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A young man in a motorised wheelchair rather abruptly asks us to follow him into a plush-curtained waiting room. It’s all very luxurious, and I notice the gold-leaf angels painted on the ceiling. There really are angels in this architecture. Unexpectedly one wall begins to move slowly away, pulling the curtains with it. Space expands. The world changes, revealing an intricate, seemingly ramshackle performance environment that swallows the audience whole. We’re not in Shopfront anymore, Toto.

We’re seated amidst an enormous set comprising platforms and islands, with adjoining bridges and a wild profusion of clashing building styles, colours and sounds—a monumental design by Joey Ruigrok van der Werven, with production by the late and very much lamented Ian Bowie. It’s a marketplace cum cargo-cult village, and it’s heavily populated with over 20 performers making themselves at home in dozens of nooks and crannies, communicating noisily through a Babel-like confusion of repeated vocalisations, percussion and scraps of various languages.

In this world, we, the audience, are clearly the foreigners, and we’re left to sort through the fragments of phrases we might understand, trying to put the pieces together. Luckily for us, the locals are friendly, and have prepared a spectacle to welcome us into their home. While it is unclear what this spectacle is about—Creation myth? Cautionary tale? Moral fable? Bedtime story? All of the above?—the ingenuity and enthusiasm of its staging makes this question quickly redundant. The story involves an angel, rescued from the air, carrying a transistor radio, transmitting sound through space and bodies. A boat carrying a performer in a wheelchair sets sail across the sea of audience, and arrives safely at a distant port. A strange bird places her treasures safely in a large metal sphere, high in the air. Up on another wall, a piano is played raucously. Television sets grow on trees (video Sean Bacon), and flowerpots mysteriously transform into drums. The village is alive with sound. This unnameable spectacle is anarchic, energetic, and epic, the airwaves featuring indecipherable messages.

It’s frequently very loud, possessing a joyous, infectious strangeness. Director TJ Eckleberg and associate director Marc Carra run about the edges of this world like demented ringmasters, feeding fragments of rhythms around the room, spreading energy like a virus. Abstract emotive sounds fly rapidly around the town, feeding on each other, riffing on phrases—“Hey you!” “Freedom in the choices!” “You rock!” Some of the audience join in.

By rejecting a model of social competence based on a formal command of language, and by relocating the signifying process of performance in rhythm, pitch, sound and image, the Angels collaborators have levelled the performance playing field, effectively integrating an energetic mixed ability cast. The physical abilities of these performers may be different, but in this world, no one is disabled. In this work Shopfront has created an important enabling place, creating lines of flight for those usually flightless. Disability art? For these young artists, disability is someone else’s word. Highly engaging and vividly realised, Angels in the Architecture is a wild night in the theatre.


Shopfront Theatre for Young People, Angels in the Architecture, director TJ Eckleberg, associate director Marc Carra, design Joey Ruigrok van der Werven, aerial artist Bernie Regan, multimedia Sean Bacon, sound design Trevor Brown, textiles Marty Jay, costumes/props Herbert Peppard, lighting design Ian Bowie; Shopfront, Sydney, Sept 2-11

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 44

© David Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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