Performance review: BURGERZ, Theatre Works

BURGERZ is a provocative and visceral exploration of an act of trans violence – as cooking show.

Having something thrown at you – words, objects, even an unwelcome expression – can be an act of violence. In the case of Maori trans actress, drag artist, playwright and advocate Kikki Temple, the object was a burger. 

So begins a one-person part-cooking show, part stand-up, part-manifesto performance-as-catharsis, that asks us to consider our role in perpetuating trans violence, when (in a paraphrase of the popular phrase commonly misattributed to Edmund Burke) all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

BURGERZ was written by British trans performer and writer Travis Alabanza about a personal experience of having a burger thrown at them over Waterloo Bridge. For this Theatre Works performance of BURGERZ, directed by Melbourne-based director, dramaturg and producer Kitan Petkovski (who recently directed the excellent The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven), the story is relocated to Melbourne and Flinders Street Station, and presented as an experience Kikki Temple had herself – because for this story to hit home, it needs to get personal.

Perfectly cast, Temple performs the role with a winning mix of gentle vulnerability and sassy charm. She capably navigates the emotional highs and lows – the anger and frustration of her experience of violence, as well as the energetic random dance breaks in the show and the talk show-type banter. But, for all the heavy subject material, this show has a big heart and a lot of humour. 

Temple’s experience of the violent act (the burger being thrown) leads her to become obsessed with the idea of a burger, in what becomes a stand-in for the idea of gender. The metaphor is stretched further along in the show to include the idea of the box that the burger comes in – a stand-in for the body we are born into. Temple rails at the idea that her burger can only be created once the box is chosen – after all what does the box, the outside trappings, have to do with what is inside? 

Soon we find that what we’ve come to is, at least in part, a cooking show, as Temple wants to make a burger – her choice of burger is the classic, emoji burger, a beef burger – as an act of reclamation of the violent act she experienced. It’s pretty wild, to be honest – and the whole process of making the burger in front of us (grinding the meat, adding the spice, actually cooking it in the kitchen that is rolled out during the performance by the stage manager) leads to a heap of laughs and unplanned-for moments, thanks to Temple’s sassy and quick sense of humour.

A key part of the performance is the audience participation. Early on, Temple asks someone in the audience to volunteer to help to make the burger – and it’s clear she is looking for a particular sort of help. She mentions she want a man; she rejects a person of colour in the audience (explaining she doesn’t want someone of colour) – and finally decides (in the performance I saw) on a white, masculine-presenting person in the front row.

Temple’s questions to this impromptu assistant – ‘when was the last time you cried?’ and ‘what’s it like being a man?’ – elicited, it seemed, answers that were not expected: ‘two days ago’ and ‘I wouldn’t know’. What (I’m guessing) was intended as an interaction providing stark contrast between the lived experiences of the audience volunteer and the performer became one of relative kinship – a beautiful moment in itself, but one that seemed to leave Temple a little unsure of how to handle the ensuing, and maybe unexpected, banter. 

To be clear, this is not an easy show to execute flawlessly. The heavy reliance on props and handling of the actual cooking of a burger – as well as the banter with the audience helper – made it incredibly difficult for Temple to manage the energy of the performance. Numerous times throughout the show, it fell into flat silence or was derailed en route to a more serious monologue section, or an intimate confession. 

The frequent transitions from talk show chat through to the more dramatic monologues were assisted by the excellent moody and atmospheric music and upbeat dance tracks (sound design by Rachel Lewindon), varied and complementary lighting states (Katie Sfetkidis) and fabulous set (Bethany J Fellows). Shout out also to Fellows for costume – the Crocs and boiler suit combo Temple wore for her entrance was just primo – as was their transition to their more psychedelic outfit later on. 

Temple’s highly dramatic entrance (I won’t give it away, it’s too good) may have set the tone of the show – as the shock the audience experienced broke through those don’t-talk-in-the-theatre conventions, and people immediately felt at ease talking back to Temple, making it much harder to keep the show on track. 

If you like your theatre a bit seat-of-the-pants, this show definitely provides that, and the experience night-to-night is bound to be completely different, depending on the particular audience’s participation. Rethinking the involvement and role of the audience stand-in to allow for a broader range of outcomes – or reducing their involvement altogether – may have assisted the flow and energy of the show, creating an overall tighter performance.

Read: Performance review: Darkness, The Library Newtown

I do hope this show has the opportunity to reach a wide audience. It really deserves to be seen by every young person in this country, including, almost especially, that potential future burger-thrower. As a ritualised reclamation of a violent act as a piece of theatre, BURGERZ provides ample sustenance, with a bit of cheese, a spicy kick and more than a dash of awesomesauce.

BURGERZ by Travis Alabanza
Presented by Bullet Heart Club and Theatre Works as part of Midsumma Festival
Director: Kitan Petkovski
Performer: Kikki Temple
Set and costumes: Bethany J Fellows
Lighting design: Katie Sfetkidis
Sound design: Rachel Lewindon
Co-producer: Ro Bright
Stage Management: Koh Yi Wei
Tickets: from $22

BURGERZ will be performed until 18 February 2023.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen