Arts Review Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Lotus Root Support Group by Miriam Cheong, Shannen Tan and Renee Yeong

The body is a construct, the body is a cage.

In a world where our bodies so often feel like they have become the property of society, governed and restricted by social expectations, an additional layer of complication is introduced when our bodies rebel in ways beyond our control. And for the 1 in 10 women who suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that wreaks havoc on the very organs that give them ‘womanhood’, existence itself can feel completely out of their control.

But for Shannen Tan and Miriam Cheong, who both experience PCOS, just because a condition is objectively a living hell, doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to cope and live with it, right down to unearthing the dark humour and absurdity within. All of this is teased out in their new co-devised work, Lotus Root Support Group, which examines how the condition shapes their lives and perspectives.

Directed by Renee Yeong, Lotus Root Support Group starts off immediately showing us where the play gets its title from, as protagonist Jane (Shannen Tan) sets up chairs for the group’s inaugural meeting. The only person to show up? Xin Yi (Miriam Cheong), a friend and consultant, who also happens to be the only other person Jane knows with PCOS.

The reason for the meeting is simple – due to how PCOS is affecting her relationship and career prospects, Jane has spiralled into a quarter-life crisis. Tossing out one far-fetched idea after another over how to raise awareness (all promptly shot down by Xin Yi), the meeting feels like pushing the panic button over and over again, to no avail. Yet, simply by virtue of having Xin Yi around, there’s a glimmer of hope in seeing the two women find solace and comfort in each other’s presence, the beginnings of a movement that could expand into something much more.

It is with this mindset that the play moves boldly forward, as we watch both women grapple with PCOS and its effects on their friendship, and their own endeavours to get out there, raise awareness, and make a difference. With how little public information there is about the condition, Lotus Root Support Group in part, also acts as an educational show. Early on, it already establishes the main problems with PCOS – that even doctors have no idea how to cure it beyond relieving its symptoms and telling patients to ‘try losing weight’.

In the same vein, because the symptoms and effects of PCOS can differ wildly from one woman to another, so does their coping mechanism and perception of it, even between Jane and Xin Yi. An optimist and go-getter, Jane pours all her energy into starting her new health company, using her obsessive knowledge of the condition to recommend exercise, supplements and diet plans to fellow women with PCOS. In pitching her training, Shannen, as Jane, goes all out as a salesperson, complete with flipcharts and audience participation.

For Shannen in particular, there is a nervous energy that characterises Jane, constantly second-guessing herself even when she fully believes in her cause. It is this subtle apprehension that evokes greater sympathy for Jane, a woman not yet fully certain of her identity and vulnerable in her fears, that she puts her 100% in everything she does to feel a part of something bigger, such as dumping her methodology on a hapless university student. Watching Shannen as Jane work out on a stationary bike, loud club music in the background as glistening sweat flecks off her skin, her breath laboured from the intensity, is enough to make an audience member gasp with the physical labour she puts herself through to turn her body into a lean mean machine, as if to escape the existential fear of her life amounting to nothing.

Meanwhile, Xin Yi primarily keeps her condition to herself, choosing to scream in the confines of her bathroom before putting on a pained smile during the company Zoom chat. This is somehow made worse by the messy state of the room, with an unmade bed that suggests internal trauma translating to external chaos, invisible pains that have very real impacts on their daily lives. While for the most part, Miriam as Xin Yi is the cooler, calmer, and wiser of the two, she also gets a chance to show off her more whimsical side. One of the highlights of the evening is an entire segment dedicated to an original, highly meme-able lo-fi rap, where Xin Yi declares her love for potatoes in all their forms, hitting all the right beats with her laugh out loud lyrics.

As different as the two women are, it is the ability to remain friends and respect each other’s differences that gives Lotus Root Support Group its raw strength, going beyond PCOS alone to explore issues of solidarity. The thing that people seem to forget about championing women’s issues is that there is no one-size fits all solution, where each individual goes through her own sets of problems, and the community and her allies must accommodate and understand that her experience isn’t necessarily their own.

This is most clearly expressed in Jane and Xin Yi’s dance class; despite performing a slick, well-rehearsed routine together, we see as Jane admits her fears over her inability to perform girl style dance, and questions her own femininity (already doubtful due to PCOS making it hard for her to bear children). The pressure mounts to the point her insecurities finally reach boiling point, where it all spills out in a dramatic final meeting of the support group (now bigger and more successful than its dismal start). But with an equally dramatic pep talk from Xin Yi, the two come to an uneasy conclusion – that everyone is going through their own problems, and it’s all they can do is offer each other a listening ear, as the group pulls through these challenges, one day at a time.

Lotus Root Support Group shines brightest when Shannen and Miriam let loose and be real with their audiences. There are times that rawness does get in its way, with some scenes requiring more edits to refine the drama, as well as the occasional pacing issue, where scene transitions are at times jarring. It is an ambitious work that feels like an explosion of ideas and storylines, with more emphasis on the spectacle and need for staging the ideas than perfection. But it is the sheer determination and energy emanating from both women is more than enough to keep this show going all the way to its end. We feel visceral pain as they collapse from unbearable cramps, laugh nervously as they poke fun at their condition, and experience a pang of sadness as they commiserate in their damaged bodies.

Society may have decided that PCOS is low on its list of priorities, but by reappropriating the narrative and giving a voice for a condition that has been shoved to the sidelines, Lotus Root Support Group offers a smidgen of light for ladies who have been suffering in silence, and lets them know that they are not alone. Lotus Root Support Group is a piece that begins by complicating the idea of solidarity, and makes it clear that this is a long, seemingly endless uphill battle. But by its end, this is a show that makes it clear that support can be as simple as calling a friend to make sure she gets out of bed, and shows up to dance together. It just might make all the difference in the world.

Lotus Root Support Group played from 3rd to 6th March 2022 at T:>works Gallery, and was released as video-on-demand throughout March.

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