Reviews/Cabaret/Fringe World Festival

Kaleidoscopic cabaret shines light on lonely places

23 January 2023

Chameleon bravely pulls back the curtains on mental illness with humour and heart, leaving Patrick Gunasekera moved and emboldened.

Chameleon, Karen Lee Roberts  
Theatre at DADAA, 21 January 2023  

Karen Lee Roberts’ Chameleon is a heart-warming and original cabaret about mental illness, and the struggle to connect authentically in a society stricken with fake appearances. 

Melodious jazz slides from accompanist Dr Jeff Usher welcome the audience into DADAA’s cosy theatre. His gentle, effortless ripples from the keyboard are a soothing start to a journey of many shifting moods. 

Roberts opens with an immediately convincing and tender monologue of painful thoughts at a family gathering. As lead artist, songwriter and performer, she presents a sharp, glittering script that’s enlivening in its honesty. 

Through swooning ballads, upbeat swing numbers, and utterly poetic lyrics, Roberts recounts how an unanswered desire to be emotionally real has affected her relationships with others and herself.  

Between songs and using clown-like personas to access these stories safely, Roberts caricatures a range of people in scenes where miscommunications, lack of care, and self-doubt left her isolated.  

A man in sunglasses and bright shirt sits behind a keyboard, singing into a microphone. Off to his left a woman in bright green, with flowers in her hair, sings into a microphone, her eyes closed.
Jeff Usher and Karen Lee Roberts are performing the cabaret, Chameleon.
Jeff Usher provides smooth support for Karen Lee Roberts’ multi-faceted performance in ‘Chameleon’. Photo: Krystal Shuttleworth

Whether performing a bespectacled motivational speaker, or a defensive and intoxicated sister, she acknowledges each toxic perspective in her life while using humour and verve to reveal their true cost to her self-image and communities. 

Aside from Usher’s occasional commentary and impressive vocal effects, Roberts is alone on stage, and successfully uses many techniques to portray vivid settings as if she’s really there.  

Roberts also presents entire scenes from her own mercurial perspective, which dazzle with courage and pride as she embraces her contradictions. In one particularly moving moment, Roberts is curled into a ball, petrified of encroaching darkness, as the lights grow warm and bright. 

After each confusing rejection, internally suppressed crisis, or hopeful turning point, Roberts candidly sings her way back to her own voice. As she reclaims the ways her feelings are devalued, the theatre remarkably transforms into a place where everyone is empowered to feel authentically.  

Encased in a calming tide of piano textures and rhythms, and uplifted by Roberts’ striking self-compassion, the audience are invited to comfortably own the chaos contained in each of us. 

Though it speaks to many genuine experiences with medication, thoughts of suicide, and the wounds of being unseen, Roberts never attempts to change what she feels. Her songs circle back to a mission to be true to herself, for herself. 

Playful, considerate, and clever, Chameleon is a quiet achievement of notable honesty and ambition. In a society that demands you change your colours to fit in, Chameleon’s vulnerability will envelop your heart with permission to be yourself. 

Chameleon is at Theatre at DAADA until 25 January 2023. 

Pictured top: Karen Lee Roberts channels a range of characters in a powerful performance. Photo: Krystal Shuttleworth

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Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera (he/him) is an emerging writer, performer and dramatist based in Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. After reading a poorly-written review of a show by disabled artists, he went into arts journalism to improve criticism and media representation of marginalised cultural work. He really loves monkey bars, but not being judged for playing on them.

Past Articles

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