© Photos by Throbbingpixels
‘Pretty Butch’ is a comedy, a sequence of character studies, a confession with some built-in campy dream sequences. When the audience enters the space, however, it promises none of these things – instead, it feels like the actors would be performing only through symbolic movement gestures for the whole night – a ploy.
I am forced to watch performers put on and take off clothes, but they take their time to set the scene, so I start to think about how angst-free I am about my clothes going through my daily life, whereas these actors seem like they will be trapped forever finding the right things to wear.
The drums in the sound score create an air of suspense. The four actors are convincing, and there are great moments of comedy and surprise. When thankfully the performers find the right clothes, something slightly schmaltzy begins to play. Someone in the audience chuckles and a fifth actor whose expression I cannot see enters the edge of the performing space. She is in a suit, the face of the show, presumably – the “pretty butch”. All the stereotypes fall into place. Leonard Cohen’s voice sings poetic truths and some actors mouth his words.
When the fifth performer enters the space, she tells a stereotypical-but-funnier coming-of-age story to her invisible mum. Hers is a standalone character in a play which splices two dialogues and her monologue.
In the evolving story of a pregnant lesbian couple, the profundity of queer anxiety is prominent, going for a pre-natal parenting course. Absurdity ensues when finding out there can only be “one mummy and one daddy”. It’s incredibly painful, but the script keeps it light. The receptionist ‘aunty’ is played by 3 actors, a brilliant device. Like the Hound of Hades, performing a hyper-choreographed sequence of gestures in unison, they are barred from entering unless they register as two mums.
The men’s dialogue is awkward and incredibly comic. Two men share a hotel room at a company retreat. They share push ups, sports bras, pickup lines. Things go a bit wrong when one ‘bares his soul’ and tries to get the other to reciprocate. In possibly my favourite scene, one makes his stand, bitterly but surely, that not everything has to be discussed.
‘Pretty Butch’ is not a play about ‘unmanly’ men and ‘unwomanly’ women, nor an angry ‘dyke’ play about people who don’t fit into gender norms. It’s a play that makes use of these stereotypes and stories, to wonder about the people who try to define themselves for themselves, to give voice and find peace without the need for a false sense of normalcy.
Bernice Lee for FiveLines.
Pretty Butch by Tan Liting (Singapore) M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2017 11 and 13-15 of January at Centre 42.