Review | Laura Money
Unheimlich – roughly translated means unhomely and references Sigmund Freud’s essay about the concept of the uncanny. The basic idea is that something familiar and normalised and comforting becomes strange, horrifying, or disjointed. Co-creators Katt Osborne and Tarryn Gill create a domestic setting warped by the surreal touch of the uncanny. Through familiar settings and activities that are just a little off to body horror and a bevy of truly discomforting masks, Unheimlich brilliantly asserts itself into the surrealist stage of performance art while keeping the audience on the edge of their seats – I’m sure many will look at themselves in the mirror twice after seeing this show.
Filing in to PICA the show starts with a talking cat – a la Alice – to immediately set the crowd on edge. Whimsical and sleek, cats have long been viewed as lithe tricksters with various generations venerating or superstitious of them and a talking puppet cat places the audience firmly in the uncanny – topsy-turvy is clearly the nature of the show. As he narrates the scene before us like a cat-version of a nature documentary, the domestic scene unfolds. Sarah Nelson as human female lies in an inebriated state in a pristine bathroom. Part wallowing and part celebrating in the bathtub the cat explains that she has just started her cohabitation with human male (Brendan Ewing). Osborne’s direction and Nelson’s performance here is brilliant – there is a duality about the state of inebriation which vacillates between euphoria and torment – one can never tell which state she is in.
The set is magnificent – a true wonder of pure stagecraft. Set designer, Laura Heffernan excels in sleek and functional design and marries the physical set with the strange costumes perfectly – it’s Unheimlich incarnate. The shiny-tiled bathroom looks super insta-worthy, and if that isn’t an example of the surreal, then I don’t know what is! Spinning the set around not only serves as a clever way to change the scene but provides a sickening surreal carousel later on as the domestic situation swirls and eddies out of control for the new couple. A simple couch and table with pot plant and remote control is easily set askew with rubbish and overturned disco ball plant pots marring the seemingly normal scene. Combined with the sound design of Brett Smith and the lighting by Joe Paradise Lui, the scenes take on a Stranger Things vibe and the familiar sounds and looks distorted.
Unheimlich itself is a perfect example of the term it references – at its core is a traditional theatre piece complete with love story, cute relationship dynamics, marriage, and ultimately regret – but running through this seemingly familiar and normal story is the pulsing thread of the strange. The couple hold up a mirror to one another and conversation exploits their fears and insecurities. This is reflected when the normal conversations from earlier in the show lose their innocuous sound and become almost violent when one-sided. Games like Guess Who and Operation that seem whimsical now hit harder and the power of words and gendered language is thrown into sharp relief – it brilliantly highlights the insidious nature of patriarchal structures that are imbued into every element of society – including games.
Tying all of these themes together are the surreal masks created by Tarryn Gill. As the domestic becomes the uncanny, a host of masked figures observe and interact playfully, yet in a sinister way, in the background. Like trickster spirits in a Shakespearean play, they create mayhem and also reproach. Both Jacob Lehrer and Rachel Arianne Ogle don a huge cat mask with rolling eyes that appear to take on the emotion of the moment. Perched above the bath, silently judging, the cat is the stuff of dreams. There are giant masks that resemble elegantly upgraded Greek theatre masks, and even what appears to be the puppet version of Ewing himself. These large and surreal masks bob and weave in a whimsical, dreamlike manner further cementing the work into the uncanny. There are also some truly horror movie worthy multiple faced masks that creep and crawl all over the show. The most impactful mask sequence comes at the wedding, though as Nelson and Ewing touchingly see each other grow old together with a love that is enduring. It’s moments of sweetness like this that make the blows of the remainder of the show hit even harder.
Unheimlich is a master class in the uncanny. It’s the perfect blend of theatre and performance art with human emotion at its core. It will leave you feeling discombobulated and comfortable simultaneously and definitely rethinking a few things from your past. Osborne and Gill are a formidable team and they provide a commentary on almost every aspect of life, holding up a mirror to society and culture and letting the audience step through the looking glass into their world – and it’s phenomenal.
Unheimlich is on at PICA from 22nd September – 2nd October 2021, get your tickets HERE