By Guy Webster
Oscar Wilde once said ‘progress is the realisation of Utopias’. But what exactly constitutes utopia, and how does one go about realising it? Surely, that’s the rub. In Maki Morita’s new hyperpop-punk fantasy, Trash Pop Butterflies Dance Dance Paradise, we open on an anarchist trio trying to imagine what their utopia might look and how they might realise it: a massive rave, a dance party on an abandoned coal mine, a jumping castle instead of parliament house. But the problem remains – how does one realise these utopian ideals?
You’ll find no absolute answers in this bombastic new production from Theatre Works. What it offers is far more interesting; an absurdist deep dive into utopic fantasy that moves with the kind of live wire energy you might find in the basement gig of a punk trio who just recently read and loved Samuel Beckett. Our trio – Moon (Hayley Edwards), Pepper (Vivian Nguyen) and Kitty (Alana Louise) – run an autonomous collective of sorts. In safety-pinned blazers and torn jeans, they’re a group of Vivienne Westwood-loving misfits living in a room of graffitied trash bags painted with their slogans: ‘fuck the clock, burn the government, love pussy’. They’re trying to put on a revolutionary punk concert. They’re trying to write the manifesto for their utopias. They’re disenfranchised Zoomers trying to inhabit a world hurtling for dystopia. They also need to go to Kmart for biscuits.
The 70-minute show is structured like a collection of loosely related vignettes that move from the absurd to the more absurd. Our autonomous collective are interrupted by conversations between an array of creatures; insects, amphibians, birds and spiders. Actors Margot Morales and Myfanwy Hocking are hilarious as a pair of cannibalistic tadpoles bored of their pond, ants that are overworked to the point of exhaustion and a pair of Cuckoo birds with Essex accents considering the problems of motherhood. Morita’s writing is ambitious and incredibly creative, offering much for the well-honed comedic actor to work with, and Hocking and Morales make the most of every opportunity with side-splittingly funny results.
Morita’s writing is absurdist but playful; dense, but rich with detail. Astute social and political commentaries are offered with ready spoonfuls of wit: Etsy is a radical alternative to retail labour, cinnamon donuts just give ‘off an aura of being nonethical’. Each scene covers a huge amount of ground conceptually but Morita uses creative witticisms and original characterisations to keep us engaged throughout, helped by an ensemble of incredibly skilled actors. Edwards was a particular highlight. With subtle choices of body language and expression, they give an impression of a fully developed character that is a helpful anchor during the shows more nonsensical moments. Much of the show’s emotional beats come incidentally, during scenes anchored by similar moments of acute characterisation. The prevalence of overly sermonic monologues near the end – which many actors deliver to the audience with little clear justification – fail to achieve similar results.
Costume and set design by Jessamine Moffett is the perfect complement to Morita’s freewheeling script, making use of found objects to construct increasingly intricate costumes for her litany of creatures. The placement of set pieces in the space does appear to limit the actors at times, forcing them to recycle similar blocking positions that appear stagnant. But this is more an issue with direction, which makes surprisingly little of the room’s furniture or the spaciousness of Theatre Works’ stage.
Delayed lightning cues also undermine the possible connections one might draw between each vignette. At times, the dedication to separating them so explicitly – via blackouts – reads as counterintuitive to a script that rarely offers clear-cut endings to scenes, and that ultimately ends by threading these concurrent storylines together explicitly. There is a tendency, then, for the show to appear like a collection of skits rather than intersecting ‘stories’ that build to a coherent, though absurd, whole. The latter is more in line with my impression of Morita’s skills, and interests, as a writer.
But despite these minor quibbles, the show holds your attention and never lets go. In between ecocritical rants, sharp feminist observations and Kmart trips, Trash Pop Butterflies, Dance Dance Paradise, is able to marry an ambitious interpretation of theatrical form with a unique point of view that manages to find plenty of laughs in between. If it’s not utopia, it’s at least somewhere on the way to it.