Note: explicit performance discussed

“Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…. Every one of her actions – whatever its direct purpose or motivation – is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated. If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger.”

It was with these words from the recently deceased John Berger’s inimitable ‘Ways of Seeing’ that I could properly contextualise the audiovisual onslaught of Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious.  

Holstein has attracted press coverage for depicting ‘explicit’ scenes on stage; Notorious is no exception.

The play begins with Holstein and her two associates hanging like spaghetti coated apparitions – or perhaps Komandors – centre stage.  Holstein’s alter ego ‘The Famous’  is projected onto a large screen as she begins a comical monologue parodying the trope of the ‘monstrous woman’, periodically pausing for comic effect while regaling the audience with tales of how she sometimes sleeps in the soil and lets snakes crawl inside of her.  The Famous prefers the basement to the attic. We are told that she cannot separate what’s real from what’s not.

Explosive twerking to Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ ensues. The audience laughs. We see Holstein’s pudendum. I’m skeptical that anyone is entirely sure at this point what the play is trying to convey.

The narrative becomes clearer as the play moves through dance numbers to a variety of pop songs.  At one point, Holstein starts smashing an octopus on stage as the refrain from Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ reverberates through the auditorium. ‘So give me more, more, ‘til I can’t stand’, Minaj sings as Holstein looks visibly exhausted from the performance.

The song ends, the octopus’s gonad, ink sac, and heart are splayed across the stage, the audience claps. Holstein, mimicking Minaj, holds her hand up and says ‘one more time’, and repeats the number. By the end of this section, my viewing partner commented that Holstein successfully managed to normalise ejecting vials full of coins out of her vagina. He was right; we had seen her release at least 24 of them and turned utterly numb to the spectacle. At one point, Holstein puts a camera between her legs and squeezes an ominous looking fluorescent green eyeball out from her insides, telling us ‘this is my truth.’

What does it all mean? I’m inclined to read Holstein’s adaptation of ‘Starships’ as a critique of the excess of the maritime escapades depicted in Anthony Mandler’s music video. The performance of the odd ideals of femininity and freedom of choice put forth in these songs is completely unsustainable.  

The germane point is then that the conception of freedom circumscribed by Cyrus, Minaj, and their ilk – Holstein somewhat satirically calls it ‘post-feminist’ – is not really free at all.

This hits home in the act’s final number, where Britney Spears’ ‘Work B*tch’ plays as Holstein urinates on an enormous mound of popping candy. She prostrates herself on the wet mound and licks some of it up as the audience vocalises their disgust and Britney sings about symbols of conspicuous consumption.  The play ends as the cast lies limp and periodically assumes ‘monstrous’ poses: the menacing grimace, a flick of the tongue, and Holstein’s final utterance: ‘you can get the f*** out now’.  

Most of this message – or whatever Holstein actually intends –  is probably lost on the general public. The ‘shocking’ parts of the performance will likely be a barrier to entry for most. The play also bills itself as deconstructing the trope of the monstrous woman in part through pop songs. To that end, it’s puzzling that women of colour, who are overwhelmingly the contemporary subject of that trope, are entirely absent from the performance.  This certainly detracts from the rigour of that deconstruction, but Holstein’s critique of consumption shines through.  

Still, I can’t help but wonder how this kind of performance would be treated if a man was at the helm. Perhaps the general atmosphere of shock would persist, but the vocabulary would be different.  Her use of the projector echoes bits of Berger’s distillation: ‘men act and women appear.’ Certainly, the cult following of ‘The Eric Andre Show’ – which sees the Berklee-trained bassist vomit or urinate on and around his guests and receive praise for his acting – should make viewers think twice about castigating Holstein’s use of her body.

The show may also be inaccessible, but Holstein’s quirky species of performance art deserves more credit than fragmentary reporting on the most extreme scenes.  Notorious might not be the theatre we want, but it’s probably the theatre we need.

Featured Image: Tim Fluck

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Ketan Jha

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