I am curious

Virginia Baxter

Helen Paris, Family Hold Back

Helen Paris, Family Hold Back

An audience of two. No sooner have we entered the tiny house in suburban Tempe than we’re corralled by Lois Weaver from the UK performance group, Curious, who takes us a little too easily into her confidence. She offers chocolates and then whisks them away. The gesture calls up a childhood memory that still stings. Before we know it she’s inveigled us into a disturbing tale of lost scents as she sniffs from bottles and speaks to a video camera in the corner. Only as we’re ushered out of the room do I notice that the couch we were sitting on is littered with rose petals and that we have shared the performance with a fish watching from a giant bowl. Such is the hierarchy of the senses.

The kitchen is more welcoming; the table piled high with red chilies. Leslie Hill seems at home, though this place is not her own. For us over here on the other side of the table, on the other side of the world, she conjures a dark reverie from a girlhood in New Mexico using her own sure fire recipe: tobacco smoke, the sweet sizzle of pork chop in frying pan and a special blend of “sacred” chili powder which at one truly alarming moment she sniffs through a bank note like cocaine. Add a sqirt of hairspray and a mess of popcorn erupting onto the floor from a cartoon appliance on the bench, some ceremonial Native American music and our own oily shot of Tequila served with lime and salt and you have it: a whiff of the uneasy calm of living in the shadow of the H-bomb tests in Los Alamos. Like the liquor, this memory burns in the throat. We drink, with Hill, to homesickness.

In the darkened bedroom, Helen Paris is home sick. She languishes between the sheets; feverish with snaffled angst, female trouble. She wallows in a bog of constrained desire and disgust till, consumed with hunger for something other, she upends herself into the box of biscuits she’s concealed under her pillow. As she recalls the quest for her mother’s very par-tic-ul-ar perfumed lotion, I sense anger in the bitten lip and catch the sudden, bracing stench of disinfectant.

Shown the door, I’m wary of the lady in the lounge. I don’t like the sound of either rose or violet cream. As it turns out it’s just our scent memories she’s after for the camera. We snaffle the sickly treat and swap her for linseed oil on a cricket bat, the pine needle tang of Eau de Givenchy, and leave.

On The Scent is one of a number of performances I’ve experienced in houses. All have had their moments and this one has many. The one that’s intrigued me most was the very first part of IRAA Theatre’s Secret Room (2000) in which Roberta Bosetti invited an audience of 7 to join her for a meal. At the table we sat with a mix of familiars and strangers. In the corner was a website version of the same room on a monitor, like a mirror. Bosetti came and went between kitchen and dining room, dishing out food and improvised small talk, dropping in small clues to her dramatic purpose. For a time we around the table could not place ourselves. We were functioning from the learned habits of theatregoing using the gestures of table manners and yet we were ‘elsewhere.’ I could have stayed for days. What was happening in the room was live and uncertain. The performer lost me when she led us upstairs into a small room and shifted suddenly into actor mode and, though we were in a real house, we might as well have been watching a play on a stage.

Impressed as I was by many aspects of the Curious performances, I experienced something of the same sense of distance. I loved the ease of these performers, the sinewy syntax of Paris’ diatribe, Hill’s dark materials casually meted out in her kitchen confidential. The scents were rich and real enough but I wondered why, despite the intimacy of the site and the proximity of the performers, the work felt curiously close to theatrical monologue.

In their double bill at The Studio, Smoking Gun and Family Hold Back, we experience even more powerfully the clash of cultures between US and UK with Leslie Hill and Helen Paris occupying that same elusive performative space.

Hill arrives onstage in the outfit of a Klansman, striking matches to light her way. What follows is a droll monologue that begins with an intriguing tale of genetic mapping. Seeking to find out “where we come from, where we’re going?” Hill traces her own lineage to Europe, realises she’s a “mongrel” and that everyone is related. In fact, she narrows us down to a grassland species that came out of the trees and drifted onto the savanna. She unpacks her own patch of lawn from a suitcase and takes off her shoes. Unfortunately, from here, her story is all association. She meanders into gun control, leading into a participatory segment in which audience volunteers get to wield a firearm as long as they conform to the Australian laws, ie sign a document in the presence of the licensed armorer who’s onstage to receive them. Her tale fans out to the UK, to twins, The 10 Commandments, which she says in the US, need to be re-written: “Thou shalt not kill (us).” We pass around glasses and a bottle of rum as she talks about Cuba and American isolationism. “Would you like to explain exactly what you were doing in France?” she’s asked when she returns home. There are coincidences aplenty and witty synchronicities and through it all Hill remains an ambivalent witness.

Though evoking some of the same spookiness of Smoking Gun, Helen Paris’ Family Hold Back is a more clearly theatrical, ritualistic performance. While the extraverted Hill is all loose talk, Paris, in pent-up persona, offers us a clipped British treatise on table manners and language. The skilful performance offers a fascinating lesson in code cracking. Vocally, the performer is all restraint and correctness. She talks about being constantly interrupted, displays suitably excessive gratitude (Thank you for serving me. Thank you so much for taking my money. Oh, thank you for giving me my change.) In the British manner, she is expert at the profuse apology. At the same time, Paris offers some striking physical images–notably, when having explored every surface of the table and its accessories (cloth, knives, and serviettes) she arches backward into a tabletop miraculously converted to rectangular pool. As in Smoking Gun, Paris’ monologue works associatively, spinning out from everyday observations (What exactly you might deduce from 16 bottles of Bacardi and one can of carpet cleaner in the shopping trolley in front of you at the supermarket) to The Last Supper. Some of the hardest hitting and hilarious observations come from the ghastly rituals of table manners including the secret code “FHB” of the work’s title, whispered to family members as a warning to restrain themselves in the presence of non-family. I’m hoping it’s not just me and that this one has yet to be unleashed on the big Family we’re all becoming. If so, let’s hope the Brits can keep it under their hats for a bit.

The Australian visit by Curious was hosted by Performance Space, The Studio, Sydney Opera House and ringside productions; On the Scent, performers Leslie Hill, Helen Paris, Lois Weaver, performed in a suburban house in Tempe, Saturday 19 February; Smoking Gun & Family Hold Back, Leslie Hill, Helen Paris, The Studio, 23-25 February

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 45

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005