VAULT Festival Round-Up: Racial Politics and Mind-Reading

Desiree Burch stars in Platt Productions’ Tar Baby, co-written with playwright Dan Kiltrosser.

The VAULT Festival website professes to give a space to the “bravest and best of the next generation of creators” – and last week that bravery was on display in two very different shows. Performance artist Desiree Burch’s solo monologue Tar Baby – co-written with playwright Dan Kiltrosser – previously ran at the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Fringe. The flyer for the show announces “an interactive carnival of race and capitalism – where no one’s a winner, but everyone’s still playing!” A witty, intelligent and acerbic commentary on modern-day racism, it has great depth and profundity, in no small part due to the brilliance and infectious exuberance of Burch, who captivates the audience from the start. When she relates her experience of going to castings only to be told to “act more black”, there’s a real fire in her performance that cannot but sweep you along. Wry social observations are interspersed with interactive carnival-style games. These games still very much pack a punch, though: for example, she gets audience members to pick cotton and collect rice grains for her in a simulation of slavery’s history.

As Burch becomes more impassioned and angry, she becomes intensely eloquent, expressing her horror at just how little progress has been made in racial terms. If you get to see Tar Baby, you won’t fail to be entertained by Burch’s delivery, while leaving saddened and frustrated about how much still needs to be done to combat racism. Hopefully, though, you will also leave feeling fired up. At the end of the show, all audience members are given a “race card”, which they can use to challenge any statements on race they find questionable and want to pull their friends up on in the future – a rather ingenious way of continuing the conversation post-show.

Like Tar Baby, Das Spiel is a one-person monologue which includes a lot of audience participation, but it takes an altogether different bent. Devised and performed by Vienna illusionist Philipp Oberlohr, Das Spiel is billed as “psychological immersive theatre” and proved very popular at the Festival, with almost every performance sold out during its run. It is not your typical magic act: in addition to being a member of the Austrian Magic Circle, Oberlohr has studied physical theatre, so the performance is very creatively conceived. It is clear that he has planned every movement he makes and the soundtrack to the show to the utmost precision.

Oberlohr originally previewed Das Spiel at the Ovalhouse Theatre, and in an interview with them, he emphasised that it is meant to be more than your average magic act: “I’m a Tom Waits fan and I love the performative aspect of his shows – there’s a direct line between the performer and the audience. I’d like the audience to be fulfilled. With some magic shows, I feel as soon as you know how it’s done, there’s nothing else to hold onto.”

Das Spiel is certainly a cut above your standard illusionist act. Although Oberlohr is, in fact, quite understated in his presentation, he manages to capture the audience’s attention with his mind-reading act and, if anything, his unassuming demeanour adds to the impact of his revelations. Long after the performance ends, you will be wondering how he made his predictions; believer or sceptic, there’s no denying that the show has a certain kind of magic.

The VAULT Festival continues until March 6.

Ana Malinovic

About Ana Malinovic

Ana graduated from Warwick University with a BA in English and American Literature in 2010. Her dissertation was centred on dystopian elements in the fiction of Kafka. She enjoys uncovering innovative works of fiction by a diverse range of authors. She also spends much of her time roaming around London's arts and culture scene overexcitedly. Check out her blog

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