REVIEW: Limbo Unhinged (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Irene Corbett

[Unhinged Limbs]

Billed as circus-cabaret, Limbo Unhinged offers terrifying spectacles and exhilarating feats of strength and physical control. A mixture of dance, clowning, and acrobatics (including fire breathing and sword swallowing), combined with live music, the show has much to offer. The Auckland Art’s Festival Spiegeltent which pops up in Aotea Square provides the perfect venue for this display. Rich with wooden detailing and smoky corners, it is an intimate space which forces performers to be moving within the audience seating in order to enter or exit the raised thrust stage and retrieve props or anchor set items. 

Limbo Unhinged is an ensemble show with all performers (excluding the multi-instrumentalist, Mick Stuart) appearing in multiple acts and at various points contributing to the production of live music. The music, composed by New York’s Sxip Shirey, acts as the heartbeat of the show, keeping everything in time and creating a throbbing atmosphere pitched somewhere between a contemporary club and 1930s cabaret featuring crisp, bass heavy drumming, both electric and acoustic guitars, and insanely rhythmic harmonica and beatboxing as provided by Mikael Bres. 

Bres’ musical skill is only overshadowed by his acrobatics, performing an act using a flexible pole erected centre stage and held in place by a series of strops, Bres climbs the pole upwards into the air, each easy step defying gravity, only to then turn and drop himself until he suddenly pauses, hovering now only an inch above the floor.

A successful foil to this terrifying exhibition of risk and control comes in the character of the clown. Initially dressed in a white loin cloth with wild wispy hair the clown bumbles along joining in to a few acts and some of the music, toting a tiny, detuned plastic electric guitar. With this guitar he sings a sweet ditty switching between English and German lyrics referencing the long and varied history of cabaret, a glimmer of Bob Fosse’s superb 1972 film present in this choice. The clown, which starts the show in a position of hopeless innocence and so garnering audience sympathy, is strikingly contrasted to the sleek and sexualised appearances of the other performers clad in various combinations of black leather with the requisite belts and straps to nod at burlesque and fetish wear without alienating the largely white middle class festival audience. That being said, this audience is very responsive with plenty of gasps and cheering, and at one point a high-pitched squeal of fear at a particularly exciting part of an act. 

Some moments fell a touch flat however. There is little frame of reference for a New Zealand audience when it comes to tap dancing. The silence in between the larger, flashier jumps reflecting either a deep unfamiliarity or simply disinterest, a markedly different silence to that felt in the anticipation of an overly terrifying stunt and the gasps and whispered oaths of an audience creeping forward to the edges of their seats. Also met with detachment is an overly drawn out joke about counting performers into an action and the exaggerated use of a drumroll. The weakness of this bit belies the consummate skill and magnetic physical performances of the cast. 

Limbo Unhinged is utterly thrilling and scarily sexy featuring limbs bending in impossible ways, flaming arrows, and pulsing music. 

Limbo Unhinged plays the Spiegeltent as part of Auckland Arts Festival 12-29 March, 2020. 

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