The festival proceeds apace! With less than a week to go, I might as well rustle about in my bag of "things you missed out on" and see what I can dig up. Sorry that these shows have all closed, but perhaps they'll inspire you to try out something that is still happening. What a poor excuse for a post. Let us commence.
JASON CHONG – REEL LIFE
If I'd seen this show as a 14-year-old boy, I'm pretty sure I would have spent the next six months trying to recreate the cool technology Chong employs here – with the aid of a video projector and editing software he's put together a piece where he interacts with a bunch of onscreen versions of himself (shoulder-based angel and devil, clones, etc) in a shaggy dog narrative that really exists to allow for the rapid-fire visual gags. You know the sort: throwing something at the screen and having the projected character catch it, or waving an 'x-ray' machine over your body to reveal your skeleton. Some of the effects are impressive in a consciously lo-fi way, but the story never attempts to be more than a silly, fluffy affair. It'd be a great one for kids, especially if you want to convince them pestering you for a video camera for the next while.
AFTER ALL THIS
Aw, geez, you really missed out here. I'm not sure why this Elbow Room show had such a short season, given the scale of the production itself. It might have been because performers were committed to other shows. It might have been because it's just one stage in a bigger project intended for next year. Whatever the reason, it was pretty spesh.
The production is broken into three parts (with a sort of coda) and takes place throughout the various storeys of a large building. At first we're seated on a staircase watching an intimate conversation between two kids. It gradually becomes apparent that they're young members of a cult, and as you'd imagine, that's not a particularly good thing. From there we move upstairs into a situation far removed (in time, theme and theatrical style) that addresses philosophical questions surrounding religion and modern life while only obtusely bearing any connection to what's preceded it; next up is another new situation that takes us back into the heart of a cult. I'm trying not to spoil much, since the achievement here is in the delicacy with which the work's concerns unfold – suffice to say that by its end, I'd found real insight in the appeal of a crazy sect. It's not at all an apology for the often destructive and abusive reality behind such cults, but it does show that for those who fall into this mindset, there are profound motivations that go beyond 'I'm a wacko who just wants to belong somewhere'. And in its own way, their decision can even be seen as kind of admirable. Hard to explain, but if the show comes back to life somewhere down the track, find out for yourself.
IT'S GOOD TO SHUT UP SOMETIMES
I signed up for this show because, hey, how often do you get the chance to see one of the world's leading mimes in action? I don't know what it means to be a world-leading mime, but it's got to count for something. And it's an artform I don't know that much about (beyond the jokes) so the educational component was an attraction too.
Miklos was raised in Hungary and (I think) now resides in New Zealand. His teacher was a student of Marcel Marceau which makes him one of Marceau's grandstudents. He performs a famous routine by the world's most famous mime, too, and on Saturday afternoon it had one punter in particular losing his shit with laughter. Like, the kind of laughter most comics will never be able to provoke. The kind of laughter where you're wondering if an ambulance needs to be called. That said, the show would be better off in the 'performance' category of Fringe rather than 'comedy', because humour is only one mode of theatre it offers.
That's where the educational bit comes in: Miklos takes us through a variety of genres of mime, including dramatic mime and a 'poem without words' that's closer to interpretative dance. Miklos is far from silent throughout the piece, instead introducing each sequence with some contextual banter. One of the most interesting bits dramatises the plight of Romanians fleeing Hungary during Ceaușescu's reign. Admittedly, this was also a point at which I let out an involuntary laugh myself, since the desperate escape was inexplicably accompanied by the "Peter Gunn" theme.
There's a wide-eyed innocence to the performer reminiscent of Buster Keaton – I don't mean the characters, but the performer himself. It's such a sincere piece, without a trace of irony, that it's a real oddity in the Australian landscape and welcome for that reason. Some of the physical punchlines are groaners, and Miklos seems genuinely eager to please. How can you not laugh when a mime signals the end of a sequence by saying “now is the time you clap”?
I KNOW THERE'S A LOT OF NOISE OUTSIDE BUT YOU HAVE TO CLOSE YOUR EYES
It's amazing how two people can witness the same piece of art and come away with completely different interpretations. Not as to its meaning, but as to what went on. I recently heard a friend describe this short work and was astounded that we had constructed completely dissimilar narratives from the events we were shown.
Well, not completely: the opening scene here is quite straightforward. Two women in their 20s meet up at a bar after a long period of separation, and while they were close as children (or teens) it quickly becomes obvious how different they've become – one a Fitzroy hipster, distanced and drenched in ennui, the other a Collette Dinnigan-loving suburbanite seemingly lacking the irony gene. From there on things get murkier. A succession of solo scenes take us well out of the domain of realism – we might be witnessing youthful memories or sublimated desires or something else. This fugue state is what gives the work real power; it's as if we're made privy to the subconscious drives that are the stuff of the psyche but which are only allowed the narrowest of outlets. It's dark, often brutal stuff, and when we occasionally return to the opening relationship it's fascinating to see how inexpressible interior urges are distorted and compressed into 'acceptable' social exchanges, which suddenly take on new gravity. My interpretation, anyway.
The writing is excellent, for the most part. The performances are fine, too, but didn't serve the nature of the piece as well as they could have – the depths plumbed here require a corresponding rawness, a tearing off of the mask, while the actors seemed rather to alternate one mask with another. It could be that the more irreal passages went for the kind of 'poetic' style of performance we glibly describe as dreamlike, without recognising that both poetry and dreams are more potent when they expose the nerve endings rather than offer a salve. It's a huge advance on the last outing by this company (I'm Trying to Kiss You), however, and definitely a sign of some minds making serious work.
For the last few years Daniel Schlusser's work has been essential viewing for anyone serious about theatre. It's representative of a number of trends in contemporary European performance, but also possessed of a distinct method that stands alone. He doesn't exactly deconstruct texts – that abused word is usually invoked when someone simply reorganises or rewrites a play. Rather, his process seems more akin to smelting. He breaks down a text into its component molecules and then cooks up a chemical stew in which those elements form strange new relationships. Most of all, his stuff is hot.
In the case of The Dollhouse, he's taken Ibsen's classic and refashioned it as an urgent drama very much of the moment. Nora is a product of the post-feminist era, and the complexity of her character creates a wonderful ambivalence – she's the seamy underside of the Sex and the City stereotype, mired in a swamp of self-obsession, desperate for validation, substituting shopping and the image of motherhood (despite the lack of children on stage) for real connection with others. Husband Torvald is a distant, passive-aggressive banker who spends his off-time on the Playstation, preferring his trophy wife seen but not really heard. The rotten core of this coupling – and the wider social dynamic it's indicative of – is the work's real subject, but there's so much more going around this.
As with most of Schlusser's work, it shears away at the line between theatre and 'reality', so that actors are always actors, not just characters, and the performance itself always teeters on the edge of breakdown. The result is a tightly-wound tension: at any moment the escalating drama might be dissolved of its energy by a reminder that it's all artifice, but Schlusser and his performers use that threat to heighten interest rather than dispersing it.
It's not Ibsen's play, though it retains much of the original's pathos, and purists would likely find fault in that. But as a work that speaks to contemporary concerns, it's full of significance. I'm looking forward to 2012, where he has a slate of hugely promising new projects.