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January 23, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Carnival of Mysteries (Melbourne Fringe Festival)


Published 11/10/10 at www.artshub.com.au

It’s crazy, camp, kitsch experimentalism. You can shut your eyes to Garçon Gigolo, but he will not stop staring at you no matter how hard you might wish him to stop. Welcome to the uncomfortable weirdness that is the Carnival of Mysteries.

This show could probably fly the banner as the archetypal oddity of the Festival, which is now in its fourth year. Since Melbourne seems to somewhat of a collector of festivals, the city’s inhabitants are now spoilt for choice of live entertainment. Melbourne’s festivals offer an array of experimental, creative and beautiful performances and exhibits to experience each year; the Carnival of Mysteries seems to sit in the avant-garde part of this culture.

It is part fun-house, part experimental theatre. Equipped with carnival ‘money’ and ‘passport’, the audience is swept brusquely into a smoke-filled room with ‘intimate pleasure halls’ spruiking smaller performances. But the open-area exhibitions are possibly more alluring than the more private screenings; the quiet, excited hum of a crowd, for example, can add some kind of inexplicable magic to a ‘butterfly’ opening sequence. Balancing delicately on a golden ball and seeming mysteriously distanced from her audience, a thinly-clad woman with sweeping wings of material beckons the crowd in a way that would simply fall flat with a smaller group.

The sizeable collaboration of artists in this show makes it difficult to select a tasting of the types of people involved in this venture. From the fabulously outrageous Librarian (Caroline Lee), to the sweat-inducing freakishness of Garçon Gigolo (Brian Lucas) and the nasal-accented clairvoyance of Mona Povey (Maude Davey), it’s probably best not to make any assumptions about this event, because they tend not to be validated. The event itself offers almost too much variety; you probably won’t see every sideshow, swamped as you are with the difficulty of choosing your next viewing destination.

But for all its mystery, there are some kinks within the carnival’s setup that dispel the sense of mystery it tries so hard to achieve. There is, for example, no real timetable or directions for what shows are to be shown where. While this can kill the mystery a little, it also means that you probably won’t be able to see a particular show unless you’re in the right place at the right time.

In many respects the carnival throws the audience in at the deep-end. Rather than catering to the audience’s expectations, the viewer is instead forced to blindly go wherever their carnival money takes them. This enforced foolhardiness is magnified by the confusing eclecticism of the types of shows that made it into the carnival. You may see, for example, a juggling act and a comedy show, but you might also be assaulted by the unwelcome visual of a completely naked, angry man, and the strange and somehow disappointing Cat Fight dance, which ends with a whimper rather than a bang. It is as though the carnival couldn’t decide whether to side with interactive theatre or circus-style performances, and it means that the viewer is unsure whether to treat particular shows as comedy or experimental theatre.

It is, however, hard to fault the commitment of the set designers. Each set-piece has been elaborately and carefully crafted to achieve the appearance of nostalgia. It perfectly creates an aura of trickery and intrigue, where the audience is merely wandering prey to the whims of mysterious carnival folk.

For some, this melting-pot of artistry is just the kind of experience that revitalises the pleasures of interactive theatre. For others, the carnival may require more of a theatrical vein then they possess, and while this may stunt the illusion of mystery somewhat, it doesn’t make the experience any less of an invigorating ride. Indeed, shows like the Carnival of Mysteries are why arts festivals are so important; by providing opportunities for artists to experiment and explore, the relationship between artist and audience can continually be challenged. Who wants to be force-fed their entertainment anyway?

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