In Bullet Heart Club’s production of Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz, a burger is never just a burger. It’s April 2016 and our protagonist (Kikki Temple) has been struck on the steps of Flinders Street Station in a transphobic attack.
In this case the burger that hits them is literal – two buns, lettuce, tomato and mayo – as is their pain. Reality is stark: of the ‘one hundred’ people who witness the attack, none offer aid.
But, as Temple tells us, this burger is simultaneously metaphorical: ‘an archetype, an emoji’. In the 75 minutes that follow, they reconstruct the weapon of their assailer in a makeshift kitchen.
It’s a cooking tutorial that moves between the metaphorical and the real – from a metaphorical act of defiance, to the construction of a simple meat patty between two buns; from a representation of the realities of Alabanza’s experience as a trans, gender-nonconforming Filipino person, to a question of seasoning.
Thus begins a complicated dance; a blurring of the lines between reality and representation. Can a burger ever just be a burger? Can a representation of trauma ever touch the realities of that trauma? Is silence complicity?
Thanks to a star-making central performance and a well-oiled team of creatives behind it, Burgerz explores these questions in a singularly affecting theatrical experience seasoned with the bitter taste of all-too-real prejudices. For the third time this year, Theatre Works has another hit on their hands.
It is the first time since Burgerz premiered in 2018 that a performer other than Alabanza has stepped into the role and it’s a difficult act to follow. Alabanza’s text is confessional by nature, exploring the depths of their personal experience with nuance and heart-wrenching vulnerability.
Thankfully, Kikki Temple inhabits the role as if it were her own. With statement jumpsuits and bedazzled pastel crocs – Bethany J Fellow’s costume design is the perfect complement to Temple’s stage persona – they crash into Theatre Works in a golden Fiat with immediate self-assurance.
Their charisma is magnetic, wielded with a subtle wink or teasing hair flip. All adlibs – of which there are many – are wry and timed to such perfection you almost find yourself craving another technical mishap to allow Temple the chance to improvise again.
Minor revisions of the script allow Temple to add personal touches of her own. The show’s original London setting has been replaced with a Melbourne-centric context – A ‘mushroom burger’ might be better suited to St Kilda, Temple jokes at one point. Likewise, culturally-specific moments in the script seem developed in collaboration with Temple’s own experience as a Takatapui.
The artistic freedom afforded to Temple does mean the show can be at risk of losing momentum, stretching its expected 75-minute runtime to a 90-minute long haul unaided by the meandering quality that defines Alabanza’s debut (and that would be rectified in their 2020 follow up play, Overflow) and a surprisingly inconsistent soundscape from Rachel Lewindon.
But director Kitan Petkovski is wise to allow Temple time and space to navigate Alabanza’s text organically, and in ways that appeal to their strengths as a performer as much as their experience as a trans person of colour. One expects the performance will only grow tighter, and more discerning as the season goes on.
Ultimately, Temple’s naturalistic adlibs help to anchor the script in the realities faced by trans and gender non-conforming people everyday. If she asks us to choose between a ‘hot dog’ or a ‘burger’ it is a metaphor for the histories of categorisation and binary thinking which Temple’s character has been violently subjected to.
Choosing which spices to use becomes a commentary on the limitations of allyship; toppings a ‘liberal’ – pun intended – playground of choice that exposes the way systems restrict the autonomy of our most marginalised.
Is this choice of spice metaphorical or not? Any answer presumes a level of proximity to the experience recounted. If it is a metaphor, than one is afforded a modicum of distance from the experience it signifies.
In this, the show offers a particularly poignant representation of the insidious ways in which the lives of trans-people are so often relegated to the theoretical; as a metaphor for wider debates on gender that distances one from the realities of a very material, very real experience.
But on stage, Temple refuses to allow us any distance – her winks, asides and improvisations pull us into the performance from the outset.
In addition, an audience member – Temple intentionally seeks out one who is white and male – is asked to help them make their not-so-metaphorical burger. It is a bold choice, one that appeals once again to Temple’s improvisational skills.
Each night will be different depending on the audience member chosen, but on opening night, the audience participant fielded questions from Temple – ‘When did you last cry? What does it feel like being a man?’ – with an earnestness that once again grounded all metaphorical flourishes in reality.
It is expert metatheatre, denying us the means by which we might comfortably distance ourselves from the show’s content to instead draw us further into the reality of Alabanza’s experience. One hundred people watched the character’s assault and did nothing, Temple tells over one hundred audience members.
Far from causing the show’s titular greasy symbol to lose its potency, this audience involvement emphasises the silent complicity that allows bigotry to continue unopposed.
When a cliff-hanger concludes the show, the audience is left in the dark with as many questions about their own actions as about the content of the play itself, all the while launching to their feet in rapturous applause.
Theatre Works, 14 Acland St, St Kilda
Performance: Friday 10 February 2023
Season continues to 18 February 2023
Information and Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au
Image: Kikki Temple stars in Burgerz – photo by Daniel Rabin
Review: Guy Webster and Eva Rees-Wemyss