a glorious mess with a serious purpose

— REVIEW of ‘Being Dead (Don Quixote) | Daily Review

Being Dead (Don Quixote) | Review

Here Humphrey Bower reviews MKA, Being Dead: Don Quixote.
Follow the link at the bottom to also read his reviews of  Zoe Coombs Marr, Dave 2; Maude Davey, My Life in the Nude; and Laura Davis, Ghost Machine.

I’ve concentrated my Fringe-foraging over the past couple of weeks on the Summer Nights Season at The Blue Room and PICA – with occasional forays to tent-venues nearby – and followed my own personal interest in theatre rather than comedy, cabaret or circus. Nevertheless much of what I’ve ended up seeing has been performed by solo artists and had a decidedly burlesque feel.

Perhaps I’ve simply succumbed to the overall Fringe vibe, but the idea of seeing a conventional (or even unconventional) ‘play’ somehow hasn’t appealed to me as much as watching an individual artist expose themselves one way or another and lay it on the line, so to speak, both personally and creatively.

It’s made me wonder how much live performance in general – and ‘fringe’ performance in particular – appeals to and even exploits the innate voyeurism of audiences (and the corresponding exhibitionism of performers). Perhaps this is even more the case in the age of the internet, because so much of what transpires via social media takes the form of self-exposure, from blogs to pornography.

The most interesting works I’ve seen at Fringe foreground the contradictions between exposure and intimacy, public and private, persona and self – especially in the context of gender and sexuality. Melbourne company MKA Writers Theatre have brought two productions to this year’s Fringe World: a return season of Mark Wilson’s Unsex Me and Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s Being Dead: Don QuixoteI wrote about Unsex Me when I saw it as part of last year’s Fringe at the pop-up Noodle Palace venue in the disused Picadilly Cinema.

Perhaps inevitably I found the impact of the show somewhat diminished on seeing it a second time, particularly in the (comparatively) conventional and familiar black-box performance space at PICA.

Wilson and his sofa seemed dwarfed by the dimensions of the space and the steeply raked auditorium, as opposed to the seedy confines of the former flea-pit cinema, where he loomed over us on a small raised dais in front of the screen while we cowered together in the front rows, unsure of where the microphone (or the lubricrant) might go next.

In fact the whole experience of going to the Picadilly Arcade – in an area of the Perth CBD which is largely deserted at night – made it seem even more like visiting some kind of weird peep-show. Once again, I found myself thinking about the importance of venue in a fringe context, and indeed the whole notion of having a ‘fringe’ experience.

Being Dead: Don Quixote is in some ways a less ‘accomplished’ work than Unsex Me, but I found Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s deliberately artless stage persona totally engaging and in its own way as provocative as Wilson’s more barnstorming variety of camp.

In keeping with the now-established aesthetics of post-dramatic theatre or contemporary performance, this isn’t character-acting or even stand-up comedy, but a deliberate subversion of both. As she admonishes us at the outset (in a style which owes as much to Cervantes as the content does): ‘Remember, there’s no piece of art so bad that it doesn’t have something good in it.’

The text is a collage derived in part from New York novelist Kathy Acker’s punk surrealist take on Don Quixote, and in part from Manderson-Galvin’s own imagination and/or experience (in keeping with Acker’s own literary and personal blend of autobiography and intertextuality, it’s pointless even attempting to distinguish between the two).

In Acker’s novel, the Don becomes a post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-heterosexual woman wandering the cities of the world on an impossible quest for love (which neither male nor female partners seem capable of satisfying). Being Dead transplants elements of this story to post-punk suburban Melbourne, and beyond that, into the world of cyberspace and internet dating sites, where gender and sexual identity become ever-more unfixed and fluid.

Like Cervantes and Acker, Manderson-Galvin’s work (and perhaps implicitly her own quest as an artist and a lover) are comic and tragic at the same time. Occasionally accompanied by a guitar-playing male sidekick, she alternates between playing a version of herself, a version of the Don in male drag, and an air-headed female version of Sancho Panza, while delivering audience-patter, making confessions, telling stories, dancing, singing or lip-synching pop songs (which may or may not correspond with the words that appear karaoke-style on the screen behind her) and even leading an audience in an enthusiastic sing-along at the end. There are also some quite beautiful projections of scene-titles featuring paintings, drawings and artwork, presumably by Manderson-Galvin herself.

All in all, it’s a glorious mess with a serious purpose: how to find not just true love but one’s true self (necessarily gendered and sexualised, however fluidly) in a crazy world which is totally mediated by second-hand fictions. In other words: we are all Don Quixote now.

“a glorious mess with a serious purpose”