Tuesday 25 June 2024

THE EXOTIC LIVES OF LOLA MONTEZ: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez
WHEN: 20 - 30 June 2024
WHERE: Chapel Off Chapel (Loft)
WRITTEN BY: Jackie Smith
DIRECTED BY: Moira Finucane
SET BY: Isaac Lummis and Joshua Weeks
LIGHTING BY: Gillian Schwab
PERFORMED BY: Caroline Lee, Piera Dennerstein, Maple Rose, and Iva Rosebud

Maple Rose, Iva Rosebud, Piera Dennerstein, and Caroline Lee - photo supplied

Full disclosure - I saw The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez in its premier season in Ballarat in 2017. As auspicious as that occasion was, resonant with the goldfield's heritage of the woman in question, I am going to blaspheme and say I had a lot more fun this time around. The original season was performed on the beautiful big proscenium arch stage of Her Majesty's Theatre but returning to Lola's (and Finucane & Smith's) burlesque roots, this thrust stage - pun intended - version of The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez at Chapel Off Chapel has a contagious joy and deshabille not possible in the more formal theatrical surroundings. 

Lola Montez (Caroline Lee) is an Irish woman who explored the world using her charms and her wits to beguile European nobility, the daring folk of California, and the brash Australians of the 19th Century. A woman brave enough and determined enough, to live life on her own terms Lola Montez became famous for her Spider Dance, and she and her troupe were not only talked about in their own time, but as Finucane and Smith tell us, she is still talked about today!

The original production did play with the burlesque genre with Holly Durant playing Lola's burlesque avatar and ensemble and other abstracted concepts. In this iteration of the show, Moira Finucane (director) has expanded this idea and Lola now has her troupe surrounding her, serenading her, and supporting her in her daring endeavours. Joining in the fun and titillation are burlesque artists Maple Rose and Iva Rosebud. Adding a bit of class to these saloon shenanigans is opera star Piera Dennerstein (who also kicks up her leg in a mighty fine Can Can).

I felt the original show was a bit long and wordy, although this was no reflection on Jackie Smith's incredibly clever and hilarious script. That production did have an artistic gravitas and beauty which was unforgettable too.This time around I didn't notice the time go by and was far too busy hooting and hollering at the women on stage as they entertained us all and each other. I also felt the energy of the other women lifted Lee to new heights whilst also adding a softness as she gazed adoringly at her women being everything they could be just as she was doing herself.

You might think the story of Lola Montez ends sadly with her body ravaged by syphilis, and very likely dying in poverty. Finucane and Smith refute this narrative though, celebrating Lola's energy, spirit, and the magnificence of choosing a life of freedom rather than gendered repression. The final line of The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez rings with the echoes of history and will continue to resonant across a future yet to come. Lola Montez is not a role model for the patriarchy, but she is THE role model for women everywhere, of every time.

4.5 Stars

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