By Liam McLoughlin 23/06/2015
A flock of carnivalesque Teletubbies march entranced towards the e-waste throne. Drums beat menacingly as these infantile adults place electronic torches upon the throne as part of a primal ritual. A red balloon-breasted woman with newspaper hair performs a hyper-sexualised dance atop this technological monument and her minions follow with their own lascivious motions. The gaggle of skittle children switches between animalistic noises and equally incoherent nonsense like ‘hashtag yolo’. ‘Dick Pick Rick’ slaps theatregoers with his novelty-size rainbow-coloured penis. Suddenly the energy supplying the modern altar is gone and the audience must search a 19th century mansion to help find enough ‘plob plobs’ and ‘jooshes’ to power the ‘Minima’.
You’re in for an interesting night at the theatre.
Like Me is immersive theatre collective Mongrel Mouth’s third offering, following successful runs of The Silence Came, exploring the bystander effect, and The Age of Entitlement, dealing with class, power and activism. While different in genre, each production has been motivated by broad political themes and the desire to include the audience as an integral part of the show.
This latest production is a comedy which uses the French art of Bouffon, a kind of clownish mockery, to ridicule the contemporary trend of social-media-fuelled narcissism. It transforms a 166-year-old Georgian house in The Rocks, called Merchant’s House, into a former treatment clinic taken over by ex-patients. It’s now run as a centre for ego worship by a community of dysfunctional buffoons.
Attending this performance is a rare and at times exhilarating experience. The audience is encouraged to roam freely around two levels and eight rooms of the Sydney mansion for the duration of the performance. While we are coaxed into particular rooms on a few occasions, the freedom to interact with the particular characters and storylines of interest s invigorating, and bizarre and amusing moments arise for the willing observer. I for one took part in a ‘sadness selfie’, whispered donkey noises in a stranger’s ear, and consoled a downtrodden ‘Dick Pick Rick’ with white lies about the high quality of his genital humour.
In the tradition of Bouffon, Like Me seeks to engage in social critique with a series of ridiculous caricatures. Latisha Owens is a phenomenon as Poppy, equal parts effervescent, dramatic and desperate. Her fellow cast members, including Ali Crew, Charles Upton and Moreblessing Maturure, effectively play up the grandiosity, amorality and vanity of narcissism. The frantic energy created by the entire cast of nine is something to behold.
This energy is beautifully augmented by the technical aspects of the production. Set designers Gemma O’Nions and Louie Diamontaye and lighting designer Christopher Page cleverly use masses of e-waste, fairy lights and different coloured bulbs to evoke a dystopian technological scrap yard. David Herrero’s silent film and cabaret inspired soundscape is diverse and accentuates the chaotic atmosphere, while Alex PF Jackson’s costume, hair, and makeup is striking enough to make any narcissist proud.
Artistic director and producer Duncan Maurice threads these elements together into a cohesive whole which reflects back to us some of the worst aspects of our public culture. Bouffon as an art form takes problematic social trends to the extreme to expose them to ridicule, yet many behaviours in Like Me are much closer to reality than most of us would hope. The obscene self-aggrandisement, the melodramatic self-absorption, the hypercriticism of others, and the lack of empathy for those in pain, all feel depressingly familiar. The childish language structures and gibberish used throughout are a fitting representation of the emotional and intellectual immaturity of the Instagram obsessed narcissist. Maurice and his team are no doubt making a lot of sense with all this nonsense and tomfoolery.
For all this though, Like Me is a touch disappointing. Despite many excellent aspects, parts of the show dragged because of a repetitive structure and uninteresting narrative arc. While this repetition may appropriately reflect the nature of a life lived as a popularity contest on Facebook and Twitter, it doesn’t make for a consistently engaging performance.
The treatment of themes also felt a little clichéd and superficial. Although Like Meis scathing when it comes to narcissistic symptoms in the electronic age, it’s less potent as an exploration of underlying causes. You could definitely watch this production and have a good laugh at the traits of individual narcissists. It’s less clear whether Like Me would prompt you to reflect on the intrinsic aspects of capitalism, such as competition and alienation, which foster these qualities.
I imagine the latter goal would motivate Mongrel Mouth. Maurice has a background documenting the biographies of political dissidents and refugees in South America, and its website states that Mongrel Mouth artists are ‘united by a passion for creating socio-political theatre that brings about social change’.
Whether or not audiences leave the Sydney mansion in a revolutionary fervour, ultimately Like Me is original and exciting theatre with a progressive bent.
Check it out. #Yolo.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Playwrights: Duncan Maurice, Moreblessing Maturure, Sharon Zeeman, Charles Upton and Angela Blake
Artistic Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Adam Connelly, Ali Crew, Angela Blake, Ben Scales, Charles Upton, Eli King, Latisha Owens, Moreblessing Maturure and Sharon Zeeman
Merchant’s House, The Rocks, NSW
18 June-11 July 2015