Gender Spanner, the brainchild of Melbourne performance artist Jessica McKerlie, is a cabaret show that is brave and empowering, if tonally patchy.
McKerlie holds you by the hand and asks you a random question such as, “Do you scrunch, or fold?” as you enter the performance space. She holds a pinboard covered in post-it notes that have words like “fat”, “boi” or “fabulous” scrawled on them. In order to drive home to you how completely arbitrary the labels ascribed to human beings often are, she will randomly select one of these post-it note labels and put it on you, depending on your response to the unrelated question.
There are a lot of things going on in McKerlie’s show, performance-wise. She has previously performed with a circus, and there are elements of the circus spectacle in Gender Spanner. For example, there is a musical interlude during which she sets a series of (food-covered) plates spinning on top of giant artificial sunflower stalks that have had the sunflower heads removed.
The moments in the show where McKerlie dances are the stand-out ones. She is able to convey a lot through her body movements and face; whether this be in a dance segment where she demonstrates the stifling effect that rigid gender constraints can have on a human being, or in the final, liberating sequence in which she strips in the manner of a veteran Chippendale dancer.
The overarching narrative, that McKerlie has now arrived at a place in her life where she able to transcend various categories that society has placed her in, could perhaps be more consistently emphasised throughout the show. Also, the original songs that she performs are usually very funny, but some of them lack a clear connection with the overarching theme of Gender Spanner, and feel like they have been written prior to the conceptualisation of this particular cabaret.
Overall, however, the stunning moments in which McKerlie demonstrates complete personal and artistic freedom redeem the less remarkable aspects of this production.
Gender Spanner will be running until March 14