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Postcard from Perth: Fringe World week one

It’s that time of year again in Perth. The Urban Orchard and Pleasure Garden outdoor bars are buzzing at either end of James Street, the Spiegel and other circus and cabaret tents are sparkling, and regular and pop-up indoor venues are humming around the Cultural Centre and all over town. I’m seeing about 20 shows this year — local, interstate and international — and for the first time I’ve broken my own rule and asked for complimentary tickets, so I’m going to have to be super-efficient, see and review all of them one way or another, and keep the Postcards coming over the next few weeks.

Fresh (or not so fresh) back from the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney (I’ll keep the Postcards coming on that event too), on Sunday night I caught two surreal New Zealand one-man shows in the hand-picked Blue Room Summer Nights season: The Bookbinder (pictured above) by Trick of the Light Theatre, written and performed by Ralph McCubbin Howell, and directed and designed by Hannah Smith, and physical theatre/mime artist/clown Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken.

The Bookbinder is an enchanting, witty and haunting work of visual storytelling theatre for adults and kids. The performance I saw was in fact haunted by quite a few very young, energetic and voluble sprites whose parents had presumably seized on the opportunity to keep them occupied on a sultry summer Sunday evening the night before Australia Day. Ralph coped manfully with the extra challenge, and kept us all enthralled.

The text is a Babushka doll of stories nested within in at least four layers of narrative, fantasy, dream and performance, reminiscent of the 1001 Nights (or more recently Neil Gaiman). Ralph’s storytelling protagonist adapts his voice and physicality to play mutliple roles while maintaining a beguiling intimacy with the audience and operating (or seeming to) lighting and sound cues; but the central performance thread is his manipulation and animation of the set and objects. Indeed the star of the show is a picture-book (beautifully designed and made by Smith) which contains hidden and multi-dimensional surprises. The Bookbinder is a small gem of a work that like all good fantasy manages to be artful and entertaining, light and dark, to speak across generations and indeed across time.

My second treat for the evening was Kraken, across the way at PICA. Trygve is also remounting last year’s Fringe hit Squidboy (reviewed in one of last summer’s Postcards) at PICA this week. God knows how he manages it, as both shows are virtuosic feats — Kraken in particular in terms of its demands on his body and imagination. It’s basically an extended improvisation — parts of which are doubtless premeditated and rehearsed but much of which is spontaneously elaborated ‘in the moment’, prompted by audience interaction and the performer’s impulses.

KrakenWEB

The result is a stream-of-consciousness physical ‘monologue’ in which the body rather than language takes the lead. In a nutshell, it’s mime: but talking and thinking aloud also feature heavily along with numerous other transgressions — including plenty of scatology, sex, violence and even auto-cannibalism. I found it totally exhilarating, occasionally horrifying and continually hilarious.

Trygve trained with legendary French alternative clowning maestro Philippe Gaulier and embodies the latter’s ethos of play, complicity and amorality — all of which make the performance feel thrillingly risky and unrepeatable. Trygve’s ambiguous clown persona is hypersensitive yet cruel, hyperintelligent yet foolish, physically adept yet hopelessly clumsy, human and non-human, omnivorous and pansexual: in other words, ‘the poor bare forked thing’ Lear calls ‘unaccommodated man’. He’s also an incredible physical performer. I’m an unabashed fan.

On Tuesday it was time for some local content: a remount of longstanding local indie outfit Weeping Spoon’s Trampoline followed by new kids on the indie block The Cutting Room Floor’s I Can Breathe Underwater. Trampoline is written and performed by the very talented Shane Adamczak. He plays an avatar of his familiar dopey geeky lovelorn harlequin persona, who in this instance has a hyperactive form of waking REM which causes him to continually hallucinate. He’s joined in this production by Ella Hetherington — doubling as his therapist and (literally?) the girl of his dreams — and Brendan Ewing, who continually threatens to steal the show in multiple roles as a series of real or imagined obstacles or ‘magic helpers’ on our hero’s quest.

I thought the performers suffered slightly from an unfriendly pop-up venue that did them no favours — and perhaps also from the evident lack of a director or outside eye. Nevertheless it’s a charming show, and Shane is a poignant clown, especially when he slings the guitar strap over his shoulder and circles his beloved in a serenade-duet while she (impressively) sings and bounces on the show’s eponymous trampoline.

I Can Breathe Underwater is a new show by an emerging company who’ve achieved a phenomenal output over the past year locally and on tour. Some of their most talked-about shows have been in found locations and site-specific venues like private houses and cafés, and I felt that I Can Breathe didn’t quite…well, breathe in the confines of The Blue Room Studio.

It’s a touching exploration of anomie, suicide and grieving among a group of twenty-somethings, but in the context of a (relatively) more conventional theatre space, script and staging felt messy, dialogue clichéd and performances strident: perhaps holding the mirror up to nature, but making it difficult for me at least to feel compassion for characters so self-absorbed they seemed incapable of compassion themselves.

The most effective performances for me were voiceless: Jacinta Larcombe as a wild dancing seducer, observer and life-and-death spirit; and DJ Louis Frere Harvey providing live sound at the edge of the stage. Meanwhile the most effective exchanges of dialogue for me took place as ‘live’ but disembodied digital dating-app ‘chats’ projected on the back wall. Somehow these artificial ‘devices’ spoke more eloquently to me than the more naturalistically staged ‘scenes’ of the chronic disconnection between and within characters lost in a sea of social dysfunction.

On Wednesday night I went down to Cottesloe Beach, headphones and MP3 player in hand, for my own private immersive experience of Everything Unknown by UK company non zero one. Basically, you stand on the shore, follow a few simple instructions and listen to a voice and soundscape that’s been recorded on the other side of the world in winter on a beach in Kent. The conceit is that you’re listening to them in real time, and are thus somehow ‘connected’ — which of course you’re not.

These and other potentially interesting phenomenological complications remained largely unexplored in what I felt was a disappointingly banal text, delivery and use of technology, all of which failed to ‘augment’ an otherwise beautiful evening on the beach at sunset. Others may feel differently, but for me the message fell far short of the medium — and both fell far short of the lived experience of actually being there. I had a nice time at the beach though.

Last but not least, last night (Thursday) I saw two shows at The Blue Room. The Dirty Cowboy is a new production by Tim Solly and Steamworks Arts, directed by Sally Richardson and written and performed by Solly with set and costume design by India Mehta and lighting by Joe Lui. Basically it’s a Gothic country-and-western song-cycle linked by short stretches of monologue. Solly plays a hard-drinking ‘black sheriff’ in ‘a town called Suicide’, whose story of fatal love and loss gradually emerges much like the protagonists of Schubert’s song-cycles Schöne Müllerin or Die Winterreise — or perhaps closer to home the protagonists of ballads by Tom Waits or Nick Cave.

It’s a great idea, Solly has a fabulous Johnny Cash/Tex Perkins growl, and set and lighting conspire to recreate the ambience of the Cohen Brothers classic noir-Western Blood Simple. Musically I have to admit I’m not a big fan of country, or the maudlin self-pity that comes with the territory — and despite his gifts as an actor and singer, I found Solly’s performance a bit one-note in terms of pace, volume and emotional dynamics. In contrast, Waits, Cave, the Cohens and even Schubert all know how to mix things up a little and keep us on our toes. Nevertheless it’s a very stylish evening.

This was followed by Melbourne, low-fi alternative-storytelling clown Stuart Bowden’s new show Stuart Bowden: Before Us. Like Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken, this a less narrative-based, more improvisatory, even dilatory work than its precursor She Was Probably Not a Robot, which like Squidboy was one of my highlights in last year’s Fringe World. Unlike Trygve, however, Stuart has a uniquely vulnerable, melancholic stage persona that reaches out and connects with the audience less through performative prowess than a kind of anti-performative pathos which makes us laugh while filling us with pity and even a sense of cosmic compassion.

Here he delivers a meandering monologue by the last survivor of an unknown and fantastic species that embraces and manipulates the audience to the point where, incredibly, we all ended up lying on the floor and singing after he’d made his final exit. Comedy, tragedy and musical artistry (he plays a series of electronic keyboards, sings in a quavering but pitch-perfect David Byrne tenor and is a deft foot with a delay-pedal) have never looked so artless, and the hand-made sleeping bag costume is to die for.

In fact, death and extinction lie at the deepest layer of the text (which by the way is a superb piece of writing while seeming to tumble out without forethought or consequence). This is a form of theatre as sui generis as the novel-form Laurence Sterne invented with Tristram Shandy – and a show not just to be seen but experienced.

The Bookbinder, I Can Breathe Underwater, Dirty Cowboy and Stuart Bowden finish on January 31

Kraken finishes on February 1

Everything Unknown runs until February 21

More Fringe World reviews next week.

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