Arts Dance with Me festival Music Review Singapore Arts, Theatre. Theatre

★★☆☆☆ Review: MATERIA by Andrea Salustri (SIFA 2023)

Object theatre performance more focused on experimentation and play than making a point.

Better known as styrofoam to most people, polystyrene has become the most abundant plastic manufactured around the globe, used across the world primarily as food packaging. Gaining a bad reputation for being harmful to ecosystems and environments if disposed of incorrectly, is it possible that we’ve been too harsh towards it all this while?

Playing as part of the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), in Andrea Salustri’s MATERIA, the Italian artist chooses to take polystyrene outside of its practical purpose, and to instead engage in the act of play and experimentation in order to better understand it. In MATERIA, polystyrene is no longer merely as an object, but a character onstage, as Salustri stretches it to new artistic possibilities.

Photo Credit: Darragh McLoughlin

MATERIA initially begins with Salustri coming out onstage with a bowl of palm-sized polystyrene balls and an upward-facing fan. He switches the fan on, its soft whirring filling the theatre, while he places a ball atop it. It is so light, it begins to float upwards, and to prevent it from flying away, Salustri cradles it, his hands forming a tunnel to direct the wind in a straight line, protecting it. It is an act of tenderness that seems to bode well for the rest of the show, as we imagine the polystyrene as a vulnerable creature come alive, in need of Salustri to parent it, guard it and guide it.

But that is in fact, not the aim of MATERIA, which refuses to adhere to any specific narrative, preferring to simply let the visuals speak for themselves. Over the course of the next hour, Salustri performs a series of experimentations and demonstrations on various polystyrene shapes and forms; he tosses a polystyrene square like a boomerang, dissolves an entire sheet in what appears to be acid, and at one point, creates a blizzard of polystyrene bits that scatter across the entire stage. MATERIA is all about Salustri taking a step back and providing the means for polystyrene to show off and speak for itself – literally, as he places microphone close to a swirling bowl of polystyrene bits, or allows a ball to roll about and hit mini speakers, and we hear their ‘voice’.

Photo Credit: Jonas Danielevicius

But at the same time, MATERIA feels far too haphazard and purposeless to really give polystyrene a clear character, missing an additional layer of thought and intent to really turn this into an emotional, arresting performance. There is still so much room for error and unpredictability – awkward silences between soundtracked segments, or polystyrene products being blown off course or falling over accidentally, that MATERIA even comes across as a work-in-progress lacking precision and planning rather than a polished final product.

Certainly, there are beautiful moments in the performance, helped by Ah! Kosmos and Federico Coderoni’s emotive soundtrack, and Michele Piazzi’s lighting, that ensures each polystyrene set-up is given its due attention with individual spotlights. There is a build-up to a chaotic climax, where strobe lighting and the soundscape of polystyrene come together, while Salustri frantically breaks planks and messes up the stage more. But it is frustrating to watch this happen, when there are neither stakes nor investment in what is happening before us. By its end, two (very low) polystyrene ‘walls’ coming down to reveal a bright light behind them feels inconsequential, and you find yourself wondering ‘what was the point of it all?’

Photo Credit: Susana Chico

In essence, MATERIA encapsulates the idea of doing art for art’s sake, more of an installation work being activated than a performance in and of itself. Polystyrene may be the star here, but as MATERIA proves, it’s not a particularly exciting one, and doesn’t have much to say. As much as Salustri is meant to play the role of a facilitator, his stoic expression and almost mechanical way of executing each task also translates to a lack of emotion from the polystyrene as well. This is material with so much potential in discussing its origins, its impacts, or even its transformative effects, but in a show like this that purports to make it come alive, we leave the theatre still of the mindset that it is merely a prop and non-living object.

Featured image by Jonas Danielevicius

MATERIA plays from 20th to 21st May 2023 at the SOTA Studio Theatre. Tickets available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

Production Credits:

Andrea Salustri | Creation and Performance
Michele Piazzi | Lighting Design & Technical Direction
Michele Piazzi, Chamsedine Madec, Ivan Bartsch, Andrea Parolin, Andreas Harder | Technical Team
Federico Coderoni | Sound Design
Ah! Kosmos, Federico Coderoni | Original Music

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