REVIEW: Coded (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[A Clear Message of Empowerment]

Coded, the second production in two productive years from theatre-maker Erin O’Flaherty (following An Organ of Soft Tissue), is a solo show which aims to journey into female sexuality through the perspective of a malfunctioning AI bot.

The production debuts at TAPAC as part of a rescheduled program within the Auckland Fringe Festival, and uses sharp vignettes to convey Erin’s perspective on a host of issues – from the widespread misnaming of the female anatomy, to the sexualisation of women through the media.

Dressed in gold spandex hot pants and bra, Erin’s ‘AI bot’ is redolent of a futuristic Kylie Minogue as she gyrates to sexually overt rap lyrics during the show’s opening. Erin’s performance sings with confidence, cleverly shaped by Amber Liberte (movement) and taking inspiration from Julia Croft’s signature style (Julia, Jess Hong and Ariadne Balthazar were advisors during the process). We wait for Erin to speak and, after moments of comedic physical theatre, her bot finally delivers sing-song inflections. She speaks to her creator – a softly spoken female voice from beyond – and is told she must navigate the difficult task of learning about humans.

Projected behind her, movie extracts provide a solid grounding for the AI’s learning and the take-away from Cinderella and The Notebook is clear for this clever robot: when it comes to intimacy, women are expected to behave a certain way.

Interspliced throughout her robot learning, Erin morphs into a number of witty roles – from the awkward sex-ed teacher who can’t bring herself to use correct terminology to the model who is commodified to such a degree that she exposes herself on the catwalk then, unperturbed, places a gift bag over her head.

If this first use of nudity aims to answer Erin’s show-notes question ‘Are women today truly empowered when they express their sexuality publicly?’ the answer is likely to be a ‘no’ – but Erin’s tour-de-force comes during the latter stages of the production after she strips off and her personified breasts fill a tight, white spotlight. There is no flinching from either Erin or the audience as we meet two fed up American-accented broads who are sick of being hot and sweaty in a bra all day. Erin’s public expression of sexuality is one of the highlights from a very articulate and entertaining production, and undoubtedly demonstrates her writing strengths.

Original scoring from Michaela Cornelius of Mikatte Music complements the production and showcases a great range – witty, sexually overt rap lyrics are followed by tension-building soundscapes.

My partner and I left the production discussing factoids peppered throughout the show – such as the startling revelation that black women were experimented upon by a gynaecologist because it was believed they had higher pain thresholds. As a POC feminist, I knew this point already but it felt as if Erin, my boyfriend and I had sat down and put the world to rights. Having her on my ‘side,’ so to speak, was incredibly empowering – and I’m sure I’m not the only person who left the theatre feeling that way.

Coded would benefit from slicker transitions instead of blackouts which truncated momentum, but this was the only downside to the fifty-minute production and indicates that, as an audience, we have an appetite for more of Erin’s work.

Coded played TAPAC 25-27 March, 2021. 

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