“Animals really like me, and you can’t force that.”

A giddy Michelle Nussey says this while chatting on the phone to her friend. She’s talking about the new job she got at the zoo. Nussey figures she’ll be a good candidate because she’d do the job for free anyway; she doesn’t even seem to see it as work. What could be more fun than hanging out with animals all day?

Nussey performs this one-way conversation gazing into a one-way mirror. This is the one-woman show Gorilla, Lovely Gorilla directed by Vanessa Chapple, as part of the Fringe Hub. Her smiling, open face is looking over—but not seeing—the audience. Gorilla is a combination of stand-up comedy, storytelling, memoir, song and dance and unique performance art. Its dedicated performer wears her heart on her sleeve, a heart that beats in time with our primate cousins. She loves animals, animals love her, and this is their story.

Upstairs at Errol’s was the perfect venue for the show. In this intimate space, dark and boxed in with the chairs close to the stage, it was easy to be whisked away by our captivating storyteller. An original soundtrack filled the space, playing the chaotic sounds of jungles and underwater creatures while the lights dimmed, turned blue or simply lit the stage. Chapple’s direction was understated but she clearly understood the mechanics of immersion: it’s the little things that have the biggest effect.

Michelle Nussey is a performer originally from Perth. She’s been working since the early 2000s in film, theatre and improvisational performance. She’s done Late Night Impro at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and is a regular performer with The Big HOO-HAA!, a Melbourne-based improvisational comedy team.
Nussey’s comedy chops take the stage in Gorilla. She possesses keen observational comedy as a zoo employee, telling us she has to move quickly to address a potential disaster, because “Fast moving zoo uniforms make people nervous.” A rap interlude about a confrontation between a shark and a tuna fish had everyone in stitches. Nussey donned a shiny blue cape to represent the shark, slipping off the hood and jumping across to voice the tuna’s peaceful tirade against the arrogant shark. She earned a well-deserved applause for that one. While most of the skits were entertaining, a particular dance number and air-guitar riff went on a little too long, without much of a point to it.
Scattered throughout Nussey’s performance were images and videos displayed on an overhead projector. While most of us might check our Facebook notifications, Nussey checked whale sightings in the area, reminding herself to visit.

Videos played, including an Android phone ad showing unlikely animal friends clips (there’s nothing like a dog and elephant roughhousing together in a lake) and a documentary excerpt where a polar bear takes down a mother seal. These clips could have seemed like filler, but they helped us understand the psychology of the character. She was sharing her interests with us and I felt closer to Nussey as a result.

Unique interjections like this gave the play its footing underneath all the physical comedy. There was no singular narrative or plot running throughout, but themes of animal/human relationships, complications with captivity, and our lack of understanding about primates ran like an undercurrent through the play. Nussey was never aggressive in her message, rather she let the stories show us what it means to be part of a world inhabited by so many other species. She challenged captivity arrangements, telling us that pandas are reluctant to mate when captive because the thrill of dominance over other suitors is gone. Without these natural interactions, the females simply aren’t in the mood.

Nussey was able to invite empathy when she physically embodied pandas and gorillas, or even mimicked the movements of a fish with her hand. She showed a remarkable attention to detail in copying the subtle movements of two gorillas about to enter a confrontation. This confrontation happened at the zoo, resulting in the death of one gorilla, Julia. Nussey couldn’t see how it happened over the crowd of onlookers leaning over the rails of the enclosure. People don’t forget this stuff, she told us.

Though never explicitly stated, the increasing extinction of endangered animals—especially primates—loomed like a shadow over the whole play. Each anecdote and titbit was doubly an unfortunate reminder that we continue to drive rare, exotic animals out of their habitats and into danger. Watching the show, I was forced to confront the fact that there are only some 200 gorillas left along the Cameroon-Nigeria border; even during the tuna/shark rap I was reminded of the massively adverse consequences of oil spills and global warming. Nussey’s unrestrained love for animals—coupled with her ability to embody them—brought me closer to the animal kingdom, acting as a passionate yet personal piece of activism.

The Fringe Festival is overflowing with incredible performances and insightful creators. It’s easy to let several of them slip by, but it would be a shame if people didn’t go to Errol’s to check out Michelle Nussey and Vanessa Chapple’s unique collaboration. Gorilla, Lovely Gorilla is an intimate portrait of a unique character, a piece that is at once funny, intelligent and well worth the watch.