By Darby Turnbull
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawlor is one of those ‘great Australian plays’ that so far I’ve rather snobbishly avoided, most likely given the amount of emotional contorting I’d have to do to relate to it. It’s undoubtedly my loss and I frequently relate to characters and situations outside of my own experiences, but it’s always seemed so aggressively ‘straight’ so it seems natural that first foray into the play should be an unabashedly queer one. Despite never seeing or reading it, it’s so entrenched in the canon that I’m more familiar with its themes, characters and key moments that I imagined. Lawlor’s portrayal of the suffocating toxicity of traditional gender roles is brimming with queer potential; Po Po Mo Co’s decision to ‘lovingly butcher’ the text by handing certain sections of the play over to queer performers to interpret is brilliant and ripe with anarchic possibilities. The performance doesn’t go quite that far but at its best the play is presented a vaudevillian variety show with some intelligent and profound insights into a myriad of queer responses to a deeply heteronormative text. The audience had a wonderful time, particularly during some of the more interactive moments; one of the wonderful things about a Midsumma show is the mutual support and affection that builds between performers and audiences when our community comes together. Whilst it’s a genuinely lovely, and dare I say wholesome space to be in, from my point of view the ingenuity of the conceit didn’t always meet its potential.
Point of view is an apt phrase as where you are seated at Hares and Hyenas will directly affect your enjoyment of the show. I was seated towards the back and like my fellow audience members my sightlines were greatly obscured. It did however create an informal, gig like atmosphere with audience members standing up, sitting on each other’s laps, getting drinks in a respectful way that heightened the communal feeling. Hares and Hyenas is a great space to attend cabaret and spoken word, where the experience is more aural, and the attention is directed towards fewer performers. Given the aspirations of this piece it means that the specifics and nuances of the performances are mostly lost and given the lack of opportunity to rehearse in the space and bump in the performers didn’t have the opportunity to utilise the space in ways that would best serve their performances.
For example, I can’t do justice Kerith Manderson-Galvin and Freya Pragt’s opening because for the most part I couldn’t see what they were doing and immerse myself in the choices they were making. The soundscape and subsequent grinding of tools was certainly relentless on the ear drums and they both have great presence but from my seat the intensity was lost on me.
Nikki Vivica is always a welcome presence on our stages, her speech is a beautifully heartbreaking mediation on how trans girls don’t get to have childhoods whilst they’re being subjected to an endless parade of masculine indoctrination. She portrays the absurd tragedy of the rigidity of gender roles and the harm they cause with acidic, well timed humour and a profound desire for something as superficially simple as the gift of a doll to affirm that she is truly seen. It’s a deeply personal engagement with Lawler’s text that all but demands a revival with trans women as Olive and Pearl.
Christian Gillett explodes onto the stage, alongside a very dry Teddy Nunn to deconstruct the famous scene where matriarch Emma leads a sing a long but pedantically stops every few bars to correct pitch and tempo, Nunn has a hilarious line about testosterone affecting his singing voice. It’s a welcome diversion to be able to stand up and belt out Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. Given the sheer amount of presence and energy Gillett brings, Nunn sometimes gets lost in the effect, but he does have a moment to demonstrate some very suave dance moves. I would have appreciated the opportunity to see more of him as an equal player which is difficult given the thrall Gillett’s incredible vocals and stately grasp of the possibilities of camp performance.
The Botticelli Angels presentation of Act 2, Scene 2 was admittedly lost on me. I believe I would have engaged more if I’d been sitting closer and had a deeper understanding of the meta aspects they were bringing to the text. They are however intelligent and humorous physical performers; one does a darkly comic mime as a baby which drew gleeful cackles from the audience and the trio of a slightly demonic chorus left me wanting more.
Charity Werk’s drag performance is another example of the profundity of a queer response to these characters. Her pensive and resilient portrayal of Olive, intersecting speeches and a magnificent ballad about the passage of time is a tremendous demonstration of how an unconventional appropriation of text can elevate and subvert what is already there. Olive may be a tragic character but Charity Werk artfully brings out her dignity, resolve and empathy. It’s executed with a heart-felt intelligence and keen professionalism which makes me eager to see what she could do with other theatrical heroines in a similar format.
Po Po Mo Co themselves round out the evening with Act 3, Scene 1. Perhaps the closest the evening comes to a ‘straight’ rendition of Lawlor’s text. This is my first time encountering their work and again if I was more familiar with them as the many of the audience seemed to be my enjoyment of their portrayal would have been heightened as some prior engagement seems to helpful. Their heightened ‘bad’ acting is delightful in fits and starts but sometimes goes on too long for the sharpness to be truly appreciated. It’s another casualty of the space, given that audiences past the fifth row must work much harder to engage. I imagine it would have been much more successful in the round or a more intimate performance space. Rebecca Church, Lily Fish, Hallie Goodman and Kimberly Twiner fully commit to their broad and often hilarious characterisations and some of their costumes are truly inspired; Roo is bare chested under a pair of overalls with an abundance of wig chest hair. They’re a playful, enthusiastic quartet and their enjoyment is palpable.
I went in really wanting to love this; the concept is genuinely intriguing, but I left admiring their clout more than anything else. Personally, I believe the acts could have been more subversive and more insightful deconstructions consistent among all the performers. Being independent artists is incredibly difficult and often compromises must be made; affordable and accessible spaces are shamefully few and far between and Hares and Hyenas is essential to the community in that they provide a platform for emerging artists to present their work. This space wasn’t the best fit, but they did their best with the resources at their disposal and I sincerely hope that this is a dry run for bolder and exciting things to come.
Po Po Mo Co’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll only ran for two performances, but I strongly encourage readers to follow their work on social media.
Production: 2.5 stars Performances: 3 stars Costumes: 3 stars lighting/sound: 3 stars.