Star Wars is probably not the first thing you'd associate with a vaudevillian-style show, especially one dabbling simultaneously in such live genres as circus, cabaret and apache.
But Cantina is the name of the seedy bar in Star Wars: A New Hope, where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi first meet Han Solo and Chewbacca. And production company Strut & Fret's upcoming Spiegeltent show Cantina is more or less set in a bar, one creator Scott Maidment has said to have been vaguely inspired by George Lucas' version, particularly its "what the fuck" (quote unquote) quality, for the record. Furthermore, at least three of the show's six performers committed to some fairly Padawan-style training in order to bring Cantina to its full potential: "Over the last few years, a few of us have been training with a trainer who's based in Albury. His name is Cletus Ball," Cantina performer Chelsea McGuffin says, "He's in his 80s now, but he was quite well known in the late 40s for some of the acts that he did."
McGuffin credits Ball with introducing she and her co-performers - in and outside of Cantina, David Carberry and Daniel Catlow - both with the act "Toss the Girl", and apache - both main features of Cantina. "We've been given the honour of him passing some of those things on to us," she enthuses. From McGuffin's description of it, "Toss the Girl" is fairly in line with what its title suggests: an act that literally involves two or three men throwing a girl between them, as you would a ball. Apache, on the other hand, requires a little elaboration: "The French apache is really quite a brutal dance," McGuffin explains. "It's a fight between a man and a woman. It starts with the man being quite dominant over me, and then it switches over."
The resonance the style clearly still carries for contemporary audiences is something McGuffin and her co-performers are keen to explore in Cantina, "The scene is really quite confronting for audiences, until it turns and my power comes back," McGuffin says, referring to the awkwardly serious issues of domestic and sexual abuse. "Then the crowd turns and they're kind of like, 'Oh, OK, we can kind of watch this now'. It's interesting that it takes that [turn] to make it OK. And," she adds, "How come we can all enjoy slapstick? It is really aggressive. But just because it's played in a different tone, we can all find it funny to watch some really being beaten." McGuffin attributes the choice of music and the relationship the performer forges with his or her audience as the main manipulators of tone.
The awkward and the aggressive abound in Cantina. The show professes to explore the desirous, torturous nature of human relationships and heartbreak - as well as the fine line between those representations that make audiences comfortable and those that make them cringe. For McGuffin, circus - by virtue of its fallibility, and therefore its rawness - is the perfect medium in which to conduct such explorations. She relates a recent experience at a Cantina show for the current Adelaide Fringe Festival, in which she was unable to complete an act - walking across the tops of empty champagne bottles - due to the Spiegeltent's occasionally wobbly wooden floor: "On that night we happened to have some reviewers in," she says, "And so there was a lot of talk afterwards, you know: 'What does it mean?' and: 'In circus, why do we give them the extra chance to do that skill again when we don't allow an actor that extra chance to re-say the line?" or whatever. I think it's really interesting because if a scene doesn't work, the intensity builds and builds and builds until you can really feel the audience and you're feeling 'I want this to happen,' and 'I don't want this to happen,' and 'I'm getting more scared that it's not going to happen,'" she laughs. "While, all the time, the bottles are wobbling."
Effectively for McGuffin, the real chance that a trick might not work heightens her performance. "I think it brings an extra richness to the stage," she affirms, "The suspense can then create meaning within a scene, whether you want to use that as vulnerability or if you want to use it in a powerful way."
The complexity of the issues brought to the Spiegeltent stage, along with the fallibility its performers draw upon within themselves, makes Cantina the sort of production that questions the parameters of genre and performer. "We're looking at how to open our seams a little bit," is how McGuffin puts it.
It's through intimacy and introspection that the cast of Cantina intends to rend their stitching. Despite its provocative ideas and near-existential ambition, Cantina remains a small-scale production. With only six performers and a stage within spitting distance of the front row, audiences cannot help but be rudely confronted by passion in whatever form it happens to take at that second, whether it be violence or pleasure.
And what forms emerge. There's McGuffin balancing on her bottles and Finnish performer Henna Kaikula contorting her body in a bone-breaking, otherworldy waltz. There are corde lisse, tap dancing and magic acts. There is a tight-wire act involving stilettos above the audience's heads and a pianola tinkling away in the corner. There is the intermittent eruption of live music from the musically multi-talented Nara Demasson (of everyone's favourite Russian pirate band Vulgagrad) involving such instrumental odds and ends as ukeleles and saws. The freakery, the depravity and the darkness could spur further references to a certain saga set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... But perhaps it's more accurate to leave Cantina swaying on it's own separate, shadowy perch high above the crowd, waiting for the audience and hoping to reflect and open the deepest jealous, lusty, angry, obsessive and irreverent recesses of their collective human heart.
Cantina will be held at the Famous Spiegeltent from March 16-27. Tickets range from $35-$45 - book through The Arts Centre at theartscentre.com.au/spiegel, 1300 182 183 or the box office.