and creatively. It’s made me wonder how much live performance in general – and ‘fringe’ performance in particular – appeals to the underlying voyeurism of audiences (and the corresponding exhibitionism of performers). Certainly in the context of Perth Fringe World – which mostly takes place in and around Northbridge – there's an element of the carnival and even the freak-show which astute artists know how to exploit and subvert at the same time.
The most interesting works I’ve seen at Fringe foreground the contradictions between exposure and intimacy, public and private, persona and self – especially in the context of gender and sexuality. Melbourne company MKA Writers Theatre have brought two productions to this year’s Fringe World: a return season of Mark Wilson’s Unsex Me and Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s Being Dead: Don Quixote. I wrote about Unsex Me when I saw it as part of last year’s Fringe at the pop-up Noodle Palace venue in the disused Picadilly Cinema. Perhaps inevitably I found the impact of the show somewhat diminished on seeing it a second time, particularly in the (comparatively) conventional and familiar black-box performance space at PICA. Wilson and his sofa seemed dwarfed by the dimensions of the space and the steeply raked auditorium, as opposed to the seedy confines of the former flea-pit cinema, where he loomed over us on a small raised dais in front of the screen while we cowered together in the front rows, unsure of where the microphone (or the lubricrant) might go next. In fact the whole experience of going to the Picadilly Arcade – in an area of the Perth CBD which is largely deserted at night – made it seem even more like visiting some kind of weird peep-show. Once again, I found myself thinking about the importance of venue in a fringe context, and indeed the whole notion of having a ‘fringe’ experience.
Being Dead: Don Quixote is in some ways a less ‘accomplished’ work than Unsex Me, but I found Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s deliberately artless stage persona totally engaging and in its own way as provocative as Wilson’s more barnstorming variety of camp. In keeping with the now-established aesthetics of post-dramatic theatre or contemporary performance, this isn’t character-acting or even stand-up comedy, but a deliberate subversion of both. As she admonishes us at the outset (in a style which owes as much to Cervantes as the content does): ‘Remember, there’s no piece of art so bad that it doesn’t have something good in it.’
The text is a collage derived in part from New York novelist Kathy Acker’s punk surrealist take on Don Quixote, and in part from Manderson-Galvin’s own imagination and/or experience (in keeping with Acker’s own literary and personal blend of autobiography and intertextuality, it’s pointless even attempting to distinguish between the two). In Acker’s novel, the Don becomes a post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-heterosexual woman wandering the cities of the world on an impossible quest for love (which neither male nor female partners seem capable of satisfying). Being Dead transplants elements of this story to post-punk suburban Melbourne, and beyond that, into the world of cyberspace and internet dating sites, where gender and sexual identity become ever-more unfixed and fluid.
Like Cervantes and Acker, Manderson-Galvin’s work (and perhaps implicitly her own quest as an artist and a lover) are comic and tragic at the same time. Occasionally accompanied by a guitar-playing male sidekick, she alternates between playing a version of herself, a version of the Don in male drag, and an air-headed female version of Sancho Panza, while delivering audience-patter, making confessions, telling stories, dancing, singing or lip-synching pop songs (which may or may not correspond with the words that appear karaoke-style on the screen behind her) and even leading an audience in an enthusiastic sing-along at the end. There are also some quite beautiful projections of scene-titles featuring paintings, drawings and artwork, presumably by Manderson-Galvin herself.
All in all, it’s a glorious mess with a serious purpose: how to find not just true love but one’s true self (necessarily gendered and sexualized, however fluidly) in a crazy world which is totally mediated by second-hand fictions. In other words: we are all Don Quixote now.
Actor, writer, comedian and performance artist Zoe Coombs Marr (who is also a member of Sydney-based contemporary performance group Post) took these questions to the next level with her dizzyingly meta-theatrical clown-show tour-de-force Dave 2: Trigger Warning, which I saw the following week around the corner from PICA in the Deluxe tent opposite the WA Museum. Her drag clown-persona ‘Dave’ is a foul-mouthed but touchingly inept male sexist stand-up comedian; in this show, he claims to have recently returned from a stint doing clown workshops with renowned real-life French theatre guru Philippe Gaulier, who is notorious for his extreme approach to clowning, his provocative teaching style and overarching philosophy of theatre as a form of ‘play’ or ‘game’ (‘le jeu’). A true confession of my own is order here: like generations of intrepid performers before and after me, I too made the pilgrimage to France to study with Gaulier last year as part of my Creative Development Fellowship. As things panned out, for better or worse I spent a month there immediately after my marriage imploded, with the result that my already damaged ego was further deconstructed on the classroom floor: a combined emotional and artistic ordeal from which I’m still in the process of recovering. So I had a vested interest in seeing how Coombs Marr would tackle the subject of Gaulier, and how her alter-ego Dave might have survived the encounter.
In the event, just as the character of Dave himself functions variously as an object of satire, disgust, fascination, pity and even terror, so Gaulier’s classes and teachings were both mocked and honoured in a manner absolutely faithful to the style and philosophy of Gaulier himself. Indeed, the hallucinatory denouement of the show – when Dave trips and falls, fake blood begins pouring down his face and the party drugs he has taken earlier begin to kick in with demented effect – was pure Gaulier in its senseless and transgressive energy. In fact Dave is less of a ‘clown’ than an instance of that other, very different and highly specialized performance archeytpe which Gaulier teaches under the aegis of ‘the buffoon’ (‘le bouffon’): a kind of medieval fool who is despised and pilloried while also capable of embodying and uttering society’s otherwise unspeakable and unrepresentable truths (Sacha Baren-Cohen and Chris Lilly being two contemporary celebrity practitioners). As such, Dave 2: Trigger Warning goes beyond the realms of both stand-up comedy and political satire and enters a zone of Dionysian ecstasy which on the night I saw it drove the audience wild by the end of the show. For me, though, the most thrilling sequence came earlier, when Dave climbs into and ‘mounts’ a lower-body puppet clown-suit (complete with diminutive false legs dangling from its shoulders) and then does a kind of recursive auto-ventriloquist act in which he impersonates his own ‘boring unfunny feminist clown’, whose name is Zoe Coombs Marr. Self and persona, gender and performance, here become for a moment exhilaratingly reversible.
Earlier that week I ventured down the other end of James Street to see Maude Davey present My Life in the Nude at the Casa Mondo tent in the Pleasure Garden. Like Coombs Marr, Davey is an interdisciplinary artist who has appeared as an actor in theatre, film and TV as well as having led a ‘shadow’ existence for decades as a queer feminist burlesque performer specializing in various stages of undress. Now in her early fifties, and still looking great, she breaks the ice early in the show by casually discarding her dressing gown and performing most of the rest of the show in the nude or with judiciously chosen additions – ranging from high-heels to headgear, wigs, jewellery, nipple-pasties, a G-string (pointedly worn back to front), a gorilla suit (reminiscent of both Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich’s surprise-entrance in Morocco) and – from Maude’s own early career as her burlesque alter-ego Ms Wicked – a surprise-entrance of an altogether different kind by a concealed strawberry. This and other cameo-highlights are interspersed with stories and reflections about her life and times, in what emerges as a disarmingly entertaining, honest, inclusive, thoughtful and personal meditation about performance, gender, sexuality and feminism, especially in the changing context of queer theatre and burlesque in Melbourne and Sydney over the last few decades. Maude is however originally from Perth, and she safely navigated a mostly mainstream, middle-class, middle-aged Perth audience through the material with a reassuring smile even when wearing a beard, stripping down to her cosh and seducing a woman in the front row.
The closing anecdote was about inviting a performer with Down Syndrome to take off her clothes in the rehearsal room, and seeing the translucent beauty of her skin revealed in all its glory. At that moment, she realised that burlesque was about making a statement: ‘I am beautiful, and I am worthy of your regard.’ It was a tellingly self-reflexive moment in a show that for me at least was as much about ageing and mortality as it was about gender or sexual politics. Or perhaps more simply, it’s a show about the body: her body, other bodies, our bodies.
Maude first performed My Life in the Nude at La Mama in Melbourne in 2013, and I hope she’ll still be doing it – or a version of it – for at least another thirty years. Special mention should also be made of Deborah Eldred as her severely dressed and long-faced onstage ‘helper’, and of Anni Davey as the director of the show.
The final show I want to write about in this week’s Postcard is Laura Davis: Ghost Machine, which I saw at The Blue Room a couple of nights after seeing Unsex Me and Dave 2. Davis is another home-grown performer (she grew up in the Perth hills but is now based in Melbourne) whose work combines off-beat stand-up comedy with a layer of abstract visual theatrical design that borders on live art. In fact she spends most of the show under a white sheet with cut-out eye-holes (through which she periodically swigs on a bottle of water), a string of coloured fairy-lights wrapped around her midriff glowing softly beneath the sheet. Her head is also lit from above by a desk-lamp attached to a backpack, and the floor is strewn with a few other practical light sources that she switches on and off during the show.
The text itself is a stream-of-consciousness monologue of existential despair and neurotic anxiety, couched in the language of a typical geeky twenty-something trying to make ends meet emotionally and financially. What makes it interesting is that it’s being delivered by someone dressed as a ghost (though being concealed under a sheet also has other connotations) in an unvarying but not unmusical pitch that borders on a howl of pain but is softened by a wry tone of deadpan humour in the writing and delivery. If this sounds like heavy-going (or even Samuel Beckett), there’s an engaging lightness of touch throughout and plenty of improvisatory comedy, especially in the audience-interaction sections. These included asking us to share our ‘guilty pleasures’ (masturbation was the first answer given, although I’m not sure why guilt was involved) and (later in the show) to consider the question of why we didn’t kill ourselves. I offered ‘fear’ as my first answer, but later regretted not saying ‘love’, which I think for me is closer to the truth.
I enjoyed the gawky, lo-tech charm of this show immensely, and would happily come back to see Laura Davis under a sheet in five, ten, twenty or forty years time (much like Maude Davey in the nude, in fact). Truth be told, something was lost for me when she came out from under it, so to speak, in the final part of the show; not that she wasn’t still totally engaging, but some kind of imaginative spell had been broken. Perhaps it’s the case that what I enjoy most about this kind of work (as with all the shows reviewed in this Postcard) is the role of costume, mask or persona – whether it be cross-gender drag, ‘ghost-drag’ or even nudity itself (which as John Berger once observed is not the same as being naked) – and the way this enhances what might otherwise remain stand-up comedy or confessional theatre. In short: it’s the tension between self and persona that holds my attention and even (in the case of a virtuoso like Zoe Coombs Marr) keeps me on the edge of my seat.
The French psychoanalyst Lacan said that the two fundamental neurotic questions were: ‘Why am I a woman or a man?’ and ‘Why I am alive rather than dead?’ Once again, I’m tempted to answer both questions with ‘love’, but I think the point is that they’re fundamentally unanswerable. Perhaps the role of the performer (if not the neurotic) is to embody these questions for us. And if we’re all to some extent neurotics (apart from the psychotics and perverts among us, who generally don’t need to go to the theatre), then perhaps that’s why we attend live performance – not to have these questions answered, but to see them staged in public, beyond the private theatre of our dreams and fantasies.
Perth Fringe World continues until February 21st.
Humph reviews more Fringe shows next week.