Adrienne Truscott stands on the small stage talking about her sole previous foray into comedy, Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It, subtitled ‘a one-lady rape about comedy starring her pussy and little else’.
Asking For It was about rape jokes, or rather, the male comedians who make them. Since its 2013 debut, Truscott has been touring the show to rave reviews and multiple awards and yet, she tells us, many people are unprepared to acknowledge her as a comic. To them, she is still a ‘strange feminist performance artist’.
She opens her new show, Adrienne Truscott’s A One-Trick Pony, by asking what she is: is she a comedian? Or will she always be a feminist performance artist? As she asks this question, she is wearing a sequinned leotard dress hooked over her neck with a coat hanger, and draped in front of her otherwise-naked body.
As Truscott’s show exemplifies, there probably isn’t a clear line between these forms, and at this year’s Adelaide Fringe she was certainly not the only woman presenting feminist performance-based comedy. The brash, stimulating, and hilarious work of these performers has been some of the best on show this festival.
British performance artist Bryony Kimmings has been touring her show Sex Idiot since 2011. It traces Kimmings’ re-examination of her previous relationships after testing positive for an STI, driven by the need to find out who gave it to her – and who she in turn she may have passed it on to. It is a loud and joyous claiming of a bodily space that women are generally expected to be ashamed of.
Sex Idiot is a catalogue of the art she made for and about each of her former partners. Songs, contemporary dance, and pieces of performance art: Kimmings has created these pieces from love or from anger, some are sad and others are hilarious, as she celebrates who she is as a person who loves her self, her relationships, and sex. Lots of sex. In lots of positions. With lots of names for vaginas.
While Kimmings embraces herself and her body, Zoe Coombs Marr is disguised as Dave: a drag stand-up comedy performance where Dave is every bad male comic you’ve ever seen.
A playwright, stand-up comic, and member of Sydney performance collective Post, Coombs Marr is endlessly discomfiting as Dave. Her masculine façade is never entirely convincing, as Dave’s facial hair (Coombs Marr’s hair clippings glued to her face) come unstuck and enter his mouth in a constant battle between the queer feminist performer and the sexist man she is embodying.
This visible gender conflict is essential to the humour of Dave, a show that would be unbearable were it not for its self-awareness. Often, watching him is horrific: we squirm in our seats, grimacing at this man who believes himself to be far more funny, clever and charming then he actually is. The show’s parodic style and visible drag element give the audience permission to laugh at Dave, rather than sitting in uncomfortable silence or offering the forced laughter a truly bad comedian provokes: but even then Coombs Marr pushes the comedy far enough that we are silenced.
As Dave tells us, there is no such thing as a funny woman. By this logic, Womanz would be an embodiment of everything he hates. A character-based comedy from Melburnian Tessa Waters, Womanz is the name of Waters’ character: born from a rock and a star, she has taken everything that embodies to heart.
Womanz leaps across the stage, dancing for us, showing us her art. She embraces her body and her power within that space, sharing the empowerment she has found in herself with her audience. Waters does not come from a performance art background; instead she trained as a clown at Ecole Philippe Gaulier. Her performance is unapologetically and radically self-loving, and we can’t help but leave with some of that self-love transferred onto us. Womanz tells us she has shaved her armpits especially for this performance, as it improves aerodynamics on her turns – but overwhelmingly the jokes in the show return to her pubic hair: hidden by her leotard but, she says, as big as the hair on her head and just waiting to burst free.
At the top of One-Trick Pony, Truscott tells us this is the show’s debut and every night is different as she works out what the show is – or as she forgets parts of it. The show’s newness is palpable throughout. Despite its tongue-in-cheek nature, the ideas Trsucott raises about the line between comedy and performance art are legitimate questions she is still exploring.
For all its questioning, One Trick-Pony is the closest of these works to traditional stand-up. Microphone in hand, Truscott converses with her audience, telling autobiographical stories of being a young woman who travelled to Texas to study performance art by day, and by night worked as a stripper to pay for her education.
Then, even as she decrees she wants to be taken seriously as a comic, she comes on stage holding a live sparkler in her vagina. Hilarious, yes. But where does this sit on a scale of performance art to comedy?
Taken together, the work of these women loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Performance art has been used for decades to explore bodies and gender, and has allowed women to occupy space: it makes sense for this work to infiltrate a context that has been traditionally hostile towards woman, and for them to do so while the Adelaide Fringe’s comedy program is still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
The fact that they can achieve all this while simultaneously creating some of the boldest, smartest and funniest work in fringe, is perhaps just a bonus.
In Adelaide, Sex Idiot plays until March 14; Dave, One-Trick Pony and Womanz play until March 15. Womanz then plays Brisbane March 17 -22, and Melbourne March 26 – April 17; and Dave plays Melbourne April 11 – 18.