Tom Huddleston, writing in Timeout Magazine, described Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks as ‘cinema’s boldest statement on the dichotomy between outer appearance and inner life’. Indeed, the film’s ‘freaks’, circus performers with various physical deformities, are mostly sweet and good-natured, while its nasty, deceitful antagonists are conventionally attractive and able-bodied, underlining the old adage; ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. If anyone embodies this dichotomy in the current Australian arts scene, it’s the vivacious physical theatre performer and arts disability advocate Sarah Houbolt.
Houbolt is presenting at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival her one-woman show KooKoo the Bird Girl, a poignant and entertaining tribute to Minnie Woolsey, who gave a brief but memorable performance as KooKoo in Freaks. KooKoo the Bird Girl recounts Woolsey’s life from her early days as a medical curiosity, to her stint as a well-known circus sideshow entertainer, intercutting between anecdotes of Houbolt’s own life as an artist born with the rare Hallermann-Streiff syndrome.
Sarah Houbolt in KooKoo the Bird Girl (photograph by Sarah Louise Cheesmur)
Houbolt has a charming stage presence as both ringleader and performer, ushering the audience into the theatre from the lobby with an engaging introduction, and guiding them throughout Woolsey’s (and her own) journey for the ensuing hour. She enlists a number of props in her retelling, including a thick feather down vest similar to the one worn by Woolsey; a pair of leather shoes with duck-webbed toes; and even a bed of nails, employed to excruciating effect later in the show. Notable moments in Freaks such as the absurdly terrifying ‘one of us’ scene (famously parodied in South Park) are projected on the wall behind Houbolt to physically place her in those situations so that the cruelty of the able-bodied antagonists can be effectively conveyed through her shadow interactions with the film’s characters and their dialogue.
Minnie Woolsey as Koo Koo the Bird Girl (Wikimedia Commons)
A minor gripe is that Woolsey’s later life isn’t explored in much detail, but this may simply be because information on her life post-Freaks is so scant. A more fictionalised narrative piece may have told Woolsey’s story in a more satisfying and cohesive way. But this may have detracted from the intended effect of echoing the show’s subject through its equally fascinating creator, Sarah Houbolt. Nevertheless KooKoo the Bird Girl provides valuable insight into the treatment of disabled people in the arts, in an engaging way.
KooKoo the Bird Girl, presented by Darebin Arts, is being performed as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival at Northcote Town Hall from 27–29 September, 2018. Performance attended: 21 September.