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DEAD END COLLECTIVE’s Zany New Show Speaks Far More Than Meaning into the Flesh of UNIMELB’s Theatre

Trigger/spoiler warnings: mentions of character death and intense imagery

Fodderreviews

Trigger/spoiler warnings: mentions of character death and intense imagery

 

The Crystalline Consciousness That Speaks Meaning Into Flesh is already on my top-ten list for coolest titles of all time. It is also the wackiest, most out-of-this-world show I have seen in a long while, and I am so grateful as a fellow member of the student theatre community that we had such a strong and idiosyncratic beginning to the 2024 season. Simon Brownjohn and Sophia Zikic’s play takes the audience across an assortment of terrors: from the unnerving black heart of space, to the debated threat of the unknown, to the internal conflicts that come from pretending to get along with your co-workers. It’s a horror comedy. It’s a murder mystery. It’s an homage to hyper-pop and drag. It’s a gay science fiction wet dream. It’s bold and daring. It’s a maximalist joyride across space, time, class and gender all at once that frankly redefines camp. And Crystalline Consciousness is, above all, fun.

 

The horrors came to life through the heightened, outrageously fantastic acting. The otherworldly talents of Cecilia Liu, Saskia Powles, Bella Russell, James Dong, Joshua Higgins, Kailen Missen and Marceline "Marcie" Di Bartolomeo make up the crew of the Echo-Hold, a cargo spaceship owned by the EPSCO megacorporation undergoing a crisis after a hull break by “a being that resists any and all interpretation.” Power and knowledge become currency as comedic and dramatic tensions amidst the crew rise. While on stage for the least amount of time, it was Liu, as the ship’s distrustful captain, who affected me the most, having me in tears both laughing at what I’ve had confirmed as an unintentionally phallic oversized Stanley cup and once again in shock at  her character’s demise at the end of Act 1. Powles, as the engineer, is a stoic force intent on keeping order, commanding her final scenes with grace and dignity. Russell, as the endearing brand rep, has the longest and most extensive development of all, going from the “perfect” brand “girl” to a beautifully authentic and introspective figure. Dong, as the unionist foreman, is a riot, a chaotic voice of earnest reason, carrying the vast majority of the play’s commentary on class effortlessly. Higgins, as the doctor, is a disgrace to the Hippocratic oath and rightfully so, with the mannerisms of a cocaine-addled demon paired with uncanny line delivery that turns everything he says into an almost guaranteed laugh. Missen, as the heartthrob systems operator, is the charming red herring, who later proves to have a knack for metatheatre. Di Bartolomeo, as the maintenance officer, is the youngest, newest crew member who holds the team together, with their endless willingness to learn all they can.

 

The production elements of the show were phenomenally fantastical, making the theatre space appear to be space itself: from the ship’s crew to the stage crew, I applaud the insane work of the team. Those costumes are to die for, so thank goodness so many of the characters did die in them. The work of production designer Josie Symons, assistant costume designer Josie Gregory-Walker and Zikic’s makeup brought a psychedelic feel to the characters, immediately giving a sense of affability to their wacky antics on stage. With Stuti Ghosh, Symon’s set brought the audience into the vibrant lived-in interior of a futuristic spaceship, a perfect contrast for the stylised violence and gore. Jacques Cooney Adlard's epic lighting paired with Kit Nicholson’s AV and sound and Lynn July’s compositions perfectly captured the otherworldly, hyper-absurdist aesthetic of the show. Props to the stage team for the smooth transitions, as well as the captions operator–as someone who relies on caption work to help me concentrate, I adored the little in-jokes and meta-references hidden throughout. 

 

For a theatre company devoted to original experimental works, I can say with confidence that Dead End has hit the mark. The end of Act 1 has Liu’s prominent leader brutally murdered, strung up on a makeshift crucifix. Going into a show advertised around sci-fi mystery, you expect someone to die. Just… not like that. And it was brilliant. The entire intermission the audience was in shock. When I came close to feeling that Crystalline Consciousness was about to fall into the second act blues, the show went absolutely bonkers. When the murder mystery started to feel downplayed, the writing hammed up the humour. Missen’s outrageous fourth wall break stand-up comedy routine and Liu’s ad break commentary on commercialism brought me back, just to name a few examples. In addition, gender and identity were handled with a lot of heart and soul, very significant in the context of rising transphobia in the western world. As someone who has only very recently started to experiment with pronouns, I felt that what we got of Russell and Di Bartolomeo’s interactions was beautifully authentic. Sometimes big ideas don’t have to be put forward in a big way, and Dead End’s directors put it forward in a way that worked. 

 

I think Dead End is a testament to the fact that student theatre at this university post-COVID is in good hands. Gen Z absurdist existential nihilism is rife in the very fabric of the show,not in some overly edgy, fake-Tumblr edge-lord style, but in a genuinely heartfelt sense of “nothing matters so let’s make the most of it and have a hell of a good time.” The word camp has become overused and misinterpreted on the blogosphere over the past few years (which I blame on Cats [2019]) but let me be clear when I say that this play was pure, euphoric, total camp and it was a privilege to have come along on this voyage through space, time, gender, and fun.

 
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