By Darby Turnbull
So much is made in our society about ‘safety’ and ‘comfort’; often as vague, symbolic things ‘I’m feeling unsafe/uncomfortable/threatened ’ is an extremely effective tool for shutting someone down; safe spaces and boundaries as essential as they tend to be appropriated to be less about protection from imminent danger than sitting or engaging with discomfort. Who, then, has the right to safety? The ones who need it the most are targeted as the most viable threats. Trans people are effective scapegoats, ‘boogeymen’ who pose an unspecified threat by their mere existence, to children, to women, the fabric of society, the exclusion from public spaces a necessary precaution despite no tangible data to back up such vigilance, rather ‘what if?…’.
Overflow is the second (that I know of) Travis Alabanza play to hit the Naarm stage in the last 12 months, Burgerz starring Kikki Temple was one of my 2023 highlights, and once again Alabanza has asserted themselves as one of the most furious, witty and cutting chroniclers of existing while trans.
Burgerz was about existing as a pedestrian on the street, Overflow moves to a women’s bathroom, one of the most prominent battlegrounds of gender affirmation because what if…a man invaded that sanctuary. Alabanza has painted a tremendous social portrait of the power of women’s bathrooms; at their best they’re a haven where women can be their most essential selves away from the gaze of men, places to protect, uplift and validate each other whether it’s sharing makeup tips, a tampon or organizing a tactic withdrawal worthy of a seasoned corporal to get a sister home safely from the advances of a man harassing her. Enter Rosie, a young trans woman for whom this sanctuary has become a trap. Over a solo 80 minutes she unleashes a tense, wise and often grimly hilarious exploration into how other women both cis and trans have aided and endangered her as a woman (well cis women in the latter case). Meanwhile the escalating, violent bangings on the door remind her and us of the dangers that are a matter of course for a woman just trying to have a night out.
Alanbanza shares beautiful, intimate knowledge of the ways trans people connect with each other and also ourselves. This is the rare play that is written directly to a trans audience and the cis people are along for the ride. There are in jokes, wry anecdotes that drew gasps, chuckles and snaps from the trans members of the audiences, for once the trans heroine is not put up for display to be gawked at, or teach someone a lesson through her suffering; if anyone learns anything from this performance it’ll be because they extended enough emotional intelligence and empathy to listen to what she’s saying. A rueful thread of the story is the contrast between Rosie’s cis friend Charlotte a very vocal ‘ally’ whose support for her friend seems to depend on the social rewards she accrues when she comes to her defence and has dubious connections to transphobia. Her other friend Zee, a fellow trans woman encourages complete disengagement from cis people before they can let you down. Based on both her and Rosie’s lived experience she makes a bitter, hard won point.
As Rosie, recent NIDA graduate Janet Anderson makes a blazing, scorching impact. By all rights she’ll be a major talent and we lucky audience members can say we were there in the earliest stages of her career. Rosie is a magnificent role and Anderson, who’s’ also done a prior season of this show uses her supreme command of space and exquisitely detailed character modulations to make the audience forget on some level that anyone else exists. At the end of the performance the audience rose for a well deserved, thunderous ovation. The last few years have brought us many enviable one woman shows; Sheridan Harbridge in Prima Facie, Nikki Shiels in Girls and Boys, Erin Jean Norvill (and also Nikki Shiels) in the Picture of Dorian Grey to name a few and Janet Anderson stands among them as their equal.
Her Rosie is whip smart, angry but also desperately tired. Anderson navigates the many shifts into other characters with ease; kudos to dialect coach Adi Cabral for their guidance in the through evocation of different dialects and syntax. Anderson’s growing rage and anxiety is palpable in the way she shifts her body, leaving no room for artificiality. Costume designer Jamaica Moana has dressed her with insight and care; the boots, platform combats especially speak volumes about who Rosie is, they look great, comfortable for dancing and most importantly they’re a useful tool for someone who’s used to defending herself.
She’s very fortunate to have a director as seasoned and shrewd as Dino Dimitradis, who also designed the startlingly realistic set. It’s a three tiered collaborative triumph of the writer, actress and director; Dimitradis has worked on both epic (Angels in America, Sarah Kane’s Crave) and intimate scales and it shows in their tense, invigorating orchestration of the monologue. That Anderson owns the stage and Alabanza’s writing is thrillingly structured is given but Dimitradis’ command of the space and text is masterful. Supported by a stellar team of creatives working at the top of their game (incidentally all trans and gender diverse themselves) this is one of the best produced shows I’ve seen in a very long time.
Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design creates many visually exciting images against the monochrome, metal of the bathroom with stunning bursts of colour and rave sequences. Danni Espositio, once again raises their own very high bar with their sound design. The tense, thrilling underscore and pulsating club music is essential in evoking the many references to thriller and horror that the script and production evoke.
During this very tentative era of increased trans visibility comes an ever growing cannon of trans theatre written for and by trans artists that are making an impact on main and independent stages, this Midsumma for example 4 of the 5 shows I’m seeing are by and starring trans creatives in major roles. It tickles me that a whole generation of drama students will do the ‘pre-emptive piss’ monologue in workshops for example (those who see the show will know what I mean). Ten years ago I can imagine a variation of this play being performed in which the violent thumpings were actually Rosie’s friends checking on her and her vigilance was exaggerated and Rosie would be played a twinky cis boy who would have been applauded for his’ bravery and skill’ in taking on this role.
Public and cultural discourse has a greater impact than many care to admit; when news stories, art stories, current affairs feature a denigrating exploration of trans people designed to undermine and stoke bigotry and violence they contribute to dehumanization and bad faith misrepresentation so to have it countered by people who are telling the detailed, blunt truth of their own lived experience is a powerful and necessary tonic.
I would also like to acknowledge that Overflow’s production team shows a great commitment to their community in terms of access to this production both financially with lower ticket prices than are usually seen at the arts centre, free tickets offered to members of the trans community and some adjustments to the venue. At this production the bathrooms at Fairfax studio are gender neutral, knowing their target audience for this show it wouldn’t make sense for them not to be but I do wonder if this is only a temporary arrangement. The signs indicating their access were held on with Velcro and I imagine they’ll be taken down once this season is over. I hope I’m wrong because as shocking as it may be to come trans people attend the ballet, the symphony, the opera and theatre that isn’t necessarily trans centric (the ones that can afford/get access to it) and acknowledgment and respect of that goes a long way.