disagreeable, but desirable

jess wallace: michelle heaven’s disagreeable object


Underground, in Melbourne’s Meat Market, the small audience is tucked in tight, an intimate gathering at one end of a basement. A tall, but small table is set aside, turned legs, painted black. A tiny chair sits under an archway. A pile of pods, a wire framed staircase, a taped up cardboard light…a black out. The sound of an electric fan turns through the space. Out of the darkness appears a black-clad maid. Her lips cover the length of a pea pod. She’s focused on biting into the flesh, teeth bared. Crunch. She eats, face twitching, chewing fast. Then flick, the pod is discarded. She stops and pulls a white cloth from the folds of her black apron-skirt and dabs her face, suddenly civilized. She stands. She places her goblet of peas on the chair and covers it with the cloth. Sliding away from the light, she dissolves into the blackness of the background. A tall man enters the scene, a looming figure. He lifts the cloth, takes from the goblet and stuffs his face. He stops fast, caught in the moment. Blackout. The audience laughs.

When the light comes up it is as if we have moved into another, distant time, a flashback that slowly reveals the body of the maid, now white capped, wearing a white dress coat. She turns against the wall. Is she mad…in mourning? The scratching sound of a record player catches. In the distorted static we can almost hear the sea. She detaches herself from the wall. Perfectly timed, out of time, she unwraps, now back in black. The record player plays faster than the dancer. Her movements dislocate and swoon; she falls in and out of a languid trance before transforming into a fastidious, sharply articulated figure, washing her hands under the black silhouette of a tap.

A growing sense of obsession drives this 30-minute show. Blackouts are used like jump cuts, shifting bodies, moving time. The need for the pea is revealed and hidden in stops and starts, distorted and disrupted movement, followed by invitations and dismissals. The competitive urges of the two characters, performed by Michelle Heaven and Brian Lucas, are often humorous and change quickly to something more macabre. Heaven stuffs the white cloth into her mouth. She spits out pods. Lucas hides behind archway pillars. Heaven hides behind Lucas. He bends forward and her face is revealed, conspiratorial. He sits up and it is the whiteness of her hand that we see tugging at his ear lobe. She offers him a large grotesque copy of the pea. He is reluctant. She forces it in and he swallows, gags and shudders, until she calms him down. The pea is the object of their exchange, a circulating relationship of cravings, as if in someway they are eating each other. The small woman and the tall man move together, a slow creeping, bending shape. Sudden movements are followed by space, a series of glances, and hidden intentions. It is all as funny as it is disconcerting.

Disagreeable Object is strongly cinematic. From the beginning it feels as if you’ve slipped into the celluloid of 1920s German Expressionism. Darkness is central to the premise and it is expressed thematically and through the production design. Light is literally limited and Ben Cobham’s design references the elongated and often bizarre shadows of films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Nosferatu. The basement is set in scenic spaces: the stairs become noir-like shafts, a spotlight over the tall-small table creates a coffin, or an altar, and the circular light from a surgical theatre offers an eerie green to the alchemy of Heaven’s pea creations.

Louise McCarthy’s costume design works in a similar way; Heaven’s black bustled skirt, distorted by the back lit shape-changing of her body, echoes the quiet malevolence of Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Likewise Lucas’s ill-fitting suit reminds one of Count Orlock or Riff Raff. His just too short trousers exacerbate his height, particularly in contrast to Heaven whose skirt laps the floor. Scale shifts through a combination of choreography, lighting and costume. Bill McDonald’s soundscape expands the timeless atmosphere of the characters’ world. Heaven is miked, her vocal effects evocative of squeaking trolleys and tight turning taps, of eating and stuffing and breathing, are heightened. McDonald contrasts this with electronic interference, radio waves and music from record players that work to create openings—reminders of the outside world.

The detail of the production of Disagreeable Object is intricate; the timing of movements, of bodies and of mood are precise. And yet there is a feeling of nostalgia and longing that transgresses a sense of time. Meanwhile, the disagreeable works in opposition to the urge, underpinning an insatiable desire for satisfaction from the object…then blackout.

Disagreeable Object, choreographer, performer Michelle Heaven, collaborator, performer Brian Lucas, lighting, set design Ben Cobham, sound Bill McDonald, costume Louise McCarthy, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, June 25-29

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. web

© Jessica Wallace; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2008