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Carnivale 2003


Across great divides

Keith Gallasch


Urban Theatre Projects, India@oz.sangam Urban Theatre Projects, India@oz.sangam
photo Heidrun Löhr
Carnivale appears to grow stronger year by year, presenting more coherent and adventurous programs and opening up local talent to the wider audience it deserves. Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s The Living Museum of Fetish/ized Identities, Sidetrack’s The Book Keeper, Urban Theatre Project’s India@oz.sangam, Karen Therese’s Sleeplessness, Sivan Gabrielovich’s The Cool Room and the installation, Sound of Missing Objects at Performance Space were just a handful of the many Carnivale shows that made for an engrossing experience. The Book Keeper has already been reviewed by RealTime; Gail Priest’s response to the Living Museum.

India@oz.sangam

Urban Theatre Projects is adept at adroitly managing large scale performance events. India@oz.sangam is another fine example of the company’s ability to focus on a community, draw out its talents and concerns and present them in an open-ended framework that can attract large audiences from that community and beyond. Most distinctively, this production had a tremendous sense of pride, fun and celebration, embodied as it was in the spectacle and melodrama of Bollywood, that miracle of the hybrid arts, and focused on being young and Indian-Australian. Dancing and singing were to be expected at every turn. In the foyer we watch children in a story-telling circle and, on a large video monitor, their peers in India learning yoga. We are then invited to join a parade led by a turbaned man held aloft to the adjoining riverside. Sari-clad girls dance on a long stairway (nicely reflected in the river) and Indian hip hop beats sail across the water. On the riverbank below us a cricket game materialises alongside a Hills Hoist hung with sheets picking up movie projections. Broken into groups we return to the foyer, passing a couple of eager rappers on the way, to witness women in delicate, sensuous song and dance amidst candles and bells. Our guide explains we are celebrating Diwali, the festival of light. We file into a darkened room where guides introduce us to Indian film classics, spices, flower patterning, a Diwali altar and invite us to relax on a couch as projected images of a hand painting ceremony gather on its veiled walls.

From this intimacy we emerge into a crowded theatre where cast members are cajoling the audience into an Indian singalong. A couple in their 50s constantly surprise their fellow Indian-Australians with a repertoire of rarities which everyone seems to half know. A few rows back, 4 boys break into glorious cross-cultural doo-wop. Once everyone has gathered, the performers spring into a quickfire string of comic skits and little dramas—parents struggling to understand sons who only speak hip hop; a “This is Your Wife” parody, “putting the ‘arranged’ back into the arranged marriage”; a father with 2 PhDs unrecognised in Australia; the trials of taking money ‘home’ to India; a grim monologue about sexual abuse in a conservative society; a young wife denied English classes. The younger women gather in a song of defiance, one of their number on sax, the bodies say pop, the gesturing hands say traditional Indian dance. Two boys perform a great piece about being labelled black (“all my life I’ve been running from one image to the next...I need to get rid of the mask, the colour.”) The irony of their plight is powerfully stated in their admiration for black American heroes—Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X...Performed on a sitcom loungeroom set these scenes are informally presented, the writing is rough, the acting is variable, endings sometimes indeterminate, but the commitment and the drive is there.

We’re led into a cabaret-formatted courtyard with video monitors, a pair of traditional dancers onstage. A sleek car invades the yard, the bonnet draped with girls in their modern best, ready to displace the past, but the final gathering onstage of the participants offers all possibilities: this from one of the most remarkably adaptive of human cultures. Although sometimes more conventionally theatrical than its Urban Theatre Project predecessors, India@oz.sangam doubtless reflects the passions and artform interests of its participants. But the overarching structure (of installation, exhibit, performance and spectacle) maintains the hybridity for which the company is famed and which offers communities the most flexible way to present and explore their cultures.

Karen Therese, Sleeplessness Karen Therese, Sleeplessness
photo Angie Abdilla
Sleeplessness

Karen Therese’s solo performance is one the most adventurous of recent times and certainly one of the best of 2003. It’s a risky venture, an up-close investigation into a state of ‘not knowing’, a sleeplessness, a family mystery in which Therese plays both herself and, at several critical moments, her Hungarian grandmother who long ago disappeared and whose death certificate described her as male. This is a medical and psychiatric mystery and a tragedy about the pressures of war and migration. Therese and her sister solve the mystery but the great weight of personal plight lingers unbearably, as does the dark legacy of heredity.

Therese’s performance style is forthright, unavoidable and the enactment of the grandmother’s seizures, an assault, shock treatment and her own childhood anxieties are such that not everyone in the audience feels comfortable—sometimes these lives and personalities are too big for this small space. But what a space. Projections flicker across the walls, ranging from little iconic images to wall-to-wall phantasms. It is a space of transformations and the back and forth of history. Filmmaker Margie Medlin travelled to Hungary with Therese to create the wonderful black and white images of the performer in the guise of her couturier grandmother. Other images have a haunting old world colour that is at once nostalgic and appalling because of the pain of loss they signal. This is a space that Therese inhabits, frantically scrawling the accumulating data of the investigation across walls pinned with letters and documents and certificates, old clothes, dress patterns and strange fragments of latex, like the skin of stretch marks and ageing and torture. This is set design as installation: the curious audience inhabits it at the end of the show.

Karen Therese’s script is plain and simply delivered, but it is rich in detail and place; the evocation of Sydney from a migrant perspective is grim, the sense of moment always potent, of growing paranoia and suicidal impulses. The performance is brave and the sizeable team of collaborators have made a wonderful dramaturgical and design context for it. Sleeplessness should be widely seen.

The Cool Room

The Cool Room is sensitive, sometimes explosive territory that director Deborah Leiser has visited previously in A Room With No Air (1998), with Leiser as a fleeing Jew harbored begrudgingly by a German (Regina Heilmann). A Room With No Air, was a powerful performance work in which the physical and visual components counted more than the spare verbal utterances. The Cool Room is primarily a play of words, beginning sparely and growing in density and moral perplexity as 2 chefs (Israeli and Lebanese migrants) locked in a restaurant’s refrigerated cool room feel the full weight of the deadly chill of their relationship. However Melbourne-based Israeli playwright Sivan Gabrielovich establishes the play in jump-cut fragments, pulling back from literalising the situation or its transitions, making us read them and make the connections. Leiser finds in the spaces in between a physical language for the performers that choreographs the moral twists in an increasingly claustrophobic space where arguments turn on themselves and ironies become overwhelming.

The production is striking from the outset—the chefs carry in 3 performers like sides of beef and hang them on hooks: they are the ‘meat.’ They become a chorus, no mere ‘meat in the sandwich’, there is little innocence in this world. I would have liked their role more tightly defined. Too often they slip into a generalist chorus mode, or become a handy satirical device. At the play’s end they get the last word, carrying a moral weight they have not earned, the content of which threatens to trivialise all that had gone before (in effect: ‘don’t cry for us, we love our war’).

Through its bloody anecdotes, appallingly cruel jokes, sexual paranoia, reflex racism, shared recipes (same foods, different names) and its acute sense of migrant displacement The Cool Room offers a disturbing account of cultural tensions carried over to another homeland, Australia. However, this local situation is barely coloured in at all, it is always a metaphor for a conflict initiated between Lebanon and Israel in 1982, lasting 18 years and still alive in the bodies of these men, these cultures even if they don’t want it. As a young Israeli writer, Gabrielovich is not easy on her own people, but nor does she see a way out. The end of the play is like hitting a brick wall—the Middle Eastern conflict as neurosis turned psychosis. Incurable. Of course, I might have missed significant nuances as the play argued its way to a conclusion; it’s a head-spinning debate. The Cool Room is one of many plays appearing now that urgently address social, political and ethical issues with a bracing immediacy. At its best it does so with passion, if not always with finesse, and with a not undeserved bluntness given Australia’s own moral obtuseness—who are we to judge?. Matthew Crosby is good as the extrovert chef, an ex-Israel soldier alert to his country’s wrongs, while Majid Shokor conveys a quiet intensity and woundedness that is palpable.

Sound of Missing Objects

Paul Virilio proposed a museum of accidents based on the premise that every new technology comes with an accident in tow (a ship, a shipwreck; a light, a blackout etc). Sound of Missing Objects is an installation created by Panos Couros (sound artist), Jonathan Jones (installation artist) and Illaria Vanni (writer, academic, curator), a spooky visual and aural evocation of a museum of cultural erasure. There are 5 elegant Victorian glass-topped museum cabinets (with plates like ‘The Great Exhibition, London 1851’), and there’s writing on the wall. In the cabinets there is crumpled, cryptically patterned tissue paper, the kind for wrapping precious objects, but empty. Finely etched into the glass are the names of cultural artefacts and their taxonomies reflected in the mirrored bases of the cabinets. The words are those of the European collectors: “Bamboo shaft”, “Womerahs”, “Nulla Nulla Sharp-pointed”, “Three Plaster casts of Aboriginal feet and fingers” etc. The words are like ghosts—you’re always looking through them. Some are crossed out. The patterns on the paper are also traces, delicate designs based, for example, on “‘two drawings by Mickey, native of the Ulladulla tribe’...1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago.” The writing on the walls is just as fragile, it’s in pencil. On one side of long diagonal lines it’s in an Aboriginal language; on the other it’s in English, an often derogatory account of Indigenous people, forecasting their inevitable extinction, but noting occasional virtues, like skill at drawing. The sound score is also ghostly; it’s difficult to find its point of emanation (until you realise it’s the cabinets themselves) as it distantly catalogues a world of objects and people lost to invasion, scattered to the world’s museums and extinction. Sound of Missing Objects is a melancholy work. Beyond anger, its sense of loss is deeply felt, realised as measured, beautiful, putting desecration to rest in a reconstitution and emptying of the 19th century museum.


India@oz.sangam, Urban Theatre Projects, co-directors Cicily Ponnor, Alicia Talbot; visual design artist Vananda Ram; multimedia Sam James; musical director Phil Downing; choreographer Chum Ehelepola; sound artists Masala Mix; DJ earthbrownkid; Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Oct 2-12

Sleeplessness, performer, maker, installation Karen Therese; visual media design, installation Sean Bacon; sound design, composer Anna Liebzeit; dramaturg Nikki Heywood; facilitating director Toula Filokostas; film artist Margie Medlin; latex screens Jane Shadbolt; Performance Space, Oct 1-12

The Cool Room, writer Sivan Gabrielovich, director Deborah Leiser, designer Niklas Pajanti, performers Matthew Crosby, Majid Shockor, Alex Ben-Mayor, Karen Therese, Konstantinos Tsetsonis; Performing Lines; Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, Oct 16-Nov 2

Sound of Missing Objects, installation by Panos Couros, Jonathan Jones, Illaria Vanni; Performance Space, Oct 3-Nov1,

Carnivale, Sydney, Sept 24-Oct 19

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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