When Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka’s lover, Alma Mahler, left him, he responded in an incredibly creepy way: by commissioning a life-sized doll of her. This is one thread woven through Italian company Nina’s Drag Queens’s Alma, A Human Voice, making its English-language debut at Summerhall.
Writer and performer Lorenzo Piccolo walks on stage, pulling a pink suitcase behind him. He unpacks dresses, which he lays out like a crime scene. Over the course of an hour he uses drag, lip-syncing and exaggeration to unpack the ways in which female identity, particularly as ‘muse’, is shaped and controlled by men.
This is a show in which irony competes with aesthetics. Piccolo, clownish and playful at times, interweaves the story of Kokoschka’s Alma doll with a partial re-enactment of—and lip-syncing to—Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. (This one-act opera, echoed in this show’s title, takes the form of a phone monologue by a distraught female lover.)
Directo Alessio Calciolari leans heavily on the meta-theatrics of the stage to illustrate the often abusive relationship between the male gaze and women. It’s there in the performative glitches, the ways in which scenes don’t end and clothes are discarded. A dress is fetishized but blank drapery.
But all the poses, the knowing looks and the archly funny touches amount to something less than their parts. It’s beautifully put together and entertaining but hollow. Using drag to interrogate gender this way isn’t new, and there’s something ironic about how the real-life Alma is subsumed so completely. Ultimately, she’s just a peg for a concept here.