A smattering of reviews from the Melbourne Fringe Festival …
The Unspoken Word Is “Joe”, by Zoey Dawson, MKA & La Mama, Until October 14.
One of the unwritten rules for emerging playwrights is: ‘Do not write a play about your relationship breakdown.’ Now that adolescence seems to last until 30, I can’t tell you how often this sensible guideline is disregarded, or how much spotty and overwrought romantic angst sneaks onto our smaller stages because of it.
In The Unspoken Word Is “Joe”, Zoey Dawson doesn’t break the rule so much as bludgeon it to death and take liberties with the corpse. Sound alarming? It kind of is. But it’s also funny and raw and true, partly because of its scintillating use of postmodern technique.
Dawson reaches deeply into meta-theatrical terrain. The play is a “play-reading” of a work by ‘Zoey Dawson’, based on a failed relationship. It seethes with tragicomic irony, and the way it superimposes the earnestness (and immaturity) of the theatre world with the jejune histrionics and humiliating abjection of youthful heartbreak manages to do justice to both.
The show has attracted a cabal of high-powered young theatremakers. The dynamos at MKA have produced it with typical elan. Declan Greene’s dramaturgy has taken a shaggy beast of a script with too many in-jokes and refocused its emotional core.
His direction brings out vibrant performances, and demonstrates sensitivity to the strengths of the post-dramatic form, maintaining its mischievousness and the impression that all artifice leads to sincerity without, say, resorting to glitter raining flippantly from on high.
But it is Nikki Shiels’ performance as the afflicted young playwright that steals the show. It’s a tour de force from one of our most promising young actresses.
Rippling with expressiveness and confusion, visceral lust and insecurity, Shiels slyly invokes the subtle pressures brought to bear on emerging women theatre artists, and more impressively, creates a sense that the turmoil of young love, however flagrant and ridiculous it appears, is a delicate thing that might only be revealed truly when it is half-celebrated and half-mocked.
Annie Last’s electric caricature as “fun girl” captures a peculiar kind of nutty extroversion that had me snorting with laughter. The two male characters (Aaron Orzech and Matt Hickey) prove understated comic foils in a show that rides high on the ineffable qualities of female experience.
Wild, unorthodox, and often hilarious theatre, this is my pick of the Fringe so far.
The Liechtenstein Nursing Home Massacre, Lemony S, La Mama, Until Oct 7.
Puppetry and slasher horror unite in this slick, mischievous offering from the boutique puppet-makers and performers at Lemony S. Taking full advantage of the high body count the use of puppet actors can afford, the show features a large cast of geriatrics trapped in a nursing home, as a masked intruder murders them all one by one in inventively gruesome ways.
Unbeknownst to these eccentric old ducks, they’re sitting right on top of a deranged doctor with a secret basement lab. And the sinister, exceptionally long-lived dynasty that runs the place seems to be in on the mad science action.
The puppets are cute, the storyline madcap, the violence liberal, and the puppeteering (and in particular its visual comedy) is clever and engaging. The Liechtenstein Nursing Home Massacre takes the spirit of Punch and Judy and reincarnates it through the prism of genre film. It’s the best puppetry I’ve seen in a while.
Rule of Three, Elbow Room, Fringe Hub, Until October 13.
An experimental performance directed by Marcel Dorney, Rule of Three is disturbing existential sci-fi. The audience is split into three groups at the outset. Each group witnesses two individual monologues before coming together for a three-hander in the round.
Three characters working a remote asteroid find themselves imprisoned in limbo. They must piece together their confused memories to discover the web of murder, sexual violence and revenge that traps them. It’s a task made more difficult because all three of them have died before, and fragments of their past lives haunt them.
More atmospheric and ambitious than most work in this vein, the piece starts shakily, the monologues too loose and groping, however intensely rendered, to command attention. It shifts gear in a resolution that veers between space-opera and Sartre’s No Exit.
Intriguing theatre with some heightened performances, and one of two shows from this highly regarded director on at the Fringe.
Jessamae St James Is Tied Up, Bohemia Cabaret Club, 226-8 Coventry St South Melbourne, Until Oct 11.
Sexual fetishes underpin this cabaret burlesque from Jessamae St James. The show is devoted to exploring precarious erotic states, and covers everything from blow-up dolls to dacryphilia (getting your rocks off by making your partner cry).
In an attractive fusion of jazz, spoken word and song, the main event is St James’s voice. It’s a versatile and dramatic instrument that can easily recalibrate itself, and seems just as suited to phlegmatic, Weimar-style Sprechgesang as it is to the full-throated stylings that pour from her like the echo of the great Shirley Bassey.
The weakest link is the text, which has a strong whiff of “wiki-script” about it, both in its superfluous exposition (no need to tell us fetishes can be harmless adventurism or crippling psychological disability, when you’re showing us) and through its somewhat superficial treatment of exotic sexual peccadilloes.
St James comes close, but doesn’t yet have the totalising charisma that great burlesque requires, the Medusa-like ability to absorb and reflect an audience’s voyeuristic gaze. And better direction might have refined the physical performance and deepened the emotive terrain.
But I’m being picky. St James’s considerable talents, combined with the unpredictable format, cracking four-piece jazz band, and expert lighting, confect an enticing range of dark delights.