Nicola Gunn opens Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, a solo performance from Australia that had its US premiere in the Coil 2017 festival, with a moral conundrum. “Imagine,” she says, “that you’re a woman.” She pauses, fields the audience’s laugh, and complicates. “But that’s not the conundrum.” The conundrum is that, at such and such a time in a foreign country, a foreign country called Belgium in fact, a woman walked over a bridge and witnessed a man who appeared to be an immigrant with two small children in tow throwing rocks at a living creature in the river – namely, a duck. If you were that woman at that moment in time, what would you do?
Using this encounter as a prismatic center point, Gunn spins a monologue resembling a web of missed connections and interjections and extrapolations – she starts and stops, pulls in one direction and then another, and occasionally reverses the narrative (what if you were the duck?). For someone arriving late and able to only listen to audio of the show from the lobby, it might sound like a Moth story-telling podcast; a voice both coy and funny, telling us a story that feels confessional, a person who thrives in making themselves present in space.
This imaginary latecomer, though, would be missing a vital part of the mix. Throughout the monologue, which lasts around ninety minutes with no intermission, Gunn is moving. Continuously. The movement sequences (choreographed by Jo Lloyd) are often reminiscent of calisthenics, ways to go back and forth across the stage. Sometimes they require her wrangling herself into strange poses and holding them for a beat or two. Occasionally she must stretch down and touch something, and the experience of watching her move triggers a sort of mirror neuron response – it eventually feels like we are moving too, or more specifically, we become her moving, speaking, probing deeper and deeper into this encounter with a duck with both brain and body.
There is also a huge tape player from the 1980s, when these used to be called ghetto blasters. For the first portion of the show it lurks downstage right, unused. Gunn finally goes over to it, picks it up, places it in a new position, and hits play. A simple electronic music beat begins to play, and the overall performativity begins to intensify. The movements, when underscored by both text and audio, become more dance-like without ever fully becoming dance. The monologue, for now, remains spoken, not sung. Yet this combination of elements – and it’s nothing most of us haven’t seen before, although maybe it is actually, a woman executing complicated movement sequences while giving a comprehensive verbal and mental unpacking of an encounter with a man and a duck while underscored by electronic pop music, maybe we haven’t seen that before – the elements come together to create an environment that is both comfortable and strange. And just before we can wonder what will happen next, because these types of dream spaces created by text and movement and sound have an expiration moment and can only be sustained for so long before they begin to fulfill another function (that of the mental reboot, a different way of watching, a way of fading out), Gunn steps out of the white space which has been defined as “stage” and climbs out into the audience.
This too we’ve seen before, if we’ve seen much theater – the moment when the person on stage cheekily climbs over audience members, inadvertently (or not so inadvertently) making a lot of semi-inappropriate body contact along the way. To some extent, this audience plunge felt recycled, executed well but breaking the spell that came before it – and of course, that breakage was entirely intentional, because when Gunn retakes the stage some time later, things have changed. Now there is LED light projected across the back wall – the entire audience climb has been a sleight of hand, a way of making us look away, so that when we return our attention to the main arena, it’s a new space.
This attention to detail extends throughout the show, and leaves nothing to chance. Later, Gunn, who has been amplified up to this point by means of a wireless body mic that is strapped around her torso and occasionally visible through the white tunic top that she wears throughout the performance, produces the first prop we’ve seen other than the ghetto blaster – a handheld microphone. And it seems weird, that she’s using a handheld microphone now for no apparent reason, but again, it’s an action that is getting us ready for the next action, only we don’t know it yet. The big reveal awaits, replete with singing (with an otherworldly audio alteration reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman), and laser lights, and haze machines – a big weird costume techno climax that somehow both erases and embraces all that has come before it. We don’t find out what happened to the woman and the man and duck – not exactly. Nor do we know what exactly we’d do in the same situation. But we’ve certainly seen a great example of what kind of a show one would make in response to such a conundrum if one were an artist comfortable communicating as though everyone else they encounter is also an artist, and that seems to be, at the end of the evening, as close to a point as we’re going to get.