Singapore International Festival of Arts
School of the Arts Drama Theatre/Thursday
Cross an acid trip with John Milton's Paradise Lost and Versus is the goblin child they might spawn.
This ambitious production comes drenched in the psychedelia and psychosis that is Cake Theatrical Productions' signature style. It is a journey from creation's first gasp to its eventual destruction, from dinosaurs to dictators and everything in-between.
Except they don't quite tell it like it is. Director Natalie Hennedige and young writer Michelle Tan have disrupted this process of creation and destruction, breaking up their main allegory of imperious empire with a dazzling pre-historic interlude jammed up the middle.
In the larger arc, you have a power-hungry patriarch (Julius Foo) making alliances with a creator-type matriarch (Goh Guat Kian). The rise of a messianic figure challenges the autocrat's grip on society, and he is determined to crush dissent. While all this is going on, two different women both named Mary (Andrea Ang trying to keep up with a truly excellent Edith Podesta), as well as a wandering soldier (Thomas Pang), struggle with their purpose and lot in life.
In the middle, the play rewinds to pre-history, where a rag-tag bunch of creatures in danger of extinction go in search of "the truth".
The play attempts to say a lot of things about the state of the universe, but ultimately it settles on a single theme: empires will always rise and fall, and ordinary people will always try to make do. The play is both a cynic and idealist: yes, you are just a tiny cog in a very large machine - but that doesn't mean you don't matter.
Hennedige, in her grand, cosmic vision, has whipped up a blistering audio-visual assault on the senses. Her outstanding ensemble keeps up this relentless energy to the very end, supported by some of the best costume, headpiece and props work I have ever seen. A pterodactyl? A woolly mammoth? A pack of zombie sheep? No problem - they all come to splendid life under the hand of design collective neontights.
Philip Tan's kinetic soundscape suffuses every inch of the play, accompanied by Brian Gothong Tan's lurid projections that sometimes support and sometimes distract from the backbone of the work.
The result is that there is always something exciting to look at on stage, even if the actual text of the production is problematic.
Tan and Hennedige spend a great deal of time looking at the limitations of language. Their characters are both very articulate and very inarticulate; they might speak a great deal but communicate very little, sometimes saying more through a gesture or an awkward conversation than in a torrential 10-minute monologue.
Some exchanges are funny and insightful, others are overwrought and just a bit too clever. Sentences come riddled with wordplay and witticisms so thick and heavy that it is hard to distinguish when they are trying to make a point, and when they just want a fun pun.
At its heart, Versus is a parable, and parables work best when they are allusive and broad. Over-explain a parable, and you've given away its conceit. There is a reason why Jesus - who is alluded to in this play - left his followers to scour his simple parables for deeper meanings.
This is why Versus' middle portion, with its wacky creatures on a quest, is its most wonderful. I would have watched two hours of this alternate Garden of Eden. The characters' straightforward alter egos, whether a conniving snake or a confused triceratops, help the audience to make sense of who they are in their future incarnations.
The play sags heavily in its final act, suffering from the need to tie up all its complex machinations and make some sort of Very Important Pronouncements about the state of the world. The characters, whose lyrical dialogue might have been a novelty in the first act, sound increasingly like they are reading a long, tricky poem that might be digested better on the page than on the stage.
It is Hennedige and Tan's first time collaborating on a production, and this newfound creative relationship has its frayed seams, with the occasional mismatch of intimate and dense language with epic and broad vision.
But Versus has set its sights on magnificence, to tell a story for the ages through a strange and fantastical landscape, and it does scale several high points - the production design is close to faultless, and the performers take on their weird and wonderfully-imagined characters like a second skin.
I am hopeful that future collaborations will be less of Hennedige versus Tan - and more of a unified duo.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
Tickets to Versus are sold out.