Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Django In Pain by Por Piedad Teatro & The Play Company

Darkly comic fairytale about seeking help, told through a surreal puppet show.

It’s not often a puppet show opens with a scene of its protagonist attempting to hang himself. But that is precisely how homemade puppet theatre show Django In Pain begins, and only goes down an increasingly surreal narrative that will surprise you at every turn.

Co-created by husband and wife theatremaking duo Antonio Vega and Ana Graham, with music by Cristobal MarYán, Django In Pain was the product of a chance commission by The Play Company during the the pandemic. While neither Antonio nor Ana have any formal puppetry training, nor did they have experience filming and editing videos, Django In Pain somehow ends up benefitting from the endearingly guerrilla, crafty style adopted by the three-man team, with both puppets and set pieces crafted from items found around the house.

As mentioned, protagonist Django is quickly established to be suicidal, something that really shouldn’t be a surprise for a man who lives by himself out in a cabin in the woods. Yet each time he tries to hang himself in the forest his attempts are comically thwarted by a stray dog, telling himself he can always ‘kill himself tomorrow’. Playing on magic realism, differentiating between the real and the imaginary stops mattering after some time, as Django grapples with the metaphorical wolf growing within him, before a supposed real life wolf appears to attack him and the dog (who he adopts and affectionately names ‘Trippy’). Paintings above the fireplace begin talking back to him, while a skull sloshes about in a washing machine. Amidst the calm where he finds comfort in playing on his guitar, Django is constantly haunted by the spectre of death, and it’s never too long before depression and suicidal ideation strikes again.

For all its makeshift quality, there is a charm to the presentation of Django In Pain that makes the work that much more likeable. Besides intricately crafted sets, from miniature houses and vehicles to a richly detailed cabin interior, there are several technical ‘tricks’ the team employs to further to show off their ingenuity. Raising the lights lengthen the shadows, as if the darkness within Django is growing, while an inspired, humorous musical sequence where Django attempts to find someone else to care for Trippy inventively uses a revolving set to represent Django going to all his neighbours, each with their own excuse for not helping. In addition, the original music by Cristobal MarYán is a work of professionalism, elevating every scene with melancholy or even a more whimsical number to lighten the mood.

What is also interesting is how Django In Pain never shies away from its metatheatrical elements either. There are many times that Antonio and Ana do not edit themselves out of the frame, and much like Brecht’s concept of Epic Theatre, the mechanics and strings holding the puppets are clear to see. Similarly, scenes also cut to Antonio himself as the writer of the play, struggling with writers’ block to decide Django’s fate while a puppet vulture taunts him. Both of these elements make us question how much choice we really have in our experiences, or whether we are simply at the mercy of a god who enjoys making theatre of our lives.

Django In Pain is a painstaking labour of love and hard work that speaks hard truths on the nature of depression and how difficult it is to live with it, never knowing when an episode will hit, or how it can even cause one to hurt those closest to them. While there are times it feels overloaded by its own ideas, needing stronger reason or connection between its metatheatrical elements to its narrative, this is a show that is visually distinct and charming in its medium. Most importantly, it ends on a note that acknowledges something actionable those suffering from depression can do – to get the professional help they need from a licensed practitioner, rather than remain alone in the battle against the wolf inside, and hopefully, finally bury the noose that haunts them.

Photo Credit: Antonio Vega

Django In Pain streams online from 4th to 15th January 2023 as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here

1 comment on “★★★★☆ Review: Django In Pain by Por Piedad Teatro & The Play Company

  1. Pingback: Review: Heng Jia Min on Django in Pain by Antonio Vega (The Play Company and Por Piedad Teatro / M1 Singapore Fringe Festival) – Critics Circle Blog

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