S’pore Fringe Fest 2016: What the dog saw
SINGAPORE — With a title like that, I have to admit I was half-expecting Bitch: The Origin Of The Female Species to come at me fangs bared and snarling. Instead, I found myself chewing on a deeply poetic, measured and nuanced performance about womanhood. This shift of perception, from a male audience member, is ultimately what is at the crux of the show.
The word “bitch” is a loaded one, a derogatory slur, but also, of course, referring to female canines. The link between these two meanings goes back centuries in history and myth, as the show tells us, and Singapore theatre performer Edith Podesta presents this tension by performing the role of a dog, the faithful companion of an old man (played by The Matrix actor Helmut Bakaitis), whose wife suffers from dementia.
The dog, originally brought in to accompany his wife, becomes the husband’s surrogate partner in his loneliness after his wife moves to a nursing home. As an omniscient commentator, the dog worries about the health of her master who would eventually suffer from a stroke. She came into their life because the woman was “lonely without her bitch” and now “he’s lonely without his”, says Podesta.
This personal story of relationships — between husband and wife, a man and his pet — is intertwined with bigger, grander themes about our general understanding of the relationship between us and animals, and between man and woman.
This is, of course, primarily evident in Podesta’s demarcation-blurring performance: She is a woman-as-a-dog — as opposed to merely acting like the latter. (Expressive puppy eyes, yes; barking, no.)
But there is also, and perhaps more importantly, the show’s point about language — what we hear as poetic is, in Bitch’s world, dog-speak.
“His clothes hang like dead men on triangular branches”, is how she describes his clothes on hangers. Humans are seen as “animal-humans”, a house is a “dead tree house”, and prior to her master’s stroke, she says she can “smell his brain-dam about to burst”.
The idea of language as neutral has long been debunked by theorists (see: “bitch”) and here, Podesta isn’t merely being lyrical but making a statement about language-as-power, tellingly underscored in the end where a female speech therapist (with her own impossibly cute — and real — scene-stealing dog) helps the stroke-afflicted old man to learn language anew.
The power of language isn’t just seen on a personal level: It bleeds into world-making. In one scene, Podesta, now taking on the role of the wife, a feminist, vividly paints an alternative history where the creator is Dog and Woman rules. Where instead of feminists, there are meninists, and so on.
Bitch: The Origin Of The Female Species is undoubtedly a dense piece of work, but there is also a sense of wonder here, thanks to multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan’s video work that mines arcane imagery, and the subtle touches of sound and lighting effects by Teo Wee Boon and Adrian Tan, respectively. And of course, you have the exceptional performances of Podesta and Bakaitis , whose chemistry grounds this work in a world full of warmth — human and otherwise. Mayo Martin
For more on the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016, visit http://www.singaporefringe.com