Melbourne actor and writer Isabella Perversi tells the audience – a small group huddled in Ruby’s, an intimate venue at Holden Street Theatres’ Arts Park – that she can’t not write a melancholic play. But, she’s going to try.

A step away from her previous work (Canary, What Rhymes with Orange? and Ember), Cry Baby is an “experiment” in writing something that’s not sad and not autobiographical, Perversi declares. In this way, she playfully anticipates her own failure: this is a show precisely about sadness in her own life.

Standing between a lamp and a stack of chairs, Perversi begins the performance by hitting play on Solomon Burke’s 1962 soul hit “Cry to Me”. Her melodramatic choreography to the nostalgic, upbeat tune introduces the conflicting emotional registers within Cry Baby.

Perversi is a charismatic performer. She shines in the moments of theatrical physicality. As a toxically-positive exercise instructor, she pelvic-floor-tucks and squat-jumps her way around the room, shouting out manic mantras about women being able to “have it all”: the job, the kids, the long life, and the cellulite-free thighs. Other highlights include her impersonation of an overly botoxed face and her jazz-inspired vocal performance on a song that muses on various life events and gloomily asks, “Is that all there is?”.

Between the ecstatic movement and delightful irony, we catch glimpses of genuine vulnerability. At times, the transitions between the comedic and the realistic modes are clunky. However, the joy and tenderness elicited from Perversi’s charming performance makes this easy to overlook.

Cry Baby’s energy is drawn from its metatheatrical commentary: the show is about Perversi struggling to write it. Although she anticipates potential critiques regarding a lack of “character”, “narrative” and “structure”, her disclaimers don’t necessarily resolve the absence of these elements. The over-emphasis on the reflections about writing the show beg the question: What or where exactly is the show?

Perhaps this is the very point. Cry Baby offers an important commentary on how darn hard it is to create art. Even as she is determined to avoid vulnerability, Perversi reminds us of our shared need for it. The performance will be enjoyed by fellow performers, writers and, well, anyone who needs to be reminded how good it is to cry.

Cry Baby is playing at Holden Street Theatres until March 17.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe coverage here on InReview.

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