Melody Rachel’s description of her solo performance piece I Wanna be Mark Wahlberg talks about it as an exploration of identity and gender and the way her understanding of these was impacted by a conservative Christian upbringing. Her show manages moments of insight into these concepts, but the clarity of the statements she’s made about her work doesn’t quite carry over into the performance itself, resulting in an intriguing but scattered experience.
The initial scenes presented touch on a number of different concepts. When Rachel first emerges she’s sheepish, as if not sure what we’re all doing here. After a few moments she starts play-acting Spider-Man and other superheroes, as if this will maybe keep this unanticipated crowd entertained. She shifts through personas, becoming a ballet dancer and then gives into the demands of some frenetic dance music to do something sexy. This is followed by, as advertised, some well-observed Marky Mark posturing. There’s a range of different comments and questions about gender identity here, although the effect is at times like Rachel is just bouncing from one idea to the next. Her characterisation and physicality is excellent, but the ideas being expressed don’t feel linked by anything. Yes, these are some peoples’ concepts of what gender can be but aside from drawing contrasts it’s initially difficult to find the thread that connects it all.
An eerie section in which Rachel plays with her own silhouette marks the performance’s strongest narrative stretch. The outsized impression of her warps and shifts as she moves, creating images that often look very unlike her. It’s an uncanny moment, evoking the ways our image of ourselves can become distorted. The way the shape towers over her gives it a sense of power, particularly in the confined space of the theatre. The misshapen forms it assumes dwarf and overwhelm her. Yet this gives way into a cathartic comedy beat as Rachel’s attention shifts to her own body, playfully slapping at it like she’s trying to get it to play a tune. Engagement with what’s real and tactile overcomes the imagination’s contorted imagery. It’s a satisfying arc that both nails the show’s themes and takes the audience on a journey.
This section shows the power of developing a narrative for the audience to follow. It’s easily the sequence I felt most engaged with and it’s a shame it then gives way to a total non-sequitur as Rachel briefly becomes Eminem in an admittedly hilarious scene where she keeps forgetting the words to One Shot. It’s representative of the piece’s main problem. It keeps finding interesting things to do and say but ditches them just before it gets to any sort of point. There’s a distractedness here that particularly ill serves what was for me the strangest moment of the show.
Rachel finds a discarded audio cable which when pressed to almost any part of her body produces just a dull electronic burr. She plays with it for a few moments before applying it to her temple which gives rise to a looped recording of a young person excitedly recounting that they’ve been told by some uncle that they can cut off their breasts, grow a penis and become a real boy. The recording plays a few times as Rachel looks befuddled and eventually shoots us a bemused expression before discarding the cable along with whatever meaning it was supposed to evoke.
It’s a segment that demands further articulation, though. I’ve since been trying to figure out what the tone of it was, because in the moment I got the unpleasant feeling I might be meant to be disturbed or distressed by the references to aspects of gender confirmation surgery. I found the ambiguity around the moment unsettling in a show by a cis woman, particularly one who throws around quotes by Germaine Greer. In any case it’s dropped far too quickly to settle as a part of the piece’s themes and as the only verbal part of the show (other than a brief Wahlberg excerpt) its opacity is all the more frustrating.
Rachel says in this Stuff interview that she wants her piece to be up to the audience’s interpretation. “This is theatre and not a TED talk, you know?”. But it’s a performance that would be improved greatly by more narrative clarity, drawing its ideas together into a coherent line of thought rather than throwing them out there in entertaining but disconnected bursts. Given the short run time – noticeably less than the advertised 50 minutes – there’s certainly room to expand and develop here, and Rachel is clearly an energetic and watchable performer who I doubt anyone would mind hearing a bit more from.
I Wanna Be Mark Wahlberg plays Basement Theatre 9-13 February, 2021 as part of Auckland Pride.