The little stage at the Butterfly Club has been the setting for many things wonderful and Jessica McKerlie’s Gender Spanner is definitely one of these. McKerlie, doing her first solo show after a stint in England in which she performed with a queer circus, is uncommonly honest about the complexities and uncertainties underpinning personal identity in this thought provoking cabaret.
Using her own life experience as the lens, McKerlie looks at what it means to identify yourself as one thing or another, whether your label is something that sounds deceptively simple like “female” or “gay” or inherently complex like “genderqueer” or “polysexual”. She explores how she has related to gender, to sexuality, to society in general and queer society in particular, and in so doing opens up universal questions about the sense of self.
The show is a grab bag of performance styles, incorporating story telling, poetic monologues, songs, a little bit of circus and a hint of burlesque. Her performance style too is fluid, at times displaying charmingly down to earth humour, at times showing her circus background with on stage braggodoccio, at times reaching out with heartfelt emotion. McKerlie is a performer who thrives on connection with her audience and you can see her confidence and power on stage grow as the show progresses and her rapport builds.
When singing, she accompanies herself with a ukulele but far from being the whimsical numbers that instrument suggests her songs are bursting with ideas and passion. A love song to a transgender ex-lover is particularly touching, both refreshing in the way it celebrates the beauty of trans bodies and absolutely radiant with feeling.
As for the titular spanner, I thought at first it might be a reference to the “spanner in the works” motif but it’s more referring to a spanner as a tightening tool, making the analogy to social roles being ever-tightening constrictions. McKerlie’s honesty and deft use of metaphor provides a powerful discussion of this and other aspects of identity. While labels have special weight in discussion of queer identity, they are also a universal aspect of identity formation, and McKerlie’s approach to them is enlightening whatever your own labels are, have been or may become. Whether she’s arbitrarily labelling the audience or herself with post-it notes, spinning plates while trying to maintain a femme façade or geeing up the audience like a male stripper at a hen’s night, she is able to both entertain and provoke your brain at the same time.
If at times the unstructured approach makes Gender Spanner feel like it doesn’t know what type of show it is, that is perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. It after all is a show about confusion and flux being themselves intrinsic parts of identity. I find myself still smiling or getting pangs of emotion about this show on the way home, as if the flurry of ideas and feelings are taking a while to process. Maybe it’s a show that could be made slicker and I would love to see what a more finely honed version of it would look like, but I also utterly love it exactly as it is. It is a beautiful and unique creation.
2015 Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Venue: The Butterfly Club | 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Dates: 16 – 27 June 2015
Tickets: $25 – $32