Saturday 11 February 2023

BURGERZ: Theatre Review

What: Burgerz
When: 8 - 18 February 2023
Where: Theatre Works
Written by: Travis Alabanza
Directed by: Kitan Petkovski
Composition by: Rachel Lewindon
Lighting by: Katie Sfetkidis
Performed by: Kikki Temple

Kikki Temple - photo by Daniel Rabin

Trigger warning: I will be writing this review, for the most part, from a theatre making perspective. As such, because of the sensitivity of the content, some of you may find this review to not be a safe place. That is not my intention, but I am aware that reviews can be taken/read out of context so before you read on, please consider this.

Midsumma is in full swing and our theatres are filled with stories which chronicle the challenges, loves, celebrations and abuses of the LGBTQIA+ community. This week at Theatre Works we are honoured to be presented with an Australian/Aotearoan adaptation of the internationally acclaimed UK hit show Burgerz, written by Travis Alabanza. In 2016 Alabanza had a burger thrown at them in public and nobody appeared to blink an eye. In Burgerz, the character tries to process the incident and their anger, fear, hate, pain, and sorrow by deconstructing the process of making a burger with the help of the audience.

There is a lot going on in Burgerz. It travels from the inciting incident to the present, to reminiscence, to gender identity, second and third wave feminism, ancestry, gender violence, and just about everywhere in between. When Alabanza talks about the show they refer to it as being a cooking show and "sometimes a bit messy". It is very messy emotionally and this means it has to be clean and tight in performance or rather than a burger you are in danger of getting a slow-cooked pot of scrambled eggs. Kitan Petkovski's (director) version is in a lot of danger of becoming those eggs.

This production is slow and meandering. It rarely reaches the heights of anxiety it needs to energise the conceit. This is not an acting problem. Kikki Temple is emotionally labile, but the transitions are gentle segues which are a bit like watching a kettle boil. Temple does get us to the right emotional pitch but by the time the water is boiling the scene is over. As such we lose the fractured/damaged psyche of the character. The character is making the burger to find a way back to a sense of having some control in their life but Temple is always in control from start to finish so it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance between the text and the performance. If Temple would sharpen the transitions and manage the audience interaction more skilfully you could cut a good 20 minutes off the running time and have a powerful, ripsnorter of a show here.

Luckily Katie Sfetkidis gets it. Her lighting design is clean and snappy. For the most part it was her work which allowed me to understand and follow what was going on. (Way too much smoke/fog, but y'all have probably worked out my position on the use of smoke/fog in performance by now).

To be honest I didn't find Rachel Lewindon's composition much help. It was slow and haunting which made no sense to me given this incident was in the chaos of a big city and it is a show dealing with anxiety and trauma. Having said that, there is a point in the show when Temple cocoons into their Maori heritage and then we reach the glorious intersection of intention, performance, and production.

Again, Alabanza clearly markets his show as a cooking show. What does any of it have to do with a car? Yet centre stage, large as life, is a four-door hatch. You might think there are a lot of things you can do with a fully functional car evidently packed for camping on a stage as large as the one at Theatreworks. The reality is that it is just a big, fancy, tote. Apart from the most amazing start to any show you will ever see anywhere, it has little to no relationship to the dramaturgy of Burgerz. (Yes, yes, life is a journey and all that, but that's a very thin straw for something so dominating in the space). I wish the design (Bethany J Fellows) spoke more closely to the work and the character rather than so strongly to Temple themselves. It would have been less distracting and confusing. 

It takes a very long time, but eventually a kitchen is wheeled out. By then though, the show has lost all its opportunity to create Alabanza's 'mess' before Temple starts to clean it up and sort things out.

I have to spend a moment talking about the script though too. I don't know why, and this only reveals itself at the end of the work, but for some reason Burgerz seems to feed into the Eve blame game. Whilst I usually try not to give away endings, here is a precis of the framework as I understood it. A (cis) man throws the burger. The character catches the eye of a (cis) man and a (cis) woman. Both observers walk away without interceding. At the end of the play a (cis) woman is drawn on stage and is instructed to read a long vow pledging to do better and be an ally, etc, etc. 

My point is this (and feeds into the whole second wave/third wave feminism conundrum), a man committed the act of violence and both a man and woman witnessed and walked away. Why is it women who are made to face the music, admit culpability, and pay penance? Why are we not confronting the men? Why are they not being held accountable? Why is it not a man taking this vow? Eve was the first, but we have been paying for everybody's sins ever since. It is worth remembering that we know what it is like to have food, abuse and fists thrown at us too. We are not the problem although I concede we are prone to becoming part of it as the anecdote about the woman on the train tells us. It is true to say, however, that you will never solve a problem by cutting off the leaves. You have to get to the root.

Burgerz is a great play with important messages and stories, and this is a sleek production. It just needs to be tighter, sharper - and messier and more fractured - to seep into our skins and make the message something we can't turn away from. The show has to throw the burger back at us, not stroke us like a kitten.

2.5 Stars

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