It’s an interesting phenomenon how most children aspire to match or surpass their parents, only to reminisce and wish for their childhood once more the moment they become a parent themselves. There seems to be an irreconcilable rift between a parent and his or her child – in spite of being of the same flesh and blood, they’ll never live in the same world or understand each other fully. Under My Skin immediately sets this truth upon its audience – a 65 year old woman standing stock still while her younger self gently, carefully picks the other’s fallen hair. With every strand, that innocent care and concern translates into a brutal reminder of her own old age and her body’s decay. Without knowing why she is being ignored, the young one’s actions intensify, becoming unbridled plucking and clawing, hurting the elder even more.
In Under My Skin, Alessandra Fel paints a bleak and haunting take on maternity on her multimedia canvas. The emotionally charged movements of the performers interacted with a detailed sequence of multimedia compositions to create a deep and unsettling visual narrative – from the fears of a mother-to-be to the loneliness of an estranged parent. This is a fringe performance that looks beneath a mother’s metaphorical ‘skin’ – being her predetermined role of childcare that never ceases till she exhausts all her physical and functional resources to provide for him.
This performance drew my attention not from the overtly expositional monologues, but through the excellent physical work that was showcased in a few of the clearly delineated scenes. Particularly noteworthy were the physical interactions between Pat Toh and Rizman Putra, as they executed movement concepts with applause-worthy precision. One of these concepts involved mother and son pulling and tugging each other from pose to pose, with the mother going exponentially faster than her son and eventually growing apart due to the sheer difference in tempo. Rizman is left shuffling offstage on all fours while Pat ironically laments of how tired she is of her life of parenting. Throughout the performance, the impact of these choreographies was enhanced with Rizman’s slew of hyperrealistic physical forms performed, from the ebbing of a foetus, the trot of a toddler, to the spring of a boisterous pre-schooler.
Fel also used multimedia extensively to overlay the onstage action, adding a surreal quality that complemented the stylized movements of the performers. Some symbolism was very direct and literal, such as the digitized droplets of milk to frame a display of the mother’s tender care for the child, or an actual window to literally depict the window the toddler attempted to climb out of. However, in other sequences, the monochrome projections helped transform the actors’ movements into a visual spectacle, allowing them to literally carve out vines that entrapped them, or have them consumed in despair within ‘the silence of a crowded room’. The projections also bridged the physical routines with the reality of the elderly mother, with the common backdrop reminding the audience that they are witnessing something psychological. Encountering her solitary hallucinations brings us yet a level deeper into the pains of motherhood that can scarcely be conveyed.
Despite the meaningful visuals, the simplistic dialogue that accompanied it often reduced the choreography to a literal depiction of what was spoken, diminishing its impact. When Catherine Sng began her repetitive rant on the various reasons for her being tired, I was reminded of the impatience that occasionally wells up in me when I just can’t relate to, or connect with, what my parents had to say. However, it was a scene without words that expounded on this feeling best: Rizman, now a teenager, carries his schoolbag and walks past his mother. He freezes when she attempts to make herself useful by helping him to sling his bag on – no matter how much love she intends to show in these peripheral gestures, he neither needs them nor wants them. He finds his mother distant and difficult to relate to over time, and leaves without a word – what then? As the mother begins to realise that her role has expired, she begins to frantically dust herself top to bottom – perhaps it is her image, her habits, her performance. Those final moments of the performance vividly displayed the excruciating process of learning to let go of one’s maternal role when the child is ready to go.
All in all, Under My Skin was an interesting exploration of how to illustrate the many facets of maternal depression, and possesses some really fascinating and memorable stanzas of physical theatre. One wonders if having a daughter instead of a son would have introduced a cyclical motif to the performance, allowing the old lady to see three different versions of herself: her present state, her daughter, and possibly her granddaughter. Perhaps at the end of the day, it is only through enduring the trials of parenthood themselves that each generation eventually understands the sacrifices of their parents.
By Michael Ng for Bakchormeeboy.com
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