Everybody loves a free trial. What about a free trial for mail order brides? Elisabeth Gunawan’s unhinged tragi-comedy examines Asian stereotypes, violence, and bodies through the lens of a mail order bride transforming herself to become ‘unforgettable’. Through myth-making and limb-twisting Elisabeth marches toward an obscure and abstract form, and with flippant fancy drenches the audience in their own biases and pre-conceptions about race, gender, and bodies of colour. While a demanding piece of theatre for the audience, Gunawan commands the stage with an effervescent presence, and draws us into a twisting spiral that at first comes across esoteric and unflinching, but soon reveals its’ magnificent and revealing true nature.
“Trash Theatre” is the name that Elisabeth gives to the genre of the piece in question – in a declaration to the audience we’re invited to participate as subjects of the piece, rather than as an objective audience. Emerging in torn and ripped bridalwear, Elisabeth asks us to laugh, fawn, and even at one point make orgasm sounds in her direction (though not many in the audience were brave enough to try). The concept of “trash” is replicated in Elisabeth’s surroundings, with cardboard boxes piled high that later become objects of intrigue. It isn’t precisely clear what Elisabeth means by trash theatre – other than that it is an invitation to engage, to laugh, to cry, even to leave the room if we want to. Formalities are reduced to whispers, but it’s still her stage. This concept could be developed a little more clearly, and call-backs to the section explaining trash theatre in the piece wouldn’t go amiss. This prologue takes up a fair bit of runtime, and could be shaved down a little.
We’re soon a part of a very different experience, as Elisabeth spins around one of the boxes to reveal a shrine made out of doll body parts and other ephemera. Meanwhile, a “Vagina Mechanic” keeps her leashed with a rope tied around her waist. She rallies and races about the stage in a frenetic state of disarray, flailing around inside the largest of the boxes and emerging to convalesce from moments of bodily pain, ethnic grief, the decay of a personality – scars of generational and systemic pain inflicted on a single body in a writhing mythical moment. This all might sound quite abstract, but Elisabeth pieces it together in a corporeal mish-mash of vignettes across the hour. Her words blend near-poetic verse into narrative sections that cover the life of a mail order bride, but impact onto a fracturing identity that dazzles and mesmerises as much as it bleeds.
All that may sound a little bleak – but Elisabeth uses moments of dark comedy, both in narrative and physique, to deftly undercut any worries that all of the conceptual work might come across as too adrift or ostentatious. Some of the comedy really is daft, but all of it links back through to the main thread focused on the realisation and fracture of identities within bodies of colour. For example, a long and hysterical section in which Elisabeth parodies a white woman in a pilates class intersects the areas focused on the bride’s identity, with apt jokes about lululemon and casual racism.
On the issues of race, ethnicity, and gender, the piece is an expressive one rather than a campaigning one. The Vagina Mechanic engineers projections of words, and later a mouth, with words transmitted over a phone line that emanate the darkness and brutality of the culture of mail order relationships. The piece does not shift blame onto one person or group of people, but onto a cultural view of violence. Culture plays a huge part in this piece, and moments of physicality from Elisabeth reflect onto stereotypes and iconography surrounding Southeast Asian cultures, culminating in a disembowelling of the doll shrine to striking effect. Gender, ethnicity, and nationality intersect in a resonant and powerful finale.
Flourescent, frenetic, and fancifully powerful – Unforgettable Girl proves that one woman’s trash can be an audience’s treasure.
Recommended Drink: This show is best paired with an Aperol Spritz – potent and fizzing with fancy.
Catch Unforgettable Girl until August 28 (not the 16th) at Pleasance Courtyard – Beneath at 15:40. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.