“Pretty Butches, Walking Down the Fringe“
Reviewer: Cordelia Lee
Performance: 11 January 2017
Five individuals straddle the line between femininity and masculinity in Tan Liting’s latest production, Pretty Butch. All, at some point or another, find themselves under stifling pressure to conform to gender norms. Through a series of painfully honest monologues and intimate dialogues, these characters reveal their internal struggles between remaining true to themselves and acceding to society’s conventions.
The doors to the production open ten minutes late. Bodies clad only in undergarments traipse the dimly lit space, indecisively dressing and undressing themselves with sets of folded clothes spread out on the floor. A soundtrack of haphazard drumming loops for the fifteenth time in the background, and my impatience grows.
I check my playbill to confirm it’s Pretty Butch I’m watching, and not Ming Poon’s Undressing Room.
Ten minutes later, they all find something suitable to wear, and finally proceed with the narrative.
Deonn Yang makes up for the agonisingly slow start by delivering her monologues with near technical precision. Carefully controlling her breathing and the modulation of her voice at critical points – a slight quaver here, a quick shift in tone there – the enlivens the text with emotions. Remaining firmly centred in all her scenes, Yang anchors her gaze on her audience and speaks directly to them. Her voice is small, but surprisingly steadfast with a hint of childlike sincerity. Her vocal delivery invites the audience to live vicariously through her poignant childhood experiences and heartrending recounts of discrimination faced as a butch.
Her performance feels genuine, unscripted even, and I am impressed.
The other noteworthy performance in the play is Farah Ong’s transformation from butch to pregnant butch. She avoids the stereotypes while anchoring her characterization on the struggles faced by an unconventional expectant mother. Ong throws a tantrum in one scene and crumbles from self-doubt in the next. It looks absolutely exhausting. Yet, she somehow manages to sustain her energy throughout the play, as she takes her audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Affection is convincingly conveyed to her onstage partner (Shannen Tan) through the smallest, and almost unnoticeable, gestures. As she holds her gaze a little longer during conversations and casually runs her fingers through Shannen’s hair, I find myself feeling thankful for an onstage intimacy that is neither forced nor awkward.
There is no tiring rant about society’s discrimination against androgynous individuals, and no one slams the patriarchy to prove a point. Pretty Butch does, however, throw out a whole slew of questions to its audience.
What defines a butch? What does manliness entail? Is an expectant butch mother any different from your conventional maternity-dress-wearing mother? If not, why does society mistake her for a pot-bellied uncle who doesn’t require a priority seat on the train?
Although it starts off slow, Pretty Butch redeems itself with a narrative that tastefully challenges commonly held misconceptions about individuals living life on the fringe. It enlightens its audience with new perspectives, and effectively opens up the conversation about gender norms in our otherwise conservative society.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
PRETTY BUTCH by Tan Liting
11 – 15 January 2017
Centre 42 Black Box
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Cordelia is a second-year Theatre Studies and English Linguistics double major. She views the theatre as a liminal space providing far more than simply entertainment, and she especially appreciates avant-garde performances.