Stage

Postcard from Perth: Fringe World (Great White, Squidboy, She Was Probably Not A Robot and MKA: Unsex Me)

And so back to Fringe World.
On Tuesday night I went to PICA to see previews of Great White and Squid Boy two fresh remounts of recent works featuring ocean marine life as their titular totems. Once again, apt programming for a fringe festival at the edge of the world. The following night I saw She Was Probably Not A Robot at The Blue Room, followed by MKA: Unsex Me (picture above) at Noodle Palace – The Ken Dome. Both less aquatic but (in the case of Unsex Me especially) considerably more edgy and out-there.
Great White was first staged last year at The Blue Room, before the State and Federal Government-sanctioned trapping and killing of our apex ocean predator began. The beach has a special cultural and geographical significance for Australians – perhaps even more so for Perthians, and particularly right now. When even a bourgeois playground like Cottesloe is hosting demonstrations against shark culling, you know you’re on a national fault-line in terms of environmental politics. As for the social, psychological and symbolic significance of our ocean borders: the demonization of boat-born asylum-seekers and ‘people-smugglers’ indicates the fragile boundaries that distinguish, separate and protect our sense of self from what are perceived as foreign, dangerous, predatory others, human or otherwise.
Great White is written and directed by emerging local theatre-maker Will O’Mahony for his company The Skeletal System. It features a luminously simple, tangible yet abstract set design by company co-founder Alica Clements, a subtly compelling sound design by Will Slade, effectively understated lighting by Joe Lui, and beautifully judged, witty and touchingly real performances by Adriane Daff, Mikela Westall and especially Will himself.
I can’t say too much about this play without giving too much away. I must also declare my own previous involvement as a mentor with the earlier production. Will’s plays seem whimsical at first but gradually reveal themselves to be finely yet deeply etched parables that don’t yield easy or obvious meanings. Their fantastic plots and twisted structures remind me of Kafka, Murakami or Charlie Kaufmann, but they inhabit worlds entirely their own and are quintessentially theatrical. Characters, dialogue and events seem familiar, even mundane, yet at the same time elusive, strange and even surreal.
There’s a hint of a message in the repeated wordplay on the theme of being ‘great’ that didn’t quite land for me; one could argue that the structure is overly clever; and perhaps that the play overextends itself and is even essentially a one-act two-hander. Nevertheless, it sustains itself through its twists and turns by keeping us guessing, playing off tension against comedy, timing its reveals and reversals, and probing unexpected depths. The final denouement has real intelligence and heart.
In fact Great White isn’t really a fringe show at all, except perhaps in terms of production resources. Indeed it’s the kind of local work that would totally satisfy mainstream audiences and should be seen on our main-stages. Black Swan and PTC take note, and bring it on.
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Squidboy on the other hand is definitely pure fringe. Like its companion piece She Was Probably Not A Robot, it’s a solo show in the school of the notorious Dr Brown (aka Phil Burgers), and the esteemed École Philippe Gaulier. Both shows come to Perth straight from the Edinburgh Fringe.
The main differences between them lie in the stage personas of their respective writer-performers. Both are lanky sensitive young men with full beards, but Squidboy’s Trigve Wakenshaw is a prancing, sly, fastidious and (in his own words) ‘a little bit camp’ New Zealander, while Not a Robot’s Stuart Bowden is a more uncertain, direct, clumsy, dour Melbournian.  
Both shows have a dreamlike narrative structure that interweaves two apparently separate storytelling protagonists (one human, the other squid – or intergalactic alien, respectively) whose fates and personalities eventually merge. Both are highly self-reflexive and even recursive in writing and performance style. And both combine a human tale of personal loss with an underlying despair over economic and environmental unsustainability and even planetary catastrophe that reminded me in more ways than one of Tim Watts’s epic Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.
Unlike the low-fi multimedia spectacle and puppetry of Alvin, however, Squidboy and Not a Robot use audience interaction, improvisation, clowning, mime, multiple role-play, imaginary friends, half-baked vocal characterisations and improvised home-made costumes. Wakenshaw wears yellow knee-boots, turquoise pants, blue gloves, a white shirt, a brown tie and (concealed beneath his dryza-bone and sou’wester) a polar-fleece cut-out girdle and wrist-sleeves with squid-tentacles and a cap made from the same material with squid-eyes on either side. Bowden is more dressed-down: initially hidden beneath a white sheet, then revealed in dark lyotards, singlet and headband – his ‘not a robot’ alien invoked by simply donning a silver-foil covered cardboard-box helmet with a Ned-Kelly slit for his/her eyes and nose. There’s no set for either show; virtually no lighting cues; and a few performer-operated sound-cues (and a hand-held Casio keyboard) for Robot.
Both shows are minimal, rough, surreal and hilarious. More than once I thought of The Goons, and especially the manic-depressive genius of Spike Milligan. The writing and performance style are deeply personal and have a studied vulnerability that could become cloying if they weren’t executed with such skill and authenticity. There’s also a darkness to the content that keeps sentimentality at bay. As with Great White, beneath the whimsy this is theatre at the edge of the world, and perhaps even at the edge of reason and sanity. In other words, it’s on the edge of the present, where we all teeter, cling, and live.
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After She Was Not A Robot I made my way from the Cultural Centre in Northbridge across Perth Train Station’s pedestrian overpass to the other side of town and Fringe World. Apart from the occasional crack-or-alcohol fuelled zombie stumbling past, Perth’s CBD is virtually deserted after dark: a labyrinth of mostly closed department stores, shopping malls and arcades. Down one of these is the Piccadilly Cinema Centre, formerly an art deco theatre and subsequently converted and expanded into the last remaining operational cinema complex in the CBD until it finally closed down in 2013. It’s reputedly haunted by a patron who was trapped overnight, fell down the stairs and died. It’s also the venue for this year’s Noodle Palace – The Ken Dome: an off-beat Fringe World venue for cabaret, comedy and weird shit.
Unsex Me is another, even more extreme offering from Melbourne new writing company MKA, who also brought the controversial Dogmeat to Fringe World (reviewed last week). I found Dogmeat thrilling, but I’ve since discovered that not everyone feels the same way; I’ve heard it described as gratuitous and deeply offensive. Anyone who feels that way should think twice before venturing to see Unsex Me, as it makes Dogmeat look like Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. Although on reflection, there’s more than a little of Julie Andrews in Unsex Me.
It’s written and performed by Mark Wilson – or more precisely, ‘Academy-Award winning actress Mark Wilson’, who’s preparing for her next role, Lady Macbeth, in a production directed by her father (also a famous actor). She’s got a pale, haunted, angular El Greco face (and beard); she’s wearing (at least initially) a floor-length tartan dress and a black wig (both of which come off eventually); and her voice prowls and shifts across registers (that is, when she’s not lip-synching pop divas). She performs on a small stage with a sofa, a microphone, some condoms and lube.
When I turned up at 9.45pm there were about twenty punters packed into the sagging vinyl front seats of a tiny, sweaty, carpeted cinema that reminded me of the porn movie scene from American Werewolf in London. In fact, there’s something of the latter’s fusion of low-brow horror, sex and satire with something more profound, sad, and even strangely beautiful about Mark Wilson’s remarkable performance as ‘Mark Wilson’. Julie Andrews meets John Landis, perhaps. With a touch of the Patrick White who wrote The Twyborne Affair or Memoirs of Many in One.
Unsex Me does pretty much what it says on the label. I laughed, I cringed, I struggled, I had my face in my hands at one point, and my mouth open almost as wide as Mark’s at another. His microphone technique is jaw-dropping; and covered with condom and lube it goes more places more inappropriately than Ray Martin’s did on A Current Affair. Beyond the camp sex-show, however – and beyond its excoriating diatribe against theatre, celebrity, patriarchy, and even the truisms of queer-theory – Unsex Me’s gender-bending is devastatingly faithful to Shakespeare – and perhaps everyone’s inner experience of psychical reality. In its own way, it’s more operatic than Otello, and certainly conveys a more primal sense of ritual slaughter.

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