Experimental eco-theatre fishes out the complexities of climate paralysis.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Ang Xiao Ting)||7|
|Script (Nabilah Said, Lee Wai Lokm Ang Xiao Ting, Sim Xin Yi, and Andrew Marko)||5|
|Performance (Andrew Marko)||9|
|Set Design (Chen Szu-Feng)||7|
|Lighting Design (Faith Liu Yong Huay)||8|
|Multimedia Design (Elizabeth Mak)||9|
|Sound Design (Ferry and Sandra Tay)||8|
|Food (Ah Hua Kelong)||3|
Just talking about climate change can feel like an impossible task. While for the most part, one recognises the need to do something about it, one is simultaneously buffered by the seemingly hopeless failure of the more powerful in society to do anything about it, as well as the meaninglessness of individual action. How then can one remain motivated to fight the end of the world?
In The Theatre Practice’s (Practice) Extinction Feast, a single, ordinary man (Andrew Marko) must help run his family’s Chinese restaurant, despite knowing the damage that the seafood industry wreaks on the environment. With his family refusing to give up their old ways or make drastic change, Jeff is thus forced to confront his own hangups and history with food, and figure out what he can do to assuage his guilt and ‘do good’.
A climate change play is never easy to stage, primarily due to how quickly one can become weighed down by the heaviness of the topic. Directed by Ang Xiao Ting, Extinction Feast faces this issue boldly using surreal aesthetics and off beat humour to counteract the burden of the issue. From spooky voiceovers to rubber chickens, magical fishbowls to talking statuettes, these elements somewhat lighten the tone despite still expounding on some of the more difficult realities of climate change.
For the most part, this involves taking a deep dive into Jeff’s memories, watching as he literally comes face-to-face with the ghost of an ikan bilis from his childhood, seeking death by being consumed by Jeff, before being reborn into a new form. Over the course of the play, this guilt and paralysis continues to grow as his desperate request to turn the restaurant vegetarian is rebuffed by his family, and he retreats further and further into his own psyche. This is somewhat of a bumpy ride throughout the play, and requires a high degree of dream logic and suspension of disbelief to really follow the flow, often leaving one unsure of the intent. Perhaps this does indeed reflect the difficulty of processing the insurmountability of climate change, but also leaves it somewhat tough to fully invest in the story.
In spite of these challenges though, Andrew Marko feels like the perfect casting choice, with his ability to draw in audience members with his natural charm and charisma, with a presence that dominates the entire stage even as a single man. At the same time, when he feels at a loss or confused as to his circumstances, his face, crestfallen, evokes sympathy and complete understanding for how helpless he feels in the moment. A highlight of the performance sees Andrew utilising his musical talents to perform a mashup of songs from genres ranging from jazz to pop to rap, editing the lyrics to reflect the complexity of consumption in climate change, simultaneously upbeat in its tone, yet angry and upset in its message. Andrew handles the material with confidence and gusto, and his emotions become key for us to hang on to amidst the way the story ebbs and flows between dream and reality.
Andrew isn’t completely alone in this of course, with the design elements playing just as a big a role as he does. To immerse the audience in the restaurant setting, several round banquet tables are laid out as part of the seating plan. Dedicated to being as eco-friendly as possible, Chen Szu-Feng’s playful set comprises upcycled materials to depict an undersea wonderland, from plastic jellyfish to red curtains of anemone. Even the film footage, using material from the film version used in its previous form at the 2021 Singapore Writers’ Festival, is cleverly recycled and re-cut to depict Jeff’s family, though the necessity of using film instead of just voiceovers is questionable at times.
Alongside Andrew is also Ferry, as live foley musician, putting on chef attire and creating sounds from kitchen paraphernalia, such as glasses and bowls, or the sound of a knife on a chopping board. Meanwhile, lighting designer Faith Liu Yong Huay utilises some stellar techniques to drastically change the mood from reflective in blue, to dangerous in red. From time to time, the light interacts well with the set, casting strange shadows to create shapes and textures on the walls, or effective spotlights to focus our attention on Andrew.
Perhaps one of the most outstanding scenes however is when Andrew, as Jeff, faces a series of reincarnations of the initial ikan bilis, telling its story over the years and centuries. Depicted as a scarlet pair of lips, Elizabeth Mak’s multimedia design shines through in yet another production, as the lips grow legs or multiply, heightening this bizarre image to a moment of religious ecstasy, each form taking on a different voice (all done by Andrew Marko). It is somehow terrifying, awe-inspiring, and if anything, strangely reassuring in its message that life goes on, regardless of what we choose to do.
By the end of Extinction Feast, Jeff realises that change does not happen overnight – it is a gradual process of change where the individual does what they can one step at a time rather than through revolution. The result is a compromise between practicality and Asian values, making tiny baby steps along the way. This is exemplified by the play’s conclusion; instead of having a total overhaul and removing fish from the menu, the restaurant instead sets up an ‘experimental branch’ and allows Jeff to serve up sustainable canapés (created by Singapore-based fish farm Ah Hua Kelong) to the audience.
Extinction Feast’s intent is to educate, and as we end the play with these canapés, Jeff also explains how they are made of sustainable ingredients such as green mussels, considered an invasive species in Singapore. But while the intent is noble, the execution was problematic. In having everyone receive the canapés, one understands that sustainability can be achieved one small step at a time, if everyone works in tandem. However, we are left unconvinced by the taste of the canapés, and given a choice, we would rather stick to our usual diets instead of making the swap towards more sustainable (and likely, more expensive) eating habits. In ending the play immediately after being served, this leaves Extinction Feast concluding on a somewhat abrupt note.
Despite this, the majority of the play is a remarkable example of climate change theatre for its daring and willingness to experiment in form and take advantage of trying new styles and techniques rarely seen in local theatre. This is a production that would do well at any fringe festival around the world, and for what it’s worth, is a feast for the senses that ultimately tugs at our conscience, and reminds us that as long as our heart is in the right place, sometimes, doing what we can is enough.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Extinction Feast ran from 10th to 13th November 2022 at The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo Street.