Sunday, August 25, 2013

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

Photo from the Production
A woman and a child sit under a glitter tree in what looks like faux medieval garb. The child is on a leash and skips around the mildly irritated woman. This is certainly not the usual forest primeval and this is by no means a typical fringe show.

Starring performance artist Bryony Kimmings and her nine-year-old niece, Taylor Houchen, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is about what kind of world we are creating for young girls like Taylor.

A show for adults (Taylor is at times told to put on noise-cancelling headphones) this is a call to arms by Kimmings who was startled to see the world as it is, through Taylor’s eyes. Through dress-up, dance, physical theater, ridiculous skits, inventive characters, grotesque fairy tale fantasy, foregrounded artificiality and a lot of playful childlike silliness we get a picture of our own adulthood by refracting things through Crayola-colored lenses.

As adults, we think we have a handle on our world. But as Bridget Christie pointed out in her award-winning stand-up show about feminism, A Bic For Her, we have become incredibly casual and comfortable with sexism and female objectification in the world. We don’t even notice it anymore and that tacit acceptance has made Christie feel sick. Kimmings seems to be building off the same concern but with a performance art twist that makes the two works wonderful companion pieces but very different experiences. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model becomes a conversation about feminism but focused on the impact on young girls.

Watching Taylor and Kimmings in identical outfits, sometimes performing identical routines, you become acutely aware of Kimmings adult body and Taylor’s child’s body. Listening and dancing to Katy Perry's fluffy, summery songs about sex stops being innocuous or casual when watching Kimmings and Taylor do the same routine. A child’s mimicry of what she does not know or understand is highlighted here to make it clear that by constantly saying “it’s no big deal” it starts to add up to a monumental problem.

Kimmings, known for more avant-garde and sexual material herself, wonders “What can I offer [Taylor]?” Kimmings finds she wants to protect Taylor.  At one point she "plucks out" Taylor’s eyeballs with graphic sound effects to match--for the record, the eyeballs are glittery.  Possibly the eyeball plucking is a nod to the dark and violent world of Grimm's fairy tales or more likely our comfort with violent imagery around children.  Perhaps the only way to protect her from seeing the horrors the world throws at her is to pluck her eyes out.  Kimmings wants to teach Taylor to “fight” and they dress like knights and eventually pick up machine guns--a jarring image in an intimate theater, but pretty run of the mill if you play video games. 

Ultimately, she says “I was looking for a role model for [Taylor]" and none suitable can be found.  So Kimmings proceeds to create a role model for Taylor in her friends (with Taylor’s input of course). Knowing the role models of children tend to be sports and media stars, Kimmings creates Catherine Bennett. CB is a paleontologist-pop star with a dinosaur bone necklace and a dog named Cookie. She speaks at schools, she’s been invited to chat shows, she’s been interviewed on the radio, and she will release a song. Spreading the word about Catherine Bennett becomes the responsibility of the audience. And already one little girl has approached Bennett/Kimmings saying she wants to be a paleontologist too.

It is hard not to fall for Kimmings and Taylor here. They are a winsome duo with sass. The premise is liberated from some level of gooey sentimentality by it being an aunt and niece (and maybe the glittery graphic eyeball plucking scene won’t leave you with the warm and fuzzies). But Kimmings conclusion is that even as non-parents we are not off the hook. We are all contributing to the world that these children absorb. For the serious and tough message, it is delivered with caring, love, affection, mordant wit, and glee.

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