In the realm of activist theatre, it is common for performers with something to say to use volume and anger when making their point. I am a long-term lover of loud, proud and brash theatre with a message, but Sarah Houbolt’s KooKoo The Bird Girl offered something entirely different. Her one-woman performance referencing side show character Minnie Woolsey was quiet and self-assured. She called on the historic terror enacted against disabled women and reminded us that while the language has changed, much of our culture has not. The reality is that a disabled woman performing on her own stage, in complete ownership of her body, is (still) a revolutionary act.
Evoking classic burlesque and vaudeville images, Houbolt is true to the style and uses this to her advantage. Every time I thought I knew the trope being played, we went somewhere more surprising, more subtle and infinitely more engaging. Particularly interesting to me was the oscillating way we were asked to view Houbolts’s body. At times we were forced to confront the medicalised objectification forced on countless women under the Ugly Laws and yet other times I was convinced I was watching an exclusive performance from an alluring 1920’s coquette. The dissonance between the two speaks to the way we still find it difficult to accept disabled people as sexual beings with autonomy and grace.
Grace is something Sarah Houbolt has in excess; her movements are precise and clean, and she is as captivating in fluid modern choreo as she is in more abstract jerky movements. That a one-woman show is a difficult form to master doesn’t even register here: Houbolt has enough energy in the delicate movement of one foot to hold an audience’s attention.
This show uses text sparingly which casts the spotlight where it should be- Houbolt’s physical performance. The lack of distinct storytelling however made it difficult for me to enjoy the performance on more than a political level. Having no previous knowledge of the characters and film being referenced, some of the finer moments pertaining to Minnie Woolsey were lost on me. The culmination of the show is a display of hoop skills on and with a bed of nails. Houbolt pulls her tricks flawlessly, but I would have liked something more impressive and dangerous akin to some of the great moments of vaudeville. For such a powerful and physically engaged show, the finale seemed a little flat and perhaps more suited to a street show or very intimate audience.
These criticisms are trifling when compared to how much I enjoyed this piece. That Sarah Houbolt is a performer of immense skill and boldness goes without saying. She is refined, inviting and thoroughly watchable. The piece tackles an often neglected topic with such surefootedness that it has the makings of a seminal political work. For audiences looking to get the most out of the show, I would recommend a quick google of Minnie Woolsey and her friends before attending because attend you must.
KooKoo The Birdgirl played a short season 3-5 November 2016 at MetroArts.