Theatre review: The Duchamp Syndrome shrinks loneliness into a charming, bitter pill

An unlikely friendship between a vacuum robot, a foul-mouthed cockroach and a Mexican janitor sounds like the wacky plot of an adult-oriented cartoon.

But in the very hands of Mexican directors Antonio Vega and Ana Graham, it is a fantastical tale that speaks of loss, hope and the American Dream.

The production, a creation of Mexican theatre companies Por Piedad Teatro and El Trapo Teatro, and The Play Company from America, is at once funny, heartwarming and achingly sad. It introduces us to Juan (played by Vega), a janitor from Mexico who aspires to be a stand-up comedian in New York.

The title comes from his first visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where he encounters the Bicycle Wheel, one of the earliest "ready-made" art works of Marcel Duchamp.

Juan acquaints the audience with his worldly possessions, using marionettes and miniature props to great effect. While sitting at a full-sized table, he retreives a miniature Juan marionette, sitting at its own tiny table.

He then continues to introduce even tinier Juan marionettes sitting at tinier tables - six in all - in Russian nesting doll style. The metaphor of the multiple shrinking Juans is obvious - he feels increasingly isolated in the crowded city.

More striking is Vega's acute sense of humour and storyteller's instinct.

As the puppets and props get smaller, his energy picks up, drawing us into the child-like universe Juan has built for himself.

The spirited performance of Vega - who also made all the puppets - is aptly complemented by his "shadow" (played by Miguel Perez Enciso). Dressed like a ninja, Juan's shadow is a loyal sidekick that helps him animate the puppets and create "special effects" such as books that seem to fall by their own volition.

One particularly brilliant scene stands out: Juan, his shadow and a light source moving perfectly in tandem, alike but not identical.

For a lonely man, Juan has many "friends" in America: Tony the cockroach, who, with his excellent comic timing, helps Juan improve his stand-up routine; Roomby the iRobot Roomba who helps with the cleaning; and even a random rat which keeps popping up.

I got tired of Tony Roach's "tough guy" persona and the vacuum robot came across as gimmicky, but ultimately the additional characters help dramatise Juan's vivid imagination. Roomby, in particular, is instrumental during a particularly heartbreaking dance scene later on.

The 75-minute production at the National Museum of Singapore's Gallery Theatre, which is sold out, is a visual and auditory feast, using toys such as a music box that plays What A Wonderful World and hand clappers, recordings of letters played on a tape recorder, and props that come in both life- and miniature sizes.

But behind the "wonderful world" is a not-so-wonderful reality comprising, among other things, Juan's mother in Mexico that thinks he is a successful comedian in New York; Maria, his absent lover; and a personal guilt tied to an episode from his childhood.

Nonetheless, we only see as much as he wants us to see, for the most part only the pretty bits, much like the elusive American dream that promises to reward hard work with success and wealth.

This idea is taken to the extreme at the end of the play, as Juan offers us a happy ending, but at price.

That happiness is only available to those who can afford it is a bittersweet message. In the age of capitalism, sadly, it is one many of us are quite accustomed to. But in the case of Juan, it could very well be a sign that he has finally arrived.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg