Picture by The Substation and Little Red Shop
Date: 14 July 2007
Time: 3 pm and 8 pm
Venue: The Substation Theatre
by Ferlin Jayatissa
25 July 2007
chiaroscuro : The arrangement of light and dark elements in a pictorial work of art. (American Heritage Dictionary) and it is in essence true of this project. I was one of the pioneering artistes involved in this experiment. It began in 2005 with Three Men with Three Women which had Sonny Lim, Richard Chua and I facilitating three very enthusiastic and trusting actresses who were directed by each of us to present three of Verena Tay’s short one-act plays about the trappings of three women. The project then evolved into Chiaroscuro: The Monologue Sessions with the three of us in pari delicto facilitating six new, even more trusting artistes in writing, directing and performing their first monologues. This year, The Substation and the Little Red Shop produces Project Chiaroscuro: A Journey from the Page to the Stage which challenges four artistes even more by allotting a book to each performer to draw inspiration for their dramatic monologues. A daunting task, given the selection of the books.
I watched all four offerings on Saturday, 14 July which played to very appreciative audiences. The afternoon matinee opened with Sol Iglesias taking on the angst-ridden poetry and prose of Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” in a titular piece From The Book of Disquiet. “Nothing the space between me and me” Iglesias mutters as the piece opens with her at her desk, struggling between bad poetry and bad food. While much of the text was inspired by Pessoa’s vitriolic desire to prove his artistry by alienation from sex and society, I saw little of this in Iglesias’ character of ‘the writer’. While I fully appreciate that all the pieces are works in progress, Iglesias’ unmotivated shifts in emotion and slicing tangents to her diatribes left her on stage pretty much on her own after about 12 minutes into the piece. While she attempted to release a torrent of Pessoa’s angst in some dramatic form, her youth betrayed her and she lacked the gravitas to make that angst believable in her character. I found myself not relating to her character and its long discourses on art, loneliness and existential angst. The depth of the character itself was sorely lacking and this did not aid Iglesias in her endeavour. We know little of the character or even the remotest reason why she is running these polemics at us. The absence of plot, characterization and with little support from light and sound, Iglesias struggled with her character. In the feedback session at the end, Iglesias showed much passion in her dissection of the book and psychoanalysis of Pessoa – passion and discernment which may have made her monologue more believable earlier.
Mayura Baweja’s 8 Days was a delectable little piece abundantly peppered heavily with snippets of entertaining yet sardonic humour. Ironic, given that the dramaturgical foundation for the piece was the devastating pain of the partitioning of India. Baweja chose to follow the journey of one family as they travelled on a train over 450 km in eight days. Baweja did an excellent and crafted job of playing Biji, the grandmother and Vira, her granddaughter in their cut-jump episodes on the train. From vivid storytelling to claustrophobic hysteria, Baweja gave a measured performance, showing a comfortable control over her characters – not allowing them to degenerate into Goodness Gracious Me! caricatures. What was novel but effective was her use of sock puppets to play the satirical discourse between the British and the Gods of India, each assigning and then accepting blames for the millions dead due to the Great Separation. It is to her credit that after a while I stopped looking at her and was compelled by the puppets themselves. Snapshots of a massive tragedy which could have become yet another anti-war sketch was given a managed dose of energetic storytelling and character work, leaving us hoping the family really survived after they got off the train. Soft lighting and effective ambient sound also made us travel with the family. Baweja was inspired by a war story in the Soseki Natsume’s “Ten Nights of Dream, Hearing things, The Heredity of Taste” and the war tales of her military father.
Later that evening, the night performance opened with a clever and sexy depiction of Aldous Huxley’s flirtations with hallucinogenic drug, mescalin. Libby Gott was delight to watch a she took us on a trip through her slowly spiraling consciousness. Alice in Wonderland was far less interesting compared to Gott. Huxley’s The Doors of Perception provided Gott with the opportunity to play and that she did, to our pleasure. Gott carefully paced the piece as she began with monitoring and jotting down every single observation she made as ‘it’ started kicking in, then she crescendoed the frantic effects of the drug. This piece was a complete theatrical experience despite the dearth of spoken text. Gott slowly unraveled her world with the help of a deft lighting design and a foot-tapping sound track. The set kept us wondering what ordinary household could drive Gott mad now. Her choice of using Shirley Temple singing “Get on Board” as her perceived ‘nemesis’ clearly indicated Gott’s playful nature which infused this piece. Equally memorable was Gott getting lost in orchestrating a deck of playing cards to Cab Calloway – the Amercian Jazz master of scat singing. The silhouette as Gott danced against a tunnel of light clearly augmented the seditious take over of the mescalin. What was undeniable was that Gott was very present in her environment at every moment. First she controlled her environment, then her environment controlled her. She was not playing for an audience….she was playing in her world and only she was present, even when she was flirting with the Jack of Spades – just him and her. As the drug high plunges, we saw a fatigued Gott curl into a tight foetus in a far corner of space as you could see the drug dissipate from her as her muscles quivered and released their toxin slowly. The last line in the piece was sharp – “You should try!”. If Gott’s depiction is anything to go by, I would like to try some of that mescalin.
Sharda Harrison then took the space with the arduous task of dramatizing Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Diary of a Mad Old Man”. There were several large bridges to traverse in this one because 20 year old Harrison had to be inspired by the story of a 77 year old impotent man who revives his sex life though an illicit but symbiotic affair with his daughter-in-law. Harrison made a critical choice of sifting out the plot and straining out the gist of the story – lust, desire, dying. Based on the premise that motion brings emotion, Harrison chose movement as the primarily vocabulary for this piece. To a stirring soundtrack of new age music (and the occasional pop throw-in), Harrison led us through an evocative journey of emotions that lust, desire and the fear of dying trap us with. Her ‘character’ then journeys through its own liberation from these trappings. Given the glaring absence of helpful text and through-line, I was left wondering whether this was more an evocative dance representation than a dramatic monologue. In the feedback, the process of work described by Harrison had much of its foundation in the dance process. The piece would have worked better if pivotal points had been anchored in firm dramatic content rather than a seamless transition from one piece of choreography to another. I wonder if the piece would have had a sharper edge if there was no soundtrack at all and Harrison was forced to move to a rhythm in her head, borne of an emotion. At the core of it though, though her interpretive movement, Harrison had explored chiaroscuro – the arrangement of light and dark elements in her work of art. Kudos to all performers and their facilitators for their daring explorations.
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