See my interview with director Dadiow Lin and performers Tori Zdovc, Mira Yonder, and Valentin Stoev.
The start of Am I Pretty? feels like an academic exercise – the premise is to convey a set of situations surrounding cosmetic surgery by utilising the jazz musical form as a framework to structure the performance. The set is fairly scant and black box, the costumes a half-complete set of measuring marks (typically found on mannequins) that the characters can remove fabric pieces from as they undress and shed preconceptions about the topic. The finer points of the piece may be lost in translation but Dadiow Lin’s concept provokes an interesting question.
What do we all think about cosmetic surgery?
Performers Valentin Stoev, Tori Zdovc and Mira Yonder enact a series of interlinking vignettes that tackle different slants around having what is ultimately a change in aesthetic. Teenagers that want to change their look; plastic surgeons that train for years to become qualified in the field; patients before and after the operation; concerned families and friends; even a detailed look at the procedure for a chin reconstruction itself. Each snapshot takes a different form and there is the feeling that whilst Am I Pretty? is scripted, there is the injection of selective improvisation points. Either that or the cast are unsure of their lines, lacking confidence in their characterisation.
Each character on its own lacks impact, the overarching message being the one that leaves its mark. For the most part, Stoev and Yonder give a flat verbal performance, lacking inflection in their longer pieces of dialogue or a firm grounding within each of the miniature characters. The starting scenes switch and move too fast, not enough time is given to establish an individual before rushing off stage to try and crawl under the skin of another. Zdovc seems best equipped to do this at pace – a set of naïve, flighty and somewhat vacuous personalities allows her to quickly form her overall character arc. Throughout the show, she in particular morphs the most effectively – her depiction of a post-operative patient is harrowing, the rapid alternation between being physically incapacitated from the surgery and mentally optimistic that everything in her life will now change for the better. She took control over look, so surely, she is now in control over her life…
Stoev and Yonder add their impact in the more abstract spoken and movement pieces – they mirror each other as they stretch and examine their faces; Stoev repeats answers to questions posed a thousand times with ever increasing anxiety; Yonder delivers a steady rhythmic walking bass with key words and phrases spat out, designed to wound and hurt those going under the knife. All decisions add to the overall discussion, the cloud of information that Theatre Counterpoint create and float over the audience, drip-feeding points of view to slowly digest. In particular, statements made by youthful individuals have greater weighting – Lin makes a clever decision to infantilise the most complicated decisions in order to add gravitas. It feels more personal when the person going under the knife is young, bullied and emotionally unstable.
Am I Pretty? doesn’t preach, advocate or take sides for or against. The majority of the show seems to tip the balance against cosmetic surgery, something that Lin needs to carefully consider to ensure an unbiased presentation. But it is clear that the decision, whilst ultimately a personal one, affects many related ancillaries. The perception of oneself shifts, but so does the perception projected to society and this is something that is too often brushed under the carpet when discussing this issue.
Am I Pretty? plays Camden People’s Theatre until 8 April. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.