Review: Am I Pretty?
Image: Theatre Counterpoint
Is cosmetic surgery moral, immoral, an art form, a marvel of modern science, a harmeless contrivance of the rich and vein or something more insidious that is changing our culture, how we think, feel, and talk about our bodies?
Am I Pretty? is an original devised performance which examines current issues around the self, body image, and cosmetic surgery.
Jazz structure informs the piece as the performers play with rhythm, movement, and sounds to create a sense of musicality and delve into the important question: “what do we want to see when we look at ourselves and what lengths will we go to achieve it?”
In the animal kingdom, self-awareness doesn't seem to be that widespread.
Primates like apes and monkeys, and dolphins do seem to have the ability to recognise themselves in mirrors, as we humans can.
But for us, as this piece from Theatre Counterpoint clearly shows, self-awareness might be more of a curse than a blessing since we can be - and many of us really are - obsessively dissatisfied with our appearance.
As incomes have risen over time and the techniques of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery have developed, more people than ever have the chance to opt for surgery to change the way they look.
Of course, surgery is not the only method of changing one's appearance - laser eye treatment, teeth whitening, the use of moisturisers and the like all get a look in here as part of physical 'self-improvement' in this piece.
Essentially, this production asks us to consider a whole raft of ideas and concepts related to appearance and beauty.
The format is non-linear without a complete, end-to-end storyline.
What we get are snippets of individual stories interwoven with factual statements, and masses of complex questions like "how do we define beauty?", which could easily fill a complete play on its own.
In fact, the piece is bursting at the seams with material - more than you might expect in a short piece lasting about an hour - and possibly just too much for its own good, because we get a sense of information overload, which may well be intentional, but nevertheless leaves us feeling as though we are drowning in ideas, questions and issues.
Some of the information we get is not for the faint-hearted.
There's a detailed description of a chin operation, which includes a plethora of complex medical terms as well as very graphic graphics.
And the back wall of the acting area ends-up being used as a kind of presentation board with sheets of paper hung up, covered in terms and lending a kind of lecture feel to proceedings.
Tsai-Chun Huang's cleverly-designed costumes start off as patchwork garments made from various bits of recognisable common items such as jeans, but with red lines - which might represent blood vessels - peaking through.
As the play progresses, the actors remove bits of their garments, making for a surprisingly neat and highly effective end result!
There's an aspect of the use of cosmetic surgery which does seem to be missing in Am I Pretty? and that's where people have suffered trauma, or have been born with terrible disfigurements, or have been afflicted by disease which has ravaged their features.
It's an important omission because these cases justify the use of invasive surgery in order to make life tolerable for those affected, and surely they deserve some air time in a discussion of this subject.
Am I Pretty? doesn't preach about cosmetic surgery or other forms of changing the way we look, though it's hard not to sense an underlying assumption that our obsession with appearance is undesirable and possibly self-destructive.
Theatre Counterpoint were right to elect to examine this subject - it is an important issue well-deserving of stage time.
And director Dadiow Lin and her inventive team have clearly researched this subject in considerable detail, but that in itself might be the problem because the mass of data presented becomes overwhelming.
Also, this subject seems ripe for consideration through the power of humour, but we didn't get nearly enough of it.
The approach seems rather serious and clinical, where the reality is more about the subjective opinions of individuals and those always provide ample room for humour.
That said though, Am I Pretty? is thought-provoking with considerable originality and potential.
But it would benefit from additional development to strip-back some of the content to focus more on the emotional aspects of this subject, and thereby provide further illumination about the frailty and foibles of us self-aware human beings.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Camden People's Theatre
Our show listing for Am I Pretty?
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