THE DUCHAMP SYNDROME
Por Piedad Teatro, El Trapo Teatro and
The Play Company Gallery Theatre
National Museum of Singapore/Wednesday
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 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 audiences to Juan (Vega), a Mexican janitor 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" artworks 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 retrieves a miniature Juan puppet, sitting at its own tiny table. He continues to introduce even tinier Juan puppets 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.
Vega's acute sense of humour and storyteller's instinct is striking. As the puppets and props get smaller, his energy builds, drawing us into the child-like universe Juan has built for himself.
The spirited performance of Vega - who made all the puppets - is complemented by his "shadow" (a delightful Miguel Perez Enciso). Dressed like a ninja, Juan's shadow is a loyal sidekick that helps him animate the puppets and create "special effects".
One particularly brilliant scene stands out: Juan and his shadow moving perfectly in tandem, alike but not identical.
For a lonely man, Juan has many "friends" in America: Tony the cockroach, who gives him tips on comedic timing; Roomby the vacuum robot which helps with the cleaning; and 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.
The 75-minute production is a visual and auditory feast, using toys such as a matchbox-sized music box that plays What A Wonderful World and props that come in life and miniature sizes.
But behind the "wonderful world" is a not-so-wonderful reality comprising, among other things, Juan's mother in Mexico who longs to witness his success in America; Maria, his absent lover; and guilt tied to an episode from his childhood.
Nonetheless, we see only 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, as Juan offers a happy ending, but at a price.
That happiness is available only 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.