‘The Ugly’ – outrageous play needs no explanation

9 February 2022

Joe Paradise Lui and Phoebe Sullivan are stars of WA’s indie theatre. In The Ugly they thrash, bump and grind in search of the naked truth about sex, power, race and gender, writes David Zampatti.

The Ugly, Renegade Productions ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 8 February 2022 ·

Phoebe Sullivan and Joe Paradise Lui – co-creators of, and performers in, The Ugly – are at great pains to clarify and illuminate the play’s purpose and method, in both their pre-season opinion piece in Seesaw Mag and in the copious explanatory notes accompanying the play.

This is partly, I suspect, to give some cover for what may be controversial performances and subject matter, but it is also, and wisely, to establish the show’s ground rules and map out where, how and why it breaks down its border walls.

This is a good thing, because work like this can often fall into the habit of being for itself and its creators, of hiding itself behind a one-way mirror of incomprehension. Lui and Sullivan are determined not to let that happen.

An image of Joe Paradise Lui and Phoebe Sullivan from their show The Ugly. Joe stands in a bright asian-inspired outfit looking up whilst Phoebe stand to his side in a revealing red outfit. She hold a mic to her face in one hand and points with the other.
Joe Paradise Lui and Phoebe Sullivan interrogate ‘the ugly’ fantasies of race, gender and power. Photo: Dan Grant

The Ugly is a show about sex, and it is full-faced and frank about it, but it uses sex for other, broader and deeper purposes. The sexual fantasy figures and stereotypes it presents – Lui is the Yellow Fever, Sullivan the Hot Blonde Slut – are just as representative of other fantasies of race, gender and power.

She is the West, he is the East, he is inscrutable and hidden in the shadows of his broad-brimmed hat and long, lank hair, she is transparent and exposed in her G-string and corset (designed by Nicole Marrington). She is frivolous and desirable, he is earnest and agonised.

They are both captive, though, to forces within and outside themselves. He must kowtow; she must get down on her knees. It’s inhuman bondage, and in it everyone – white or yellow, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly – must serve somebody.

If sex is everything, then it carries within itself all these monstrous things. They are “the ugly” this show is about.

The dramatic structure of The Ugly is delineated by its staging. Stage right is Lui’s, top lit and shadowy, cluttered with leads, switches and the guitars he thrashes in the telling of his stories. Lui is a composer and musician with a wonderful range of interests and skills; here he’s in the dense, growling underworld I suspect he likes most.

Stage left is Sullivan’s; bright, exposed and all but empty, with no place to hide. In it and on the centre-stage catwalk she bumps, grinds and teases in a burlesque of savage sexuality (choreographed by Bobby Russell). Sullivan says she wants to be seen as what we see, and she demands that we watch while she comes apart at the seams for us.

Lui and Sullivan take considerable time to elaborate the themes of the play at its conclusion. They didn’t need to. Their outrageous, lucid play had already done that work for them.

The Ugly runs at the Blue Room theatre until 12 February 2022.

Joe Lui and Phoebe Sullivan in ‘The Ugly’. Photo: Dan Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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