Transhumance is a touring show, originally hailing from New York City and gracing BATS’ Random Theatre on its fourth set of festivals. New Zealand Fringe Festival is the last of its festival tours and it shows as Upstill has remarkable control of the audience, including through an unfortunate technical glitch. While the sound cuts out just over half way through, Upstill holds our attention and finishes the show with sincerity and grace, demonstrating their familiarity with this piece.
Upstill is more or less silent- except for huffs, sighs, and grunts - which forces our focus to their expressive face and body. Their wriggly extremities (toes in woolen socks; fingers nervously smoothing fabric) and emotive face - such as their propensity to act with a lot of raised eyebrows - left us giggling at the silliness of this show. At no point do I feel that this performance needs another player. Upstill dominates the space in a gentle and loving manner, kissing their jacket goodbye whenever it’s removed, showing wonder at each new thing to explore and keeping us in on the joke.
Prior to the tech cutting out, soft jazz and avant garde style songs play delicately in the background, creating a whimsical environment for play. Recorded audio cuts through this intermittently, to announce each stop, harass Upstill, or egg them on in their exploration of gender. The music changes starkly between the exploration of womanhood and manhood; womanhood is like Yann Tierson’s music in the film Amélie; whereas manhood sounds like a mix between jazz and rock. The sound design by Kendall Perry works to create a clear divide between environments without the need to change the set, and shows us how these two spaces feel to Upstills character.
The set and costumes, created by Milo Robinson, are all bespoke and add a great deal of charm to this show. The set is simplistic yet full of details; two rusted blue lamp posts adorn the stage with functioning lights. One has a clock with runes and horoscopes instead of numbers, with time remaining static. Upstills’ suitcase and costumes are cleverly made and contribute to the playful, clowning atmosphere of the show through exciting reveals and joyous interactions.
The real high point of this show is the stylistic choice of clowning. Dramaturgy, by Molly Houlahan, may have shaped this decision, however it is difficult to discern what choices are made due to the actors’ capability versus the recommendations of a dramaturg. Nevertheless, this is a well sculpted piece. While the storyline is quite simplistic- and the action of the show is altogether relatively short- the manner in which it is delivered is what makes the show so charming. I wanted a reduction in some of the repetitive actions, though, such as finger guns dealt out multiple times, and instead more focus on exploring the conceptualisation of gender.
While the exploration of masculine/feminine gives a sense of the struggles of what occupying either may look like, I am left wanting more of an exploration of womanhood/femininity. The experience of being a woman is heavily weighed on being policed by society through wolf whistling, reactions from the public, unwanted sexual advances and being led by someone else (presumably men). The experience of manhood, however, seems to be more around taking up space, being “the man”, and the physicality of this strength. I wanted to see more of the experience of femininity in it’s own right rather than defined by the impact of men.
The show finished after around 45 minutes, which was disappointing given the advertised 60 minutes. However, the show still received a standing ovation from members of the packed audience and seemed to resonate strongly with some. As a reviewer who does not have the same experience of gender as the perfomers, and who is mostly comfortable occupying the role of cis woman, aspects that didn’t work for me may have worked for those particular communties. This show certainly is unique and offers a rare opportunity to see the world through a different lense. Transhumance is showing from 8th-12th March at BATS Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here.