A performer in Wunderkammer | Malthouse Theatre

It loosely translates as The Chamber of Wonder and it’s not hard to see why. Created by Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble, this gravity defying, body contorting spellbinder has to be seen to be believed. An Australian grown show that has finally returned to Melbourne’s shores, Wunderkammer is a seven-person ensemble act that boasts an alluring blend of circa, burlesque and cabaret.

Known for his work with Rock’n’Roll Circus, Australian Museum and the Australian Theatre for Young People, director Yaron Lifschitz has manipulated different cultures of music and interpretive dance to breathe life into something very unique. Performed by Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Robbie Curtis, Casey Douglas, Brittannie Portelli, Kimberly Rossi and Duncan West, Wunderkammer has no dialogue, but it does tell a story. Each performer has a character, whether it be a clown, a puppet, or a trapeze artist, Lifshcitz’s crew is not here simply to do tricks and handstands — they each communicate some sort of tale. Though one could argue that there are gender politics afoot, it seems more likely to be an exploration of the dynamics of a close-knit family.

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The performers of Circa are quite simply incredible. In remarkable states of physical fitness, what these people can do with their bodies is spectacularly unnatural. They start off with a basic crowd pleaser, as Jessica Connell warms up the audience with her hoola hoop finesse, then move on to a few structures and tumbles as Duncan West and Robbie Curtis join her on stage. Brittannie Portelli goes old-school erotica with nipple tassels and a thong, and Nathan Boyle establishes himself as The Clown by throwing in a few balloon animals. After the initial chapter has taken place, the solo performances get underway, and this is where Wunderkammer really sparkles. Portelli and Connell each dominate the trapeze and Kimberly Rossi transfigures herself on a set of ropes, like some fabulous human marionette.

Each one of these gifted performers is incredibly strong. Three tiered pyramids are formed, women lift men and people are flung higgledy-piggledy across the stage into each other’s arms. Each daring trick is executed with a high element of danger, the risk close enough to leave the audience gasping in fear. Despite these close calls, though, the acts are flawless and graceful, each body held immaculately with the strength of its own stature.

The dramaturgy is minimalistic. The audience is not, after all, here to enjoy the pretty scenery, they are here to focus on the performers. A soft blue light bathes the stage with the occasional spotlight to direct attention. The music is what ignites this piece, with ’50s rock and roll numbers bleeding seamlessly into indigenous music, classical piano, salsa music, and for good measure, a little unconventional Irish dancing. This could potentially be a cacophony, but somehow, mysteriously, it just works, with each piece complimenting the individual act.

Undeniably, there is something that is quite somber about Wunderkammer. This eerie circus seems to echo the ghosts of performances long past, but the overall sense of melancholia is nicely broken up with contemporary dance, vulgar humour and just for good measure, some grotesque party tricks. There is a sense of fear mingled with heavy sexuality and partial nudity, but if you don’t mind that, this is a show for everyone. Children and adults alike will be dazzled by these feats, and at a mere 75 minutes running time, you will never be bored.

Original, frightening and staggeringly beautiful, it will have you on the edge of your seat until the final curtain.

The details: Wunderkammer plays the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until September 1. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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