Ayun Halliday

at the Neo-Futurarium, February 5-20

Halfway through her one-woman show Ayun Halliday reads aloud from a travel writer’s precious account of encountering a poisonous snake in Thailand. After dryly citing the passage she tosses the book aside and shouts, “This is nothing new!” She opens the Lonely Planet guide to read from a description of a seaside village or an “untouched” outback community, then reminds us that should we visit the place described we might encounter choking pollution, overeager tour operators tugging at our sleeves, and a hundred wide-eyed travelers who look suspiciously like ourselves, many clutching the same guidebook to their chests. Travel changes, she implies; but more important, travel has the capacity to change us.

To prepare for Farang (“foreigner” in Thai), Halliday decided to reread her journal of the five months she spent in Southeast Asia in 1990. She stopped after 20 pages. Here, as she notes in the program, were “the minutiae: every bunch of bananas, every “hello mister’ shouting child, every stingray caught and barbecued by our Australian neighbors gets its moment in the sun. But the large things, the massive things, had slipped right through my fingers. My journal read like a dead leaf that was bright red when it was pressed into the dictionary, I swear.” With this show she clearly means to set the record straight.

For starters, Halliday is determined to undercut the typical travel account. Indeed, we know from her program note not to expect enthusiastic vignettes of tropical life but something quite different. She strips the romantic sheen off the idea of travel, exposing the downside: the dozen kinds of diarrhea, the garbage-strewn countryside, the coral that scratches red ribbons in your back while you make love in the waves off some Bali Hai-like island paradise.

The monuments don’t change, and the spectacular sunsets repeat themselves every evening–what does change is how we experience them. For Halliday, every sight seems tinged with the pain of her deteriorating relationship with Drew, then her boyfriend and traveling companion. In her confessions of how she and Drew fought most of the time, how they betrayed each other, and how, a few weeks after their return, the relationship sputtered out, the show takes on a cathartic quality.

The way Halliday performs Farang mimics the wish to come clean. In her more than three years performing with the Neo-Futurists, Halliday has learned to work with minimal props. In this show she reads from guide and travel books and illustrates her monologue with slides taken during the trip. In contrast to her direct, low-key delivery, Halliday’s writing meanders. She pursues what seem to be unrehearsed tangents but then circles back–and you realize that she does have an agenda.

Halliday’s engaging monologue covers a lot of territory. It veers in several directions, from tales of hot and dusty bus rides to ridiculing the “I was there” impulse to photograph every moment to hilarious descriptions of her fellow wanderers. Especially hard-hit are the lanky, bespectacled travelers who, taking the Lonely Planet guide as their bible, try too hard to suck meaning out of every scene of village life, every rice paddy, every Buddhist monument.

Farang embraces travel as a strictly personal journey, one that creates an uneasy link between exploring the world around you and exploring yourself and other people. There’s a universal stress in travel, which is even greater when you’re traveling with another person. Remember the family car trip out west? The friendship that broke up over backseat driving? The honeymoon that ended the marriage? Halliday remembers, and she is honest, almost painfully so, in her telling.

At first I winced when I realized she’d be weaving a story not only of travel but of love. I wanted to hear a traveler’s tale about Southeast Asia, not an actor’s confessional account of a love affair. But Halliday intimates that the two pursuits aren’t so different. Whether it’s a sudden falling-out among newfound friends at a bucolic Thai guest house, a lovers’ showdown deciding between Bali and a breakup, or the cheeky influence of the potent Tiger Power drink, she makes it clear that travel, like love, balances euphoria with hazard. Farang’s paradise has an edge, and our guide Halliday never lets us lose sight of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Allen.