Review: Dishonour On Your Cow (Silvi Santoso)

Photo of Silvi Santoso by Olivia Stadler

Personal candid story tackling tough topics is still taking shape

The title and refrain of Dishonour On Your Cow, comic Silvi Santoso’s new solo show, is a reference to a line from the Disney movie Mulan, one of my sentimental favourites. Mushu, the tiny dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, rants at Mulan that, should she fail to live up to her familial and cultural responsibilities, there will be “Dishonour on your whole family… dishonour on you, dishonour on your cow” (her horse).

The show uses the movie as a brief framing device for finding confidence in yourself and moving past cultural misogyny, gaslighting, and, in her case, sexual abuse from family members. This is a show still in development, and was viewed with this in mind; as such, it’s still a bit raw, much like its subjects.

Santoso immigrated to Canada from Indonesia in 2001. Stuck with a second-choice man who was closer to her family’s checklist than her heart, she quickly found that the marriage did not match the happy life she had hoped for. She speaks about her difficult journey to self-actualization, complicated by the fact that nobody seems to believe her when she tells her truth about abuse – a theme that holds fast from childhood to adulthood.

It’s very difficult to objectively review a show that is clearly so personal and about such painful subjects, and therapeutic for its performer. My heart was rooting for Santoso the whole way through. What I longed for, though, was more specificity in the story. That doesn’t mean adding painful voyeuristic descriptions of abuse, rather observations about her life and world that are distinct and descriptive, in a way that really creates scenarios and characters beyond general desires and personality traits.

At the moment, the storytelling itself often skims the surface, leading to more telling than showing. There are brief mentions of past crushes and a generally disapproving family that appear as a mass. The most successful parts are the culturally-specific pieces when she gives us a fascinating background and terms on sexist Indonesian concepts of marriage, using and translating the terms and sayings. These are the types of things things that make this story feel specifically hers.

The trajectory of the story is semi-linear, but then splits. The story of her coming of age and later emancipation from her husband concluding before an extended standup routine and segment on the backstory of the abuse that shaped her, which she hints at early on. Since the former has more of a climactic, transformative ending, including an entertaining song parody of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” that bookends the opening housewife’s parody lament of “My Favorite Things,” it felt odd for it to come closer to the middle of the show.

It might be nice to see Santoso’s identity as a standup performer shine through earlier and to weave together the parallel narratives of confronting and overcoming abuse throughout, instead of leaving the most painful details to the end, giving them more of a feeling of shock value than catharsis.

Santoso is brave and open. Since the show is still in development, the script seems to still be new in her bones. This can result in a somewhat halting delivery as she recalls her lines. Once the pacing is tightened, her sharp observations will land more sharply.

A series of pictures on an easel embellish her stories, and sound cues add specificity; recorded karaoke versions of power ballads also set the mood. I did feel there was not a need for the quick blackouts because the scenes are all linked together.

Santoso’s piece has an important, empowering message, and some lines, such as one about the ludicrousness of asking what a small child was wearing in an abuse situation, will make you want to stand up and cheer. It takes guts to speak so candidly about such difficult and disturbing subjects, and it’s necessary to hear her voice and voices like hers in a growing conversation. The piece is still taking shape, and it will be interesting to see where she takes it in the future.

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Photo of Silvi Santoso by Olivia Stadler