The Dream Menagerie… did that really happen?

I think it was fun. I think I had a good time. Or was it just a dream?

Having experienced two previous Strut & Fret productions, Feasting on Flesh and Cantina at the Spiegeltent in years gone by,  I had high expectations for this show. Feasting on Flesh is one of my favourite shows of all time and was filled with a wild spontaneous energy that pushed the boundaries of good taste and uses for chocolate cake.

The Dream Menagerie was fun, though it was also a lot of other things and I found the experience somewhat confusing overall. I wanted to enjoy it- though I felt like I was trying to enjoy it a lot of the time. The performers were highly energetic and engaging; their commitment to some often thin (or non-existent) material was brave and commendable. I just wish there’d been some actual substance to this show. Something to hold it all together. I don’t want to appear ungrateful for the tickets- I had a great night, but I think I need to be honest about the performance itself, and honestly, it’s difficult to describe as it left me rather bewildered.

Photo by Andrew Curnock

The show continues the somewhat recent tradition of being non-traditional; doing away with narrative, structure, and possibly anything to do with meaning of any kind. Perhaps this trend is inspired by a deep creative desire to break away from the restrictions of predictable narratives. Maybe we’re witnessing the exploration of a brave new creative paradigm where paradoxically the most profound meanings lie in subject matter which is in itself, meaningless. Or maybe there was a writer’s strike, or paying good ones just got too expensive.

I still don’t know what to make of this show. I’m glad I saw it, I had a great night catching up with a friend, but to a large extent this show made me feel uneasy. Granted, those wooden seats in the Spiegeltent could have come from a sweatshop factory floor and could use a little padding, but the show itself imparted a different kind of discomfort all its own.

There were high production values in many areas, but something was missing. I will attempt to illustrate my point. Apologies in advance if this detour into metaphor doesn’t quite mesh, but I don’t know how else to attempt to explain this one.

Imagine you’re taken out for dinner at an opulent five star restaurant. There’s candlelight (real candles, not those tacky battery powered ones), exquisite silverware, soft music and a wonderful atmosphere. Your host points out some real delicacies on the menu to whet your appetite, and the wine list sounds amazing. You’re salivating with anticipation. Before too long, the waiters come and rearrange the table, refill your water glass, and you’re momentarily distracted by something shiny out of the corner of your eye. When your attention is drawn back to the table, you find your host slumped back in his chair with a satisfied glow, telling you what a wonderfully delicious meal you’ve both just enjoyed. Confused, yet somehow bound by convention, you end up agreeing you’ve just had a great meal, although your tummy is still rumbling as you leave, and you’re not sure what just happened.

Look. I love The Mighty Boosh. I get surrealist, absurdist and occasionally pointless humour. I like things that are silly and stupid and don’t make sense. But I don’t like them without a solid context. I need an anchor point; somewhere to stand to gauge and appreciate just how ridiculous (and hopefully funny) a situation might be. I need to know the show has a direction, and that eventually, even a series of dud jokes will somehow click together and something hilarious will be revealed. If you want me to come with you on a journey into awkward confusion, there needs to be a payoff.

I felt like the show was a bit of an experiment on the audience, and I was one of Pavlov’s dogs. We were all being tested to see if we’d conform to the conventions of theatrical entertainment, even in the absence of conventional stimuli.

We’re holding some rope lights. They’re eventually hoisted to the top of the tent. Someone turns the lights on! (crowd applauds)

A rope falls from the ceiling. It’s a long rope. It’s mildly amusing, but for no reason. A good writer might have used this to create something hilarious, and I was ready to laugh at the punchline, but it never came. Instead we had uncertainty and awkwardness leading into rope gag, followed by more awkwardness. I didn’t get it. (crowd applauds)

The fat lady sings… a bit. And burps. I don’t know why. (crowd applauds)

We’re all under a giant sheet. And then we’re not! (crowd applauds)

There’s a donkey. It walked in a circle. (crowd applauds)

I struggled throughout the show to reconcile why the audience was clapping at, well, apparently nothing.

Certainly there were some splendidly silly, humorous and entertaining tid-bits, circus tricks, and delightful musical tangents, and with a thread of purpose or direction they might have been ten times funnier and more entertaining. But they weren’t really held together with anything at all, and too many of the gags didn’t have any attempt at a premise, which left me struggling a lot of the time to make sense of what was happening and why.

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream”

The Shakespearean dialogue at the end of the show seemed a lot like a “get out of jail free” card in many respects. It allowed the performance to be pointless, it validated any and all criticisms, yet rendered them powerless.

My tri-lingual mate Mark offered a German word to help explain a feeling we both got from the show: fremdshaemen. It’s a word to describe the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else. There was an overarching theme of awkwardness. The first notes I made after seeing the show were “Awkward. Confusing. Bordering on self-indulgent.”

I don’t want my review overly critical, as that would be unfair. There were some very talented displays from some gifted performers and I saw glimmers of Noel Fielding, Bill Bailey and even a touch of Shaun Micallef being channelled here and there. With a few tweaks, the show might possibly have struck genius.

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