The Case of the Invisible Squirrel
Ramesh Meyyappan is an exceptionally gifted storyteller, and This Side Up was essentially an evening of consummately told stories: simple, broad shaggy-dog stories, certainly, but stories nonetheless. The stories reminded me of cartoons - short, comic vignettes starring a hapless but endearing hero who meets with an assortment of larger-than-life characters and gets by on his pluck and determination.
The cartoon analogy is particularly interesting because cartoons are primarily a visual medium (when Jerry whacks Tom with a mallet, Tom's pain is expressed by the growing red bump on his head, not by his howls of agony) and This Side Up was, as a one-man mime performance, almost entirely visual too. Both cartoons and TSU also rely for much of their humour on bizarrely non-Newtonian physics: tying rifles in knots, surviving being eaten by dogs, that sort of thing.
But the reasons cartoons succeed as a visual medium is that the animators can draw anything they want. You need an ice-skating scene in a frozen kitchen? You got it. You need dynamite that burns off the cat's fur but leaves its skin miraculously intact? Also can. The viewer sees these things happening directly before her eyes and so understands and accepts them totally. Ramesh Meyyappan, however, doesn't allow himself an animator's luxuries. He ties a gun in a knot but there is no gun. He gets eaten by a dog but there is no dog. And yet, just like with cartoons, when we see him portray these things, we understand them, accept them and laugh at them. I am impressed enough by mimes who make me believe in mundane things - that, for example, they are walking downstairs when they're actually on a level surface or that they're being attacked by an invisible assailant. But how much more impressed I am when a mime makes me believe in the impossible - that he is a concussed squirrel, for instance, dangling upside-down from his tail. And when the mime then spins a narrative out of a sequence of such impossible moments, I am, quite simply, gobsmacked. How come I can see the squirrel? How come I know it's upside-down? How come I know it's a red squirrel, not a grey one?
This last question is especially pertinent. There was nothing to suggest or imply that the squirrel was red. Meyyappan was not wearing red. Actually, he may have been - I can't remember his clothes, but I can remember in some detail the "costumes" of his characters. The female postal worker he portrayed was blonde with heavy make-up and wore the shirt of her pale blue mail uniform brazenly knotted below her bosom. The hunter had on a brown leather waistcoat with a padded green shirt underneath and wore his socks up to his knees like an old-fashioned Englishman. The dog was yellowish and scruffy with a bitten ear (the left one). That I have such specific memories of these invisible things shows how fully Meyyappan was able to bring his characters to life.
Yet he did so with surprising efficiency. The detailed impressions I retain of his characters would suggest he spent time introducing their every feature, drawing attention, perhaps, first to a hunch, then to a squint, then to a cigarette hanging from a lip; but he didn't do this - he just presented the characters in toto and trusted the audience to grasp their nature and fill in for themselves the details his portrayals lacked (the one exception to this was the female postal worker, whose substantial physical endowments he milked for comedy). In this way he was again like a gifted cartoonist, whose one-minute caricature portrait captures the unmistakable essence of the subject in a few strokes of the pen. It was this "precise approximation" - knowing exactly how much detail to give us and exactly how much to hold back - that gave his characters such vigour and gave the performance the pace it needed.
Meyyappan took the same approach with plot details. He didn't overstress them, which meant that if, for example, you happened to blink when the protagonist's slovenly co-worker flicked his cigarette butt into a pile of letters and set the post office ablaze, you basically had no idea why the characters were running around in panic and stamping their feet until they got out the hosepipe to fight the fire. Missing such details occasionally may have been irritating, but it was certainly preferable to the alternative of slowing down the performance to ensure that all in the audience caught every significant motion; and it also afforded a chance to observe Meyyappan's physicality devoid of its narrative context: to notice the technical precision of his movements and his complete control of his body. In these moments where I temporarily lost the plot, I was reminded of gymnastics competitions and judges with scorecards. Meyyappan would have scored tens.
But it wasn't all perfect. A couple of moments were nothing more than the tired old clichés you'd expect from the lowliest street mime. A brief example came when Meyyappan kicked his hat around the stage pretending he couldn't catch it, and a longer, more trying one was a scene where a window had been left open and the wind was blowing all his paperwork around. But thankfully such tepid scenes were in a small minority, and for the most part, even when scenes seemed to be succumbing to cliché, they went on to transcend it. One such scene began with Meyyappan trying to swat a buzzing fly that was keeping him from sleep. Although his physical performance was a joy to watch here, especially the way his eyes glazed over a for a second each time he nodded off, the scene's concept was very much that of an early Mr Bean sketch: so far, so bland. But then, having repeatedly failed to swat the fly, Meyyappan made a little bed for it, sang it a lullaby, and finally, when he had gained its trust, gleefully crushed it between his fingers.
This was not the only scene to begin predictably and end up in much more surreal, fertile territory. Later in the performance, Meyyappan's protagonist is engaged in a stand-off with a hunter. The hunter starts by threatening the protagonist with a gun, then the protagonist steals it off him, and the scene goes rather boringly according to expectation for a while. But then the protagonist realises that, while he has been busy holding the cowering hunter at gunpoint, the hunter's dog has chewed off and swallowed his leg. The protagonist sees no other option but to climb inside the dog's mouth, retrieve his leg, sew it back on - and then exit the dog through the back passage.
I consider it an achievement that Meyyappan was able to transmit such an outlandish story at all considering he acted alone, without props and without words. That he was able to leave the audience in absolutely no doubt as to what was happening onstage astonishes me. But Meyyappan did much more than merely transmit this narrative - he animated it with his exuberance, controlled it with his perfect timing, and made it impossibly funny.
However, there were a couple of times when he was overexuberant. Meyyappan's stage persona was often cheeky, like a toddler who knows he's being naughty but also knows he's so cute you'll love him for it anyway. This persona worked to great effect when he was killing the fly, or bludgeoning the squirrel to death, but it wasn't quite effective enough to excuse his spitting at the audience. Maybe I'm a provincial hick, but I was brought up to believe that spitting at someone is the greatest disrespect you can show them. Where I grew up it is the surest way to start a fight. So when Meyyappan spat a cherry stone at me, I was not very pleased. Clearly, as a performer, he wanted to explore the boundaries between "cheeky" and "offensive"; and this is indeed interesting territory - but it is also territory that requires a warning be given to an audience before the show. I believe I have a right to avoid being spat at.
I also have a right to avoid damage to life, limb and electronic equipment. At another point into the show, Meyyappan barreled into the audience, jumping clear over the first row and landing on or around the people in the second row (he was chasing the squirrel). For one thing, he could have hurt them. For another, there is absolutely no way he could have seen where his feet were going to land before he jumped. I keep a Sony PSP in my backpack at all times, and when I go to the theatre, I put my bag on the floor in front of my seat. I generally prefer that neither the bag nor the PSP be trampled on. Considering the number of people who carry around expensive cell phones or cameras these days, Meyyappan's actions were extremely stupid. This is the kind of thing that, in America, invites litigation.
It's a shame that Meyyappan chose to add these irresponsible elements, without warning, to a show that so clearly demonstrates his talents: his physical mastery, his impeccable timing and his offbeat creativity. I hope next time he will either warn his audience or not include the elements at all. Otherwise, I regret that his next show, wonderful as it may be, will be my last.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /