Review: Hysterical – personal, political, poetic

Erin Harrington reviews Hysterical, by Carrie Rudzinksi and Olivia Hall, at Little Andromeda, Thursday 12 May 2022.

Hysterical is heart-on-its-sleeve confessional storytelling that marries the personal and intimate to the political and polemical. The show is the second full-length show created by Auckland-based performance poets Olivia Hall (a Kiwi) and Carrie Rudzinski (an American), hardcore BFFs with a keen sense of social justice and an inexhaustible love for reality dating shows.

We’re invited into their apartment: the set is dressed as a domestic space, with comfy chairs, cups of tea, cute pics in frames and some women’s magazines for downtime. It’s welcoming and familiar – and a place where it’s okay to articulate the rage that many women feel just as a part of the day to day. The performers are loose, relaxed, moving in and out of each other’s personal space as they address us directly. ‘The problem that has no name’ of the 1960s is now, in 2022, labelled as ‘fuck this exhausting noise’.

We start with what’s on the tin: work about hysteria, the ‘wandering womb’ held up as an ever-present misogynist framework that might be denounced or angrily reclaimed. In co-authored and personal poems, the women explore the marginalisation and denigration of emotion, the demonization of women’s reproductive bodies, fatphobia, loneliness, violence, the denial of pleasure and the everyday hostility experienced by many women for having committed the crime of walking down the street. It’s a deeply raw, vulnerable show. In places the poets are near tears, fury and hurt near the surface. During a piece from Hall about fatness, invisibility and sexuality you can feel the room thrumming in tension.

But Hall and Rudzinski are also very funny (because, newsflash, women are hilarious). They flick through sarcasm, wit, absurdity, asking us to eye-roll our way through the dumpster fire with them. Between poems they chat, hug, crack jokes. I love a piece from Rudzinski about women being hassled with questions about reproductive choices, and the pair’s exploration of what to do with their intense Harry Potter fandom now that J K Rowling’s soiled the metaphorical bed.

The women are skilled, compelling performers – and the audience is onside. Ōtautahi has a reputation for attentive but quiet rooms, but here the room is fizzing. There’s claps and snaps, laughter and tears, hisses and boos, very vocal and engaged responses. It foregrounds performance as a partnership or conversation with the audience. I can see the emotion on the faces of other audience members. I love hearing what others are responding to, as things familiar to me are new for others and vice versa.

The most successful aspect of the performance, for me, is the way Hall and Rudzinski foreground the importance and richness of intimate relationships – with mates, with lovers, with family. We’re offered warnings from mothers, reunions with friends. The show is bookended with phone messages from loved ones that speak to everyday intimacies. The pair are each other’s best bitches, and the way they invite us into their friendship, and ask us to celebrate our own relationships, braids the pain of much of the poetry with joy, the bitter and the sweet.

The grounding of the political through personal and shared experience is best expressed in their playful shared address. The pair speak in unison, dipping and diving out of each other’s streams of speech, sometimes offering commentary from the side that itself emerges back into poetic shared address. Rhythm, cadence and anaphora carries us through the poetry, but such repetition also signals that the same issues keep happening again, and again, like a game of feminist whackamole. It’s highly effective. This collaborative aspect also steps the show out of more well-worn territory: the very familiar subgenre of confessional feminist performance poetry, and the well-established performance tropes that come with it. I appreciate moments of surprise – of unexpected beats or rhythms, and being taken some where new.

And throughout, the ghosts of the second wave are calling to say ‘that stuff we worked for – you gotta keep working’. This show’s exhausted yet determined response: ‘we’re getting there! And we brought friends! And snacks!’

Hysterical runs at Little Andromeda until Saturday 14 May, and then continues touring around New Zealand.

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