>[names changed to protect the innocent]: UNTITLED SHADOW RETINA II by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 19 jan 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: tns black box
>rating: see below

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


UNTITLED SHADOW RETINA II is yet another installment of The Necessary Stage's project entitled [names changed to protect the innocent]. This quarterly programme seeks to develop and explore aspects of experimental theatre while nurturing various forms of performance arts in their "work-in-progress" stage. As fragmented and distinct as the three performances were in the "play", the review can best seem objective only if they are considered 'in situ.'

>'Detached Retina II' (**)

Conceptualised and directed by Ray Lagenbach, an American artist who is popular for employing 'shock' tactics such as drinking his own blood (in 1999's instalment of [names changed]), 'Detached Retina II' is an exploration of sight and vision, reality and "areality", sense and sensibility. Bringing the audience back into Plato's cave through a dramatisation of BK VII, 514 of 'The Republic', the "performance" was an attempt to understand the perspective and view-point (point of view) of the prisoner in the cave and not that of the philosopher observer or image maker.

In 'The Republic', Plato uses the simile of the cave to illustrate the "areality" of our "real" existence. Plato believed that the structure of Reality and "Truth" was not obvious to everyone because we had been conditioned to see things in ways we had been made to see. We are then, like prisoners in a cave with hands, neck and feet fettered since childhood, able only to look forward at the wall of the cave. Within the cave itself, there is a burning flame and this flame casts shadows upon the wall facing the chained prisoners. Between the prisoners and the flame are image-makers whose creations cause shadows of different shapes to appear before the prisoners' fixed eyes.

With the dimming of lights, the Black Box is metaphorically metamorphosed into Plato's cave. The audience become prisoners fettered not by chains but by the need to comprehend a seemingly asinine dramatisation of an ancient allegory. Flashed before the "prisoners'" eyes is a projection of Diego Velazquez's painting 'Las Meninas'. The image-makers (which included Susie Lingham, Sharaad Kuttan and artistic co-director of The Substation, Lee Weng Choy) employ the services of members of the audience by moulding them into mannequin portrayals of the characters in 'Las Meninas'. All this occurs while Ray hangs inverted, reading passages from Plato. The periodic flashing of bright lights and the loud discordant sounds attempt to "shock" the viewer into a realisation of his own imprisoned condition.

While the concept of "making real" what essentially remains an allegorical discourse can be applauded, the 5-minute performance certainly excludes all but a highly educated audience - one which is equipped with the knowledge of Philosophy, Critical Theory and Literature. Even to one who is familiar with such discourses, the pre-prepared replies of the image-makers constantly dabbling in the rhetoric of Lacan, Foucault and Levinas (and even traces of Derrida), during the feedback session, baffles.

Perhaps the point of the performance is not in the attempt to make sense of it. As Ray purports, our retina receives visual images inverted but our cerebral cortex deliberately places them 'upright' - why? Is this upright image "the truth"'? Or are the inverted images our eyes receive the true reality (as Ray reads Plato upside-down)? The inverted projection of 'Las Meninas' at the end of the performance meta-dramatically suggests, perhaps, that we have climbed out of the cave and will now be able to see the Sun (which for Plato was the highest and brightest reality). Perhaps this explains the convoluted and reversed replies (read backwards) to sincere questions from the floor on what the performance was all about. The escaped prisoner must no longer see shadows as truth but challenge his view of "reality". Sense becomes senselessness and senselessness makes sense. Perhaps that is the challenge of 'Detached Retina II'. It seems, however, that the performance failed to convey its message, for the audience was still very much chained and fettered by the need to make sense of it all.

>>'It seems that the performance failed to convey its message, for the audience was still very much chained and fettered by the need to make sense of it all.'

>'A Shadow's Mask' (**)

Hardly a "play", 'A Shadow's Mask' is a dance routine that explores the identity and goodness of the self through the dialectical interplay of movement, light and colour codes. Choregraphed by Lee Yong Wen, this performance sees a collaboration with puppeteer Tan Beng Tian, whose recent contributions include Dance Dimension Project's 'The Little Prince'. The unique combination of music, movement and the use of masks together explore the movement of the soul and the self.

The dance can be seen, from a macro-perspective, as a statement against conformity in society. The falsified and most counterfeit smile pasted on the mask donned by Tan Beng Tian (who incidentally is the protagonist) is accompanied by the desires of the performer to please through placating, invitational gestures. The superficial change of costume becomes a cogent reminder of how we don masks in all occasions of our lives. The new and statementless mask that Tan dons exemplifies the post-modern wail of homogeneity in our post-industrial and post-capitalist society.

From a micro-perspective, the dance form explores the age-old dialectic of the presence of good versus evil in oneself. In a heightened moment of dramatic tension, accentuated by increasing traffic noise and wailing sirens of an ambulance through the speakers of the auditorium, Tan gestures vulgarities, breaking the tranquillity of the movement that preceded it. It is at this juncture that we see Lee, who had quietly stooped behind some green netting, rising and spinning in a whirligig of motion. Lee, clad in a shroud of black, spins incessantly, dramatising the struggle of the inner self that is yet locked within. The protagonist comes to learn about the darker side of the self and seeks to escape but is unable.

Perhaps resolution comes with the embrace of the knowledge of the potential of good and evil in oneself. Tan's final act of the removal of mask and Lee's shedding of the black shroud reveals the capacity for honesty and purity in humanity.

As performance, the dance lacked energy and lagged in several ways. The use of masks and the inner conflict of the self are familiar clichés that have oft been deliberated in the arts. What is redeeming about the dance is perhaps the familiarity of its issues which, when transformed into dance, gives it a unique form which words would not be able to accomplish.

>'untitled cow number one' (***1/2)

This performance is the third instalment in Jeff Chen's 'untitled number one' series. Moving along from exploring the consciousness of man ("untitled man number one") and woman ("untitled woman number one"), Jeff now attempts to direct the consciousness of a cow - scripted by Haresh Sharma.

While "untitled cow number one" meditates on bovine consciousness, it explores the issues of loss and pain, and to extend it further, the meaning of existence. Performed by Nora Samosir, the performance takes the audience through a ride of emotional states while entering the stream-of-consciousness of Cow.

The narrative is simple yet its delivery as performance is most engaging and enthralling. Cow has lost her husband and she spends days moaning and deliberating over her state of emotions while the carcass of her dead husband rots before her.

Nora, clad in bohemian 'garlands' and black leather boots, enters and engages the audience with a self-conscious display of acting while delivering a powerful monologue repeated thrice in different moods. The existential ideas are thus delivered via a series of repetitions and re-iterations of both verbal and gestural action. Nora packs and unpacks props from plastic bags, reminiscent of a street peddler. The repetitive routine by which she performs this task connotes a sense of futility and meaninglessness. The emotional state of Cow is thus dramatised beyond the emotions abounding in the verbal text. In the final reiteration of the narrative, Nora recites the narrative in a most impassioned tone bringing the audience into Cow's psychic pain and emotional loss. Adumbrated by repetition and reversion of action, the audience is brought into cow's cyclical stream of consciousness.

In recalling Derrida's notion of reiteration, all similarity is double-bound to difference. In every act of repetition lies the trace of difference. The performance thus exemplifies, if all too obviously, this quality of difference in similarity.

Beyond its exploration into consciousness, the performance can be seen as a meta-dramatic statement on performance and theatre itself. It self-consciously demonstrates the power of theatrical fiction by leading the audience on an emotional expedition using a similar script.