between hell & heaven

keith gallasch: sydney fringe at pact

OVERWHELMED BY THE VAST NUMBER OF SHOWS PLAYING ACROSS SYDNEY IN SEPTEMBER, I MANAGED TO TAKE IN ONLY TWO PRODUCTIONS IN THE SYDNEY FRINGE 2012, BOTH AT PACT THEATRE. ANNABELLE MCMILLAN’S PORPHYRIA’S SLUMBER AND MATRIARK ART THEATRE’S ALARUM MELDED A VARIETY OF FORMS IN HYBRID WORKS THAT REVEALED THE ADVANTAGES OF SUCH AN APPROACH, BUT ALSO THE RISKS.

McMillan disturbingly conflates Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, that grimly sensual Victorian poem of murderous love, with PL Travers’ Edwardian fantasy for children, Mary Poppins. The performer’s persona appears to be trapped between earth and sky: the floor invites prostration, vegetables are prepared and shared and, at the end, an umbrella will not take flight, leaving McLennan huffing and puffing. In between there’s a superfluity of imagery (despite a program note announcing the work as “an exercise in minimalism”), including a video longueur of a young man (perhaps embodying the narrator of the poem) and an unrevealing list of what the artist imagines when she thinks of Browning—an old piano, crumpled sheets, dust, pollen etc. McMillan is an engaging performer when not overplaying, her material has potential but its realisation is unwieldy and too often opaque.

Writer-director Robert den Engelsman’s Alarum, for Matriark Art Theatre, likewise evinces a futile desire to escape gravity—”I want to fly with Pegasus…but our wings have to be clipped”—and, for what is declared to be a love story, similarly suggests fatal disconnection. The central male character Samuel’s ennui (“my soul is long dead”) pervades the production, with his partner Gabriel struggling to understand his pain. A third figure, the stranger Ahasuerus (eventually revealed as some form of the resurrected Egyptian god Osiris) is a complicating child/adult intruder into the couple’s hopeless relationship, perhaps as Samuel’s doppelganger. Some simple, entwining movement over and around a tabletop evokes their possible oneness. The work’s fatalism is intensified by the use of finely crafted, if not expertly deployed, puppet skeletons (in the style of the Mexican Day of the Dead), allowing the characters to express their plight more passionately, and cosmologically. The director’s writing is awkward, the sometimes American delivery odd (given the absence of any context) and the symbolism overwrought. But there’s no doubting the commitment of the performers to their material.

PACT, Sydney Fringe 2012: Porphyria’s Slumber, devisor, performer Annabelle McMillan, director, dramaturg Danielle Maas, producer Holly Orkin, designer Alice Harvey, lighting Amber Silk; Matriark Art Theatre, Alarum, writer, director Robert den Engelsman, director, movement coach Scott Parker, performers Chase Burnett, Kit Bennett, Michael Smith, dramaturg Kathryn Roberts, designer Aleisa Jelbart, video +Harvest (Mathew Harvey), lighting Vanessa Hall, sound design Tim Fitz; PACT Theatre, Sept 7-29

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 34

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

11 December 2012