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Review: The Strong Charmion at Flight Path Theatre

Review by Bella Wellstead

Weight-lifting striptease artists. Hysterical harlots. Submissive daughters, traded off like a truffle at the highest price. In 1920s Australia, it seems there is nothing acceptable for a woman to be but dainty, married, and mothering. Strongwoman Rosalie Whitewood – alias, the Charmion – is neither delicate nor obedient nor wed. Ostracised by the small, rural town she grew up in, Rosalie is forced to move to Sydney, where she becomes the star attraction of the Freize Family Circus. Here, her ‘deviant’ femininity is ridiculed at the same time as it is exploited. Her brawny physique branded repulsive at the same time as it is sexualised. Written by Chloe Lethlean Higson and directed by Jess Ramsey, The Strong Charmion is an indictment of the fallacy of femininity and the contradiction of patriarchy. It considers what happens when women and gender diverse individuals challenge the very structures of society and attempt to carve out uncompromising futures for their authentic selves.

Gabrielle Bowen’s Rosalie Whitewood is portrayed with grace and fervour. Their firm and robust presence commands attention as they play the part of the Charmion, weaponizing Rosalie’s fetishized and ostracised body. Rosalie swaggers elegantly across the stage, powerful in her undergarments and a pair of tall, white, heeled boots. Her back is straight, her shoulders strong, and her expression staunch. Equally, however, Bowen creates space for Rosalie’s fears and fragilities. They expose the vulnerabilities that Rosalie harbours underneath the crumbling façade of “woman not to be messed with.”

Set and costume design by Bella Saltearn is distinct and delightfully period. A length of white canvas stretches along the back of the stage – the exterior of the big top, whose pointed roof scrapes the ceiling of Flight Path Theatre. Lengths of rope loop along the lighting rig and dangle freely into the space. A layer of hay lines the stage underfoot, a ticket booth stands erect by the big top, and Rosalie’s dressing table fits snugly in one corner of the stage. Opposite it, a floral chaise longue and standing lamp – the Sydney hotel room inhabited by Rosalie’s former fiancé Ross and his wife Kitty. Saltearn’s set design is intimate and immersive, cleverly fusing the private and public worlds of the characters and baring their relationships to the audience.

Niky Markovic is wonderfully versatile, taking on the roles of Ross Livingstone, circus chef Frank D’Orazio, and ringmaster Leopold Freize. Their Ross is reserved and repressed, providing an insipid counterbalance to Rosalie’s self-assured vivacity. Ross is emblematic of the rejection experienced by Rosalie in their small town and spends the play unsuccessfully attempting to reconnect with and reform his old flame.

Markovic’s Leopold Freize is gruff and selfish, and their Frank D’Orazio brimming with charisma. Bright, reverent, and flirtatious, Frank encourages Rosalie to let her guard down, drawing her out of her hostile solitude and reinvigorating her sense of play.

Intimate scenes between the two – directed by Rikiah Lizarraga – alongside the fight scenes which punctuate the play, are expertly choregraphed. One cannot help but be gripped as Bowen flings Markovic across the stage, nor as the two tumble through the space, patches of hay clinging to their clothing.

Lighting design by Catherine Mai is potent and sublime, oozing with strength and vibrancy. Stark strobes accompany a flurry of jubilant reds, oranges, and pinks, casting the Charmion’s powerful silhouette against the white canvas walls of the big top. Mai’s design melds brilliantly with Andy Freeborn’s pounding, carnivalesque composition, enhancing our sense of the Charmion’s uncompromised gravitas.

Further, Mai and Freeborn aid in illustrating the contrast between the Charmion and the privately vulnerable Rosalie. Under the warm glimmer of lamplight and to the vinyl echo of jazz music, they distance the glamour of Rosalie’s stage life from the secrets of her past.

Emily Crow plays Kitty Livingstone – Rosalie’s former best friend from back home and Ross’ despondent wife. Crow carefully balances Kitty’s apparent submissiveness with her feeble desire to break free of the social mores that bind her to homemaking and motherhood. Kitty’s meekness contrasts heavily with Rosalie’s intensity, throwing into relief the privileges gleaned from Rosalie’s own ostracised femininity.

Alyssa Peters is Juniper Treewick, a young, unmarried woman whose disobedience have had her labelled a hysteric and subjected to a litany of cruel psychiatric treatments. Despite this, Juniper is caring, enthusiastic, and vibrant. She has an energetic scruffiness about her, amplified by the masculine top and tails which she sports throughout the play. 

Rosalie, Kitty, and Juniper each occupy a point in The Strong Charmion’s triad of recalcitrant femininity. They are bound together by a common desire to break free of patriarchy and carve out their own definition of what it means to be a successful woman. 

Whilst the various b-plots of marriage, pregnancy, and queer comings-out do not feel as though they are granted their full emotional expression, they hold an important place in this story of rebellion. Central to The Strong Charmion is the strength with which it portrays the diversity of women’s suffering and resilience. Higson and Ramsey effectively expose the multiplicity and brutality of punishments doled out against those whose performances of gender are unorthodox.

Image Supplied


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