What it means to vegetate

Vegetative State, directed by Manuela Infante, stars Marcela Salinas.
Vegetative State, directed by Manuela Infante, stars Marcela Salinas.PHOTO: CALL THE SHOTS PHOTOGRAPHY

REVIEW / THEATRE

VEGETATIVE STATE

Manuela Infante

School of the Arts Studio Theatre

Last Saturday

When there is talk of the apocalypse, most imagine it as explosions, epidemics, hue and cry. But Chilean director Manuela Infante envisions a cataclysm all the more chilling for its slow, inexorable onset, a "coming that cannot be seen".

  • BOOK IT / VEGETATIVE STATE

  • WHERE: School Of The Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

    WHEN: Today, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $50 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Performed in Spanish with English surtitles. Go to www.sifa.sg

In Vegetative State, which makes its Asia-Pacific premiere at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, Infante essays a dialogue between humans and plants, shifting the focus from humanity as the centre of the world to the plant life that preceded us in existence and may well take back what is theirs.

The one-woman show stars the versatile Marcela Salinas, working with very little - a stage almost bare except for a table, a chair and some potted plants - and assisted by cleverly focused lighting and deft sound design.

The show begins as a human drama - a young motorcyclist has a severe accident because a tree has grown into a power line - but then expands to contemplate what it means, on many different levels, to vegetate.

Salinas plays the various roles - the defensive civil servant, the hysterical neighbour who witnessed the accident, the victim's grieving mother - with panache, although a couple of her personas become a little indistinguishable at times.

She makes masterful use of live looping to record and build on her own voice, creating layer upon layer of polyphony that becomes weighted with little twists of meaning as she fills in the gaps in earlier recorded conversations.

Her incredible expressiveness elevates the plants onstage from mere props to practically co-actors.

In one scene, she seems to notice the plant next to her for the first time with the slow, dawning terror of a character in a horror film who looks in the mirror and realises the ghost has been behind her all along. Never has this reviewer seen an innocuous potted plant imbued with such menace.

In these taut scenes, Infante achieves a disturbing quality close to that of South Korean writer Han Kang's award-winning novel The Vegetarian, in which a woman strives to become a vegetable.

The show becomes unwieldy in its more overblown scenes, particularly a soliloquy in which Salinas dramatically declaims her desire, as "the last animal", to become one with the trees.

It is a relief when this union descends into farce, as a stagehand makes a valiant attempt to collect the thicket of microphone stands onstage in one fell swoop, so as to clear a space for Salinas, now sporting a leafy vest, to perform a gauche interpretative dance.

Infante's meditation on plant intelligence succeeds in unsettling; one is not likely to look at anything that photosynthesises in the same light after this.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'What it means to vegetate'. Print Edition | Subscribe