K’ Rd Strip is Okareka dance theatre’s homage to the vibrant, sleazy world of Karangahape Road’s bar, queer clubs and strip joints in Auckland that proliferated there from the 1970s through to the early 1990s.
Like so many of these urban meeting places of outsiders, supposed ‘deviants’, and those seeking sex on a variety of terms, K’ Road has been increasingly gentrified and cleaned up since these wild, dark days. One might perhaps, then, have expected a nostalgic journey back into an age of outrageous queerness and sexuality, but Okareka resolutely shatter any rose tinted glasses one might want to wear.
Like those sites better known to myself from my own youth in Australia of Melbourne’s St Kilda or Sydney’s still red-lit Kings Cross, K’ Road is presented as a place of both no-commitment sex and self-expression, as well as a place of violence, rape, gay bashing, and even murder. K’ Road was a dangerous place to build a community, and the fact that most of the best bars have moved elsewhere is not necessarily something to lament.
The piece is ultimately a cabaret show: a series of sketches, short dialogues and monologues, broken up by danced vignettes and drag-show style singing /karaoke. Most of the music has however been reworked to varying degrees by Jason Te Mete and Mahuia Bridgeman-Cooper, so that a substantial part of the pleasure of watching the piece is the slow dawning upon the audience of just what song it is they are reinterpreting (is that really Split Enz’s ‘Dirty Creatures’ they are doing a cappella?).
Between this, Tai Royal especially is a striking figure. Like all of the cast, he is dressed only in a black leather miniskirt which barely covers tight black briefs (designed by Elizabeth Whiting). His rich, muscled physique produces a startling effect as he moves through mostly lyrical movement passages. A particularly striking scene has him perform a fan dance, pink ostrich feathers gently clapping before his open face. The gesture is so clichéd, so ridiculous, that it gives an almost unbearable poignancy to his melancholy but loving movement. The other performers are also excellent, Taane Mete often making an impressive, equally built, partner to Royal.
It is this exquisite, perfectly judged quality of campiness, derived in large part from drag, that defines the piece — but here, this is refined and aestheticised to a degree at best rare if not impossible in the intimate and rough-shod staging of most clubs. K’ Road appears then as a site of fantasy, and when reality and violence intrudes such that the characters’ tendency to see the strip as a welcoming, free home seems all but unsustainable, another flight of fancy is invoked.
K’ Road comes across overall as a highly fragile, fraught state of mind, an ultimately impossible creation of perfect free lust and self-definition which is always on the verge of collapse. As the statuesque male performers maintain their perilous perfect aplomb whilst balanced on heels and black, vinyl boots that would make a hooker blush, they seem able – if only within this unreal realm of their own creation – to achieve a transformation, a sense of empowerment, and an impression of bliss otherwise unattainable.
Hookers and drag queens, beat-boys and sophisticated connoisseurs of ‘trade’ and S&M, step into the spotlight to tell their stories, or remind the audience of the intensely lustful direct speech of hooking up for sex by text message, crafting a narrative from scraps of gloss and from their own athletic, exposed bodies.
Whilst firmly in the realm of camp, in this sense of dress up as both fabrication and truth, the piece is overall very different from club aesthetics and true drag. The small cast, and tendency to focus on monologues, solos and spoken sections delivered direct to the audience, give the work far more intimacy than a big commercial drag show or chorus line à la Crazy Horse.
Nevertheless, the extreme restraint of design – minimal, monotonal costuming of black, red and pink, each confined to a relatively discrete element; the gaping blackness of the stage which surrounds the relatively few shafts or corridors of light (lighting design Ambrose Hills-Simonson) – prevents the work from having a sense of close proximity and involvement for the audience.
Especially in Dunedin, where the show is staged behind the massive proscenium arch of the Regent to a very large expanse of seats a long distance from the performers, the viewing is one of formalised, distanced contemplation, rather than visceral, sensual involvement. One rarely gets the sense the performers are flirting with or provoking one, as one would being present at a drag or club show.
The effect is to heighten the poignancy, to make the lives we are shown seem all the more brittle and in need of protection. When performer Jamie Burgess – a frighteningly tall Pakeha who, like his colleagues, oozes sex appeal during most of the show – steps forward to tell of the fatal bashing of his lover, and how he has decided to buy a second coffee for his deceased partner and pour it out at the site of the murder, this chasm between the crushed human on stage and us lost out there in the auditorium only emphasises the tragedy, and his isolation in that moment of need.
It is therefore just as well that the performers sing so well, riffling through oldies (another touch of nostalgia here, for a past made from the popular culture and pop songs of the day), and move with such conviction. Taane Mete’s choreography is not especially complex. Indeed, a tendency towards slightly campy expressionism often shows (the chest forward, arms stretched out behind one as the dancer propels himself with meaning and emotion in a rapid run across stage, for example) but, as noted above, this is entirely consistent with the overall mood of the piece.
Regular comic interludes are provided by a wandering, drunk or wasted clubber (Jason Te Mete) dressed in a wobbly rubber horse head. His ironic rejection of the vaguely mystical elements of the piece provides plenty of laughs, especially when, in fear of these queer demons and taniwha, he suddenly replaces his mask and cowers, shuddering within it.
There is also a strange dance with a giant dildo, which I must say I did not quite get. Was this supposed to dramatise the acquisition of a penis by a transgender figure, or was it just about how great it is to have a big cock? Again though, the company has found a show structure which allows such odd interjections to just mix in with the rather varied flow.
Generally speaking, I must say the most perplexing thing about this work is how others have received it.
Glancing through the other reviews on Theatreview and elsewhere, I almost wonder if they saw the same piece. Other authors seem to suggest this is an uplifting, fun night out, and frankly it strikes me as a much more thoughtful work, whose principal characteristic is a kind of wistful melancholy rather than joy.
Either way, given that both Māori and Pakeha have often been less than welcoming to the gay and transgender community over the years, it is great to see a work like this featured in the Matariki Festival. K’ Road always had a high proportion of Pasifika and Māori young men and transgendered subjects in its clubs, so it is good to see this publicly acknowledged in a festival devoted to Māori concepts of seasonal change.
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