Les Ballets C de la B @ Dunstan Playhouse
7:30pm, Mon 5 Mar 2012
While I was sitting in front of the dance floor at Barrio on opening night, with my “Hug Me” sign emblazoned over my chest, a gorgeous young woman slumped into the seat next to me. “I’ve had a terrible day,” she said with clear English and an accent I could only identify as European; “I need a hug.” “I believe this sign encourages just that,” I said, and we hugged; her arms were desperate, yet weary.
We started talking; it turns out that the woman was Emilie, the tour manager for Les Ballets C de la B. She explained the source of her woes: during rehearsals for Gardenia, one of the elderly performers had fallen off the stage and landed on his head, and was currently in hospital under observation. They hoped he would return soon, she said, but the show must go on; they were in the midst of trying to figure out how the absence of the performer would affect the rest of the show. (We were later joined by the youngest performer of the Gardenia performance – Dirk, maybe? It was late, and my mind was hazy with drink.)
So with that very personal interaction, I was even more keen to see how Gardenia played out, with its cast of elderly transvestite and transexual performers (plus the “young guy” and “real woman”). And it’s a bold opening – the curtain comes up and reveals the eight remaining performers of all shapes and sizes, purposefully standing with the poise of dignified upper-class businessman, resplendent in their stiff suits.
They gradually they strip away a layer of clothing in a process that is almost painfully raw to watch; the older members seek support, trembling on aged legs, as they remove their dull corporate attire to reveal the bright and colourful dresses underneath. But they also manage to ham it up during these transitions; the crowd cackles in glee. There’s costume changes a-plenty, followed by promenades and poses; more costume changes, more cat walking, re-dress in suits, and yet more costume changes. It all starts to feel… well, arduous: it’s almost like we’re watching a blurred gender production line.
But then there’s a scuffle, as the “young guy” and the “real woman” throw each other around the stage. There’s a couple of moments where they almost tumble off the raked stage – I harken back to Emilie’s tragic story, and wonder if this scene was the cause. The scuffle is the most interesting bit of Gardenia for me, as I took it to be an expression of what it’s like to have one gender, but wanting to be seen as another…
…But then there’s another costume change, a final walk down the red carpet, and some clever lighting picks out the posed Gardenians before blackout.
I left this feeling miffed. It felt way too long. There was little narrative, and no depth to the characters, even though there was every opportunity to develop them up. And – here’s the thing that really got me – it felt disrespectful. It felt like a bunch of trannies saying “here we are, laugh at us; look at how kooky we are!”… and the audience just seemed to lap it up. And whilst it could be argued that the decision to present themselves for our laughter was theirs to make, it still felt… well, wrong to me.
Which, unfortunately, resulted in me thinking that Gardenia was an opportunity missed.