A nice night out

Caroline Wake: Malcolm Whittaker, Jumping the Shark Fantastic

Malcolm Whittaker,  Bjorn Stewart, Jumping the Shark Fantastic

Malcolm Whittaker, Bjorn Stewart, Jumping the Shark Fantastic

Malcolm Whittaker, Bjorn Stewart, Jumping the Shark Fantastic

Jumping the Shark Fantastic starts at 7pm or at least it is supposed to; in actual fact it starts at ten past. The starting time has been determined by artist Malcolm Whittaker in consultation with the local community.

During a residency at Campbelltown Arts Centre, he has asked people what would constitute the best theatre show ever. Having compiled the responses and printed them on fluorescent paper (the community wants the show to be “colourful”), this evening he is taking to the stage to describe and to some extent enact their wishes.

The show begins with Whittaker in a bear suit, shuffling across the stage to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” As the song finishes, he removes the bear head and drags out a cardboard box containing props, including a six-pack of beer. He explains that the best show he ever attended started with an actor offering the audience a drink, so he is doing the same now. Having explained the premise of the show, he presents his results.

The best theatre show would, he informs us, start not too early but not too late; it would start on time, and it would take place in a theatre a mere 10-minute walk from home. Every seat would be the best seat in the house and there would be an empty seat between each, should you want some personal space. Tickets are $15 and no one has missed out. The show itself, he reports, would start with a kabuki drop—simultaneously a large red curtain falls with a flourish. Whittaker continues: the curtain would part, as indeed it does, to reveal a cat on its hind legs, which it does not. Instead, we see a male performer in a suit reading out the instruction. This play between narration and presentation continues throughout the show.

Together with five other performers, Whittaker conjures—which is to say describes, suggests and hints at but never fully reveals—the best show ever. The characters include a farm boy and his farm girl crush, a convict, a milliner, two sex workers and a Holocaust survivor. The action is banal (a kitten has a bad dream and a mother cat comforts it) and brutal (there is a car crash in which two people will actually die, though it is performed here with toy cars), with the occasional plot twist (not specified, but enacted as a murder-suicide). The actors are professionals (our Cate would appear), amateurs (turns out they are just as good as Cate), real (an actor playing a victim of bullying would be revealed as the actual victim) and unreal (actors playing actors playing actors).

When combined these elements will produce a show that will be simultaneously authentic (a live feed of a public bathroom projected onto the back wall) and meta-theatrical (‘the canon’ would be undermined in a thoughtful, original way) or both (the fourth wall would be broken, only for a fifth even more impenetrable wall to emerge). Of course, the fun of the current show lies in the match or mismatch between the description and the action: two actors play the mother and baby cat, which is amusingly absurd, but when the theatre is described as plunging into total darkness, it actually does. In another fascinating moment, an actor refuses to read out the description Whittaker hands to her. Intriguingly, reviewers are not mentioned, which I presume means that they are either absent or awestruck.

Like post’s recent Oedipus Schmoedipus (RT119), Jumping the Shark Fantastic combines several contemporary performance trends: it deconstructs the canon, references pop culture, includes members of the community through consultation and/or casting and pursues a deliberately and deceptively amateur aesthetic. Unlike Oedipus however, Jumping never risks staging a full-blown scene of joy, violence or catharsis. Instead it stays safe, meaning that it’s clever and entertaining but ultimately too slight to be fully satisfying. Perhaps it’s all the pop culture but on the way home I remember a line from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou?, when Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) offers Everett (George Clooney) some roast gopher for dinner, to which Everett replies, “No thank you, Delmar. A third of a gopher would only rouse my appetite without bedding her back down.” Not unlike a staged discussion of theatre.

Campbelltown Arts Centre: Jumping the Shark Fantastic, lead artist Malcolm Whittaker, performers Valerie Berry, Brett Johnson, Doug Niebling, Bjorn Stewart, Christie Woodhouse, lighting design Emma Lockhart-Wilson, sound design Preston Hawkes; Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 11-12 July

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 48

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

18 August 2014