Triptych of new work exploring the intersections of performativity and design.
CAKE is a company that has always been known for their willingness to find new collaborators, often leading to visually stunning experimental work. That’s a trend that continues in By Design, CAKE’s latest project, which puts graphic design artists front and centre.
With By Design, CAKE presents the work of Vanessa Ban, Zach Lieberman and Amber Vittoria, each designing a set and working together with an actor to produce an original performance. Framed as an artistic playground, each performance is held in a different space, as we are led on our ‘art excursion’ to witness each performance.
Beginning in the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as we are introduced to American media artist Zach Lieberman, as explained by Noorlinah Mohamed. We watch as she performs a series of physical theatre exercises, while a camera captures those movements and translates them to a series of visuals onscreen. Noorlinah explains how she’s grown fond of these sequences, even giving them names as she demonstrates how they react to her body, writhing and metamorphosing before our very eyes.
Noorlinah’s performance begins proper as she narrates a series of four short stories, each one disturbing in their own way. In London, a woman is irked by her friend who tells her to smash the head of an injured mouse. A wife is disturbed by her husband’s fascination with violence as depicted in Kill Bill. A student witnesses a parent physically punishing their daughter. And a lady trains her beloved cat with a sinister ‘balance’ of love and discipline. All the while, Noorlinah is transforming into each of these characters, while the visuals onscreen ebb and flow with her movements.
At times she is a tornado of emotion, and at others, a nurturing figure attempting to embrace coloured blobs around her, or even a brilliant, alien creature exploding with colourful feathers of light, while an evocative soundscape plays in the background. There is inherent joy in watching her play onstage and manipulate these visuals, but ultimately, the piece itself serves more to showcase what Lieberman’s tech can do rather than form a cohesive whole. The physical and digital end up distracting from each other, and we are left to wonder how such tech can be better integrated into a performance, rather than simply acting as a pretty backdrop.
For the next segment, the audience was ushered up several flights of stairs to the Esplanade Rehearsal Studio, where we were privy to Vanessa Ban and Edith Podesta’s The Geography of Strain. The work centres around an abstract set by Vanessa, designed to showcase the stress and strain experienced by women. Visually, it appears to be a pit of some sort, with short white walls forming the rectangular perimeter. Edith, dressed in a black hoodie to hide her femininity, tentatively walks atop these walls on a narrow pathway, and navigates her way over and under obstacles in her way, representing the many dangers awaiting a woman in an urban city.
There is no doubt that Vanessa and Edith’s primary focus is to showcase the dangers men pose to women. The set holds several ‘altars’ holding a rock, keys, a knife and a CCTV respectively, while a video projection shows Edith asking Vanessa to demonstrate how to use each item. These seemingly ordinary objects are weaponised for self-defence, and as Edith practices using them, she does so with a burst of fear in her voice while she gets into an attack position. This is further exemplified when Edith narrates the sinister tale of a bunny rabbit (complete with life-sized mask with posable ears), who is savaged by foxes on her way to the city. All of this comes together to create a genuine sense of terror in us as we imagine what it’s like to feel so vulnerable all the time as a woman, always on the alert for an enemy, even for something as a simple as a walk.
We then made our way back down to the Esplanade Theatre Studio for the final act, where we found Siti Khalijah Zainal posed in a sultry position atop a psychedelic bouncy platform designed by Amber Vittoria. As neon pink lights shine down on Siti, she explains how Amber’s work centres on the power of reflection and self-discovery, and gets ready to illustrate this in her performance. Siti seems to regress into her childhood, as she crawls into a hole, and re-emerges as a screaming ‘baby’ coming out from her mother’s womb. As she ‘grows up’, the child-Siti begins to develop her conception of the world, as she explores the space, observing the colours while singing the question ‘What colour are you?’.
Midway through, she is joined by actor Andrew Marko, who similarly regresses to his childhood. As he hits himself with a nunchaku, he recalls a terrifying anecdote of being physically abused by his father after making a mistake as a child. Siti and Andrew then, seem to represent opposing sides of the childhood experience, and the contrast between how a disciplinarian father and nurturing mother affects one’s growth. As Andrew joins Siti atop the bouncy platform, they begin to sing, moving on and continuing to grow from these experiences on their journey of self-discovery, learning to indulge in the pink, and embracing the person they’ve become.
While By Design’s three performances may not necessarily be fully-formed or completely cohesive, it remains a production that opens up the possibility to present performance in new ways, by putting set design at the forefront. Did it deserve to receive a full staging? Maybe, if only for its ability to provoke thought, as we react and still continue to ponder over each abstract piece.
Photography by Throbbingpixels, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
By Design ran from 23rd to 24th April 2021 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. More information available here
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