Sunday 10 September 2023

SLUTNIK™ 2: PLANET OF THE INCELS - Theatre Review

WHAT: SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels
WHEN: 7 - 16 September 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Flick
DIRECTED BY: Tansy Gorman
SET BY: Harry Dowling and Tansy Gorman
COSTUMES BY: Emily Busch
LIGHTING BY: Georgie Wolfe
PERFORMED BY: Ben Ashby, Michael Cooper, Matilda Gibbs, Ethan Morse, Sara Reed, Benji Smith, and William Strom
SOUND BY: Jack Burmeister
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Mia Tuco
AV BY: Derrick Duan
STAGE MANAGED BY: Jemma Law

Sara Reed and Matilda Gibbs - photo by Sarah Clarke

So here is one of life's more incredible ironies. The term 'incel' was actually coined by a woman back in 1993. What began as a website for all people to explore their non-sexual experiences and situations, by 2010, become a range of sites dominated by white cis males extolling hate and violence and strongly linked to the alt right. We heard a lot about them last decade but then a little thing known as COVID came along and they seem to have disappeared back into their dark and lonely spaces...we hope. Playwright Flick is having none of that though and, as expansion 2 of 5, they are dragging the incels back out of their closets and into the limelight in SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels which just opened at Theatre Works (Acland St).

I have to confess I did not see Flick's original release SLUTNIK™ but from what I have read the show was a high energy, high camp tale of a group of cannibalistic lesbians who give up on the patriarchically enmeshed Earth and escape into the galaxy with the help of AI character Motherboard (Matilda Gibbs). With Planet of the Incels Flick has brought together the original core creatives - Tansy Gorman (director) and dramaturg Enya Daly - and also kept Gibbs who took over the role of Motherboard at some point in the first productions many iterations across festivals. Beyond that, the rest of the creatives and performers are new to the franchise and Planet of the Incels swaps out cannibalistic lesbians for gay cowboy incels.

Much time has gone by since the original release and the space-faring lesbians find themselves crash landing on a planet (I counldn't quite work out if it was an Earth of the future or another planet with a parallel developmental timeline). At this point I am going to say the information at the start is a bit overwhelming so I have to take a few guesses... Anyway, one of the cannibal lesbians (Sara Reed) [who were they eating for all that time in space once they didn't have men around?] demands Motherboard load her dead mother's memories to ... I don't know why, sorry... The result is the memories are implanted and the mother's last moments are relived through her daughter as if it were happening IRL.

For no reason beyond dramaturgical conceit, Motherboard wraps it all in a veneer of Magic Mike style gay dancing cowboys, a dark and terrible tale is told of a community of incels who are segregated in a dome to live their misogynistic lives. Are they prisoners or did they remove themselves from society voluntarily? Are incels just misunderstood men who, with the right opportunities/women, would happily reintegrate functionally into mainstream society? These are the questions Flick is asking. It's not a question which can be answered in 2 hours of  lapdancing, glitter, and cowboy hats but Planet of the Incels does investigate the complexities of the men and the issues in between the best Collar'N'Cuffs show you will see this side of Vegas. Big shout out to Mia Tuco (choreographer) for some great work!

After the information prelude where Motherboard and the cannibal lesbian set the conceit, the show opens with a rousing hen's night dance interlude which leave the audience hooping and hollering loud enough to raise the roof of Theatre Works with Gibbs lipsynching 'It's Raining Men' in the best Queer tradition. Ben Ashby (Elliot), Michael Cooper(Elon), Ethan Morse (Neo), Benji Smith (Jon), and William Strom (Ben) are great actors but also phenomenal dancers and across the evening the audience is given plenty to drool over no matter which side of the lines you live on.

The story centres around a romance which blooms between Elliot and the mum when first contact is made. Motherboard and the mum find themselves inside this dome of incels. They have no idea how dangerous this environment is and learning is always slower than we ever like or need. What ensues is a dark story of deciept and confusion with a tragic ending. 

What is impressive is how Gorman, Daly, and Flick have managed to keep such dark material so light and bright even though much of the text is verbatim from incel chat rooms, as is all of the projected chat room conversations. The first half of the play packs a huge punch in terms of audience impact. 

I do wonder if it comes at a cost to the second half of the play which loses all of that Magic Mike energy and explores the true depths of danger and trauma? Or is that just because at 2 hours it is a fraction too long? I don't know that answer to that, but I do think I wanted to feel as much horror at the end as the joy and fun I felt at the beginning. Jack Burmeister (sound) could have done more to help change the tone perhaps. 

Planet of the Incels is a wild ride. The gay cowboys are a blast of energy and fun and Motherboard is a fantastic character impeccably performed by Gibbs. I found myself forgetting some of the show parameters such as the gay cowboy overlay but Motherboard reminds us which helps. One thing I did want was better definition by Reed as to when she is the mother and when she is the daughter. Again, this would have helped in following the story because the dramaturgical conceit is such an important driver and is actively worked against the underlying story. 

Gorman and Dowling have created an amazing world for the incels with a very few elements doing a lot of evocative work. The screen design (Derrick Duan) keeps us in the sci-fi world and mainframe managed by Motherboard. Georgie Wolfe's lighting sets the atmosphere perfectly (and she didn't need to kill us all with haze and smoke to create her magic - take note lighting designers everywhere)!

Whilst there is an almost unending list of trigger warnings before the show and time is allowed for people to reposition or leave if they have concerns, in the end I didn't feel anything particularly unsurprising or terrifying was revealed. That could be because I am so inured by patriarchal violence and abuse in society that I can't be shocked. Maybe that is the sadder story.

SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels is brilliant theatre precisely because it has me asking all of these questions. As well, it is an emotional roller coaster I loved being on. Flick seems to be exploring ideas of segregation vs inclusion in their SLUTNIK™ franchise. I am thoroughly intrigued to see what the next 3 expansions will reveal about us.

4.5 Stars

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