Postcard from Perth: Crash Course, Standing Bird 2 and Bruce

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Spring is burgeoning into summer here and the Christmas trees are blooming along the verges of increasingly clustered freeways and main roads as the festive season approaches. I’m not talking about traditional introduced European conifers but the native WA Christmas tree: a variety of mistletoe that blooms with spectacular orange flowers at this time of year. It’s actually a tree-sized parasite that feeds off the roots of surrounding plants within a radius of 50 metres and doesn’t like too much water, so you don’t tend to see them in gardens or nurseries, but on neglected roadside stretches of sandy soil all the way along the south-west coast from Geraldton to Israelite Bay. Like most parasites, it sounds scary but it’s actually an ecological “keystone” species that supports biodiversity.
For all these reasons, the Christmas tree is a pretty good image for the local fringe and independent theatre scene. I’ve seen three shows in the last week that exemplify the strengths of this scene. Two are at The Blue Room One and one at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Crash Course is a stunning new work at PICA created and performed by James Berlyn: dancer, community arts worker, director, teacher, instigator and co-curator of the Proximity Festival 2012 (at The Blue Room) and 2013 (at PICA) and champion of intimate, participatory and immersive theatre, his one-on-one piece Tawdry Heartburn’s Manic Cures (involving manicure and confession) toured festivals around the country. Crash Course is directed by Nikki Heywood (who also has a venerable history in contemporary performance) and features a cameo performance from Sarah Nelson (likewise a multi-disciplinary Perth-based performer with particular experience in physical theatre and puppetry); but in most of its conception and execution it’s very much a work from Berlyn.
Crash Course is slightly less intimate but no less participatory and immersive than Tawdry. It involves a maximum audience (if that’s the right word for a collective of participants) of (I think) 24 (I’m mentally counting 12 school-desks each seating two participants, but I could be wrong). On arrival, we’re asked to sign a form consenting to leave our phones and bags with front-of-house.
On a more ‘make-believe’ level (and here the properly theatrical fun of dressing-up-and-pretending begins) we’re also asked to consent to the fact that we’ve lost our language and the use of our dominant hand as a result of an unspecified trauma. Enter Sarah Nelson playing the role of a smartly dressed dominatrix who supervises the signing of the consent form by the participants one-by-one, bandages our dominant arms in slings, ushers us into a studio-classroom and seats us at desks in neat rows facing a blackboard. Enter James as “Jakebo”, a language teacher. Chaos ensues, then order, then a different kind of chaos, and finally a different kind of order.
Crash Course is also immersive in the sense that a language class is “immersive” when the entire class takes place in the language being taught, and therefore no translation literally takes place; although “translation” literally means “the act of taking or leading across”, for example from one place to another, which in fact is precisely what James (or “Jakebo”) does for us in the course of the lesson (which like all lessons is also an act or performance).
For Crash Course takes place entirely in an invented and beautiful language with its own invented and beautiful alphabet, both of which we learn to use during the show. We also re-live and re-learn something about what it feels like to be in a minority: linguistically, culturally, in terms of age, “seniority” or physical ability. Minority in this sense has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with power.
I should also add that Crash Course is minimal, elegant, beautiful, poignant and very funny. It also features some choreography and possibly a giraffe. Perhaps more than one.
Standing Bird 2Across the road at The Blue Room are two other exciting, genre-defying, exquisitely performed shows. In the main space, Standing Bird 2 is a contemporary dance-theatre work performed by Jacqui Claus in collaboration with director-devisor Sally Richardson, movement director Danielle Micich, videographer Ashley De Prazer, composer and lighting designer Joe Lui, sound designer Kingsley Reeve and set and costume designer Fiona Bruce. Jacqui is a compelling performer in terms of skills and presence, and she is supported by a team of veteran Perth independent artists.
Both as an individual artist and with her own company Steamworks, Sally Richardson has directed, devised and/or written a huge range of works in theatre, dance, dance-theatre, object-theatre, puppetry and circus over the last decade or so. Her work often deals with female and marginalized experience and uses hybrid forms embracing the language of the body, objects and images as well as words.
Standing Bird 2 had an earlier incarnation at PICA as part of the Perth Fringe World Festival in 2012; this version is both stripped back and significantly advanced in terms of conception and execution. SB2 is in repertory at The Blue Room with another contemporary dance piece, Verge, which was previously presented as part of Fringe World 2013, and which I haven’t seen; Jacqui also performs in Verge, and Fiona’s set serves both productions.
The original version of Standing Bird included Sally herself as an onstage presence at the periphery of the action; significant use of mirrors at the perimeter of the set; video projection onto strips of cloth; and visual and conceptual references to early colonial Australian feminine experience, specifically the Eliza Frazer story. In this version these have all been jettisoned in favour of a less referential (and less self-referential) narrative focusing on Jacqui as a performer inhabiting an archetype that is both more abstract and more emphatically in and of the here-and-now. This is enhanced by corner-staging which makes the audience’s experience more immersive than the previous front-on staging at PICA: once again, there is no fourth wall. In fact the performance begins at The Blue Room bar in an almost audience-participatory vein before taking us on a promenade into the Main Space. There we find ourselves confronted by an experience of redoubled ‘stripping back’ of almost Butoh-like intensity that ultimately leads to an act of individual and collective transformation.

Bruce. Image by Jamie Breen, Brainlock Creative

Next door in the Studio Space is Bruce, a new work by young independent performer-based Perth company Weeping Spoon, devised and performed by Tim Watts and Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd, assisted by collaborators Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs. I say “young” but these artists have been on the scene for some years and their work and artistry is fully fledged. Tim and his collaborators took the world by storm with The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik which began at The Blue Room in 2009, was adopted by Perth Theatre Company and has since toured numerous international festivals; then came It’s Dark Outside in 2012, commissioned and produced by PTC in the State Theatre Centre at The Studio Underground and also now on the touring circuit.
Alvin and It’s Dark were both hybrid works featuring the incredibly skilled use of live and shadow puppetry, masks and disguises, digital animation and soundtrack, in a style at once performative and cinematic, home-made and spectacular, reminiscent of the world of Pixar and lending itself to comedy but with the emotional strength to deal with themes of environmental and personal catastrophe and loss. Bruce is much more minimal at least in terms of scale. It’s based on what was originally a sketch-comedy routine involving two performers in black lycra bodysuits and hoods, a pair of white gloves, a piece of yellow sponge with a mouth and eyes, and a continuous stream of ventriloquism (mostly from Tim). Together these make up a single apparatus capable of transforming into multiple characters, but principally Bruce. He’s supported by a soundtrack and two lights on stands, with a blue gel in one and amber in the other.
Much like the new Alan Partridge movie, Bruce extends this routine to feature (or at least short-feature) length. It accomplishes this by applying itself to a story with a recursive twist which I won’t reveal except to say that once again Weeping Spoon explores themes of time and loss in a way that’s playful, virtuosic, hilarious and touching. There’s a lot more downright comedy in Bruce than Alvin or It’s Dark, making it the perfect indie Christmas pantomime, but there’s an emotional basement here too. Fear is the enemy; and love conquers all.
[box]Crash Course is at PICA until 30 November. Standing Bird 2 and Verge are at The Blue Room (Main Space) until 29 November. Bruce is at The Blue Room Studio until 7 December.
Featured image: Bruce, image by Jamie Breen, Brainlock Creative.[/box]

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