Robert Reid says Cam Venn’s Charles Horse Lays an Egg is Fringe at its Fringiest
This review contains spoilers
When we enter The Loft at Arts House, Cam Venn is standing on the chairs in the seating bank. He’s dressed as an astronaut. A budget astronaut of course; his space suit has a tv remote strapped to one arm and petrol caps down the front. He will use one of the caps to make a squeaking noise as he repairs to his space craft later.
The astronaut welcomes us into the room. He floats, or appears to. Or at least, his movements are floaty, slow with the apparent weightlessness of space. The lights in his helmet shine into his face and his breathing crackles over his head-set mic. These few indicators are enough to put us there with him in orbit arund the earth, despite the fact that he winks and grins at us as we sit and watch.
Charles Horse Lays an Egg is a return season of Venn’s Golden Gibbo award-winning Comedy Festival show from earlier this year. Simple, out-in-the-open obvious stage gimmicks support the illusions he creates. As he floats around the outside of his space ship, or satellite (I wasn’t sure), a spanner he’s been using for repairs floats away from him on a black wire.
He hands it out to the audience and it passes from one to another in a mock anti-gravity game of keep away, eventually floating out of the door in the hands of a cheeky back-row audience member. Offer the audience the chance to play in a space where they can act on their agency, unchecked by rules or structures – in other words, invite the audience to free-form play – and the power dynamic between performer and audience can shift dramatically.
Venn stands by the closed door and mutters: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal,” in his thick faux-American Right Stuff astronaut accent. We laugh. The room seems happy to wait and see how he’ll get out of this. The audience member outside quickly relents and returns, giving the spanner back. To this point the piece has mostly reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, with the audience as a giggling George Clooney and Venn as a shaggy and wild-eyed Sandra Bullock.
It’s…not going to stay this way. Venn is a skilled mime and takes his clowning way over what one might assume was “the line”.
It’s a clever show. Throughout he grins at us, winking and nodding to us, making eye contact and shrugging as though to say “hey, look at the weird shit I’ve got going on here”. That’s part of the charm of course, it’s how he keep us in the room and paying attention.
On his return to earth, after a close encounter with space creature possessing massive genitals, Venn changes from the space suit into a shirt and tie. Well, to be completely accurate he spends about 10 minutes in an over-large astronaut’s nappy. We know it’s an astro-nappy because it has the NASA symbol on it. To transform into the NASA administrator, Venn changes out of the nappy and into his new character on stage.Everything that makes this performance is exposed: the junky nature of the props, the costumes, the set.
As the NASA administrator stands and addresses us for what feels like a solid 20 minutes in a shirt and tie (I say tie, it may have been a strip of plastic electrical tape) I start thinking about the Fringy-ness of it all. All the while, Venn’s wearing absolutely no pants, his bum and cock peeping out occasionally when he becomes too enthusiastic for the length of his shirt. Once out of his space suit, Venn also spends a lot of time in a strange feathery contraption designed to show most of his arse crack at the back and his penis through a hole at the front.
The giant space chicken that has appeared above the earth is looking for love. Well, the physical expression of it anyway, and Astronaut Charles Horse is to be sent back up in a rocketship made of his own cock to fuck the giant space chicken. That’s the plot here folks, and now it’s less Gravity and more Michael Bay’s Armageddon. I shudder to think who or what might be Bruce Willis in this simile.
The chicken does indeed get fucked in the guise of a small – and then slightly larger – very shitty prop of the space chicken. At one point, an audience member stands in for the chicken. Venn uses the audience a lot. We’re given headsets to become a roomful of NASA administrators, and we become the space between space as we help him in and out of costume. He talks to us constantly in a friendly, sort of American, gibberish.
Charles Horse Lays an Egg is a parody of the kind of space movies directed by Ron Howard. It even works in Ron’s brother, Clint, who is often to be found in those movies wearing a headset mic and sitting at a bank of dials and switches.
Because I’m at the back I’m spared the birthing scene, where a new planet is birthed from the chicken’s 9cm space cloaca. By now Venn has become the chicken (I think) and I’m guessing the feathery knickers are his chicken costume. Before he carries out the final act of the show, Venn asks a younger-looking audience member if they are over eighteen. That’s probably a good question. It certainly suggests that what comes next will be NSFW, as if most of what has gone before hasn’t been.
Judging by the reaction for the audience with a “better” view than me sitting at the back, I’m pretty certain that in this scene Venn squeezes a real egg out of his anus on to the stage. He cracks it afterwards to prove it was a real egg. Has he had it up there all through the show, demonstrating phenomenal sphincteric control, or did he slip it up there while we weren’t looking? I don’t know. I don’t really want to know. Either way he has my admiration and I’m glad I can’t see it. Though I can imagine…and I wonder if that’s worse.
So, this is what Fringe is. It’s not all that Fringe is, of course, but I wonder if this is what people think of when they think of Fringe. Decades of 30-second news clips of Fringe launches with artists in makeup and costumes, doing the wacky to get attention and draw in audiences, have painted a picture, at least in my mind, of Fringe at its Fringiest. This year it might be a mostly naked man pretending to be an astronaut with a chicken’s egg up his arse for most of an hour.
Charles Horse Lays an Egg created and performed by Cam Venn. Melbourne Fringe at the Fringe Hub: Lithuanian Club – The Loft. Until September 29. Bookings
Fringe Hub is partially wheelchair accessible