Animal magic

Hyena Subpoena brings out the best and worst of mankind



Cat Kidd

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre/Wednesday

Through a madcap medley of animal mimicry, Catherine "Cat" Kidd brings out the best and worst of the beasts within humanity.

Lions are linked to illegal migrant workers slinking across borders to cross the poverty line.

The hyena of the title, a gender- switching witchy beast both revered and reviled in African folklore, is a metaphor for those on the fringes of society: the mad, the homeless, the women who refuse to conform to norms.

Montreal-based Kidd is a riveting storyteller. She renders Hyena Subpoena with the rhythms of rap and spoken-word poetry, with growls and snarls as the inner hyena emerges, or long-limbed leaps across the stage as antelope flee predators. As she wraps a flexible tent around herself or straps on antlers and helmet, the audience is enveloped in the story, primed for outrage, despair or laughter at her command.

A few times, her enthusiasm causes her to trip over her words, but this is swallowed by the machine-gun relentlessness of the text. It becomes obvious why this was shortlisted for multiple poetry awards in Canada.

Written by Kidd and directed by Paul van Dyck, Hyena Subpoena is dazzling but also disjointed at first encounter. The second sketch is so obviously drawn from Kidd's real life that it confuses viewers sinking into the story of fictional Mona Morse, who has fled human civilisation for the call of the wild. It might have helped to use the original title suggested in the post-show talk, Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Hyena. Or perhaps the sketch and its apology for scavenging off another culture should have been shifted to another part of the performance.

Props are perfect for a travelling show about living rough. A few branches and sticks of wood to mimic a campfire. A stick of chalk, a fur vest, things that fit into a camping cooler. The problem is their place on the stage. The design of the Gallery Theatre ensures any objects close to the front row are invisible to viewers in rows four and above.

The performance includes beats and music - atmospheric soundscapes - by DJ Jacky Murda, video by Geoff Agombar and lighting design by Jody Burkholder. At first, multiple media set the mood. The music underscores the vocals. Lighting resembles, or is, a camping torch held by the actor and shone on her face. Footage of hyenas in the wild is projected on the theatre screen and on the camping tent.

By the third sketch, however, Kidd ends up dazzling despite the multimedia instead of because of it. The footage drags attention away from the rightful focus of the show. When the actor speaks gently to a tiny plastic elephant in her hands, who can spare a glance for the pachyderms projected on the screen?

Towards the end, when the music dies away and the video disappears, we are left with Kidd - or Mona - waving bare branches in an ecstatic imitation of flight, seeking freedom through her art. It is then that the production soars. Getting back to the basics works best for a performance that is about primal instincts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline 'Animal magic'. Print Edition | Subscribe