Man turns into beast in this play with a heart

In the grand scheme of things, humans as a species would be about three years old - but what wrathful toddlers they have been.

Just these last 200 years, they have wreaked havoc: orchestrating wars in a perennial tango for power and territory, filling the seas with waste and plastic, and mining the earth for resources with increasing ferocity to feed the gaping maw of consumerism.

And in humanity's quest for more animals have long been collateral damage.

Human Bestiary starts off as a look at species both vanished and vanishing, but it digs deep to present a searing catalogue of humanity's misdeeds and the scars these have left on the environment.

The play Human Bestiary is brought to life by a powerful all-woman cast. PHOTO: ULISES AVILA H.



    M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

    The Substation Theatre/Last Friday

The play by Mexican theatre company Principio is relentless and unforgiving: An Inconvenient Truth on steroids, and brought to life by a powerful, five-woman cast, who morph with ease from animal to human, from primal and sensuous to furious and despairing.

In 2011, a species of rhinoceros becomes extinct when the last of its kind is shot in the head by a hunter.

Two women get into a war of words online: The biologist is infuriated by the death of an innocent animal, the sociologist reasons that the hunter had a family to feed. (The biologist later recalls: "I was fascinated by beasts; she by men who turned into beasts.").

They meet up to thrash things out, but fall in love.

Later, they set off with another friend for a trip around the world.

But as they travel, stopping by countries such as Congo, Sudan and India, the world reveals to them not its wonders, but its horrors.

The play juggles hefty issues - civil war, genocide, terrorism - and a sprawling timeline, shuttling from the 1880s, as European powers staked their claim on parts of Africa, slicing it up arbitrarily and leaving behind a mess of tensions and contradictions, to 2223, where the last human on Earth is a woman, watched over by a talking eye.

But at times, the play stumbles over the train of its too-complex tale, and dizzying leaps in time and logic (the connection between global warming and terrorism, anyone?).

While the dense script may weigh the play down in parts, the spare stage makes for stunning viewing: a single foldable ladder, transformed by a few quick flicks and the arrangement of the actors' bodies into anything from a doorway to a boat, and a map of the world as a screen.

But this map becomes the backdrop of both beauty and gore: at one point, dreamy, constellation- like projections of the silhouette of elephants; later on, it becomes the canvas for videos and photos of piles of bodies, both human and animal.

The stage needs no other accessories when humanity and its horrors are themselves the spectacles and when the cast can so firmly and convincingly anchor the story.

Human Bestiary is a showcase of humanity's dark spots - but the play itself is a bright spark for theatre.

Vocal and thorny, it is a moving example of theatre with a conscience and testament that theatre can be not just entertainment and rumination under dim lights, but also a rude awakening that has you wringing your hands at the state of the world even hours after.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline Man turns into beast in this play with a heart. Subscribe