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Of pearls and peas

Gail Priest

Lisa O'Neill, Christine Johnson, Pianissimo Lisa O'Neill, Christine Johnson, Pianissimo
Christine Johnson is a true chanteuse—a singer who may not startle from a technical perspective (though there is much technique) but rather with her very presence and interpretation of material. In her latest offering at The Studio, Johnson is joined by dancer Lisa O’Neill to create the gently peculiar Pianissimo.

Firmly rooted in the cabaret genre, the piece knits together a selection of the favourite songs of Madam Thumbalina (Johnson), a diva suffering some kind of non-specified crisis. She is also burdened by a new accompanist (O’Neill) whose pixie-like character torments and coaxes the Madam out of her stasis. The progression of Madam Thumbalina’s emotional thawing/healing is literally strung together with the conceit of some big green beads/peas, which first appear as O’Neill’s coveted necklace, then roll across the stage or pop up in mystical places to punctuate each section.

Johnson writes in the program that she has always been fascinated by the fairytale of the Princess and the Pea, and it operates well here as a grounding device, highlighting the idea that it is agitations and aggravations that make a person who they are. Overall this metaphor works to the dramaturgical advantage of Pianissimo’s subtleties and ironies. However the addition of the metaphoric power contained in each of the songs makes for a few too many resonances and a sometimes unfocused feel.

Not that Johnson hasn’t chosen some great songs. She opens with a remarkably quiet, a capella version of Lilac Wine that stands up to the classic versions by Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. She wanders through varied musical territory, from nursery rhyme to The Velvet Underground to The Prodigy. Laurie Anderson, a clear favourite is allowed 2 numbers, and the bondage mistress interpretation of Black Cat Nights combined with O’Neill’s deft choreography is definitely a highlight. Vocally, Johnson is most interesting in the lower, quieter parts of her register, which allow her more room for interpretation. This is augmented by some beautiful musical arrangements by Brett Collery, particularly in the Anderson pieces. Though the irony was not lost, I could have lived without Somewhere from West Side Story as the finale—perhaps a matter of personal taste.

Pianissimo is a visually stunning work. To say that Johnson is statuesque is an understatement and with O’Neill barely reaching chest height they create a constantly engaging duo. Much of O’Neill’s choreography works with the music, but its true strength is evident when she seems to work against it, using stark geometries that add a darker tone to the work.

The costumes are magnificently gothic and surprise with all manner of conversions—O’Neill’s skirt is ripped off to reveal a go-go dancing outfit, and Johnson turns the skirt into a cloak creating an extraordinary image of bat-like majesty. The set is spare, utilising only a tiny red piano for Lisa O’Neill to straddle and tumble over, but is augmented by the dynamic and highly specific lighting designed by Matt Scott and realised by Jo Currey, which for the most part creates vivid atmospheric shifts although it has the occasional tendency to draw too much attention to itself.

Pianissimo is a bemusing entertainment, a distinctive cabaret/musical theatre/dance hybrid. Misgivings about elements of its structure are easily forgotten given the visual opulence and the sheer strength of these 2 intriguing and idiosyncratic performers.

Pianissimo, devisers/performers Christine Johnson, Lisa O’Neill; The Studio, Sydney Opera House; May 12-22

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 12

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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