[Theatre Review] The Last Generic Hurrah

La Mariposa Borracha generally celebrates life in the throes of illness.

La Mariposa Borracha (The Drunken Butterfly)
Creatives Inspirit
27 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Gateway Theatre Black Box
26‒28 July 2019

With a hospital hallway being projected onto a blank triptych, low beeps of medical machinery, and a digital display showing that a lift is out of order, one looks forward to how patient X (Shanice Stanislaus) will escape from the hospital and put on her final performance.

Unfortunately, the plot does not take much precedence after the prologue, and the show alternates between scenes when X is ill and a variety of dance sequences by the clown troupe (Snider played by Yazid Jalil, Tommy Wildfire played by Tan Rui Shan, and Z played by Dennis Sofian) as they try to carry on with the “show”. Thus, we see X struggling with different aspects of her sickness, and the dance sequences seem to cheer her up—to find the joy and love in laugh amidst life’s darkest moments.

Once the audience gets the basic premise, the show feels as if it is running on two tracks, and one learns to expect a fun bit, followed by a poignant bit, and that is it.

While it is enjoyable to watch the whimsical troupe and the larger ensemble (Krish Natarajan, Nicole Kong, Andrea Joy Alingalan, Alvyna Han, Zalifah Ibrahim, Carol Ee, Prema Latha) indulge in their inner disco divas; boy band heartthrobs; or Zumba junkies, these do not go beyond the idea of celebrating life.

Overall, Stanislaus, who also wrote this show, and director Alvin Chiam do have some good ideas: the heart-breaking phone call between X and her mother; and X perched on the ladder during a dance scene as Tommy passes her the balloons, making X the image of tragic clown as she bears the burdens of her illness. But they seem to be occasional moments of inspiration, rather than entry points into exploring an issue.

While the show could have been conceptually stronger, it is buoyed by the principal cast. The audience interaction with X is quite amusing, as Stanislaus has a wry sense of humour. Yazid Jalil puts on an engaging performance as Snider. While he may be the strict “master of punctuality” of the troupe, it is interesting to track his reactions throughout the show, as they betray a kind heart underneath a stern exterior. Tan Rui Shan’s Tommy is a ball of energy that keeps on giving. Dennis Sofian’s Z is endearingly earnest, and his sense of loss when X’s illness worsens does highlight the difficulty of caregiving.

Ultimately, the team needs to dig deeper and see what exactly it is about illness and caregiving they are trying to explore, while having both aspects of the show in a tighter weave. Apart from it being fun, what other potentials do the dance sequences have?

The drunken butterfly need not be in a hurry to take flight. It should take more time and consideration to plot its trajectory before doing so.

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[Theatre Review] A Boatload of Artful Ingenuity

Nelson Chia commands a well-coördinated ship in First Fleet.

Photo: Bernie Ng

First Fleet 《第一舰队
Nine Years Theatre
21 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Far East Organisation Auditorium, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
18‒21 July 2019

Those who are familiar with Nine Years Theatre’s repertoire might be surprised by director-writer Nelson Chia’s decision to write an original Mandarin script inspired by Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker (1987), and the subsequent play based on the novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Our Country’s Good (1988).

With both works appearing in the late 1980s to a limited reach, they could hardly be considered classics. However, Chia’s literary script and masterful direction truly makes a case for it to be considered so.

First Fleet revolves around the voyage taken by the first batch of British convicts and their accompanying officers to Australia to set up a penal colony. Governor Arthur Philip (Hang Qian Chou) tasks Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Timothy Wan) to rehearse a play with the convicts as a form of rehabilitation, to the sneering disapproval of Major Robert Ross (Mia Chee). Also wading into the debate are Father Richard Johnson (Jodi Chan), Dr John White (Shu Yi Ching), and Judge David Collins (Neo Hai Bin).

For a country that prides itself on the Magna Carta and how Britannia ruled the waves, First Fleet is a searing indictment on the seeming values and accomplishments that our former colonial masters hold dear.

Throughout the course of the play we see the officers debate the merits of punishment and rehabilitation; find out the backstory of the various convicts, which is a critique of the bluntness and corruptibility of the justice system (one sees poignant parallels to Edith Podesta’s Dark Room); see the potential of theatre espoused within the plot and staging; and receive a valuable acting masterclass.

Chia not only manages to fit all these themes into the show, he boldly exercises some artistic licence to reiterate his stance as an artist, while enhancing the audience’s experience of the show.

He departs from the original text by having the convicts rehearse Moliere’s Tartuffe. This is not merely a cheeky nod to the company’s production in 2015. Rather, this allows Chia to have one of the convicts, Lady Anne Sheldon, ask why they are presenting a French play when they are English—a common query that Chia faces himself whenever he stages a translation of a classic foreign play. In the show, Lieutenant Clark speaks about empathy and the value in the message of the play, regardless of provenance.   

Additionally, the fact Tartuffe is a comedic farce lends itself easily to the actors presenting a highly stylised acting. This is not only paves the way for Lieutenant Clark to coach his actors on naturalistic acting, in which characters act on inner motivations, it also provides comic interludes for the audience to take a breather from the darker themes in the show.

Whether you are viewing the show from port, starboard, bow, or stern, there is a stunning level of attention to every detail in the show.

Photo: The Pond Photography

Undoubtedly, First Fleet is incredibly demanding on the ensemble. Not only do they have to double up as the convicts,—the blind witch, Liz Abraham (Mia Chee); the man who avenged his brother, Henry Mason (Hang Qian Chou); the hangman, William Paterson (Neo Hai Bin); the aristocrat, Lady Anne Sheldon (Jodi Chan); and the maid, Mary Beckman (Shu Yi Ching)—they have to manoeuvre the sails and perform movement sequences as transitions. The nuances in the actors’ body are amazing to watch as they endow the sails and boxes with a certain amount of weight that is actually not there.

Kudos to Chia, in working with Lim Chin Huat (movement coach and set designer), to block movement sequences that adds visual interest and complement Lim’s nautical set design by creating the feeling of a rocking boat. Furthermore, the sudden tilt of the kerosene lamps that were attached to metal poles, and suspended from the top, in conjunction with the movement of the actors’ bodies is nothing short of astounding sorcery.

There is also an additional layer of gestural language in which the actors signal their roles by rubbing their wrists or looking at their palms when they are playing convicts, or clench their fists and clutch their coats when playing the officers.

This is, and I actually mean this literally, layered on by Loo An Ni’s wonderful costumes as the skirts, vests, and capes of the convicts turn into military coats by inverting them. What puzzles me is how she manages to provide a strong structure to the shoulders of the military coats without any obvious bulges indicating the presence of shoulder pads when they are turned to skirts or capes. Sartorial enthusiasts will also appreciate her designs that are vaguely appropriate for the 18th century while having whimsical details that are quite fashion forward, such as the steel grey faux leather shoes with diagonal zips running across them.

Add other details such as Gabriel Chan’s lighting design that carves out the cramped space of the lower deck, and washing the stage with a tinge of light blue to create the expanse and coldness of the upper deck; Ng Jing’s inclusion of a didgeridoo as a base drone in the soundscape, while having percussive elements on top of it to create tension; the slight wave-like effect when the surtitles are flashed on the screen; and the serifed font to differentiate the text of the play that the convicts are rehearsing from the dialogues of the characters—we get an extravaganza of theatrical languages that is diverse as the Tower of Babel.

Rather than descending to utter chaos, Nelson Chia—by some miraculous means or sheer ingenuity—ties them all together and brings us on a theatrical voyage that I have not experienced in years.

Of course, one cannot review this show without speaking about the ending. My colleagues may have expressed surprise and delight, but they have done you, my gentle readers, a disservice for not relaying the full impact of the scene.

Unlike most audience members, I am familiar with the auditorium and went into the show fully aware that the audience is seated on the stage of the auditorium. I half-expected the rest of the auditorium to be revealed as it would be a missed opportunity otherwise. However, as the expected come to pass, and we see the sole kerosene lamp on a seat in the auditorium with constellations projected on the ceilings, it is breathtakingly beautiful. As the convicts go into the auditorium and clamber over the seats, there is something cinematic about that and the seats turn into the rocky terrain of New South Wales in an instant. I had to take a moment to catch my breath even as the lights went up and we are ushered out of the venue.

Fun fact: Had the stars aligned slightly differently, Nelson Chia would have been a naval officer. If Mr Chia promises similar experiences in the future, the Republic of Singapore Navy can definitely do without an officer. In fact, it is in the national interest that they do so. 

Other Reviews

“First Fleet more than another colonisation play” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (Behind paywall)

航向希望的港口 ——观“第一舰队” by李连辉 , 剧读 (originally published in《联合早报》)
[Title Translation: Towards a Port of Hope—Watching First Fleet] by Li Lian Hui (pinyin transliteration), Lianhe Zaobao

“Doesn’t God dream of forgiving our sins?” by Idelle Yee, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: First Fleet (第一舰队) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Experience Meta-tea-trical Magic with First Fleet” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“剧场与艺术的力量 —— 观《第一舰队》” by 张棋汶 , 剧读 
[Title Translation: The Power of Theatre and Art—Watching First Fleet] by Zhang Qi Wen (pinyin transliteration), Ju Du

“Looking away for clarity: ‘First Fleet’ by Nine Years Theatre” by Nabilah Said, Arts Equator

[Theatre Review] Grinning and Bearing It

Happy Waiting pushes its audience’s generosity to the limit.

Happy Waiting
Grain Performance & Research Lab
12 July 2019
Stamford Arts Centre Black Box
12‒13 July 2019

Even if you were unfamiliar with the works of Samuel Beckett, you might know the famous pronouncement that his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, is a “play in which nothing happens […]”

Unfortunately, modern adaptations or productions styled after Beckett takes that too literally and conveniently forgets the second half of that quote by literary critic, Vivian Mercier, “[…] that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”

Happy Waiting, written by Beverly Yuen and directed by Bernice Lee, is one such stunning example.

Taking the general premise of Beckett’s Happy Days, Happy Waiting sees Vicky passing her days in a mound; going through her daily routine of getting ready, making breakfast for her husband, and hoping her husband returns home for dinner. In between, we see her recall the past; engage in inane chatter; and finding and losing things. Unlike Beckett’s original, we don’t get a clear presence of her husband except for punctuations of dance sequences by a man only known to us as Bobo (Neo Yan Zhong).

The existential conceit is clear: we trap ourselves in a mound of obsession, desires, wants, and hopes in a general landscape of meaninglessness.

But why would audience be glued to their seats? How dreary it is to trudge through an arduous day, only to be told that we have gone through life and trap ourselves?

What makes Beckett different from Yuen’s adaptation is the presence of danger and humanity. In Beckett’s original, things go wrong or could go wrong—the woman’s parasol catches fire and the presence of a revolver throughout the play is menacing. It is within this shadow, that the woman tries to make the best of what she has and, in the process, reveals the fragility of humanity. The process of getting on, and the mention of a certain Mr Shower asking what it means painfully reminds us of our struggle of making sense of it all, and our need to have our existence acknowledged. And yet the looming possibility of things changing for the worse keeps us where we are.

By contrast, Happy Waiting is absolutely sanitised. There is no threat and nothing actually goes wrong. Vicky (Sonia Kwek) simply grates on one’s nerves as she prattles about, trying to please her husband by cooking his favourite things or recreating dates that they used to go on. Without any further context and external impositions, we simply see her as stewing in her own pathetic self-pity.

What of the performance? The decision only to show the actor’s legs and hands for most of the first part may be a nice touch and change from the original, but it is undermined by Kwek’s inability to imbue more flexibility in the movement of her limbs. We soon fail to see the nuances of character that is supposed to be endowed in her stiletto-adorned feet. Kwek’s general portrayal is a caricature of a Stepford wife, rather than a woman who either truly believes everything is fine or has talked herself into believing so. Her saccharine chime of the day being great rings hollow, and one digs one’s nails deeper into one’s skin every time she says so.

Heap on the usual cheap devices of opening one’s mouth but not being able to say anything, or indicating the presence of tragicomedy by laughing till one cries, and you get bouts of exasperated sighs in the audience (many were heard on opening night) or a lady to my right investigating the split-ends of her hairs.

The slight saving grace is Neo Yan Zhong’s dancing as he displays versatility as he replicates tap dancing in silent movies by merely shuffling his feet; turn into a ghoul that only grunts; or a flamboyant Latin dancer, complete with big sheer ruffles around his neck.

That said, that are other elements that seemed to be added to the original: the play seems to take place over seven days (seven days of creation?); recurring motif of butterflies (an allusion to the Butterfly Lovers?); five baubles (our five senses?) suspended over the main opening of the mound; and the mound looking like a skeletal structure lying over red lights in a  blackout. But all of them are conceptually hazy, and end up being window dressing of a superficial absurdist play.

To be charitable with these elements is merely to create another mound; to justify that one cannot happily wait to recover the 90 minutes that has just been lost. The joke is already on us.

Other Reviews

“Review: Happy Waiting by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Review: ‘Happy Waiting’ by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Jeremy Lee, The Mad Scene

[Listing] La Mariposa Borracha – The Drunken Butterfly by Creatives Inspirit

La Mariposa Borracha —The Drunken Butterfly
If you were to do your last show,
what would it look like?

Join X as she escapes from the hospital to do her one last spectacular show with her troupe.

Expect a rollercoaster ride of emotions as X attempts to complete her mission encountering unexpected surprises, multiple failures, ridiculous dancing and one giant party!

Performance Dates/Times:
Friday to Sunday, 26 – 28 July 2019, 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 27 & 28 July 2019, 3 p.m.

Venue: Gateway Theatre Black Box
Nearest Mrt: Redhill Mrt Station

Come with your friends and family to enjoy this playful performance!
General Admission – $30
Student Price – $26
Confetti Couple – $52
Disco 4 – $100
Party Bus of 20 – $400

Tickets from Peatix.

Presented by Gateway Arts Festival 2019. Produced by Creatives Inspirit Pte Ltd.

[Dance Review] Complexities of Spaces and Bodies

Complexnya compels the audience to view Hong Lim Complex anew.

Photo: Crispian Chan

Complexnya
Dance in Situ and P7:1SMA
30 May 2019
Hong Lim Complex
28 May‒2 June 2019

It may be a marketing cliché to say that a place has everything you need all in one place, but Hong Lim Complex is one such place. With a hawker centre; an array of businesses; and several blocks of flats linked together with various walkways, it is a labyrinth. It is a no-brainer that Dance in Situ and P7:1SMA would choose to create a dance work to respond to the space.

In response to the built environment, Norhaizad Adam’s choreography emphasises the organic quality of the dancers’ bodies.

At the start, we see the company crawl backwards, as if being slowly sucked into a vortex. The dancers coalesce around a pillar. Suddenly, like a star burst, the company scampers in all direction save for one dancer, holding on to the pillar and wriggling her fingers as if she has been infected.

Whether it is an embodiment of contagion or accepting and rejecting someone within a group, different sort of relationships seem to be at play throughout the show.

The dynamics of human relationship is best encapsulated in a sequence between Chia Kok Kiong Jason and Muhammad Sharul Mohammed. Staged on a metal structure with several storeys and Chia is one storey above Muhammad Sharul, we see both dancers reaching out to each other from staircase landings, but never quite touching. As the parley develops we see both men mimic each other’s movements, move away, and finally supporting each other. The synchronicity, especially when they ascend and descend the stairs, is amazing.

Billed as a performance walk, the main conceit is that there are no ushers and the audience must interpret where to go based on the dynamics of the performance. As such, there is a repartee between the dancers (Chia Kok Kiong Jason, Ow Wei Tian Jonit, Xie Shangbin, Zunnur Zhafirah Sazali, Hasyimah Harith, Muhammad Sharul Mohammed, Nah Jie Min, Syarifuddin Sahari) and the audience.

There are times when the dancers stand still by a stairwell, which clearly signals to us to go up or down the stairs. There are times when no clear signal is given and the dancers look at the audience only to suddenly move in a certain direction at the last moment. The repartee also extends into leaps of faith, as there moments that requires the dancers to dart through the crowd without any warning. And the kinaesthetic responses of the dancers are excellent.

The most inspired moment of the show occurs when we arrive at the commercial area of the complex, and there is a dance school on the second floor as well as the first. One thinks nothing much of it apart from it being an appropriate reference. But as we watch a group of middle-aged ladies participating in a line dancing lesson, Muhammad Sharul dances to Chong Li-Chuan’s throbbing soundscape. The ritualistic atmosphere of Muhammad Sharul’s dance contrasts with the leisurely dance lesson below, as a couple of ladies stop and wonder why there is a group of people looking at them.

Suddenly, the rest of the ensemble assembles on the ground floor, and starts exploring the topography of the space, as Chong’s soundscape continues to be an undercurrent for 夜来香 (Ye Lai Xiang), which is the track that the ladies were learning how to dance to. This sequence ends with the whole company converging on the second floor and performing an energetic group choreography that appears tribal. In many ways, the congregation of the company is not unlike the group of ladies dancing below.

There is an odd sense of defamiliarisation that occurs, and this contrast casts a new light on an activity one would simply ignore if one were merely passing by. It is then that we see how Complexnya truly responds to the life of the place—the built environment that contains the human traffic, and the human activities that go on within the complex.

The only issue I have is the decision to let the audience wait for 20-odd minutes before the first sequence. If it is to let us take in the everyday sights of the complex, it is simply too long. If it is to wait for latecomers, and there were a few who came at the tail-end, there should be ushers to bring them to where the performance was taking place. If it is to coïncide with certain activities that will happen in the complex, then there is reason for the show to start a little later.

Fortunately, the performance more than compensated for the time wasted with beautiful sequences that showcases the dancers’ dexterity, and the messy relationships between the place and the bodies that inhabit it.   

 Other Reviews

Complexnya, a movement love letter to Singapore – review” by Valerie Lim, Five Lines 

“Review: Complexnya by Dance In Situ x P7:1SMA” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Listing] Singapore Lyric Opera Sings of Nature and Hope at Opera in the Park

The Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) is proud to present Opera in the Park for the 12th consecutive year on 15 June 2019, Saturday, at 5.30 p.m. The beautiful setting of Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage at the Singapore Botanical Gardens complements this year’s theme, “Nature and Hope”, as families and friends can indulge in a nice picnic while immersing themselves in opera music. 

SLO is grateful for the continuous support of Singapore Botanical Gardens and SPH Gift of Music in bringing opera to  a wider audience.

Audience can expect to enjoy joyful and uplifting arias from several classics such as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Delibes’ Lakmé, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, J. Strauss’ Die
Fledermaus, Verdi’s Aida and La Traviata.

The audience will also get to enjoy a mini preview of SLO’s upcoming production, Bizet’s Carmen. Jonathan Charles Tay will be singing  “La fleur que tu m’avais”, and Martin Ng will perform the rousing aria, “Votre toast”.

 The concert will also feature soloists from the SLO–Leow Siak Fah Artists Training Programme: Cherie Tse, Zhang Jie, and Chieko Sato. Regular  attendees of Opera in the Park will also be pleasantly surprised by new faces Sim Weiying and Joyce Lee who will be performing a couple of solo arias.

Joshua Tan, an up-and-rising conductor from Singapore, will be leading the SLO Orchestra. The SLO Chorus, Youth Choir, and Children Choir will also make a guest appearance at the concert together with their respective conductors, Terrence Toh and Rose Loh.


OPERA IN THE PARK: Nature & Hope
Conductor: Joshua Kangming Tan
Soloists: Cherie Tse, Zhang Jie, Chieko Sato, Joyce Lee Tung, Sim Weiying, Jonathan Charles Tay, and Martin Ng
SLO Chorus and Youth Choir Conductor: Terrence Toh
SLO Children’s Choir Conductor: Rose Loh

Programme

Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
• Overture
• Giunse alfin il momento (Sim Weiying)
• Aprite presto aprite (Cherie Tse, Joyce Lee)
• Sull’aria (Cherie Tse, Zhang Jie)
Delibes Lakmé
• The Flower Duet (Joyce Lee, Chieko Sato)

Wagner’s Lohengrin
• Bridal Chorus (SLO Chorus)
J. Strauss Die Fledermaus
• Im Feuerstrom der Reben (Sim Weiying, Jonathan Charles Tay, Cherie Tse, SLO
Chorus & Youth Choir)

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
• Scuoti quelle fronda di ciliegio (Zhang Jie, Chieko Sato)

Bizet’s Carmen
• La cloche a sonné (SLO Chorus)
• La fleur que tu m’avais (Jonathan Charles Tay)
• Les Voici! (SLO Chorus, Youth Choir & Children’s Choir)
• Votre toast (Martin Ng)

Verdi’s Aida
• Gloria all’Egitto (SLO Chorus, Youth Choir & Children’s Choir)

Verdi’s La Traviata
• Brindisi (All singers)

Programme not in order of performance. Artistes and programme subject to change. This concert is subject to weather conditions.

Complexnya: Interview with Choreographer Norhaizad Adam

Dance in Situ strives to bring dance out into the community. Their works are inspired by the chosen sites or residential areas that they perform in.

For the fifth edition, Dance in Situ has collaborated with choreographer Norhaizad Adam from P7:1SMA and sound designer Chong Li-Chuan to stage a performance walk around Hong Lim Complex. 

To find out more about the work, I spoke to Norhaizad Adam about his choreographic process. 

Norhaizad Adam (Photo: Shania Regina Santosa)

Could you describe your choreographic process for this production?
After our team’s first site recce of Hong Lim Complex in February 2019, I am immediately drawn to this space. I decided that it will be my priority to invite others to walk with us. The complex’s  architecture brings to my mind a sense of complexity. It may be common flat in plain sight, but a stillness exists. In every decision I make, I refer to the characteristics of Hong Lim Complex.

My choreographic processes are centered on instinct through tasks such as silent walk and artist talk-back. I value my team for considering the site’s presence and behaviour, and how it resonates strongly with each individual. My senses tend to pick up on fleeting and intangible elements which may motivate my choreographic score.

 How do you go about choosing the various locations within Hong Lim Complex for performance?
I am attracted to pockets of public spaces that feels poetic and cinematic. My instinct grows as it is loaded with nostalgic stories and the spaces offer different smells, textures and temperatures. It’s hard to describe in words, but I chose locations where its presence can be felt.

I try to avoid locations that are decorated with commercial and modern elements so as to offer everyone a chance to consider the element of time and an alternative vantage point.

How often were you able to rehearse in the actual space? How did you structure your rehearsals?
We had the privilege to rehearse and immerse in Hong Lim Complex. From February to June 2019, all our rehearsals were on-site. At first, we started with a silent walk to huge areas in the complex. Every level, turn, and corner led us to various routes and gave us different sensations. Eventually, the performance walk route developed through the choreographic process. I hope each space will slowly unfold its intentions, revealing secrets layer by layer.

In my practice, I believe that a site-work should be rehearsed on-site to awaken my senses and imagination. Our ‘Complexnya’ team is lucky to exercise and chit-chat with elderly Hong Lim residents during block parties whilst taking in everything that the space provide and hinders.

Another integral part to the performance is sound design. What was your brief to the sound designer? Could you give us some clues as to what sort of soundscape the audience can look forward to?
I am blessed to work with sound designer, Li-Chuan. In addition to creating soundscapes, based on his generous insights he has definitely expanded my impulses in the work. I am open to give full freedom to my collaborators as I trust Li-Chuan’s instinct and reasoning of what Hong Lim Complex is or used to be. He is present through the entire choreographic process, listening to conversations between dancers.

I also value Li-Chuan’s sense of adventure as he often explores Hong Lim Complex to find hidden sounds and ways of making sounds from objects and traffic. I appreciate Li-Chuan as his approach to sound design does feel like it is coming out from within the cracks in the walls or from a far distance. The interplay between the sounds of the place and Li-Chuan’s sonic input heightens the presence of the place, and adds another dramaturgical layer to the piece.


Complexnya runs from 28 May to 2 June 2019 at Hong Lim Complex. Meeting point is at Chinatown Point KFC. Tickets from Peatix

[Theatre Review] “Flowers” Offers a Subtle but Refreshing Scent

Flowers compels one to reflect on everyday violence.

Flowers
Drama Box
1 May 2019
74 Jalan Kelabu Asap
1‒5 May 2019

Partly due to the current zeitgeist, and partly a coïncidence of production timelines, there have been a slew of shows eager to address issues of gender, harassment, and abuse since last year. A common approach, at least in the shows I have caught, is to state various facts and declare the need for reëducation.

Apart from it being an experiential installation rather than a conventional theatre performance, Flowers (conceived by Han Xuemei in collaboration with playwright Jean Tay, lighting designer Lim Woan Wen, and sound designer Darren Ng) is refreshing because it is more intent on asking questions.

Set in a house within the Holland Village area, audience members are given a cassette player as they listen to a recording of a monologue delivered by Ann Lek, and they wander about a two-storey house for 70 minutes. The monologue details the fraught relationships a woman has with her parents and brother; the known but unspoken violence her father unleashes; and the different expectations placed on her and her brother.

The audience is thus cast as voyeur, investigator, and confidant all at the same time, as we are allowed to open any door and drawer within the house. The quotidian artefacts soon take a life on its own, telling not just the history of the inhabitants, but becoming symbolic extensions of the monologue. For example, the numerous photographs from Officer Cadet School in the brother’s room do not merely tell us that he has served national service, but it also echoes ideas about masculinity and expectations placed on young men.

As such, the physical act of exploring the house parallels the self-reflection that one undergoes. This is enhanced by the evocative, but reticent monologue. If you are expecting a dramatic recount of a violent episode, you will be disappointed. However, the suggestions within the monologue gives one space to fill up the details, perhaps from your own experiences.

This also expands the notion of violence, and how it can be coloured and complicated within a familial dynamic.

The master stroke of the piece comes when, while wandering about, you suddenly chance upon an actor playing the father. He never acknowledges the presence of the audience, but potters about the house, cooking, washing dishes, watering the plants, and watching television.

This sudden inclusion opens up an opportunity for confrontation or reflection. I found myself silently observing the father for any traces of violence, or, at the very least, impatience. My endeavour failed and I soon wondered what I was hoping to achieve.

Why should there be a clear-cut cause and effect? Is the father necessarily a monster, even though he committed a heinous act?  Does the mother have any agency in this dynamic? Where does the buck stop? Do we all also enact violence in our moments of impatience? How do we stop the perpetuation of violence in all its guises? Is it simply a matter of education?

In the cacophony created by stomping on soap boxes and declamations from high horses, the gentle prodding and a space to pause and reflect, as offered by Flowers, may just be a start towards a more productive and sympathetic solution.

Other Reviews

“Drama Box’s Flowers quietly challenges misogyny” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“The Wars We Fight in Silence — FLOWERS: Review” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“FLOWERS” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: FLOWERS by Drama Box” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Phantom Still Seduces Three Decades On

Phantom of the Opera still entrances in its latest run.

Phantom of the Opera
Brought to Singapore by Base Entertainment Asia
25 April 2019
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
24 April‒8 June 2019

The last time I watched Phantom of the Opera live about a decade ago, I was a wee lad, still easily impressed by every flash and puff of the stage. The extravagant show seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since then, I have watched the show multiple times on DVD.

Despite knowing the plot and the little tricks that the phantom plays, the magic has not worn off in this production.

Jonathan Roxmouth sizzles as the tortured Phantom. There is much detail in the way he prowls like a panther in the first act and hunches over slightly as a dejected gargoyle towards the end of the show.

In “Past the Point of No Return”, when he pretends to be Piangi in his own opera, “Don Juan Triumphant”, he disguises himself in a black robe and covers his head with a black hood. Yet, there is a palpable sexual tension with Christine in the way he moves his body, despite being in an outfit that makes one formless.

Musically, Roxmouth’s singing is equally full-bodied. He resists the temptation to growl or include a wispy timbre in order to make his voice sound more ghostly. There is attention to the way he shapes every note, and he really brings out the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score.

It is unfortunate that Christine (Meghan Picerno) appears to be the shortest amongst all the girls. While this is beyond Picerno’s control, it does look visually off and it takes some getting used to in order to settle into the romance between Christine and Raoul. Yet, there is a silver lining because as the Phantom entrances Christine in “Music of the Night”, the exceedingly tall Roxmouth looks like he is manipulating a doll, which enhances the scene.

However, she more than compensates for her short stature with her singing. Apart from hitting the really high notes ably, she lends a certain earnestness and longing as she calls out to her deceased father in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”. This is one of the rare times when I prefer that song to the other songs that Christine sings.

Matt Leisy as Raoul does not pale in comparison when it comes to singing, and the scenes between him and Christine are endearing.

While the show is every bit as extravagant and spectacular as we expect Phantom to be, there are some weaknesses. There are certain moments in which the cast can fill up a little more: there should be a little more tenderness mixed with fear when Christine returns Phantom his mask. When the Phantom appears, Raoul could have reacted a little more truthfully to his nemesis. Madame Giry (Melina Kalomas) could afford to be fiercer. The new owners of the Paris Opera House, Mssrs Firmin (James Borthwick) and André (Curt Olds) could be more comical and outlandish—imagine “Prima Donna” without the managers being drippingly sycophantic to Carlotta!

That said, the show is still a success on the whole and worth the night’s indulgence. To add a cherry on top, while the blocking is more or less fixed, assistant director Rainer Fried ensured to add in a regional reference as a little wink to the audience. (See if you can spot it when you attend the show.)

With its rousing score and tight pacing of the show, one can’t help but be swept up by the fantasy and intrigue that Phantom of the Opera has been inducing in its audiences for three decades.

Interviews
To find out more about the show, my collaborator and friend, Hawk Liu, has interviewed the creatives and Matt Leisy (Raoul).  He has also written his impressions of the show. Follow this  link for more information.

[Book Review] A Cheeky Memoir That is a Basis for an Exposé

Guards Gone Wild
Loh Teck Yong
Self-published (2018)/ 200 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Security guards often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are sometimes viewed as lazy or ineffective given that most guards one sees are either rotund or getting on in their years. For those who carry out their duties assiduously, they are seen as party-poopers.

Their situation is not helped by the powers that be thinking that the security industry can be improved by slapping individual guards with fines and jail time, thus perpetuating the idea that the problem lies in the individual.

Cue Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong.

Either by coincidence or telepathy, Loh seemed to have anticipated this change in the security industry by writing about his experiences as a security guard which spanned decades.

Mirroring the cheekiness of the title, Loh’s writing is exuberant, making the book an enjoyable read, which can be devoured in a couple of sittings. One could almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as he scribbles down his first draft.

With anecdotes about know-it-all superiors, uncoöperative colleagues, and impenetrably bureaucratic management, it feels like Loh is shooting the breeze with his readers over post-work drinks.

Hence, imagine my surprise when the second half of the book comes around. While retaining its breezy tone, Loh candidly reveals the tricks security companies get up to make up for the chronic problem of a lack of manpower.

From staging a charade by co-opting guards from other posts during audits to allowing guards to go on 24-hour shifts, these scams—as Loh calls it—are worrying and indicates an underlying systematic problem in the security industry, rather than a problem with a few bad apples.

If any of this is true, Guards Gone Wild must be an initial prescribed reading for lawmakers to rethink their strategy, and an extensive surprise audit is in order for the security industry.

That said, this book will benefit greatly from the guidance of a publishing company to par down certain excesses and correct the inconsistencies in typesetting.

With this book being an entertaining and educational read, it is hard to see why any publishing company would not want to republish this book.