Reviews, Stage, Theatre

REVIEW: Sydney Festival looks for a way out of our dark times with whimsy & open hearts

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Three women appear to float above the stage. They’re dressed like angels; like three heavenly figures from a Renaissance painting. They talk about poo problems.

Women in Jetsons-style jumpsuits tell us we’re in a safe space away from the crushing world of political despair, ringmasters to a circus cabaret of absurdity and metaphor.

A trans performer speaks breathlessly about long-ago crushes on beautiful women. Behind them, a band of tomboys play ‘Crimson and Clover,’ the song rising like curlicues of smoke around the artist.

SupportBadgeWesley Enoch’s Sydney Festival is shaking up the dominant cultural narrative and giving us oft-overlooked perspectives. These three shows – Ich Nibber Dibber, Tomboy Survival Guide, and Retro Futurismus – grapple with memory and history, deliberately filtering past, present and future though still-marginalised lenses.

Ich Nibber Dibber’s floating angels are Barry-Award winning comic Zoe Coombs-Marr, Mish Grigor, and Natalie Rose, known collectively as the performance group post. The show is an excavation of 10 years of recorded conversations: tapes left running as the women switched from work topics into general chat. It’s a verbatim script, full of natural conversational tics and, especially from the women’s younger days, reflexive self-consciousness. But they’re still more frank with each other than anyone generally is allowed to be in a public forum: talking about bodies and their occasionally gross actions, sex and love, relationships, and what it actually means to be an artist.

It’s really funny and surprisingly refreshing: this kind of conversation between women, including one who is a lesbian, isn’t usually deemed appropriate for the stage – there’s a thrill not just of eavesdropping, but of hearing something so frank and uncensored you know it must be utterly real.

It’s also an interesting study in growing older and growing up; in later scenes, each of the women are more confident, more sure of themselves – less performing their identities than they are owning them. It’s a cleverly structured personal oral history of influential artists, ineffably human.

“Now is the time for us to show ourselves, flaws and all, and offer what light we can to others.”

Retro Futurismus, a circus-cabaret variety show full of aliens, space suits, and absurdist acts, has that irresistibly human heart as well. It has a home-made charm, unusual in a genre full of slickness and glamour that tends to be more machine than human art. Here, hosts Maude and Anni Davey clean up the stage after the artists; a roller-skater travels a straight line over bubble wrap and holds for cheers; a woman wears a bikini made out of bricks, with brick shoes – we all wait for her to slowly (and very carefully!) ascend the stage.

We’re promised that Retro Futurismus is a safe space from the heartbreak of participating in a hard life and the world we currently live in. Because we can’t believe in the future anymore, we go back: we get to look at the future through the rose-coloured glasses of the past, covered in neon and boasting bright costumes. The show largely draws its aesthetic from historical ideas of what the future might look like, with a little extra whimsy thrown in.

A purple starfish dances a blissful peace to Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You,’ an undulating Slinky-monster is grooving along until it seems to grow sentience and is ushered offstage by our hosts; a woman tries to dress while being fused inside a chair, which is a comment on just about anything from the struggle of living with depression to the commodification of women’s bodies and the frequency of female nudity on stage and screen.

The soundtrack is frequently fierce and feminist – its most memorable track Princess Nokia’s ‘Tomboy’ – and it helps remind us we’re back in retro-circus pastiche: because outside of the Spiegeltent, we are angry, and lost, and songs of empowerment and love and firm declarations of self, ring hollow.

Ivan Coyote, however, fights that hollowness with an open heart. Their story of self-discovery and self-actualisation through family, music, love, and gender is the kind of old-fashioned earnest sentimentality that shouldn’t be cool as it is on stage.

Based on Coyote’s book on the same name, Coyote traces their life first through their crushes on women, then through their evolution as a tomboy, from shirtless kid in the Yukon summer to trans activist and public speaker.

Tomboy Survival Guide. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Tomboy Survival Guide. Photo by Jamie Williams.

Their band accompanies Coyote’s lilting spoken-word, singsong approach to the script, with sly references to popular music, creating a sense of time and place for Coyote’s stories, and even joining in on a race to be the first to tie a tie (Coyote wins).

Interspersed with Coyote’s story, as in the book, are letters they have received from trans people, and, in one affecting case, the mother of a trans son; Coyote’s response is nakedly emotional and kind, and many in the audience were weeping.

Coyote’s stage persona is generous, vulnerable, and – again – essentially human. Like Ich Nibber Dibber and Retro Futurismus, there is no sense of artifice or distance between audience and subject; there is no attempt to achieve an untouchable perfection. There is only the truth.

Our world is in crisis. The leader of the free world has us all afraid. The leader of our own country continues to forbid equal marriage, continues to refuse to act on climate change, and continues to lock refugees into years of torture. Now is not the time to present perfection, unreachable polish and cool. Now is the time to take care of each other with whatever works, and each of these shows have a suggestion: firm friendships, stories and confessions, and half-ironic, half-longing dreams for a better future. Now is the time to listen: to women, to queer people, to trans people. Now is the time for us to show ourselves, flaws and all, and offer what light we can to others.

We can find hope and purpose in art. In this art. There couldn’t be a more perfect time for these three shows.


[box]Retro Futurismus is at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent until January 29
Tomboy Survival Guide is at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent until January 29
Ich Nibber Dibber is at Campbelltown Arts Centre until January 28

Featured image: Retro Futurismus, photo by Ponch Hawkes[/box]

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