…with a stranger…

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Presented by The Dust Palace
TAPAC, Auckland | June 12-16

I try my hardest to go into shows blind. Sometimes it’s not easy. If you’re attending a production of Romeo and Juliet, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. With other productions, it’s much easier. The only thing I knew about …with a stranger…, and also the production company Dust Palace, was via a recommendation from my friend who is in the know about these things, stating: “It’s gonna be amazing.”

I’ve never seen a circus show, let alone a circus-cabaret show, which is what I’d call this. I’ve also heard the label acro-burlesque applied to Dust Palace’s new show …with a stranger…. Whatever the label, this is an intimate, must-see show.

The show thematically revolves around intimacy, more specifically the dangers and joys within. Dust Palace engages with the theme through a series of vignettes performed by Mike Edwards, Eve Gordon, Zach Washer, Edward Clendon, Rochelle Mangan, and Geof Gilson using the art of circus theatre.

The vignettes are not always easy to decipher, but the performers are gifted enough that I understood the emotion and the circumstances behind what they were doing even if I didn’t understand the specifics. The sound design and song choices by Gordon and Drew McMillan also help round them out in an emotional context, even if not a narrative one. Vignettes like a man hiring a woman for a sexual encounter and a meet-cute between a guy and a girl are easy to understand, as is a piece about a career-driven woman being buffeted around by her job. Some are less immediately understood, like a woman twisting and turning above her partner as he writhes on the ground.

It’s a credit to the performers that every vignette comes across strongly, regardless of whether I understood the story behind it. It’s without question that these performers are talented at circus performance. At one point in the second vignette, I saw the five-foot-and-change Eve Gordon hold the six-foot-and-lots-of-change Mike Edwards on her shoulder apparently effortlessly, and I knew that I was in the hands of gifted performers. The rest of the performers are no less talented, each with their standout moments. Edward Clendon’s balancing act on a few precarious looking chairs; Zach Washer’s impressive command of a chain; Rochelle Mangan’s casual enough hair-fixing as she swings around the stage and Geof Gilson’s impressive, artful writhing.

However for me the most impressive thing—and let’s be clear I’m already impressed by their command of their circus craft, almost impossibly so—is how these performers convey the emotions and intent of the scene so clearly. It’s through their expressive faces and even more expressive bodies that these situations become alive and jump right off the stage at us. Even a vignette as abstract as Eve Gordon climbing up on silks above her writhing partner becomes immediate and real because of her performance; this woman is climbing out of the grasp of her partner, and it’s breaking his art. The other performers are equally impressive in this regard, but the standout moments are definitely those between Gordon and Edwards; carnal, complex, and utterly truthful.

The staging of …with a stranger… uses TAPAC effectively. The sometimes cavernous space instead becomes an intimate circus tent as the audience are seated around the relatively small stage. Everybody gets a different view, but I don’t think there’s one particular angle that’s better than the others. I got a real thrill out of sitting as close to the stage as possible; I felt very nervous for the performers, but in a way that kept me totally engaged with the show and the emotional stakes that the actors are portraying. The lighting works well in the circular space, appropriately highlighting and emphasising some moments, and achieving moments of brilliance every now and then. The highlight, again, us Eve Gordon on the silks, lit so she looks angelic from some angles and demonic from others.

I’ve never seen a Dust Palace show before, and this is my first real experience with this type of theatre, so I’m not quite up with all the terminology, but this is a show that I’d recommend to anybody. Beyond just being an amazing spectacle, it’s also an engaging emotional experience, and one of the most disarmingly truthful shows I’ve seen in a long time. Dust Palace really understand the truth that comes with the physical and how to emphasise that to make an audience feel. Sheer brilliance—go see it.