Teuila Postcards, or the revenge of the cultural object

Teuila Postcards is an example of that thing-that-isn’t-theatre: performance. To use the language deign of theatre-lay restaurateurs, say, on annual night out, it is dancing with a narrative that goes beyond movement, yet never resolves into a plot. In the audience comprised mainly of enthused Pacific Islanders, my date and I had an evening of giggles and standing ovation, and understood perfectly how come theatre is ritual, rather than story-telling. Not merely an artform that works best when it looks at the instances of disingenuousness, of fronting an audience: it is an artform in so many ways political, because it is social, because it makes things happen in front of people.

Teuila Postcards, Polytoxic. Arts House, 2009.

If I must assume a high-school tone, Teuila Postcards is about tourism, the performance of culture, the distortion of culture for an easy buck, and the beauties of colonial rule. It features floral shower caps, some semi-folkloric dancing, laundry-hanging, and a most charming fa’afafine. I admit here my predilection for art that critically addresses tourism, doubtlessly deriving from a childhood spent in a tourist destination, followed by early young-adulthood in a tourist destination par excellance. Moving to Melbourne after a lifetime of being stared at and asked for directions, dodging drunken backpackers on Saturday nights and wrestling my culture out of the need to perform for the clicking camera and pointed microphones, it was sultrying to arrive into a place where every do-gooder considered their own tourist practice an act of unquestionable virtuousness. The easy prostitution of my formative years, the easy interpretation of it all as good and right by some distant, ignorant Australians, has remained an alarming and troubling point of internal argument for me ever since. For this reason only, Teuila Postcards was a welcome experience.

It is an exercise in subversion and in laughter and in exorcism, presented this audience of art-subalterns and non-theatre-goers-of-colour with a series of tourist eye-candy, so pastel as to be nearly macabre. From a woman in lava-lava (Pacific sarong, to keep the high-school lingo) and T-shirt, hanging her laundry, listening to Cindi Lauper and dancing a feline little unconscious dance across the stage while a 1960s tourist in sharp heels and two-piece tourist suit was flashing a camera at her, to a pair of Gothic colonial ladies in shiny, spidery black crinolines, drinking tea in an elaborate ritual, orientalised beyond recognition as English roses, the deep intelligence of this piece is rendered nearly invisible, super-subtle underneath a mad combination of fun and beauty. While the structure would benefit from being less fragmented (one pricks up one’s ears to hear the mad undressing scramble during costume-change breaks), less resembling a series of tableaux, Teuila Postcards manages to flow, stutteringly, from the arrival of confused tourists onto Samoa to their departure, and in between an entire culture caricaturized for their perusal. Yet what we see is never bitter, never self-pityingly victimized. A culture that grew into modernity through colonisation always exists in a symbiosis with its own mockery: a female Steve Irwin observing the indigenous male is as offensive as it is hilarious.

Above it all, the wonderful dancing scenes: a tourist-pleasing shimmy morphing into an MC Hammer routine, an exotic-beauty-cum-tribal-warrior dance as a background in a fizzy-drink commercial, down to the jointy, angular spider-woman twitch of the palagi (‘fallen from the sky’, ie ‘white person’) woman, who literally lands on the stage with balletoid gorgeousness, yet cannot be but hilarious. The whole thing is so amusing that the brainy performanceness of it all manages not to alienate a single audience sulk.

On the way home, I was thinking about other theatre works of interpretive tourism, and the great use they all make of choreographing it. Tourist movement is mass choreography like no else: like ballet ensembles, same direction, same tempo, same costume, many same-looking bodies. A beach collonisation, end-of-season exodus, or Teuila‘s pas de troix of drinking, nausea and vomit: how beautifully predictable, how excitingly, heart-warmingly homogeneous tourists are.

Teuila Postcards. By Polytoxic. Artists and Creators: Efeso Fa’anana, Leah Shelton, Lisa Fa’alafi. Costume Design and Construction: Leah Shelton, Lisa Fa’alafi. Lighting Design: Andrew Meadows. Sound: Efeso Fa’anana, Leah Shelton. Visuals: Jaxzyn Stage Manager: Justin Marshman. Set Design: Lisa Fa’alafi with Polytoxic. Set Consultant: Jonathon Oxlade. Set Construction: Troy Gilliland. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne, 13-16 May.

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