"Good evening ladies and gentlemen," announces a woman over the PA to the patrons waiting outside the theatre. "Welcome to tonight's performance of We're Gonna Die." As she speaks the title of the show, her voice seems to break a little, as if the awful universal truth of that statement is sinking in.
Yet, as the audience filter in and take their seats, it is to upbeat pop music. Guitars gleam on stage, awaiting their band. When Young Jean Lee strides on in bright yellow jeans and a nautical sweater, she has the peppy air of a stand-up comedian.
From the beginning, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance. One wouldn't expect anything in-the-ordinary from Young Jean Lee though. One of the leading lights of New York fringe theatre, Lee is always experimental in her approach. We're Gonna Die, made for 13P, an ephemeral theatre collective set up to give its members complete creative freedom for one show each before the company imploded, represents a new and challenging direction even for her.
In it, Lee presents a collection of personal stories about painful experiences big and small, from playground rejection and relationship breakdowns to discovering signs of aging and the death of loved ones. The focus is not on the pain though but on the small things that gave her comfort in those times. A song from her mother, a letter from a friend, a passing thought while watching a lover sleep beside her. These moments Lee presents in song, making this show a kind of confessional cabaret.
Although not usually a performer, Lee is a magnetic onstage presence. Her speaking style is engaging, honest and wryly humorous. Her songs have the free and unselfconscious air of tunes sung to the self when no one else is around. Backing her up is the four-piece band Future Wife, all of whom seem to be creative polymaths with quirkily eclectic CVs. Their indie pop style music is at times gently soothing, at times slightly moody but most often boppy and gleeful, even if Lee is belting out lyrics that sound like they should be bleak.
The sense of dissonance is constant but not in a way that clashes or tips the show into, say, black humour. Rather it conveys a kind of yin-yang sense, of small happiness within pain and a touch of pain within happiness. The entwined threads of poignancy and humour reach their culmination in the title track, where Lee's song about the inevitability of death is presented with such verve, and accompanied by such merry antics from the band, that you come away feeling a little better about the whole mortality thing. Not a lot, maybe, but a little. Which, as this show suggests, is enough.
Ominously titled and improbable in concept as it sounds, We're Gonna Die works beautifully. It is touching, smart and far more feel-good than you might expect.
Melbourne Festival presents
WE’RE GONNA DIE
Young Jean Lee's Theater Company
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio | 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 24 – 27 Oct 2012
Tickets: $55.00 - $25.00
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | Ticketmaster 136 100