Games of Cat and Mouth
Theatre is a game of space. Every actor, director and stage manager knows this, but not all writers do. Witness the case of How Did the Cat Get So Fat?, a work by new playwright Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid. The script wowed critics when it premiered last year in the triplebill Mentah 3: Barisan Puteri Puteri, earning Zizi a nomination for best playwright in the Life! Theatre Awards. But without good use of dramatic space in its current incarnation, the production falls flat.
Zizi's script is compelling for several reasons. It's imaginative, telling the story of the nine-year-old girl Fatimah on a whimsical, mystical journey aboard a coin-operated lion nicknamed Mr Minismen. It's political, being a commentary on a Singapore plagued by social inequalities it refuses to acknowledge, and a materialism that threatens to consume our cultural identity as we know it.
But most of all, it's fascinating as a game of voices. Whenever Mr Minismen transports Fatimah to a new scene, she meets a new character, usually a member of the unacknowledged underclasses of Singapore, often based on actual people in the playwright's life - an abused Indonesian maid, a tudong saleswoman whose husband is arrested by the ISD, an old Chinese erhu-player who cleans toilets at the Esplanade. Zizi captures the frustration of a repressed country in the voices of her characters, telling their stories with a combination of charm, wisdom and resignation - I'll especially remember the sardonic grumble of the Malay taxi driver, lamenting how his academically overachieving daughter has dropped out of engineering school to become a mere hawker.
Zizi's arranged her scenes to correspond with themes in the Singapore pledge, including religion, race and progress. As a director, she's illustrated her protagonist's voyage by means of a hopscotch grid - actress Siti Khalijah Zainal actually draws this path on the floor during the show's prologue, with a diagram of the squares and their corresponding themes displayed on an overhead projection. Over the course of the play, she moves from square to square as a person might move between rooms, opening doors to discover new worlds.
According to fellow reviewer Kenneth, this hopscotch device worked pretty well in the play's previous run - the Guinness Theatre was small enough that Siti was able to maintain at all times a sense of intimacy with her audience. The Esplanade Recital Studio, by contrast, combines the sparseness of a black box with an expanse and audience capacity comparable to any proscenium theatre. Confined to one hopscotch square at a time, Siti became an awkwardly static figure, her subtle actions lost in the breadth of the stage.
Siti's a gifted monologue actress, as is already evident to anyone who's watched her one-woman performance of Rosnah last year, where she ran the oral gamut from simulating an elderly grandmother's voice to mimicking the expansive tones of an English boyfriend. But without the freedom to physically explore the stage, her acting's handicapped, sapped of dynamism - at brief junctures, her accents become inconsistent, and the voices she portrays appear indistinct from one another. (Feel free to contrast my opinions, though, with those of reviewer-editor Matthew Lyon, who watched the play the following night and found her acting "absolutely brilliant".)
Imprisoned by these boundaries, How Did the Cat Get So Fat? emerges as a piquant but occasionally sluggish show, not quite the stuff of drama that fires men's imaginations. Generally, it's difficult for writers to direct their own work well - a second or even third party is gifted with more objectivity and may deliver new interpretations into a script that injects fresh vitality into a production. The directorial shortcomings of this play may, of course, have been a mere accident of logistics - Teater Ekamatra may have simply overlooked, in their hurry, the need to adapt a previously successful work to a new space.
Regardless of my feelings about this play's direction, however, I'm terribly pleased that it's been the occasion for Zizi's nomination for Best Playwright in the Life! Theatre Awards. Hers is not a perfect script, of course - it deserves tightening in spots, verges on maudlin at times, and is exclusively composed of monologues and one-sided dialogues, a structure common to many first-time playwrights.
But How Did the Cat Get So Fat? reveals a growing creative voice that transcends its material, outstripping the play's apparent classification as a realist documentary of the oppressed in Singapore. I'll remember several of her surreal, allegorical sequences - the sociologist, for example, struggling to balance the four pans of her weighing scale, frustrated by the shifting contents but refusing to consider the suggestion that "maybe the scale isn't equal". Likewise, I'm dazzled by the vision of the penultimate square, a casino theme park celebrating Mr Minismen and guarded by Stan the Stegosaurus, a "modern Malay" working as an animal mascot actor, seducing Fatimah into playing the slot machines for the first time.
The strength of Zizi's imagination does at times hurt the structure of her play - Fatimah's intriguing dialogue with herself, spoken entirely in the "F"-language, begins to drag after a few minutes, and her surrealist video inserts of conversations between a giant disembodied eye and ear ultimately comes off as pretentious. I'd say, however, that these are good indicators for the development of a promising writer, who needs the encouragement not just to create, but also to make mistakes in her future theatrical experiments.
As for How Did the Cat Get So Fat?, I'd say it deserves better direction - immediately. Readers of Inkpot who do student and amateur productions should contact Teater Ekamatra to request performing rights, and stage it anew - not just as a monologue but also as an ensemble production; not just in minimalist style but with life-size papier-mâché Mr Minismen; not just in Malay but in all languages; not just in its current linear structure but radically fragmented, adapted according to the tastes of your theatre group.
This is an odyssey of a play, with a narrative of pilgrimage comparable to Alfian Sa'at's Asian Boys Volume I and Kuo Pao Kun's The Day I Met the Prince. It's a game of voices that's thick with potential, capable of being interpreted in so many ways other than what the playwright has envisioned. Take it forth into other spaces. Play another game.
New playwright Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid shines in her heartfelt portraits of members of the Singapore underclasses - the Malay taxi driver rejected by the white-collar world, the tudong saleswoman, the Chinese janitor - all acted competently by Siti Khalijah Zainal in this one-woman show. Seen through the eyes of Fatimah, a nine-year-old girl on a whimsical journey aboard a coin-operated lion, this poignant series of vignettes describes a Singapore plagued by social inequalities it refuses to acknowledge, and a materialism that threatens to consume our cultural identity as we know it. However, the director's structuring of the piece prevents Siti from fully exploring the broad space of the Recital Studio for its dramatic potential, yielding an awkwardly static, minimalist piece - one may also cast aspersions on the pretentious surrealist video inserts, featuring dialogue between a giant disembodied eye and ear.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /