The Monastery of Mercy
Meredith Monk not only impresses, but moves
By Cyril Wong
The first premise of communication appears in the programs and the flyers when we are presented with Monk and Hamilton sitting face to face across a table, leaning forward and smiling gleefully at each other. Minutes before the performance proper, a huge screen serves as the entire backdrop for the stage and on it are the static shadows of the two of them again, but sitting contemplatively this time, a comfortable distance between them.
Words - it is established from the very beginning - are not the only means for interpersonal dialogue. The table sits on stage before the shadows of the two artists with two empty chairs on either side. A woman playing Hamilton enters and sits on one side of the table, whilst Monk comes in from the other stage-end to sit on the other side. They lean forward toward each other and the show seemingly begins.
I could go on about how delightfully postmodern and self-reflexive it is that Hamilton could get someone to play herself in a performance; this act presumes the symbolism of their names as referential markers to their own specialised art forms, which come centrally into play in this interdisciplinary performance. But this would take too long. So many interdisciplinary performances in Singapore are such bullocks that when one gets to see it done more than well, one is first rendered speechless, then forced to reconsider the possibilities of this kind of performance. (What is ironic is how The Necessary Stage was busy with their latest play Revelations at the same time; its artistic directors could have learnt much from mercy and how the use of projected video images may be sparingly executed to heighten the emotional and dramatic tensions at play on the stage.)
But let me continue about mercy. The woman playing Hamilton (known as Louis Smith) points a light into Monk’s open mouth, and a tiny video-camera tucked away between the latter’s molars starts to record what it sees: Monk’s upper teeth moving up and then as she begins to sustain a chain of varied vowel sounds, ‘Hamilton’ moving a light up and down the inside of Monk’s mouth. There is no stronger analogy to relate how hard we try everyday to understand each other, whether in speech or through unheard empathy. However, the fact that one has to shine a torch into the cave of the other’s mouth hints perhaps at how rare it is that we actually do succeed in really understanding each other. The context of this difficulty would be the global stage upon which such recent events as September 11 and the war in Iraq demonstrate the consequences of a lack of mutual understanding at its highest and most destructive level, between whole countries built upon differing cultures and ideological frameworks. I am, of course, also assuming that understanding includes a capacity to sympathize and forgive.
The need to understand can also result in violence when we do not perceive what we hope to see in the other person, not understanding that each person is conditioned by different things that shape her or his mindset. This idea comes across too in the simple moment of holding Monk’s mouth open and peering with a torch into it, as if cruelly determined to find what may not even be there.
Soon, Monk and ‘Hamilton’ withdraw from each other. The former rolls her chair languidly backward away from the table, and ‘Hamilton’ draws a straight line on an endless sheet of paper that flies continuously off the table. The sound of the pencil across the paper forms the background accompaniment to Monk’s new melodic motif. One cannot but help but think of time-lines, of history sailing in a smooth line over our lives, floating like Monk’s voice. Soon, more performers from Monk’s vocal ensemble come on to sing with her, culminating in rising notes that float beyond the normal human range. Such wordless singing with its repetitions and contrapuntal gestures extends the theme of that universal desire to communicate throughout the various segments of mercy.
One of the segments involves a man in formal suit and tie who approaches Monk sitting with her back to the audience in a chair, and embarks on a duet with Monk that eventually breaks out into a syncopated section centering on the word ‘help.’ The word is repeated with greater desperation with every new melodic pattern, with increasing distances between notes and even sharp gasps in between, including a part when both singers start to morph vowels on a single note and the closeness of their pitches form a luxuriant clash of harmonic overtones. The harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities explored in Monk’s music combined with how both singers eventually turn from each other to stand almost iconically before the audience, while their musical pleas of/for help grow with heartstopping urgency.
There are some nearly cheesy moments, like when a bald man enacts dissident Indonesian writer Pramoedya Anata Toer’s distress at being denied paper to write upon while he was imprisoned; the paper is torn before his eyes by another member of the theatrical ensemble. The analogy is too blatant and its meanings too obvious for the scene to be moving. Another segment has a blonde soprano enact Magda Trocme’s generosity and compassion at welcoming countless Jewish refugees into her home during World War II. This involves a local cast in supposed refugee clothing – off-white trenchcoats? – coming in from the theatre exits to step onto the stage. The scene works only because of the earnestness of the actors (it can be read as earnestness as the recorded image of each refugee’s face as they appear to ’Magda’ is in black and white and hazy enough on the backdrop screen for differing interpretations ranging from hostility to anxiety to gratitude). A nice touch was how one of the refugees removed his hat in unspoken respect and gratefulness toward the Magda character.
Other memorable segments include how two pairs of singers blow into a bubble membrane formed between two vertical wires dropped down unobtrusively from the ceiling, creating a beautiful effect when they blow into the membrane and create the impression that it is the recorded sounds they are blowing to that are manifesting as rainbow-sheened protrusions in the bubble-membrane. Very Disney, one might say, but the effect was executed with such dignity that one could not help but be delighted and even moved by it.
Next, when the screen behind the ensemble cast turns a luminescent green, they start to sing and dance over instrumental riffs and repetitions, creating all kinds of sounds like moans, growls, and morphing vowels caused by shaking the head while performing the repeated bodily gestures. The energy of the music, singing, and dance-elements combine to make exciting musical theatre fused with unpretentious performance art. When the screen turns turquoise, with slight snowy distortions rippling jaggedly across it, pieces of paper float down from the ceiling while a lone shadow waits for all of the paper to finish falling, before commencing the next section. By this point, the audience was obviously and increasingly unable to get enough of the whole beauty and sustained emotion of the performance.
By the final segment, when the screen has an image of a man’s face turning distortedly from side to side with his open mouth brimming with silent laughter, there were audience members sniffing away in their seats. The ensemble cast comes on stage one last time to sing a final chorale that involves planted members of the audience standing up to produce percussive and aspirated ta-ta-ta-ta sounds to accompany the harmonies building on the stage, creating an aural atmosphere rich enough to generate goose pimples just as the show comes to its end with the grace of sunlight upon a darkened horizon.
To conclude, the talkback session after the show was ruined by Low Kee Hong from Theatreworks who went on and on in a cringe-worthy, arrogant voice about how Monk had worked with Theatreworks before, which is ironic since Monk obviously did not make a lasting impression on their own set of theatrical aesthetics and their over-eagerness to be as avant-garde and pan-Asian as possible. What Monk has not forgotten is the need for art to not only impress, but also to move.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003