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Review: Carnival of Mysteries on Oz Baby Boomers

This review of Carnival of Mysteries was written by Christine Hill and published on Oz Baby Boomers on Saturday 16 October 2010. See it in its original context here.

The Carnival of Mysteries, created and directed by Moira Finucane & Jackie Smith

fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne | Until 30 October

Step right up folks. Be amazed, be surprised, be thoroughly entertained by this extraordinary spectacle, created and directed by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, and brought to you by the Melbourne International Arts Festival and fortyfive downstairs.

Finucane and Smith’s trademark mix of provocation and entertainment starts in the theatre lobby where, on arrival, everyone is rubber stamped, issued a ‘passport’, and given 30,000 carnival dollars. A suitably sleazy spruiker (David Pidd) explains the rules to the bemused but eager audience-in-waiting before we troop down the stairs to enter the world of the Carnival.

Boundaries quickly blur as performers and audience mingle in a noisy, colourful, and visually seductive space, with cabaret acts and sideshows competing for our attention. The bar — the only place that does not accept carnival currency — converts to a stage, and back again, several times during the two-hour show; tents and curtains beckon with the promise of hidden and shocking delights, while roving artistes in exotic costumes offer assistance and encouragement to the undecided. All our senses are fully engaged.

With more than 20 performers and 30 shows, many running concurrently, it is impossible to see them all in one night. I feel like a child at the fair, overwhelmed with choices, and wanting to make my money last. My less parsimonious friend has no such difficulty and needs a “loan” before the Carnival is over. She is attracted to the Garçon Gigolo (Brian Lucas) who, for $1000 will be your partner in a dance of your choice and The Intimate Moment where Azaria Universe bares herself, both physically and metaphorically.

The Man They Couldn’t Hang (Derek Ives) is fascinatingly macabre, The Shrine Pianiste (Carolyn Connors) manages to be both poignant and satirical, and  Amazing Tales from Australian Life (Caroline Lee) is oddly admirable. We leer at the weird and wonderful Showgirl (Maude Davey) in The Tent of Miracles — itself a work of art — and are mesmerized by Moira Finucane as The Angel of the Carnival. But when Toni Lamond takes the stage with her self-deprecating number I’m Here, it becomes clear that absolutely anything is possible in this Carnival.

We take a break at a table in the Pleasure Garden, surrounded by music (pianist David Cameron) and spruikers, parlour games, a letter writer (Caroline Lee), a portrait painter (Yvette Coppersmith), a clairvoyant (Maude Davey), almost nude but very hairy dancers (Holly Durant, Harriet Ritchie and Lily Paskas), toffee apples and beer. We compare notes and ask each other: what is real and what is contrived, who is performing and who is watching, and, ultimately, what does it matter? This is fun!

I hand over $1000 and have my passport stamped to enter The Library but my eye catches the 1950s-style fairyfloss vendor climbing on to the bar to perform a particularly sticky, but hilarious, strip routine with strategic use of three  tufts of floss. This turns out to be the perfect warm up for The Library’s versatile Caroline Lee whose brilliant reading of “anatomically correct erotica” feels deliciously naughty in a room that is accustomed to more genteel company.

For another $1000, Paul Cordeiro, billed as “The Handsomest Dancer Ever Born” delights with his energy and charm, not to mention his skill and yes, good looks! Sexy, smiling, Sosina Wogayehu is also a favourite, well worth the thousands of dollars it costs to marvel at her juggling nine balls at a time, hip-swaying hula hoops by the dozen, and, as Queen of Abyssinia, dancing to rival Salomé.

The feel-good finale, where hard-working performers and appreciative audience part like old friends, has me smiling all the way home and vowing to return. A great night out!

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