Do you perchance recall carefree Prime Times past? Simple evenings tuning in to a special appointment viewing? The Bachelor on commercial television; on an actual television? All this was before a reality TV star became the leader of the free world, before Netflix and chill, before the mores that once held reality in place were cut loose.
Do you remember before then – younger still – playing dress ups in your parents cupboard in a wedding gown? Or perhaps younger again, you told your parents and friends that you were married to a playmate in pre-school? Perhaps your play was based in the present or set ‘a long, long time ago’ and one of you was a nameless, but beautiful princess and the other, despite no family of the same name, was called Prince Charming.
It’s from these charmingly naive places of play-pretend and innocent enjoyment that Melbourne company The B.O.T.S. approach their post-television, pastiche performance work, The Bachelor S17 E05. It’s a show that’s very much a case of ‘what’s on the box’ – a live re-enactment Season Seventeen Episode Five of the American The Bachelor, performed near verbatim from the closed captioned script.
The seeds of hilarity begin before you enter the theatre – La Mama’s promotion of the work featured a quote about the ‘biting playwriting’ of lead artist Morgan Rose. The work featured at most half a paragraph of original(ish) text.
There’s something refreshing in the show’s stark embrace of its source text. The contemporary stage seems to be ever awash in licensed adaptations (eg. Melancholia), fan friendly works (eg. Puffs), and of course endless re-runs of classic plays. In taking the verbatim broadcast text of the episode – and indeed some uncredited use of the score from the episode too, The Bachelor S17 E05 departs from conventional wisdom. I’m not sure if it’s legal. And I’m not sure the source text is worth the enactment, but it’s certainly like nothing else on stage at the moment.
The hour-long episode is stretched to 70 minutes, and while the advertisements have been removed, the punchy act break teasers have been kept to wonderfully nonsensical effect. It’s a suprisingly faithful, dramatic, and of course, comic reconstruction of one episode; sprinkled with rose petals, hysterical cliffhangers, and surprise challenges. It doesn’t confront anything about marriage, or patriarchy, or even entertainment, but it does explore the roots of the Western reality television experience, and considers how participants and viewers are drawn to it – for love or otherwise.
It’s 2013. We’re flying to Montana. We’re falling in love with someone we just met. We’re getting in fights with women whose names we’ll soon forget. We’re hoping this will help our social media profile. We’re hoping to promote our business. We’re hoping to be married to a really pretty, wealthy, and altogther beige as hell human Frankenstein/ Ken Doll/ meat wallet combo.
The theatre hits a total black out and the powerful, violent score fills the space. Your imagination takes you deep into TV land, the land of silver dreams, a land of love. And then the lights come up and youre staring not at a dozen battling Barbie Dolls but at some very ordinary looking Brunswick residents. The host is a short Asian man. The competitors are decidedly not all women, and not all young. Some of the text is just lip-dubbed from the recording of the episode (some super tight lip-dubbing, five star lip-dubbing).
The task is impossible. We’re not going to Montana. It’s not 2013. No one will be frantically, feverishly milking a goat as part of one of tonight’s challenges (thank god). No one will find love tonight. It’s epic, post-Brechtian folk comedy. Theatre for the 99 per cent. There’s something about the work that rebels against trickle down entertainment. Instead, bold faced thieving content and re-appropriating the message from the didactism of its source to a place of irrationality. In that sense, it’s a sort of theatrical counterpart to the Tim and Eric show.
The visual design carries the aforementioned folk theatre aesthetic – banal, casual, and thrown together. We are three doors down from Brunswick’s Savers Superstore after all. Mostly ill-fitting or unfashionable clothing is worn by a cast who would almost never be on a Bachelor series. There are exceptions – a pink outfit and expensive wig on one heavily made-up, hopeful bride-to-be is divine; as is the crass, blue velvet dinnner jacket on another. These are the clothes of the individual performers, and while some are more spectacular than others – some of the cast are also more comfortable in the limelight or when engaged in dialogue. One cast member gives a beautiful, and altogether unlike the original, rendition of a Lana Del Rey song. The lack of uniformity ultimately creates a cohesive, sincere, and at times, very funny aesthetic.
None of that really matches the promotional design of the show, and I’d still be up for seeing a version of the show with that visual aesthetic – a sort of clean monochromatic, slick thing. Not that I think it would in any way impact the dramaturgical or philosophical problems of the work – I suppose I’m more interested in seeing performance as the site of drama, and not in the design. It’s worth mentioning here that the work was originally to be performed at La Mama theatre, but it burnt down, and so it was ultimately performed in the much bigger Mechanics’ Institute of Brunswick. Postitives – it’s a bigger space and the on-stage shapes are bigger. The negatives being that sometimes the action gets a bit lost, so it’s quite likely my gripes about spectacle wouldn’t exist on the smaller stage.
The TV show Unreal – a dramatisation of a behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show, and written by a former Bachelor showrunner, is a soapy realist, but nevertheless insightful, critique of the show and how it’s made. And if The Bachelor S17 E05 had been made for these same reasons it would have seemed outdated. Memes move fast. Delightfully, this work seems to take zero interest in relevancy, and for that matter even nostalgia – it’s equally as accesible for die-hard Bachelor fans as those who’ve never seen the show.
The whole conceit of The Bachelor S17 E05 is hellish. Watching episode five of a season that is at least eight episodes is a ridiculous exercise in self-frustration. Watching a big-budget TV show performed on a stage is ridiculous. Watching it performed by this group of people is absurd. You go in knowing you are doomed. There can be no satisfaction. You will not find love.
But then, so is the case with the show it’s based on. We’re equal parts watching The Bachelor for blow-ups and petty squabbles as we are the possibility of prime time viewing revealing the truly truest of true love. And it’s not just on in the background while you do the dishes, but actually because you secretly do care who wins. We comply with the choice of villain and root for our favourite bride-to-be even while we know it’s meaningless. It might sound nihilistic, it’s adamantly anti-cathartic, but The Bachelor S17 E05 is essentially all that theatre can be.
The Bachelor S17 E05 season has now ended