If Bi(cara) were an animal, it would be a snake. It is charming one minute, drawing the theatregoer in with a rippling sway of its body. Then it is still, quiet and meditative the next, coiling itself tight before striking in a deadly attack, managing to be sexy and dangerous.
Embodying the serpent like a spirit animal is actress Sharda Harrison, founder of Pink Gajah Theatre, who manages to pack in multiple depictions of human-animal relationships with great pathos in an hour.
These include her personal journey with snakes, first as pets and then animals she learns to hate and fear.
When Harrison addresses the audience at the beginning, there is a sense of over-articulation and explanation that seems more apt for a younger audience.
REVIEW / THEATRE
Pink Gajah Theatre
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival
Centre 42 Black Box/Thursday
However, she has always been a strong physical performer and the magic begins when she physically embodies the snake, contorting her body and eyes turning beady.
There is also an especially thrilling moment towards the end when she sheds her skin in reptilian fashion.
With her hair down, Harrison is wild and appears to be in a trance. She may be a snake, but her power over the audience is like that of a slick snake charmer at a street fair.
Her character work is also solid, again anchored by strong physical movements.
Leslie is the sassy and soft-hearted cat-loving woman, all hunched shoulders and heavy shuffling. Das, the orang utan handler with marital issues, is portrayed with monumental heft, his brutish and loutish facade concealing a soft side.
Both are lonely characters who turn to animals for companionship. Their stories, crafted by Harrison and co-writer Sabrina Dzulkifli, are told well to heartbreaking results.
The minimal set, together with video projections, light and music, support Harrison's performance without being obtrusive.
However, the show does not quite live up to its title. Bicara means "to talk" or "discuss" in Malay, but this was lacking.
There is a scene where Harrison contemplates killing a cobra and incites the audience to chant, "Kill it, kill it." The audience does as told, albeit perfunctorily. This is a pity because Harrison is making a point about how humans are capable of violence when threatened.
Thankfully, a lot of other ideas come across more successfully - for example, the juxtaposition of the breakdown of Das' marriage alongside a real connection between him and an orang utan.
"You forget who's the animal, and who is the human," he says.
What makes things even more interesting is that Harrison comes from a family of animal lovers - her father is the ex-chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Bernard Harrison, who attended the opening show. Bi(cara) is inspired by a talk he gave, Why Do We Do What We Do?, about the way man treats animals.
Harrison's younger brother Sean, also the visual artist for Bi(cara), makes an appearance as the mischievous sibling and provides some much-needed lighter moments.
With Bi(cara) hitting so close to home, it is no wonder that Harrison pours herself into the performance so intensely. She looks spent emotionally and physically at multiple points in the play.
While it is personal, it is not insular. Harrison builds a world both expansive and intimate, searing yet welcoming.
•Bi(cara) is sold out.