Presented as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The Famous Spiegeltent, 15th-20th October 2019. Co-Creator/Director: Maude Davey. Co-Creator/Performer: Mama Alto. Music Director: Ned Dixon
As I settled in to watch Gender Euphoria at the famous Spiegeltent, I noticed a sense of jovial expectation in the air. As the audience were excitedly chatting away, and I took in the colourful flashing lights and disco balls strung up around the perimeter of the tent, I felt more like I was participating in a rowdy party than getting ready to watch a performance.
Gender Euphoria assembles together the largest transgender and gender-diverse cast ever featured on a main stage in Australia. It is a true variety show, with a range of short and sweet performances featuring everything from dramatic monologues and aerial gymnastics, to lip-synching and sung ballads.
The capable ringmaster for the night was cabaret singer Mama Alto, who took to the stage in many stylish and sequinned gowns throughout the evening with her signature flowery headpiece. She addressed with the audience with delightfully pun-ny alternatives to ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’: ‘Lollies and jellybeans’ and ‘They-dies and gentle-them’. As she reiterated in her opening and closing monologue, only machines think in binary, and after all, we are ‘delightfully, dizzyingly, deliciously human’.
While I was expecting bold and brassy song and dance, which was certainly featured in the show, I was happily surprised by the eloquent and sharply realised spoken word performances. Performers Harvey Zielinski, Fury, Nevo Zisin, and Melbourne special guest Nikki Viveca all delivered powerful and insightful monologues on their experiences as transgender and gender diverse people. A memorable vignette from Zielinski’s speech was a time he was waiting for his food outside a fish and chip shop, in the midst of his female to male transition. He was then approached by a male customer who called him ‘mate’ and began earnestly talking at him on the topic on finance, prompting Zielinski to wonder: ‘At what point did I become his audience and not his enemy?’
Fury spoke in a charismatic fashion on the nature of transgender stories, and the fact that they are at their core, human stories of growth, revelation and change. They spoke powerfully on the strangeness of the belief we commonly hear in society, that we won’t be real until someone loves us enough.
Nevo Zisin delivered a sharply intelligent and wryly humorous address, describing themselves as a Gender Whisperer who will ‘manipulate your voices into empowerment and self-confidence, and crawl over the skin of straight white old men and infect them with empathy’. The ancient history nerd in me was very happy to hear Nevo reference ancient Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/ Ishtar, who was purported to have androgynous powers such ‘changing man into woman and woman into man’. Nevo addressed the transgender audience members, earnestly stating ‘I want you to not need to be brave anymore, for our existence to no longer be radical.’
Nikki Viveca brought a delightfully batty energy to her monologue, which appropriately enough explored how she channelled her confusion about her gender as a child, into an interest in witchcraft and magic.
Mama Alto sang throughout the night, and showcased her powerful upper register and nuanced artistic interpretation of ballads. Mx Munro presented a sultry jazz club take on Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful with lovely communication with the musicians in the pit, music director Ned Dixon and bassist Cerise Howard.
Later we were presented with a genuinely moving lip-synch to Beyoncé’s I Was Here and Whitney Houston’s rendition of Higher Love by Crystal Love, an Aboriginal trans woman from the Tiwi Islands. She talked briefly about the Tiwi islands and the rates of suicide being so high, especially within the LGBTQI community. Amao Leota Lu, a Samoan fa’afafine and transgender woman of colour, treated us to a dance performance to thumping party anthem Chameleon by PNAU, with a fabulous UV light glow-in-the-dark costume, accompanied by a fabulously enthusiastic Auslan interpreter.
The line-up of performers was rounded out by Quinn Eades, Mahla Bird, dancer Bailee Rose and Krishna Istha. Istha is a stand-up comedian who came to comedy from a performance art background, and delivered the zinger: ‘The aim for stand-up comedy is for the audience to laugh. The aim for performance art is for the audience to never laugh again.’ When Quinn Eades and aerialist Mahla Bird took to the stage, Eades delivered a monologue while physically supporting Bird, who ascended a rope and performed aerial stunts (with no harness!).
The finale of the night saw the entire ensemble sing The Pretenders’ Hymn to Her as an anthem of resilience. Gender Euphoria was a vibrant, disco-infused testament to the fierceness and tenacity of the human spirit. As a supporter from the outside looking in to the trans community, I sincerely hope it tours Australia, and hopefully cabaret festivals around the world.