Fringe: Drink Pepsi, Bitch <i>and</i> Bremen ~ theatre notes

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fringe: Drink Pepsi, Bitch and Bremen

Drink Pepsi, Bitch performed and written by Eddie Perfect, co-written by Tom Wright. Directed by Tom Healey. Music performed by Ben Hendry, Dustin McLean, Vincenzo Ruberto. Beckett @ The Malthouse Theatre until October 2. Bremen, directed by Michael Cammilleri, North Melbourne Festival Hub, Lithuanian Club Main Theatre until October 1.

Apologies for my lateness this week. Balancing this blog with everything else I do sometimes proves a tightrope act I can't quite manage, especially when I am bitten by yet another novel. I warn all budding writers: novels are a serious drug. You might begin with harmless poems and little playlets, thinking that you can stop any time you like, but before you know it you're trapped in the tentacles of addiction, sacrificing your life to feed your corrosive habit...

Currently, I am writing four novels. Even I think that is excessive. But despite being manacled to the computer, I managed to get out to a couple of Melbourne Fringe shows this week. (Eddie Perfect's show is certainly listed as part of the Fringe, even though, as he said himself, the lighting is too good.)

Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is fun with razor blades. Here is our multi-mediated corporatised world in all its inglorious unreality, from alienated cybersex to call centres to commodified celebrity. It's the universe of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Oprah Winfrey and celebrity disaster journalism, where our unfulfilled consumerist desires flash and crackle like sick hallucinations above a black abyss of fear.

Eddie Perfect's take on this is rude, crude and witty. After an Austin Powers-type voice-over intro, where some mega-corporate boss summarily liquidates his top celebrities (Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and some other person I forget), Eddie Perfect, faux-rebel, is introduced as the perfect weapon - commodity culture incarnate, set to destroy from within, a kind of lightning rod to safely earth any subversive desires.

It's a sardonic comment on how even rebellion has become a brand name (Che Guavera is, after all, mainly seen on t-shirts these days). And on Eddie bounces, in his suit and Australian Idol hair, to sing the glories of brand culture. His band is dressed (apparently to their displeasure) in cutsie waistcoats and caps, like McDonalds employees.

Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is a show which is basically a mix of cabaret singing and stand up comedy. Perfect likes "strong language" to put a bit of tabasco into his acerbic wit. So this, folks, is not the kind of show you'd take your grandmother to, unless she drinks Bundy and drives a motorbike.

Perfect is at his best when he is most pitiless, although there is one good moment where he reads a letter from the Oprah Winfrey website which is so appallingly sad that it silences the audience: it exposes, beneath the mockery, the human cost of our contemporary delusions.

I found the structure and direction of the show was sometimes clunky and contrived; it's hard not to compare it to Boulevard Delirium, a wholly successful importation of cabaret to the theatre. Where Barrie Kosky's direction slickly and unobtrusively focuses the stage on the talents of Paul Capsis, Tom Healey's here merely attempts to set up a semi-narrative frame. It also lacks a certain variety of texture, so Perfect's show doesn't quite escape a feeling, at times, of sameness, a kind of monotonality.

I also felt that the balance between savage satire and a more explanatory mode of social conscience was a little uneasy and unresolved. Though I liked very much the way Perfect lulls his audience with comedy, only to sock it to them with some biting observation about our own responsibilities for how the world is. No one is let off the hook.

What drives Drink Pepsi, Bitch! is, in the end, the courage and energy of the performer, and Perfect has these in abundance. The show culminates with a wonderful number, "Don't Be So Damn September 10", from his previous Malthouse show with Max Gillies, The Big Con. Here it is given a harsher and rockier edge which excoriates anyone who thinks that compassion is still an option in the New World Order after 9/11.

The following night, pepped up by Perfect, I went along to see Bremen, expecting magical puppets and rock and roll. I had forgotten something important about the Fringe: the right to fail. The fact is, I don't get out enough.

It was in the Lithuanian Club in Erroll Street, North Melbourne. This is an intriguing building, a centre for the Lithuanian community. Courtesy of the collaged photographs on the walls, I learned that "It Is Exciting To Be Lithuanian!" Like I said, I should get out more.

Bremen, loosely based around the Brothers Grimm fairytale, is, at 90 minutes, half an hour too long. It could easily get rid of that half hour by quickening its transitions from scene to scene, and making some of its performers speak their lines at normal conversational speed. To be fair, it may have been a disastrously slow night: aside from the delayed beginning, which came from the previous show running overtime, the lights went up and down a few times before anything actually happened on stage, suggesting a few technical unfamiliarities.

When anything did happen, it happened at a glacial pace. I had plenty of time to reflect on something a director told me a long time ago: that the art of direction is getting people on and off stage.

Despite this, some of the writing was lyrically lovely in a genuinely theatrical way, even through a rather earnest attempt to marry the fairytale with some commentary on asylum seekers.

And there were in fact wonderful moments - when, for example, the Sweet Sassafras Choir appeared, suddenly filling the stage with people, or the first glimpse of Death, who was genuinely, mediaevally impressive - and also some good singing. But the momentary pulse-quickening of these moments was almost immediately dissipated by the glumly slow rhythms of the show.

Melbourne Fringe Festival


kevin summers said...

i've complimented some reviewers on their appreciation of "bremen" so i'll be even-handed here and castigate you over your review. perormers should take up the critical challenge more often.
perhaps your raiment was a little tight that evening or you were suffering from fringe overload. to begin, no show went beyond 70 minutes. "bremen" had what so many productions lack - it had a joyous heart. it was to michael camilleri's credit that he did not shy away from epic elements (in a fringe arena with so little time to move in) and unlike so many other directors he doesn't feel the need to place himself at the centre of proceedings ... "look at clever me!"
i for one was excited by being part of it. so were many of my grizzled peers who saw it. pity you weren't.

kevin summers

Alison Croggon said...

Critical comments (I mean, of me) are always welcome on this blog, Kevin. In this case, I will say that my review was very fair for the performance I saw, and that I have to call it as I see it, or my response is worth nothing. I went - unfortunately for the show, and for me - on the first night, and that was very slow indeed. (I noted the time particularly, as I had my young son with me). Michael Camilleri did write me to say that I was accurate in my comments, and to say that after the opening night he managed to tighten the show up considerably, and had written some more dialogue. And that he was never opening without a preview again! If I had time - sadly, I don't - it would have been good to see it again. I was attracted enough by the potential of what I saw to ask him to keep me in touch with future projects.