[Theatre Review] More Than Fist-Pumping and Finger-Flicking

Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy navigate the complexities of their lives and how hip-hop figured in it.

Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Thick Beats for Good Girls
Checkpoint Theatre
17 April 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
5–22 April 2018

I never had any affection towards hip-hop. While I appreciate its origins in protest, self-expression, and instantiation of one’s existence, the modern ones that are popular enough to be broadcast constantly seem to be excessive.

Furthermore, whatever ingenuity that reside in the lyrics are often drowned out by brash beats. The majority that pulsate to them seem to do so solely for the largely repetitive beats, and only hardcore fans would bother to look at the lyrics.

As such, it is no surprise that my arms are folded as Checkpoint Theatre’s Thick Beats for Good Girls began. But as the show unfolded, so do my arms.

The show, co-written and performed by Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy, does have its share of railing against society and middle-finger-flicking. But at its heart, it takes particular instances of their personal struggles, and how hip-hop serves as a refuge and an outlet of expression, and compels the audience to consider how this has wider resonances.

The chief merit of the show is its ability to go from relaying very personal anecdotes, such as discovering one’s sexuality vis-à-vis the strictures of their religious upbringing, to speaking about the oppression of the Jews throughout history—a particularly arresting moment by Bellamy.

What is refreshing is their critique of politics, and the illiberalism of certain people who are purportedly advocating for social justice. While the duo do not make an overt connection, the parallels between the prescriptivity of their religions stipulating what makes a good girl, and insinuations of what makes a good feminist (to some, listening to hip-hop is definitely not an ideal trait) are striking.

Through the oft-quoted line of the show in which the pair asks whether one’s feminism is big enough to encompass them, they advocate for a more inclusive movement through an intersectional lens.

While this leaves open the questions of what constitutes an intersection and whether a movement must truly account for all intersections, even if they conflict with each other, the pair must be thanked for introducing an often overlooked nuance in the debate.

With this being a very personal show, it is buoyed up by the friendship that the performers share. While Pooja Nansi, started off somewhat cautiously, she soon got into the groove (what is the hip-hop equivalent?) of things. From then on, there is an ease of interaction on stage and both happily role-play various characters in each other’s anecdotes, which makes it all the more entertaining.

That said, like the music they love, the show does have its excesses. While I appreciate the conscious effort having parallel stories for every theme, not all of them are as impactful as the ones presented by the other. Additionally, the choice of transition in which the performers ask whether good girls should do certain things starts off as an intellectual provocation, but it soon turns into a trope. After a while, one stops listening to the question and simply waits for the next anecdote.

Even though my arms are unfolded, one will not see me gyrate on the dance floor or pump my fist in the air anytime soon. However, if there is an incidental encounter with hip-hop music, I would be happy to strain my ears and tease out the thick message within the thick beats.   

Other Reviews

The soundtrack of their youthby Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

Sisters are doing it for themselvesby Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

‘Thick Beats for Good Girls’ Keeps it 100by Patricia Tobin, ArtsEquator

Thick Beats for Good Girlsby Naeem Kapadia, CrystalWords

Thick Beats for Good Girls: A Love Letter to Hip-Hop | Singapore Theatre Reviewby Arman Shah, The Everyday People

Review: Thick Beats for Good Girls by Checkpoint Theatreby Richard Neo, Bak Chor Mee Boy

Thick Beats for Good Girls: Breaking Down Social Constructs with Hip Hop by Teo Dawn, Popspoken

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[Theatre Review] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong is a gem of a play that deals with several issues subtly and sensitively.

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Interview] Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy on Good Girls and Thick Beats

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures, Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

To kick off their 2018 season, Checkpoint Theatre presents Thick Beats for Good Girls. To find out what exactly are “thick beats” or “good girls”, I decided to interview writer-performers Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy.

Both of you come from different cultures. What do you think is your culture’s view of what constitutes a good girl?

Jessica A good Jewish girl is respectful. She doesn’t draw too much attention to herself. She accepts the rules taught to her by her community. She is, of course, allowed to have fun, to express herself, to find joy—but she is also very aware of how her community might feel about some types of behaviour being more acceptable than others.

Pooja: A good Gujarati girl knows how to make the perfect rotli. She puts her community before herself and considers how others will see her before making choices in the way she dresses, who she dates and the things she chooses to say.

What was your first encounter when you were told or felt that you did not fit into society’s definition of a good girl?

Jessica:  Before I started making theatre, I was in a Jewish monoculture “bubble”. I went to a Jewish school and had Jewish friends. It was only when I took up student theatre in university that I encountered a much wider array of different personalities. Suddenly I realised there was a wider world out there than just being a good Jewish girl. And out here, I could do whatever I wanted.

Pooja:  When I was about eight years old, my maternal grandfather passed away and it was the first time I was told that women were not allowed to perform certain rites in the funeral. It was then that I realised that I lived in a world where women and men couldn’t do exactly the same things. But I remember thinking, “Who is going to stop me from doing exactly what I want?”

What was the first thick beat that you really resonated with? Why?

Pooja: It was hearing “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect at Killimanjaros on Boat Quay on the 27th of Nov 1998. It was my 18th birthday and I had never before experienced anything quite as euphoric as a whole room full of people chanting to the same beat and the same song.

Jessica:  Kanye West’s album, 808s & Heartbreaks, straddled too many genres for me not to notice it. It was an album of lovesick, heartbroken ballads. I knew that sort of music very well from the blues and roots music I loved. When I realised this music could be teamed with dexterous lyrics, cheek and swagger, I was sold.

While some hip-hop and gangster rap are expressions of protest, there are some that have themes of gratuitous violence and sex. Given your strong interests in social justice, how do you reconcile both sides of the genre?

Jessica: There’s nothing wrong with writing about violence or sex. The problem is performing violence as well as non-consensual sexuality. It is important for people to recognise that all rap artists have the ability to write fiction. Just because their lyrics are presented passionately or crudely doesn’t mean this particular person did those things. But, evoking a world where people behave in this way is important, because it does exist. It holds a mirror to life, where the colour of your skin might determine the education you receive, your treatment by the criminal justice system, and your ability to survive a traffic stop. Like the best literature, rap music forces us to think deeply about our values.

Pooja: If you are living in a community in which you constantly feel the threat of violence and aggression against yourself and against the people that you love, it’s not surprising that the art that you make would reflect this reality.

I think the question we need to ask is: What’s the bigger problem? The violence in the lyrics, or the fact that there are entire communities in that position to begin with? I also think that sometimes when you’re up against a wall, the only way to exact change is to skip the perfunctory polite conversations and use anger instead. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says that anger expressed and translated into action, in the service of our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification. Anger can be a powerful source of information and energy, and that for me is hip-hop at its best.

While both of you are no strangers to theatre, you are primarily known as writers. What is one thing that actors can learn from writers and vice versa?

Pooja: I am discovering the ridiculous amount of stamina you need as an actor!

Jessica: And in particular: actors who can also dance! HOW DO THEY DO IT?

Pooja: There’s also that interesting tension between thinking about the text as a performer and wanting to constantly tweak it as a writer. The thing about wearing both hats is that you can keep shaping the piece infinitely, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Jessica: Any creative process is a beautiful tussle however, and I’m enjoying this internal tussle very much.

As this is a very personal play, are there any personal discoveries about yourself or each other that have arisen in the course of rehearsals?

Jessica: Pooja introduced me to her hairdresser and I love him. Now I have to fly to Singapore every time I want my hair cut.

Pooja: Jess wears print on print with so much swagger, it is ridiculous.

What is one thick beat that everyone should listen to right now?

Jessica: Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”. It’s an essential reminder for self-love during a time of struggle.

Pooja: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It’s the hope we all need in a difficult time.

Thick Beats for Good Girls runs from 5–22 April 2018 at Drama Centre Black Box, National Library. Tickets from Sistic.

A First Serious Encounter with Carnatic Music

Swathi Orchestra musicians with their mentors.

Due to my earlier acquaintances with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), I was recently invited to attend Sangeetha Sagaram, a Carnatic concert by BAA’s Swathi Orchestra. While it was not my first time listening to Carnatic music, my previous encounters have always been in the context of a dance performance. As such, it is my first time simply listening to the music and letting it speak for itself.

Established in 2015 with the aim of promoting the growth of Carnatic music in Singapore, the orchestra consists of some music students from BAA’s education arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. It comprises 13 performers: five vocalists (Greeshmah Paramesuaran, Keerthana Babu Gopakumar Nair, Lalitha Rajandran, Sathiyan Sahana, Sreelakshimi Subramaniam), two vainikas (Preetashini Nagarajah and Raja Sankar Vasudha Sankar), two violinists (C Abhilash Mohan and Vismitha Rajeev), two flautists (Kalaiselvam Panesilvam and Logindran Govindarasu), and two percussionists (Arul Kumaran Gun Shekeran and Prashanth TR).

The concert has eight items, and as with tradition, it opens with a Varnam. Composed by Tachur Singarachari, it starts with the violin before the mridangam and kanjira enter with a strong rhythm. Such a counterpoint encapsulates the beauty of Carnatic music—the instruments have a distinct function, and while the different timbres and rhythms played appear to be in conflict, they somehow come together quite beautifully.

In “Sri Sakala Ganadhipa” by Balamuralikhrishna, which is a devotional song that invokes Ganesha, Hanuman, and Sri Krishna, we have a meditative invocation by the flute. That is mirrored by the vocalists in the starting portion, before picking up the pace of what turned out to be a vibrant and delightful song.

Speaking of vocalists, “Paripalayamam” by Swathi Thirunal, a famous Maharajah in the 19th century, best illustrates the difficulties that the vocalists have to deal with. This devotional may appear simple with its repetitions, but the singers have to be absolutely stable in maintaining the tempo, and not be carried away by the intoxicating drumming. Furthermore, the vocal ornamentations, such as the bending and oscillations of the notes, seemed to be subtler in this piece. However, I am happy to report that vocalists managed to meet the demands quite admirably.

My favourite piece of the whole repertoire has to be “Kapali” by Papanasam Sivan as various sections of the ensemble are given a little solo to show off their musicianship. The song starts off with a relatively simple but soulful melody. But the mettle of the musicians was soon tested as there are a few quick passages that required some coordination across the various sections, and they were handled with aplomb.

While it is generally known that musicians are required to improvise within certain constraints, it was impossible to tell which sections were actually improvised as they all seemed so intricate and well-coordinated. Perhaps, that is a testament to the skill of this young orchestra, as the concert leaves any outsider wishing they had more knowledge of what was going on, or the meaning of the words, so that they could appreciate it at a deeper level.

Swathi Orchestra is certainly off to a good start, and one hopes that it will grow and continue to nurture the next generation of local Carnatic musicians.

Sangeetha Sagaram was performed on 18 March 2018 at Goodman Arts Centre Black Box.

[Flash Theatre Review] Much Ado About Very Little

History is contingent and written by the victors—so what?

Blood & Rose Ensemble

Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group

25 February 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

23–25 February 2018

To illustrate the contingency of history, this production is shot through with meta-theatricality.

Several art forms [Foley sound effects, Shuang Huang (双簧), movements from Chinese opera, pop music, etc.] are employed to continuously highlight the performativity of the piece as well as the history of War of the Roses.

While it is generally intriguing and entertaining, the novelty of it fades after a while. Yes, in some senses, history and life as a whole is contingent—so what? It’s much ado about very little.

Furthermore, the lightness of touch erases the humanity of the characters, which what makes Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 3 and Richard III interesting.

You don’t need two hours to tell us that out lives are contingent and—in the grand scheme of things—our desires, struggles, and strife are petty.

[Dance Review] More of a Fairy Tale than Andersen’s Original

Podesta’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid strips the tale of its interpretative possibilities.

Photo: Crispian Chan

The Immortal Sole

Edith Podesta

18 January 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

17–20 January 2018

We often describe something as a fairy tale to mean that it is fanciful or one-dimensional. If that is so, then Edith Podesta’s latest attempt to retell The Little Mermaid is more of a fairy tale than Hans Christian Andersen’s original yarn.

The initial portion of the original tale sees the mermaid visiting the world inhabited by human beings. She falls in love with a prince and saves him when a storm hits his ship. As the prince is unconscious, he does not know of her existence. On finding out that humans have an immortal soul, she seeks out a witch. Despite learning that she can become human exchange for an excruciating physical sacrifice, the mermaid consciously agrees to go through the pain.

Such a tale raises questions such as what it means to be human, and whether the mermaid made her choice because she loved the prince or she wanted immortality.

In The Immortal Sole, Podesta appropriates this tale as an allegory of what one must go through to become a woman.

As such, Little Mermaid (Koh Wan Ching) does not fall in love with the prince, but develops an unhealthy obsession with him, and wails lyrics to “Toxic” by Britney Spears to a Ken doll.

Instead of being given a choice, Podesta’s mermaid is cajoled by the witch and her posse (Ma Yanling, Dapheny Chen, and Yarra Ileto) to fit in, as the former endures the group campily lip syncing to Spears’ “Work Bitch”. A similar sequence, but this time with Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”, occurs towards the latter half of the show, when the mermaid fails to make the prince fall in love with her.

In terms of movement vocabulary, while there are some beautiful synchronised movements in the shallow pool of water (wonderfully designed by Adrian Tan), we see the choreographic shorthand for internal turmoil—body convulsions and silent screams.

Unfortunately, they are not effective as they have been employed by one-too-many choreographers. Furthermore, these moments are not well-earned as the major conflicts in the story are diluted by the abovementioned lip sync sequences.

In another scene, having attained human legs, we see the mermaid being pressured by the witch and her posse to cock a hip and strike various poses—a patently obvious reference to body image issues that plague women. As the soundscape (also designed by Adrian Tan) intensifies, I thought the scene would culminate into a disclosure of something more profound. But all one gets is the use of strobe lighting, and we see snatches of the whole ensemble striking different poses in mid-air whenever the light flashes. This goes on for quite a while—a waste of technical wizardry and the performers’ athleticism.

In sum, The Immortal Sole is merely a reiteration of broad talking points, but it adds nothing to the discourse.

Worse still, Podesta strips Little Mermaid of her agency and, like a fish out of water, she is completely helpless against the seemingly malicious demands of society. Unlike the mermaid of the original tale, this mermaid hardly elicits any sympathy, and the show does a disservice to women out there who have truly struggled and pushed back.

Leaving the theatre, I realised that I would have a much better understanding of the difficulties women face in society by having a heartfelt conversation with my mother over supper.

More importantly, the ticket price of $27, which came out of my pocketbook, would have made for a rather hearty supper.

Other Reviews

“Notions of ideal beauty gone in a splash” by Germaine Cheng, The Straits Times Life! 

“M1 Fringe Festival 2018: The Immortal Sole by Edith Podesta (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Dance Review] Innovative Adoration

Bosque Adora
Rocío Molina (with Eduardo Guerrero and Fernando Jiménez)
27 October 2017
Esplanade Theatre
27–28 October 2017

The conflict between the purists and innovators in dance is a long one that crops up in any genre. Had both sides shared a box during Rocío Molina’s Bosque Adora, they will be confused… in a good way.

Conceptually, the rituals of hunting and mating, and the dynamics between the masculine and feminine are staple themes. Additionally, fans of Molina’s usual abstract approach to flamenco would be surprised by the almost linear progression of her work.
Yet, the work is far from letting the general audience shouting olé at the end of each segment, or the aficionados from clapping the rhythms of the dance. So far, in fact, that we find ourselves in the heart of a forest, after watching an intricate film of Molina racing across the landscape on horseback before being thrown off while she tried to cross the river.

From there, she emerges as an enigmatic and long-snouted vixen, with a mask on the top of her head. A British counterpart likens it to the Teumessian fox. Be it a mythical animal that cannot be caught, or a sleek and alluring animal, this patch of land is clearly hers, and she easily dominates the men (Eduardo Guerrero and Fernando Jiménez). This starts the process of hunting, seduction, mating, hangover, solitude, and being hunted.

Throughout the 90 minutes, Molina employs a movement vocabulary influenced by modern dance, cabaret, flamenco and many others. But rather than cautiously picking out certain things based on genre, her allegiance is to what she is trying to convey.
Even within the flamenco idiom, she is keen to push the envelope by breaking body lines, flexing one’s feet, and having an echo audio effects that would annoy any purist who believes that rhythm is the heart of flamenco.

All these culminate in a thrilling display of corporeal virtuosity that evokes the animalistic nature in all of us. This is complemented by her fellow dancers. Eduardo Guerrero is a suave feline on the prowl, while Fernando Jiménez emanates strength and machismo. Molina manipulates them by straddling the former and snatching an orange from the latter’s mouth, but she soon finds herself entangled in a power play—the hunter and the hunted are both sides of the same coin.

If the dancers are the main course, the music is the sauce. The trombones, electronic effects, and percussion dominate the first half, which create a heady atmosphere for the rituals of hunting and mating taking place. The percussion also adds to the hypnosis when Pablo Martín Jones adds gamelan-like quality to the sound by playing various rhythms with the instruments scattered on the floor. The lilt of the guitar comes in the second half which eases the tension slightly and brings us back to familiar ground.

While the dream that we are thrown into ends abruptly in the final scene, one leaves the theatre with a pleasant hangover; unsure of what just happened, but ever so ready to be thrown back into the forest again.

Other Review

“Bosque Ardora (Forest Worship) – review” by Stephanie Burridge, FiveLines

Interview

“Rocío Molina ‘my work is intuitive’, interview” by Ezekiel Oliveira, FiveLines

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic

[Theatre Review] An Epic That Needs A Little Focus, And A Bigger Stage

The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey

Glowtape Productions

18 July 2017

Drama Centre Theatre

14 – 30 July 2017

The six-year birthing process of The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey—which depicts the folk tale of Meng Jiang Nü’s journey to the Great Wall after her husband, Fan Qi Liang, has been conscripted for its construction— is a refreshingly long, but arduous one. But unlike an actual baby, any kink can be rectified, and a rebirth can be arranged.

Despite careful preparation by producer Grace Low and her creative team, it is unfortunate that Low’s brainchild has slightly weak bones. Jean Tay’s book is torn between allowing Meng to drive the action or to use the tale as a platform to show the power of stories which outlast any empire.

The latter strategy is seen in Fan being a scholar, who defiantly carves classic poems into the wall in opposition to Qin Shi Huang’s efforts to rewrite history and his legacy, and various characters stating when and how they met Meng as a device to move the story along. While either strategy has great potential, alternating between both makes the show schizophrenic.

Furthermore, certain dramatic moments are not given the time and space to breathe. The two main ones are the blossoming romance between Meng Jiang Nü (Na-Young Jeon) and Fan Qi Liang (Nathan Hartono) (accomplished in the span of half a song), and Fan’s arrest. Despite decent performances from the couple, we are hardly invested in them as one wonders why Meng even bothered to make the odyssey in the first place (a decision made in record time).  

Aaron Khek’s and Ix Wong’s inspired choreography draws from the movement dynamics of Taiji and concepts in Chinese philosophy. The fluid quality of the movement sequences have an ephemeral quality that is apt for the spirits tormenting Qin Shi Huang, and the various people that Meng meets. However, the performers appear to be hemmed in by the lack of space in bigger scenes.

Similarly, while the various design elements and scene transitions are thoughtful, and successfully overcome various limitations, this show is screaming for more space. The lack of grandeur, especially when it comes to the wall, is a little jarring. That said, do watch out for how the dead is entombed within the walls as it is exquisitely haunting.  

Despite having slightly weak bones and being a little petite, it will be remiss of me not to report that it is still a healthy child with much potential.

The brightest lights of the show are undoubtedly George Chan as Qin Shi Huang and Na-Young Jeon as Meng Jiang Nü.

Chan benefited from having been part of the process since 2012, as he offers a wonderful and humane portrayal of a tyrant struggling with his inner demons, while being utterly determined to hold on to power. Such a take on the first emperor of a united China is rare, and I would love for a musical on Qin Shi Huang to be written with Chan in that role.

Jeon impresses on various fronts, as she has to tackle the emotional demands of the show; the physical challenges in depicting Meng travelling over various terrains; and David Shrubsole’s demanding score which requires her to hit both extremes of her vocal register. In Jeon’s Meng, we see a refined and demure lady that is led by love and devotion that has a Medean intensity. Yet, despite being in the throes of utter sorrow, she still has the wits about her to ensure that her husband has his dignity restored to him.

Shrubsole’s music is possibly the only element that gives the show the grandeur it deserves. From identifiable conventions (lyrical ballads or percussive Chinese music) to the slightly experimental, it is clear that he composes according to the emotional beat of the story. His lyrics can be quite poetic, but the nuances are sometimes lost in a flurry of harmonies and stage action.

While the show has considerable weaknesses, the boldness of the undertaking must be acknowledged. As long as the creative team adopts Meng’s derring-do in deciding how the story must be told, and aided by more resources, The Great Wall has the potential to scale greater heights.    

Other Reviews

“Promising journey” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Houston, we have a problem” by Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“The Great Wall Musical: Audio review with commentary from Adrian Pang and Tabitha Nauser” by Norman Tan, Tabitha Nauser, and Adrian Pang, Büro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: The Great Wall by Glowtape Productions + Ticket Giveaway!”  by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“The Great Wall Musical: A Moving Tale” by Our Parenting World

“{Media Invite} The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey|A Night of Stunning Vocals” by Audrey, SAys! Happy Mums

“The Great Wall Musical—A Review” by Vicky Chong, Vicky’s Writings

[Theatre Review] W!ld Rice Ups the Ante in Fourth Staging of Boeing Boeing

Boeing Boeing

W!ld Rice

25 June 2017, 3 p.m.

Victoria Theatre

23 June – 22 July 2017

There are plays which are re-staged because it is canonical, and every re-interpretation is an opportunity to disclose certain aspects of the show. And there are others which are re-staged because they are popular.

Boeing Boeing is the latter. However, director Pam Oei must be commended for not merely turning it into a tent-pole production that the company trots out every few years.

Glen Goei, Oei’s directorial predecessor, has paved the way by re-contextualising Marc Camoletti’s old-fashioned plot—of an architect maintaining affairs with three air stewardesses based on his faith in airline schedules, and the loyalty of his maid, and friend from university—for Singaporean audiences. Oei, having performed in Goei’s staging, makes her mark by pushing her actors to showcase the hallmarks of a farce, and what makes the show such a delicious guilty pleasure.

For starters, she literally pushes the actors closer to the edge by approving Eucien Chia’s set design. Chia takes the intimate space of Victoria Theatre, and makes it even smaller by having the set farther down-stage. With numerous doors fanning out towards the audience, one is pulled into the action. One wonders which one would open, and secretly hopes that it does at an inopportune moment just to see how Bernard, the architect, weasels his way out of the situation. The smaller playing space also makes it more difficult to distract one stewardess, while shooing another one out.

Additionally, Chia’s industrial aesthetic, which is softened by an earthy palette of the furniture and doors, is an urbane and clever complement to the colourful carousel of amorous dalliances that takes place in the show.

While Oei, as director, no longer needs to wear a form-fitting uniform for the show, she does not loosen the corset on the performative elements. After taxiïng to the runway with the introduction of Jeanette (Oon Shu An) from Singapore Airlines (SIA), and Bernard (Rodney Oliveiro) boasting to Roger (Shane Mardjuki), his university friend, about his smooth operation, the show takes on the speed of a Concorde.

The breakneck speed of the physical antics, executed so flawlessly by every single actor, is no mean feat. Rarely are we treated to such a well-coördinated comedy at an early stage of the run.

Jeanette (Oon Shu An), the materialistic Miss SIA; Jayanthi (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai), the strong-willed but down-to-earth Miss Air India; and Jin Jin (Judee Tan), the patriotic but mawkishly romantic Miss Air China induce raucous laughter by playing their stereotypes to the hilt. Even though naturalism is not expected in a farce, the women endear themselves to the audience in the brief moments when snatches of their personality peek through the stereotypes. Kudos to the three actors who seamlessly juggle both aspects wonderfully.

The intensity of Shane Mardjuki’s Roger peaks too early, but he manages to maintain it without spiralling out of control. Despite being in awe of Bernard’s international harem, the boy from Kuching proves more adept at keeping up the charade, while pursuing his own interests. 

Bibeth Orteza, as the beleaguered maid Rosa, brings much mirth as she punctuates the show by exclaiming, “It’s not easy!” While it is overused, Orteza’s energy and keen sense of timing provides a welcomed break from the flurry of activities among the other characters.

Despite nailing the physical aspects of the show, Rodney Olivero does not add much to the paper-thin character of Bernard. When Roger tries to hint to him that his plans have gone awry, his incomprehension is one-note which stifles the comic potential of the scene. Furthermore, the rapidity of the scenes sometimes proves too much for Olivero as he accidentally calls Jayanthi, Jin Jin at one point. Unfortunately, his scene partners decide to ignore it and forgo an opportunity for improvisation.

In the programme notes, Oei mentions that she wants to offer her audience a “respite from the cares and confusion of the world.” Therein lies the key to the show’s success—working hard to have that light touch. While there are many limitations to the conventions of farce, this iteration of Boeing Boeing ensures that one does not dismiss it right off the bat.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Shane Mardjuki shines in fourth staging of Boeing Boeing” by Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times Life

“Comedy Made for Singapore: Wild Rice’s ‘Boeing Boeing'” by Daryl Tan, Arts Equator

“Review: Boeing Boeing by W!ld Rice” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Theatre review: Boeing Boeing” by Renée Batchelor, Buro 24/7 Singapore

“Theatre Review of W!ld Rice’s Boeing Boeing : The Year’s Sexiest Comedy” by Gary Lim, City Nomads

“Review: Boeing Boeing by W!ld Rice had audience holding on to their seats!”  by Chris Edwards, The Honeycombers

“W!ld Rice’s Boeing Boeing Brings Non-Stop Laughter and Delight to the Audience – Review” by Our Parenting World