Giema Contini is arguably one of the best and most reliable theatrical performers in Brisbane City’s creative community. Regardless of the stipulations of a role or production, she brings a profound generosity and openness to her work that lends everything around her a strange and gentle veracity – a heavy and playful sense of emotional honesty.
For me, this has been a significant part of the appeal of previous incarnations of her debut solo work, Awesome Ocean Party. While the work’s current tenure with Brisbane Powerhouse’s Wonderland festival technically marks its official Brisbane debut as a finalised work, Contini has refined it across several developmental iterations, with initial work beginning in 2012.
For much of its runtime, Awesome Ocean Party feels quite abstract. It provides a premise that is ostensibly simple – a young woman is celebrating her birthday party, the audience are the guests, and aforesaid young woman believes herself to be half-octopus. Surreal? Absolutely. Complicated? Not at all. The execution, however? Abstract.
To use a slightly different framework, one might even say ‘mysterious’.
I’ve not encountered a work where an audience is more thoroughly challenged to ask – but why?
This isn’t to say Awesome Ocean Party is not entertaining or enjoyable in its abstraction. But, there are certain unspoken agreements and communications that audiences are accustomed to receiving in theatre. There are always indications of intent. Am I seeing a ‘serious’ show? Do they want to break my heart? Do they want to make me laugh? Why am I here?
Awesome Ocean Party, despite being led by Contini’s character and filled with apparent exposition, doesn’t really do this until quite close to its conclusion. There is a very obvious intent to entertain within the work. But, there are also moments of profound strangeness. And, as the work progresses, a heartbreaking melancholy ducks in and out of proceedings.
Which is, in part, why Contini’s unique openness and honesty as a performer has always been so instrumental to Awesome Ocean Party’s appeal. Because, for a lot of the show, the audience have no idea where they’re being led. However, it didn’t matter, because they were filled with empathy and investment for the strange half-octopus girl leading them. Because Contini is that good.
Unfortunately, that energy just wasn’t quite there for the opening night performance of Awesome Ocean Party at Brisbane Powerhouse. I couldn’t authoritatively tell you why. A part of me is inclined to think it might have been nerves on the part of the performer. I also wondered if the crowd were simply not willing to give Contini sufficient space to coax the emotion out of the work’s abstraction.
Awesome Ocean Party’s abstraction does inevitably coalesce into a clearer emotional throughline for the audience. And, when it does, it hits the audience with an entire spectrum of emotions at once. In a strange way, the work has a similar architecture to a crime procedural or a heist thriller. In the final moments, everything clicks and the audience reconsiders everything they just experienced.
It’s a hell of a climax. Even the most hardened or cynical audience member inevitably finds themselves overcome with emotion. In the end, Awesome Ocean Party is a work of love and loneliness. A story of someone desperately trying to be brave enough to open up and share the love within them and desperately hoping it will be returned by the world. It’s heavy.
And, fortunately, Contini managed to summon her characteristic majesty for that conclusion. Standing on stage and thanking her party guests for travelling over the ocean to see her and listen to her and play with her, Contini shines like a beacon of genuine, overwhelming, painfully human emotion. While the early parts of the work didn’t proceed as planned, it got there in the end.
From a critical standpoint, it complicates things. There’s very much a part of me that feels Awesome Ocean Party would benefit from a less abstract and mysterious progression. And, a night wherein the primary performer can’t quite carry the abstraction with their idiosyncratic magic seems an argument in favour of that conclusion.
But, conversely, those obstacles did nothing to prevent it from delivering a strange, powerful and unique experience, in the end.
It’s the type of scenario that somewhat demonstrates the folly of trying to evaluate theatre. Was it a good performance? In some ways, yes. In others, no. Is it a good work? Perhaps. Or, it could simply have such a good performer that it doesn’t matter. There isn’t a binary answer to any of these questions at the best of times – let alone circumstances encompassing half-octopus narrators.
If nothing else, Awesome Ocean Party’s reliance upon Giema Contini’s own peculiar strengths as a performer does tend to emphatically demonstrate what a unique work Contini has crafted. Put simply, nobody else in the world could do it and have even half a hope of making its abstract, surreal, heartbroken hilarity work half as well.
So, at the bare minimum, you have to give credit to Contini and her collaborators for crafting something truly singular. Which is no small thing.
Creator and Performor | Giema Contini
Musician| Peter Crees
Music Composition | Nathan Stoneham
Design | Genevieve Morrow Ganner
Production Manager | Damian Tatum