Ascent is an ambitious work that examines the physical anxieties of women, says Robert Reid
Ascent begins in darkness.
An overture plays as our eyes become accustomed to the low light. Organ music, pre-recorded, programmed I think, but I can’t be sure. We listen to its conclusion. It’s not a long piece, but it feels long sitting in the dark. I’m not thinking of this as a musical yet, so I’m looking for visual clues too. On stage I think I can see movement. Maybe a face, deliberately indistinct.
When lights gradually reveal the stage, we see women clad almost head to foot in black. In some cases we see their hands and feet, some show their faces, others are cloaked. Against the empty black box of Theatre Works they disappear in the low lighting. Our attention is focused onto the few signs of humanity present in the din. Faces and hands. Talking faces. Women.
I’m still not thinking of it as a musical. The disembodied faces and hands briefly grow into arms and legs as they move around each other in choreography that catches our eye with movement, drawing our attention away from the empty black space. The scenes shift and change through an abstraction of the process of surgical and cosmetic upgrades to the female body. An odyssey of treatments, procedures and processes that change her but never address her main concern.
She worries that she smells. Weirdly, this is when it becomes clear that it’s a musical: not because of the development in the narrative, but because the music takes on a cadence that, while dissonant, is at the same time remarkably familiar. No aria or torch song or sing-along moment, but instead a monotone maintained throughout a glorious cascade of atonal chords. “I smell,” they sing. “I’m worried I smell.”
As she chases an ideal of physical perfection through body modification, she never shakes her olfactory anxiety. She does not feel “fresh”, she complains, and undergoes more surgery. This roundabout of dislocated desires and neuroses will be familiar to recovering addicts. She has no real support network that we see, no co-workers, no family or friends. She is tormented by nagging, wheedling voices which maybe echo people in her life, or perhaps her insecurities about her body, her physicality, how much room she takes up, how sexy, how fresh. As she loses more of herself physically, she drifts away from her partner until they are lost to each other.
But there isn’t really a person here. From scene to scene, staged cleverly with corridor lighting, songs and dance, it’s the process that is staged most clearly: a psychological horror show that moves from social isolation towards total physical dis-incorporation. I’m drawn to comparisons with Suskind and Kafka. There’s something very Metamorphosis about the tight focus on the psychological condition of the protagonist and how it manifests physically in the world of the fiction and its literal staging.
Disembodied body parts appear through the whole of the show. Legs hop and swivel, heads float, arms appear and disappear. With their bodies alone, the performers create a giant hand doing its fingernails, and I can’t shake the image of Dali’s In Voluptas Mors that it evokes. The bodies, the skull, the fingernail polish, death and chemicals.
Instead of becoming a cockroach overnight, however, over a series of treatments and surgeries she finds she has become a “pink person”. The aesthetic changes she makes to herself also change who she is. These shifts aren’t massive. She never becomes becomes unrecognisable: even when only her voice remains, we can still hear that it is her. Her monotonal wail of “I’m worried I smell” remains, even though there’s no body there.
Does she ascend? Is this an apotheosis? I don’t think so. In the end there is nothing left of her. Her body is gone, floating away from her in independent fragments that have a mind of their own. Even her scent has changed, so that her partner no longer recognises her.
There is no obvious moral at the end. Instead, the ridiculousness of the human condition is shown in all its absurdity.
It’s not perfect in all respects, but maybe asking perfection of a show that highlights the absurdity of perfection is all too ironic. While the choreography could be sharpened and the writing might benefit from some context for the characters, Ascent is an ambitious work. Warts and all.
Ascent, written and directed by Jayde Kirchert. Designed and produced by Stu Brown, composition by imogen Cygler, lighting design by Ashleigh Barnett. Performed by Marty Alix, Jordan Barr, Kala Gare, Jessica Vellucci and Willow Sizer. At Theatre Works as part of Melbourne Fringe.