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Review: Susanville by The Chamber of Susans

We sent two Farrago writers to an improv show. They gave us different reviews.

We sent two Farrago writers to an improv show. They went on different nights. And they gave us different reviews.

 

Review: Susanville by The Chamber of Susans by Donna Ferdinando

In the glitzy confines of the Vau d'vile cabaret, the Chamber of Susans embarks upon the stage and makes it their own, surrounded by the sequined, red velvet memorabilia of the drag queens themselves. An all-female improv comedy group based in Naarm, Greta, Sally, Kate and Kath create a world of their own upon the Melbourne Comedy Festival’s stage. The quirks and oddities of their characters can only delight, the humdrum familiarity of the towns they create can only evoke warm nostalgia, and, of course, the witty banter, conversation, and antics always guarantees good, old, millennial humour.

Their set is minimalistic; just two chairs upon the elevated stage. In the growing sea of the largely millennial audience, chatter and laughter and handshakes whisk through the air; and when the Susans themselves enter to the beats of raucous music, cheers and whistles accompany them on.

Perhaps it is the connection between the Chamber of Susans and their audience members that makes their performance as refreshing as a breath of air. An entire world is constructed, the world of “Susanville”, upon that stage, drawing on the audience’s memories, stories and inside jokes. Susanville can easily be said to encompass a veritable compendium of stories, each crazier, more chaotic and more energetic than the last. “Where did all the cool kids hang out?”, is one question that is met with a volley of answers, as, one by one, audience members give way to their childhood and adolescent nostalgia. “A creek” is one suggestion, and suddenly, the story of Beryl Figgsbottom and the woes of her love life in “nabbing a fellow” unfolds. We follow her “creeky” beau Dale, and revel in the truth of the phrase, “chicks love fellas who do cricket”. Simultaneously, yet another storyline unfolds. Stacy, sixteen years old, works operating the machines that cut bread in the local bakery. Ah, but she has much bigger dreams, for she wants to cut bread on her own!


Photography by Chaital Vasta.

The story changes another night into their performance. This time the audience is introduced to the Henley brothers with their luscious beards and their rivalry with moustached step-brothers. In due course, it is revealed that the bond of step-brothers far supersedes that of blood brothers, for, as they state, “We shared a womb. It’s gross!”. Yet another bond is explored: that between a man and his sentimental attachment to a tile that has stood by him, even in his “fillet o’ fish days”. On the other side of town, the inexperienced architect places windows on rooves and creates a leaning house without a kitchen. He is the destroyer of every homeowner’s dream to be as average as possible. And finally, we delve into the realm of the bogans, whose recourse to finding love happens to be through fax machines and missing pet posters.

While admittedly the humour of the Susans revolves around their millennial demographic, and is hard connected to the chaotic younger demographics brand of laughs. In fact, the younger viewers might glance at this show with a great deal of cynical scepticism. Yet, one cannot deny that the Chamber of Susans holds a brand of charm that grows on you until you cannot help but be immersed in it. Perhaps most admirable is the ease with which Greta, Sally, Kate and Kath ease into and inhabit their characters, whether it be a cricket-loving waitress, or a man concerningly in love with a tile. Their characters are those we all know and love best, those quirky figures that pass by the fringes of our lives and ingrain themselves in our memory whether we like it or not. Susanville is not just scenes improvised for an improv stage-show, or quirkiness mocked for a good laugh. They are remnants of our own lives celebrated for their glorious mundanity, dazzling in their sly humours, and mind-boggling in the coincidental circumstance that somehow bring everything to its expected ending. And perhaps it is this celebration of the normal that draws the members of the audience to Susanville over and over again, and makes every night a unique performance indeed.

 

What the Hell is a “Crisco”?: The Chamber of Susans take us to Susanville by Laura Charlton

Comedy has the tendency to either draw people in immediately or send them cringing in the opposite direction. Improv is even more of this ilk. As an individual with pretty debilitating second-hand embarrassment, I walked into Vau d’vile Bar in Fitzroy with a healthy dose of apprehension.

Chamber of Susans’ new show, Susanville, played as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in this intimate venue. The premise of Susanville is that it is an improv show created on a one-time-only basis using audience responses to questions about their hometowns. The Susans then create an entirely original performance in which pretty much anything can happen. On this particular night, the audience suggestions included:

  • Euroa
  • The shittest part of Euroa, allegedly a creek called Seven Creeks (not to be mistaken for seven distinct creeks)
  • Dandenong Plaza (and its beloved Bakers Delight)
  • Crisco – a local “cricket disco”

The audience suggestions alone made for some pretty entertaining discussion to warm up the room. It also primed the Susans for some good jokes—after all, who doesn’t love a call back?

The show itself seemed to follow every plotline under the sun: there was a recently-engaged couple going through a turbulent period, queer-coded Monopoly games, a budding new bakery enterprise that could see a Bakers’ Delight and Brumby’s collab… The strengths of the show, however, lied less in content, but more in its form.

One thing this show certainly did well was local humour—it’s smart to take what people find funny about their own lives, and turn it into a show which essentially reflects what they already laugh back at them. Each time a Susan shifted into character as a nervous teen boy trying to impress the girls with his spin at “Crisco”, the audience fell into near-hysterics. It was a mix of “this is totally absurd”, and “this would absolutely be something that would happen in my hometown”—a line that the Susans walked with success.


Photography by Chaital Vasta.

The character work was also incredibly strong. A lot of the comedy was in the physicality of the Susans’ bodies, the way they could seamlessly shift from uptight fiancée to distressed potential groom. One of the standout scenes took place on a fishing boat where a couple of blokes sat, one of them fretting about his girlfriend’s less-than-enthusiastic response to engagement, and the other replying with several long, low, sage, “yeeeaaah mate, ‘course”s. The knee-slaps, distressed hands to the face, and thoughtful line-reeling were totally immersive and seriously funny in how real it felt.

Content-wise, the show certainly started stronger than it finished. The gradual addition of more and more side plots felt irrelevant, and almost as if the Susans were fishing for ideas—they didn’t need to, they had everything they needed in the first two storylines! This led to a lackluster ending, as when they inquired as to what storylines the audience wanted to see finished, it felt like there were far too many options. There was only one that we were truly invested in, anyway—the engaged couple, a storyline which had been present from the very beginning. If the show had been more cohesive and centralised, it would have been very good indeed, rather than a night of casual, decent entertainment.

Ultimately, improv is hard to make perfect, and this show still prompted plenty of laughs. With their clever use of audience-provided jokes, the Susans crafted an impressive array of stories which rather authentically illustrated the absurdities and hilarities of “Aussie” local culture. During awkward pauses or unnecessarily extended scenes second-hand embarrassment certainly reared its head, but it was easily tamed by the simplicity and effectiveness of the structure of this show.

 
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