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Live Bait: Boxing the monstrous

Bryoni Trezise

Bryoni Trezise is a research student at the School of Theatre Film and Dance, UNSW, and a performance writer and maker with PACT Youth Theatre.

The Boxed Set

My Darling Patricia, Dear Pat My Darling Patricia, Dear Pat
photo Heirdrun Löhr
Hinting at residues of human cargo and mysterious ocean traffic, a converted shipping container worked as provocative metaphor and sculptural performance space for the diverse sequence of works that comprised Live Bait festival’s Boxed Set program (RT58, p36). At once an ominous capsule incinerating its freight, a house of feminist horrors, a monster’s home and a satirically-sweet motherly dwelling, the container became an expression of the theatrical imaginative, prompting explorations of the invisible cultural and political boxes that we covet, ignore, repress and escape.

First to emerge amidst the buzz of Bondi’s open amphitheatre are 5 destitute figures, landed from some other dreadful place in time or history. Their faces are stretched in torment, their bodies harrowed and gaunt. One tows a large, heavy tabernacle. One pulls a barrow heaped with crumpled suit jackets. One stalks ahead and purposefully—urgently—climbs a ladder and begins clanging it, and his bucketed-head, violently against a brick wall. This is Gravity Feed, and from the moment their presence is felt in the arena, frivolous evening becomes ritualised chaos, secure crowds become scattered, immaterial bodies.

The Gravity of the Situation works to generate unfamiliar zones, to desensitise the audience to the calm balminess of a summer’s night and surround them with harbingers of...death, nightmare, apocalypse, underworld? Propelled by the sonic thuds and gurglings of a world aching to split open, the performers band and discharge, carry fire, throw coats, grip to the edges of walls in shafts of light. People are pushed into corners or the centre of the courtyard, made to assume and surrender territories or dodge spinning cardboard flanks.

This movement plays out a kind of compulsive nihilism, a frustrated and repeated logic of anarchy clamouring to access a blip or glitch in the seamless running of things and push any moment to its inevitable point of rupture. And the thrill of this perforation is compounded by the fact that the audience not only witnesses, but completes the experiential exchange. It suddenly becomes part of something bigger than itself—a frightening yet scarily enticing modality that is part ritual, part performance, part yearning for something other than what we know and have.

Notions of feminine fear, gothic horror and female representation (depicted as its own type of horror story) are all given a comic bite in Frumpus’ Ripper 2004 (director Cheryle Moore, video Sam James). Transforming Gravity Feed’s smoking tabernacle into a house of horrors, Frumpus emerge ridiculously red-tracksuited with torchlights and begin running (and dropping) pac-man style in a pantomime of fear and dodgem’ bullets. In front of a projected sequence of blonde women (again) running (presumably excerpts from various slasher films), enter the Frumpus women newly dressed in the archetypal white nighties and blonde wigs requisite of any truly gruesome horror flick. They “want water” they tell us, “water to drink”, in a peculiar moment of mimicry and satire that mirrors their thirst-crazed ‘feminine’ counterparts on screen. And then they are running again, this time their nighties becoming those in the projection, whilst a miniature ‘evil’ Frumpus doll is bloodily birthed from a backpack serving as a prosthetic womb.

Frumpus are masters at clinching just the right edge between comic artistry and ridiculous silliness. Ripper 2004 explores connections between mythologies of fear (especially a ‘feminine’ fear) of unknown territory and of femininity replayed on the omnipotent boxes of popular visual culture. Hence, later in the piece they construct a curious juxtaposition of sleeping Red Riding Hoods set against a video of buxom naked women teaching Tai Chi. At times these textual collisions can be oblique or alternately too obvious, but the skit-like quality and general buffoonery Frumpus employs suggest that not only are they running from the horror of their own representation, they are running because they just do it so well.
Julie-Anne Long, Boxing Baby Jane Julie-Anne Long, Boxing Baby Jane
photo Heidrun Löhr
Womanhood is given a different telling in Julie-Anne Long’s subtly satirical meditation on motherhood, Boxing Baby Jane. In collaboration with video artist Samuel James, Long constructs a “duet for live mother and projected child” in which the figure of saintly mother is placed against footage of a very sickly-sweet disembodied girl child. In a series of projected sequences, Long interacts with the ‘fictitious’ child through a combination of abstract and literal choreographies, building a progressive antagonism that stems as much from the implied mother/daughter relationship as from the compositional difference their live and filmic bodies erect.

James’ video montage merges realtime footage, still shots, film intertexts and animated sequences to form a suspended limbo of part-image, part-performance that creates a skewed multi-dimensionality, particularly in moments where mother and daughter ‘enter’ excerpts from 1960s psychological thrillers that recall haunted suburbia and sinister veneers of smiles and propriety. Yet it seems that these canonical films and James’ playful interventions are intended to work more suggestively than literally. As the house of their pas de deux erupts into flames, both mother and daughter remain caught in past ideals of role and gender, living the frustrations and complexities of an obsessive relationship that has its cinematic boxing incinerate around them.

The past is met again with the entry of the 3 Patricias. Poised at the edge of the theatre space, they move in slow motion: a glance aside, a wave into the distance. Their faces are stiff with genteel smiles. As they begin to work slowly repeated choreographies of dainty running, anxious searching and signals afar, their focus carries us into the historical mise-en-scène of Dear Pat and compels us to attempt to make sense of their world.

The oddity and charge of Dear Pat stems from its orchestration of disparate elements. Calculated, choreographed bodies skilfully enact and lightly satirise mannerisms and ladylike gestures, while the sound design oscillates between the suggestive evocation of historical place, operatic lament, and the repetition of a mysterious love letter. And finally the enormous and otherworldly many-teeted puppet that explodes from within the box proper.

Holding these elements together is the steady tension of the performance company My Darling Patricia (Bridget Dolan, Clare Britton, Halcyon Macleod, Katrina Gill) whose collective force charts a trajectory towards the implied narrative of the box and builds with the promise of its climatic revelation. As we witness these wartime women being slowly swallowed by the inflatable monstrosity held inside the container’s jaws, and as we attempt to draw connections between hinted at moments of arrival and farewell, love affairs and train stations, it rather seems as if they are confronting, and submitting to, the monstrosity of imagination itself.

Threaded through the diversity of The Boxed Set performances were Theatre Kantanka’s jaw-wobbling, leg-tottering sheep (director Michael Cohen). Dressed luxuriously in faux sheepskin coats and black suspenders, the sheep canoodled and schmoozed their way through the evening, merging the potent ideas and summer frivolity the works offered to make for an event that both tackled monsters and ended with laughs. They entered on kiddie bikes, cooked their fellow animals as snags on a Weber, got caught in a moment of Frumpus horror, lapped themselves into a martini stupor and taught the audience to munch ovine style on grass. The delightful blankness and stupidity with which they undertook their humanoid tasks made for a drollness perfectly pitched to counter some of the more obscure artistry on show. Their play with the audience was particularly deviant, as in the cheeky cabaret number sung by one slinky ewe who plonked herself rudely on numerous gentlemen’s laps. In a titillating grand finale, they treated us all to a raunchy striptease complete with opportunistic mating and the flashing of their fleecy ‘bits’ to close.
Better than a Blow-Up Doll Better than a Blow-Up Doll
photo Heidrun Löhr

Two installation works in the Live Bait Pavilion also made use of the box motif, inviting spectators to physically interact with the configuration of the contained space and the very different worlds that each space generated.

Nik Wishart and Miles van Dorssen’s sound installation Cell definitely arrested the sonic equilibrium of the Live Bait open arena, conjuring a mad construction site pounding away on an early Sunday morning. Like a factory pissing steam and guttural engine-hammer, or like a rapid-fire army of machine guns pelleting out spray, Cell is an industrial orchestra, housed and outfitted in a 6m shipping container, and not accidentally making use of the voluminous acoustic boom such a metal structure can generate. Comprising bells, horns, xylophones and other less conventional percussive objects (I was sure there must be a jackhammer in there somewhere), Cell operates as a self-generating symphony that converts programmed data into spontaneous rhythmic sequences; at times an accelerated rat-a-tat spatter of body shuddering thuds, at others a dissonant chorus of tinny jangling chimes.

Painted with motifs of clouds and sky, the box is closed off by prison bars running across its front, a frustrating prohibition between bodies and the thunderous noise-machine. As loud as Cell is at its peak, there is something about the quality of this loudness that presses you to want to get right inside of it, so its rhythms can really vibrate your bones. There is a comic element to Cell too in the unexpected shifts and clashes of tempo, in the way it becomes an organism with its own pulsing personality, oscillating curiously between mechanical steelworks and shantytown one-man band—minus the one man.

While Cell resonates its industrial discord into the surrounding atmosphere, the spectators/clientele of Shagging Julie’s Better than a Blow-Up Doll! are invited to step inside the sealed confines of a protective caravan and experience imaginings of an outside post-apocalyptic world. Shagging Julie are the buff and spritely representatives of the Apoca Lifestyle Corporation, posted to give us a tour-cum-salespitch of what should be expected of life and lifestyle after the imminent nuclear holocaust has hit. Lined with tins of powdered orange drink, aluminium recycling signs and remnants galore, the Apoca Lifestyle Capsule creates an intimate performance space in which a handful of audience members are given expert instruction on how to comfortably and affordably “ride out Armageddon” in a pod that comes complete in a “range of fashion exteriors.”

The opening ramble is dry and tongue-in-cheek, taking on the language and tone of gameshows and cheesy mobile home racketeers. The performers aptly suggest we try a roleplay package that enables us to keep feeling useful as an ‘officeworker’ even though there is no work to be done. Or we might try the simulated cold-calling device from their ‘Sanity Guard System’ that makes us feel part of a larger world, when one doesn’t exist. Or, in moments of anxiety, we might try pressing one of the coloured alert buttons fitted inside the capsule to release tension. Of course, no emergency crews exist to be contacted. Shagging Julie’s attire is inspired by 1950s future-chic, with a one-piece wide-legged suit and convincing ‘spaceage’ hair design suggesting that the version of the future we are being given has been strangely exhumed from the past. The imagination behind the doomful product being sold, however, is painfully striking in the context of current world events, and in the face of an American superpower whose sentiments are sadly too archaic to bear contemplation.

The Boxed Set, curators Michael Cohen (Live Bait), Fiona Winning (Performance Space), Bondi Pavilion Amphitheatre, January 16-21;Cell, Miles van Dorssen, Nik Wishart, Bondi Pavilion, Jan 24-31; Better than a Blow-Up Doll! Shagging Julie, January 15-31, Bondi Pavilion; Live Bait Festival, Jan 14-31

Bryoni Trezise is a research student at the School of Theatre Film and Dance, UNSW, and a performance writer and maker with PACT Youth Theatre.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 31-

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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