A Response: Ground Control & Angry Sexx | Rachel Perks at Next Wave & The Melbourne Fringe Festival
May 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
In order to escape the cycle of oppression that often seems inherent to society, feminist theory sometimes opts for post-humanism as a means of exploring its concepts. While there are a number of modern day examples—like insulin packs, IVF, birth control, glasses, smart phones, for example—of people using science to overcome human limitations, the true home of exploring people’s potential has always been science fiction. The allegorical, experimental, and often very entertaining nature of these stories enables audiences to see past the veneer of their lives and discuss topics of any nature. One case in point I’ve always enjoyed is American fans’ ability to talk about abortion in the context of Star Trek, when their own belief-systems stymied that debate in real life. The other is the inimitable Mad Max: Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa, whose mechanical arm renders her beyond human.
The setback is that science fiction is often not considered “high art”. It’s labeled as somehow pedestrian, fanciful and commercial; or any combination thereof that belittles the content and the creator. Sometimes the last laugh is on the naysayers though, as, particularly in the books and television industry, these texts can do quite well financially — science fiction theatre texts are not as lucky. There’s already considerable stigma attached to genre theatre (and even comedy), as though if it’s not serious and seriously dealing with the serious issues then it’s not worthwhile. Musicals sometimes cop the brunt of that distaste but, again, they can do very well financially.
Gender, equality and power erupt to the forefront of discussion in the Melbourne Fringe Festival’s Angry Sexx. The new work, written by Rachel Perks and directed by Bridget Balodis, welds together poetry, porn, primates and two best friends to create an entertaining and visceral experience.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two plays by Rachel Perks. Recently I caught Ground Control at Next Wave. A couple of years ago, I caught Angry Sexx, which went on to take out The Discovery Award at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. I recently found a rough review I wrote back then, which made a good companion to my recent observations. In both instances it is clear that Perks is a revelation as a theatre maker. Her work is inherently dramatic, in the way that has the freshness of productions that have been devised. It is also lusciously textual and dramaturgically sound, in a way that shows that are built through the act of writing often are. Arguably arbitrary distinctions there, as the best of both worlds end up with similar results, but nonetheless that is the impression I get from her work — it’s a thrilling fusion of theatre making skills, and is probably what the Victorian College of the Arts has been trying to produce from its actors.
Catherine (writer Rachel Perks) and Cybelle (Artemis Ionnides) are two friends in their early 20s who provide counterpoint to each other: one struggles with the burden of the world in its infinite complexities, and unable to understand why everything comes back to sex; the other, more comfortable in her sexuality, understands the world as a place of suffering and takes solace in her ability to embrace the moment. The two share a frustration of pubic pressure, the power others have over their identity and their inability to escape social construction.
Ground Control is the story of an astronaut called Chris, who is on a mission to Earth 2.0 in order to save humanity. Back on Earth (1.0) society has collapsed. Safety is not guaranteed. Chris spends her time in the spacecraft with the ship’s operating system and a plant called Terry. When she awakes from cryosleep she is presented with a predicament. There is a black hole, a singularity. To go around it would take so long that Earth might not make it but to get too close (and still avoid the black hole) would take all the fuel reserves, so there would be no chance of a return trip. What follows is a narrative that echoes Solaris, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
To reinforce these ideas, the play also follows three space monkeys, who discover relics of millennial culture, including; Niki Minaj’s Anaconda, a scrunchie (which are about due to make a come back) and a cassette player. As they listen to the stories of everyday struggles they begin to enact them, internalizing power dynamics and enacting what they learn while occasionally repeating monologues they have heard, to a compelling effect.
While Chris worries about how her actions might affect Earth, she also faces onboard pressures, beginning with boredom, edging towards paranoia, and resulting in the potential technological singularity. This ensures that the drama plays out in front of us and avoids unchecked diatribes about the nature of modern society. The character constantly acts and is acted upon. The play’s themes are no secret but nor do they overshadow audience enjoyment. As Perks continues to hone these dramatic skills her work will no doubt go from strength to strength.
Watching over the whole affair is a glorious pink triangle, which is used effectively for multimedia integration – such as, text messages, vlogs and explorations of online porn sites. The design, by Kim Richie, provides a cohesive and functional space for the action to take place.
The design is impeccable. The capsule of a spacecraft—a pod—looks stylish and minimal. Its elevation and tightness gives us a focused voyeuristic sensation. The audience feels the claustrophobia experienced by the actor(s) and the creation and breaking of the fourth wall plays with expectations, perspective and, in many ways gave the impression of time and space being distorted before our very eyes. The lighting enabled a constant change of atmosphere, without the need to change location.
In fact, it is cohesion that is this shows greatest success. The actors work well together, the action moves along quickly and the dialogue – poetic and powerful at its best – keeps the audience engaged, even though at times the themes come across a little heavy handed – but when you have something to say, then say it loud, and Perks certainly does. Overall, the production is a smart and slick use of a small space.
Theatrical conventions actually lend themselves to science fiction quite well when employed properly and cleverly. Sprawling universes, rapid changes of planet and a plethora of species are difficult to manifest; these are not the strengths of theatre. There are other ways to engage with science fiction though. Theatre already bends expectations and reality; we suspend disbelief, accept shifts in time and space and believe lies, willingly. One brilliant example of this is Caryl Churchill’s A Number, where we are presented with five scenes, all of them a conversation between a father and son, in a living room; however, over the various scenes the son is a number of different clones. By framing the conversations in such a way, the same actor can play the son each time, layering a new context for each scene and giving it new meaning. Science fiction does not need to be excluded from theatre if the theatre maker is savvy.
That’s not to say it is without flaws. Not every section is successful – the porn monologue, for example, seemed a little overdone – but it is clear that there has been experimentation, a thought process and a desire to entertain and enlighten. While the script errs on didactic at times, the topics – such as gender equality in the modern world – warrant rigorous engagement and it’s wonderful to know that Perks has something to say and is not afraid to say it. Similarly, it’s refreshing when the script acknowledges its own limitations and its own context.
As Chris approaches a major decision point in her quest, reality begins to break down and she starts to lose control of the situation and perhaps herself. She is pushed and challenged and driven to breaking point. At a running time of just over an hour, it’s an exciting journey and there are numerous moments of comedy and horror. The operating system provides the bulk of the support and antagonism and can shift from buffoonery to terrifying in seconds. Sometimes both at once, such as when as the ship learns Chris’ vernacular and ends a sentence with, “mate” — chilling.
When Catherine begins to complain (once again) about the world, Cybelle puts her in her place, arguing that she should be happy with what she’s got, and despite Catherine stating she wants to help “everybody”, Cybelle tells her the only person she really wants to help is herself. And it’s true, we all have an element of self interest, and it’s true that comparatively perhaps we do not suffer in the ways that others do, but that does not mean we do not suffer at all and that shouldn’t mean we accept our place in the world just because we can acknowledge that there are those who have it worse than us.
Of course, Ground Control is not just Perks. The accolades go to the whole team, which works in unison to provide a cohesive vision. Bridget Balodis keeps a tight reign on the action and prevents the show from ever tipping into melodrama, absurdity or cringe-worthy technological infusions. Instead the production is clean, direct and economic. We are told what to focus on and when, we are directed towards certain scientific concepts when necessary and given backstory where appropriate. The exposition is occasionally clunky but somewhat unavoidable in such a complex and compact work. Also, it seems somewhat remiss not to mention the queer nature of this work. Especially the female queer nature of it. There’s not a lot for me to say but it is worth noting and as an audience member it was compelling to experience non-heterosexual narratives.
The most poignant moments of the play bring together different production values, such as the actors’ physicality and the show’s design, in order to break free from the constraints of psychologically realistic monologues to the audience: that is to say, the confessional style diatribes where a character exposes themselves and their inner thoughts, leaving little for the audience to work out.
There is nothing like Ground Control in Australia right now. It’s exciting to see these concepts discussed in such a mature and considered way — and entertaining! It’s thrilling that, despite constant arts cuts and precarious futures, these kinds of works exist. Conversations about the end of the world need to happen. Although it feels like the world is always ending, it really does feel like the world is ending this time. Environmental collapse creeps ever closer, while conservative forces continue to induce fear and hatred between different minority groups. In a Game of Thrones, ‘winter is coming’ way, it feels as though we’re worried about the Tyrells and the Lannisters, as the white walkers get closer an closer.
The first of two standout moments is a repeated conversation between the two women, always beginning and ending the same, but taking different routes. They discuss if Cybelle should sleep with a guy she met at a party, the conclusion always being yes. These short conversations – over text, on the phone or face to face – are divided by rapid blackouts and audio cues. The effect of which reinforces the monotony of modernity and the chilling predestination of our lives, without explicitly saying so.
Talking about Game of Thrones might feel tangential but it’s an example of how art (love it or hate it we can at least concede that Game of Thrones is art, right?) enables us to engage in conversations we would otherwise be blind to. Fantasy, like science fiction, is a gateway to the imaginative possibilities of our future and capabilities as a species. The line between man and machine blurs daily and who knows if that will matter once artificial intelligence matches our own. Scientists grapple with this everyday. Society is on the precipice of a technological revolution unseen since the industrial revolution — except there, most of the jobs stayed. This time, we’re not sure if we’ll be so lucky. Art can function to make tangible these concepts; through different genres we can play out scenarios and envisage ways of dealing with issues. The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is largely in who lives and who dies; both tangle the characters in a conundrum and let us watch them figure it all out. Without these outlets and tangents of the imagination, people become close-minded, unable to see another way of living, unable to see a different side of humanity, everything starts to look the same, and, at that point, we begin to wonder what’s it all for? Meanwhile those (educated ‘haves’) in control continue to abuse their position.
The second was a beautiful duologue to the audience, where the two actresses brought their character arcs to gripping conclusions. The use of language was Ginsbergian, and, when combined with choreographed movement, fast-switching florescent lights and superlative performances, it was thrilling to watch. These two scenes did not rely on spelling out themes and morals to the audience, but instead presented to them an experience, which they could feel, were able to digest and able come to their own conclusions.
In many ways I am jealous of Rachel Perks. Her work is everything that I hope to be able to make myself. And she makes it look easy. I take solace in knowing that it’s not, it’s just a deft skill to be able to make it look so seamless. Art doesn’t just happen. It’s not a magical fluke. While some people may have a particular flair for the practice, it takes a lot of time and training to produce anything worthwhile. It is a significant failing on behalf of the Australian government that they do not recognize this. In fact, it is a major victory for those trying to quash challenging art forms that I even believe that the industry cannot sustain both Perks and myself.
The three monkeys (Oliver Coleman, Jackson Trickett and Tamara Natt) had less to work with, but made the most of it. They embodied their characters and used body language to explore gender politics. Sometimes the point felt a little labored and perhaps so much monkey time was not necessary, however, this kind of trail and error refining is exactly what the Fringe Festival is for.
Of course, the community is big enough for all of us, the more art the better. Theatre is collaborative. We need each other (generally speaking that is, I don’t think Perks currently needs me at all). This argument may seem tangential to Ground Control but when a production is as good as this one, and the recognition will no doubt be minimal (relatively speaking), I can’t help but feel oppressed by our nation’s policies and shortsightedness. The main stages are not producing this work, the fringes are, and this is work that speaks directly to the heart of the future of humanity — how is this not of national interest?
The director, Balodis, and no doubt dramaturge Mark Wilson, have done a very good job at keeping the production en pointe, as there seems to be so much going on at once. It is a testament to the script, however, that there is such strong foundation to work with.
As long as these conversations continue and as long as we do not lapse into silence, there is a future. Where many companies and productions whimper, this one roars.
Emma Hall, Kai Bradley, Emily Tomlins and Catherine Davies
Matthew Adey (House of Vnholy) and Amelia Lever-Davidson
Arie Rain Glorie