Curitn University’s Hayman Theatre Company recently presented a new devised work called The Shimmerin by the Performance Studies Honours Ensemble under the direction of Ellis Pearson. It was only on for five dates (two previews and then a three-night season the following weekend), so blink and you missed it. But if you were able to catch this wild little piece of theatre at Curtin Stadium’s Dome, you would likely have felt as surprised and lucky as I did.
Ellis Pearson is one of Curtin Performance Studies’ lecturers, and he has taken a very involved approach as director of this particular piece; he’s right in the mix providing sound effects and music along with musician Michael Biagioni and the other pit crew during the show. They play just off set, but occasionally breach the front into the acting space, providing drum beats, thunder claps, trombone bleats, trumpet calls, spacey guitars, and all sorts of cacophonous noises and atmospheric sounds to punctuate and accompany the action.
He cites a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s poem Requiem as inspiration for the show’s theme:When the last living thing has died on account of us, how poetical it would be if Earth could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, ‘It is done.’ People did not like it here.
From there we are presented with a story of Nature vs. Man — Nature, in this case a single water creature portrayed by Catherine Bonny, is the protagonist and Man, here embodied by a hive-mind group of scamps played by the rest of the ensemble, is the villain.
The action begins with the ensemble dressed in flowing sky-blue costumes, dancing and harmonizing with wooden sticks as musical tools and supernatural instruments. Projected on a black wooden door in the rear wall of The Dome are scenes of waves crashing into rocks, and we understand the connection between the group of women and that element. This all has a very 70s new-age touchy-feely vibe to it, and I couldn’t help thinking that even though it was very well done, it seemed outdated and a bit naff. I was happy to experience a little blast from the past, though, so I kept an open mind.
I soon discover that this seemingly dubious start to the show is just an elaborate ruse. After a storm, most of the ensemble scatters offstage, leaving a single water creature (Catherine Bonny) alone on stage, languishing or dead on what we understand is a rocky beach. Soon the other performers (Violette Ayad, Tessa Carmody, Ella Churchward, Melissa Dusting, Emily Kingsley and Laura Scott) re-emerge dressed in land-dweller’s attire: boots, earth-toned pants, jumpers and jackets, scarves, hats and beanies. They discover the water creature and plan to bury her, and set off to grab tools for the job; one of the group steals her wooden sticks. When the group returns to the spot where she once lay, Bonny suddenly appears alive again and give the land-dwellers a huge fright. After this comes a struggle between the group and the water creature as they try to understand each other. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well.
In the last chapter of the show, the group and the show go entirely off the rails. A kind of deity in a wagon comes on stage and projects a bizarre alternate-reality version of television that includes a home shopping/body-shaming program, a game show, and then a soap opera, all prerecorded as a kind of silent film by the ensemble, and things take a very dark and turn. The group is held captive by the images, and the water spirit sits in disbelief. She is able to transform the TV signal with her wooden sticks, effectively turning off the programming and revealing the group for the zombie-like specters that they are deep down. This angers them, and they turn on her, again.
The ensemble is tight; each performer has a unique character, but no one pulls focus, except for when it’s required to further the bizarre plot. They are funny, make fantastic grotesque expressions, and are truly committed to the piece, using their whole bodies to convey meaning, as the only “speaking” they do is in a kind of nonsensical Teletubby language. Where the ensemble starts at the top of the show is not at all where they end up.
The finale is gruesome and nightmarish, but wickedly funny. My jaw sat agape for several minutes as events reached their climax. It was thrilling, mischievous and subversive to watch these lovely young women turn into brutes. Clearly the rest of the audience felt the same, and needed a bit of time to process what they’d just witnessed; they sat fixed in their chairs, most smiling and speaking in low tones to each other after the curtain call.
Now that’s what I call entertainment.