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S’pore Fringe Fest 2016: The Shape of a Bird in a cage

S’pore Fringe Fest 2016: The Shape of a Bird in a cage
Jean Tay and Saga Seed Theatre's The Shape Of A Bird. Photo: Jenson Chen

S’pore Fringe Fest 2016: The Shape of a Bird in a cage

In Jean Tay’s latest play, the imagination takes flight but the spirit doesn’t

SINGAPORE — The Shape Of A Bird is certainly one curious animal. You could think of it as a children’s play with political overtones or a political play for kids — and I can’t recall coming across something like it.

In playwright Jean Tay’s latest work, staged by new group Saga Seed Theatre at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, we constantly swing between two worlds: A fantastical one where the imagination soars with talking insects and inventive puppetry, and a grittier one taking place inside a prison cell.

A children’s book writer (Tan Kheng Hua) is locked up by the government for writing stories that are supposedly subversive. And this is no gay penguin book saga with its pleasant family picnic-protests — her works have caused a riot and are deemed a danger to national security. Her captors (personified by a sympathetic guard played by Brendon Fernandez) urge her to pen a confession but she would rather write letters to her daughter Ann (Jean Toh). It’s unclear how much time has passed but her daughter’s pretty grown up at some point, her stories somehow continue to cause unrest in the streets, and she still stubbornly refuses to acquiesce to the government’s request.

Running parallel to this is Ann’s own The Neverending Story moment, courtesy of her mother’s tales of the ruling cicadas, where she has an imaginary friend-slash-brother and is betrothed to a cicada named Han (Thomas Pang). As her mother struggles to be true to herself, Ann also has her own dilemma: To maintain her individuality and personal memories or succumb to conformity and the hive mind.

The Shape Of A Bird is anchored on the premise of the written word’s power to affect change, shape thinking and challenge authority. But despite its trappings of fantasy, which move us away from the territory of realism (and consequently making it relatively acceptable to see 18-year-old daughter acting like someone way younger), I am not sure I’m completely ready to take the big leap it wants me to take.

There’s a huge difference between a children’s story freeing and empowering minds and a children’s story sparking social upheaval. Ann’s eventual political awakening and rebellion could easily have been the result of her mother’s continued incarceration and not children’s tales, but it is framed via the latter — we really don’t have any clue about the development of Ann’s consciousness other than through her make-believe world.

What I found more interesting is how the play brings us into the inner workings of a storyteller’s fertile mind, someone who translates random bits of details and experiences into something different: An encounter with cicadas and the glimpse of a bird become, for a writer trapped in a cell, something delightfully new.

This, in the very first instance, is where the transformative power of the imagination truly begins and it’s translated well in the performance, primarily by the use of newspaper puppets (puppety company Paper Monkey Theatre’s Benjamin Ho co-directs with Mei Ann Teo). You also can’t help but think of the writer as Tay’s own proxy, with this story-within-a-story offering playful hints at other stories — the cicada’s head honcho wears a helmet that reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman’s own grotesque mask and, with the daughter sporting Princess Leia buns, a young cicada character named Han and the guard initially speaking via vocoder-type sound effects, surely you’ve got some Star Wars nudge-wink here.

The mind of a writer is opened up to us, but what about the writer’s spirit?

This is perhaps here that I have trouble embracing The Shape Of A Bird. For in the final instance, the writer, unable to both give up her writing and compromise with an iron-fisted authority, decides to commit suicide. That the play decides to end it on such a tragic, cul-de-sac of a note undermines the very potential of the stories she has written and instead shrinks all of these into a cautionary tale, one that's in the shape of a cage.

For more info on the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, visit http://www.singaporefringe.com.