By Richard Chung
(700 words, 5-minute read)
A peek inside the macabrely funny world of The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener, set in a 1950s American suburban kitchen.
In 1940s America, men went off to war, leaving the running of the country to women. Many wives and daughters stepped foot into factories and worked for the first time. And perhaps as the 1950s dawned and men returned to the workforce, something clicked within women returning to the home to become perfect domestic goddesses, and they realised that they had the potential and desire to be so much more.
Israeli director/choreographer Emanuella Amichai explores precisely this concept in her award-winning dance/movement piece The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener, as performers Merav Dagan, Ayala Bresler Nardi, Meirav Elchadef and Julie Nesher take on the role of dissatisfied housewives expressing their deepest, darkest fantasies in a surreal, suburban kitchen awash with blood. Channeling some of the most iconic women from the 50s, from Lucille Ball to Marilyn Monroe, these women offer a kaleidoscope of the female condition experienced in the era, touching on issues as simple as unfulfilled sporting ambitions to sexual objectification. Meanwhile, Jeremie Elfassy takes on the role of the hapless, possibly even murderous, husband.
The Neighbor’s Grief is a piece that leaves audiences with uncomfortable laughter, its visceral imagery often crossing the line between the exquisitely macabre and slapstick physical comedy, and sometimes, a strange combination of the two. There is an underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction within each of these women, and their inability to cope with it is externalised when the simplest of household chores become perverted by their grief – a cake mixture becomes a recipe for blood, gratuitously spilled all over the pristine white floor during the opening scenes; waiting for the husband to return home becomes an opportunity for one of the wives to perform a sultry striptease. There is a force with which eggs are audibly cracked (over their husband’s heads in an act to marinate and cook him) that exemplifies the innate violence that these women are saddled with, expressing it in mundane everyday routines. Later on, another wife lies on the floor convulsing, her desperate husband somehow pulling out her guts, in an attempt to stop it, paralleling an earlier scene where a chicken was similarly gutted and prepared for the roast: perhaps a commentary on how women are essentially the equivalent of meat, waiting to be stuffed and consumed by men.
Each movement in the performance is impeccably choreographed, as the women lip sync to old clips from I Love Lucy, an old Marilyn Monroe interview, and classic songs from the 50s. Even Jeremie Elfassy gets his chance to shine when he embodies Frank Sinatra (in a stirring lip sync of It Was a Very Good Year) towards the end of the show. Erez Shwertzbaum’s lighting design is spot on, especially in the way he precisely creates the impression of a half open door by playing with light alone, assisting in unveiling the darkness hidden beneath this veneer of perfection. Elements of clowning and farce are present throughout, from an inspired synchronized swimming sequence, to mindless conversations that devolve into literal ‘blahblahblahs’. These are simultaneously laugh-out-loud, yet deeply disturbing, as we are left to consider the horror of feeling trapped both inside and out.
Few shows have the ability to surprise us from start to end, but The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener constantly kept us on our toes, adroitly transporting us from hilarious visual gag sequence to noir crime scene in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the most surprising and powerful thing about the performance is its unexpectedly tender final message of hope, leaving us breathless with its optimism and touched by its warmth. As disparate as men and women may seem, there are times where all we really need to bridge the gap is to reach out, see each other clearly in the light, and connect emotionally once again. The Neighbor’s Grief is an immensely clever take on the breakdown of a marriage and the frustration of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and all we can really say is, it’s a bloody good show.
This review is based on the performance on the 24 January 2018. The Neighbor’s Grief Is Greener by Emanuella Amichai ran from 24 – 25 January at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.