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Theatre review: Be captive to Mystery Magnet's riot of spellbinding vignettes

Published on Aug 15, 2014 2:58 PM
The performance Mystery Magnet, conceived by Belgian artist Miet Warlop, is a largely wordless show that speaks through a riot of colours and evocative scenes. -- PHOTO: CHONG YEW, SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS

In Mystery Magnet, an infinite number of plays are likely to take place on stage at any one time.

The largely wordless performance, conceived by Belgian visual artist Miet Warlop, is a dream-like stream of psychedelic scenes sketched by nameless, surreal characters. The narrative that emerges is logic by association, a mirror of one's mind and past, a running ink blot test in polychrome. In a theatre that seats 200, there may be as many versions of the show as there are audiences each night.

What remains unchanged in every experience and reels the audience in is the riot of spellbinding vignettes drawn by the quirky cast. Among them, a man as round as a balloon, a steed in black heels missing its top-half, and persons with poufy pom-poms as heads.

There is, however, no protagonist, although the fat man, whose face rarely betrays emotion, anchors the sweeping tide of acts.

Staged at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, the play opens with the fat man lying supine on the floor, feet facing the audience and head obscured by his bloated belly. Nothing stirs on stage, except for a regular heartbeat that pounds in the background for a while. When the beating fades, the calm ends and a tempest of images is unleashed.

For some, the visions conjured might recall the manic violence and puerility of animated cartoons that shocks the body and conscience into laughter. In one tableau, a pom-pom head crucifies another to a wall, finger by finger, with a staple gun. Bursts of scarlet rivulets punctuate each punch while gasps and giggles ripple through the audience.

Shades of surrealist cinema and its absurd, macabre cosmos also play out on stage. In one scene, long, lean black trousers circle the fat man and taunt him with mocking laughter. A pair goes as far as to take the piss out of him by spraying yellow liquid on his pastel blue shirt.

One might also spot references to the world of visual art.

The episode where a pom-pom head bangs its ink-soaked crown against a white screen is perhaps a nod to the gestural art-making of the Abstract Expressionists. But it could as easily be a sly jibe at the conceptual form of art, which often leaves many confounded.

Similarly, paint that splatters on the white screen due to various carnage and explosions throughout the show recalls Jackson Pollock's famous drip paintings while the balloons that float around, including that of a dog, bring to mind Jeff Koon's aluminium reproductions of balloon sculptures.

The performance, bereft of verse and prose, is however, more than just an accordion folio of paintings living in a three-dimensional space. The mise-en-scenes are brought to life through acting and the sense of dramatic timing is more acutely experienced in the absence of narrative cues.

Who could tell, for example, that a woman caressing a picture of a dog would suddenly be swallowed up by it and then expel a headless horse?

Indeed, it is in scrambling conventions of theatre and visual art and discovering, then inhabiting, these enigmatic spaces between genres of art, that the show triumphs. The grammar of the performance may be new, but the language is not, and it is why it is able to speak intimately to everyone in the audience.

You may be drawn to it, or repelled by it, but regardless, you are captive to its force for the 45 minutes that it plays.

book it


Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

When: Aug 15 and 16, 8pm

Admission: $35 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to