Fringe: Material Mouth ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Fringe: Material Mouth

Material Mouth, performed and devised by Carolyn Connors. Directed by Margaret Cameron, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. La Mama Theatre until October 9.

Material Mouth, says the press release, is a "theatrical concert for solo voice", which seems as good a description as any. Created and performed by the remarkable Carolyn Connors, it's as hard to classify as it is to adequately describe - a work of performance art that encompasses sound poetry, compositions for voice and wine glass, cabaret and satire.

In Material Mouth, music, poetry (in its least semantic form) and theatre collide in the female body. As much as anything, this work is a very conscious performance of femininities, a subtly devastating parody of how the politeness of the feminine is laid, like a constricting costume, over the impolitic female body. The gap between the proper and the improper emerges as a disturbance, in expressions of hysterical extremity clothed in a parade of apology, which assault the audience with a discomfort that is very close to embarrassment. The response, certainly on the night I saw it, is a lot of laughter.

This is not to say that Connors isn't funny; she is often very funny indeed. But there was an interestingly nervous edge to the laughter of the audience; Material Mouth was as clear a demonstration of the mechanism of laughter as a release for anxiety as any I have seen.

Carolyn Connors has been called one of the "most experimental mouths" in Australia. A composer, keyboardist and vocalist, she has collaborated with the sound poets Amanda Stewart and Chris Mann, and most recently she was the "Psychokinetic Pianist" in Gotharama with Moira Finacune, star of the "new burlesque". Here she is directed by Margaret Cameron, one of the most innovative and distinctive theatrical talents in Australia.

Material Mouth begins by gently satirising La Mama itself: as every regular habitue knows, most performances begin with the sound of footsteps creaking down the stairs. This is a sound we are supposed to politely edit out, as we edit out the bottles crashing into the recycler from the restaurant next door. In Connors' show, it suddenly becomes foregrounded: we hear her coming down the stairs and wait for the lights to come up and the show to start. But the lights don't come up: the footsteps go up the stairs again. And then down. Then they seem to be going around in nervous circles. Or maybe she's going upstairs again? We are not sure... There's a bit more fussing about and then, finally, the lights come up on a silent woman smiling at us anxiously. She spends more time than is comfortable standing still, looking at her leisure at each of us, her smile flickering with a kind of incandescent apology across her face, as if she has discovered herself here by accident.

In the liminal space before the performance, when everything is possible, this pause is an uncomfortable questioning of the presence, not only of the performer, but of the audience. What, she seems to be asking, a little quizzically, are we doing here? What will we do now? Only the most confident of performers can pull off enacting this kind of uncertainty; it can easily collapse into real embarrassment. Connors deliberately walks this tightrope throughout the performance, always on the edge of catastrophe, with never a false step.

Finally, as if she remembers something, she crosses to a tightly lit area of the wall and slowly, with a hieratically stylised movement, puts on an absurd velvet hat that obscures the entire upper part of her face. As in Beckett's play Not I, everything is focused on her mouth. She turns, so we see her in dramatic profile, looking like a cross between a priestess and a model on a Parisian catwalk. We wait, breathlessly, for Connors to speak...

With an almost melodramatic gesture, Connors sticks her finger in her mouth. Then she starts talking. It has all the expressivity and volubility of language, without a trace of semantic sense. Then she stops, takes her finger out of her mouth, pauses, turns her other profile, and puts her thumb in her mouth, and speaks again, this time in a lower voice. She performs a dialogue between the two profiles, which is at once comically infantile - it's exactly the sort of thing children do for fun, to make silly noises - and yet, in its vocal variations, disturbingly close to real speech.

This is pure sound poetry, removing all trace of semantic recognition from spoken language and exposing its subterranean physicality and sonic values. I found it interesting at this point how much I was longing for actual words to emerge from the vocalisations (a longing related to the difficulties I have, as a word-centred person, in describing adequately my experience of the show). But, as with all aspects of this work, Connors is not in the business of satisfying expectations; she forces the audience's attention to focus on the mouth and the noises it is making, on the embarrassing, recalcitrant presence of the performer herself.

This introduces a series of "acts" separated by blackouts, which are orchestrated to gradually expand Connors' musical and theatrical vocabulary. She mimes playing a piano, voicing the notes, pushing them to harshly discordant, assaultive extremes before bringing them back (apologetically, as if it had somehow got away from her) to something like melody. In a particularly beautiful moment, Connors sits like a medium before a draped table covered with wine glasses, places pieces of tin foil on top of them, and begins to sing. The tinfoil vibrates and splits her voice, so it seems as if there is more than one person singing; and then the foils slowly begin to rotate, like miniature ballet dancers, turned by the answering vibrations of the glasses.

In another act, three tiny music boxes are spotlit by the window; one by one, Connors flips them open. They are all playing Für Elise. To the accompaniment of this melodic tinkling, Connors wriggles into two huge tulle petticoats, flashing that brittle smile as she becomes entangled and clumsily sticks out her arms in a grotesque attempt free herself.

Because the eye and ear have adjusted to the minimalism of the performance so far, it is a shock when Connors puts on an accordion and belts out a number. It's almost like a pay-off, the performer finally relenting and delivering some entertainment; except that it has a sting in the tail, the delivery of such satisfaction itself a mockery of expectation. It's a parody, at once fragile, joyous and satirical, of the romantic feminine, and is followed almost immediately by a hilariously grotesque vision of a vagina dentata.

The lights come up to a disconcerting vision of a face, upside-down and seemingly between Connors' legs, lit from beneath by a tiny hand-held strobe light. This time the "other mouth" speaks (the only time words are spoken, rather than sung, in the entire show), a fragmentary dialogue with, one assumes, a lover. "Unlike you," it says, "I have twooo mouths." It finishes, impatiently, "Ok, I'll be the man." Predatory and sardonic, impropriety incarnate, this mouth does not apologise for itself; it takes what it wants.

There follow more songs, this time accompanied by a ukelele: a divertissement on the Australian women's swimming team ("What we want is LIFT!"), sung while she stands in a pan of water dressed in a bathing suit covered in obscenely drooping balloons, and another played in a costume that is really a brown paper bag. The paper, of course, crackles embarrassingly. The surprisingly lush design is full of intriguingly ambiguous promptings of the "proper": a music stand with music by Bach, empty earphones dangling from its side; yellowed sheet music pasted across a window.

Connors finishes by again meeting the eyes of her audience, smiling that smile, which remains as enigmatic as it was at the beginning. Is it apology, or mockery? Challenge or welcome? Benediction? All of these? The relationships in this intimate space between the proper and improper have imperceptibly, wickedly, been disrupted until it is impossible to tell which is which. And what are the implications of these disruptions? At once, I suspect, mundane and profound: again, I think of Beckett, of the pitiless compassion which exposes the fragility of human gesture, observing it without the comfort of consolatory moralising. And also of the perverse lightness of being which follows this observing.

Material Mouth is one of those deeply satisfying works which leave you ruminating for hours afterwards. A word for the lighting and design, which are beautifully precise and subtle, a hard ask in a space as small as La Mama. And also for Margaret Cameron's assured direction.

If you can manage it, I recommend catching Margaret Cameron's one-woman show Proscenium, also part of the Fringe, which I saw in July (review here); on some nights the timing allows you to see Material Mouth and run to the Malthouse for Cameron's piece afterwards. It would make a remarkably complementary evening of works by two of Australia's most interesting performance artists.

Picture: Carolyn Connors

La Mama Theatre
The Proscenium

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