REVIEW: Grey Arias by Adrienne Truscott & Le Gateau Chocolat – Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Why do we still go to see Madame Butterfly? And when I say “we”, I don’t mean the comedy festival audience that sees Grey Arias at the Malthouse, but the general art-loving, opera-going “we” who probably aren’t into performance art at all. 

Because musicals and drag and stand-up comedy and parody are low art and the high art of opera means they can get away with anything – even the story of a fifteen-year-old being raped, carrying her rapist’s baby to term and then killing herself when the child is taken away to be given to the wife of her rapist. The summary reads like a soap opera but Butterfly is playing on Sydney Harbour right now and you can pay up to $370 for the privilege.

Drag Artiste Le Gateau Chocolat and feminist performance artist Adrienne Truscott are performing different identities all the time. It’s the nature of their work and being a good ally – to each other and other communities – they must interrogate the grey areas (with arias!) of intersectionality and how lived experience is essential to creating and singing and acting and storytelling.

Who can best embody the character of Madame Butterfly? A Japanese woman who can sing Italian? Or do we need to dig deeper to find a person who can truly embody the lived experience of the butterfly? Or can we just re-write Puccini to shave off the problematic bits?

Le Gateau Chocolat is gay and Nigerian-English and fat. Adrienne Truscott is a white woman and a self-described cunt. And that’s just how they are perceived when arriving on stage or announcing themselves to the Malthouse audience. He has the voice of an angel and she can barely hold a tune. He knows classic opera is problematic but his life changed when he first saw a black woman play Madame Butterfly. She wishes she was cast as Annie and sings a couple of songs from that show in this show “before she ages out of the part”. This is an Annie like you’ve never seen the young orphan before. And is the only authentic performance of Annie by someone who is an orphan themselves?

Grey Arias is a knotty conversation about intersectionality and representation. It focuses on an Italian man’s story of a Japanese woman – and these two performers know they might be out of their depth here. Neither of them is Asian. Though if Scarlett Johanssen and a whole list of other white people can get away with it… is it okay if they are just asking questions?

This show was first developed in 2020 ready for that year’s Malthouse season but the pandemic cancelled the show then. It doesn’t neatly fit into what you’d expect from the Comedy Festival, which they readily admit in the show – but at least they aren’t white cis men telling jokes? Challenging the comedy paradigm is essential if our view of comedy is ever going to change.

Grey Arias is off-the-wall but tackles some vital questions and has the depth of work we expect from both of these performers, whose shows challenge an audience and themselves and the nature of theatre. Don’t let this show doesn’t get lost in the Comedy Festival crowd. Go see it for laughs and for maybe learning something?

It’s cheaper and less problematic than going to see Madame Butterfly, at least.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Grey Arias plays at the Malthouse as part of the Comedy Festival until April 16th.

Photos: Tamarah Scott