Most life on earth has been destroyed by a nuclear blast. All that’s left is the Grand Prize Winner, MoonMist and the Listener. After Nick Potter’s clever opening reel of animation and stock footage conveying humanity’s last desperate scramble for immortality, we meet Pearle Harbour (Justin Miller’s retro-contemporary, drag-clown persona) in her lonely bunker. This is the whimsically bleak set-up for Distant Early Warning, presented by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Fabulously decked out for the apocalypse in a studded denim jumpsuit, Pearle takes us through the Listener’s absurd routine. She frantically flips switches, primes pumps and maintains the satellite dish that is the last tether to the Grand Prize Winner in his capsule, orbiting the desolate earth. She imagines he’s her boyfriend, inventing their love through broken, crackling transmissions.
It is an absolute joy to inhabit a space with Pearle Harbour, regardless of context. Like a classic torch song, there is a sad elegance that defines her aesthetic. The crass sexuality and jokey anecdotes are imbued with a persistent, haunting sense of loss and an awful, existential dread.
Miller and director J.W. (John) Turner strike a deeply cathartic balance between the silly and sombre here. They conjure some ghastly scenarios. The playful artifice, though, makes it all so heady and hilarious despite the grim reality that looms throughout. I’m still gleefully horrified by the image of Pearle plucking glass shards from her flesh as if merely flossing her gums.
Jackie Chau’s set evokes a 50s-era concept of futuristic survival. Tucked away in this desert world of sandstorms and abandoned steel drums, we sense that Pearle’s bunker—a cartoonish collection of knobs, dials, and warning lights—is a very real home. Surrounding this, Julia Howman’s projections blend the grit of earth with the psychedelic patterns of Pearle’s mind.
And how reliable is that mind? As Pearle revisits the same aspects of her story, the details shift and warp. Malnutrition, isolation and bodily injury have taken a toll on our girl. Her giddy, make-do attitude gradually gives way to desperate flailing. Ever the stalwart chanteuse, she comforts herself and us with old war-time songs—à la Doris Day and Vera Lynn.
Miller and team have crafted a grotesquely resonant world. The dystopian concept shares DNA with a lot of sci-fi properties, including Pixar’s WALL-E. Though it isn’t a full-on critique of capitalism, the ever-present ads for the MoonMist series of products (reminiscent of WALL-E’s Buy N Large company) captures the perniciously false promise of a better life that thinly veils corporate greed.
I loved Distant Early Warning in all its goofy, poignant, eerie splendour.