"My mother said it's kind of a freak show," says one of the performers, Damian Bright, near the end of Disabled Theater, the 90-minute performance created by well-known French choreographer Jerome Bel in collaboration with Swiss theatre group, Theater Hora.
This causes the enthusiastic audience to descend into a knowing silence.
Theater Hora is a company of actors with learning and cognitive disabilities, founded in 1993 by theatre-pedagogue Michael Elber and in this candid collaboration, reveals its players as charming, determined individuals.
In Bel's minimalist fashion, the stage at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre is seemingly set up for a panel discussion with chairs arranged in a semi-circle and bottles of water at their feet. The evening's translator, Chris Weinheimer, is seated at a table at a corner of the stage. In an even tone, he explains that he was hired because the actors speak only Swiss German and Bel does not.
Disabled Theater then unfolds like a workshop presentation as the performers recreate Bel's first encounter with them. Instruction, performance, instruction, performance; the matter-of-fact format allows for spontaneity and chance, turning out a show that is far from simple.
From Bel's first instruction - given through Weinheimer - of entering the stage and standing in front of the audience for a minute before exiting, the 11 actors emerge as distinct individuals as their gait, carriage and dressing are intimidatingly observed by the audience. Downcast eyes, a tilt of the head, clenched fists and sheepish tugs at shirt hems are all the more prominent when choreographed movement is so minimal, pedestrian.
One actor stands with his arms proudly folded, another tips his cap. The audience is generous with applause, causing a few of the actors to break into a smile.
Then, the performers reappear to introduce themselves by name, age and profession, following which they take a seat. Stepping up to the microphone, they are asked to name their handicap.
"I have Down syndrome. So what?" Fabienne Villiger says with spunk, throwing her hands up in the air.
At the heart of Disabled Theater are 11 self-choreographed solos to music chosen by the performers. They are a fascinating revelation, exposing surprising facets of this motley crew of endearing characters.
Remo Beuggert, the Big Friendly Giant of the group, displays a dry sense of humour as he bobs his head rhythmically, as though conducting the audience as an orchestra. The effortlessly poised Matthias Grandjean calls Gene Kelly to mind as his loose limbs cross one another with stunning abandon.
When one performer steps forward, the rest are given free rein at the back of the stage. They watch the audience, watching them. At times, they transform into an ensemble, buoyed by the hodgepodge of infectious pop songs. Grooving and singing along to Abba's Money Money Money, they create a party atmosphere that transcends the proscenium. Most performers spin around as part of their solo, arms widespread, evincing an irrepressible joy. Their bodies in motion enjoy the liberation their minds do not.
Bel's portrait solos have become something of a signature, with 2004's Veronique Doisneau being an eye-opening depiction of a dancer stagnant in the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera.
In Disabled Theater, the performers all introduce themselves as actors, capable of characterisation.
Are these selves presented on stage fictionalised or real? The audience cannot, and perhaps should not, be certain. While the performers are encouraged to be themselves, Disabled Theater begs the question: Are they being themselves or their disabilities?
Where: School of the Arts, Drama Theatre
When: Sept 4, 5 and 6, 8pm
Admission: $30, $40 and $50 from Sistic (tel: 6348-5555, www.sistic.com.sg)