Dust Covered Butterfly review (Metro Arts, Brisbane)

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Captive, captor, bait. Dust Covered Butterfly’s cabaret-showman Host (Chris Farrell) locks the audience in a black box with three slasher-film archetypes and requests a show of hands to choose their fates. Which of these bodies won’t make it out alive?

Thomas Hutchins directs this hour-long experiment, which might be termed ‘rock horror’. Not quite a rock concert, not quite a play, Dust Covered Butterfly exemplifies what only live performance can capture: something electric and transient, less concerned with narrative than with mood and movement.

Metro Art’s Sue Benner Theatre is gutted and flipped to place us at its flat basement end. The audience is seated across the stage — a fact that underlines the power and vulnerability we feel when The Host asks us to make this vital choice. The risers, now the stage proper, are webbed with plastic drop sheets — a macabre art installation, suffocating and cold.

On opening night, we vote in Katy Cotter as The Captor, with Michael Whittred as The Bait and Bella Anderson as The Captive. It’s a demanding show that requires its performers to rotate parts, but Cotter, Whittred and Anderson move seamlessly into their new roles as they play out the kidnap, torture and ultimate Stockholm Syndrome of The Captive.

Then there’s Farrell as The Host. Our puckish guide into this strange underworld engages us through montage: from Attenborough-esque monologues on the theme of metamorphosis (think Silence of the Lambs) to Neil Gaiman quotes (“love takes hostages”). For a play with numerous valid content warnings at the door (for which, thanks), The Host conjures a surprising amount of genuine laughter. But there’s also a sense that his camp showmanship hides something more insecure, more manipulative.

The key to the show is Michael Whittred’s soundtrack. Creepy-cool incidental music makes way for rock star moments as Whittred, in trenchcoat and underpants, whips out an electric guitar. Glossy rock riffs with off-kilter lyrics and eerie-but-powerful harmonies (from Anderson and Cotter) signal the relationship that will unfurl between these three characters, however they’re embodied: passionate, binding — both disturbing and disturbed.

Dust Covered Butterfly has itself metamorphosed through years of development at Metro Arts, and the polish shows. In lesser hands, these themes could easily veer us into garish, exploitative slasher territory. Instead, Hutchins exploits language to subtle, unsettling effect. Extreme violence is often evoked through the language of food: undercooked rice is compared to chewing fingernails; The Captive, starving, describes herself as an eye fillet; The Captor describes blood drizzling from a wound. Stylistic suffocation has the performers gasping through plastic — but the attacks are never literal. Hutchins is aware that less is more, and the aim here is to entertain, not traumatise.

On the flipside, all that entertainment can overshadow, rather than juxtapose, the horror itself. It becomes hard to empathise through the gloss. It’s likely that the detachment is deliberate: a comment on our fascination — and weird relationship — with violence. It seems timely that, on opening night, social media is abuzz with Hannibal news; Dust Covered Butterfly is shot through with references to famous serial killers.

By offering us choice, Hutchins reveals our fascination with kidnapping for what it is: a bid for control in the face of the unknown — of what might be waiting for us around corners. By spinning our fear of monstrous violence into a fantasy we take part in, Dust Covered Butterfly revels in our fear and carries us along on the collective adrenaline.

[box]Dust Covered Butterfly, is at the Sue Benner Theatre at Metro Arts, Edward Street, Brisbane, until 20 June.[/box]

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