Circus Review: High Performance Packing Tape (Adelaide Festival)

Suspense and delight are always centre stage in this performance, demonstrating artistry that knows how to provoke its audience.

High Performance Packing Tape blends acrobatics and circus performance with everyday items: boxes, tape and rubber bands. The object’s limits are tested while stretching the perception of what performance can be. The performance seamlessly blends styling and audio elements that accentuates the risk and skill of the performer, Skye Gellman. Suspense and delight are always centre stage, demonstrating artistry that knows how to provoke its audience.

Circus shows are often fast paced and glamourous but High Performance Packing Tape takes a new direction. Each trick is set up in front of the audience, sometimes meaning that the set up lasts longer than the trick itself, slowing the show’s rhythm. Sometimes the set up seems endless, as Gellman sticks yet another round of tape up but it is essential. The sense of risk begins in seeing that the materials are truly everyday items and not safety rope hidden beneath reams of tape.  It also provides opportunity to create a rest from the tension as the Gellman also plays with the idea of the ridiculous – how strangely can they traverse chairs across the stage or elongate the process of putting on their bubble wrap suit? – Making the performance gripping but also funny.

‘The sense of risk begins in seeing that the materials are truly everyday items and not safety rope hidden beneath reams of tape.’

Each trick follows a similar structure and it never gets old because it plays off of suspense and imagination. As the set up occurs, there’s enough mystery to wonder what Gellman is doing and what will happen. As the trick unfurls, the suspense continues as there is enough time to imagine the catastrophe that could happen. Once the trick is finished, the suspense still doesn’t end, instead a new question is posed – how will Gellman get out of situation he has put himself in? The payoff for this process is the joy that blooms from seeing Gellman successfully right themself time and time again.

High Performance Packing Tape for Adelaide Festival 2021. Photo by Tony Lewis.

Gellman is not an expressive performer but they understand the value of timing. Gellman’s sense of timing further supports the show’s aim of creating space for imagination and expectation. Their neutral expression doesn’t become a weakness because it allows the focus to be on the trick and the risks rather than on how Gellman is feeling. It’s almost frightening how nonplussed they are about trusting a bit of cardboard with their life.

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The stage is stripped bare – no drapes and just a scattering of industrial objects. It’s a style that matches the materials utilised throughout the show. However, there is artistry in the materials and their positioning. Several boxes have up arrows on them and as Gellman stacks them up it works as a visually indicator that soon Gellman will be climbing them. The materials positions also force Gellman to perform in different areas on the stage, creating a sense of wonder as bit by bit all the items on stage are used. Lighting strengthens the styling choices by painting the back wall in Gellman’s sharp shadow, making a double image that emphasises the tricks’ strangeness and wonder.

‘Style choices create moments of joy and the sound design sustains the show’s connection to the various materials used.’

Sound is critical to this production and from the first step into the auditorium, it marks its presence through the sound of a balloon being filled. Microphones are attached to various materials: tape, chairs and other items. Every time, they are touched, the theatre is filled with the sound of the materials stretching, straining and popping. A device that adds to the anticipation built by the trick’s setup. The sound design doesn’t finish there. The microphones are recorded, skilfully mixed together and replayed between stunts. It links the action regularly back to the materials being experimented with but mostly, it adds an unexpected delight that adds shine to a well-polished show.

While High Performance Packing Tape is a slow-paced production, it masters suspense and sustains interest throughout. Through deeply exploring the materials in the show, the tricks are not the only interesting part. Style choices create moments of joy and the sound design sustains the show’s connection to the various materials used. Gellman is a clever performer who’s timing makes it impossible to escape the intense anticipation of each trick.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

High Performance Packaging Tape
Branch Nebula
Main Theatre, AC Arts, Adelaide, SA

4-14 March 2021
$59 / $25

Anita Sanders
About the Author
Anita Sanders is a writer based in South Australia. She has written for radio, print and stage including The City street magazine, Radio Adelaide and South Australian Youth Arts Company. She is a graduate of Flinders University’s Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) and Deakin University’s Graduate Certificate of Business (Arts & Cultural Management).
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