The intergalactic mayhem of Beginning at the End (of Capitalism) may be hard to navigate but David Zampatti says its worth it for the simple truth that emerges from the tumult.
Beginning at the End (of Capitalism), Phoebe Sullivan ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 6 July 2021 ·
There have been many attempts to describe the debt a child owes a parent.
One was the 1974 mawkish Nashville weeper “No Charge”, the sort of dross you might hear at a Trump rally (don’t YouTube it, I beg you).
But, for something completely different, local theatre maker Phoebe Sullivan and her director Joe Lui take that universal human dilemma and blast off with it into a Barbarella-inspired, intergalactic comic book shoot-out against the evil forces of capitalism and consumerism.
It’s a wild ride as our heroine, Phera (Sullivan), battles Captain Industry and Selma, the demonic consumerista with her army of leeches across the galaxies, all vividly chroma keyed and sound-effected into a psychedelic free-for-all.
The whole process – from Sullivan’s dressing room to the effects desk and props table – is in plain view as the mayhem explodes on stage and screen, wrangled and processed by the choreographer Bobby Russell (who plays both Captain Industry and Selma), cinematographer Georgi Ivers and stage manager Abigael Russell.
Sullivan is phenomenal as Phera, all retro pink spangled leotard and atomic blaster gun, grimacing or triumphant, tousled and taut, live or in gigantic close-up as she furiously battles the evildoers.
All this keeps you alert and just a little unhinged (and, perhaps, looking at your watch wondering how on earth they’re planning to keep this pandemonium up for the show’s 70 minutes).
Which leaves you completely unprepared for what comes next.
Phera swaps her cozzie for jarmies and throws herself under the doona on her teenage-daughter bed.
Abruptly, the whole tempo and pattern of the play changes, and, in five long, slow, repetitious sequences we are taken into the real life of the girl, tormented by unreachable, unaffordable, website images of fashion and beauty, taking refuge in tiny fantasies built from figurines, bits of boxes and scraps of mess. It’s the story of the heroic Phera forming in her mind, a refuge from her stilted, unrequited world.
It’s an audacious, unexpected piece of theatre, its mundanity shot through with moments of cinematic beauty (there’s some lovely work by Ivers, lighting designer Kristie Smith and sound designer David Stewart; and Lui, who can do almost anything in a theatre, inspires and manages it all with his customary eclectic gift).
Then the play changes again. The girl is going to the school dance, and sees a Paris ball gown in tulle and lace on a website. Her mum takes her to Spotlight for the fabric, and to a friend to mimic the garment. It’s a disaster, but the girl doesn’t complain. She knows she has a debt she can never repay.
So does Sullivan. In the play’s coda, unexpected again, she stands in front of us in that ill-fitting, shapeless dress and tells us the story of a girl and a mother, her and her mother, what was hidden, and what was revealed.
It’s a love letter, quite literally light-years removed from the intergalactic Phera and her foes, but connected by the same forces, centrifugal and gravitational, that throw us apart and bind us together.
This is an often-confusing work, and easy to get lost in (I may have it completely wrong), but its rocky paths and slippery slopes are worth it for Sullivan’s starry ferocity, Lui’s haphazard intelligence, the audacity of its construction and staging and the simple truth that emerges from its tumult.
Pictured top is Phoebe Sullivan as Phera. Photo: Daniel Grant.
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