Scientists have discovered that loneliness actually hurts us on a cellular level. Avian, protagonist and narrator of The Word Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us, scales the problem up a little. Under his theory, it’s the world itself that is lonely. Encircled over unfathomable distances by lifeless gas giants and hulks of icy rock, there is no friendly planet nearby for it to have fun with, find solace in, or complain to about, I don’t know, that nasty cut appearing in its Arizona desert midsection.
The increasingly barbarous nature of Earth’s inhabitants is just a symptom of this heartache. On Avian’s Earth, it’s 2067, and humans have spent the last few decades busy about the process of killing each other (and the rest of the biosphere) in new and innovative ways. This is, under his reckoning, the Earth slowly committing suicide.
Luckily, our guy – one of the last survivors of the blood and smog that’s left behind – has a plan. Camped out in the Atacama Desert, he has built a spaceship, with which he means to find a friendly planet, lasso it, and haul it back home to be Earth’s buddy. The spaceship is called: The Story. In his fool’s hero dream to save the world from loneliness however, Avian succeeds in alienating himself from the very connections he was seeking – friend, sweetheart, lover.
With bushy whiskers, twinkly eyes, and looping low-fi instruments, solo performer Stuart Bowden conjures in the Blue Room Theatre hollow a fabulist tale of tender heart and comical whimsy. Bowden is by now a legend of hipster parable in the Australian arts scene, reprising this 2011 Don’t Be Lonely production in the first of a ‘Series of Portraits’ for this year’s Fringe, to be followed up by award-winning shows The Beast (2012) She Was Probably Not a Robot (2013) Before Us (2014) and Wilting in Reverse (2015).
Together, Bowden showcases his introspective obsession with sci-fi futurism, what it means to be lonely, and what it means to be alone (which are, after all, not the same thing). With four and five star reviews bursting at the edges of his created universes, he has made himself the master of spinning solipsistic dreams, piquant and sad, in which feature lovable, bungling characters who undergo existential epiphanies through renewed perspectives. But only at the end of a long journey, of course.
The Word Holds is perhaps not quite as oddball as its successors (in Before Us, Bowden dresses up as a green bean-bagged caterpillar thing), though definitely within the oddball park. The eccentricity is muted with a jaded edge – there is more drinking as a way to combat isolation, and in among the poignant images is a recurring one of a penis flopping out of a trouser fly (a detail painted in words only, it should be noted).
At times, the plot tends towards the overly romanticised and contrived – as with Avian’s desert trysts with his doppelgangered childhood paramour – but still. There is simply too much earnestness here for your heart not to juice out joy.
Bowden seems to have built up his music talent and repertoire – he croons on the harmonica, summons mournful chords from his keyboard synth, and ukuleles atop a precarious tower of crates. Arguably though, it is the united absurdity and lyricism of his narration that has endeared Bowden as a Fringe World favourite.
Imagine Rick from Rick and Morty, only with a voice that is rich and melancholic, rather than harsh and, uh, American. (Also, without the spittle string.) He commands the timbre of a natural, grandiloquent storyteller, deflated into bathos by trips and excitable tumbles over words, carried on by the momentum of irrepressible imagination. It’s like listening in on someone who’s used to reading to themselves aloud and often, but who has forgotten the social graces.
The World Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us is a ridiculous and lovely tale, which – balancing meta-irony with sincerity – leaves its audience a little closer to believing that the answer to loneliness is not bitterness, but hope and love. Regrettably, it had only one showing this festival – but you can still see Bowden in his various other iterations in A Series of Portraits ‘til Saturday. Best book your tickets early though – on Tuesday, every seat was filled.
Stuart Bowden: A Series of Portraits – The World Holds Everyone Apart, Apart From Us
The Blue Room Theatre – Perth Cultural Centre, 53 James Street, Northbridge (Perth)
Performance: Tuesday 7 February 2017 – 9.00pm
Season continues to Saturday 11 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.fringeworld.com.au
Image: Stuart Bowden (supplied)
Review: Kate Prendergast