When you enter Gender Spanner at the Gasworks Arts Park Theatre, Jessica McKerlie will ask you a question. And based on your answer, she will give you a label you will wear for the evening; mine may have been a rude four letter word. Armed with a ukulele and her beautiful voice, spinning plates, costumes and a cooked dinner, McKerlie’s one hour of cabaret, poetry and performance takes you on a journey of gender politics, the quest for equality and a pile of transgender stereotypes.
McKerlie is a stellar performer and commands the stage and your attention from the moment she begins. Set against a mix of pop hits from the 70s and now, she struggles against the exhausting constraints of labels and society, of clothes and their associated genders and traits. Her burlesque is paired with her stunning voice and trusty ukulele to break down silos between gender issues and feminism and mixes them back up again as we attempt to wade through the issues that often face the LGBITQ communities. She is real and honest and genuine as she shares her stories and experiences with the audience.
The set is an explosion of creativity, becoming a messy delight as the show goes on. The audience sits in a warm, inviting round table setting at ground level, allowing McKerlie to interact easily with her patrons. From the tall sunflowers and washing line in the backyard to the dinner table complete with cooked dinner, spinning dinner plates and creative back lighting on the washing on the line, the set is simple, homely but also hugely integrated into the story telling and experience McKerlie is sharing. A highlight is the transformation she undertakes, back lit, from gender to gender and the way she transforms into each character based on the parameters gendered costumes provide.
Costumes in this performance are a major driver or indicator of our journey through gender identity and sexuality. From layers and layers of female clothing removed to find her true self underneath, to more masculine style items and a 50s style housewife outfit, the costumes allow her to transform and explore the different stereotypes that surround the genders, the clothes and the situations she found herself in across her life. The sound is a mixture of McKerlie’s beautiful original compositions and pop hits across the ages, each a statement of expression of one’s true self (especially the David Bowie and Queen blasting into the theatre as you enter). The songs feature fantastic rhymes between some STD sounding throat infections and swear words and range from jazzy acapella songs, classic cabaret and bluesy ukulele tunes.
Towards the end of the show we revisit the labels we’re been given- it hardly seems fair that based on one look, one answer, one interaction, we were labeled right? This is a real thing, it is a gender issue and it’s also an issue of nationality, of language, of hair and clothes and first impressions and public perceptions and a myriad of more things you can be judged and discriminated upon. The labels we wore were all labels McKerlie has been given in her life, the things people have said about her and too her, and as we give them back to her in the final song, you cannot help but reflect on your own labels, and labeling others.
This is a warm, witty and genuine show about the personal journey McKerlie is on, full of charm and heart and thought provoking stories. For me, it was an educational and informative reminder to be kind, that we are all the same when we strip away the labels we are assigned (by our genders, or by other people). Attend open minded and ready for a lesson in gender politics, freedom, equality for all and the questions “Are you a man?” “Are you a woman?” “Are you sure?”
Gender Spanner plays at the Gasworks Arts Park Theatre as part of the Midsumma Festival until 23rd January.