Review: Cake / Kin ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Review: Cake / Kin

Fringe Festival: Cake by Astrid Pill, directed by Ingrid Voorendt. Designed by Gaelle Mallis, lighting design by Geoff Cobham, composition by Zoe Barry. With Astrid Pill and Zoe Barry. Vitalstatistix and Malthouse Theatre @ The Tower until October 7.

, directed by Stephen Page. Design by Stephen Page, lighting design by Glenn Hughes, videography by Douglas Watkin. With Isileli Jarden, Sean Page, Ryan Jarden, Josiah Page, Samson Page, Hunter Page-Lochard and Curtis Walsh-Jarden. Malthouse Theatre @ The Merlyn Theatre until October 6. Bookings: 9685 5111.

There's a beautiful synergy in the pairing of these two shows at the Malthouse this week. It goes further than the pleasing alliteration of Cake and Kin: like those racing horses Montaigne once admired in Italy, they're both "small but exquisitely formed". And both are stylishly realised devised productions that explore delicate reaches of the human psyche with tact, humour and honesty.

Cake comes to the Malthouse from a hit season at the Adelaide Fringe. It's easy to see why this show attracted attention: it irresistibly combines the erotic attractions of eating and sex, and seductively tickles your senses - taste and smell as well as eyes and ears. (Even touch, if you're lucky enough to get a cupcake). But it is more than a sensory feast: in ways that remind me of Margaret Cameron's brilliant show Things Calypso Wanted To Say, a fond memory from around 1990, Cake is an excoriatingly honest, funny and sometimes bleak examination of subversive feminine eroticism.

The first thing you notice is Gaelle Mellis's design. When you enter the Tower, you walk to your seat across a stage sprinkled with icing sugar, trying not to trip over small piles of cupcakes that are piled on the floor. The two performers, Astrid Pill and Zoe Barry, are already present, softly singing the nursery rhyme "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker man".

The show is performed in the round to a small audience. In the centre of the stage is a wooden kitchen table, and in the corners are a table with tea things, a glockenspiel and a chair. The feeling of intimacy is heightened by Geoff Cobham's subtly fanciful lighting design, which mostly consists of a raft of classic Australian kitchen lights hung low over the table.

Under Ingrid Voorendt's precise direction, Cake becomes a detailed integration of text, music and physical theatre. Pill narrates two parallel narratives, one in the first person and one in the third. The first follows a woman's hopeless passion for the baker in her local cake shop, from whom she purchases unseemly numbers of cakes, while never daring to tell her love; the other is a piercingly exact - even at times brutal - examination of a relationship, that explores the grief of losing a baby.

The narration is interspersed with songs, including a wicked version of This is the House that Jack Built. Zoe Barry, dressed identically to Pill in a demure skirt, shirt and stilettos, is Pill's wordless counterpoint: she performs the lush score live, becoming Pill's inner, witnessing self.

It could all be too cute for words, but the show's intelligence and wit - and its slyly obscene subversion of the apparently inhibited femininity it explores - ensures that it never is. Such a show could be in great danger of simply confirming the diminutive of the feminine; instead, its artists gracefully steer it to a surprising affirmation of the female self. Who can bake her own cakes.

Kin, on the other hand, is yang to Cake's yin. This show is an exploration of maleness: in particular, it looks at the fertile, delicate period of prepubesence, when boys are poised between childhood and manhood. In particular, and with a gentleness that is the best kind of tact, it explores the issues faced by Indigenous boys. It's advisedly named: the performers, all aged between 10 and 14, are the nephews and the son of its director, Bangarra Dance Theatre's Stephen Page.

Like Mellis, Peter England has designed this show with great care for the spatial relationships between performers and their audience. Except for a row of seats at the back, the stage is surrounded on two sides by a bench arrangement, which immediately gives it a pleasant informality (a quality heightened by the number of children present on the night I went - I wish that children were seen more often at the theatre).

The show opens with the boys casually gathering together for a jam under a spill of light on the wide Merlyn stage. It's an ingenious opening that unobstrusively harnesses those young, potentially chaotic energies. And, as the familiar Led Zeppelin chords echo across the stage, it is immediately and charmingly recognisable to anyone who has had anything to do with teenage boys.

As you would expect, Kin is exquisitely choreographed, moving between several loosely-connected scenes that enact different aspects of the boys' lives. They muck about in a beaten-up car; they stun themselves into insensibility sniffing petrol; they dance - both rap and traditional dance - for us and for each other.

The show deals with serious issues with a light touch, exploring domestic violence, racism and land rights. In a highlight, the boys perform a rap version of Oodgeroo Noonuccal's (formerly Kath Walker) 1962 poem, Aboriginal Charter of Rights, reminding us that Indigenous activism has a long and distinguished history that is still very much alive.

Perhaps what is most striking about Kin is how these young performers own it: it is very clear that their performances emerge from their individual physicalities and experiences. It's an exemplary example of sensitive collaboration with young people, which expresses their worlds without exploiting them. The show is short - around 35 minutes - but length is no synonym for substance: as it shifted to its final scene, a videoed projection of an initiation into adulthood, I felt I had come a long way.

I hope it is not merely sentimental to say that around halfway through, I found myself in tears. I think what moved me was the freedom of a particular gesture as a boy danced, a piercing moment of joyousness that exquisitely expressed the vulnerability and pride and tumultuous anarchy of boys on the threshold of manhood.

It was one of those moments when theatre justifies itself, when it reveals our connections as well as our differences. In such moments, theatre becomes an intricate dance between audiences and artists, between our social and private selves; a place of fleeting but profound communion. In this sense, the most generously human, both Cake and Kin are profoundly political works.

Picture: Astrid Pill in Cake. Photo: Jeff Busby


Anonymous said...

i hope it's not merely sentimental to say that reading your account of the show brought a tear to my eye. i'm going this afternoon. can't wait.

you didn't jacob boehme's puppetry piece 'idja' at the grant street theatre last week by any chance?


Anonymous said...

I agree with Ben, it was a very moving account of the show. Shakeel.