Downtown/Hot August Night
Echoing the drive-in movies of old, the North Melbourne Arts House present a eclectic double-bill of experimental, avant-garde theatre that aims to challenge, provoke and amuse.
The two pieces on offer as part of this Melbourne arts initiative are Downtown, a whimsical cumulative work created by Rosie Dennis and Hot August Night, a non-linear kaleidoscope of sketches, songs, images and ideas from Melbourne artists seeking to try out new material on fresh faces. Upon entering the North Melbourne Town Hall for Downtown, there is a palpable, collective feeling that people are expecting the unexpected, which nicely sets the tone for an unconventional night out at the theatre. This uncertain excitement undoubtedly resonates through and even unites the two quite disparate shows over the course of the night.
Oh, if anyone is still scratching their heads at the thought of a ‘cumulative work,’ don’t worry, so was I. Writer/performer Rosie Dennis quickly explains in her introduction that Downtown actually opened four days ago as a 20 minute performance and has since grown by five minutes each night. Tonight marks the final 40-minute performance of the work, in all its experimental glory.
Using Downtown as a vehicle, Dennis is essentially seeking to explore how we, as humans, interact with one another. Theatre seems an appropriate medium for such an experiment, as it is a form built upon interaction, between other actors and, of course, the audience. Somewhat ironically, however, it takes Dennis a few minutes to fully engage with the near-capacity crowd as a few technical difficulties with the set and microphone interrupt what could’ve been a much slicker start. But maybe that’s the point. These minor bumps do add a certain spontaneity to this highly ambitious work but also adequately reflect the joyful spontaneity of making first-time human connections. The one major set piece is a large flashing road sign that welcomes us when we enter the theatre. Although the sign proves to be the source of most of the night’s technical problems, when it finally springs to life, it becomes an essential companion to Dennis’ quite poetic encounters of everyday urban life, which are peppered throughout the show.
Dennis is an engaging and gifted performer blending wit, poetry and liveliness into a performance that oozes genuine compassion for others and their stories. She even incorporates a vibrant physicality into the show, treating us to her own interpretation of a sunrise through dance (commissioned by Yoko Ono) and joining the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus for a rousing, impromptu rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Hello, Goodbye.’ However, the highlight comes when Dennis takes the idea of personal chemistry to the literal, with a beaker of chemicals placed side of stage. As the chemicals gradually change colour from blue to clear throughout the course of the brief show, it simultaneously reflects how relationships between people are also subject to such development and change. They just need a catalyst to kick them off.
Even though the night is more a balmy August one than a Hot August Night, the second part of the evening begins with a similar feeling of trepidation. The audience find themselves being herded into the expansive North Melbourne Meat Market, which has been nicely decked out with elaborate theatrical scaffolding. Having never experienced theatre within the confines of a Meat Market before, thoughts of actors delivering ‘hammed up’ and ‘underdone’ performances (alright, I’ll stop now) begin entering my mind on short the walk over from the Town Hall. The only clues we’re given about the show’s content are that it will contain a complete blackout, haze, nudity and a dynamic soundtrack. Sounds like a pretty good night out at the ol’ meat market, to me.
When the audience is finally let into the back shed, there is no stage or seats; only a large, round mixing desk, which is perched in the centre of the room like a UFO. With only a few torches to guide us, it’s like being locked in a haunted house with a bunch of strangers, the haze only adding to the eerie sensation. After a mysterious voice-over kicks off proceedings, what follows is a series of inventive, avant-garde performances that take place all around the space as the audience become like cats frantically chasing mice. Although this is a clever staging move, it does make it difficult to fully absorb the entire show and the momentum of the acts do suffer slightly for it. The talented cast ranges from the young to the veteran, seemingly emerging from the walls to take the audience on a strange journey through a variety of different media.
Paul Gazzola, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Malcolm Whittaker and Willoh S. Weiland are the wizards in charge of curating this diverse series of performances, which are structured into two acts. The ideas take the form of comic sketches, poignant monologues, songs, multimedia performances, atmospheric light and sound-scapes, dance numbers and ensemble pieces. The best-received moments are a glorious choral mash-up of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ and Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn,’ a haunting piano performance literally being pulled apart by removalists and a rather vulgar take on evolution. Major props go to all the different sound designers as well as lighting designers Jen Hector and Rose Connors who create a ever-present trance-like atmosphere that is touched with flashes of paranoia and macabre humour.
OK, average theatre frequenters should probably avoid these two challenging works but Fringe-savvy people will definitely get a kick out of the inventiveness and creativity that is on offer here. Even if they’re not your cup of tea, seeing theatrical pieces that really push the creative boundaries is often an important reminder that theatre is still a constantly evolving medium that sometimes needs some young blood injected into it to really extend its true potential.