Burlesque – Star Wars and Glory Box

Star Wars Burlesque

Athenaeum Theatre

25 February, 2012


Finucane & Smith’s Glory Box


09 June – 01 July 2012


I avoided the genre of many years, but I got a double dose of burlesque earlier this year, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Wow! Let me say that again, Wow!

Burlesque is a broad church. It encompasses the soft porn posturing of lithe-limbed babes, the aggressive ‘in-yer-face’ swagger of the polymorphously perverse purveyors of Lesbian chic, and almost everything in between. The word ‘burlesque’ carries a myriad of connotations, but it generally refers to a parodic, or exaggerated representation of female sexuality. It can be playful, sly, self-referential, comedic, erotic, exotic, sensual, or it can make the hapless, unsuspecting spectator tremble in shock and awe. The women of Finucane & Smith’s Burlesque Hour take no prisoners, inhabiting, as they do, the ‘shock and awe’ end of the burlesque spectrum, while the girls of the Star Wars Burlesque show would not be out of place in a pole dancing club.

Let’s start with the latter. These girls are a geek’s wet dream. They combine the iconography of the Star Wars franchise with seductive dance moves. The performers are predominantly female, and conventionally sexy. They move with grace, and pout with ‘come-hither’ finesse (when they’re faces aren’t hidden by Darth Vader or Storm Trooper masks). There are enough arcane Star Wars references, I have it on good authority, to satisfy the hard-core nerds who care about such details as the exact cut of Princess Leia’s hair, as well as enough bare flesh to satisfy the average punter who cares not a hoot for such lame geekery, but appreciates the female form sans excessive fabric.

A rather portly and somewhat sleazy Luke Skywalker is the master of ceremonies, and the master of the double entendre. He comes across like an intergalactic pimp, but his deliberately unctuous persona is strangely endearing. He also has a pretty good singing voice, and he throws in a few comic tunes to vary things up a little, too.

The girls are the Stars, of course, and they’re very easy on the heterosexual male’s eye. Unfortunately, for the female geeks, there’s not much beefcake on display, although most females in the audience appeared to be having a pretty good time gawking at the girls, anyway. I guess a lot of straight women enjoy looking at burlesque, too. There’s no mistaking this show for art. It’s lowbrow entertainment, a bit of silly fun, which panders to voyeuristic male gaze. What’s not to like?

At the other end of the burlesque scale we have Finucane & Smith’s Glory Box, and it’s no surprise to find that they’ve dispensed with the cheese, although their performance is not short on sleaze. But it’s not sleaze, as most people know it. These women use their tassels, glitter, and ruby red lipstick as lethal weapons, denying anyone who isn’t isn’t mesmerized by the mere sight of tits and ass the easy option of an easy ogle, or a quick deposit in the wank bank. Shit, when you look at these women, you’re coming face to face with the fucking Medusa. You gaze upon Finucane and her cohorts at your own risk.

This is not to say it’s impossible to enjoy a simple perve — the old gentleman seated next to couldn’t stop hooting and hollering as if he had a ringside seat at the Men’s Gallery (a so-called gentleman’s club in Melbourne, for those of you not familiar with my fair city). For me, though, the show was something of a revelation. I wasn’t prepared for the wanton aggression, and intellectual ambition. All kinds of female bodies — strong, soft, young, not so young — were on display, and very few of them pandered to what film theorists call the male gaze. I’m suspicious of those who claim to traffic in subversion, and I’m not even sure that subversion is possible today, yet there’s little doubt that these gutsy performers were not passive objects of desire, parading and prostrating themselves before smug, self-satisfied men secure in their God-given right to leer and sneer at women.

Finucane sets the tone with a confronting act that revisits the original scene of the crime — the Garden of Eden. She’s rabid, ferocious, Eve clad in a plastic bikini draped with glittering green leaves.  She rambles on about whether or not she should share her apple with the audience. She speaks, she raves, she stops, and crunches the apple until it’s just pulp. Yes, she has sharp fucking teeth, and she knows how to bite! The woman is on fire, her energy is as palpable as the high voltage rock ‘n’ roll tunes that accompany most of the subsequent acts.

Highlights for me included Maude Davey’s rendition of Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, which she delivered while wearing Antlers — her version of the Patti Smith ode to unadulterated lust and desire, ‘Gloria’ also rocked the house. Special guest Ursula Martinez reprised her famous party trick, immortalized on a viral YouTube, which adds another dimension to the Glory Box theme, while cabaret artist Meow, Meow brought a touch of elegance to the proceedings with a couple of numbers that sounded as though they were channeled from the most decadent quarters of the Weimer republic.

For the most part, the music was very fucking loud!! The Jimi Hendrix classic ‘Foxy Lady’ was another highlight that married kinesthetic virtuosity to rock music. Harriet Ritchie appeared as a wolf dressed in a sexy, backless costume that raised the temperature in the already sweltering room.

Glory Box messes with your heart, head and groin, ensuring that you’ll never look at those zones of pleasure and pain in the same way ever again. Indubitably, shit I like!





The Flight of the Concords

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 15th July, 2012

They are masters of self-deprecating banter, and their witty ditties are filled with wry observations about the minutiae of everyday life, but I can’t help feeling that Brett and Jermaine, The Fight of the Concords, the fourth best Folk duo from New Zealand, have lost their mojo. Sure, they’re capable of filling cavernous stadiums with scores of sycophantic fans, and their tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess never fail to impress, but I just don’t buy their shtick anymore.

Hit albums, a successful HBO comedy series, and an impressive list of movie credits have elevated this slightly nerdy Kiwi duo to A-list celebrity status. I suspect that Jermaine is getting more business time than most, and Brett is probably cavorting with the most beautiful women on the planet (as opposed to the most attractive female in the room). These hicks from the sticks of Wellington, New Zealand, are now bona fide global superstars who must be consuming more than the occasional illicit muffin as they tour the world. They can’t be as nice as their stage personas, can they? Of course, trying to ascertain whether the Concords roles actually coincide with their ‘real’ personalities is beside the point. They deserve all the accolades and spoils that come with being talented celebrities, and they did put on a good show. The sound was crisp, the banter rarely lagged, and the songs remain funny, yet I walked away slightly underwhelmed.

I’ll concede that Brett and Jermaine ooze charm, and still have the chops to parody a dizzying array of musical styles, but their material, good as it is, is now getting a little stale. The boys have lost their edge, and are now merely peddling a greatest hits show, which the fans appear to be lapping up. But where are the new ideas, boys? I think Murray needs to call a band meeting, ASAP.

The Disappearences Project

The Disappearences Project

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Performing Arts, Brisbane, 5th July, 2012

Two actors — a middle-aged Australian woman and an African American man of similar age — are seated on simple wooden chairs, approximately two meters apart. A video depicting empty suburban streets and houses is back projected onto a screen behind the actors, framing the performance, and providing suitably stark images of emptiness. The actors speak in measured tones, rarely displaying significant variations in inflection and cadence. Her voice is shrill, broadly Australian; his, a deep, resonant baritone, mellifluous and rich. Sometimes their words overlap, and it becomes difficult to understand what they’re saying, although certain words are discernable. An atmospheric ambient soundtrack accompanies their monologues. The performers are exemplars of containment, reason, and restraint. Their demeanor and attitude toward their subject matter is strange given that they are speaking about the disappearance of loved ones, those who flesh and blood human beings hold closest to their hearts: sons, daughters, lovers, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters.

Compiled from interviews with people who have experienced such a bewildering loss, the performance provides a cross-section of reactions and responses to this most profound and personal crisis. Version 1.0, the company responsible for this work, has obviously made a deliberate decision to underplay the emotional intensity of this most horrific experience. In theory, this gambit might allow the audience to analyze the experience dispassionately; thereby gaining an insight into a phenomenon that is too often approached through a tabloid fog of hysteria and overblown sentiment. For me, this technique induced soporific indifference. Why? Well, apart from the performance being incredibly static in theatrical terms — it could easily have been transposed to another medium with no significant loss — it spectacularly missed the most important aspect of personal loss: singularity.

The play is devoid of proper names, pronouns abound, effectively generalizing and banalizing the disappearances at the heart of the performance. We love and care for specific people — human beings who are mortal, fragile and irreplaceable. By stripping away references to the singularity of being, the play trivializes the very issue it’s trying to examine. Theatre can engage an audience on many levels, and empathy, or identification with specific personages is not necessarily a prerequisite for theatre that makes people think, or facilitates what that old German master of estrangement, Bertolt Brecht, called ‘complex seeing’. The trick is to know when to play the ‘alienation’ card, for it’s not guaranteed to always produce enlightenment.

The indifference and insensitivity of officious bureaucrats, or the apathetic attitude of hardened police officers may indeed common experiences, and constitute some sort of lexicon of loss, but these attitudes are hardly surprising. There is something vaguely irritating about documentary theatre that is compiled from verbatim transcripts, and turned over to actors to intone for aesthetic effect. This genre of performance makes me uncomfortable. When contentious themes are handled badly, they often exude the rank odor of bad faith, and exploitation. Surely, there is a more effective way of approaching this issue, right?


Jane Howard’s Review

Baal, Sydney Theatre Company 2011


By Bertolt Brecht

Translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright

Directed by Simon Stone

Malthouse Theatre, 21 April, 2011


This play seemed much longer than 70 minutes. I was disengaged, and bored despite the eye candy — the spectacle of young female flesh abundantly on display had the predictable effect of making my mind stray into parts of my psyche that are nobody’s business except mine, and my therapist’s, but, hey, that’s another story. In short, this play was pretty crap.

Bertolt Brecht wrote Baal when he was a young man, and perhaps it’s a play best seen in one’s younger days when the experience of sex is a relatively new sensation, and it’s still possible to be unconditionally driven by the inexorable force of the pleasure principle. This Sydney Theatre Company production attempts to tap into this amoral, untameable aspect of human being, but fails to deliver more than a few banal platitudes about the dangers of the aesthetic life. Yes, we know, the-self indulgent, self –destructive urge to avoid confronting big existential questions by finding solace in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will end badly, so tell us something we don’t know. Please! The play’s biggest problem is that it’s devoid of intellectual content, and relies on a few cute technical tricks to distract us from this sad fact, but more about the paucity of ideas later.

The play opens with Baal delivering a rough and ready rendition of a song, which, as far as I could make out, provides a few clues to what is about to unfold — I thought I heard references to sex, sin and women, but the lead actor’s muffled singing voice made it difficult to follow the lyrics with any degree of precision. Anyway, this much is obvious from the opening scene: Baal is a rock star, a Dionysian force akin to a Jim Morrison, blessed with genius, good looks and a vicious streak of misogyny.

In the first scene a group of attractive young women, representatives of the middle-class literati, toast Baal’s artistic virtues. He responds to their praise with obnoxious behaviour — he insults them, one-by-one, and makes it clear that he’d rather fuck them than listen to their vacuous platitudes. He is a genius, and behaves as though he has every right to treat women like shit. Of course, this ‘bad boy’ display makes him even more alluring to the female sycophants who can’t help throwing themselves at this anarchic man-god. Subsequent scenes present various scenarios that reinforce this dynamic, but do little to provide insight into the relationships between the characters.

The audience is treated a few more deliberately rough songs, none of which display the poetic genius necessary to find the eponymous character especially charismatic. Sex and violence on stage can be extremely embarrassing if performed unconvincingly. Baal is supposed to be an potent force of nature — ‘a man society can’t control’ according to the translators’ notes, but Thomas Wright’s Baal didn’t exude any sense of menace, but, to be fair, this is hard to do, especially in the scenes where the actor strips naked. Baal is supposed to have an insatiable appetite of sex, with men and women, so I found it somewhat troubling that Baal’s dick was limp throughout the bacchanalian proceedings. In lieu of anything remotely approaching intellectual substance to occupy my attention, I became concerned with the flaccid state of Baal’s penis (which, inadvertently, functioned as an apt metaphor for the sorry state of the drama). How did he mange to keep his boner under control, I wondered? Did he shave his pubic hair to make his dick look bigger? Sadly, I became more interested in these ‘technical’ aspects of the production for most of the play’s duration. This is because I either have the attention span of an ADD delinquent, or the real star of the show is the set, which proved more interesting and animated than the performers strutting their stuff upon it.

The set looks like a gallery space. It consists of two white walls and a large white floor, which change colour through some smart lighting changes. Half way through the play, the large back wall collapses onto the floor, and water pours down from the lighting rig. Everything turns to black, and the water pours down like a nourish rainstorm. This is, no doubt, an impressive effect, but the pay-off is minimal. The sound of the water masks the actors’ voices, making it difficult to concentrate on their lines.

Baal murders two members of the cast, one male and one female, before getting his inevitable comeuppance. The murders are unconvincing, and the fake blood offensive. What was the production team thinking? What sort of aesthetic effect were they attempting to create? The violent acts weren’t performed ironically, or symbolically — they were just lame, and a result of a lack of engagement on what to make of Brecht’s text today. If you’re going to waste a precious resource like water in the service of art, it’s important to make it count.

What was the fuck was this production trying to say? It didn’t appear to be trying to engage with the later Brecht’s estrangement effects (not in a sustained way, at least).  I get that Baal is a slave to his body’s impulses — he’s pure id, amoral, and anti-authoritarian. I get the idea the he who lives by the dick will die by the dick, or some other suitably phallic substitute. And are we to make of the representation of women? They come across as mere playthings, a bit of T&A served up for the audience’s delectation. They’re basically anonymous, interchangeable machines faintly damned for reproducing human misery. What idea or intellectual point is made by putting woman on display in this manner? I’m not against nudity, or genuinely transgressive work, but Baal just seemed pointless. Given the fake downpour, and the plethora of young female flesh, I think I might have enjoyed the show more if I’d brought my raincoat (I certainly wouldn’t have been the only person wanking in the theatre).