[Review] Citizen Dog recontextualised and modernised old themes from a classic literature

16 Jun 2018
Article by
Photos by Tuckys Photography

This play is honestly such a trippy ride. Even a week later, we’re still not sure what to think.

The cast of Citizen Dog is impressive, especially Liu Xiaoyi and Alvin Chiam, who both take on the roles of two characters in the play. While Alvin Chiam’s characters are visibly separate, wear different costumes, and do not overlap at any point, co-playwright Liu Xiaoyi seamlessly transitions from Lao Pu to Wang Yuan Feng in a matter of seconds, successfully pulling off a complete change in the way he moves, speaks, and carries himself, leaving the audience with no confusion as to who he is portraying at any point in time. The casts’ movements are timed precisely to sound effects such as running taps and the opening and closing of doors, without a single slip-up through the entire play. Lighting designer Lim Woan Wen uses brightly coloured neon lights to great effect, allowing the same stage to transform from a warm, homely living room to something much more unnerving and sinister. 

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However, for us, the most captivating character of Citizen Dog is the dog itself. Voiced and controlled by puppeteers Trey Ho, Ann Lek, and Darren Guo, it acts as an almost omnipresent -- and exceedingly vulgar -- narrator and comic relief throughout the play. Even without facial features, the dog is remarkably emotive, and moves with an eerie, nearly life-like quality. The sheer technical abilities of the 3-man team is astounding - they’ve memorised their lines to the point that it’s second nature to speak at exactly the same time and pace, even while controlling the dog, allowing the audience to merge puppet with puppeteers and see the dog as a single, living entity. While the presence of 3 puppeteers alongside the dog is jarring at first, they eventually blend into the background, aided by their costumes, which match the same patterns that cover the floor and all the furniture. 

But what is Citizen Dog really about? It consists of two parallel storylines, one about an old reclusive writer, Lao Pu (Liu Xiaoyi), and another about a strange, otherworldly girl named Xiao Cui (Jo Kwek). Lao Pu writes Xiao Cui’s story, mirroring the happenings in his own life in the plot but with added supernatural elements. This is quite obviously a homage to Pu Song Ling, the 18th century writer of Liao Zhai Zhi Yi (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio), which Citizen Dog draws inspiration from. As the play progressed, though, Xiao Cui’s story becomes more of a parallel to Lao Pu’s, rather than a subset. Their two stories twine and intersect throughout the play, reflecting common occurrences and themes. Both feature greed and corruption. Land authority official Wang Tai Chang (Alvin Chiam) takes advantage of Xiao Cui's situation, pressurising her to be with him, in return for staying in his house and tutoring his son. And similarly, Bai Jia (also played by Alvin Chiam) lets Lao Pu stay in the soon-to-be demolished house in return for sexual favours from Ah Xiu (Li Xie), the masseuse boarding with him. There is also violence and death towards in both storylines, as Lao Pu saws off a chunk of his own flesh to keep his fox spirit statue, and Wang Tai Chang’s son (also played by Liu Xiaoyi) is brutally mauled and killed by the titular dog. This, perhaps, is where Citizen Dog truly embodies the spirit of Pu’s writing. 

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Liao Zhai Zhi Yi is a Chinese literary classic consisting of a collection of close to 500 short stories, and serves as a social and political commentary with several broad themes. The first targets corruption in the education system - Pu believed that the examination system was unfair as students often bribed and cheated their way to getting good grades. In Citizen Dog, this is reflected in Wang Yuan Feng, the dim-witted son of Wang Tai Chang - despite studying for 20 years, he is unable to pass the national examinations. However, with supernatural aid from Xiao Cui, he becomes smart overnight, and is instantly capable of passing. Secondly, Pu highlights the unfairness of the government and justice system. In his time, criminals were treated differently based on their status and background - many officials were corrupt and the wealthy and powerful could easily go unpunished for committing crimes. This theme can be seen in how Bai Jia, a government official, decides not to chase Lao Pu out immediately, and instead allows him to live in his house for an extra month in exchange for sexual favours from Ah Xiu. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Liao Zhai frequently extolled the virtues of pure, faithful love, often expressed between a poor scholar and a beautiful, otherworldly spirit or demon. Wang Tai Chang and Xiao Cui, as well as Lao Pu and Ah Xiu’s love stories run parallel throughout the play, but often with a greater emphasis on lust and desire than romantic love. Ultimately, Pu, through Liao Zhai Zhi Yiaimed to illuminate certain truths about humanity and society. This straightforward, honest goal is reflected in the set, which is the mere skeleton of a house, with no doors or walls or windows, everything all bared for the audience’s eyes. 

Furthermore, there is an exchange in Lao Pu’s life and Xiao Cui’s story that we found quite interesting. The masseuse staying in Lao Pu’s flat manipulates him into believing that she is a fox spirit that had come to him because they had an unfinished romance in their past lives. He pledges to give her everything he owns, asking to “tag along” with her. However, she says he is “just mortal bones” and leaves him. In the story that Lao Pu writes — Xiao Cui’s story — a similar exchange occurs, except Xiao Cui really is a fox fairy, having demonstrated supernatural powers in the scenes before. Therefore, it is not just in Pu’s magical realist stories that there is this much greed and corruption and loneliness. All these are part of humanity, and they exist in the 18th century world that Pu lived in, and the 21st century world we live in now. 

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And if all these abstract statements about humanity have the audience lost, one of the most accessible themes that Citizen Dog features is that of displacement from home. In 2020, owners of 191 terrace houses in Lorong 3 Geylang will be evicted, with the expiration of their lease from the Singapore Land Authority. Each owner has also been assigned a SLA officer to guide them through the lease expiry process. Using this exact situation as its initiating event, Citizen Dog then poses the question: when the time comes, what will happen to the people evicted? What will happen to those who have nowhere else to go, or have something tying them down to that property? If government officials can be so blatantly corrupt, like in both Liao Zhai Zhi Yi and Citizen Dog, the fate of those who cannot leave the expired leasehold land will be indeterminate. 

Moving away from thematic analysis, something else that struck us is how smoothly Citizen Dog draws the audience into its story. Upon entry into the theatre, we are met with a stage already set, characters milling about, as if their world is one that stretches far beyond the time and scope of the stage. Indeed, Citizen Dog constantly kept up the illusion that the events in the play are real, even as these happenings become stranger and stranger as it goes on. This is achieved through pushing the audience to suspend their disbelief in increments, and relying more and more on the audience’s imagination to complete the set. The raked stage (a stage sloping upwards away from the audience -- in Citizen Dog it is at a 10 degree angle) not only improves the view and sound for the audience, but creates the illusion that the events of the play really are unfolding before their eyes. The fact that there are no doors or walls in the set does something similar: characters mime opening and closing non-existent doors, or lean on non-existent walls, and the audience is forced to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Furthermore, with only the bare bones of a house provided, and with the dull tessellated wallpaper acting like a kind of visual white noise, we are also made to furnish the set in our heads, and complete it with what we know to be in a home. With our increased imaginative involvement in a set left “incomplete”, we not only had a greater stake in the play, but also a greater willingness to accept whatever absurdities happened next. Filling in the gaps like with the doors and walls, we equated sensual moans with actual sex, and gross, squelching sounds with the actual transplant of a heart. Incrementally, Citizen Dog pushes us to suspend our disbelief, and thus successfully traps us in its trippy, supernatural world for a whole two hours. 

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And in this strange, strange world, this play brings to us old themes from an old writer, recontextualised and modernised, showing us that no matter the time or place, or whether there is magic or not, human greed, human corruption, and human love exist.


About the reviewers
Alicia & Joellene: "We're just two friends passionate about movies and film! We want to learn more about the art of making film, and have created a platform to showcase our analyses. This is our first foray into theatre reviewing. We hope to illuminate the scene with our unique perspectives. Feel free to hit us up in our forum or slide into our dms on instagram at @thebacklight_"

You can also find the article here.


Citizen Dog
By The Finger Players

Date: 8 Jun 2018
Time: 8:00pm
Venue: Victoria Theatre
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