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Andrew Fuhrmann's Melbourne Fringe Festival round-up # 3

The season for Panic, at Revolt in Kensington, was all too brief, so, unfortunately, a lot of people will have missed this alarmingly germane piece of political satire.

Based on a short story by Kobo Abe, Japanese novelists and playwright, Panic is about an unemployed man who wakes one morning to find that a corpse has materialised in his living room. Bewildered, fearing the police, the man goes on the run. Eventually, he discovers that the corpse was all part of an elaborate entrance exam for a shadowy corporation called Panic Economics. What this company manufactures is fear, and their major client is the government. How else can the administration justify its populist law-and-order campaign?

This is wonderful, wild theatre, with an absurdist energy that lifts it from paranoid parable into the realm of protest fantasy.

It’s a collaboration between a Japanese company (Theatre Moments) and company based in Macau (Godot Art Association), with a distinctly Germanic, postdramatic aesthetic. And yet its analysis of the politics of fear couldn’t be more relevant to Australia today.

Once upon a time, the word “fringe” implied political theatre. Today, in Melbourne, it’s synonymous with low-budget experiments in self-expression and, increasingly, stand-up comedy. That’s fine, how refreshing to rediscover the older fringe — still committed, still engaged. Four stars 

Another impressive piece which, unfortunately, had only short season is Noise Quartet Meditation, at The Substation in Newport, an extension of choreographer Lilian Steiner’s work at Melbourne Now earlier this year.

At a superficial level, Noise Quartet Meditation can be read as an kind of undersea adventure, with Steiner and dancer Briarna Longville swaying and twisting like seaweed, while percussionists Atticus Bastow and Jonathon Nokes generate an ocean of crashing cymbals. But this is deeper than oceans. It’s a very serious, very formal piece, like a meditation machine, or ritual of noise, and with its barrage of low frequency noise it really does test the limits of immersion.

There were technical problems with the sound system on the night I saw it, but, putting that aside, this was the complete production: slickly presented, conceptually extreme and unrelenting in its thematic concentration. Four stars

Also at The Substation, and playing until Saturday, is What I Leave Behind, a puppet show by Tim Denton and Annie Forbes from AboutFace productions. Three playlets using multiple forms of puppetry combine for a wistful, melancholic evening.

In the first, a button-collector struggles with the clutter of his cramped apartment, until, with an umbrella, a puff of wind and a tug of the strings, he rediscovers the his natural lightness, and the grace of flight. In the second piece, a scrawny monkey contrived from brown paper and a coffee cup describes the hard life of an organ grinder’s shill. Denton’s evocation of the beast’s pitiable loneliness is memorable. The third piece is the longest and most involved, combining larval masks, rod puppets, shadow puppets and trick props, a grim tale, also involving flight and escape, about a boy tempted into arson. Three and a half stars.

Leah Landau’s Summer Bone at the Fringe Hub Warehouse in North Melbourne walks the line between installation and dance. Working with field recordings from suburbia and a gestural choreography suggesting everything from netball defence to lawn sprinklers, Landau dives sideways into the kitsch iconography of an Australian summer. It all culminates with a surprising segue into performance art, as Landau dons rollerblades and gets very messy with a barrow full of oranges — or are they oranges? Three and half stars

Also at the Warehouse, you can catch I Can Disappear, performed, choreographed, produced and designed by James Andrews. This is a dark and moody indulgence, an erotic exhibition of the male body, teetering on the shadow-edge of narcissism. In the second half, Andrews rolls, Sisyphus-lie, an enormous metal-seeming globe into the performance space, as if to manifest his infinite or timeless sex-drive. It’s an impressive prop-piece (this is what an orgasm might look like in the year 2525) and substantiates the theme of disappearance, as the body becomes obscured behind a burnished nullity. Three stars

Infundibular at Dancehouse continues the pattern of dance works using prop surprises in their second half. This one, though, is the biggest prop of them all: a giant croissant-shaped inflatable into which the dancers finally insert themselves. This is a collaborative dance, installation, new media piece, which even includes an interactive sound element where audience members with special devices can insert effects into the music.

Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, the book on which Infundibular is based, everything here is somewhat obscure, but with a distinct satirical edge.

As with a lot of the dance that leans heavily on props, the choreography itself is a bit vague. It’s hard to see what purpose the dance serves apart from offering generalised human-type movement as a contrast to the more spectacular stage device. On the other hand, the whole picture, with ornamental projections and the spectacle of the expanding wormhole, is an attractive one. Three stars

Angry Sexx proposes an odd but energising contrast between two twenty-something women wrestling with problems of empowerment and a trio of space-apes. From this skewed set up, we get a flash tour of raunch culture, Nicki Minaj-brand feminism, first-world feminism, slut shaming and feminine rage.

With the handwringing angst of a Shelia Heti-type how-should-a-young-woman-be identity drama, writer Rachel Perks elevates a disagreement between the two friends about promiscuity into an intergalactic crisis. Cat (Rachael Perks) breaks up with her boyfriend and takes up running, plotting violent revenge on the menfolk who objectify her. Cybell (Artemis Ioannides) embraces a sexed-up predatory individuality, and refuses to be shamed. The apes, meanwhile, are learning fast.

I’m not sure about a lot of the text, which, in its unsympathetic caricaturing of older housewives, racial stereotyping and callow confessionalism, kept me wincing and frowning. But the heart of the play, the problem of how to negotiate an authentic feminist identity in a world where new media platforms constantly bombard us with opinion and judgement is articulated in a credible and moving way. Director Bridget Balodis artfully wraps it all up as an intriguing and provoking riddle, which is not meant to be solved in any linear, ideological or narrative way.

Angry Sexx is less an argument for any specific kind of feminism than an affective, supra-feminism. It mocks the nay-saying ironies of generation X, the impulse to disengage, and instead proposes a furious affirmation. Whatever your feminism, whether it’s hypersexualised, boundary-pushing nastiness or mainstream second-wave feminism, says Perks, do it angry. Four stars

A Day Like Every Other is a cute live art piece which stages a gentle intervention into the ordinary. We meet creator Mattie Young at the Fringe Hub. She asks a range of questions about our everyday routine, and about our plans for the next day. First thing next morning, the show begins with a text message asking for a three line poem. Throughout the day, further material is solicited — photographs, descriptions and maps — and little tasks proposed.

Some will find it a struggle to write poetry first thing in the morning, but this is perhaps the point of A Day Like Every Other, as it tries to entice us into new experiences without necessarily demanding radical change. Three stars

I haven’t yet seen the current season of The Worst of Scottee, but, assuming it’s much the same beast as toured Melbourne for this year’s Midsumma Festival, then I’ve no hesitation in recommending it.

Ensconced in a vintage photoautomatic booth, Scottee narrates a series of twisted picaresques from his adolescent years, tales highlighting his dishonesty and insensitivity. His reprehensible behaviour is tied in with a very moving homosexual coming of age narrative, which muddles our feelings of pity and censure.

My own take on this show is different to most other reviewers. I tend to see Scottee as an unrepentant escape artist. But, like everyone else, I agree that it’s gripping theatre — and the more opportunities we get to see the work of genius director Chris Goode, the better.

Four stars

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues until October 5.

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