That Infernal Nonsense
I've often wondered with plays like these whether your ticket should not get you into two or more performances, because a single performance is never enough to appreciate the richness of the offering. In any case, here is my attempt to make sense of what I saw in my single sampling of this eclectic piece.
Animal Vegetable Mineral was a series of disparate scenes - vignettes really - pulled together by an underlying thread about a man trying to find his identity, while coping with the grief of his sister's death.
In it I saw a multitude of absurd characters trying to discover their
voice - whether it was the shrill voice of a Chinese opera diva, or
the defiant voice of an Indonesian maid scrawling graffiti on the wall,
or the voice of a man standing up to idealised images of sister, mother,
I saw plenty of discordant images that were both playful and disturbing - nursery rhymes turning suddenly violent; Buddhist monks grooving to Buddha Bar beats; the perfect bride with Sailor Moon hair chewing on a chicken leg; a sweet Catholic nun in sneakers who should be healing grandma, but may instead be responsible for the lump on her skull; a man walking around with a cleaver on his head, prepared to risk his life in pursuit of God in a brinjal.
And I saw bits of text and images constantly being re-contextualised, the way one ponders a jigsaw piece from all angles to gain a better sense of its place within the larger whole. The line "I am going to climb a mountain, walk across the desert and swim in the ocean," appeared both as a declaration of resolve and a desperate plea. The reply, "When you reach the end of the world and find nothing, just come back," was both the bitter retort of a skeptical mother, and the consoling response of a dead sister.
The performance appears to come full circle in the end when we learn that the protagonist's sister died, not from being devoured by a tiger as we were told in the beginning, but from having jumped from the 16th floor. Perhaps this real-world event is the launch pad from which the protagonist leaps into an imaginary hyper-world of nonsensical characters to try to come to grips with his grief. Perhaps we are to understand the entire performance in the context of this event.
Or perhaps the scenes all stand on their own, and knowing the "truth" about the death of the protagonist's sister is unnecessary for us to glean meaning from them. What seems clear to me is that the underlying emotion of loss and separation has inspired a wandering of the mind, over mountains, deserts and oceans, in contemplation of what it means to let go of something you love. "You made me suffer," the actors whisper in unison in the end. It is the suffering that comes from separation that these performers have tapped into for creative expression.
The performers are all extraordinarily gifted, but some deserve special mention. Young Tseng's physical movements are crisper and more nimble than the rest in the ensemble. Richard Philip has a gruff, raw energy that helps to anchor the mood of the play. Jean Ng switches from one character to the next with the ease of a chameleon. And Noor Effendy Ibrahim's cat-about-to-pee pose should be a standard asana of yoga classes everywhere.
The set was kept simple, with mod music, outlandish costumes and colourful props to spice up the scenes. The use of chalk was especially interesting. In chalk the performers traced the journeys of the protagonist. A chalk drawing on the wall of an airplane morphed into a tiger with the shape-shifting agility of clouds. The ladder in a corner of the stage created interesting variations in height, and seemed to reinforce the recurring image of lizards running around the room and scurrying up the wall.
Several markers in the play seem to point towards the events of playwright and director Natalie Hennedige's own life. Hennedige is 30, like the protagonist. This is Hennedige's maiden play in a theatre company all her own so the production of it was surely an intensely personal journey for her.
And to be sure, it is a very commendable debut. There is always a kind of raw, adolescent appeal to Hennedige's work. My only fear is Hennedige may lapse into that self-indulgence all artists are prone to once they invest too much of themselves into their art. But if Hennedige can avoid this, then Cake Theatre is set to be a delicious new addition to the theatre scene here.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /