Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon / Vaudeville X ~ theatre notes

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon / Vaudeville X

Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon written, devised and performed by Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neil and Glen Walton. The Suitcase Royale @ The Black Lung Theatre, Kent St Bar, 201 Smith St, Collingwood, until June 17. Vaudeville X by Michael Dalley, with Grant Cartwright, Michael Dalley and Daniel Fletcher, music by John Thorn. High Performance Company @ Dantes, Gertrude St, Fitzroy until June 18.

Are we in the throes of a theatre renaissance? I was saying so to a friend just last week, and bingo! there in yesterday's Australian is an analysis of Melbourne's theatre revival, which claims that after a bleak sojourn in the Slough of Despond all through the '90s, theatre in Melbourne now has new vim in its step and light in its eyes as it marches onwards to the Celestial City. So it must be true.

Corrie Perkin's article is on the money, citing the Malthouse Theatre and a vibrant Victorian College of the Arts as particular catalysts for nurturing a feisty new generation of independent theatre artists. The success of the Malthouse bears out my hopes early last year that the radical shift in philosophy there was "the best thing that's happened there in the past decade; and ... the beginning of a more generous imagining of the Australian stage". Without any doubt, by plugging into a richly diverse and vital independent scene, the Malthouse has legitimised and often realised approaches to theatre that were previously marginalised as "fringe".

Such nurturing depends, however, on having something to nurture. Maybe the most significant sign that something truly is sparking here is the theatrical liveliness off the main stages, in tiny venues above funky little bars and pubs in the inner city. If you have an idle evening or two next week, you could do a lot worse than to wander down to Fitzroy and see Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon, the second offering from the young auteurs of The Suitcase Royale, or drop into Dante's and spend an hour being wickedly entertained by the wits of Vaudeville X. In both cases, it might be advisable to book.

Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon extends the "junkyard theatre" The Suitcase Royale developed in their first show, Felix Listens to the World. Perhaps the major character of the show is the set itself. It's an artfully artless clutter of discarded objects (they include a typewriter, an old film projector, a toy piano, bits of bedsteads, ear phones, lamps, switches, cardboard boxes) which are ingeniously manipulated and transformed to illustrate the narrative.

It can't be said that the story - like Felix Listens to the World, a fairytale of sorts - makes a lot of sense (perhaps it makes an uncommon sense, since it is, in the proper sense of the term, absurd). It must be a real play, though, because it is in three Acts. Set in outback Australia, it concerns a maniacal Butcher who has just murdered his wife, a Doctor possessed with a vision to map the Underground with his engine fuelled by the blood of cows, and the Newsman who seeks to expose them both and scoop the world.

A collision of melodrama, surreal comedy, theatrical ingenuity and Tom Waits-style folk/blues, Chronicles is a high-spirited pisstake on any number of Australian cliches - the outback pub, the hard-bitten newsman, the homoerotic relationships of lonely men. It's like Wake In Fright on acid. We find out that Suitcase Royale are also pretty hot musicians - a highlight is the ballad about Sheila, the Butcher's wife, in which he laments that "if I hadn't killed you, you'd still be here". And it's also a love story of sorts; the Butcher holds a candle for the Doctor, who rejects his tremulous advances.

The humour is black and pitiless, but the show somehow retains a poignant sense of humanity. How can you dislike three madmen when they are po-facedly eating pickled onions in front of you? (I wish I could describe how funny this scene is). And there is a strange innocence in all these characters, a sense that their various lunatic idealisms are attempts to transcend a grinding emptiness within their existence. As in Buchner's Woyczek, the earth beneath them is hollow. One could probably excavate from this anarchic narrative a bleak subtext about Australia's vision of itself, and of the loneliness and yearning of masculinity; but it might hang a little heavily on a show which is really a riff of ingenious jokes.

The three performers use almost every device of animation - banraku puppetry, animated projections, shadow puppets - as well as highly stylised performance, a rich recorded soundscape and live music to tell their story. Part of the delight of this show is the intricate minature models, painstakingly crafted out of cardboard or other junk, of houses or pubs. The performers are enchanted by the world of objects, and their enchantment is infectious.

Worth mentioning too is the theatre in which they perform - the Black Lung Theatre, which opened in April this year above the Kent St Bar in Smith St. Co-directed by Thomas Wright and Thomas Henning, it specifically seeks to host experimental and devised theatre. It's a friendly, comfortable space, and you can smoke downstairs in the cosy bar. I liked it a lot.

A couple of days later I found myself in Fitzroy again, this time at Dante's in Gertrude St where Vaudeville X is packing them into the unlikely upstairs bar. This room is panelled in warm wood, with red velvet curtains and blue-lit wall niches in which are placed art nouveau figurines and rows of dusty wine-bottles, and its air of tatty elegance frames this show perfectly.

This the the third season for Vaudeville X; it's been an alternative hit since it premiered in 2004. And from the moment the three performers apparate from behind the bar in their impeccable tuxedos, it's easy to see why. Darling, it's just fabulous.

Michael Dalley's songs are an irresistibly funny series of satires on all things middle class - his net is wide and his barbs are deadly. There are digs at the snobberies of inner-suburbia ("Things Aren't Going Well When Girls Called Narelle Drink Caffe Latte"), a ditty called "Spirit Song" which is a painfully accurate take-off of ABC-FM choral music, a spit in the direction of braindead morning radio DJs and some severe criticism of the hypocrisies of touristic exploitation of the Third World by wannabe alternativistas.

And plenty of laughs, too, at the pretensions of aesthetes, although these songs are sophisticated parodies that clearly expose the satirists themselves as, well, aesthetes. "The Sewers of Berlin", a brilliant pastiche of Weill and Brecht, and "The Ghost of the Postmodern Dancer", which flays the pretensions of innovative movement, are highlights of the show.

It's performed with style and plenty of physical brio by Dalley, Grant Cartwright and Daniel Fletcher, all performers of no small abilities. The show is slicker than a Porsche full of Eddie Maguires, and infinitely more intelligent. Hie thee there by whatever means you can. And you can smoke downstairs at Dante's, too. Is a pattern beginning to emerge here?

Picture: The Suitcase Royale in Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon

The Suitcase Royale
The Black Lung


Anonymous said...

That's two for two now for the Black Lung. Avast was one of the most exciting things I've seen in ages, and Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon also rocked. A packed house, high energy show, bursting with invention, skills and charm. I have felt that a lot of Melbourne independent theatre in the last few years has been (deliberately or inadvertently) going for a scaled down MTC aesthetic, lacking in theatricality, detail and audacity, These companies are really showing the way in this regard. I am looking forward to seeing what happens next at the Black Lung.

Born Dancin' said...

Good point there, Chris; I think that too many productions in the past decade (at least) have been thinking that their audience is an MTC one, or even a Playbox one for that matter. The folk who piled into Chronicles put that idea to bed, however; I couldn't imagine any of Sunday's crowd even wanting to show up at the Arts Centre. Who would have thought there was a different audience for young or experimental theatre?

Alison Croggon said...

Born Dancin', your question makes me want to write horrible things, like LOL ROFL!!! Stop me...

I'm sorry then that I missed Avast. Rightly or wrongly, I've had that thought myself about some independent theatre, that it seemed to be conceived as a stepping stone to "bigger, better" things, rather than looking for its own aesthetic necessity. There is nothing wrong with wanting to attract a decent audience, I hasten to say, nor with being professional about what one does: but professional doesn't need to mean the adoption of a corporate model, nor the effective emulation of what is considered to be acceptable to the mainstream.

There are other kinds of ambition that don't involve asking permission. Isn't making art also about reimagining the maps?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, there are other kinds of ambition.

Too often "independent" of "fringe" theatre is thought of as a community of like-minded artists struggling together to offer an alternative to the mainstream. The independent scene is much more complex than this, in fact it is not really a scene at all, but a series of smaller pools of artists which sometimes overlap. Working in these various scenes are artists who see independent work as a means of breaking through to the larger, subscriber companies, other artists who have no interest in this and a range of variations on these extreme positions.

On one side, there are the cover bands (to borrow a metaphor from a friend) that are there to emulate the sound (and success) of bands that have proven themselves elsewhere. A lot of the mainstream work is like this, as is a lot of independent work. The work is often solid, and easy to digest, but, personally, I'd rather see a band play its own songs, try, succeed or fail, whatever, than cover the classics or the latest hits.

Most of the emerging independent work that I find inspiring, whether in Melbourne or elsewhere, is not emerging in response to the mainstream model, but finds inspiration from different models altogether, from other art forms and disciplines. The mainstream theatre scene is barely considered, as it is not relevant to their interests. In most cases, these artists have rarely stepped inside the Arts Centre to see an MTC show or considered "how" the cross-over might be made, because the "why" was considered (momentarily) and left begging. It's just not on the agenda. There are bigger fish to fry.

Companies like Black Lung, Suitcase Royale, Panther and in other countries, Radiohole, NTUSA, Forced Entertainment and rotozaza can be understood more in the tradition of punk or grunge music. Like, let's start a band. I have a garage, so I'll play drums. Your older sister owns a guitar, you be the guitarist. He's good looking, he should be the singer. You get together, play, define your own sound based on what's available and what you're into, and get good. This sort of approach is vital in the development of a spontaneous, expressive, culturally grounded arts community. This kind of work may never find a huge audience in any one place, but may find a loyal, smaller audience in many different locations, given support and encouragement.

This is not to dismiss the "cover bands". There's room for all types of expression and all types of audience. But this leads onto a much bigger discussion, I'll sign off for now.

Anonymous said...

i definitely agree with the emergence of this alternative burgeoning independent theatre movement.

It is inspiring to see the optimistic resilience of these small fledgling companies in the face of the dominant corporate model.

These new bohemians are defined by a propensity to take creative risk and aren't searching for mainstream approval.

In the spirit of diy punk and grunge, I happened on an obscure production of independent work on a small rooftop in the city.

Avoiding Beauty

Avoiding Beauty begins with the figure of a woman gazing at the distant horizon.

A man lies prone on a table on the opposite. The black cotton fabric of a sign has been painted with the bold words of Artaud in his Theatre of Cruelty manifesto in
a simple text:

Avoid that which is beautiful,
which does not illuminate the truth.

A single light provided a blue wash across the black wall.

The figure of the woman turns and commences a monologue that describes an abstract and symbolic descent through the air past the glass facade of the universal building in our modern corporate world. A dizzying vertigo is described in descent as the woman
falls and tumbles to the bottom of society.

The symbolic mythology is consistent with the work of Artaud, who, in the tradition of French bohemia and artists such as Talouse Lautrec uncovered the shadow aspect of society ignored and repressed by mainstream society.

The audience is served an introduction by the arrival of a naked guest announcing
the intention of Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty who then proceeds to climb onto
the male figure provocatively, simulate sex and then rain and smear spaghetti over
his exposed torso before tossing it over the audience in a flurry and gusto of destructive
performance art fun.

The next scene invites us over to the adjacent wall, where a circus freak character is condemning his mute friend with insult for the absent imagined swearing and insistence he continue to pierce his chest with small blue pins, The piercing begins at his chest, on
which is transcribed the anarchic words, 'Art is not always Beautiful' and continues down his body to conclude in a grand finale` piercing the penis in a defiant act of pain before turning around to reveal his buttocks to the audience with a tongue in cheek piece of
performative exhibitionism, the words transcribed across his buttocks 'but i am.'

A bare-buttocked man, clad only in a floral plaid apron proceeds to strap a melon atop his helmet as the performance erupts into a staggering hysteria as the man
destroys fruit in a hilarious destruction against the wall.

The seemingly innocent and wholesome tranquility of a birthday part is destroyed, savaged and mangled by a brutal waxing of genital hair with office tape.

The performance concluded with a horizontal line of the cast,
illuminated by firelight.

Milling around afterwards, I could not help but think of the avant-garde tradition in performance. Avoiding Beauty had occurred in true bohemian fashion. Like the avant-garde element in Germany during the Bauhaus period, performance had evolved out of a simple gathering with friends.

The collaboration occurred between a National Institute of Circus Institute graduate, a boy-friend, a couple more circus students, a production student at VCA and others.

In this humble collaborative production, they were embodying a truth in life, ignored and denied by the dominant commercialism of mainstream society, and in doing so came closer to illuminating the paradoxical beauty concealed behind the shadow.