Portraits - The Woman Outside

Fortune Theatre - Hutchinson Studio, Dunedin

26/03/2009 - 29/03/2009

Dunedin Fringe 2006-9

Production Details

Song Media re-defines the song-cycle genre through ‘a darkly romantic tension of concert, cabaret and performance art’. Their new concert performance with visual imagery present the visions of women on the outside – their stories, confessions and predicaments. The result is ‘a risk-taking hybrid that will startle both concert and theatre audiences’.

Dates:  26, 27, 28, 29
Venue:  Fortune Theatre Studio 
Time:  7pm (26th, 27th, 28th) 2pm (29th) (Duration 60 mins)
Prices:  Full: $18 Concession: $15 Group (6+): $15  
Tickets:  www.ticketdirect.co.nz 


Chief collaborator (with Frost), Associate Music Director, chief interpreter of the songs in CD recording: Lisa Tui Bainbridge 
DVD created by Nicholas Frost with technical assistance by Ben Blick Hodge

Rich and beautiful but hard to decipher

Review by Jonathan W. Marshall 30th Mar 2009

Berliner cabaret never goes out of fashion. Great songs, the whiff of sexual decadence, queer aesthetics and the sense of a political world about to implode all make for a heady mix of themes plumbed by everyone from Kathleen Brenan and Tom Waits, to Bob Fosse. Indeed, critics such as Thomas Elsaesser have argued that part of what is so appealing about German cabaret of the Weimar era (1919-1933) is that its mishmash of glitz and modernity, of shallow highly self-conscious identities and different kinds of performance, seems strangely prescient for our post-Post-Modern world.

Portraits: The Woman Outside is the latest work to be crafted from this rich vein of material. Its style is therefore at once familiar but unusual, accomplished but derivative. To be sure, Weimar cabaret is not the only influence here. In gensating an impressionistic song cycle dealing with styles and types of feminine identity and experience, librettist and composer Nicholas Frost have also drawn on the combination of recitative and sung material of contemporary Broadway, as developed by the likes of Stephen Sondheim.

The complex and highly allusive text is both spoken and sung, projected with full vocal force, as well as fragmented into irregular rhythms and speech patterns, producing a complex and at times syncopated flow. Circus skills and acrobatics also feature prominently, with the words of the two principal vocalists (Lisa Tui Bainbridge and Sophie Ewert) supported and commented on by the lifts and curving, balanced positions of Jola and Nele Siezen.

It is particularly the paired physical performers who bring out the queer themes of the piece, the two folding about each other, whilst dressed in lingerie and fishnet stockings, producing a Narcissistic and at times sadomasochistic portrayal of desire for that which is like oneself, as well as hate for these attractions of the similar.

These elements do not however pull the piece out of its Berliner ambience, but rather drives it deeper into these realms. Cabaret has always been, after all, a mixed aesthetic, an informal and often provocative space in which diverse elements are replayed before a consciously acknowledged audience seated at tables and chairs—though here one must do with raked seating. The performers of Portraits certainly look straight out to us even if they do not saunter through the aisles or place their legs upon our tables.

Musically too, the style owes most to the incomparable Kurt Weil (‘Mack the Knife’ and The Threepenny Opera, which he produced in 1928 with Berthold Brecht), although Frost’s inventive use of keyboard and sampler produces a wonderfully rough and eclectic sound, drifting into and out of mild distortion, harpsichord tones, piano and a banging Hammond organ feel, with multiple musical lines at times generating a dense sonic texture.

The most overtly innovative element within Portraits is provided by the video projections, also by Frost. These images too are deeply historicist though. While Frost does splice and montage his material to some degree, mostly one is presented with panels made up of one or two famous works from the history of art, or a close up from such a piece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the interest in sexuality and gender at play here, Surrealist material is most prominent. Nevertheless everything from the photographs of old Paris by Eugene Atget to Cindy Sherman’s famous Film Series, iconic Renaissance works such as the bathing Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister, through pieces by Salvador Dali, Edvard Munch and others, also feature.

The sheer profusion of these art historical references produces a curious sense of over-determination, a heady supersensory series of inputs which contributes to the somewhat incoherent structure of the piece. The performance is rich and beautiful, but difficult to decipher.

The show begins confusingly with Bainbridge in what appears to be Baghdad, as a woman bewailing the West’s destruction of her city and her life, before we quickly move into a more European ambience, with Ewert replaying Liza Minelli’s’ famous chair dance from Cabaret—or possibly Christine Keeler’s equally celebrated nude photo shoot astride a chair—while singing of her character’s sexual initiation at a young age.

The point is not so much that Ewert and company are necessarily striving to recreate these great moments from Western iconography, but it is impossible to produce a work like this today without Portraits seeming to be as much about these other works as it is about any other overt theme. In either case, the reference to the Gulf Wars, while less familiar, has little other apparent connection to the cast of Euro-American ‘disorderly women’ at different ages who elsewhere make up the principle subject of the performance.

The piece’s poetic structure is well crafted to gloss over such clashes. At one point Ewert appears in bandana and ripped jeans, relating a sojourn to Mexico, as though Sissy Hanksaw from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues had suddenly started reading Sartre and Existentialism and hitchhiked out into the desert. Such juxtapositions work well with the sense of postmodern pastiche sustained throughout the performance, even if they mitigate any more transparent logic which might be shown to underpin the dramaturgy.

The text too appears to be something of a mine of quotations. While I do not know my poetry and literature as well as my art history, I did recognise samplings from the song lyrics of The Doors (‘Riders on the Storm’) and the Rolling Stones (‘Mother’s Little Helpers’). Here too there is a richness of allusion and accumulated history for those who wish to find it.

In short, Portraits is a rich and rewarding piece, with an intelligent libretto and strong performances – particularly notable is Bainbridge’s operatic force, as well as Ewert’s mix of sophisticated seduction and rock grrl chic – whilst nevertheless at times leaving one wondering just what this rich humus of references is all adding up to. Perhaps that is the point.

None of the female characters we see in each of these episodic portraits seems to have necessarily been descended from the previous one. Maybe it is time we moved from seeing gender in the terms of Brecht and his Weimar compatriots, as a series of fixed iconographic clichés, and recognised that identity and femininity is vastly more complicated than this—even if it is no less conflicted for being so diverse.

[Note: Following the receipt of more accurate credit information from the producer, the text of this review was altered by Jonathan W Marshall on 6 April 2009. The production page has also been updated – ED.]  
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