Sunday, 12 July 2015

Freak Out and Show Everything (2010)

It is rare to see the audiences for Live Art and burlesque overlap – even though both genres share a great deal and could learn from each other. Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz achieve this integration: despite leaving burlesque out of their publicity, the burlesque aesthetic is ever-present during The Freak and The Showgirl, alongside a clear Performance Art abrasiveness, a sly revisionist humour, Fraser’s unique charisma and Muz’s nods towards political engagement.

Both performers are talented and imaginative, and their combination ought to be explosive. The adoption of a cabaret format allows them to showcase their signature acts: Fraser revives a segment of his Seal Boy Fringe success, which re-examines the assumed exploitation of the freak-show; Muz offers singing sensation Mr Pussy and awkward stripteases, undercutting the eroticism with aggression and wit. 

Yet The Freak and The Showgirl has the feel of a draft, of a work-in-progress. They rarely team up, beyond performing their individual acts together – the finale of Fraser singing and Muz dancing naked, or the audience participation beer-drinking contest, are all the more effective for bringing them together. The first section of the show alternates Fraser’s monologues or songs with Muz’s stripteases.

Aside from being a joyful nightmare to categorise – is this circesque, integrated performance or variety? – The Freak and The Showgirl promises to ask questions about performativity, gender politics and transatlantic collaborations. Fraser even provokes the audience by citing the post-modern irony that drives neo-burlesque. He seems to be challenging normative ideas about body image and erotic representation – throughout his career, he has made a point of undermining clichés about disability. 

Muz is one of the more confrontational artists in neo-burlesque: her Breakin’ The Law routine snaps at cock-rock posturing, while vaguely challenging certain laws that circumscribe freedom. But as the late appearance of a parodic Scottish costume double act implies, the pair are working on the hoof, finding common artistic ground to launch something more than merely suggestive.

If the energy of the show comes from the obvious confidence and ability of the duo, it suffers from a common burlesque weakness: it is more comfortable with making statements about how they are challenging rather than actually integrating the theory into succinct performance, and the structure isn’t forceful or directed. 

Mr Pussy, a film clip of Muz’s pussy miming to the hippie musical theatre hit Hair, pokes at modern fashions for depilation. Seal Boy celebrates the life of an American side-show freak. The beer drinking competition is harder to decode: is it attempting to break down the fourth wall by asking the audience to act like Freaks or Showgirls? Is it celebrating or mocking alcohol consumption in a city blighted by alcoholism? Is it re-inventing pantomime into Live Art?

The Freak and The Showgirl is never less than entertaining, and treads a careful line between shock and charm. Muz and Fraser have a delightful mutual respect, and each act is engaging and questioning. Despite the nudity, a spot of cock-sucking and Fraser’s insistence on questioning responses to his physicality, the hour feels safe, even comforting. It is undeniably a step up from most burlesque shows, without reaching the intensity of The Wau Wau Sisters’ scattershot brilliance, Red Bastard’s frightening buffoonery or Jess Curtis’ vigorous examination of “imaginary bodies”. 

It poses questions about the role of the body in performance, and easily answers them. The remaining question is whether this collaboration can push into more bracing territories. Fraser's website advertises a new work coming in April: that ought to do it.

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