I’ve followed Cake Theatre from its beginnings – watched shows like Queen Ping, Divine Soap, y grec, Cheek, Flare, Temple, Decimal Points (various), Illogic – and time after time, it’s thrilled me with its colour, its chaos, its intensity, its insanity, and ultimately its soulfulness. Mind you, I haven’t always loved specific shows, but I’m a big fan of Cake aesthetics.
And OH GOD did Versus deliver on that.
Yes, I agree with the critics – Versus is exhausting in its relentlessness, and things didn’t really hang together enough to yield a truly satisfying ending.
But it was FUN. I basically spent the first half (before my brain conked out) with a great big smile on my face, going wheeeeeeee!!! Look at the costumes, the sets, the voguing! So much voguing!
Also, the fact that a lot of talent involved were young ‘uns. There’s Michelle Tan, the resident playwright; actors Andrea Ang and Thomas Pang and dancer Kenneth Tan (aka Mr Eight-Pack), along with a bunch of ensemble members: Bib Mockram, Kow Xiao Jun, Alexandre Thio, and zillion more in the crew and the film cast.
But in case you didn't watch it - and I know a lot of Cake fans couldn't get tickets - here's a run-down of what I thiiiiink was going on.
Versus isn't about war, per se - it's more about the struggle of creation against destruction, played out between archetypal figures from history. The closest thing we've got to a protagonist is Mary (Andrea Ang), who isn't just a Virgin Mother but also a prophetess of some sort, or an artist - the Creatrix, as it were. She gives comfort and counsel to the other characters, but not in a soppy way - Andrea plays her as a bad-ass foot-stomping miniature dynamo of a gal, her stage presence burning hot as she line-dances and hand-jives to utterances of gibberish.
Our antagonist is a tyrant, probably Herod (Julius Foo) - he's never referred to by this name, but it's mentioned that he's massacred thousands of babies on suspicion that they might be greater than he. He's got more than a hint of Caesar to him, too - he's trying to hunt down and execute Jesus (Sukania Venugopal), who's silent and gracefully gestural throughout. Herod's also got a thing going on with an ambitious temptress queen who speaks only in Mandarin, dances with fans and blows puffs of tobacco smoke containing the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - I'm gonna call her Lady Macbeth (Goh Guat Kian) - they wed and form an unholy alliance to conquer the globe.
Then there are the ordinary folks caught between them. There's a Soldier (Thomas Pang), who's dramatically, hyperactively tortured by the endless wars he's been forced to fight since time immemorial, for empire after empire, from Egypt to Japan. And confusingly, there's another Mary (Edith Podesta) - a later incarnation, perhaps: a more mortal, more airheaded avatar of the first, who complains of the invisibility and loneliness of being born with a common name. [Corrie Tan of ST has since suggested to me that she's Mary Magdalen. But she doesn't wash any feet!]
And flanking all of them are Angels (Rizman Putra and Kenneth Tan), plus various ensemble dancers who wear giant feather headdresses to become houseplants and suchlike. And there's a Crown - or is it a building, or a torture device? A Crown of Thorns? Which some fight for, and others are impaled against?
Also, in the middle, all of them go back to the beginning and become extinct animals: Triceratops and Sabre-Toothed Tiger and Pterodactyl and Woolly Mammoth and Giant Snake (the last of which is kind of Biblical, so OK).
Perhaps I'm making this sound less comprehensible than it was. And of course, people are speaking and dancing in opposite directions, all the time, so one's apt to get disoriented. But I did get the sense of a sort of quest at the beginning: the Maries trying to keep themselves and their own safe from the violent machinations of Herod (who hisses, he is such a Serpent in the Garden!).
But after the dinosaur interlude (which was hella fun, especially with the falling meteors!) we ended up with a focus on the Soldier, who had a throwaway gay lover from the opposite side of the army, and is receiving wisdom from the elder Mary...
Mary: What are all your problems saying?
Soldier: That my suffering is not unique.
Mary: That your suffering is not unique.
Soldier: It does not make it any less heavy.
Mary: It does not make it any less heavy.
Yeah, there's poetry in there, but my focus had blown a gasket by then. I was kinda slumped against my boyfriend, floundering.
And it's not because the Cake is too rich. It's because the principal human connection that I'd been holding on to had disappeared. I've experienced that in other Cake productions - e.g. Illogic - but by and large, its original plays are grounded in stories of characters with actual plots, going on their odysseys to somewhere.
And I guess what I've got out of the production is less a sense of an emotional journey than an aesthetic. And aesthetics are nice! Especially when you consider the huge amount of work that went into designing costumes and sound and video and lighting and gesture; and the sheer energy it took to throw everything including the kitchen sink into the spectacle of a one-weekend show.
But I have come to expect more from Cake. Out of the storm of chaos, I want a story that'll stick with me, hard.
Out of the noise, a melody.
Something like that.