I was delighted to attend the opening night of Sarah Houbolt’s fascinating new show, Kookoo the Bird Girl. Houbolt has created an evocative one-woman show that uses physical theatre and dance to explore the life of a side-show performer, in a homage to the early twentieth century icon, Minnie Woolsey.
Woolsey was best known for her role in the 1932 Tod Browning cult-classic Freaks, and lived in an era of severe restriction and discrimination against women with disability. Houbolt is a professional modern-day circus performer and actor who has reclaimed the phrase, ‘natural born freak’. Her homage to Woolsey is juxtaposed with the modern experience of the differently-abled performer.
There is an authenticity to deeply personal art that speaks to the universal. Houbolt’s performance evokes a frisson that every misjudged soul can recognise; the lone soldier standing bravely in a circle of mocking laughter.
And yet this is not everybody’s experience, the experiences of Houbolt and Woolsey are not those of us all. She summons the spirit of Woolsey to remind us of the depravity of times gone past, and asks us does the present differ so very much?
Unlike Eastern cultures, some of which have a reverence for those born physically different, the Western world has visited some forceful cruelties upon differently-abled people. Modern society is making slow inroads into accessibility and reducing discrimination, but attitudes take longer still. In the show notes, Houbolt comments that the reception she receives on stage can be vastly different to the one she experiences in the street. There is currently a fashion for representing the differently-abled as heroes; this phenomenon was in full force in the recent We’re the Superhumans campaign for Rio 2016. Houbolt takes the super away, and reminds us those who are other are human – because it seems we still need to be told.
Her physical performance is impressive. Her dance travels between the whimsical and the threatening, and her demonstration of classic side show skills is a rare treat indeed. Her movements are sometimes fluid, sometimes quirky, sometimes sexual and proud. There is a distinctly cheeky aspect to some scenes, which brings ripples of laughter from the audience. The burlesque mainstay, the ostrich feather, becomes an emblem of frivolity, sadness, freedom. On occasion, she moves through her choreography a little hastily; a common hazard in an opening night debut. For the most part we can see how particular she is in her execution. Houbolt has a gravitas earned through many years performing around the world; this show will grow in stature with each iteration.
My companion reminds me of the role of the Fool; to dance and entertain and amuse. But the Fool always used a dark script, one that makes us question why it is funny, and to whom…
The script beats like a poem. It is highly effective without being excessive. Spoken word is used in moderation; the story is told through the physicality of the performance. The words punctuate this homage, providing sufficient narrative for the uninitiated, and giving heft to Houbolt’s own journey.
Excellent lighting design by Angela Burchett and visual design by Kelly O’Dempsey brings the stage to life, creating rooms within rooms and moving us seamlessly between the present-day and yesteryear.
This is an ode to an idol, a passion-play, which is eagerly received by an appreciative audience. Houbolt reminds us that every body can.
Koo Koo the Bird Girl is on at Metro Arts until Saturday 5th November.
Performer | Sarah Houbolt.
Director & Deviser | Celia White
Visual Design | Kellie O’Dempsey
Choreographic Input | Kelly Nash (NZ)
Stage Manager & Lighting Design | Angela Burchett
Tickets available through Metro Arts.