Review by Naomi Cardwell.
Kovid Rat Kabarett Goes Spiral is a fabulously bizarre snapshot of an eclectic group of neighbours navigating one of Melbourne’s many COVID-19 lockdowns, circa 2020. An omnipresent mad scientist (Ruth Katerelos) lurks at the edge of the stage, working a panel of dastardly knobs and occasionally throwing off her lab coat to MC the show in quirky Rocky Horror lingerie, wielding her impressive rat’s tail like a whip.
The hectic, dizzying and frenetic original score by Melbourne Cabaret legend Ella Filar careens along towering peaks of chromatic madness, with jam-packed syllables overflowing around the dark and lurching circus undertones. As RatsPutin, the magnificent Katerelos stalks around the spiral-painted centre stage, growling, jeering and even rapping her musical numbers, armed with a comically oversized syringe in her garter. Lights flash, drums crash, and the projections overhead warp and spiralise relentlessly, the dizzying visual spectacle a credit to technical and stage manager John Vivian Jenkin.
To one side, a gallery of amusingly caged musician-rats - Filar on Keyboard, Martin Zakharov and Bradley Bru on Sax, Alfie Pleasance on percussion and Sally Banks playing Violin - plummet fearlessly into the chaotic dissonance and subversive Weimar-inspired shifts in depth and tone. There are sharks in these musical waters, and we discover lyric books on our seats teeming with jagged verbal spikes.
With the assault of lyrics and music and spectacle and effects, I struggle to reconcile Filar’s sheer glut of puns, idioms, and wordplay. In her professorial form, lab-coated and eerily lit in green, RatsPutin seems to be responsible for the transformation of the cast. She rudely injects their bottoms with a comical phallic syringe, and observes closely as each character develops sniffing, scrabbling, rat-like symptoms and a newfound fascination with cheese(cake). Are they Lab rats? Trapped rats? Plague rats? Perhaps they’re reminders of that time our own Prime Minister (now-PhD in Chinese politics) raged on a diplomatic trip that we were all getting rat-fucked.
The answer seems to be ‘all of the above’. Change is the only constant in the manic world of Kovid Rat, where the characters’ shifting blame, contentious worldviews, and precarious sanity play out in Zoom confessionals produced by John Vivian Jenkin and Chris Molyneux projected above the stage. The character of RatsPutin comes to represent the evil Orwellian genius we all searched for to blame as we ratted one another out for various lockdown infractions.
The plot divides unevenly along generational lines, held together with sharp and witty dialogue by Cerise De Gelder.
As Karen, Maureen Hartley rants hilariously before her hoard of toilet paper about immigrants of various hues and her plans to make a scene at the local Bunnings. Many of her lines must have been challenging, and Hartley deserves much praise for her perpetually pissed-off Karen who struggles with fear, crushing loneliness and bouts of uncontrollable rat-like squeaking.
There’s fantastic chemistry in Karen’s banter with local spaced-out derro Andrew, Chris Molyneux in his most Keith Richards-esque form, who shambles around the stage, occasionally succumbing to the urge to gnaw and scrabble. Adam Ibbetson as Adam, the play’s “congenial millennial”, has perfected his startled-rat combo of squealing in alarm and scampering from conflict, bringing the house down with his anxious people-pleasing physicality. Isabella Gilbert has less to work with as Claire, presumably the play’s specimen for Generation Z, a mysterious people the plot neglects to examine closely. Gilbert’s hilarious facial expressions, dead-on dancing and fits of twitchy rattiness shine through all the same.
While the La Mama Courthouse’s acoustics are always excellent, the cast struggle to sing loudly enough to punch past the live instruments without microphones. Without foldback speakers, there are also some pitch issues which are easily absorbed into the turbulent Weimar style, but the lack of volume is difficult to ignore.
We exit into Carlton’s lively dinner-clatter feeling as though we’ve disembarked a clashing, crashing and spectacular roller-coaster. I’ve said it before: it’s just so good to be back at the theatre. The arrival of weird and wonderful art like Kovid Rat on La Mama’s cherished experimental stage suggests we’re finally far enough away from 2020 - Year of the Rat - that we can start looking back and laughing.