Burlesque by Force

Burlesque by Force
Nexus Arts. Lion Arts Centre. November 15 – 18, 2017

Burlesque by Force is a piece of ‘confessional theatre’. It is a deeply personal work, created by Brodie John and Marissa Bennett, dealing with John’s battle with acceptance after being raped in his first homosexual experience.

Over 50 minutes the audience experiences memories that are often fragmented, yet connected by the personal anguish John has experienced on the journey to acceptance. It is difficult reviewing such work as the subject matter and performance is so personally orientated. Anything one may write or criticise will understandably be taken as deeply personal.

As a theatre piece in itself Burlesque by Force is relatively engaging and John is an energetic and forceful personality on-stage. He makes his entrance as a ‘drag queen’, taking bows and accepting tumultuous applause from an unseen rapturous audience in the wings.

After this intriguing and positive beginning, John crosses to his dressing table and the descent into his own personal hell begins. It is ‘victim’ orientated confessional drama, but not without theatrical appeal.

Generally, I avoid such works as they are now somewhat commonplace, and each begs the question as to why should we care about someone we don’t really know. We can empathize and pity the ‘victim’, but if we are honest we forget about it the moment we leave the theatre.

However, there is something of more intrinsic value here; as noted by Bennett in the program, the dramatic battle of personas, between “the ‘Character’ one presents to the world, and the ‘Self’ that abides beneath.” This is the actors’ challenge and life, hence the theatrical nature of this production; it works extremely well, enhanced by the force of John’s performance.

As John and Bennett expressed before and after the show, they are hoping that others who have had a similar experience come to see this work. This is an honourable intention, and one that I whole-heartedly support as they articulate and express something that others may prefer to keep hidden and/or find problematic to articulate.

I do, however, have a couple of issues, which I hope the creators take as ‘constructive criticism’ for this highly personal work. First, the entrance sequence is perhaps too long. It may make sense in regards to how the play ends, but the establishment of a ‘Character’ and then a ‘Self’ in this manner, whilst sound, is relatively simple and commonplace – the actor dropping the mask after a performance. It doesn’t need to be so long.

Second, there is a sudden break from the narrative when John drops his current story and addresses the audience in a seemingly spontaneous manner. The trouble is that in the acting and writing it isn’t ‘spontaneous’. It felt scripted, pre-planned and forced. A good idea, but not executed well.

Finally, the positive resolution and triumphant climatic speech, involving acceptance and re-birth is a little ineffective, especially considering the opening. This is despite John stepping off the stage and moving through the audience, addressing us directly with a voice and passion of hope. Again, a good idea, but it seemed lacking in power.

Asking us to throw streamers etc at the end of the show to celebrate the success of the ‘Yes’ vote in the Same-Sex Marriage Survey may have been ostensibly a good idea, but whilst that is great I would have preferred to celebrate Mr John.

Keep him on the stage; it is difficult for the audience to see him when he is at the back of the auditorium, and whilst he is a vocal presence he is not a clear physical and visceral one. Keep him on the stage where we all can hear AND see him, and then pop the ‘poopers’ and throw the streamers in celebration of him and his journey to acceptance and rebirth.

Tony Knight

Photographer: Daniel Purvis

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