Robert Reid sees After Dark’s cabaret/circus show Society and owns up to his inner curmudgeon.
After Dark Theatre have been making circus in Melbourne since 2007 and boast over a hundred circus performers, sideshow and variety artists as part of their team. Society, their latest work, is a New Orleans Mardi Gras-inspired cabaret-style circus staged in the Melba Spiegeltent. The wooden panels, coloured and mirrored glass around the walls feel warm and familiar and suit the atmosphere After Dark are attempting to create.
A few of the performers mingle among the gathering crowd before the show, chief amongst them our Master of Ceremonies (director Francesco Miniti). MC “Voodoo” – more on this later – styles himself in the mode of the New Orleans grifter with drawl, knowing wink, zoot suit and pimp coat, as he ingratiates himself around the bar. Nods, winks and not-so-subtle innuendo abound.
We’re seated amongst a group that seem to know each other. My guess is that it’s a work outing. They chat, rib each other gently, ripe with anticipation. They seem to have a lovely time, hooting and taking photos of the show on their phones. I’m not one of those people who rends their garments at the appearance of a mobile in the theatre, and After Dark encourage the taking and sharing of photos during the performance (smart marketing these days) but I can’t help worry for the performers during their high wire or contortion acts when the camera flashes go off.
The show itself is exactly the display of circus skills one expects interspersed with a handful of bluesy tunes and bluish jokes. All of which, we are told, is cheeky sexy fun. Except it’s not that sexy, really. It’s a bit awkward and feels forced. Certainly it feels like there’s a brave face being put on the seduction being attempted. This is faux sexuality: all mugging and winks to the audience. None of it feels genuinely sexy. It’s titillating without any kind of frisson of actual desire. I’ve heard the song My Sharona described as “white guy funk”. After Dark Theatre’s Society makes me think of this. White guy sexy.
Not only does it feel not sexy but also the kind of sexy they’re enacting seems a little tone deaf. People in the audience hoot playfully along as one of the audience gets their head rubbed in sweaty décolletage. A woman in the front seems to get a sudden pash from a performer as he exits. All in fun, all in fun. It could be a theatre restaurant but the audience seem happy enough and I’m a curmudgeon.
The costume design (Nay Cananzi) particularly draws my attention. The kind of “Young Talent Team” approach to design that says “New Orleans” with a silk shirt and a black vest. The kind of design that borrows from Chicago and ends up looking like a costume shop catered mob party.
I’m also not sure about the easy equation of New Orleans with “Sexy Times”. Of course Mardi Gras celebrates sexuality and liberation, but both the festival and the city are more complex than this. I feel like the choice of MC “Voodoo” as a character name for the troupe leader is a glaring example. Voodoo is a religion and a cultural practice with a complicated history and community of practitioners. Is this a respectful and informed appropriation of that culture? I’m not convinced… All in fun, all in fun.
After Dark’s version of the Big Easy feels reductive and weirdly essentialist. It presents with all the subtlety of a tourism commercial and the sophistication of a work Christmas party. Which is a shame because these are talented and skilled performers. The aerial work is competent, the singer can sing, the contortionist can contort, the MC is charming, but beyond the questionable premise, there’s little to bring these acts together.
Society, presented by After Dark Theatre, directed by Francesco Minniti. Lighting by Harrison Cope, costumes by Nay Cananzi,musical direction by Kara Ciezki. Performed by Jacinta Rohan, Mathew Brown, Tully Fedorowjtsch, Simon Storey, Mimi LeNoire, Alyssa Moore, Francesco Minniti and Kara Ciezki. After Dark Theatre at the Melba Spiegeltent. Closed.