Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Banquet Room
Until 20 Jun 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

Created by Natalie Gamsu and Craig Harwood, “Carmen – Live or Dead” is an intimate portrait of a fascinating human being who—though fictional—transcends the format of a cabaret show to create a challenging and truly unique piece of theatre. Carmen Frida Leon Davidovich is the imagined love child of Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo, using these two figures as the thematic foundation for this character. Carmen is played by Gamsu, but it’s a performance that feels more lived than performed, as the audience is guided through Carmen’s life from birth to death.

Gamsu is supported by Andrew Kroenart and Stefanie Jones, who provide musical accompanying and take on various other roles throughout the story; Kroenart is also the musical director and arranger. The three performers have a palpable chemistry, and the dynamics between them, both musically and in character, twist and shift to explore notions of human connection, family, and gender. Weaving seamlessly from song to scene to monologue, the show celebrates and exposes an intersex character who spends their lives looking for a place they can belong. It is funny, provocative, and quietly moving; the final moments pack a real emotional punch. The show tackles the realities of being intersex head on, but in a way that never feels challenging or aggressive. It is confronting in the best ways, using humour and humanity to weave Carmen’s story.

The design of the show is outstanding; the simple yet beautiful set (designed by Dan Barber) is used to perfection, feeling at once inviting and otherworldly. The original music by iOTA is raw, authentic, and passionate, allowing Gamsu to embrace both the feminine and masculine aspects of the character.

At just over an hour, the show feels too short; I wanted to spend more time with Carmen, and some of the timeline felt rushed, meaning not all of the emotional beats hit as hard as they could. The complexities of gender and sexuality are not always treated with nuance either, with Carmen’s gender identity occasionally feeling like more of a metaphor than a lived condition. While Gamsu’s voice is powerful, and she is committed to every number, it is not always suited to the more gentle and sensitive musical beats in iOTA’s score. Despite all this, the show is evocative and entertaining, and Gamsu’s embodiment of the role is a thrill to watch.