SIFA 2017: Vegetative State by Manuela Infante (Review)

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Are animals really all that different from plants? Or is the way they experience life and stimuli simply a stretched out version of how we see things, due to their considerably longer lifespan?

Chilean director Manuela Infante takes the concept of plant intelligence and communication and brings it to life in the polyphonic, poetic Vegetative State. Performed by actress Marcela Salinas, the experimental work brings us on a journey that explores the nature of flora and the potential lessons we could learn from them.

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Vegetative State opens with a group of people dealing with the aftermath of a motorcycle accident crashing headfirst into a tree, each taking their turn to speak about the event and how the community should proceed. Whether a jerky manager in charge of green spaces, a gossipy middle aged aunty or a slow, mentally challenged girl, Salinas is a masterful character actress, and easily distinguishes between each of these people through voice, physicality and facial expression alone. Vegetative State is no naturalistic play though, and many of the characters Salinas plays end up waxing lyrical about the advantages of plant life, speaking of them on the same level as they might people.

Much of the philosophy Vegetative State proposes is a little confusing, with many of the characters never quite bringing up enough evidence to support their claims. The idea that stillness is superior to movement for example, feels flawed even at the end of the play, as well as the idea that it somehow equates to trees possessing strength of will and steadfastness from the act of staying still in the face of oncoming danger. Some of the characters as well, feel far too quirky to take seriously, from a woman who feels compelled to tear open the floorboards of her house to sow new saplings, to a girl who insists on trees having the voice of many, screaming in unison as they burn.

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But as logically difficult to accept as the script may be, there is enough visual and sonic drama to keep audiences on their toes. Utilizing a looper pedal, Salinas records her voice to play it back in different volumes and tempos between changes in characters, creating an evocative soundscape of interrogative questions and haunting echoes. At one point, in an act of sheer sonic genius, Salinas even crushes up a dried up leaf before blowing into the microphone, and edits the resulting noise such that it becomes the sound of warm, crackling fire, before it explodes into an uncontrollable inferno.

The soundscape lends an air of enchantment to the surreal flow of the script, and allows audiences to believe, to an extent, the viability of some of these theories, as plants make audible whispers as Salinas moves microphones past them. Salinas at times deliberately, ritualistically arranges the plants that are brought onto the stage, attempting to become and transform into one of them as she poses, pot on head and ball of green in hand, surrounded by her potted co-stars while a voiceover discusses ideas of metamorphosis and evolution. The designs by Rocio Hernandez and props by Ignacia Pizarro eventually even become full blown spectacles, with rows of giant potted plants appearing in the background, cheering for Salinas as they shiver and ‘shout’ in their legion of voices.

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Though Vegetative State meanders in its own problematic philosophy (based on real world research by philosopher Michael Marder) for a good part of the performance, it does eventually manage to get to the heart of the matter and secure emotional resonance towards the end to appeal to audiences as to why we should care about these initially far fetched theories, playing on the double meaning of its title to deliver a heart-wrenching finale. Ultimately, Vegetative State is a profoundly fascinating piece, stunning in its innovative sound design and hypnotic in its presentation of plant perception. One walks away from the theatre a little less green, a little more wise than before, and certainly at least, is now armed with a whole new realm of possibilities as one ponders over the secret life of plants.

Vegetative State will be performed in Spanish with English surtitles at the SOTA Studio Theatre till 4th September. Tickets available here

Vegetative State
When: Till Sep, 3pm (3rd Sep), 8pm (2nd and 4th Sep)
Where: SOTA Studio Theatre

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