There is a reasonable crowd assembled in Gryphon theatre bar ahead of Feminah’s opening night. This Perth-grown show has an impressive list of awards to its name and there is a ripple of expectation in the air (or that could be the extreme air conditioning in the auditorium). We are welcomed in with a lazily binary ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ from our usher, disapointing ahead of a feminist show. But the on stage guitarist (George Ashforth) strumming us to our seats, immediately distracts me from the cold, both literal and metaphorical.
Ashforth does such a great job of setting the tone that I am shocked that as soon as the show starts a music track blasts through the speakers and our lead performer (Otton) enters (in full victorian attire) and mimes to the words, undercutting the live music. Perhaps this jarring is deliberate as it is a device that returns throughout but we soon discover that both Otton and Ashford can sing marvellously and so I question why they use recorded music at all, especially so soon.
It becomes immediately clear that Otton is an absolute powerhouse of a performer. In the first five minutes we have already witnessed her ability to lip sync, sing, mime, and interact with the audience. We also see a hint at the subversion to come when our leading lady defies the suggested femininity of her costume by miming ripping the head off a bird. I am completely drawn to this performer. She is charismatic, smart and an expert in comic timing.
With the use of a projector, a couple of props, a guitarist and a microphone, Otton takes us back in time to the 19th century in an unashamedly crass unravelling of womanhood through the ages. Otton provides a potted history of the patriarchy infused with modern asides that shun the structures enforced over the centuries. Babies are tossed around like playthings, nipples are bared, and knees are revealed as the sexy knockers they are. The performance sways between people-pleasing and pure profanity.
None of the information is particularly new but Otton has such a unique way of presenting it that I barely notice. She shares personal anecdotes that fuse her own stories into the global experience of (cis-gendered, white, able-bodied) women. In a stand-out story she reminisces about her Dad joking about buying an adult DVD at the video store in front of her. But when he checks the DVD out, brings it home and disappears into his room, the ‘joke’ stops being so funny. This is the underlying metaphor; the patriarchy is a joke that’s got old and Otton has all the skills and more to refresh our collective sense of humour.
Interspersed throughout are songs from the ages that reinforce gender stereotypes. Otton is not only a great singer but is able to transition seamlessly between genres. Even more impressive is how she undercuts her own performance, satirising the messaging of these classic numbers through a rolled eyebrow or a throw away ‘c***’ under her breath. Highlights are her rendition of Gerschwin through gritted teeth and a sexualised ‘My heart belongs to daddy’ which comes immediately after the aforementioned anecdote. Whenever we start to feel comfortable, Otton rips the wax from our proverbial bikini line. This show is uncensored, playful and alive to itself at every turn. I have to applaud the sublime direction from Libby Klysz which I expect is responsible for the sharp attention to detail throughout.
As the show plays out, more of Otton’s body becomes exposed. It becomes hard to ignore the presence of the male-presenting guitarist, who remains fully clothed. I am pleased when this relationship becomes part of the power play. At times, Otton is in full control of Ashford, most notably when her exposed left breast sits on his shoulder during a duet. But there are times where the imbalance swings the other way, and he embodies the patriarchy in full force. When Otton finishes singing while miming being taken from behind (in a way that does not scream enthusiastic consent), Ashford does not let the song end, despite her silent pleas. Instead she is forced to stay on her hands and knees until he finishes. Creating discomfort is a powerful framework but I wish for a more developed relationship between our two performers which is never quite followed through to its full potential.
This is echoed as I leave the theatre after a forty minute piece. Filling an hour is hard, but it is hard for a reason. The ten minutes missed could have given this show the ending it deserves. I want to hear something new on a subject done to death. Otton’s conclusion is both fast and familiar. I’ve seen this show before. The one that discovers that the answer to the patriarchy is not giving a f*** about the patriarchy. If I am being honest, I expect more at this point in the conversation. I can’t help but feel as though, with its predictably uplifting ending, this show doesn’t quite rebel in the way it wants to. We have all been guilty of falling into the theatre making trap of tying it all up with a bow at the end of a show. But this negates all of Otton’s hard work going against the grain. To be truly non-conforming, perhaps this show needs a messier ending, which was hinted at but never quite happened.
Feminah is not going to change the world. But it is absolutely worth a watch. Bring a friend who has just started on their feminist journey because this is a great place to start. Feminah is on until Friday 13th March at 7.30pm. Tickets available here.