Reviews/Theatre/Visual Art

Dark comedy rides outside the comfort zone

24 September 2021

Not for those with traditional tastes, Unheimlich thrills Nina Levy with its unsettling themes and black humour.

UNHEIMLICH, Katt Osborne and Tarryn Gill ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 23 September 2021 ·

Like “Schadenfreude” (feelings of pleasure at someone else’s misfortune) and “begeistert” (enthusiasm, appreciation and commitment to something/someone), “unheimlich” is one of those German words that has no direct English equivalent but perfectly encapsulates an emotional state.

In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche” (The Uncanny), the word unheimlich – which literally translates to “unhomely” – refers to something familiar but disturbing, or as Perth-based multidisciplinary artist Tarryn Gill puts it “the experience of something that is familiar and comfortable becoming frightening and distressing in an instant”.

It’s an apt title for the new work that Gill has made with local theatre maker/director Katt Osborne. Their UNHEIMLICH is a domestic yet darkly glamourous dreamscape that teeters between black comedy and nightmare. And to invoke another German word with no single English equivalent it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, a work that synthesizes several artforms – theatre, sculpture, puppetry, movement and design – into a cohesive (if unsettling) whole.

UNHEIMLICH unfolds in a home populated by an unnamed couple (Brendan Ewing and Sarah Nelson), their demons or “shadow selves” (Jacob Lehrer and Rachel Arianne Ogle) and a gigantic talking cat (voiced by Igor Sas and embodied as needed by Lehrer and Ogle).

Though the narrative is dream-like, with episodes that are often disjointed and open to interpretation, there’s an allegorical feel to the work, as though it is a kind of modern-day fairytale (of the Grimm rather than the Disney variety).

And though the action centres on the deterioration of the couple’s relationship, the allegory seems broader than that, a commentary on the risk of disconnection from ourselves as much as others.

Teetering between black comedy and a nightmare: Sarah Nelson and Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Christophe Canato

Ewing and Nelson are terrific in the roles of the protagonists, managing the often swift segues from comedy to despair and back again with ease. Particularly striking is a scene in which, newly married and dancing they melt, shrink and hunch into their future elderly selves until he collapses, the music stops and her wedding bouquet becomes a funereal. Their snap back to the present is crisp and shocking.

In this scene, as in many others, Gill’s masks are as much the stars as the actors who animate them, cleverly designed to appear without notice, their blank, silvery eyes shocking when they catch the light.

Gill’s masks, costumes and sculptures for this work are inspired by her “Guardians” sculpture series, created in response to Sigmund Freud’s collection of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian antiquities and figurines, often tomb relics. Particularly mesmerising is another silvery-eyed mask, enormous and iridescent, with illuminated tears flickering on its ancient-looking face.

Animating the masks, Ogle and Lehrer are elegant and lithe, silently and relentlessly floating in and out of scenes. Like Ewing and Nelson, they morph seamlessly from humour to horror.

Just as the masks are inextricably linked to the performers, so too is Laura Heffernan’s set. The sleek black fittings of the couple’s loungeroom and bathroom are framed by a circular swathe of sparkling fabric. Beautifully lit by Joe Paradise Lui, the effect is dark yet glittering with light that ranges from an icy blue to multi-hued disco.

The icing on the cake is the giant cat with glowing eyes, a kind of comical but creepy MC, expertly voiced by Igor Sas, who ensures that if we thought we could relax, we are sadly mistaken. The cat resides both on stage (as a mask animated with fabulous feline grace by Lehrer) and downstage right as smaller version atop a plinth, the latter also functioning as a furry loudspeaker, from which Brett Smith’s soundscape explodes and contracts in ways that add to the atmosphere of unease.

Discomforting and deeply unsettling, UNHEIMLICH is everything its name promises and shot through with oddball comedy so dark it will make you shiver with delight.

This is not a work for those with conservative tastes. But if you like your art to take you out of the comfort zone, this one’s for you.

UNHEIMLICH continues at PICA until 2 October 2021.

Pictured top: Brendan Ewing, Sarah Nelson and Jacob Lehrer (as cat). Photo: Christophe Canato

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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